All photos/art by Jeff Folger
It’s the church steeple that causes Jeff Folger, a.k.a. Jeff “Foliage,” Yankee‘s compulsive foliage blogger, to spin his red Silverado pickup truck around the town green of Brooklyn, Connecticut. The steeple is an unusual one, with a rectangular base giving way to a mansard-roof cupola covered in copper sheathing. And more to our purpose, it sits smack behind a giant sugar maple, its leaves lit up scarlet on one side.
Folger gets out of the pickup and strides across the green, Canon EOS-1D Mark II in his hands. He stands, he crouches, he swivels the camera to “landscape,” then “portrait”; zooms, focuses, walks a few paces to one side, then the other. In the process, he tries every permutation of “subject: church and tree,” looking for that one perfect shot that will truly bring alive the spirit of fall foliage in New England.
Today we’re not having the best of luck. It’s late in the season, and as we drive down to eastern Connecticut from Folger’s home in Salem, Massachusetts, the leaves along the highway are muted. That made the scarlet sugar maple all the more of a find. He walks around to the front of the church to examine a second, scraggly little maple, almost completely bare except for a few orange leaves clinging to the top. It’s the kind of tree you wouldn’t even notice. But zooming in, Folger snaps off a couple of close-ups.
When he pops his SD card into the computer back in the truck, it’s clear that he’s got the shot. Using a shallow depth of field as he shot the big maple, Folger has focused on the leaves in the foreground, framing the blurry suggestion of the unusual steeple behind them. And there it is: the essence of New England fall in one little rectangle. I’ve learned the first rule of foliage photography: Just because trees stand still, that doesn’t mean you don’t have to stalk them. “Most people will see a shot and say ‘I’ll grab that,'” Jeff tells me, “but a photographer will go explore.”
Folger’s weekly foliage blog is more than just a catalogue of color around the region; it’s a way for him to explore New England through his own unique lens. “Most people don’t see the pictures around them all the time. I walk around seeing pictures,” he says, popping the card out of the computer. “That doesn’t mean it’s always like ‘Oh my God, there it is!’ but it’s a matter of seeing possibilities.”
The possibility of finding the next great fall shot is what has compelled Folger to shoot, by his count, some 50,000 foliage photographs over the last five autumns. And yet, several times a week, he still saddles up his truck, laptop balanced on his cup holders, GPS on the dash, digital voice recorder dangling from the rear-view mirror. At one point, I ask him if he feels he’s obsessed. He thinks a moment before hanging his head and mumbling, “Yeah, I guess so.”
Folger isn’t your average leaf peeper. A 22-year military veteran and recent New England transplant, he received his first camera, a Rollei, when he was just 8 or 9, growing up in Erie, Pennsylvania. His father, an Army Air Corps veteran and engineer, used to take his son to a local construction site to take pictures of the equipment.
Folger joined the Air Force in 1981 as a crew member on an early-warning radar plane. Most of his missions were drug interdiction efforts in the United States, but he also flew in South America, the Middle East, and Europe. Along the way, he kept taking photos. It wasn’t until he left the service in August 2003, however, that he considered photography as a profession.
After he’d resettled in New England to be close to family, a transition assistance program at Hanscom Air Force Base in eastern Massachusetts set him up shooting a couple of weddings. He found he was good at it. “I’ve been in some pretty high-stress situations [in the Air Force], and this was just one more high-stress situation,” he says. He began shooting weddings around New England, often accompanied by his wife, Lisa. In his off hours, he photographed sailboats and lighthouses around Salem and Marblehead.
Then one day in September 2003, while visiting his sister in New Hampshire, Folger took a shot of an American flag on a pole surrounded by bright-red swamp maples. Yankee Magazine published it in a newsletter. That was enough to create a new passion. The following year, he submitted more than 300 shots to Yankee‘s annual fall foliage photo competition. To his surprise, he won with a moody shot of a cemetery monument backed by red-leaved maples in Dover, New Hampshire.
At home in Salem, where he and Lisa live with his father, Folger clicks through dozens of shots with a near-perfect recall of where and when each was taken. One of his favorites is a sugar maple lying on its side in Chocorua Lake in Tamworth, New Hampshire. “I can remember everything about that shot. It was October 12, maybe 13, 2003, at 3:30 or 4 in the afternoon,” he says. As in Brooklyn, he didn’t see a great shot at first, until he moved around the lake and saw a rock in the middle of the water and a boathouse on shore, which clicked perfectly with the bright-red leaves reflected in the water. “All the elements have to be there for a great shot,” he says.
More than just the composition of the photo, it’s capturing a memory of that day–one of his first road trips with Lisa–that makes the picture a favorite. “That’s one thing I like about this kind of photography. It’s capturing stuff that’s just never going to be there again,” he says.
Although all photographs freeze one moment, foliage pictures particularly record the movement of time. A tree can look completely different in different years–or even on different days. A year after shooting the Chocorua maple, Folger returned to find the beautiful tree dead. Recently, he revisited the swamp maples that he’d shot for his first Yankee award and found they were gone.
As we talk, it becomes clear that Folger isn’t so much obsessed with foliage as with memory. He took his camera with him when he proposed to Lisa at Cape Neddick Light, off the coast of York, Maine, the site of their first date. Putting the camera in the hands of a stranger, he asked him to keep taking photos while he proposed.
“She hates those pictures more than anything,” Folger admits. “She was fighting a cold and she had tears, and here I am holding the ring in front of her. But I just like capturing every moment in life. I don’t want to forget them. I want to look back over the years and remember a cold November 10 day in 2005, with the spray coming up off the rocks.” When they married the next year at a drive-up wedding chapel in Las Vegas, he set up the camera on a tripod outside the limousine door.
That drive to capture every moment has extended to Folger’s yearly fall trips around New England. Over the past five years, he estimates that he’s driven some 15,000 miles around the region–rarely shooting the same scene twice. I’m not surprised to hear that as we cut across the middle of Connecticut and Folger talks about checking the color in the Litchfield Hills, two hours away. He and Lisa take turns showing each other favorite places around the region, or set off for terra incognita, with Jeff driving and Lisa charting a course through fields or along logging roads.
As they travel, the experience is as much about finding hidden parts of the region as it is hunting peak color. “If the kids are bored in the backseat because you’re looking for peak leaves, that’s sad,” Folger remarks. “Did you see a historical marker or did you see a museum? Trees for the sake of trees is boring.”
Case in point: As we drive along Route 66 southeast of Hartford, we pass an irresistible sign for “PumpkinTown USA,” an oversized farmstand with a small population of scarecrows in a mock frontier village. Pulling over, Folger wastes no time squatting in a grove of gourds and snapping off a few pictures of some exceptionally cute children picking out their Halloween pumpkins. As he shoots, he chats with the mother of one of the kids about his blog. Shy as a child, Folger has found that traveling with camera in hand gives him a ready excuse to talk with anyone.
In his travels he regularly checks in with a cast of New England characters–Karen at the Peacham Store in Vermont, the waitresses at the Chicken Coop Restaurant in Mexico, Maine–to keep track of color. Then there are the virtual leaf-peepers who follow him on the Yankee blog or his regular Twitter update. “Several people on the blog forum have said that they’re seeing New England through my eyes,” he notes. He’s gotten e-mails from as far away as Sweden and Alaska asking for advice on finding the best fall color.
Back in the truck, we start to see brighter color after we take a wrong turn and head south toward the coast. But much to my chagrin, Folger turns around, set on exploring the hills to the west. Like a food critic who has to taste every dish but rarely gets to finish a meal, he races along the highway in hopes of finding one last swath of good fall color in the state’s western corner. “Unfortunately, I’m doing something I tell others not to do,” he says sheepishly. “I drive all these miles so other people can know where to go.”
The light is fading as we finally, after six hours in the truck, drive up Route 44 through the Litchfield Hills, but it’s clear that the foliage has passed peak here as well. Folger sighs at the close of another foliage season. “There goes my popularity for another year,” he says.
Even so, he doesn’t give up. Passing a weatherbeaten sugar shack beside a pond, he makes a note into the digital recorder that it might make a good subject for next year. “If I happen someday to be out on the west side of Connecticut in the morning, in the fall, I’ll take a look again,” he says, already anticipating another possible memory.
Jeff’s Photo Tips