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The Urban Forest

David Paul Bayles' Photographs Remind Us That a City's Trees, Properly Seen, Offer More Than Just Parking-Lot Shade

November 17, 2002|Richard Cheverton | Richard Cheverton's last story for the magazine was a profile of Irvine Ranch heiress Joan Irvine Smith. He is writing the text for a book of Bayles' urban tree photographs, to be published by Sierra Club Books next fall.

David Paul Bayles toils in the workaday world of portrait photography, making pictures that are more likely to wind up in a rumpus room than the white cube of a gallery or museum. They are fine photographs, and Bayles is justifiably proud of his work even as he acknowledges that family portrait shooters aren't exactly at the top of the profession's pecking order.

But for two decades Bayles has also been secretly making images of trees. Specifically, trees in the city--the place of tension, as Bayles sees it, between "what we build and what we grow." Then he adds, sorrowfully, "We ask these trees to live in such an unnatural place."

This seems an odd preoccupation for a photographer of human families, until Bayles relates one key fact: Fresh out of college, he spent four summers in the early 1980s working as a lumberjack in the western Sierra. He didn't actually cut down any of the big trees--that was work for two-man teams of "fallers" and "buckers." He was a "choke-setter," in the trade's rich argot, the guy who clambered around logs that had been trimmed to a uniform 33 feet length, attaching cables to pull them out of "the sale."

Cutting down big trees is one of the most dangerous jobs on the planet. Cuts, nicks, scrapes are routine. But Bayles will never forget the log that almost killed him, careening down a steep hillside like the giant boulder pursuing Indiana Jones. It was a "very, very close call--I wrote a very bad poem about it," Bayles recalls. "If I was going to be taken out, that beautiful piece of wood would be the way I'd want to go. That was pure sugar pine."

Since then, as Bayles moved into the world of portrait photography--and became increasingly rooted in the city--trees continued to hold him in their thrall. He spotted his first "city tree" image, literally on the run, as he dashed along a Santa Barbara street trying to get to a photo shop before it closed. He came back and took a moody portrait of ficus trees posed against a wall of eerily glowing windows--a picture, he later found, that can only be made during a single month when lighting conditions are just right.

"I loved the balance and the harmony and the beauty between the man-made structure and the tree," he says. "It was really a metaphor for my struggle with having cut down trees but yet loving trees at the same time. And living in the city, becoming part of the environmental movement and understanding what that meant, and yet having lived on this side where I'm supposed to hate these [lumber industry] guys."

It made for some odd moments, this sense of betwixt-and-between: "After my first summer in the woods," Bayles recalls, "I went to a party in L.A. with a friend of mine. His friends had just built a new redwood deck and they were having a party to inaugurate it. Inevitably somebody asked me what I did, and I told them I was a lumberjack. The whole deck quieted down. Everybody looked at me and then the question came: 'How dare you cut down trees?' I was just flabbergasted at that."

Gradually, through travels in Europe and across the country--as well as his deepening involvement with the world around Seal Beach, where his portrait studio is based in a tidy Main Street studio--Bayles kept adding to his idiosyncratic collection. "This is a project that's part of my daily life," he says. "I never set out to go look for the urban forest."

And yet he found it.

Over time, Bayles' feelings about the tenuous tree-city relationship have changed: "Looking through all this work--I don't know what to make of the fact that I started this process looking at beauty and harmony and balance. And the more I've looked at it, I've moved from that to more of what I see as the imbalance and the irony and the human folly."

Bayles' images of trees avoid the trap of propaganda; these are not cute or angry or tragic surrogates for human politics. Instead, they seem weirdly like visitors from another world, perhaps another dimension--and, in a real sense, they are. Trees, no less than epoch-layered rock canyons, remind us that there are different ways of computing time; that within the frantic rush of man-made cities are eddies and rills of slowness, sureness; that there are cycles as profound as the procession of the stars. Trees reproach our temporary manias while also serving as an antidote.

As Bayles puts it: "All I really hope of my photographs is that people just look at trees around them in a different way. I'd be satisfied with that."

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