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Photographer Alan McQuillan sees the forest and the trees

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In April, photographer Alan McQuillan visited the farm on which both his mother and grandmother were born. The house sits in the Scottish countryside, and McQuillan had visited the place sporadically since his childhood growing up in London. He felt like he knew the farm well—that is, until the new owners invited McQuillan and his wife to look around.

“They asked me, ‘Do you want to take a walk up on the hill? There’s a hillfort up there,’” McQuillan recalls. “I realized I’d never walked up on the hill before, though my mother had talked about playing up there when she was little. But she never said anything about it being a hillfort.”

At the top of the hill, sure enough, McQuillan found what looked like a clump of trees surrounded by a ditch and raised on a circular site, which would have been used as a fortified refuge during the Bronze or Iron Age. McQuillan, a tree enthusiast for more than 40 years, took a shot of the hillfort trees surrounded by bright green grass and Scotch broom, their bare branches like small lightning bolts against the backdrop of swirling clouds and brilliant blue patches of sky.

That photograph is one of approximately 20 images of trees that McQuillan has taken over the years that will be on display at the Montana Natural History Center for First Friday. It’s just a sliver of his tree-themed work, but a solid example of his more recent efforts (all but one are taken with a digital camera).

It’s no wonder McQuillan spends so much time with trees—he got his master’s degree at the University of Montana in forestry and taught in the department for 24 years before retiring. He focused on the ways economics (which he studied as an undergrad in London) and computer modeling (which he got into in the early 1970s) could be applied to forest management. But all the while he was admiring the beauty of the trees from behind the lens, and wrestling with the best way to capture them.

“Trees are hard to photograph,” McQuillan says. “If you’re in a forest, by the time you get far enough back to see the tree, you can’t see the tree, because all these other trees have gotten in the way.”

Taking pictures of trees standing by themselves is easier, he says. And he’s taken plenty of those. But he likes the challenge of finding the best angle and good lighting on a tree surrounded by other trees, and he’s spent a lot of time in West Coast forests to get just the right shot. His largest piece, a 60-inch-high image of a western red cedar, shows the tree almost all the way up, perfectly framed by leaves. Sometimes, it takes an outside influence to make the tree stand out.

Remains of hill-fort, Barrachan Home Farm, Mochrum, Galloway, 2017

“Once, just about sunset, there was a little buck wandering around, and he didn’t seem to be spooked by me at all,” he says. “He was running around, and then he just goes and stands in front of the tree and looks at me like he’s posing. And that was luck. There’s a lot of luck involved.”

McQuillan got his first camera—a Hong Kong knockoff of a Leica—when he was 12. He built a darkroom in his parents’ attic and worked in it throughout high school. In college, he dabbled in 16mm films, street photography and landscape photography.

“I took a portfolio of black and white prints to commercial studios in London and then didn’t hear anything for a long time,” he says.

During that waiting period, McQuillan applied to UM and was accepted.

“About that same time I got a letter from J. Walter Thompson, an advertising firm in London, offering me a photography job at starting level,” he says. “But I’d already decided I was going to America to study forestry, so I didn’t take that job. That was the road not taken.”

For the decade after he moved to Montana, McQuillan didn’t do photography. He was a stickler about printing his own work, and he didn’t have a darkroom. In 1984, he finally built one, though he rarely had time to indulge the pursuit. Retirement has sent McQuillan fully down the photography path once again. In the early 2000s, he embraced the digital age, buying a Leica digital camera to which he was able to adapt his old Leica lenses. In 2009, he was made an Associate of Britain’s Royal Photographic Society, a prestigious honor in the oldest photographic society in the world. In 2013, he took first place at the International Photography Awards in New York for his series on the Bakken oil fields.

“It’s such an amazing sort of gold rush phenomenon,” he says, “whether you’re for it or against it.”

McQuillan has worked on a variety of subjects, but trees combine his two loves, merging the paths he’s been toggling between ever since he got his first camera. Each year, he and his wife travel to Europe to spend time in his old stomping grounds, where he’s able to capture a landscape dramatically different from Montana’s. In September, he took a trip along the Olympic Peninsula and through eastern Oregon to photograph the forests there, which is where many of the exhibit’s photographs come from.

“I don’t know why I love trees so much,” he says. “I guess it’s because they’re so long-lived. And in Scotland, where it’s damp, the forests have a wonderful smell to them. It’s the sort of sensual, textural element that I like so much.”

Alan McQuillan’s Trees opens at the Montana Natural History Center Fri., Nov. 3, with a reception from 4:30 to 6:30 PM.

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