By Meredith Birkett and Jim Seida, NBC News
"I drove by that tree for 19 years and never took a single frame of it,” photographer Mark Hirsch told NBC News. The tree, a massive oak, is on his way home, along a country road in southwest Wisconsin.
L to R: Jan. 20, Hirsch's first photo of the tree; March 14, still ten days before the official start of the project; Day 19, April 11
But one day when a friend challenged Hirsch to try out the camera on his new iPhone 4S, he stopped his truck and trudged 500 yards through the snow to make his first picture of the tree (left frame, above). Surprised by the image quality - despite being used to professional gear – he showed the pictures to another friend who told him it could be a cool project if he did more.
Hirsch committed to taking a picture of the tree every day for a year and posted the images on Instagram and Facebook. Fast forward 190+ days and Mark Hirsch has captured seemingly every angle and every kind of light that could hit this tree which stands out from the surrounding cornfield. Doing so is not without effort, though. He’s woken his wife with the alarm clock to be ready for dawn light at 4:30 in the morning. On another day when the light just never seemed to get good, he jumped up mid-salad during dinner to take a picture when the sun finally broke through the clouds.
As much as Hirsch depends upon good light to make beautiful images, he's not afraid of the dark. From Hirsch's Instagram feed: "During dusk one evening the lightning bugs were coming out and I wanted to capture their sporadic bursts of light. The iPhone camera really doesn't allow for times exposures so I utilized another app, SlowShutter, which essentially stacks video frames into a single image. The resulting photo (above) doesn't have the sharp resolution of a still frame image but I think it produces an interesting effect regardless.
There are days when Hirsch struggles to come up with something fresh. On those days, he tries a few tricks, like taking a different path toward the tree, or taking a closer look, which helped him discover a moth almost perfectly camouflaged against the bark. Or he'll lay down on his back and get a new perspective looking straight up. (below)
“It’s kind of funny," Hirsch says, "If someone was off in a corner watching me they’d think I was some crazy guy because I’m all alone. It’s kind of my one on one time with this silly tree.”
Hirsch is a professional photographer, doing both commercial and editorial work. Despite the occasionally stressful sprints home from his assignments to get a shot done before day’s end he says, “Those expeditions are actually some of the most relaxing and rewarding moments in my day.” Hirsch's German Wirehaired Pointer 'Magnum' (below) frequently and enthusiastically joins him on his photographic expeditions to the tree.
The social networking of Hirsch's project has fostered other connections as well. Childhood friend Lora Kohnlein, who now lives in Henderson, Colo., found his project on Facebook and decided to pay a visit to the tree when she was visiting her hometown. From Hirsch's Instagram feed: "...I had a fun time early this morning introducing Lora Kohnlein and her sons Duggan and Patrick to that tree. The boys and I climbed the tree, examined dozens of bugs and discussed the finer points of the video game angry birds. Thanks boys for inspiring me to see things like a kid again!"
The massive tree, whose trunk Hirsch says is more than two grown men’s arm lengths around, is not as fixed as it might appear. Arable land in the area is in high demand because the price of corn is so high. A bulldozer operator was working to expand some farmland nearby and asked the farm’s owner if he’d like the giant oak taken down too. The farmer, Tim Clare, replied, “That tree’s been there for over two hundred years. I’m not the guy that’s gonna push it over.”
Through the project, Hirsch has gained a new environmental awareness.“ I would not label myself an environmentalist, but I have always had a grand appreciation for the environment. My relationship with “that tree” has awakened a new-found vision, and appreciation for the fragility of our world and our need to embrace a more sustainable use of our resources.”
Hirsch has been surprised by the public appreciation of what is at its core, a simple idea. He has an exhibit currently showing in Dubuque. He hopes to publish a book. You can get near-daily updates on the “That Tree” Facebook page or by following @blockhouseroller on Instagram (both iPhone and Android).
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