Quercus Quest – My Ongoing Journey With Louisiana Live Oaks

William Guion's picture

I was introduced to black-and-white photography as part of my journalistic studies in college, and upon graduation, my interest simply grew over time. In the summer of 1985, I returned home to Louisiana from my first Friends of Photography workshop in Carmel, California. The Friends was founded in 1967 by Ansel Adams and a group of close friends that included Brett Weston, Morley Baer, Liliane de Cock, and Beaumont and Nancy Newhall. Their goal was to promote photography and related education. Between 1985 and 1995, I attended several more Friends’ workshops. At one, instructor Morley Baer suggested that if I wanted to make stronger, more meaningful images, I should pick something that I love and photograph it again and again: “Follow what your heart is drawn to,” he said, “and in time, your feelings will begin to show through in your work.”

When I looked around my native Louisiana, I was drawn most to the sprawling shapes of native live oaks – Quercus virginiana. Individual oaks in fields, oak groves, and the cathedral-like tunnels of oak alleys, they all

Blue Oak in Fog, Santa Lucia Preserve, Carmel Valley, California

whispered to me in a distinct haunting voice. So I photographed live oaks, again and again. The more I slowed my pace to match that of the oaks, the more they revealed about their unique character and moods. As I became more attentive to the minute changes of light and shadow under their limbs, I was awed by the beauty of these primeval-like trees and their relationship to the Southern landscape.

My early photographic work was largely influenced by the West Coast large-format black-and-white approach to photography that was a predominant part of the Friends of Photography style. To this day, I still use a 4” × 5” view camera and black-and-white film for many of my landscape subjects, though in recent years I’ve begun using lighter, more flexible digital and film cameras.  

After the devastating one-two blow of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in late 2005, I was horrified at the loss of many familiar live oaks. Even centuries-old trees were not invincible to category 3 storms. So I turned my focus

Three Oaks in Fog, Manresa Retreat, Convent, Louisiana 

to these elder oaks in an effort to document them while they were still alive. I began with the Live Oak Society’s first 43 inductee oaks—noted by Dr. Edwin Lewis Stephens in an article he wrote for the Louisiana Conservation Review titled, "I Saw in Louisiana a Live Oak Growing." In his article, Stephens proposed establishing the Live Oak Society—to preserve and protect the most senior members of this live oak species, and he listed 43 such centenarian oaks with which he was familiar. From this first project, I set a personal goal to photograph the 100 oldest live oaks on the Society’s registry. And to document my progress, I began a blog, titled “The 100 Oaks Project.”

Last year, 2015, marked 30 years that I’ve been photographing live oaks and 10 years since I began The 100 Oaks Project, and though I had photographed many old trees on the Society’s registry, there were still many others I had yet to locate. So to mark this personal milestone of 30 years, I set a goal for 2015 to locate and photograph the very oldest oaks in Louisiana—those trees with girths of 30 feet or more.

These 30-foot-plus girth oaks are significant for many reasons. According to several local arborists I’ve consulted, oaks of this size are very likely between 400 and 500 years of age. This means that they predate Europeans settlement of the continent—before America was America. To me, these antiquarians are both cultural and historic landmarks that deserve a more significant place in the awareness of the population and

Oak and Ducks in Fog, New Orleans, Louisiana

some minimal protection. From what I’ve learned over 30 years of documenting oaks, awareness is the most important tool for tree protection. If people realize a tree’s age and history, it gains value in their eyes and becomes worthy of preservation.

I’ve also found that these oldest oaks are often the most “at risk” of being lost. Many of the trees’ original sponsors (the people who first registered them with the Live Oak Society) had died and surviving family members were often less interested in the trees’ welfare. In some cases, the properties where the trees were located had changed owners, and without a living sponsor, the trees were forgotten, died, and some even removed to make way for development.

I included in my search those oaks that had been in the 26- to 30-foot girth size when first registered, since I knew from experience that in 50 to 70 years, a mature live oak, if healthy, could grow up to 10 feet or more in circumference. Taking this into consideration, I narrowed my search from the Live Oak Society registry to approximately 27 oaks in Louisiana that could be in the 30-foot girth category. By year’s end, I located, re-measured, and photographed 24 of those trees (plus two which had never been registered with Society). The reports of my ongoing quest with Quercus virginiana can be found on my WordPress blog – The 100 Oaks Project

St Joseph Plantation Oak, Vacherie, Louisiana

Editor's note: I asked William Guion some questions regarding his process photographing oaks. These were his answers:

What is different about photographing an oak as compared to other trees?

 Primarily the size and shape of the oak is different and offers the greatest challenge technically because of the wide range of contrast of light between the tree’s shadows and the surrounding landscape and sky in full light. As a result, I incorporate several methods to reduce this contrast range, through exposure and development, and choice of lighting conditions in which to photograph.

• Different parts of an oak tree must pose different challenges (whole tree, bark, leaves, acorns, catkins…). Are any of them particularly difficult or rewarding? Which is your favorite?

I describe my photographs as tree “portraits.” So, I tend to make images that show more of the whole tree rather than specific parts. I try to present the unique personality of each tree and ideally reveal something of its essence and how that relates to its surroundings – the spirit of the place.

Where have you encountered the best oaks for photographing? Is there somewhere you have not yet been where you wish to go to see oaks?

My favorite oaks (not necessarily the best) are contained in several oak alleys that can be found in Louisiana’s antebellum plantation country, along the historic River Road between New Orleans and Baton Rouge – three of

Vasquez Ridges, Santa Lucia Preserve, Carmel Valley, California

these alleys are the subjects of my next book project. My long-term goal is to continue photographing Quercus virginiana throughout the “live oak belt” – a fairly narrow stretch of the U.S. that extends west into coastal Texas, east into Florida, then branches north along a splinter of the Atlantic coast into southeastern Virginia. For reasons of time and money, I’ve so far focused my work in my native soil of Louisiana and have had plenty of subjects to photograph. However, I am planning a trip for next spring to the South Carolina and Georgia coastal areas to explore some of their older oaks. I lived in California’s Central Coast for six years and thoroughly enjoyed exploring the many different species of oaks that grow there.

Are any oak species particularly photogenic in your experience? Are any particularly difficult?

Every oak is particularly photogenic and like people, each offers different opportunities and challenges to make an honest “portrait.” The Quercus virginiana species is especially photogenic – it embodies mystery, strength, history, and even mystical qualities. It’s no surprise that it’s become a recognizable icon throughout the world for Southern culture and landscapes. Its classic sprawling mushroom shape is especially appealing to me, though it truly takes many shapes and forms. Each tree has its own shape and personality and that’s what I enjoy about oaks as subject matter. The variety of forms is literally endless.

What is the best time of day to photograph an oak tree?

This depends on the available light and what kind of image you wish to make. Early or late in the day can create strong side-lighting opportunities and warmer light for dramatic color images; but overcast skies open the shadows under and within a tree’s limbs making it possible to see into the canopy and foliage and discern the overall shape and form more easily. Lately, I’ve been using a camera adapted to record the black-and-white infrared light spectrum. With this tool I can photograph even in bright light at mid-day and make eerily beautiful images.  

And what is the best season?

Right now, near the summer solstice, I find the oaks are at their most vigorous. From sunrise into the early morning, the oaks’ energy feels to me like an enormous turbine engine. The trees near the solstice are at the height of their growth cycle and their foliage is full and a mature green. I also find spring an appealing time to photograph because of the fresh celery green of the new leaf growth and the yellow-gold of the catkins (flowers). Both make for interesting color image opportunities.

Could you discuss one oak photograph in your portfolio and tell us about the process and results?

I rarely make a satisfactory photograph of a particular oak on just one visit. As I’ve gained experience making compositional decisions, however, my percentage of “keepers” seems to have increased. A recent example of

Quarters Oak Alley, Evergreen Plantation, Edgard, Louisiana

one image that emerged from years of photographing the same place is this one (right). It is of one of my favorite oak alleys in Louisiana at Evergreen Plantation in Edgard, along the great Mississippi River Road, and one of the more satisfying images I’ve made of it.  

This image shows a view of the beginning of the alley, from behind the plantation overseer’s house. From here the alley covers more than 1/4 mile through the old slave quarters that was an active living community between the 1830s through the 1940s. The 22 cabins that are preserved there are on the National Register of Historic Places. I have photographed this alley literally dozens of times, in different light, at different times of the day and of the year. Slowly, I’ve absorbed the history of this place and have become familiar with the oaks in its alley. Now that we’re familiar, I’ve begun to make images that I feel represent a greater depth of my feelings about the trees and the place, its personality and particular beauty.

To me, this alley has a lovely sense of peace surrounding it. Something one might not expect in a deserted slave community. Yet when there, I feel the life that happened and how the trees have absorbed and transmuted the oppression and suffering into something higher, lighter, and kinder. I made this image on a cloudy day, after a rain. The grass, leaves, and mosses are vibrantly green and bursting with growth. The road through the oaks suggests an entrance, a journey, and the oaks appear welcoming and even encouraging. It makes the viewer want to move into the image, to see what’s down that road rather than turn away in fear. I plan to print it very large – probably 20” x 40” or larger to further emphasize that feeling.

What have you learned about oaks through photographing them?

The first advice I received that started me on my Quercus Quest was to “photograph something I loved over and over.” This practice taught me to refine my craft of photographing in natural light; it taught me the various qualities of light and how to use the available tools to create the best negatives (or electronic images) to express what I felt. By repeatedly photographing something I loved, I was led deeply into what that feeling

Fence and Oaks, morning fog, Evergreen Plantation, Edgard, Louisiana

 was all about and the nature of its source.

What I’ve learned about live oaks is their incredible strength, resilience, and perseverance as a species. In the many years that I have observed the patient lives of the oaks, sat on their roots, walked under their arched limbs, and recorded their many moods on film, they have taught me that they are “aware,” which I suppose qualifies them as sentient beings. The oaks I’ve come to know are like old friends. I feel they recognize me and respond to my presence. 

 

 


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All images © William Guion