The Books that Unlock Photographs

by Jim Richardson

As an environmental photographer I have often found that certain books have served as my blueprints and roadmaps. Certainly that was the case more than 20 years ago when I inherited the Colorado River story for National Geographic from another photographer. Casting about for guidance I found Mark Reisner’s deeply researched Cadillac Desert. Here in one volume was the whole tale of the wonders and woes of the Colorado, from its beginnings in a mountain meadow to it’s sad demise in the sands of Mexico. Reisner’s work guided me through the maze of Western water law and thorny resource issues. Mostly his book told me what issues were truly important and where to go looking for them, where they might be made visible. 

That story launched my career at National Geographic as a resource issues photographer and I went on to do a string of water stories. It instilled in me a great hunger to find ways to translate complex issues into images.  By doing that story I learned that this skill is highly valuable — and not very common. 

Which brings me to The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate by Peter Wohlleben. If you are now anticipating a review of this book you will be disappointed because my purpose here is not to serve the reader, but to serve photographers. 

Without doubt, this a wonderful read, and I enjoyed it immensely. I’ll echo what I read from one reviewer, "The Hidden Life of Trees” is an amazing book presenting trees as sentient, purposeful beings living in dynamic relationship with each other.” That pretty much says it all. Some have carped that Wholleben anthropomorphizes trees too much, that his revelations about trees are not all that new, at least not to tree experts. No matter. They were wondrous to me, unlocking a hidden world where trees “talk” to each other, “care” for each other, and have lives that stretch over centuries and generations. 

But what struck me most was that he describes a world that is all around us but which has, for all practical purposes, never been photographed. True, we’ve seen lots of pictures of trees, but hardly any pictures that show us how they live their lives, let alone the complex underground world where they commune with one another and which they share with a vast cohort of biota. I’ve never seen anyone even attempt to photograph such wonders. 

Therein lies a great opportunity for some enterprising photographer who has a chance to make this subject their own, to break through the conceptual and technical barriers to reveal a vast and hitherto undocumented world. It won’t be me. (I’ve many other subjects left unfinished and too little time left to finish them.) And it won’t be easy — or quick. I would suspect that whoever accomplishes this will do it over years, if not decades, somehow fitting together the time, talent and resources to create an important body of work.

Here at Eyes on Earth we are going to come back to this theme over and over: translating ideas into compelling images is one of the most valuable things we can do, both for ourselves and for our environment. It’s hard work. But books like The Hidden Life of Trees can sometimes show us that it is possible — and show us where the invisible things around us can be made visible.