The cottonwood project I’ve embarked on is turning out to have some interesting differences from work I’ve done in the past. Which is a great thing in a project, something that I aim for but can’t predict. This one has has helped me not only to see cottonwoods (and other trees) in a new way, but also to be more aware of genre influences in picturing them. By genre I mean more or less familiar modes or types of photographing, such as landscape or portrait or documentary. Genres are similar in related arts, but painting, for example, has a different history of pictures made, and therefore we view a painted portrait differently than a photographic one.

The portrait genre comes up because cottonwoods here are often loners. Photographing one is altogether different from photographing in a crowded woods. The tree can be a very individual presence. Am I treating it disrespectfully if I don’t step back and show it in full? The image below is the widest I have at this location; somehow I seem to be resisting compositions with so much sky (definitely something to work on there). It’s not that I’m a pan-psychic concerned about the tree’s soul. It’s rather that the solitary setting makes me think about the tree differently, and I become aware that thinking of the photograph as the portrait of a tree tends to lead to different images than thinking of the photograph as a landscape that happens to feature a tree.


This particular veteran deserves not only respect but also pity, for it won’t be long before it goes the way of its immediate family on this seasonal creek (running–when it runs–just behind and to the left). I’ve passed this location almost every day for the last seven years, and at first there was a row of half a dozen or more trees there. They are now only remnant trunks on the ground. They’ve been gradually succumbing to lack of water, which is due partly to natural drought and partly to changes in upstream water usage. In a word, development.


Emphasizing the expected fate of the cottonwood moves the photograph towards documentary. Particularly in photography, there’s a long tradition of images showing environmental destruction, whether thoughtless (like soil loss in the Dust Bowl era) or intentional (like over-logging or suburban expansion). If one starts to see the photograph as falling into this genre, it casts the cottonwood as victim, tending to categorize and trivialize it, while directing ones emotional reaction elsewhere.

How do you see the cottonwood in the pictures here? Does one image seem better or more interesting? What genre feels most natural?