Walking in the woods one day near her house outside New Paltz, Nora Scarlett noticed a tree that appeared to be “kissing” a boulder. Intrigued by the sight, she returned home for her 4×5 view camera, studio tripod and accessories. Coming back to capture the unexpected alignment of forms on film was not an unusual impulse for a professional photographer, but little might even she have imagined that it would ultimately lead her to a decade-long odyssey through the Shawangunk Mountains, focusing her lens on the unusual, improbable and just plain amazing tree trunks she found growing in the rocky environs. The images Scarlett created have recently been published in her first book, “Trunks of the Gunks” (Black Dome Press, 2016).
Already an avid hiker, rock climber, skier and outdoors enthusiast when she began the series in 2005, Scarlett writes in the book’s preface, “I now had a new, compelling reason to lace up my shoes and don a pack. I hiked extensively around Mohonk Preserve and Minnewaska State Park on a quest… I looked for [trees with] wacky formations, humorous characteristics, improbable locations, surprising shapes and other wondrous growths.”
The bedrock of the Ridge creates growing conditions for its trees that inspired Scarlett. “In those hundreds of hours hiking the Gunks, I became awed at how life perseveres despite formidable handicaps, how it adapts to adversity and how it succeeds in astonishing ways,” she writes. “Tiny seedlings emerge from small cracks in rock, sprouting a handful of needles or tender leaves, knowing only to keep trying to grow. Enormous hemlocks hang off ledges, improbably rooted to something, looking as if they shouldn’t be upright, and yet … there they are. Roots protrude out of the ground in a preposterous manner, and I stand there in amazement and wonder how they got that way.”
Scarlett has lived in the New Paltz area since 1998, moving up with her family from the city after more than 20 years as a successful commercial photographer with her own studio there. The list of big-name clients she’s worked with is an arm long — it includes American Express, The Gap and Kodak — and she’s won numerous industry awards for her work, including a Clio.
Having taken up rock climbing along the way at a gym in the city, it seems inevitable that when looking for a quieter lifestyle Scarlett ended up in New Paltz. These days she spends part of each year in Utah, as well, still open to commercial work “if the right project comes along” but more interested in pursuing her personal projects.
Among those, Scarlett says she has always had a penchant for producing work unified by a theme. “I don’t like to take pictures for no reason,” she says. “I like to have a framework.”
The first series she did was called “The Scarlett Letters,” a whimsical approach to illustrating the letters of the alphabet. She undertook the project in the mid-1980s to advertise her work to prospective clients. A later series depicted the numbers one through ten as filtered through her sensibility, with yet another series based on pairs of two.
Most of Scarlett’s work has been done in a studio environment. She says that she usually thinks in terms of “making” photographs as opposed to “taking” them; starting from nothing and purposefully adding all the elements: light, objects, background and foreground. “I enjoy the craft of creating photographs,” she says. Scarlett frequently makes simple props for her work and has even grown plants from seed to use in a miniature set, “because I wanted that newly sprouted look.”
But shooting in nature is something different.
To capture the images in “Trunks of the Gunks,” the photographer frequently found herself “wriggling through brush, balanced on a boulder or perched precariously on a steep, muddy embankment searching for the best composition,” she writes in the book. (Early on she gave up the view camera in favor of a DSLR to improve her maneuverability, she notes.) “I was out in the humid, buggy steam bath of summer and in the chilly fall drizzle. I tromped in snowshoes in the cold sparkle of winter and waded through flooded bogs in spring. Nature was not always kind during these forays. Once, as I struggled through branches to the base of a pitch pine, I was attacked and stung repeatedly by ground wasps, even as I fled the area.”
And while a photographer can manipulate natural forms to great effect — Andy Goldsworthy being a prime example of that — Scarlett says that she photographed what she found. The only time she interfered with nature was removing a fallen branch from the scene, for example, or tweaking the placement of a leaf that got in the way of the tree roots she really wanted to photograph.
She spends a great deal of time with the images after shooting them, using computer software to optimize them, deepening a shadow here, highlighting an edge there to separate it from the background. “I do spend a lot of time studying the images, staring at them, thinking about it and then changing them a little bit more. It’s subtle; you don’t really see it, but it’s there. Often, the first 95 percent is established pretty fast, but it’s the last five percent that takes seemingly forever. But it’s this last step that ends up distinguishing the image.”
At the same time, “All the magic in the world can’t make something out of nothing,” Scarlett says. “If the bones of the image are good, you can help it along, but you have to have something to start with and then fine-tune it. Anyone can shoot the film; it’s getting the light right that’s the hard part. And for some of these images, I went back many times because the light wasn’t right.”
Scarlett grew up in Palo Alto, California, discovering photography in high school there. While attending UC Berkeley in the early ‘70s, she worked as a photojournalist for the campus press and became hooked. After moving to New York City in 1976, she learned her craft in the studios of several well respected photographers, including a stint as a print spotter for Irving Penn, a job she describes as a humble endeavor sitting in a corner examining a print for minute imperfections, trying to distinguish whether a spot was a flaw or intended to be part of the finished product.
Inspired by large format cameras and studio lighting, Scarlett developed her own talents creating still life photographs. Certain qualities emerged that still define her work, she says: a bold use of color and light, elegant yet sometimes quirky compositions, a fascination with making ordinary objects beautiful and developing concepts that result in a series of images.
Whether she’ll continue to photograph the “Trunks of the Gunks” now that the book has been published is “a good question,” she says. “At first it seemed [the project] was never going to end. I carried my camera with me everywhere I went. But now I started a series on fungus – that’s my next thing – and I have an idea about clouds. But you never know… there could be a second edition someday.”
The hardcover edition of “Trunks of the Gunks” is priced at $30. It runs 112 pages and features 97 full-color photographs in 9.25-by-9.25-inch format, with a foreword by Dr. Paul C. Huth of Mohonk Preserve’s Daniel Smiley Research Center. The book is available at local retailers in the New Paltz area, including Rock and Snow, Inquiring Minds Bookstore, Handmade and More, Barner Books, Dedrick’s gift shop, the Mohonk Preserve visitor’s center and the Mohonk Mountain House gift shop. It may also be ordered from “that rather large online place that begins with the letter ‘a,’” as Scarlett puts it, and directly from her website, where images from her various series may be viewed. More information is available at norascarlett.com.