Atlanta’s moniker, City of Trees, focus of new book

The image "Fernbank Forest, Downtown Atlanta," is featured in Peter Essick's new book "Fernbank Forest."
Courtesy of Peter Essick
The image "Fernbank Forest, Downtown Atlanta," is featured in Peter Essick's new book "Fernbank Forest." Courtesy of Peter Essick

Credit: Peter Essick

Credit: Peter Essick

Nature photographer Peter Essick's "Fernbank Forest" is a salute to a native treasure.

Atlanta’s trees occupy a complicated place in the city’s history. Revered, they give the city its identity: “a city in the forest.” They are also lopped down with casual abandon by Atlanta developers even as intown neighborhoods rally around them like endangered animals. They feel like benevolent sentinels, until thunderstorms strike and make one simultaneously marvel at their endurance and fear their villainous capacity to destroy.

Atlanta-based photographer Peter Essick has just released a book centered on the trees and wildlife of Fernbank Forest from local publisher Fall Line Press.
Courtesy of Peter Essick
Atlanta-based photographer Peter Essick has just released a book centered on the trees and wildlife of Fernbank Forest from local publisher Fall Line Press. Courtesy of Peter Essick

Credit: Peter Essick

Credit: Peter Essick

Photographer Peter Essick’s new photo book “Fernbank Forest,” published Aug. 3, will make you a believer in the powerful, magical presence of trees in this city dominated by them. Commissioned by the Fernbank Museum to document its 65-acre urban forest, Essick’s “Fernbank Forest” captures the native species that exist there: rare bloodroots with snowy leaves, blue jays, salamanders, towering beech trees, a Belgian lace pattern of ice-glazed tree limbs.

"Bloodroots" by Peter Essick.
Courtesy of Peter Essick
"Bloodroots" by Peter Essick. Courtesy of Peter Essick

Credit: Peter Essick

Credit: Peter Essick

The barren, off-season images are some of Essick’s favorites. “There’s a very stark quality and the light is…more dramatic in the wintertime,” he says. During his two-year walk in the Fernbank woods, he recorded a morphing kaleidoscope of season, decay and growth, light and color. Essick, 62, took 28,000 digital photographs during the course of his two-year-long study of the forest, though the book was winnowed down to a mere 35.

Named one of the 40 most influential travel photographers in the world by Outdoor Photography magazine, Essick has traveled to seven continents and worked for more than 30 years with National Geographic. In 2013, Essick published a book articulating a longstanding interest in conservation, “Our Beautiful, Fragile World.” His concern over global warming and habitat destruction, he says, eventually caught on with the mainstream. “I did feel like I was on the side of the planet,” he says of his images of humankind’s incursion into the wild. For a man who has traveled to the distant lands of Patagonia, Australia, Finland and Portugal, Fernbank was — in a common quarantine phenomenon — a reawakening to the wonders of home. “I wasn’t sure I could make real, compelling pictures there,” Essick admits at first of his Fernbank commission.

"Barred Owl" from Peter Essick's book "Fernbank Forest."
Courtesy of Peter Essick
"Barred Owl" from Peter Essick's book "Fernbank Forest." Courtesy of Peter Essick

Credit: Peter Essick

Credit: Peter Essick

“A lot of nature photographers feel you have to have to go off to Yellowstone or Patagonia to take exotic pictures,” says Essick. “I eventually came to the feeling that in some ways it’s just as important to photograph a place like Fernbank right in your backyard.” Citing the Southern photographer William Eggleston’s democratic vision, Essick agrees with Eggleston’s belief that “all subjects are equal.”

But like every assignment, photographing Fernbank Forrest was its own lesson in the nature of “maintaining” a forest. Conserving a forest, it turns out, is as complicated as preserving the Vermeers at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It entails legions of workers who carefully remove all of the invasive English ivy and Chinese wisteria that Atlanta homeowners obsessively plant in their yards, without destroying the delicate native plant species like Southern nodding trillium, trout lilies and toothwort sending up delicate seedlings through the marauding foliage. “The moral of the story is you can’t just let it be,” says Essick.

"Beech Tree, Ice Storm" by Peter Essick.
Courtesy of Peter Essick

Fernbank Forest, Atlanta, GA
"Beech Tree, Ice Storm" by Peter Essick. Courtesy of Peter Essick Fernbank Forest, Atlanta, GA

Credit: Peter Essick

Credit: Peter Essick

Far from simply a tract or celebration of this local Atlanta treasure, Essick’s book, published by Atlanta boutique book publisher Fall Line Press, is a transportive look at the untold, regenerative powers of nature. Early in the morning, Essick would unlock Fernbank’s padlock and stand alone in the forest. “At times it’s like church,” Essick admits. It’s also Essick’s most experimental nature photography to date. Though he stopped working with National Geographic about five years ago when Rupert Murdoch’s Fox bought out the magazine, he’d always had an editor to please. With no parameters and no stipulations, with “Fernbank Forest,” Essick was free to create his own vision of nature for the first time — and he did.

ONLINE INTERVIEW

Peter Essick

7 p.m. Aug. 29

Fall Line Press Instagram: @falllinepress

Essick will be interviewed by Fall Line Press publisher Bill Boling. Copies of “Fernbank Forest” can be purchased at falllinepress.com.

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