I like this picture because it’s funny. A man in a suit is perched high in a tree. Body language and facial expression suggest that he could do mischief at any moment. I would later find out that he could.
But I love this picture because this man became a dear, life-long friend. And this picture beautifully, I think, captures his personality. I took it the day we met.
I had been assigned by the Philadelphia Inquirer to photograph a series of prominent Philadelphians and the trees they loved. This is Dr. Bill Klein. He was the Director of the Morris Arboretum. The picture appeared on the cover of the Sunday magazine.
Dr. Klein was extremely outgoing and loved to laugh. We hit it off immediately. This tree was his favorite because he could see it from his kitchen window— he lived on Arboretum property. I jokingly suggested that he shimmy up the tree and go perch himself on that branch. (I’m confident I used the word shimmy.) Without missing a beat, he said, “Absolutely.”
One minute later, he was setting up a large extension-ladder to reach the branch. After he sat down, I removed the ladder and composed my picture. I cheated on the crop; I made the tree look much bigger than it really is. The right edge of the tree is just outside the edge of my frame. You’re looking at almost the entire tree trunk.
All of this happened in the first ten minutes of our relationship and I already knew that I loved this guy—what photographer wouldn’t? I directed him to cross his feet and fold his hands. I wanted him to look as comfortable as a man could look sitting forty feet off the ground with a grin on his face.
We were friends for twenty years. When I was getting married I called to ask if I could get married at the Arboretum, a popular Philadelphia wedding location. They were all booked up, but he actually loaned us his house while he and his family were out of town so we could have a party for 150 people the night before the wedding.
Bill Klein died suddenly of a heart attack while jogging in Miami, ironically with another good friend of mine. This picture was featured prominently at his funeral and I brought along a small pile of prints to give to all of the countless people who loved him. It was certainly one of the definitive photographs of Dr. Klein.
I will never forget Dr. Klein’s approach to making things happen. It was perfect for a man who once told me that at the age of five he actually pondered how horrible a world would be without trees.
He said that he simply shot arrows into the forest and every once in a while he hit a tree.
I was thinking about leprechauns when I shot this photograph. Ironically, if I had to imagine anyone I’ve ever known as a magical, delightful creature, it would be this man on the branch.