Winter is the black-and-white season, a time I work on seeing in tones rather than color. The exercise is intended to teach me to see the way light molds a scene, how the contrast differences define shapes and edges, how to show differences with shades of gray. All skills I could learn during other parts of the year; winter merely cooperates by stripping out the color that would get in the way of my learning.
And it’s trees I look at as subject matter. All through the year we see them as friendly forest citizens, bursting with green through spring and summer on to gracing us with color in the fall. Objects to wander through, sit under, contemplate against the sky, bring perspective to landscapes. Until winter.
With their leaves absent another personality of trees seems to awaken in our minds, a more ominous, dark, foreboding and sinister version. Ever notice in movies how the “evil” trees have lots of scraggly limbs whereas the “friendly” trees are abundantly leaf covered? Even in the recent Lord of the Rings trilogy movies the Ents, ancient denizens of Middle Earth, are mostly portrayed as leaf-less. Not, I think, because they were “evil” but because they were, by their own declaration, neither for nor against the war surging around their forest. As if being neutral automatically casts a sort of unfriendly air about them. A form of political expression by the director? Or a deeper bias about how ancient and powerful trees indifferent to the activities of short-lived humans should be portrayed?
Winter forest scenes evoke an almost universal reaction of cold, lonely, empty, unfriendly, yet they are the same scenes that portraying a view from six months prior would elicit a completely opposite reaction. An evolutionary response from our tree-dwelling distant ancestors who saw leaf-less trees as a threat to their hiding ability? Poor trees – they just are there, not really promoting one bias or the other.
But they are great B&W subjects. So much texture, so many tones, the multiple ways a low winter sun can play across their surface unobstructed by those pesky leaves. It’s a time for close examination, getting the lens right up to the surface and discover the details found in bark, limbs and twigs. It’s all these details that make it a “tree” for us, little things we rarely perceive but together reinforce for us that we are seeing a tree instead of a statue.
Take some time this winter to wander in the trees. They are the same friends you enjoyed in the warmer months but now they are somewhat more approachable, offering the bare essentials of their being to anyone willing to observe.