TOWN OF PLATTEVILLE — By his estimation, Mark Hirsch owns thousands of dollars of camera equipment. He has spent decades honing his art as a professional photographer.
He shoots photos for corporate and commercial customers and Getty Images. He recently had a full-page spread of Iowa barn photos in the New York Times.
Yet, his biggest professional splash may be his current project — a daily photo of a tree on Airport Road, taken with an iPhone.
It all started with his purchase of an iPhone in December. The iPhone 4s is equipped with an 8-megapixel camera.
“It just wasn’t a tool I thought I’d use — it wasn’t a camera; it was a cellphone camera,” he said.
Hirsch worked for the Dubuque Telegraph Herald until he left in 2006.
“I’m a photojournalist, so my eyes are always open and I’m always looking for opportunities,” he said. “I don’t shoot much on spec. There’s just no money in it and it’s just too risky. Photography kind of became a job.
“I shot in college [UW–Platteville] and I didn’t expect it to become a career. When it becomes your career, you kind of lose zeal for it. I would say that I didn’t have a life. I was comfortably miserable and I didn’t even know it.”
While his income from corporate customers is better, what he misses from his newspaper days is “I was part of a creative team. The Telegraph Herald is known for photojournalism. I was part of that legacy, and I helped perpetuate that legacy. It was a team product before; now it’s an individual product.
“At the end of the day I’m not working. I don’t take pictures for myself. My family hates it because I don’t take snapshots. I said it’d be nice to buy a point-and-shoot, but I never bought one.”
Then, on Jan. 20, Hirsch was driving near his farm on Airport Road when he came upon a burr oak tree, on land owned by Tim Clare of Platteville, in the middle of a whiteout snowstorm. He took a photo (top left) with his iPhone.
“I couldn’t believe the resolution of this thing,” he said. “That was as good as anything I could have produced with my high-end camera gear. “I can do more with my cellphone than I could with my first high-end desktop computer in the office.”
Then, near sunset March 14, Hirsch went back to the tree. He posted his second photo on Facebook, which generated a response from a photographer friend of his: “You’ve got to do a photo a day on that tree.”
It is now known as “That Tree.”
“I never envisioned diving into this project,” he said. “Something different, that’s for sure — a photo a day is a tremendous commitment. It’s been a lesson in seeing; it really has. Thank God for seasons.
“I’m seeing a lot of sunrises and sunsets with this tree. My wife will probably be happy when this project is over.”
The photos Hirsch posts on Facebook are mainly from his iPhone and numerous 99-cent photo applications. He used his lighting equipment, triggered by his professional cameras, to shoot a low-light photo with the iPhone.
“That’s what photography is all about, the quality of light,” he said.
Hirsch has been shooting since he purchased his first camera for a backpacking trip in 1985.
“You get comfortable, you develop a style, you have a way of doing things. This tree project has forced me to modify the way I see things. My name hangs on this project; I’m my own worst critic.”
Hirsch has been in photography long enough for his career to encompass the entire spectrum from film photography with several-thousand-dollar cameras and lenses to cellphone photography.
“I’ve had a lot of people who say, Wow, you have a really good camera,” he said. “That’s like telling a guy with a really nice house, Wow, you’ve got a really good hammer. The camera is a tool. It’s not the camera; it’s the person behind it.”
Assuming Hirsch finishes the year-long project, he wants to create a book from his photos.
The photos from day one onward can be viewed at www.facebook.com/photosofthattree.