For the past week I’ve succumbed to capturing one small but significant moment in the natural history of deciduous trees: that is, when a leaf severs its attachment to the tree, strikes out on its own, and floats down to earth.
Maybe it’s the economy and my severe underemployment that has provided me such rapport with leaves. Perhaps it’s the Southern mélange of hickory, ash, maple, elm, beech, and oak. Or perhaps it is seeing my own middle-aged life move from summer to autumn that has drawn me to the falling leaves.
Whatever the case, it is not easy taking photographs of them. Only a few glide graciously into the viewfinder. Most spin and weave and flail in the air for only a few seconds before cluttering the ground to become the bane of rake and blower, or compost for the forest floor.
But these airborne leafy moments are nonetheless transcendent, graceful affairs, playing out billions of times in the autumn air. They are the moment when part of the tree sheds its source of gathering sunlight for photosynthesis and goes willingly into dormancy until spring. It is a moment as light as the few ounces each leaf weighs, but a moment as profound as the tree itself.
I use a long zoom lens and a wide-open f-stop to isolate the falling leaf from the busy background of trunks, stems, and leaves. I’ve set up some hard and fast rules that I hope bring honor and character to the profession of leaf photography. No mendacious use of Photoshop. No manually throwing the leaves in the air. No strings or monofilament line attached. Only the leaf leaving its nine-month mooring to the tree by natural means is allowed. Anything short of this is man-made trickery.
Pictures of falling leaves are either mistakes or strokes of luck. Gravity, light, and leaf must all morph together in the great autumnal hand of God and the Mother of all Nature. The leaves remind me of the simple fact that life is best lived with all the spontaneity of Now.
French street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, considered by many to be the father of photojournalism, said that “thinking should be done beforehand and afterwards, never while actually taking the photograph.” Said like a true leaf photographer who has since joined the same fate as a pile of leaves. What is left of our own short flights through this world often amounts to few photographs that last about as long as the life of an average tree.
So the thinking about falling leaves comes afterwards, if at all. Watching the leaf zigzag earthward has forced me into the humble moment that is part and parcel of the grand connectedness of life.
Soon, all the leaves will be stripped from the trees; already my favorite red maple is shorn, a skeleton of bones stabbed into the increasingly cold ground. But today, for just a few hours at least, I’ll go watch the leaves fall. I’ll open my senses to the moment, crackling leaves underfoot, the flittering flights of fancy in the air. •