By Leah Rambadt, American Forests
“A picture is worth a thousand words” is a popular quote that, when true, is able to inspire awe in the viewer. It best describes the photographs Brian Kelley is beginning to compile for his Big Trees project.
Here at American Forests, part of our mission to improve the overall health of forests is explaining why trees and forests are important to our everyday lives, and to our future. But sometimes words aren’t enough.
That’s why we’re excited to partner with Brian in memorializing our nation’s champion trees, the oldest and biggest trees in America. By preserving the majesty of these champion trees on film and compiling them into an archive, he is able to capture the importance all trees and forests within a 4-by-5-inch frame.
I had the opportunity to ask Brian some questions to learn more about his reasons for partnering with American Forests on his Big Trees project. Keep reading to find out what Brian hopes to accomplish with this project, and why he’s just as excited as American Forests to be a part of it!
What inspired you to take on this project?
It was a combination of a couple of things, really. Over the last few years before this project, I was already interested in pursuing long term archival projects. I was doing New York Transit Authority and National Park maps… After I found out about the National Champion Tree program, and how there wasn’t a cohesive body of work or photographs that represented that archive, I saw that as an opportunity to make some sort of long term photo project. From there, I started learning about forests, learning about trees, and kind of going down that rabbit hole of environmental issues. I just became totally obsessed about the idea of trying to create something that could visually excite people, and gain interest in protecting and enhancing cultivation efforts with American Forests.
How has your photography work so far prepared you for this project?
I think it goes back with the archive work that I’ve been doing for the past six years, especially with the New York City Transit Authority. I just put out a book, and it basically showcases New York City Transit ephemera: random badges, patches, pamphlets, any coins, tokens… So I was already kind of preparing myself for the long term archive projects.
When I started this [project] up with National Champions, I was able to adapt to it pretty easily as far as how to organize it, how to come up with strategies; and then trying to create some kind of system on how to photograph all of these [trees] and how to make it cohesive. One thing I thought was, alright, if I shoot digital, and digital photography throughout the next ten years keeps getting better and better… I feel like you’re going see some discrepancies throughout the images. But with 4-by-5 photography, I saw that as just this “true photograph.” It was going to photograph [the tree] at its purest form, and the cohesiveness of the project would just be really, really tight.
What do you hope to gain as a photographer, and as a person, by undertaking this project? What are your overall goals for the project?
I don’t know if I want to gain anything other than the adventure side of it, which sounds real corny, but… I’m not looking to gain anything other than helping collect these trees and build an archive. The thing I hope to gain is an archive I can share and inspire. As far as me as a person, I think what I hope to gain are experiences and knowledge I can share.
The biggest goal of the archive is to be able to just show people that “this [the archive] exists.” One of the main goals of the archive is to build it and share it, because a lot of people don’t even know that half these species exist. I would say 80% of the species that are on the champion tree registry, the general public doesn’t even know they exist. I didn’t either, until I started getting into it all, learning about all of them and the importance they all play in our ecosystem of North America, or wherever. I guess also a big part is that people react to visuals, so being able to show really strong visuals of these trees to impress or inspire the people who might actually take the next step to learn more about the trees, I think that’s the first part. It’s almost like reverse psychology where, if you give someone a pamphlet about a tree, they’re probably not going to read it. But if you show someone a photo or a video of a tree, then they might be interested in learning more about that tree, and that’s when they might pick up that pamphlet.
Other than the van, what are you doing to prepare for this project?
Besides the van… Talking and working with American Forests, Padres and foresters all around the U.S. Talking with just normal people too, people in the cities or wherever… The more you can share an idea with people, the more they’re going to understand what you’re doing. And for me, being on the road… Trying to build some kind of network is important, I think. Just trying to share this project and let as many people that know [about it] or don’t know… To let them actually find out what the project is and the importance of it, and how they might be able to get in on it.
What message are you hoping people will get from your big tree photos?
I think inspiration… [To] inspire and educat[e]. I think those are the biggest things, and then from there stems a lot of other possibilities with the project. But I think, first and foremost, to inspire and educate is super important. If I was able to get into a school and share these images, and give a little backstory of what the project is and why trees are important, how to respect land ethic kind of ideas… You go into a middle school classroom or an early high school classroom when someone is trying to make the decision of whether they want to become a doctor or a dentist or a lawyer, and you give them the idea that, “Hey, you can go play in the woods all day and become a forester” or whatever, or an arborist… Just kind of letting people know that there’re these alternative [careers] out there… I think that’s kind of a cool idea, too.
Are you anticipating any kind of difficulties or challenges? If so, what are your plans for overcoming them?
I think a lot of it’s just going to come down to the amount of time that I have, and trying to figure out the best plan of attack [in order] to achieve as much as I can within this first year that I’ll be on the road. Not becoming overwhelmed by the amount of trees I have to photograph. Getting to locations and, maybe I can’t find the tree, or the GPS coordinates were off, or maybe the tree went down in a storm… Just being able to be prepared for those moments, because they do happen, and they already have happened. It’s not the most satisfying thing, but it also reassures that what you’re doing is actually important. When you go to a location and the tree is no longer there, that kind of makes you feel like you were too late, and makes you feel that maybe you’re going to get the next one before it disappears.
Why did you choose to collaborate with American Forests on this project? What do you hope to achieve with this collaboration?
Well, I first chose American Forests just because of… I mean they were the owner of the National Champion Tree program. They were the first ones who came up with it, and they hold the official registry of all the champion trees in the U.S. so my first idea was to just try to reach out to them. And then, upon doing that, and meeting some of the other people over there, finding out about its history… [American Forests has] just got such great history and it’s still around, so I think it’s really special to actually try to be part of it and contribute in any way that I can.
Is there anything else you think people should know about the project?
Hit up myself, or hit American Forests up if you want to try to become part of the project in any way that you would like to, whether it’s donating, or whether you have locations, or if you have a tree… Or even if you have a spare room that I can sleep at while I’m on the road.