It all started with a 163-year-old burr oak tree in the Town of Platteville, a photographer driving by on Airport Road, and his new iPhone.
That Tree showed off the work of nature — 163 years of growth in a farm field, sunrises and sunsets, weather — and the work of photographer Mark Hirsch in making one day’s photo different from another’s.
About 290 people, “from all over the Midwest,” said Hirsch, showed up for the final That Tree photo March 23, an opportunity “to say goodbye to the tree. That’s priceless. That just speaks volumes as to how this story touched people.
“It just organically occurred. I didn’t take a photo of the tree because I thought it’d be the most inspirational project I’ve ever done. I was challenged by a friend, I took the bait, I found it interesting, and a lot of people found it interesting.”
When Hirsch started posting his iPhone photos on his Facebook page early in 2012, three photographer friends dared him to keep it up for an entire year.
“I have short man disease,” said Hirsch. “If you tell me I can’t do something, I’m going to do it.”
The end of the project featured national media coverage, and two airplanes flying overhead during photography, flown by Hirsch’s friends Fred Runde and Jack Momchilovich.
“This was totally bigger than I thought it’d be,” said Hirsch. “It turned into this viral project that in the end gave voice to a tree. It resonated strongly with a wide variety of people.
“It taught me that I’d seen the world through blinders most of the time. I was working at newspaper speed — most of the time after I photographed it didn’t mean anything to anybody.”
The project was an education in other ways for Hirsch, the former Dubuque Telegraph Herald photographer who has been published in the New York Times.
“What makes a photographer a good photographer does not depend on the equipment, but on the photographer’s ability to visualize the picture the photographer wants to make,” he said. With professional equipment “you have a lot of ability to control the aperture and the shutter, the ability to augment light. … Other than zoom, it’s hard to get a phone to do what you want to do. It’s basically point and shoot.”
The project began March 24, 2012. By June, “I knew at that time it was really unique because it was unique for me,” said Hirsch.
In December, Hirsch displayed 20 photos at the Voice of the Warehouse photography show in Dubuque. He watched the reaction to his photos, and “at that time I realized this thing is way bigger than me making a photo of a tree in a corn field.”
“People have no idea how hard I worked at it,” he said. “I was never bored; I was challenged. I knew I was going to be challenged. It didn’t take me long to think ‘Oh my god, what have I gotten myself into?’ But the more I get into a project, the more interested I get into my photography, the more appreciative I get of different likes of light. I’ve never slowed down and savored the minutiae of the details as I have in this project. It was an escape. It was almost therapeutic.”
The fact that much of the project took place during a gloomy fall and winter might seem to be a problem.
“I don’t look at it as if it’s gray or gloomy, but dramatic weather features are a fresh way to research the subject matter,” said Hirsch. “Early on, the landscape was lush and beautiful, and the winter’s been brutal. A lot of my favorites were in the last two months, when it should be visually repetitive.”
Part of the challenge was to not do clichéd photos — for instance, colorful sunrises and sunsets. Hirsch said That Tree presented “recurring themes that were hard to avoid.”
The book cover photo, taken Jan. 19, with pink clouds shooting through the darkening sky, “appealed to so many people,” said Hirsch. “It’s stark, it’s dramatic, it’s colorful.”
Another part of the challenge was working far beyond the design limits of the iPhone 4s. To speed up the shutter to get the desired richer colors at sunrise and sunset, Hirsch had to shine a penlight into the phone’s light sensor.
“It forced me to be ingenious, but that was half the excitement and half the challenge,” he said.
Hirsch also discovered that iPhones “hate the cold.” He found out when the iPhone died right as he was taking a photo “at the point of sunrise that’s beautiful, but it lasts literally seconds. I missed a lot of good shots because my phone said see you later.”
Hirsch ended up having to take a portable power pack with him to keep the phone charged.
Beyond the technical issues, the photo-a-day project forced Hirsch to not just expand his creativity, but to expand his definition of what made a good photo. Professional photographers have more stringent standards than those who enjoy the photos.
“This project has taught me that I thought I was a pretty good gatekeeper,” he said. “I thought I could force people to what I wanted them to see, but I found out that my gatekeeping skill set was as blind as my photography skill set.”
The project officially ended March 23 with a photo of 290 That Tree followers and a party afterward, but Hirsch is still occasionally posting photos.
“I drove by it going to the [Smelser] town hall to clean up, and now I look down there with sincere admiration and sincere appreciation for the precarious existence it has,” he said. “It’s a miracle it hasn’t met a bulldozer. It’s got to be a lightning magnet out there.”
Although Hirsch is still occasionally posting That Tree photos, he now is working on the book.
“Just publishing the book is going to be a process,” he said. “The layout and design is pretty much set. I’ll probably spend the next month or so getting all the ducks in line for the book.”
Hirsch’s project has gotten him worldwide attention, including in his industry. He will be speaking at a photographer conference in Chicago April 21 with two Pulitzer Prize-winning photographers and one Emmy Award-winning videographer.
In addition to speaking opportunities, Hirsch is also trying to get into art galleries.
“In its simplicity, it inspired me; it inspired others,” he said. “It is going to be a tough act to follow.”