If there was a time to interview a photographer who spends his life photographing the beauty and grace of trees, this is it. Especially during this crisis, Steven Friedman’s stunning imagery and awe-inspiring prints of forests and trees around the world provides much-needed calm and consolation. Steven describes his photographic journey and takes us deep into the fascinating visual world of life-sustaining and majestic trees. We talked with Steven about his carefully crafted compositions, his beginnings, the importance of being among trees and his relentless pursuit of quality in image capture and printing. We also touched on some business aspects of selling prints and Steven’s fascinating plans for his upcoming book.
You can find the entire interview in the March edition of the Medium Format Magazine. Below please find some excerpts from this fascinating interview.
What was your first visual interest as a photographer?
Early on, I was interested in Galen Rowell’s work. The way he captured his images when he was adventure travelling or climbing piqued my interest in getting into remote areas to experience and photograph them. I really enjoyed his book “Mountain Light,” a gift from an aunt of mine. Galen had a great ability to emphasize the story behind his images and describe what made the image possible. As well, I was interested in some of the earlier work of Christopher Burkett. His work is more about the intimate landscape of the forest.
Why trees? When did you decide to focus almost entirely on photographing trees around the world?
If you spend enough time in the forest amongst trees, you really start to appreciate their beauty and their delicate balance of strength and gracefulness. They are just beautiful. I feel better when I’m in the forest. It recharges me and feeds my soul like nothing else. It’s where I want to be.
I used to photograph the sunrise/sunset type photographs and the typical viewpoints, which are easily recognizable. I never found it very satisfying. To stand where other people have stood is not something that excites me. I want to create one-of-a-kind images. A lot of the photography these days all looks the same.
How does seeing and arranging trees within the frame differ from crafting images of any other subject?
It’s much more difficult to find a resonating composition in the forest than in many other subjects. The forest is random and chaotic. You must find a pattern and rhythm that works for you. I use a framing card cut out for a 1 to 3 panoramic format and the 645 format, so that I can find a spot in the forest where subject, composition and light come together to make an image that resonates with people.
What’s your favourite tree? And your favourite tree to photograph?
My favourite trees are aspens. In North America I have photographed them from the Yukon to New Mexico. They glow white and have an amazing colour in autumn. I have put 15 autumn seasons into photographing aspen trees. I just love being immersed in an autumn forest. It’s a sensory overload of colour, light and smells. I still have not photographed the trees in winter. I keep a list of ideas of imagery and places that I want to shoot.
What did photographing trees for so many years teach you about trees—something you didn’t know when you started?
The forest and the ecosystem are much more delicate than I originally thought. Many forests are being affected by disease and decline. It’s really noticeable all over the world. There are numerous images I have taken that do not exist anymore. The trees have died.
What is the most common misconception people have about trees?
That trees are easy to photograph. This is not the case. I might spend days walking around a forest trying to find one image. I have gone back to a location year after year waiting for the right light and colour to get an image. It’s a lot of work and it takes dedication and vision finding an elegant image from a stand of trees. Elegance is the key to making intimate landscape photographs of trees.
Where is your favourite location in North America to photograph trees?
The mountains at peak fall colour in both the Appalachians and the Rocky Mountains are my favourite places to be. The Appalachians are a younger forest since it has been cut down so many times. I am just starting to feel I am getting quality imagery from this area after seven autumn/spring shoots. The clutter and chaos are over the top. It is fun trying to find that one spot when I get excited, knowing I have something special.
What’s your advice to those who would like to follow in your footsteps and focus on one subject?
Follow your heart and your passion. If you do, it will show up in your work. When people stand in front of my prints, they feel a sense of awe. One needs to excite and connect with people so they want to purchase your work and hang it in their homes or offices. The viewer also has a sense that they cannot create the print that I produce. Just trying to find a composition in a forest is a difficult thing; add to that the scale of my work. It blows people away when they stand in front of the prints.
You sold an edition of a print for over $200,000. That is a price point almost unheard of in today’s world of photography. Would you mind sharing a snippet about how you got to this point and how you did it?
That was one sale at a time to sell out an edition of 50. It all adds up over time. Numerous prints of this edition were sold corporately at the higher price points. Prints of this image are all over the world. “Zebra Aspens” is the image that has sold at this price level. The rare dramatic striping or markings add drama to the image, and unfortunately represent only a moment in time. The image was taken over 10 years ago. The markings on these trees that were estimated to be around 80 years old at the time are from a disease or canker that attacks trees that are stressed by heat, drought, winter injury, and other diseases and insects. Unfortunately, these trees are now dead. This stand is now a sad compilation of dead, fallen and leaning soldiers.
I have numerous other images in my collection that approach this price level.
Why do you think so many photographers struggle with selling prints?
Today, I see many photographers who experience great success selling. Twenty years ago, you didn’t see even a small fraction of that success.
Something that I think is missing with some photographers is a commitment to producing high quality prints. I believe it is integral to completing the photographic process and being able to stand behind your work.
As well, I believe many photographers shoot the same places and the same subjects so the imagery today all looks the same. You need to be unique and capture images that are from something you find. It comes from inside you not from copying someone’s image you see on Instagram. Take the time to develop your own eye and style of shooting. Your viewer will recognize this uniqueness.
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