Clifford Ross: Mountain and Sea

In order to capture the dramatic images of his Hurricane series, Clifford Ross usually tethers himself to someone on the beach and goes into the surf, sometimes up to his neck, to shoot. Robert Eckholm

    The term “Renaissance Man” certainly does no service to an artist like Clifford Ross, whose precise use of language would never countenance anything so trite. But what to call someone who has successfully bridged the worlds of painting, sculpture, photography, engineering, in addition to computer design, printing, and video animation and is now taking on stained glass and a modern means of fresco? The description he supplied last Thursday was fortunate.
    “At this moment, I’m really blessed to have found a lot of different outlets in different media for my creative impulses . . . Some people find the wide range of my work, from realism to abstraction, hard to digest or comprehend, so I’m grateful for smart curators and writers who can present my output in a comprehensible way.” In this case, Guild Hall has accepted the challenge and will display, beginning on Sunday evening, a collection of eight photographic images Mr. Ross has produced over the past decade.
     It does not sound like a lot of photographs unless one knows Mr. Ross’s work. The Mountain series, for which he devised his own camera to deal with the enormity of his vision, are each about 6 by 10, but that is feet, not inches. The Hurricane series photographs, taken on the South Fork, are smaller, but each one is still able to command an entire small gallery wall at a more manageable 4 by 5 feet.
    The camera he conceived in 2002, the R1 (now joined by a second iteration, the R2), was devised in an engineer’s garage north of New York City over an 18-month period. The resulting 9-by-18-inch format was made possible by adapting the specifications for an old military camera using aerial film. The resulting resolution is 500 times more precise than a basic digital camera and brings details seen from miles away up close with stunningly sharp detail. The camera, which the artist said looks like an object out of Dr. Seuss, has attracted the attention of NASA and the National Security Agency.
    “There’s been a lot of fuss and attention to my use of technology. Technology is useful to me, but it is really just like using a paintbrush, it’s a tool in service to nature,” he said. “The only reason I get involved in technical high jinks is to bring the experience of nature to an audience.”
    In the case of his very, very large camera, he wanted to relate his experience of viewing Mount Sopris in Colorado and found the existing formats too limiting. “In nature I become obsessed. I fall in love and want to capture it in some way.” The frustration is that “you can come close but never really capture the full experience of nature.”
    As a student of Abstract Expressionism who grew up with the work of Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, Mr. Ross said his inclination to dismantle images was similar. “They created nature in front of your eyes, so that you react as if you’re in front of nature . . . Abstraction gets to the truth of experience through poetic means.”
    He said the desire to go further along the path laid out by earlier 19th and 20th-­century Western landscape photographers such as Carleton Watkins or Ansel Adams was not a criticism of their accomplishments. “They’re so good that their work acts as an invitation to go further. These guys were amazing, they made it to the moon. So naturally I’m looking to get to Mars.” He said a “big embrace” is one natural impulse in landscape photography, and an intimate embrace is another. “With my mountains, I wanted both, grandeur of scale and intimacy of detail.”
    Spending most of his career painting prior to these explorations, “I prefer to get away from talking about just cameras and photography. The gauntlet was really thrown down for me at the beginning of my career by painters, and regarding landscape in particular, I looked long and hard at artists like Claude Lorrain and Paul Cezanne.”
    His tendency toward abstraction has carried into the Mountain series, where he has fragmented portions of the overall image, turned them into monochromatic blocks, and reunited them into a single whole. He has gone a step further with digital animation experts to introduce movement into the work.
    The resulting video, “Harmonium Mountain,” scored by Philip Glass, is being shown at Sonnabend Gallery in New York City in an exhibit of his Mountain photographs and the later abstractions through July 29. It was included in this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. He is now working on a way to expand the video so that it surrounds viewers in an immersive environment and is even exploring projections on urban buildings. “I want to see if I can give people an even richer experience than what a simple flat screen or movie screen can offer.”    
    Mr. Ross began work on the Hurricane series in 1996, with his first successful shoot during Hurricane Bonnie in 1998. As a child he stayed at the Ocean Dunes Motel near Indian Wells Beach in Amagansett and was frightened but mesmerized by the waves. “As an adult I might be trying to achieve something I couldn’t do as a child,” he said, “controlling my fear by capturing the waves instead of the waves capturing me, not to mention staying upright.” He usually tethers himself to someone on the beach and goes into the surf, sometimes up to his neck, to shoot. “It is a dazzling experience.”
    He continued going out when the hurricanes were likely to land or come close enough to Georgica Beach to create the dramatic wave forms he was after. He shot during hurricane season from 1996 to 2001, when he stopped after taking pictures during the morning of Sept. 11. “That day was a tough one. I was conflicted about working given the disaster that was unfolding, but there was absolutely nothing I could do. I couldn’t get back to New York or even reach family by phone after a certain point. I almost didn’t work that day because it didn’t feel right. Then I somehow decided that capturing the moment was my answer to the fact that I might be living through Armageddon. I went on autopilot. And the first Hurricane Wave series was finished when I stopped.”
    He took up the subject again in 2008 when he switched to a digital camera. It was the first time he had returned to a subject after finishing with it. But he said he was interested in applying what he had learned from the digital processes he had experimented with in the Mountain series using a digital camera instead of film.
    “The first digital photographs were a disaster. Somehow digital runs against my own strong analog orientation.” He said the box shape of pixels that were the building blocks of digital images are inherently unnatural. “There are no straight lines and squares in nature. My challenge was to push the digital process and a digital camera to reveal the organic quality of nature.”
    Through post-production work, he said he was able to get a tonal range consistent with silver gelatin prints to a point where other photographers thought they were silver gelatin prints. “My sensibility is old-fashioned. I want my art to have a certain sensuality and provide a contemplative experience.”
    He prints his images in black-and-white for the Hurricane series because “for me, form is the essential truth of a wave, not color, and in photography form is best expressed with the absence of color. Color was a distraction with the hurricane wave images.”
    Only about 20 percent of his time is spent actually taking pictures. The rest is spent in post-production, refining elements in Photoshop the way he would in a darkroom. “There are no big lies in my photographs. I don’t grab a sky from one image and put it in another.” The art is in the subtle manipulation. If he didn’t work over the images in the darkroom or in Photoshop as extensively as he does, he said, “I don’t think you would be moved by them. At best, they might provide a good journalistic experience, but not necessarily an artistic one.”
    Mr. Ross works from sense memory, sometimes more than a year after capturing an  image. “I coax out the details and nuances throughout an image until it corresponds to my memory of the feeling and sensation of the moment I captured.” The “decisive moment” that Henri Cartier-Bresson describes when the shutter clicks “is just a starting point for me  to make my way to the truth I remember.”