The Creative Photographer: The Story of ‘The Haunted Tree’

The Haunted Tree is my most published and collected photograph to date.

It has evoked various responses from viewers and curators who have described it using adjectives including  ‘dreamy’, ‘mysterious’, ‘foreboding’, ‘cinematic’, ‘poetic’, ‘confrontational’, ‘powerful’, ‘spiritual’…and the list goes on.

The Haunted Tree

Haunted Tree is also my most plagiarized and ‘borrowed’ image to date. I enjoy knowing it feeds the thought of others, even though I find it online being used for heavy metal band merchandise, to accompany poetry, as a symbol for the occult, reincarnation, fantasy gaming and even once as an unlicensed t-shirt on Etsy. When the image is included in magazines or a print shown on gallery walls, I am frequently asked how it came about.

Here is the story behind “The Haunted Tree”, the second part of my series The Creative Photographer.

Haunted Tree is an image adapted from a recurring dream I had on occasion over several years. It was a dream that haunted me, not the tree in my dream. Like so many dreams, this one seemed powerfully symbolic but not easily understood. I’m still unclear about it and don’t mind a bit.

My dream went something like this:
I’m alone in a vast landscape, the sky is heavy, and birds are flying a ring around the crown of single hand-shaped tree.

I had no idea what it meant, but it felt powerfully immersive. I sketched it in my notebook and hoped it would someday come true. Since I made this image, several acquaintances have claimed to have had a dream where birds encircle something. I believe that birds are strong archetypical symbols, and the certainly play important roles in mythology, cultural arts and shamanic medicine. Besides all of that, they are treat to watch.

I was scouting locations during an early spring visit to the San Juan Islands. Riding an old borrowed mountain bike on wet country roads made the tires sing on the pavement and kick a rooster’s tail of droplets onto my back. It had begun to drizzle, so I stopped to bag my camera and don my brimmed Goretex “Seattle Sombrero” hat.

Passing mossy sunken barns and fragrant fallow farmlands, I spotted an orchard of short skeletal trees with small black birds flying noisily between them. I stopped and caught my breath, realizing that this was eerily similar to what I’d dreamt. I remember the sweet scent of damp grass and salty enriching my excitement.

The birds repeatedly flushed and returned into one tree’s leafless crown, socializing loudly as I quickly set up my “little monster” Pentax 6×7 with a 45mm wide angle lens on my tripod.

The Pentax 67, Metering prism, wooden handle, and 45mm lens.
(photo: Zuoda Images)

The birds seemed to be playfully taunting the tree as children do to each other in a playground. The sound of their chatter reminded me of Hitchcock’s iconic film The Birds, but this morning’s sky was glowing brightly through the light rain. Moving closer to crop out nearby trees, I chose a symmetrical composition to give the tree power, and to emphasize it’s hand-like shape. With dim light and Kodak Ektachrome 100 ISO film and my maximum aperture of f4, I had to use a shutter speed of 160th which I feared would render the birds in a complete blur. I placed a plastic bag around the Pentax and lens and shot several quickly cranked exposures through a hole I poked into it. After about a dozen exposures, the lens had become too wet to focus, and most of the birds had dispersed.

My heart raced as I biked back through a squall to the B&B.
I was soaked and stoked.

A few days later when I received my developed transparencies and scanned the best frames, I examined them in Photoshop. I realized then that no single frame captured the birds as I wanted, but one frame stood out as the best to use for the tree, and most of the birds. I believe that an artist can make the image they imagine and feel, so I decided to put my digital skills into the task.

I wanted a better grouping of birds around the tree.
Knowing I could compress minutes into a moment, I gathered the three best exposures into a single Photoshop file, and noted which registered layers had birds that were in focus and position in relation to the crown of the tree.

Once I made a mask for each layer, I filled the mask with black to hide everything, and then revealed just the few birds of each layer by carefully painting transparent white into the layer masks. I had to mask a few birds from the tree image because they overlapped branches or were unacceptably blurred. Once I had pretty much what I had envisioned, a a Black + White adjustment layer was used to replace all color with precisely controlled neutral tones. I then applied a subtle sepia tint to just the sky by painstakingly masking around it on a Color Balance adjustment layer’s mask. After a few hours of refinement, the image conveyed my vision and felt complete. The next day, I still liked the result so I made my first print of it. And so began a photographic series called Dreams.

I recently submitted this image to a juried competition entered by 175 artists. I was happy that it was judged into the exhibit, as the competitive submissions were, in my opinion, very strong. I was even happier on attending the opening when Haunted Tree won ‘Best of Show’ by curator Paula Stokes, and the gallery director handed me a modest cash award. But what I learned in her presentation, and what made the event even more worthwhile for me was that Paula really understood the image, as her description of it was so perceptive and closely aligned with my intention.

If I had thirty works as connective as Haunted Tree, I’d consider my Dreams series complete. But for now an the forseeable future, I have much to do, and new directions to explore.

In my upcoming November 18th workshop “Creative Photoshop: Advanced Techniques”, I demonstrate how to make images like Haunted Tree and other expressive works. Stay tuned for future video tutorials as well.

And as some will ask: Yes, signed archival prints of Haunted Tree can be purchased upon request.


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