Stories, Musings & The Vision Thing

The Creative Challenge of “That Tree”

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Unless noted, all photos by Mark Hirsch. I’d like to thank Mark for permission to use his photos for The Vision Thing.

Why did photographer Mark Hirsch give himself such a difficult creative challenge – a test of his imagination, vision and ability to see the world with fresh eyes?

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On the face of it, it seemed so simple. He had admired an old Bur Oak on his way to work every day for 19 years – but had never stopped to really “see” it.

An iPhone Photo Journal documenting A Year in the Life of That Tree

So one day he decided to photograph it. And the creative challenge he set for himself was to capture a different image every day for a year.

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Sometimes it gave him great joy, sometimes it seemed like utter folly. He put up daily images on his facebook page and called his project That Tree.

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Mark had spent 20 years as a photojournalist before he left to do corporate and editorial photography. Before he started his creative challenge, did he think about what it would take to capture a new image of That Tree each day for a year? Why did he set such a high bar for himself?

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Mark Hirsch “I hit a roadblock on Day 160. I remember the day because I thought, ‘My god, how can I do this for 205 more days?’ Then I slowed down, looked more closely, gave things more consideration, and found the picture.”

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As a photojournalist and corporate photographer Mark always had someone else choosing the story or defining his subject matter – his mission was to be “creative” within the boundaries defined by his editor or corporate client. It’s a situation that poses a high risk of burnout since you typically only have one frame of reference and the work can become very repetitious. That Tree posed a different kind of creative challenge.

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For this project, Mark would make his own decisions about how to visually represent the tree. He also decided to add another layer to this creative challenge – he would leave all his professional gear at home. The only tools he would bring to the task would be his photographer’s vision, a tripod and an iphone. Yes, all of his images were shot with a cell phone.

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Mark Hirsch:  “Simplicity can be liberating. You fall back on the most important tools, your visual aptitude and awareness of the world.”

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Think about it – it’s a tree – how many different ways can you express the concept of “tree” over the course of a year? Yes, the change of the seasons will help, as will the changes in the light. You can work with time of day, exposure, framing and focus. But then what? Wittingly or not, Mark had set himself a daunting creative challenge.

Mark Hirsch:  “It was never easy and it never came naturally. But when I found that scene, situation or moment that made me comfortable that I had made a worthy picture for the day, it was incredibly rewarding personally. At some point, I really began to appreciate the contemplative nature of my visits to that tree.”

Screen shot 2013-06-10 at 2.13.51 PMIf you look at his work over the course of the year you can see a few subtle changes. He moves from the more informational approach of photojournalism to the more evocative approach of art photography. His framings become more interesting as does his vision of That Tree – making the images more emotional and reflective – more poetic.

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If you take a look at his year’s worth of images on his website, you’ll see that they’re a great testimony to his ability to think creatively and visually – and find new ways to capture the decisive moment.

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For many of us, when we encounter something new we observe, categorize and then file it away in our brain. “Oh, what a magnificent tree,” we might say – and then go about our business and never really pause to “see” it again.

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But think for a moment about the process Mark would have to go through to find his images. He would have to quiet his mind to become an active observer. He would have to develop mindfulness – that’s how he discovered the moth hiding in plain view on That Tree. 

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He would have to open his eyes to find new ways of seeing… and free his thoughts so he could explore and find a deeper essence of That Tree. He would have to try to capture all that with his iphone.

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Then, he would have to do it all over again day after day for a year. That was how he met his creative challenge.

Mark Hirsch:  “I was never very good at slowing down but I am now. I’ve learned to see things differently. And I’ve embraced an incredible appreciation for the land in and around that tree.”

HirschMark by Patrick Durkin

Mark Hirsch, photo by Patrick Durkin

His work will be published in a book coming out in August. Mark calls it That Tree: An iPhone Photo Journal Documenting a Year-in-the-Life of a Lonely Bur Oak.

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Mark came to see the tree as its own ecosystem. Given the plants, birds, squirrels, deer, insects and other creatures sheltered or fed by That Tree, Mark saw the interdependency of all those living things.

Mark Hirsch:  “ 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.”

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We’re often encouraged to “stop and smell the flowers.” Mark made himself do just that every day for a year and in the process found a deep connection with that lonely bur oak. So what do you think? Do you practice your own mindfulness or set creative challenges for yourself? Leave a comment and let me know.

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6 Comments

  1. Eileen

    Dan, this is a beautiful story and good reminder to all of us to slow down. As a tree lover, I can understand Mark’s passion for this one. Thanks for bringing this to us. cheers, Eileen

  2. Marlene

    What a beautiful and inspirational story.

  3. Dan, Thank you for such a nice compilation of my thoughts. I love the flow of your selected quotes and images. You inspired me to relive the process and my incredible year long experience.
    All the best,
    Mark

  4. Thank you Mark and Dan for this reminder of what a wonderful gift nature is…and how easily we take it for granted as we make our daily journeys.

  5. Jason T.

    I’ve spent countless hours admiring the beauty of That Tree. As a lover of nature, the only thing I can think of that would be more rewarding than looking at the pictures Mark has gifted to us would be to actually have been experienced what Mark did over the course of the year. Bravo!

  6. Thank you Dan for honoring Mark and That Tree. I found That Tree early in 2013 on facebook through a friend. I couldn’t believe someone else was doing something similar with a TREE. I started the TREE Project on September 1, 2012. I draw “A Tree A Day” and I am up to 284 as of today June 12th. When I found Mark and That Tree there was such an inspiration and appreciation for what he was trying to accomplish. And the beauty and wonder of his pictures well, Amazing.
    Thanks again for keeping the Journey of That Tree alive
    peace, R III

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