Peter Vagt’s book features Morton Arboretum’s greatness

Twenty years, 84 pictures. That’s how long it took photographer Peter Vagt to get all the images that showcase the majesty of the landscape that is the Morton Arboretum — now 100 years old.

To celebrate the arboretum’s centennial, the former Chicago-area resident who is now living in Nashville produced the book “Light Through the Trees: Photographs at the Morton Arboretum,” a tribute to the “tree museum.”

Within its more than 100 pages, Vagt, a retired geologist, takes readers through the seasons within the 1,700-acre public garden with pictures of vivid color, and tranquil scenes of nature that look as if you’re peering at something fairytale-like. Vagt said he walked sections of the 16 miles of arboretum trails every year to capture his portrait of trees. The area was a refuge for him away from the city and became his studio for his art. The book is about timing, practice and is an encouraging treatise on trees, “hoping to inspire others to spend more time experiencing nature where they live.”

“These are ones that to me, are special,” Vagt said. “I liken it to golfing. If you’re a golfer, you work on improving your game, and once in a while, you hit a hole-in-one. Most golfers do and if someone asks ‘tell me how you did that?’ They can’t give you a formula. It’s something that if you’re really serious and you’re really working at it, once in a while, everything comes together. And it’s perfect. For me, all the pictures in this book, it’s almost as if they were a gift to me while I was trying to take a picture. They just came out of the universe somehow and I got it. It kind of separates from me and I go ‘wow, I’m so fortunate to have been able to take that picture.’”

We spoke with Vagt, a native of Owatonna, Minnesota, and Wheaton College alumnus, about his work on the page and among the leaves. The interview has been condensed and edited.

Q: What do you think the magic of The Morton Arboretum is? What keeps us coming back?

A: There are so many things. Joy Morton invested money and research into trees. They did research into how to get trees that were more hardy that would live in Chicago and be good tree plantings for people to use. Thousands of acres and part of it that is designated to be well-tended gardens and wild woodlands. The combination of those is really neat. It’s got that combination of a lot of different trails.

And they have a lot of people that volunteer there, who really make it a wonderful place to be. When my wife has a plant that has got a bug on it, you can take it in to their research center, and they can tell you what it is and how to fix it. They are a resource for trees and arboreal things.

Part of the reason that I resonate so much with being there is thousands of generations have lived in this area and lived right there among those same brooks that I walk along and appreciate, it goes way back.

Q: You said “Cathedral Pines” is your most successful, recognizable Morton Arboretum image, sales-wise. What have people told you about it through the years?

A: My pictures have been in the store at the arboretum since 1999. I started taking pictures and the first one I took was Cathedral Pines. Coming out of college, that was one of the places that I would go to because it was a very peaceful, quiet place that you could just walk into it silent, with that piney smell and the soft ground. It was like going into a cathedral for me. Other people told me it’s a feeling of peace, timelessness; it’s almost like you don’t have to do meditation when you’re there, you go into that mood in this place.

That was the challenge of this book: How can I instill into my pictures what I’m feeling when I’m there because to me that’s what art is. I figured then other people who love the arboretum will see that picture and go ‘Yeah, that’s it. That’s what I love about this place. I want to take that home.’

Q: You mention photographers Eliot Porter and Paul Caponigro as your influencers. What is the link between them and your work?

A: I wanted my pictures to be more than simply a physical representation of ‘there’s those trees, here’s what they look like physically.’ I wanted them to incorporate the feeling that I had when I was there. So when I’m standing on a bank of a river and looking out at the reflections of trees and the sun off in the distance reflecting on the water, it’s really exciting. It can be very calm and peaceful, but also very exciting.

Caponigro’s pictures were that way. I didn’t have to go to the place he’d taken them. I’d just look at his pictures and they were electrifying in black and white. The Sierra Club, back in the 1960s published “In Wildness is the Preservation of the World,” color pictures by Porter. Similarly, it wasn’t grand mountain scenes. It was pictures of pine cones and pine needles and a few colored trees on a hillside. It was what I was seeing in the Midwest. In some books that Caponigro put out, I would look at the pictures and go ‘wow, this is what I wished my pictures looked like. As I was trying to learn to take better pictures, I was using them as a guide saying, ‘this is what can be done. Maybe I can do it too, if I try hard enough.’

Peter Vagt will be talking about “Light Through the Trees” at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 28 in the Morton Arboretum’s Sycamore Room at the Visitor’s Center, 4100 IL-53, Lisle; $10 for members, $17 for nonmembers, registration required. More information at mortonarb.org or 630-719-2468.

Vagt will also be hosting a free talk at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 29 at the Wood Dale Public Library, 520 N. Wood Dale Road.; more information at events.wooddalelibrary.org or 630-766-6762.

drockett@chicagotribune.com

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