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  • Writer's pictureGary Gruber

The Invisible Tree

Updated: Jan 15

Complacency has always been my biggest nemesis. Seeing as a person is different from seeing as a photographer. I always try to keep my ‘photo eyes’ wide open, but sometimes little things (like a nearly 30 foot high tree) get away from you. Nothing in nature is fixed or permanent, not even the mountains that surround us.

I had driven past this tree at least once a day for the past 35 years (about 12,775 times) before my eyes woke up and I actually saw it for the very first time. It was love at 12,775th sight. I think of trees as females because they shake up my world. When I met Phyllis for the first time all I could think about was her, morning, noon, night. I used to stand outside the dormitory in the morning and watch her window. When those drapes opened up, I ran as fast I could to the elevator to get to her floor.

Same thing when I finally woke myself up after being catatonic for 35 years. I so loved this tree. I knew instantly how and when and from where it needed to be photographed. It wasn’t an easy shot since it was taken from the divider in the road as it narrowed into a turn lane. I’d have to hoist my tripod and ladder gently to get into position – and pray that no cars would come too close.

I watched every morning until the atmospheric conditions were what I wanted. Sunday would be best, minimal traffic at 6 am. I chose my 4x5 view camera for maximum detail. The hardest factor to get used to when using these relics is that you are looking at life upside down. It takes years of working with one to rewire your brain to this ungainly phenomenon.

One of the first insights you have in photography, especially in this urban landscape, is that the photo must be taken from the exact place it is apprehended from. A foot to the left or right, front or back, and it is a different image. This is why I carry traffic cones with me when pursuing subjects like this. If the photo can be apprehended from the curb, I place my car behind me, and the traffic cones behind the car. Some of the most beautiful scenes I have missed were due to them occurring in the fast lane on the freeway.

I could lollygag a bit this morning. I had a good 10-12 minutes before the light would change or the uppers (upper winds) would blow those wispy cirrus clouds away. I’d be done in way under half that time. As is the case with most of my photos, I could see the printed image in my mind long before the developer hit the tubes I use to process sheet film. Only two photos were required. With a static image like this, you shoot for the picture in your head, and one backup in case the negative becomes damaged.

From that point on I mentally waved to that tree every day afterwards. We were friends now, and its shimmering elegance on that center divider brought a smile to me whenever I saw it.

And then one day, it was gone.

This beautiful piece of nature, my new best friend, was simply gone. Nothing had been put in its place. The center divider was not reconstructed. I didn’t inquire with the city; any reason they could possible offer would be insufficient. I was sad, but not sad for long.

That’s why there are photos. It may be a cliché, but they really do preserve our memories. There have been photos I have missed over the past 50 or so years. I kick myself for all of them. You never miss banal images, only the ones of greatness. I finally woke up after 35 years, and even though she’s gone, she’s really still there. I’ve gone back to being complacent when I pass that center divider, it’s the only thing that prevents me from pulling over to the side of the road and crying my heart out.

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