Ralph Gardner Jr: A Thing For Light

Nov 17, 2018

We take friends for walks in our woods all the time, though less so during hunting season, and one of the highlights of the excursion – actually the highlight of the excursion – is a giant, ancient sycamore tree.

But there’s one neighbor in particular we’ve been trying to get over to our place for some time. A photographer whose opinion we prize since he’s known for his tree photography. Benjamin Swett, the author of several books, among them “Great Trees of New York City: A Guide,” “New York City of Trees,” and “Route 22”. It’s a photographic essay about that atmospheric road that travels all the way from Manhattan to Montreal.

In other words, this guy knows his trees. And we were curious what he thought of our sycamore. Was it as special and majestic as we believed or were we simply indulging in typical homeowner, or rather treeowner, hubris?

Not that we had any part in the planting or maintenance of this particular specimen any more than we can take credit for the topography carved during the last ice age. The only thing we’d added is a bench to underline our devotion and our feeling that the sycamore qualifies as a destination, a landmark, perhaps even a New York State treasure.

Mr. Swett’s photography is also the subject of a show that runs through this weekend at BCB ART in Hudson, NY. But it’s not about trees. His subject is rooms constructed during the early 19th Century by American Shakers. He’s giving a talk on the subject at 5 pm this evening at the gallery on 116 Warren Street.

Before we embarked on our walk he gave me a preview of the talk since I was curious whether it was a challenge shooting buildings and interiors when you’re known for works such as a Cedar of Lebanon tree in Flushing, Queens (bet you didn’t know New York City boasted a Cedar of Lebanon) and a backlighted Copper Beach at Wave Hill in the Bronx.

But Benjamin explained that Shaker interiors weren’t as much of a stretch as it sounds. What he’s really interested in is the timelessness of light. And photographing interiors can be as effective in documenting light as trees are. At least Shaker interiors.

“Shakers brought light into the interiors of buildings,” he told me. There’s even a term for it, he said -- borrowed light. “There are many reasons for it,” he added.

Some of them were practical. If you could maximize sunlight in the days before electricity it saved on candles. Ingenious techniques included portholes and interior windows.

But there was also a spiritual aspect to the practice. “Shakers believed light was a metaphor for God,” Benjamin said. “Buildings became these points of contact between the human and divine.”

He first discovered the subtle divinity of Shaker architecture when he was invited to photograph the landscape at Shaker Museum Mount Lebanon and wandered into the Brethren’s Workshop.

“There was no furniture,” he remembers. “There was only the bare walls and the light.”

The achievement of his show at BCB ART is that he manages to capture the elegance and simplicity of the light even in empty interiors or those where the décor – linoleum, cat paintings – leave something to be desired. The show doesn’t include only images from Mount Lebanon but also other examples of Shaker architecture, some of them currently inhabited.

But about our tree. We embarked on our walk, our first stop an old towering Eastern Cottonwood with a gnarled trunk. How do I know it was an Eastern Cottonwood since my skill at identifying trees is basic at best?

Because Theresa Swenson of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation recently mapped our wetlands, took a leaf sample and kindly confirmed the identification for me.

Benjamin seemed impressed, too, and measured the tree with a special tape measure he carries that calculates tree diameters. This one came in at a substantial 48 inches. He noted that a tree’s height and diameter aren’t necessarily an indication of a tree’s age – for that you’d need to take a core sample and probably examine it under a microscope – but it’s a start.

However, I knew the Cottonwood couldn’t compare to our sycamore. Getting there required crossing a town road that bisects our property, then plunging back into the woods and walking along a logging road bordered in places by a moss covered stone fence. And then up and down a couple of steeply wooded hills.

But the sycamore is so big and its massive limbs so white and expansive that it creates a ghostly presence in the forest, first spied through the dark trunks and branches of the oaks and maples that surround it like supplicants.

I was relieved when Benjamin seemed excited enough that he started photographing it from a distance – he’d brought along a camera with a special perspective control lens – the same one he used to shoot some of the images in his Shaker show.

He explained how it worked but frankly I was more concerned about fording a fast-running stream that still separated us from the tree.

We eventually succeeded and I led the photographer to the clearing in the forest where the sycamore stands. Actually the tree is so tall and wide and the ground littered with its broad leaves and shedded bark that it creates its own clearing.

Little else can grow in its shadow.

And unlike most of the other trees at this time of year the sycamore still held most of its leaves, shining golden in the afternoon sun.

The photographer produced his tape measure again and recorded its diameter at 62 inches, its circumference an impressive sixteen feet two inches. He said the diameter rivaled the two largest sycamores he’s seen in New York City, both of them located on Staten Island.

My wife Debbie and I sat on our bench while Benjamin continued to shoot away.

He plans to return.

“It’s a little like collecting butterflies,” he said of photographing trees. “I feel like I’ve just added something great to the collection.”

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

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