Clonal Stands and Coaxing “Lasting Interest”: An Interview with Photographer Mark Vogel

by Nathan Poole Issue: Fall 2016 Special Issue on Forests

Nathan Poole: One of the most distinctive features of the photos you sent us is the uniformity of the stand itself; it’s like a forest full of twins—and they form a beautiful colonnade for this reason. But those even-age tree stands, we’re realizing as we put this issue on forests together, that kind of vertical uniformity, can be both a good and a bad thing. In other words, this is a kind of beauty that sometimes deceives us, because some of those even-age stands arise from man-made disturbances like clear cuts and many healthy forests don’t look like this. A healthy forest usually has lots of vertical diversity, a lack of uniformity. But your photographs are of a specific type of tree that does grow that way without human disturbance, a clonal stand of aspens, one tree in fact, with many stems, which is why they change color all at once, and look so similar. Could you comment on where you were and how you found this grove of trees?

Mark Vogel: I live out in Meat Camp (NC), and my property, my ten acres and the surrounding 300 acres around me, are pretty uniform too. Why is that? It’s because they’ve been logged twenty, thirty years ago. So even though poplars grow so much faster than some of the other trees, it’s undeniable that it’s been logged, like everything around here. My brother does a lot of hikes for Sierra Club in Colorado in particular and he has a whole range of hikes. On this particular trip there in late October—we were there for his wedding--every day for a week, we would go out on a new hike. But this was one of the only hikes where we were directly into the aspen forest. On other hikes, we were much higher up, like 14,000 feet, and you could see these aspens thousands of feet below us. Three miles away, this beautiful, undeniable golden appearance. He says, “That hike is a small section of the Colorado trail that runs over 400 miles from outside Denver to Southwest Colorado. The section we were on starts on US highway 285 in Kenosha pass at 10,000 feet and rises from there. The Aspen groves there are all natural.”

Aspens In Distance

NP: Is nature something that you typically have as a subject when you pick up a camera?

MV: I’ve always been interested in the natural world. It’s not any accident that my older brother does all that hiking out there, and that my little brother works for the National Park Service. My dad always took us as a family. We weren’t poor, but we were poor enough that we camped for vacation. So growing up we would go to parks. And my dad loved natural areas, so I always have been drawn to water and trees and natural settings.

NP: So you’re out with your brother, he’s about to get married, and you’re hiking in this aspen forest.

MV: Deliberately, to see the aspens, because it was the peak color time.

Peaking Aspens 

NP: So what were you hoping, in terms of composition, to capture, to take away from that experience?

MV: My son and I have a fairly longstanding habit—we have the same camera, deliberately—so that we could coax each other and teach each other, not really competing, but routinely we steal each other’s photos. Appreciating what he might get, and what I might get. And so it’s really a matter of where you are, and what kind of interest it has for you. I’m not really interested in simply documenting, “I was here.” My son and I typically try to create some kind of lasting interest through the photographs, a sense of beauty. So you’re in the middle of an aspen forest on this ridge. It’s really not very easy to capture. It turned out to be an excellent day, the sun was coming down through the leaves. And yet there were so many of them in that family, that colony, you did want to capture the sense that it kept on going, rather than just capturing one or two trees. You wanted to capture the trees together. So we probably took thirty or forty pictures on that particular day. And there’s also a certain element in the machinery of the camera, you’ve hiked in three or four miles, you want to use it, and to do the best you can with it. I wanted pictures that stood on their own. On this particular trip, we had already done the 14,000 foot, top of the mountain thing. But I enjoyed this trip to the aspens more. It was more beautiful.

Without Water the Trail

NP: The perspective of the photos—one looking up the trunk of the tree, another upward at the canopy—feel like behavior, you know?  It would seem very nature to stand that way and look at the trees that way. The animal body is present, the gestures. Like you say, there’s a kind of lasting interest. When you look back at these photos, do you feel like they are successfully transporting you back to that place and time?

MV: I feel like if you have a good photograph, I almost always remember the moment and the action and the sense of being there and feeling it. At the same time, if you take a bunch of pictures, if you have beautiful aspens, you’re on top of a ridge, the light is perfect. You can’t botch up too many. And part of it, the experience, is that those trees are so tall, and it’s a little bit darker down on the ground. It was just a natural gesture.

There’s a certain challenge to try to capture trees, in general, in a distinctive way. The woods right behind my barn, not a totally dense woods. The question, can you capture them? I’ve probably taken, in the last five years, 30, 40 pictures, looking through my woods, and not very many of them are—they’re not bad—but they don’t capture…

Aspen Skies

Aspen Plains

NP: This is so interesting. It reminds me of Anaïs Nin’s, claim that “the function of art is to renew our perceptions.” But we see trees so often. They are the dominate species of the planet. They’re everywhere, at least in most of the temperate world. And so it makes sense that you find them challenging to photograph. Our familiarity with them is consummate, how do you go about trying to disturb it? That seems like a challenge you’re taking up .

MV: Yeah, and the lens itself is limited, which is not a bad thing. You’re seeing this much, and you’re not quite sure what you’re going to get once you get the actual photos. I find that I like that it doesn’t matter, if you’re not openly trying to market your photos. You’re doing it for yourself, and maybe your son. When my son takes a photo, he looks at it immediately. But, and maybe this is because I shot so much on film, it’s almost like I don’t want to see it. I want to be surprised later. I like that feeling—it’s not magic or anything, but I want to be surprised by what’s there.

Nathan Poole

Mark Vogel lives at the back of a Blue Ridge holler with his wife, Susan Weinberg, an accomplished fiction and creative non-fiction writer, and two foster sons.  He has published short stories in Cities and RoadsKnight Literary JournalWhimperbang, SN Review, and Our Stories.  Poetry has appeared in English Journal, Cape Rock, Dark Sky, Cold Mountain Review, Broken Bridge Review and many other journals. He is currently Professor of English at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina.