New York, city of trees, Five questions to Mitch Epstein

by Jean-Paul Deridder

With your previous project, American Power, you took a despairing view of modern society’s limitless dependency on energy, with its catastrophic environmental consequences. New York Arbor is very different. What made you photograph trees in NYC in black and white after photographing the culture of energy in the USA in color?

I wanted to work on a subject that was more limited after working on such a vast thematic and geographic canvas.  American Power left me feeling saddened, and I wanted to make a series of pictures that honored rather than mourned something. Also, I wanted to photograph New York City again, but in a way I hadn’t done before; in a way that would make me see the city freshly. 

You refer to the photographs taken by writer Péter Nádas. To accompany his text, Own Death, he photographed the same hundred-year old pear tree in his garden through the seasons. The work is a sort of meditation on the cycle of life. This strong symbolic image of the ‘tree of life’ is found in many ancient cultures. Is this symbol an interpretative key to New York Arbor

The Nadas pear tree gave me a clue to a method.  He photographed one tree many times in different conditions. Once I settled on a New York tree I wanted to photograph, I would go back to it in different seasons, different weather, different states of mind.  Also, as Nadas wrestles with his mortality, he bears witness to the pear tree’s continuation and evolution through the year.  Nadas’ project helped me form my own human connection to these emblems of life and nature. After reading Own Death, I could see the critical role a tree could play for a person, and began to understand the multiple roles that trees play for the people of New York, as totems, neighborhood touchstones, markers of the passing of time; wild things that connect us to nature.

Your first book of photographs of New York, The City (2001), contains both colour and black and white pictures. The 63 photos comprising American Power are all in colour. For New York Arbor, however, you opted exclusively for black and white. Could you explain how you decide when to work in color and when to work in black and white?

I divided The City into two sections: public and private. Using color and black and white helped me articulate this separation; black and white images have a kind of undiluted intimacy that helped communicate the private nature of the portraits I made of family and friends. With New York Arbor, I chose black and white for the entire series because I wanted the trees to come forward, and color would be too assertive and distracting; the trees had to be the primary focus, without competition from a yellow taxi or red dress or green streetlight. I wanted to avoid the clichés of the picturesque. Also, the tree pictures are portraits of a kind, so I drew on what I’d learned about creating intimacy using black and white for The City portraits.

When turning the pages of the book New York Arbor, one quickly understands that the sequence of pictures is very important. The book begins with the ‘portrait’ of the Tulip Tree in Queens, considered one of New York’s oldest. In the very beautiful text accompanying the pictures, you begin with the story of your snow-covered visit to this great forerunner. How did you go about establishing the succession of images?

I sequenced the pictures according to a year’s seasonal cycle.  Within a season, the sequence is both intuitive and based on formal relationships between the pictures.

In your afterword, you say you went back to photograph the trees several times. How did you choose which picture of a tree you’d use for the series?  In other words, how did you edit several photographs of one tree down to one?

Editing is the most important activity a photographer can do, second only to making the picture itself. But even when you make the picture, you are already editing, that is, making choices about which tree to photograph, what season and time of day to photograph it, where to stand, what to leave out and in the frame, what to put into and out of focus, and so on.  When I have more than one image of a single tree, I study them and consider questions of clarity, formal resolution and tension. But the “right” picture is right for reasons that cannot be easily explained. It is a transmitter of something ineffable that a viewer must be drawn into. There are so many qualities of a picture to consider—formal, thematic, psychological, conceptual, emotional; I choose the picture in which all these qualities coalesce to communicate something important, surprising, and mysterious.