So here we are in autumn. It's Lockdown 2.0, and I'm back to photographing leaves. Only this time I started before lockdown. Back in the spring (AKA Lockdown 1.0) I started a project photographing leaf portraits, and having been really pleased with the results I had to add the companion piece for autumn. Like my animal portraits, I've shot the seasons in opposing styles, using high-key for spring, and low-key for autumn. This seemed like a natural choice; with spring being bright and positive, and autumn reflecting a darker feel both in tone and aesthetic. On a purely graphical basis I think the colour combination of green and white was much more attractive than green and black. So too with red/brown lending itself to the dark background.
I do wonder how many people saw this coming. Am I creative and inventive, or stale and predicable? Well who cares, because I've enjoyed it, and I'm very happy with the photos I've taken. The trouble is I like a project to work on, and a theme to stick to. I also think that the photos themselves are more impactful when they're part of a larger set. Like their seasonal lives on the branch, they're a work of art in themselves, but the real beauty is in the collection of many together to create something more.
Autumn presents a slightly more tricky problem than spring, and this is the reason I didn't try this last year. I didn't really think I'd find leaves in the kind of pristine condition I would want. But on consideration I came around to the idea that part of the character of an aging leaf are the marks, scuffs, and imperfections, that make it unique, and that communicate the transition they undergo. The good news was that the opportunity to find leaves at their colourful best is a much wider window of time. In spring, the leaves begin the degrade after a week or so, as an onslaught of invertebrates feast on the new food source. Compared to autumn when I was able to find leaves in peak colour for at least a month, depending on the species.
So here we are. I hope you like them. And as with a few blog posts recently, there's also some bonus content at the end.
It's hard to think of autumn colour without thinking of maples. We have some native species, such as the field maple, but also some introduced species, and they're some of the most "showy" of all at this time of year. So lets lead with this Norway Maple, featuring a transition from green, through orange, to deep red.
I've used Picture This to identify some of the more tricky species and sub-species, which seems to do a pretty good job, but do give me a shout if I've misidentified any of these.
This one, I know is London Plane; a handsome import with an interesting backstory which I expanded on in the spring post. This leaf was from the same tree as the one I photographed in spring.
London Plane Leaf - On BlackLondon Plane Leaf (Platanus x hispanica), photographed low-key on black as part of my leaf photography project.
This is a sycamore, which is a member of the maple family introduced to the UK by the Romans. They were a fabulous shade of yellow, but I struggled to find one untarnished. Still, those blots all tell a tale.
Sycamore Leaf - On BlackSycamore Leaf (Acer pseudoplatanus), photographed low-key on black as part of my leaf photography project.
This is red maple, and the last leaf I photographed this autumn. Red Maple Leaf - On BlackRed maple leaf (Acer Rubrum), photographed low-key on black as part of my leaf photography project.
This field maple is another species I was able to photograph back in the spring, and again it's from the same tree, which is just over the road from my house. This was the first leaf I photographed this autumn, one month to the day before the last, above. Field Maple - On BlackField maple leaf (Acer campestre), photographed low-key on black as part of my leaf photography project.
Oak is about as classic as it gets for UK trees. I found oak difficult as they seemed to go from green to brown in a flash, and once brown they were always brittle and torn. But I managed to find this one leaf in transition, which I took somewhat inadvisably from a busy roadside. This leaf photography is a more dangerous game than you'd think.
When I decided to give autumn leaves a go, one species I immediately decided wouldn't work was the horse chestnut. I thought their size and spread would be too delicate at this time, but I walked right past this one a few weeks ago and thought - well it's worth a try. And to my surprise, it held it's shape very well. He's a bit battered, but his knocks and bruises tell a story.
Horse Chestnut Leaf - On BlackHorse chestnut leaf (Aesculus hippocastanum), photographed low-key on black as part of my leaf photography project.
This is hornbeam; and a very classy gent, if I may say so.
Hornbeam Leaf - On BlackHornbeam leaf (Carpinus betulus), photographed low-key on black as part of my leaf photography project.
Like a butter toffee, this is a beech leaf in the perfect shade of brown.
Beech Leaf - On BlackBeech Leaf (Fagus sylvatica), photographed low-key on black as part of my leaf photography project.
I didn't realise until this spring how many of the trees in our neighbourhood are lime. This is a large-leafed lime, and they're everywhere around here. In fact that has been one of the great joys of this project; learning to identify the trees I see day-in-day-out. These species have surrounded me and the places I've lived for my whole life, and I've never really been able to tell many of them apart. Now I know, I can spot them when I'm out and about, and gain an insight to their characteristics on an individual basis. It's become a source of "mini joys" that top me up on a day-to-day basis.
Large-Leaved Lime Leaf - On BlackLarge-leaved Lime leaf (Tilia platyphyllos), photographed low-key on black as part of my leaf photography project.
This is hazel. It was the subject of one of my favourite photos from the spring collection, with a robust shape and graphic outline, and meaningful species for personal reasons too. I think it look great in autumnal yellow. Hazel Leaf - On BlackHazel leaf (Corylus avellana), photographed low-key on black as part of my leaf photography project.
I think as a stand-alone graphical work, this photo is probably my favourite from this low-key autumn collection. The colour, the detail, and the symmetry combine for a striking result. This leaf, being the smallest I photographed, was shot slightly more side-lit than the others, to bring out more surface texture. Not all the leaves looked best like this, but the silver birch shone brilliantly under the spotlight. Silver Birch Leaf - On BlackSilver birch leaf (Betula pendula), photographed low-key on black as part of my leaf photography project.
Part-way through this leaf project I thought it would be nice to showcase another of nature's miniature miracles in the same style. It was a bumper year for acorns this year, and I spent about 90 minutes combing the woodland floor for the perfect specimen, much to the bemusement of passers-by, I'm sure. They're a classic example of a perfect natural structure; tactile and visually appealing, whilst still so easy to overlook. There's also something beguiling about the potential that an acorn represents. Small and understated, they contain all the genetic material required to create a vast organism which will live for hundreds of years. I wanted to afford it the limelight, to present it as the star it is.
Acorn - On BlackAn acorn photographed low-key, on black as part of a long-running project to photograph nature in this style. There's something beguiling about the potential of an acorn. It's beautiful as a construction in itself, but to think that it has all the genetic material to grow a mighty tree, which could live for hundreds of years, it really represents so much more than what you see here and now.
I'm no Jenifer Aniston, but I know some readers appreciate a little more technical detail behind my photos. In the spring, although I was shooting against a "white" background, I actually wanted it a little off-white, as it softened the contrast slightly. That was pretty tricky to achieve, and even harder to keep them consistent, as I took them all on different days. For autumn, to achieve the low-key on-black lighting was so much easier. By lighting the subject and placing it in front of a background in shadow (the back of chair, the airing cupboard, a dark towel), the relatively limited dynamic range of the camera sensor compared to the human eye means that by exposing for the subject, the background falls to darkness. I mean, how much more black could this background be?
I've never considered "still life" to be a genre that would interest me creatively, but here we are as it creeps into my portfolio. There's something that appeals to me about simplifying everything as much as possible - and that's a thread that runs through much of my art. It's also enjoyable to explore an apparently simple subject, and examine what interest it holds once all context and distraction is excluded. In most cases with nature the subject shines, and the more you look, the more you see. I've found these leaves challenging and rewarding to photograph, and I think they make for a great subject for prints and wall art - especially in combination with each other. It's also a project I can top up over time, as I'm sure I'll find more subjects to show in this style in the future.
Post by George Wheelhouse, 2020.