The Leaf Seeker: Jeff Folger
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.”