April 26, 2013
For almost 30 years, David Maisel has been photographing areas of environmental degradation. He hires a local pilot to take him up in a four-seater Cessna, a type of plane he likens to an old Volkswagen beetle with wings, and then, anywhere from 500 to 11,000 feet in altitude, he cues the pilot to bank the plane. With a window propped open, Maisel snaps photographs of the clear-cut forests, strip mines or evaporation ponds below.
The resulting images are beautiful and, at the same, absolutely unnerving. What exactly are those blood-red stains? As a nod to the confusing state they place viewers in, Maisel calls his photographs black maps, borrowing from a poem of the same title by contemporary American poet Mark Strand. “Nothing will tell you / where you are,” writes Strand. “Each moment is a place / you’ve never been.”
Maisel’s latest book, Black Maps: American Landscape and the Apocalyptic Sublime, is a retrospective of his career. It features more than 100 photographs from seven aerial projects he has worked on since 1985. Maisel began with what Julian Cox, the founding curator of photography at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, calls in the book an “extensive investigation” of Bingham Canyon outside of Salt Lake City, Utah. His photographs capture the dramatic layers, gouges and textures of the open-pit mine, which holds the distinction of being the largest in the world.
This series expanded to include other mining sites in Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Montana, until eventually Maisel made the leap from black and white to color photography, capturing the bright chemical hues of cyanide-leaching fields in The Mining Project (a selection shown above). He also turned his lens to log flows in Maine’s rivers and lakes in a project called The Forest and the dried bed of California’s Owens Lake, drained to supply Los Angeles with water, in The Lake Project.
Oblivion, as the photographer describes on his personal Web site, was a “coda” to The Lake Project; for this series of black and white photographs, reversed like x-rays, Maisel made the tight network of streets and highways in Los Angeles his subject—see an example below. Then, in one of his most recent aerial endeavors, titled Terminal Mirage (top), he photographed the Mondrian-like evaporation ponds around Utah’s Great Salt Lake.
All combined, Maisel’s body of work is what Cox calls “a medley of terrains transformed by humankind to serve its needs and desires.” The narrative thread, he adds in the introduction to Black Maps, is the photographer’s aim to convey humans’ “uneasy and conflicted relationship with nature.”
I wrote about Maisel’s photography for Smithsonian in 2008, when his “Black Maps” exhibition was touring the country, and at that time, the Long Island, New York-native hedged from being called an “environmental activist.” As Cox astutely notes, “The photographs do not tell a happy story,” and yet they also “do not assign any blame.” Maisel is attracted to these landscapes because of their brilliant colors, eye-catching compositions and the way they emote both beauty and danger.
Maisel’s photographs are disorienting; it is a mental exercise just trying to orient oneself within the frame. Without providing solid ground for viewers to stand on, the images inevitably spark more questions than they do answers.
Each one is like a Rorschach test, in that the subject is, to some extent, what viewers make it to be. Blood vessels. Polished marble. Stained-glass windows. What is it that you see?
An exhibition of Maisel’s large-scale photographs, Black Maps: American Landscape and the Apocalyptic Sublime, is on view at the CU Art Museum, University of Colorado Boulder, through May 11, 2013. From there, the show will travel to the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art in Scottsdale, Arizona, where it will be on display from June 1 to September 1, 2013.
April 2, 2013
At the outset of both his new book, Planetfall, and his exhibition of the same title now at the Washington, D.C. headquarters of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, photographer Michael Benson defines the word “planetfall.” Planetfall, he states, is “the act or an instance of sighting a planet after a space voyage.”
It is really the existence, in the last 50 years, of spacecraft orbiting the planets of our solar system that has necessitated the term. “Each of these far-flung machines is following the traditions blazed by the great Earthbound explorers, but when its destination comes into view, we can no longer call that dramatic moment ‘landfall,’” according to the exhibition. “Hence ‘planetfall’—the moment of arrival at other worlds.”
In his latest series of images, Benson attempts to lift us off terra firma and bring this awe-inspiring moment to us. His 40 large-scale photographs, hanging in the AAAS Art Gallery, are remarkably crisp views of the rings of Saturn, moons in transit, a sunset on Mars and volcanic eruptions on Jupiter’s moon, Io, among other marvels. Each image is in “true color,” as Benson puts it.
To make his photographs, Benson starts by perusing through thousands of raw image data collected on missions led by NASA—Cassini, Galileo, MESSENGER, Viking and Voyager, among others—and the European Space Agency. He has compared this process to panning for gold—the precious gold nuggets being beautiful sequences of images, rarely seen by the public, that he can piece together into one seamless photograph. It can take anywhere from tens to hundreds of raw frames to arrange, like a mosaic, one legible composite image. Then rendering the photograph in realistic colors adds another layer of complexity. Benson describes the process in his book:
“In order for a full-color image to be created, the spacecraft needs to have taken at minimum two, but preferably three, individual photographs of a given subject, with each exposed through a different filter…. Ideally, those filters are red, green, and blue, in which case a composite image color image can usually be created without too much trouble…. If a red and a blue filtered shot are available but not a green, for example, a synthetic green image can be created by mixing the other two colors.”
Some of the colors are quite striking. Jupiter’s moon, Io, is a brilliant yellow, in one of Benson’s photographs (shown at top). To me, it looks like a shiny bowling ball, whereas for Benson it calls to mind the yellow rim of Morning Glory Pool in Yellowstone National Park. “It’s all sulphur,” he says. Then, there is the photographer’s very modernist-looking portrait of Uranus (above) and its rings in a stunning robin’s egg blue, assembled from raw images taken by the Voyager spacecraft as it flew by the planet on January 24, 1986. Uranus’ rotation axis is roughly parallel to the plane of the solar system, making its rings vertical in this view. ”This is about as close, I believe, to what the human eye would see as it is possible to produce using existing data,” Benson explains.
The sights take some time to digest. At a recent preview of the AAAS exhibition, I watched as onlookers approached the photographs, oriented themselves with their subjects and tried to make sense of the shadows, streaks and gouges they saw. As TIME reported on its blog, LightBox, “Benson’s visions demand more than a single look; the longer one spends with his vast landscapes, considering the scale and scope, the more they facilitate a state of meditation.”
Meditate on these selections from Planetfall, on display at the AAAS Art Gallery through June 28, 2013.
March 21, 2013
What happens when you lose your grip on the horizon? How much does it warp your sense of scale? One trek on the 97-square-mile Perito Moreno glacier in Patagonia and Caleb Cain Marcus was hooked by these questions of perspective. With that experience, in January 2010, the New York City-based photographer launched a two-year odyssey, documenting, in his own minimalist style, glaciers all around the world—in Iceland, Alaska, New Zealand and Norway.
Marcus shares 3o photographs taken in his travels in his latest book, A Portrait of Ice. The images—three of which were recently acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art—are “eerily gorgeous and unusual,” writes Marvin Heiferman, a known critic and curator, in an essay featured in the book. “Instead of picturing monumental walls of ice that advance over and disrupt what lies beneath, or icebergs that break away from glaciers to float majestically, if threateningly, at sea, these photographs suggest that glaciers cover the earth’s surface lightly, like a sheet, rather than bearing down upon it,” he adds. The comparison that Heiferman makes later in the essay is compelling: “The jagged rocks, ridges and pinnacles that poke through the frigid surfaces don’t register as being particularly dangerous, but more like the eccentrically rendered landforms you might soar over in a dream or in the elegant flight-simulation of a video game.”
Intrigued, I recently had the opportunity to interview Marcus by phone. We discussed some of the thoughts driving the project and his process:
When you exhibit the series, you like the photographs to measure 43 inches by 54 inches. Why do you like to work in this large-scale format?
Obviously, the glaciers themselves are quite large. I think it is easier to get immersed in something when it is large. I think small makes things potentially more intimate. If it is small, you are required to go up close to it and inspect it. If it is large, you can sort of be overwhelmed by it.
What inspired your initial trip to Perito Moreno glacier in Patagonia?
I was visiting someone in Buenos Aires, and then we took a side trip and flew outside of El Calafate, which is a small town in Patagonia. Near El Calafate was Perito Moreno. It seemed like a good opportunity to go and visit a glacier. I grew up in Colorado, and I have a love for the mountains and open space, which I don’t get much of in New York.
How did you explore the glacier? What did you get to do?
I just hiked around on it. Many glaciers are covered with snow, so you don’t really see them as glaciers as much, at least I don’t, because you are not seeing the ice. You are seeing the snow, which is layering on top of the ice. This was probably the first hard-ice glacier I was on.
What was it about the experience and the photographs that you shot that really inspired you to spend the next two years photographing glaciers around the world?
The ice landscape was certainly one that I hadn’t visited before. I think that many people never really get a chance to visit it or never choose to visit it. Most of us have seen some form of a desert and a forest and an ocean, but we haven’t really just seen ice. It is quite a different ecosystem, and one that fascinates me quite a bit. Everything is so open and so expansive. I think it was that feeling of expanse and emptiness and solitude, on a personal level, that made me want to be there.
When I took the pictures, I had this idea to try to see what would happen if the horizon disappeared. Living in New York City, unless you live very high up, you never see the horizon, which is really kind of odd and something that took me a few years to realize. You are missing that. It is such a grounding presence for people to be able to see the horizon. I’m not sure we are really aware of the effects of not being able to see it. I thought, okay, if I get rid of the horizon or I try to, how is that going to affect the feeling of the picture? You lose a sense of scale.
Many of the images are vertical, with mostly sky and then the surface of the glacier occupying just a small portion at the bottom. Why did you choose to compose them this way?
I think there are three general options. One would be that you would have about half glacier and half sky. I think that would be too balanced. Then, you could have much more glacier than sky, which would work, but it would produce something that is much denser. I didn’t really feel like the glaciers were so dense or so heavy, even though they are so massive. I wanted to create a feeling of more openness; I think if you have more sky than glacier that helps to do it. It helps to make it float a little more. Having just this small amount of density of color at the bottom, contrasted by that wide open space, also creates a balance in a way. Because the sky is more empty, they still sort of take up equal weight on the image.
Do you want the viewer to lose perspective?
I would say probably most people looking at it wouldn’t realize that there is no horizon—at least, not consciously. But I think that one of the things it does is it makes it feel less familiar. When something is less familiar, then we look at it more closely, instead of just glancing at it and saying, “Oh, I know what that is. It is a glacier, or that’s a tree or a person or an apartment building.” If it has a little bit of a twist, then I think people spend a little more time or there is a little more examining. Maybe there is more potential that there is some effect on them, which would be ideal.
How did you think about color?
In terms of the colors of the glaciers, whether they are blue or gray or more cyan, I didn’t have too much choice. I was looking for the glaciers with more color. There are a few that are almost black and white, which are in Iceland. That was after the volcano erupted a couple of years ago, so those have the mist and the ash from the volcano. It doesn’t give it an intense color, it is giving it a very subtle color.
Did you have certain criteria for the glaciers and locations that you picked?
That was one of the challenging aspects. You never really knew what you would get. I would look at topographic images and satellite images. I would talk to other climbers and get a general sense of what a glacier I was going to might look like. But whenever I got there, it was all a surprise.
I was looking for texture and color, so that they had some kind of resonance, some personality. In the book, there are nine different glaciers. I probably went to more than 20 glaciers, so only a small number of them are represented. The other ones, either I wasn’t on the ball or else the glacier wasn’t on the ball. Somehow the communication between the two of us didn’t work out.
I imagine there were a bunch of logistics that went into these trips.
In terms of getting to the glaciers, pretty much all of them required a hike. I kayaked into some of them and took a helicopter once or twice. Most of the time I had a guide. Of course, the guides are there to find access to the glacier and then also as a safety measure or policy. In that regard, they want to make sure that you come back in one piece, which is a good thing, but it also means that they always try to keep reins on you. I don’t like having someone holding me back. I am always running around, and they are always yelling at me. It would usually take a few days for our relationship to sort of coalesce into something smoother. There would be some friction in the beginning. Then, after a few days, we would have a better understanding of each other.
The guides were quite resourceful in terms of their information. I actually met with a few scientists on various glaciers. In Norway, I met with a couple of them measuring the speed of the flow of the glacier. So, I would always take the opportunity to talk to them.
In your own essay in A Portrait of Ice, you write, “The Inuit elders say the melting of the ice is the land crying out in pain. Now we must listen.” The statement implies an activism on your part. Is that one of your intentions? Do you want viewers to care more about the environment and about the melting of glaciers?
I think photographing glaciers I was pretty aware that even if there wasn’t too much of that sentiment that it would be there in the background. I feel very close to the earth or however one wants to term it. I think that we have more than half of the people living in cities now in the U.S. With that, we are losing an awareness for the natural environment. Whether these [photographs] bring people closer to the environment or not, I don’t really know. I certainly think that if people were more connected to it, that they would act differently in their lives. A lot of the people who make decisions on a high level are, I think, even more detached because they are so immersed in running corporations or in making more money. I think that the planet suffers because of that, and so do we.
These images are excerpted from the book, A Portrait of Ice, published by Damiani.
February 26, 2013
Mark Laita captured plenty of photographs of snakes striking, their mouths agape, in the making of his new book, Serpentine. But, it wasn’t these aggressive, fear-inducing—and in his words, “sensational”—images that he was interested in. Instead, the Los Angeles-based photographer focused on the graceful contortions of the reptiles.
“It is not a snake book,” says Laita. As he explained to me in a phone interview, he had no scientific criteria for selecting the species he did, though herpetologists and snake enthusiasts will surely perk up when they see the photographs. “Really, it is more about color, form and texture,” he says. “For me, a snake does that beautifully.”
Over the course of the project, Laita visited zoos, breeders, private collections and antivenom labs in the United States and Central America to stage shoots of specimens he found visually compelling. “I would go to a place looking for this species and that species,” he says. “And, once I got there, they had 15 or 20 others that were great too.” If a particular snake’s colors were muted, Laita would ask the owner to call him as soon as the animal shed its skin. “Right after they shed they would be really beautiful. The colors would be more intense,” he says.
At each site, Laita laid a black velvet backdrop on the floor. Handlers would then guide each snake, mostly as a protective measure, and keep it on the velvet, while the photographer snapped away with an 8 by 10 view camera and a Hasselblad. “By putting it on a black background, it removes all of the variables. It makes it just about the snake,” says Laita. “If it is a red snake in the shape of a figure eight, all you have is this red swipe of color.”
Without much coaxing, the snakes curved and coiled into question marks, cursive letters and gorgeous knots. ”It is as if these creatures are—to their core—so inherently beautiful that there is nothing they can do, no position they can take, that fails to be anything but mesmerizing,” writes Laita in the book’s prologue.
For Serpentine, the photographer hand-selected nearly 100 of his images of vipers, pythons, rattlesnakes, cobras and kingsnakes—some harmless, some venomous, but all completely captivating. He describes the collection as the “ultimate ‘look, but don’t touch’ scenario.”
In his career, marked with the success of having his work exhibited in the United States and Europe, Laita has photographed flowers, sea creatures and Mexican wrestlers. “They’re all interesting, whether it’s in a beautiful, outrageous or unusual way,” he says, of his diverse subjects. So, why snakes then? ”Attraction and repulsion. Passivity and aggression. Allure and danger. These extreme dichotomies, along with the age-old symbolism connected with snakes, are what first inspired me to produce this series,” writes Laita in the prologue. “Their beauty heightens the danger. The danger amplifies their beauty.”
Laita embarked on the project without any real phobia of snakes. “I used to catch them as a kid all of the time. I grew up in the Midwest where it is pretty hard to find a snake that is going to do too much damage to you,” he says. If he comes across a rattlesnake while hiking in his now home state of California, his first impulse is still to try to grab it, though he knows better. Many of the exotic snakes Laita photographed for Serpentine are easily capable of killing a human. “I probably have a little more fear of snakes now after dealing with some of the species I dealt with,” he says.
He had a brush with this fear when photographing a king cobra, the longest venomous snake in the world, which measures up to 18 feet. “It is kind of like having a lion in the room, or a gorilla,” says Laita. “It could tear apart the room in second flats if it wanted to.” Although Laita photographed the cobra while it was enclosed in a plexiglass box, during the shoot it “got away from us,” he says. It escaped behind some cabinets at the Florida facility, “and we couldn’t find it for awhile.”
He’s also had a close encounter with a deadly black mamba while photographing one at a facility in Central America. “It was a very docile snake,” he recalls. “It just happened to move close to my feet at some point. The handler brought his hook in to move the snake, and he inadvertently snagged the cord from my camera. That scared the snake, and then it struck where it was warm. That happened to be the artery in my calf.” Smithsonian contributing writer Richard Conniff shares more gory details on his blog, Strange Behaviors. Apparently, blood was just gushing from the bite (“His sock was soaked and his sneaker was filled with blood,” writes Conniff), and the photographer said the swollen fang marks “hurt like hell that night.”
Obviously, Laita lived to tell the tale. “It was either a ‘dry bite,’ which is rare, or I bled so heavily that the blood pushed the venom out,” he explained in a publicity interview. “All I know is I was unlucky to be bitten, lucky to have survived, and lucky again to have unknowingly snapped a photo of the actual bite!”
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February 21, 2013
When Julia Lohmann set out to create an artwork for the street-level windows of the London headquarters of the Wellcome Trust, the health research foundation, she chose a classic subject: the female body. But where Lohmann broke from tradition was her medium. The German designer created her large-scale portrait of two reclining nudes using 9,000 petri dishes, each containing an image of live bacteria.
Suzanne Lee, a British fashion designer, is attempting to grow clothes. She cultivates bacteria in vats of sugary green tea and then harvests the cellulose that forms on the mixture’s surface. The durable film serves as a pleatherlike fabric.
The Italian artist Giuliano Mauri planted 80 hornbeam trees amid columns of bundled branches in Arte Sella, a sculpture garden in northern Italy. The trees inch up the columns to form Cattedrale Vegetale, a Gothic cathedral complete with naves.
All these works are prominent examples of a nascent aesthetic movement called biodesign, which integrates living things, including bacteria, plants and animals, into installations, products and artworks. “Designers and architects, more and more, want to design objects and buildings that grow by themselves,” says Paola Antonelli, design curator at the Museum of Modern Art.
Biodesign takes advantage of the “tremendous power and potential utility of organisms and their natural interaction with ecosystems around them,” says William Myers, a New York City design historian and author of the new book Bio Design: Nature + Science + Creativity. “It can be a means of communication and discovery, a way to provoke debate and explore the potential opportunities and dangers of manipulating life for human purposes.”
Some ventures are very down-to-earth. Microbiologist Henk Jonkers at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands is developing self-repairing “bio-concrete”; he adds limestone-producing bacteria to cement and, over time, they fill in cracks. If adopted widely, the material could benefit the environment, since concrete production is a major source of atmospheric carbon dioxide.
Other proposals read more like science fiction. Alberto Estévez, an architect based in Barcelona, wants to replace streetlights with glowing trees created by inserting a bioluminescent jellyfish gene into the plants’ DNA.
The biodesign movement builds on ideas in Janine Benyus’ trailblazing 1997 book Biomimicry, which urges designers to look to nature for inspiration. But instead of copying living things biodesigners make use of them.
The effort brings artists and scientists together. “These novel collaborations are often joyous contaminations in which scientists feel, even just for a moment, liberated from the rigor of peer review and free to attempt intuitive leaps,” Antonelli writes in a foreword to Bio Design.
Julia Lohmann teamed up with Michael Wilson, a microbiologist at University College London Eastman Dental Institute. Wilson, who studies the bacteria that inhabit people, grew common bacteria from the female body and photographed the colonies under a microscope. Lohmann affixed these photographs to actual petri dishes and positioned each type of bacteria where it would occur on or in a woman’s body—pictures of the scalp microbe Propionibacteria, for instance, cover the head.
“The petri dish is a magnifying glass into this other world,” says Lohmann, who was inspired by the mind-bending fact that only one in ten cells in the human body is actually human. The rest are microbes. “There is so much advertising out there that tells you that all bacteria are bad, and it is simply not true. We couldn’t live without bacteria, and they couldn’t live without us,” says Lohmann. She considers her mural Co-existence to be part of the counter propaganda.