Capturing a year in the life of the forest | Q&A with Tony Bartholomew

Sphagnum moss on the forest floor with some fallen leaves
Photo credit: Tony Bartholomew©

Capturing a year in the life of the forest

From midnight moth hunters bathed in eerie green light to springtime sap seeping from freshly-cut spruce; a lot goes on in a year in the life of a forest.

We go behind the scenes with photographer Tony Bartholomew to hear about his experiences in capturing a year in the life of the nation’s forests.

Woman stood amongst Dark tree trunks in the heart of the forest
Photo credit: Tony Bartholomew©

What inspired you to work with Forestry England and capture a year in the life of the forest?

I remember as a small boy, I lived in Scotland on the very edge of Dalbeattie Forest. When I was quite small, I once wandered off on my own into the woods. I think I’ve always just loved woodlands and forests, and it’s such a great place for a photographer to work.

I have worked with Forestry England for many years now, nearly all in North Yorkshire and the surrounding areas. Most of my work is editorial - I produce pictures to be issued with press releases for events in the forest, interesting nature stories and wildlife walks. I got to know the team well and it was always great pleasure to get a phone call asking if I could come and do a job because I love working in the forest.

What do forests mean to you?

If you get far enough down a footpath and stand in a quiet forest and listen, there is the birdsong and movement of the trees. It is such a good place to get away, relax and to just enjoy being there. I live on the coast, and can just about see the sea from my window, but given the choice a walk on the beach or the woods, I’d always choose the woods. I don’t know what it is but I always feel quite happy when I’m there. 

There is an emotional attachment to woodlands and forests for a lot of people. The chance to work with Forestry England over the years has increased my awareness of it. Given we’re in the midst of a climate crisis, planting trees is vitally important, not just for commercial reasons but for the environment. We need to plant more trees across the country, and Forestry England is doing its bit to help that.

Small stream running beneath tree trunks and roots
Photo credit: Tony Bartholomew©

What did you aim to achieve with your photos? Did you have an idea or story you wanted to tell?

The aim really was quite simple, more or less reportage rather than art. I’d been up to Dalby to do a job with Petra Young (Funding & Development Manager), when the Rachel Whiteread installation went in, the Nissen Hut. While the then Head of Forestry was giving a speech, I realised the importance and significance of the Centenary. I hadn’t quite realised that it was 100 years since the Forestry Commission was formed and the reasoning behind it, to supply timber to the nation post-war. I thought I can’t let this pass, it’s a good opportunity to get a project off the ground.

So much goes on in the forest now, it’s not just a working forest. People use it for leisure, relaxation or head space. I thought it was such a huge thing to have a go at. I want to share the diversity of things that happen within the forests, from a commercial industrial scale to a leisure scale. A lot of people come to the forest, park their car and have a picnic which is great, but they don’t often realise the other side of the organisation and what it takes to run a forest. I wanted to show as much as possible that goes on and the people that make that happen as well.

Tree sap dripping from a chopped down tree trunk
Photo credit: Tony Bartholomew©

After spending a year in the forest, has your perception of working forests and the people managing them changed at all?

Yes, its changed quite a lot. I was always aware of it because I have been around some of the people that work there. But the scale of it has really impressed me. The numbers and the sizes of things, especially within the timber operation. The machinery they use is so advanced, huge mechanical equipment but it leaves such a small footprint when it goes in to remove trees. I didn’t realise it was such a huge industry and how important it was.

What was the hardest moment to capture in one image?

The picture of the long-tailed tit coming out of the hand of the Bird Ringer. The cameras I use are good cameras but they’re not out of the reach of most people. I try and keep it simple. I knew the speed at which the bird would come out of his hand. I knew technically I had to use an incredibly high shutter speed to freeze that action, that motion.

The camera will fire at 11 frames per second and even that isn’t quick enough. I had to start pressing the shutter before they released the bird. The use of a long lens made sure the background was nice and clean so there were no distractions, just the moment of a bird being released. That was, on a technical photographic point of view, the hardest shot to do. It was an early start as well, that was a 5:30am meet!

Small bird flying out of hands with wings spread
Photo credit: Tony Bartholomew©

Having seen a year in the life of the forest, what was the most interesting or surprising part of your residency?

It was all really interesting to see. I was surprised at the stages of getting a tree from a seed and how Forestry England grow everything from seed, I thought that they just come in as saplings maybe. But when you go to the nursery and see the knowledge of the people there, how they plant and then transfer the plants. That whole process from seed to tree to timber is astonishing. And one of the things that really did surprise me was the science that goes behind it, it is a serious undertaking. You see thousands of tiny seeds in somebody’s hand and think of what that is going to become, it’s incredible to see.

Female forester with chainsaw stood in front of wooden doors
Photo credit: Tony Bartholomew©

How do you hope your photos will make people feel?

I hope the pictures will give people the same pleasure in looking at them as I had when I took them. I hope it inspires people to go out with their own camera, walk in the woods and take their own pictures. I noticed some comments on the Forestry England Instagram feed where someone said "you’ve made me want to go out into the woods with my camera", that’s a good response.

It would be good to inspire young people to either do photography or even to come and work in the forest. One of the pictures I’ve had an awful lot of reaction to within the organisation is a picture of Isobel, a Forest Craftsperson. I asked if I could take a quick portrait of her after finishing a few hours work. I hope that can inspire young women to think, 'I can go and work in the forest', that would be incredible.

What's next for you?

We are all coming out of a strange time. Because most of my work is location or event based, it's obviously been quiet. I’d like to continue to work with Forestry England. I’ve got a few ideas to put to the team. On a professional/personal level, I’d like to use this project to do more of this kind of work. So much of my work is done to a tight brief from a client. With this project I wasn’t given a really strict brief, it was more go and do what you think represents a year in the life of the forest. It was down to me what I shot, I decided where I went, what I did. There was never a pressure on me which is unusual these days.

Mushrooms on mossy log in darkness
Photo credit: Tony Bartholomew©

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