The Leaf Seeker: Jeff Folger
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.