There’s something about being the very best in the world at something, even if that something may be so arcane that you’re not even sure if anyone else in the world is doing it.
But here’s the thing about Bishop-based photographer Bruce Willey. You hang out with him for a little bit, and his energy is so infectious that you start getting sucked into what he’s doing.
To the point where I was telling him to stop the car because I had a good vibe about our surroundings.
Yes, Bruce Willey, by traditional pigeonholing, is a wedding and family photographer. A very much in-demand wedding and family photographer. But he is also the world’s premier falling leaf photographer.
What, you may ask, is that?!?
To properly explain, we must jump back in time.
Let’s start with the debaucherous climbing trip to Joshua Tree. His climbing partner had exhibited far more interest in ass than crevasse on that trip., so Bruce went searching for a new climbing partner online. Her name was Caroline Schaumann.
They met February 15 of that year. They married June 21.
Schaumann is a professor of both German literature and Environmental literature at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. We will talk more about this later …
How Bruce got into falling leaf photography: He was in Georgia, unemployed and unemployable. He’d been freelance writing for magazines like Climbing, Nat Geo Adventure and Adventure Sports Journal but the pay had dropped from $1 a word to $0.35 a word. It wasn’t paying the bills.
He thought maybe he’d get into wedding photography. In part because the couple’s itinerant lifestyle was such (hopping between Atlanta and Berlin at the time) that he needed a job that was ultimately transportable.
But then he thought, “I can’t just jump into wedding photography.” He wanted to do something to sharpen his observational skills. So he thought he might try shooting falling leaves as a way to hone his eye, his reflexes, anticipatory skills.
“I didn’t think it would be that hard … It was really hard.”
What he discovered: That each tree has its own personality. That he was fascinated by the series of micro-deaths that each falling leaf represneted. That he thought about the regenerative nature of it all, that the tree doesn’t die, that the leaves fall to the ground to provide nutrients for the soil. The life cycle of things, all stemming from leaves leaving stems.
But further, falling leaf photography is a little bit like fishing. You never think you’ll get one. And then you get one. And then you’re hooked.
Bruce says stuff like the above all the time. He is a quote machine. He is a zen master. Or at least close. As a zen neophyte, how would I know?
“I’ve gotten so zen,” says Bruce. “I don’t mean to get zuzu here, but … you’ve got the ‘poof’ of separation between leaf and stem. That chemical reaction …
But there are rules to this. These are the Willey Rules:
1. No mendacious use of Photoshop with a leaf spilled into a better background.
2. No manually thropwing the leaves in the air or the employment of a ladder with a delightful rhinestone-clad assistant atop it.
3. No strings or monofilament line attached.
4. And no monkey business like a pet chimp shaking the leaves out of the tree despite the hand-in-hand satisfaction a walk in the woods with a fellow ape would give.
Some rules I learned as an addendum.
You set the camera on manual. You have to. Automatic and it will focus on everything but the leaf in question. And get the leaf in the frame and then focus. Don’t try to focus first. And be prepared to take a lot of shots. And remember that the “season” is only two weeks long. It starts as soon as the still leaf photographers have packed up their tripods. And ends when there are no more leaves on the trees.
Willey’s elusive Great Whale of falling leaf photography. “I started doing this in 2008. I still don’t think I’ve ever gotten a good shot of an aspen.”
Favorite place to take falling leaf photos: Berlin. Because the old buildings create great backdrops, and the wind tunnels between buildings create wonderful swirling conditions, and the way the color of the leaves is juxtaposed against the old architecture.
Compositionally, says Bruce, it’s about getting the leaf in focus, and the rest of the shot out of focus. Best time of day: You want slanted and enchanted light.
When Bruce picked me up, we put our respective daughters in the car and drove to North Lake. That was the bestg part. Forget the falling leaves. We got playing kids.
There was one rock in the stream. Bruce says he’s taken many, many shots of couples and families on the rock. Every photographer has their spots in this area.
Are you afraid I’ll give it away? i asked.
No, he said. There are other rocks.
Bruce’s wife is coming out with a new book about the German explorer Alexander Von Humboldt. The namesake of Humboldt County. Friend of Jefferson. Influence on Muir.
An op/ed by Andrea Wulf in the L.A. Times in 2015 states that in California alone, a county, a bay, a college and a state park all bear his name. He is a founding father of environmentalism, a visionary who predicted manmade climate change as early as 1800.
“How intensely I desire to be a Humboldt,” Muir declared when he was in his 20s. Muir’s famous quotation — “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe” — owes a great deal to Humboldt’s ideas that nothing, not even the tiniest organism, could be looked at on its own. “In this great chain of causes and effects,” Humboldt wrote, “no single fact can be considered in isolation.”
No wonder they got married.
If there’s one thing Bruce loves about photography, it’s the mistakes. “The mistakes in photography are particularly interesting,” he says. “I like mistakes. I’m sloppy in life. I’m not entirely methodical.”
He had worked a week straight before we met. The day before, he had photograped a Pakistani family. They were wearing saris. Beautiful. But nervous. He didn’t get anything for the first thirty minutes. “But then, it was just … they lit up. And they were the most beautiful family in the world.”
Bruce has the patience to wait for and capture such moments. And as he says of falling leaf photography, “You think of a tree as stationary. When a leaf falls … it’s the only time that a tree can fly.”