The One That Got Away

“Nothing is more expensive than a missed opportunity.”
   H. Jackson Brown Jr.

On the southern edge of a small town several miles from my home stood a very large snag, a dead tree, probably Ponderosa pine; perhaps 60 feet (18 m) tall, all of its needles gone, all of its lower large branches gone. Like an escapee from a haunted forest, the trunk and remaining smaller limbs twisted and bent in ways that would be called “grotesque” in English literature. Given the tree's height, its stark outline, and its location on a hillock in the middle of an open field, it couldn't be missed. It was beautiful.

I first saw the snag while visiting Montana from my home in Ohio nearly two decades ago. Since moving here in 2003 I've driven past the tree once or twice a month. Seeing it regularly, I've imagined the photo I might make: monochromatic (black and white, or not); very graphic, not unlike an infinitely-detailed pencil drawing showing the cracks and twists in the old wood; very contrasty with the dark, wet trunk against a pale sky. I love these stark and somewhat abstract kinds of images and have a couple from Yellowstone, one by Dean Chriss, another of my own, hanging on the walls here at home.

Taming Chaos

Capturing the image I had in mind would not be easy, but it had become a visionworm, leaving me no choice but to make the attempt. I could make the picture only within a very specific set of conditions; despite the snag's location in the field, the background is nasty. North of the field lies the town of Pablo with its buildings, traffic on US Highway 93, and a skyline-dominating steel water tower. A forest of pines fills the distance beyond the town. Unfortunately, the composition I had in mind required looking north into all that messy stuff I'd never want in my pictures. The snag would all but disappear into the visual chaos unless conditions were perfect to hide the background.

'The Elder', Pablo, Montana, U.S.

The chaotic background of Pablo, MT, beyond the snag. This was a foggy day, but much less so than needed for the photo I hoped to make.

The field in which the tree stood is a working farm; the field displays plenty of evidence of that. Fences, machinery, cut stubble and more litter the ground near the tree, close enough to be included in my composition. Winter, and a cover of snow, solves much of that problem. The machinery is put away for winter. With adequate snow, much of the other debris around the tree disappears. I liked the fence; I found no need to find a way to hide it, or to remove it from the image later with Photoshop.

So Close…

'The Elder', Pablo, Montana, U.S.

“The Elder”, the only keeper from dozens of attempts to capture the image I had in mind.

Relative to the snag's location, I live at a higher elevation, closer to and high above Flathead Lake. These things affect the weather. I couldn't simply look out a window to know what conditions to expect in Pablo, in flat land about 16 miles ( 26 km) south. Between the fall of 2008 and the spring of 2012 I made countless trips to see the weather conditions around the snag. Although most of those were wasted trips, I did occasionally set up my gear and make a few exposures. None captured my vision of the scene. A few came close, providing incentive to keep trying. Once, on my way to an appointment I couldn't afford to miss, I drove by the snag and found perfect conditions: good snow cover, adequate fog to hide the confusion in the background but not to dense to block the great light. I even had my gear with me in the car, but I couldn't stop. I never again saw the snag so beautiful, so close to my vision for the photograph.

From all the attempts I made over the years, one picture is a keeper, coming close to what I'd envisioned. On the day I got that photo, in December of 2010, dense fog made it difficult to see the tree. From my shooting position 150 yards (140 m) away with a 400mm lens, the heavy fog left the snag a bit too ephemeral, just a ghost against a nearly white background. In Photoshop I boosted the contrast, very selectively, and did a little clean-up work, making the image as close as I'll ever get to the photo for which I'd hoped.

'The Elder', Pablo, Montana, U.S.

Detail from “The Elder”. Despite the fog, the image has nice detail. Hoar frost, frozen fog, can be seen on the branches.

Because now it's gone. You can see it lying on the ground in the picture of Pablo near the start of this article. Not long ago, driving through Pablo on my way to Missoula, I did not notice the snag. As I continued past its location I realized I hadn't seen it. An odd feeling, something missing. Returning from the Big City much later in the day, I made a point of looking. A mystery no longer, the odd feeling earlier in the day justified; the elder had come down, it's ancient, rotted roots no longer able to hold it upright against the wind, the photographic opportunity lost. It just wasn't meant to be.

There's no shortage of old snags; perhaps someday I'll find another with as much character, maybe in a better location with a cleaner background. I'll work a little harder next time. I won't miss another opportunity.

November, 2012