One day in 1981, photographer David Paul Bayles was rushing through Santa Barbara, California, to pick up film for a job when he noticed a tree.
The recent photography graduate from Brooks Institute of Photography was struck by the relationship of the tree to three curtained windows, lit from inside. The juxtaposition of the sinuous trunk, elegantly branching into a dark mass of leaves, with the geometry of the building’s linear bricks signaled something to the photographer. There was rhythm, pattern, contrast, and tension, but also, there was something elemental about the proximity and interaction between nature, symbolized by this lone and beautiful tree, and the presence of humanity in the form of a background-filling building, a massive dominating structure.
Bayles felt the photo’s exploration of this relationship between humanity and trees had potential as an ongoing area of study. He continued to make these urban forest pictures as they appeared to him, and eventually, the work gained the notice of journalists, gallerists, and publishers. Over many years, his work on the subject garnered articles, exhibitions, and, ultimately, a 2003 book published by the Sierra Club called Urban Forest: Images of Trees in the Human Landscape. That human-tree connection remains a central theme in his work today, including a recent and ongoing project on wildfires and forest recovery, as well as the upcoming publication of Sap In Their Veins, a photography book featuring intimate portraits of loggers and their work among the trees.
“We’re not ever really, truly going to heal the planet until we heal these relationships between urban and rural, between workers and stockholders. It’s all of the same cloth, and we need to reweave that cloth in a much healthier way.”
—David Paul Bayles
The Urban Forest photographs include color and black-and-white and range from careful topiary and trees decorating homes to isolated trees surrounded by asphalt or parking structures. Some convey whimsy, or tragedy, and one is even an Ansel Adamseque depiction of a massive tree behind an even more massive pile of tires. Some are minimal, geometric, and abstract. Others are a riot of colors and textures or filled with the visual chaos of a fallen pine. What holds the wonderfully diverse group together is a sense that we, as preoccupied, busy, achievement-oriented humans, continue to design our urban environments to include trees—even far from traditional forests. Trees are part of the urban environment, interwoven with the more “functional” elements of roadways, sidewalks, playgrounds, parking lots, powerlines, and driveways.
Four decades later, trees remain the primary subject of David Paul Bayles’s career. He has photographed old-growth forests, lumberjacks and the logging process, urban trees, close-up details of bark, cut surfaces of logs, cultivated orchards, and the slow evolution of forest recovery following wildfire. Although Bayles has photographed trees all over the United States, most of his pictures are of the West Coast, and especially the trees of California and Oregon.
Bayles is described as a landscape photographer, but all of his photographs of the land acknowledge the tightly bound relationships between people and place. With increasing attention to climate change and the choices humanity will make over the coming years, Bayles’s vision has never been more relevant. Indeed, in speaking with me for this story, Bayles characterizes the perceived interconnectedness as a fabric: “We’re not ever really, truly going to heal the planet until we heal these relationships between urban and rural, between workers and stockholders. It’s all of the same cloth, and we need to reweave that cloth in a much healthier way.”
Portraits that Give Loggers a Voice
As a young man of 20, Bayles worked as a choker-setter—a logger who connects cables to felled trees—in the Sierra Nevada, earning the money that would allow him to study photography. After a decade of commercial photographer work, he returned to the woods with his camera to begin one of his earliest major personal projects, Sap In Their Veins. After many years as a touring exhibition, Bayles is now bringing the project to publication.
Bayles made portraits of loggers—the men with whom he’d worked in the 1970s—that exude a sense of alignment and trust. Bayles notes that having worked in the incredibly physical and demanding job for four seasons, he came to the portrait sessions with a point of entry and some credibility. Bayles understood that loggers occupy a unique position in the relationship between people and nature; their work is both a hot-button issue among environmentalists while also being an industry that fills a social and economic need. In the midst of the contentious debate about logging and deforestation, the loggers themselves were rarely centered. But Bayles could address that.
As a one-time logger, Bayles’s perspective enabled the portraits to be made in a spirit of partnership and community, allowing the subjects to present themselves with a sense of agency and trust. Bayles’s goal was to put a human face on the logging community. He knew firsthand that this is a largely familial, multigenerational occupation, and was an honest, if treacherous, way of earning a living long before it emerged as a concern for environmentalists in the past half-century.
Bayles’ desire to give voice to the men’s concerns extended into including their oral histories in Sap in Their Veins. Bayles accompanied the loggers as they worked, interviewing them during breaks and making the photographs without much staging or posing. These personal accounts deepen the photographs’ narrative: By giving this community of loggers a voice and illustrating the totality of their work, which combines hard labor, deep knowledge of the forest, and a powerful respect and love for the trees, we can understand the nuances we might otherwise have overlooked.
This approach—giving voice to people who work among the trees—would evolve and continue throughout his career, including an effort to lend voice to trees that have been harmed by humanity in Following Fire: A Resilient Forest/An Uncertain Future.
An Artist and Scientist Follow Fire
For the ongoing artistic and scientific research endeavor, Following Fire, Bayles partners with disturbance ecologist Frederick J. Swanson who researches natural and human events that transform the land. The photographer and scientist explore and document the aftermath of the September 2020 Holiday Farm Fire within and around the H. J. Andrews Experimental Forest in Oregon’s Cascade Range. The two men explore the burned forest, observe change, and have built a website to share their striking documentation of patterns of forest and tree mortality after wildfire that will be the foundation of ongoing research for future generations of scientists.
Bayles met Swanson, who studies major events like volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and wildfires, at the H. J. Andrews Experimental Forest in 2007. They formed a friendship and expansive conversation about forests 10 years later when Bayles exhibited photographs for the exhibit Rot: The Afterlife of Trees.
“He loved discussing old-growth forests. Then he started connecting me with scientists, his wife included, which allowed me to appreciate scientists and science in a new way,” Bayles tells me. “Scientists are just curious, like every artist. They’re asking questions in this curious way.”
That shared curiosity drew the photographer and scientist pair to the aftermath of the Holiday Farm Fire, which burned over 173,000 acres in Oregon. “We wanted to get up and see it,” Bayles recalls. Within two months, the pair got permission to investigate the burn area and were amazed to discover unique, post-fire landscapes throughout the forest. “Everywhere we looked,” he says, “there were stories to unravel.”
“Scientists are just curious, like every artist. They’re asking questions in this curious way.”
—David Paul Bayles
One of those stories would prove to reveal the nature of humans’ complex relationship to fire. “We need and fear it,” Bayles says. “My early decision to embrace the beauty of the charred skeletal forest opened a pathway to understanding the transformative power of fire. In a natural landscape, fire is a recalibration.”
As Bayles moved through the burned area, he noticed peculiar openings in the forest floor. They were made up of a group of tunnels of differing sizes. He began to document this recurring phenomenon. As striking as the sight was to the photographer, it meant much more with the weight of the scientist’s explanation: The openings were stump ghosts.
A stump ghost appears in the empty space where an old-growth stump has decomposed to the point at which a fire will completely incinerate it, Swanson explained. What remains is a set of caverns with deep channels in the soil, memorializing the now-absent root systems.
Our project site had been logged fifty to seventy years ago. Many of the huge old growth stumps were burned completely. They are visually compelling, like a sculpture of what was. A sculpture that took 500 years to create that fire hollowed out the root canals, some as far back as seven feet. The largest of these is 15′ across and 4′ deep in the center. I have fallen into a couple of them since the vegetation has grown so thick in many places, I can’t see the holes.
“Fred is the type of man that I could just ask the most impulsive, basic, curious question, and he got curious with me, and never did a scientist eyeroll,” says Bayles. “He was just right there with me in that curious playground. It is a dream collaboration. Who knew that this kind of discovery process could be so joyful?”
Together, the men discovered—and asked questions, voiced observations aloud, and discussed—other post-forest fire phenomena, such as fuel architecture. Bayles learned from Swanson that this was the way smoldering branches or trees, when in contact, burned hotter and ate away the wood at the point of overlap.
They also encountered sporocarps, the off-white, wood-decomposing fungi that appear on the trees like miniature but populous cities, covering the dark bark as they mature.
Perhaps the most scientifically consequential element of Following Fire is the chronosequence series. Each chronosequence includes a set of pictures made at precisely the same location over a period of time, revealing the change in vegetation and water levels.
Bayles sees these chronosequence sets as part of an ongoing data collection process that can support future research. While the website helps share these phenomena with the world immediately, Bayles and Swanson will share the specific GPS locations, their notes and documentation, and even their equipment with future scientists—some of whom may not even be born yet. The chronosequences will accompany research projects at H.J. Andrews, some of which are one- to two-hundred years in length.
“For me to think of even passing on the tilt-shift lens that I use to somebody, and our field notebooks, I know it seems silly, but I get choked up,” Bayles says.
Even today, viewing the chronosequences feels like a revelation, deeply informative and yet visual in a way that allows easy comparison and contrast. The photographs expose systems that no novice would discover on their own—and also highlight the power of the photographer and scientist’s combined expertise.
“Cycles of fire and re-growth have been a natural occurrence in the ecology of the western landscape for a very long time,” Bayles says. “The last stand replacement fire in the McKenzie River watershed occurred 500 to 600 years ago. As we document the earliest stages of re-growth, we also see signs of an uncertain future.”
Finding Community Among the Trees
Bayles’s tree-centric worldview is perhaps most dynamically and evidently apparent in a series of pictures of falling trees Bayles made while photographing loggers in the Sierra Nevada. He writes poetically about the experience of watching the trees come down, which appears as a kinetic action, a blurred form, as the tree leaves its place in the forest.
“There is a point when the opposing forces of energy were held in suspension. Those few seconds, between life and death, seemed simultaneously ephemeral and eternal. At first, the motion is slight and distinct. A vibration moves quickly up the tree, its top shakes and quivers, resisting the moment when gravity takes hold.
The sounds are individual and clear. There is a creak, a screech, a crackle as the fibers slowly rip apart, separating the tree into stump and log. As the falling tree gains momentum, sound and motion begin to blur. The surrounding trees, still standing, sway back and forth in the wake of the falling tree. The veiled retorts of breaking limbs ricochet like gunshot or backfire.
When the tree hits the ground, the sound is indistinguishable from the sensation. It is deep and thunderous. It pounds your eardrums and sends a shock wave up your legs. You see, hear, and feel the moment simultaneously. Eventually the last limb falls, the ground stops shaking and the dust settles on a new and forever altered landscape.”
These photographs are a microcosm of Bayles’s work and share characteristics with his many other projects—while each image is unique, they all reflect a combination of attention to light and composition, and they are visually detailed and engaging but are also representative of something larger and deeper.
Not all visual artists are able to articulate the rich ideas and reflections that underpin their work; indeed, visual artists are often most effective when they are expressing themselves visually only. But Bayles’s rich understanding of trees and forests contributes to the eloquence with which he can write and speak about his subjects. Bayles describes the forest ecosystem as a model for human societies.
“I am seeing, especially in the old growth forests, there is this complexity of community, in which the trees have worked out a balance between competition and caring for one another in a sense that people are still struggling with,” he tells me. Old growth trees, he explains, draw water up from their deepest root systems to feed leaves and needles and then send whatever water they don’t use back to the soil through their shallow root systems to water the understory—the plants that grow beneath the trees.
“There’s a community there, with competition for light and nutrients, but also with shared resources, because the health of the entire forest depends on the health of individuals,” observes Bayles.
A lifetime of studying and working with trees has led Bayles to conclude that trees are very much like humans. On tree farms, he’s observed, where there’s a lack of tree diversity, there’s less community, less resilience, and a less dynamic understory. When humanity self-sorts itself into less diverse groups, we too lose community and resilience.
But there’s hope in humanity’s relationship to trees as well. As Bayles’s images demonstrate, we are capable of empathizing with people different from ourselves—like loggers, perhaps. We can feel reverence in the presence of a mammoth survivor of a tree surrounded by pavement.
A tree’s resilience is enabled by roots that go deep down into the ground, gathering nutrients and anchoring them so that the top can reach for the light. Bayles believes humans are the same.
“Each of us has parts of ourselves that are like those roots,” he says. “They’re not shared with the whole world, but they anchor us, feed us, and allow us to reach for the light.