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Interview: Elaine Ling on Baobab Tree of Generations from photo-eye EDITIONS

photo-eye EDITIONS Interview: Elaine Ling on Baobab Tree of Generations from photo-eye EDITIONS photo-eye Gallery is very proud to announce its fifth photo-eye EDITION publication, Baobab: Tree of Generations by Hong Kong born photographer Elaine Ling, as well as a corresponding exhibition by the same title at our Bookstore + Project Space. photo-eye EDITIONS are exquisite hand-crafted Limited Edition portfolios of contemporary photography created at photo-eye Studios in Santa Fe.
photo-eye EDITIONS – Baobab: Tree of Generations by Elaine Ling

photo-eye Gallery is very proud to announce its fifth photo-eye EDITIONS publication, Baobab: Tree of Generations by Hong Kong born photographer Elaine Ling, as well as a corresponding exhibition by the same title at our Bookstore + Project Space. photo-eye EDITIONS are exquisite hand-crafted Limited Edition portfolios of contemporary photography created at photo-eye Studios in Santa Fe. For the project, Ling traveled extensively in Africa — including expeditions to Madagascar and the province of Limpopo — to photograph the monumental tree. Recently, photo-eye Gallery's Lucas Shaffer sat down with Ling to discuss the series.

Lucas Shaffer:      Where did the inspiration for the project come from? What was your introduction to the baobab like?

Elaine Ling:      I travel to go to deserts. I hadn’t
Baobab #25, 2010 – Elaine Ling
been to the Sahara for a while, so I decided let's go to the Sahara. I picked the country of Mali.

On the way there, there was really nothing to see except occasionally a big tree sticking out all by itself. I said, "What are those?" and my guide said, "Oh, those are Baobab trees. Everybody photographs them." My guide was introduced to me by a friend in New York and told me: “Oh, Gene photographed that one and Joanne photographed that one." Then I said, "Oh my God, what am I going to do?" After a while, I decided, "You know what? I'm going to photograph them, too." That's how it started.

Then I started to research; I was interested in this tree. It turns out that it's the second biggest tree in the world. The first is the redwood. I decided to follow it and that took me to South Africa in the province of Limpopo. The rest of them, the other six, live in Madagascar – I would have to go to Madagascar too.

LS:      How many times did you travel to Africa?

EL:      For three years, three summers 2008, 2009, and 2010.

Elaine Ling
LS:      Once you decided that this would be a project, how did you go about finding the other trees?

EL:      You know they're there. You go to that area, you look at the forest, and there's this one big tree with no leaves on it. You go towards it.

Some of the trees are famous, and have been written up. But sometimes, you go look for them and you ask somebody, "Do you know this tree?" And they all go, "No. No, no, no." Finally, you find it at the end of the road. I'd say, "Well, it's right there." They go, "Oh." Sometimes people are just not aware of the trees around them — it's just something that's there for them.

LS:      Does a single person or family own the tree, or does the community collectively own it?

EL:      I don't know if anybody owns them. They know what to do with the tree so it won't kill the tree, like with the bark — they would take strips of it and leave healthy strips so the tree doesn't die. They can use the bark to build the roofs of their houses and they eat the fruit. These trees sustain them.

LS:      That’s amazing. When you say the trees sustain them, are you talking about the family, or an entire community? How many people do the trees usually support?

EL:      There's nothing that's clear-cut. A tree in a community can serve a bunch of houses, it's not quite clear. There are no fences between your house and my house. The biggest tree in Madagascar I think belonged to the village because the whole village was there when I made my photograph. I had to get permission. I had to meet this medicine man and I had to give him some form of alcohol, some matches, and some money.

He goes to the tree, he does a little ritual and he comes to me and he says, "The tree is ready to receive you." Then I was able to photograph. The whole village was watching me. I think that the revenue that they collect for this tree sustains the village.

LS:      Did you have trouble getting access to any of the trees?
Baobab #31, 2010 – Elaine Ling

EL:      No, not at all. The communities were all very friendly and sometimes when I saw a whole bunch of little, little kids — some of the images have several little kids about two-feet high around the tree — I can't tell them to go away and take one. I let them all stay there because it's a very much a community thing. I got to know the communities where the trees are. You have to spend a bit of time with them, you can't just rush up and take a picture, that kind of thing.

LS:      How long does that usually take you to make an image?

EL:      It all depends. One time I saw this shepard and he wanted to have his sheep in the picture, but he had to go get his sheep. I said, "Oh, great. Go get your sheep." Half an hour later he got his sheep, but he couldn't get the sheep to go under the tree. One of the pictures has the sheep in the corner. Things like that. It could take a couple of hours, at least.

LS:      I'm sure. What goes into the decision about who gets photographed with the tree and why?

EL:      Sometimes they're there already. I wanted to include the different generations. The grandfather, grandmother, the mother with the baby, the boy and the man. I just wanted to show that this tree has accomplished all these generations.

LS:      What was important to you about that?

EL:      I'm very impressed with a tree that's a thousand years old.

People sit under the tree, first of all, because it's shaded. It's hot in Africa, so you love to sit under a big shade tree and everybody goes and sits under the biggest tree. Somehow, it's a little bit of a family place.

LS:      It's almost like a community center, the way you're framing it.

EL:      Yes, it is. Because they live outdoors most of the time.

Baobab, Tree of Generations #26, 2010 – Elaine Ling

LS:      What about the decision to shoot large format camera with Type 55 Polaroid? Where did that come from?

EL:      I'm a four-by-five Polaroid Girl. I've been using Polaroid 55 for fifteen years. Since my project started with my stone book in 1997, that's what I use, that's what I can carry. I don't process it in the field. I just pull it through the rollers and process it at home. If I do want to give somebody a picture I can. I have the option of giving them a picture.

LS:      Do people usually ask for pictures? Is that something that's common?

EL:      In Mongolia, I gave them pictures because I photographed the family and they don't have cameras. They don't have pictures. In their house, they have a revere area by the mirror where they stick in family portraits, family pictures. I usually like to give them a picture and they add it to the collection. It's kind of cute.

LS:      That's great that you're image is a part of that.

EL:      But the Madagascar people, no, I don't think that they were into the pictures.

LS:      Is there anything else that you like about using Polaroid?

EL:      The film is amazing. The film handles highlight, shadow, it handles everything. I used to use Tri-X, T-Max, all this stuff. Used to do the Ansel Adams thing, two developers, and make a print. Then one day I took one of these Polaroid negatives that looks like it's really thin. I put it in and made a print. One developer. Boom. The print is gorgeous.

Baobab, Tree of Generations #13, 2009 – Elaine Ling

LS:      It seems like you're photographing in challenging situations just looking at that bright, bright African sun in your images.

EL:      Yeah, and with Polaroid you can shoot in bright sun. Who cares? The trees don't care. I started shooting at high noon because everybody was doing quiet light. I learned that lesson when I was photographing the Namib Desert.

I went very early in the morning, in the quiet light, to photograph these houses with the sand dunes inside. They said that at noontime there would be a truck going by that sells coffee. I go out there, I'm the only person there. I was working, taking all these very nice pictures and it's almost noon. I thought I'd pack up and hike out to the road and get a coffee.

On the way I saw this slat, the slat shadows of the broken roof on the sand in the house. I just stopped. "Wow, my God." I took this picture, and of course missed the truck for the coffee. But then I thought, "You know what? Everything happens at noon. I don't have to get up at six anymore."

LS:      Does this particular project mean something special to you? I think anybody that invests three years of their time, obviously there's something there for them. What kept you going back?

EL:      I think once I buy into a project, I get obsessed with it. The thing is, it feels slow for me. I know where the other trees are but it takes a bit of saving money, planning, to go to a country like that — getting a driver, getting a guide and everything to do it. Three years I committed myself to this tree.

LS:      It seems very complete. I also think it's excellent that it's all in Africa.

EL:      Yeah. I thought, "Wouldn't it be kind of fun to show that the tree is somewhere else?" There are a few Baobab trees in Australia. But that's not the idea. The idea was they're born in Madagascar. That's where they came from. I'm not interested to photograph other trees, I don't do trees usually, I just don't.

LS:      How do you see the baobab portfolio sitting in with the rest of your body of work? 

EL:      It's a highlight, definitely. The trees are the highlight of my photographic work.

Baobab: Tree of Generations is currently on view at the photo-eye Bookstore + Project Space through November 7th. 

For more information about the EDITIONS portfolio, the exhibition, and to purchase prints, please contact Lucas Shaffer at 505-988-5152 x 114 or

View the EDITION

View the portfolio on the Photographer's Showcase