There is a tree in the James River near downtown Richmond, Virginia which, for some reason, holds on to its fall color a bit longer than most of the other trees around it. When the other trees have gone to dull brown, this tree will sometimes still be a vibrant red.
A photographer friend of mine pointed this tree out to me one spring morning, identifying it among the various other trees growing along the rocks of the James and I immediately conceptualized an image, based on a particular viewpoint along the southern bank of the river and very much dependent on just the right combination of light, water level, fog and timing.
The concept I came up with for this image was heavily influenced by the landscape paintings of the 16th and 17th century Dutch Masters, which are my absolute favorite. Every visit to the National Gallery in Washington, DC, I make a beeline right to that area of the museum and bask in their brilliance.
It took a bit over two years before those conditions came together one magical autumn morning. Previous years had seen floods or droughts which affected the local conditions of the river, and fog is very much a hit-or-miss condition on any given morning at the river. Too much fog, and the tree would be hidden. Too little, and the mood I was after wouldn’t come through. An an ill-timed storm could strip the tree of its leaves quite easily, ending the colorful show too early.
I vividly remember the Sunday morning in late October where I woke up early to head to the river, not knowing what conditions would be present when I arrived. From my home at the time, west of Richmond, the skies were clear, so my hopes for a colorful sunrise were squashed. But as I was driving to the river, I first noticed that some fields along the road had a slight mist rising from them and I started to get my hopes up that there might be fog on the river, which, if you can’t have a colorful sunrise, you might as well have fog, right?
As I got closer to the river, I passed a popular golf course, which was just engulfed in mist rising from the greens and fairways which had been watered overnight. My anticipation grew even higher until I arrived at the bridge crossing the James, just upstream from the location of this tree, where I was greeted with the most beautiful fog bank you’ve ever seen. The other early risers in their cars on their way to Starbucks or a park for their morning jog could probably hear my yells of excitement from my car as I took the exit for the James River Park system parking area at Pony Pasture.
The one unknown at this point was the amount of color on the tree. I had not had the opportunity to be at the river in a few weeks, and had no idea of the conditions I would find. The road to the parking area goes right by this tree, however, and as I slowed down to barely a crawl trying to spot the tree, a breeze, as if on command, thinned out the fog to present the tree in all its brilliant red glory in the pre-dawn light. I’m fairly certain that my cry of “OH HELL YEAH!” disturbed more than a few herons, ducks and other denizens of the river as I continued on toward the parking lot.
The trail from the parking area to the view point from where I wanted to capture the scene is covered with tree roots and stones that exist to trip up the unwary, so I had to force myself to walk slowly and carefully and not run at top speed in my excitement, lest I face plant with a backpack full of camera equipment and ruin the moment. (And my face. And my camera gear.)
The sun was just coming up as I finished setting up my tripod with camera and lens and in the increasing light, I began work on framing the composition. This took a while, because the fog would thicken and thin in random moments as the slight breeze would carry it through the scene and I had to wait at times until I could see the tree clearly through the viewfinder.
Once the composition was set, it was then a waiting game, as I shot numerous frames over the span of about an hour as the breeze played with the fog. The rising sun would catch patches of fog, and the tree, in light at random moments as the fog thinned to the east to let the light through. The frame I chose to become “Misty Morning” captured just the right moment where fog, sun and breeze all came together at the perfect moment to sidelight the tree and capture an area of the river in the foreground in a warm radiance.
My wife often refers to my prints as paintings, even though she knows they are photographs. I have a very painterly style in my landscape images (Ansel Adams would NOT like my work), but when I saw this image come off my printer on canvas for the first time, I will admit to thinking “holy cow, this looks like a painting!” The gentle breeze I mentioned earlier which was moving the fog through the scene also served to move the leaves on the trees and the grasses in the river just a bit during the 8/10ths of a second exposure and the movement recorded really makes those areas look like brushstrokes in the image. Just a tiny detail in an image that was the result of a remarkable confluence of conditions at just the right time. I’m still in awe that I was able to witness and capture the moment.