Daniel Ballesteros documents California’s redwoods, a species with roots going back 250 million years

Through a “cumbersome and extremely rewarding”, the photographer highlights the trees’ beauty and draws parallels between their enduring nature and his own family history.

4 March 2021

Daniel Ballesteros’ latest series Gold Leaf Forest may seem simplistic on the surface – it depicts a vast array of different redwood trees – but when you look a little deeper, there is more than one story being told here. First off, the redwood is one of the largest and longest-living species on the planet. There is evidence of them existing during the age of the dinosaurs, 250 million years ago. One of the reasons they have been around for so long is because of the way the tree propagates. New life is born most successfully from shoots springing from the tree’s burls and in this way, new shoots grow when an old tree dies, burns or is felled.

Daniel is a photographer based in the Bay Area and has become something of an expert on the subject. He details how “one genetic line may live on up to 20,000 years” and how the trees contribute to water, carbon and nutrient networks once their roots are established. Astonishingly, the trees also have a defence system and warnings are passed from tree to tree when harmful insects or diseases are detected. “The survival of the forest is based on this communion, which scientists are still learning about,” explains Daniel. Gold Leaf Forest is at its heart a celebration of the redwood.

It may sound simplistic, but the photographer’s eye has always been drawn to trees. “I got hooked on the camera’s ability to deem something as worthy of seeing simply by placing a frame around it,” he says. In his life so far, Daniel has lived in a number of areas including Santa Fe, Chicago and New York, and in all these places, he’s paid particular attention to the trees. When he moved to the Bay Area, however, and once he started learning more about the resourceful redwoods and the way they live, he recognised metaphors in their nature and started to draw parallels with his own family history and explorations into identity.

“Much of my work has been inspired by my family history,” says Daniel. As a second-generation Filipino-American whose family began assimilating with white American culture in the 1940s, the photographer wanted to know more about where he came from. “My Filipino grandfather became a citizen of the US through his service in the Second World War and never spoke about his past in the Philippines or his time in California after the war, to his wife or his kids.”

His two children, Daniel’s father and aunt, both identified more with their Polish heritage because “those were the people they knew,” Daniel explains So when he as a young man showed an interest in his Filipino heritage, there was little information to go on. As a result, he used photography to fill in the gaps. “I learned how to make wet collodion glass plate pictures to manufacture a history where my family couldn’t find answers,” he says. This is a technique widely explored in Daniel’s previous series Midwest Filipino, which delves into the idea of “inventing one’s own culture in place of accepting the one handed down”.

GalleryDaniel Ballesteros: Gold Leaf Forest (Copyright © Daniel Ballesteros, 2020)

Time, memory and identity intersect with one another in Daniel’s thoughtful work. In the case of Gold Leaf Forest, the photographer focuses on the meaning of growth patterns both in the conceptual and technical sense. In other words, Daniel elucidates, “Once I began researching [redwood trees] and learning that they actually share genetics with their ancestors, I knew there was nothing more to explore beyond the visual awe.” In turn, the images foster the photographer’s deep connections with not only the forest but the natural world, and he hopes the photos allow others to share his vision of these places too.

His process tends to involve venturing out into the world with his camera in tow, and seeing what catches his eye. Once he’s taken a healthy amount of images, he edits down the series to make into large pigment prints on archival watercolour paper. Then applies gold leaf to all the sky/background portions of the print. “The result,” Daniel tells us, “is that the background shimmers while the matte surface of the print stays muted.” The gold leaf sticks to a layer of brick-red paint which covers the print, resulting in a “cumbersome and extremely rewarding” process. He hopes that one day, these photographs or similar ones can be useful in the fight for environmental protection, and has already established connections with The Save the Redwoods League in California.

All in all, Gold Leaf Forest is a testament to how “humans represent a small portion of a greater natural world that requires all of us to live in collaboration with each other to continue on.” As for the future, the photographer will continue documenting the beauty of redwood trees; this time, through a cyanotype project. A reflection of his feelings towards 2020 and the pandemic in general, a redwood forest printed in blue. Gold Leaf Forest is set to exhibit at the Levy Gallery in Albuquerque, New Mexico this October.

GalleryDaniel Ballesteros: Gold Leaf Forest (Copyright © Daniel Ballesteros, 2020)

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Daniel Ballesteros: Gold Leaf Forest (Copyright © Daniel Ballesteros, 2020)

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About the Author

Jyni Ong

Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor.

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