The Leaf Seeker: 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.
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