By Lance Oditt
Editor’s note: It is difficult to wrap one’s head around the idea of a single tree that covers more than 100 acres, yet that is Pando, the world’s largest tree, an aspen clone with tens of thousands of genetically identical branches. And if it’s hard to imagine, think how difficult it would be to make a comprehensive photographic survey of it, yet that’s what Lance Oditt, lead photographer of the Pando Photographic Survey and his team are trying to do. In part one of this three-part series, Oditt described Pando, its importance, and the idea of a photo survey. In this article, he confronts the many technical challenges inherent in a project of this magnitude, and the partnerships and coalition building that are necessary to get something like this started.
Traversing A Twisted Family Tree
I do not consider myself a “technical” photographer and so it should come as no surprise that the inspiration for the Pando Photographic Survey did not come from a love of tech, nor the novelty of Virtual Reality (VR), even though we’re using both. Rather, it comes from a family tree twisted by disability. Circumstances that informed a kitchen table idiom about navigating the rocky voids between the world you operate in and a world that seems to be more carefully crafted for others. Dialogues about deafness, blindness, debilitating physical disabilities. Discussions tinted in shadows left by those lost to mental illness. Language sometimes hard to decode; trying to interpret those muted by neurocognitive disorders. My worldview and, later, my sense for wilderness informed by those who could not join me and how I might share my experiences. 360 and VR, are a way to share those experiences.
Out of Flatland
Work to understand how to capture the tree began July 2019. Over the course of 11 days, I worked on 2-D and 360 techniques and ran calculations to estimate what the effort to capture the entirety of the tree might entail. Some blurry math from those sun poisoned days. To shoot Pando in 2-D, I estimated it would require 8-10 shots per location for 11,000 locations. Working 40 hours a week, a 2-D effort would mean about 11 months of shooting, in addition to about two years of work to stitch all the images together. Problems with 2-D? A high margin for error and the need for both land survey crews and photographers trained in high accuracy stitching. Moreover, new growth in Pando is rapid, up to 3 feet a year. The sheer volume of growth in that timeframe would likely render the record outdated the moment it was published. With 360-degree cameras, however, those 11,000 locations could feasibly be shot in a matter of weeks during a single summer when the tree’s vitality would be on display for scientists to study and the world to enjoy. Better yet, studies in recreational science indicate that immersive experiences are critical to promoting a sense of connection, agency, and shared responsibility. The result of that sweltering July? 360-degree imagery displayed via any number of media devices has the potential to provide anyone, anywhere an immersive experience with Pando.
Click on the square within the circle on the image below to immerse yourself in a full-screen sample of the 360-degree imagery of Pando.
While developing the methods detailed above, I sent out a post of my work to which Nick Mustoe, Forester at Fishlake National Forest, replied. I realized I had spoken to Nick once before as a “rando-pando” call into Fishlake he fielded when I inquired about the rules on conducting the large scale work that I had in mind. Intrigued, I messaged Nick. We exchanged numbers and agreed to meet in nearby Richfield to talk about my efforts and my aspirations. At a personal level, myself and Nick shared the cultural geography of being Midwesterners, which made for great conversations. It was from this conversation everything else flowed.
Scientists who have conducted rapid field estimates suggest Pandos’ massive, underlying root structure could, if laid end to end, span 12,000 miles—half way around the world! By way of analogy, the lattice of interconnections that makes Pando possible is also how our efforts on this project are made possible. Each connection working to balance energy, to imagine and re-imagine the effort. Through Nick’s wife Megan, I met Elaine Street of the Richfield Visitor Center, who was seeking material and ideas to help visitors understand Pando. Elaine introduced me to Richfield Mayor Dave Ogden, a fellow Pando lover and Bristlecone Pine enthusiast, who has worked tirelessly to help Friends of Pando engage the community and promote public understanding of the tree and the work we are trying to accomplish.
Through the power of social media, I met Nancy Brunswick after seeing her talk about Pando on YouTube.
It was Nancy who suggested I reach out to Dan Child at the Richfield Office at Fishlake National Forest. Dan and Nick both suggested I reach out to Cody, who heads up recreation in the Fishlake Basin and was involved in the installation of fencing around a 15-acre section of the tree, below the road that bisects Pando, to help shield it from deer.
Through Paul Rogers, I met Jason Dilworth of Designers & Forests, who shared my love of bourbon and moonlight walks in Pando. It was Jason who wrote the first letter of support for the project. What’s more, he and his wife Megan Urban , being associate professors of graphic design at SUNY Fredonia, invited me to give a workshop about Pando during Fredonia’s annual Earth Day speaker series. It was also Paul Rogers also introduced me to Simone Friedman of EJF Philanthropies, who made a generous donation to help pay student stipends and post-production costs and who has been an invaluable sounding board. Lisa at Lensrentals.com led me to SJ who led me to Rich, the best emotional support Canadian in the business. The entire lensrentals.com team are working tirelessly with us, night and day across their organizations and thousands of miles to do something that has never been done before. Their support allowed us to hire 3 more students and enabled us to work at a clip of 10-15 acres per day. Last but not least, to master the model, we needed a seasoned and fearless Science Advisor. Nick Mustoe recommended I meet Ryan Thalman of Snow College who holds a PhD in Chemistry from the University of Colorado, is a National Science Foundation Grant recipient and is lovingly referred to by his students as “Professor Ryan.” When he is not building systems that can measure air pollutants at concentrations of parts per trillion, Ryan also teaches courses on Geospatial Information Systems and, true to his interdisciplinarian approach, also teaches Snow College’s innovative Natural Resources Program. It has been Ryan and myself building bridges between art and science, crossing back and forth to manifest the project, to build a cogent and manageable framework to create the record and to gather together a group of students, citizen scientists and volunteers that range in age from 13 to 69.
Just before the work started, Ryan Thalman and I discussed the project in a radio interview with MidUtah Radio.
The Map (Not the Territory)
I have sometimes struggled to find the right words to describe the conceptual, intellectual, and logistical challenges of this complex project. The simple description goes like this: Go to the location, mark the location with a GPS, position the camera, trigger the shutter, walk beyond the camera’s gaze, wait for the sound, take note, move seven meters east or west and repeat. But it’s much more than that.
As has been said many times, a map is not the territory. The territory in this case is 5 layers of meta-data, captured along a steep fault zone located at 9,000 feet elevation, where volcanic formations twist ankles and winds have thrown 16-pound camera rigs around like confetti. The first layer, the specific location itself. In the map above, one of 8,600 points that describe Pando’s 106-acre expanse. The second layer is the image itself, shot in 360-degrees, captured in RAW, at 8K resolution. The third layer consists of the “runs” and “routes” that run east and west so the tree can be studied and experienced from every angle. The fourth layer is a region of the tree color-coded in the above map and the final layer is how each location, image, run, route, and section form the larger picture that is Pando.
The Forest and the Tree
As I write, the team has covered over 40 of the 75-90 acres we hope to record. In the next installment, I will delve into the experience of the effort, the human geography of the tree and those who are taking part. In the meantime, if you would like to learn more about Pando and how you can support our work, please visit friendsofpando.org.
Lance Oditt is a fine art and documentary photographer based in Seattle, Washington. Lance is the Lead Photographer for the Pando Photographic Survey. In addition to this work, Lance is the Photographer-at-Large for the Western Aspen Alliance and Executive Director of Accessibility for Quiet Parks International. His work documenting the endangered Pando Tree has appeared in Digital Photographer, Professional Photographers of America, Discover Magazine, PBS Newshour, The New York Times, Topos Magazine and Nature. His photographic works have been shown at Microsoft (Redmond, WA), the APA San Francisco’s “Something Personal” exhibit (2018) and have been commended and shown online by the National Forest Foundation. You can follow Lance’s journey and learn more about his conservation work on Instagram @studio4760north or, his studio website studio4760north.com and drop him a line.