"Sugar magnolia, blossoms blooming, head’s all empty and I don’t care.
" While I love a handful of songs by the Grateful Dead, I haven’t earned the title of “Deadhead.” Nonetheless, I hummed this melody every day for a couple of months when a magnolia tree near my home captured my interest. During my daily commute, I would pass the tree, and “Sugar Magnolia” would pop into my mind. This cycle began one January morning. I set out on a walk, with the goal of visualizing beauty before I photographed it. Consequently, I explored familiar territory from a new perspective, and thought more critically before snapping photos. In fact, I walked a mile before I raised my camera to my eye.
After taking my first shot, I felt less inhibited, and went on to make a variety of images. I continued walking, and taking photos for two hours before returning home. Excited to view my work, but also thirsty, I grabbed a glass of water while the images loaded onto my laptop. As my wife walked past the screen, she stopped and exclaimed, “wow, that is a beautiful photo!” Joining her, I saw the first image I had made that morning.
I liked the image right away, but I wasn’t sure if I loved it. Usually, I wait to judge my work. If I don’t wait, my memory of a scene blends together with the photograph, and my ability to be objective is limited. Maybe it isn’t objectivity I seek, as much as the ability to be critical and honest with myself about my work. It is easy to be smitten with an image shortly after creating it, but flaws are revealed over time. Whether those flaws are endearing, or distracting, is a question only a cognizant viewer can answer.
Over time, the photo of the magnolia tree carved out a place in my heart. At some point, I realized that I wanted to build a brief photo essay around the image. I decided to do so by visiting the same tree, with the aim of capturing the blossoms at different stages in their lifetime. In the first image, the earliest blossoms burst forth on a moody winter morning, so I wanted to convey the bounty and beauty of spring in the second image.
Bundles of blooms.
Sunlight poured over crowds of blossoms. Earlier in the season, each flower was an island in a sea of budding branches. Now, the blossoms gathered together in groups to revel in the spring sunlight. Sweet fragrances graced the air, and bees hummed from flower to flower. In addition to a myriad of flowers, the first leaves were making their appearance. The tree was hinting at its next transition.
I returned with my camera, but I struggled to capture the exchange of blossoms for leaves. Then, on a calm spring morning, the sun showed me the way. As it rose higher in the sky, sunlight streamed across selected regions of the tree. Rich highlights and shadows were cast upon the tree, and I found a single magnolia blossom enjoying the spotlight.
A single flower takes the spotlight.
With the images in place, conjuring up the words to accompany this series was my final challenge. The truth is, this photo essay is very simple. It is about the beauty of magnolia blossoms. I thought of writing about the passage of time, or some other profound topic, but in the end that didn’t seem to fit. As I stepped back from the pedestal I was trying to climb, I realized that being true to my art was more important than digging for profundity. Not every well is deep; sometimes simple beauty is enough. I hope you enjoyed Sugar Magnolia’s blossoms.