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Gustaf Emanuelsson: Oak Photographer

Latest in our series on Oak Artists is an interview with Swedish photographer Gustaf Emanuelsson, whose photos of the Oak of Kvill were featured in our reposting of Stefan Foconi’s article. Gustaf is working on a long term project documenting the giant trees of Sweden, most of which are oaks. He is especially interested in the cultural history of the forest in Sweden, in which the oak plays a special part due to its value as building material and hence its vulnerability to indiscriminate felling. His photographs, which seek to capture the beauty and mystic power of the majestic trees, can be viewed in the associated photo gallery. (When viewing the photo gallery, click on the magnifying glass icon top right and use the arrows at the bottom to scroll through the images. 

What is your background as a photographer?

Gustaf Emanuelsson: My father who was a photographer started teaching me 15 years ago, since then my photography has developed more and more. It could become a full-time job, but I’m also a graphic designer, and want to keep my passion for photography. So I usually don’t do commission work, but work for a Swedish image agency called Folio. I love analog, and shot a lot of medium format film.

Oak Gustaf Emanuelsson
© Gustaf Emanuelsson

What made you create this project? Why the interest in large trees?

I think my interest started when I was young and for the first time saw a really old oak. It was on the northern tip of an island called Öland, the famous “Trolleken” (meaning Troll Oak). I was blown away by the thought of its age and all it must have been though. And the beauty! I have always loved the forest and the culture surrounding it in Sweden. All the old stories, and how people lived in it a long time ago. I started to read more books on the topic, and the old trees always had a special place in the stories, from curing diseases to spiritual meanings. Then I moved to the southern parts of Sweden (where most of the oaks are) and found a book that was about the oldest trees in Scania (the southernmost tip of Sweden). I started to visit some of the more obvious trees, but also started to map out locations of the trees that were harder to find. It can be a real challenge to find a tree only by a short description of the area in a book. I also started to visit the areas owned or previously owned by the nobility in Sweden. In the 1700s, the Swedish king declared all oaks to be the property of the state, accept those on the grounds of the nobles. He cut down over 75 % of the oaks in Sweden for export and building war ships. So you find most of the old oaks on land owned by the noble class.

I also wanted to create images that were real, but that at the same time had some mystic feeling, not just documenting, but trying to give a feeling of timelessness.

Why do oaks feature so prominently? Does this reflect your particular interest, or are most giant trees in Sweden oaks?

Most of the trees in the southern parts of Sweden are big oaks and beeches. I think oaks are the most beautiful trees! But my plan for the project is also to include other species. I have tried to document a lot of big spruces

and pines, but they are more of a challenge since they tend to grow in the forest, and not alone as most of the big oaks in Sweden. I want to separate the tree from the background, and in the forest, fog is pretty much the only way, and it takes time to be in the right place at the right time.

Oak Gustaf E
© Gustaf Emanuelsson

What challenges does this project pose? Finding the trees, traveling to them? Technical/artistic challenges when photographing large trees?

Some of what I mentioned before. But researching and finding the trees is the hardest part. Being at the right place at the right time is second hardest. But I also tend to find some trees that have not been listed, for example the huge oak in Börringe: its circumference is over 8.5 m and it’s the most beautiful oak tree I have seen. It grows like a bonsai tree. It’s also hard to get the tree separated from its surroundings, so that it stands out. I try to shoot the trees with large or medium format film to get the right feeling, but also to be able to do large prints. 

Future plans for this project?

Since I can’t do it full time, my plan is to give it a couple of years more, and then try to make it to an exhibition and a book, maybe to team up with a good writer and add some of the old stories about the trees and their history.

Sunset Gustaf E.
© Gustaf Emanuelsson

You can view more of Gustaf's work on his blog