Portrait of a Giant
Jim Balog's groundbreaking photograph of the Stagg Tree (read an excerpt from Quest for the Green Giant) required a trusty digital camera, plenty of warm clothes, and a slight disregard for personal safety. The details:
THE TREE IN NUMBERS
• NAME: Stagg
• CLAIM TO FAME: World's fifth largest tree (based on volume of wood)
• SPECIES: Sequoiadendron giganteum
• HEIGHT: 242 feet (73.8 meters)
• DIAMETER AT BASE: 25.5 feet (7.8 meters)
• VOLUME: 44,100 cubic feet (1,249 cubic meters)
• AGE: Approximately 2,000 years
• CAMERA: Digital Nikon D1X
Tree researchers Billy Ellyson and Jim Spickler used a crossbow to install a rope stretching laterally from the top of Stagg to an unnamed neighboring giant sequoia. Balog rappelled down alongside Stagg on a line fixed to the middle of that rope, taking 451 photos as he made his descent. "The whole system is at the mercy of the atmospheric swells rolling into the Sierra in advance of a Pacific winter storm, and I heave up and down with them," Balog writes in the February issue of Adventure.
"Just about the time I clipped the jumars onto the rope to start climbing, it started to rain. The temperature was just about a half a degree above freezing. I had on a full Gore-Tex suit with a bib and two thick layers of fleece, and yet I was soaked to the skin by the time my feet returned to Earth—about four hours after I'd left it."
Photo Collage: Stagg tree
"When I started this project, I spent my first week in the field shooting redwoods on film because I really didn't trust that a digital camera could hold up to the moisture conditions. When I got back home, I realized I had about 75 pictures, and I began arranging them on a big sheet of matchboard. I knew that to compose the final shot I would eventually have to scan each of the pictures, which is not cheap. It became obvious that digital was the solution."
"After the first pass to assemble the composite [more than 400 individual photos were used], we've been tweaking and perfecting the Stagg photo for nearly two years now—color, density, and in a few cases there were compositional things that needed improvement. Between the first composite and what appears in Adventure, easily 200 plus hours were spent in post-production on the picture."
"Despite the fact that this was shot looking through a rainy snow or a snowy rain, it comes out looking like it's an average, pearly light kind of a day. The tree has singularity and presence. I consider myself a photographic artist who looks for fresh ways for humans to look at nature and to understand themselves in relationship to it. I hope that somewhere in this tree project, I've started to evoke the personality and individuality of each tree. That's the goal."