Thursday, July 29, 2010

Branching out at Arnold Arboretum


For photographer, documenting trees was a natural fit

Becoming the photographer in residence for the Arnold Arboretum didn’t take much doing for Erik Gehring. He just had to start showing up with his camera every day. The photographer, whose work has been widely shown throughout New England, will release his 2011 “Trees of Boston’’ calendar later this month. It’s the third edition of his vivid and compelling nature studies.

Gehring, who lives in Roslindale with his family, says the proximity to the park, and its thousands of species of plants, dropped an irresistible subject matter right in his backyard.

“It occurred to me that there was somewhat of a niche to fill in becoming a photographer of the Arnold Arboretum,’’ he said. “I’m inclined toward nature photography in any case, so it’s a natural fit for something that’s so close by and has such an abundant variety of flora from around the world.’’

Capturing the beauty of the pastoral settings depicted in the calendar, and in a series of close-up bark abstracts he’ll show as part of the Music and Art Series at the Taylor House in Jamaica Plain from Aug. 8-Sept. 26, requires a lot of research and groundwork, he says. The Arboretum had to essentially become his second home.

“The best way to become a better photographer is to study your subject,’’ says the photographer, whose calendar will be available at Allandale Farm, Brookline Booksmith, Birch St. House & Garden in Roslindale, and other locations. That means he’s had to shoot in the morning, in the middle of the day, at night, in rain and snow storms, in the spring, fall, summer, and winter. Varying the time of day and year he approached the trees provided him with different ways of seeing them. “You learn about your subject, but also about light. That’s what photography is truly about, light. Without good light you’re not going to have much of a photograph.’’

The Arnold Arboretum is renowned for its collection of trees from throughout the world, but the London Plane is a particular favorite for Gehring. “It’s a popular city tree that’s pretty pollution resistant, and its roots are very tolerant of soil compaction.’’

They may not be resistant to a potential threat from the Asian Longhorned Beetle, however. An infestation of the destructive species found recently on the nearby grounds of Faulkner Hospital is worrying, Gehring says, but he’s not contemplating the destruction of his beloved sanctuary anytime soon.

“As far as I know there haven’t been any sightings in the Arboretum yet. They were ahead of this, as soon as things started happening [with an outbreak] in Worcester they started doing a very detailed survey.’’

All the same, the hypothetical threat, coupled with the ongoing change of the landscape around the city and the Arboretum itself, makes Gehring’s work take on a weightier tenor. Is it likely that he’s shooting trees for posterity now?

“All photographs have a posterity factor, have that quality of documentation,’’ he says. The landscape in the Arboretum is changing all the time anyway. “It’s so much different than what it was 20 years ago let alone 100 years ago. I think individual trees are changing as well. I don’t think about [posterity] when I’m out shooting. I’m thinking about creating a compelling image.’’

Gehring took an interest in photography as a young boy. He and his brothers would join his father on trips to the Grand Teton mountains. “My father was very much of an influence,’’ he says. “I remember getting up with him early in the morning and catching the alpine glow reflected off the mountains.’’ Later on he took some photography courses in college, but the hobby tapered off for a few years. After graduating from Cornell he went to work managing a limousine service.

“I was too busy, working 70- to 80-hour work weeks. But that changed when I left that job in 2001 and I started indulging my artistic side.’’ Gehring has also done some freelance writing and hosted an Internet radio show. “Photography is what I’ve been focusing on, if you’ll pardon the pun, for the past five years or so. It’s been kind of an organic growth; as I’ve moved up with the cameras I’ve gotten to be more and more advanced.’’

Even with a changing landscape, it’s the relative permanence of trees that makes them the ideal subject for Gehring.

“It’s just a basic connection to nature. Growing up, what kid hasn’t climbed trees for days on end? They’re alive, but they’re not alive like we are. You can mark the passage of time with their growth. There’s some sort of a primal connection.’’

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