Light’s Impressions of an American West

Michael Light illustrated a point about one of the photographs in his large-format artist’s books at the opening of his show at the Danziger Gallery in New York City on Oct. 30. David E. Rattray

    At sea, it would be called a squall — gusty winds and torrential rain in a sudden onslaught on West 23rd Street that disappeared as quickly as it came — and Michael Light arrived recently at the Danziger Gallery in midst of it, poised but slightly dazed. It was an appropriately dramatic entrance for someone who describes his process of art making as “hurling myself into the landscape.” On that November morning, the cityscape was hurling something back at him.

    His preferred landscape is America, at present the West, which is the subject of his current exhibition of photography at the gallery, “Some Dry Space,” up through Jan. 18. Yet he grew up in Amagansett in another landscape familiar to many, the vast openness of Quail Hill, which his mother, Deborah Ann Light, donated to the Peconic Land Trust in a series of gifts beginning in 1989. The trust now uses a mere fraction of the 220-acre gift as a popular community farm.

    Likening the expansiveness of Quail Hill to the vast openness of Wyoming, he said he set out early with his mother for points west, living in Southern California between 1973 and 1975 and then taking off on Western journeys in college with a large format camera in a Ford F150.

    This has evolved into his present practice of taking photographs from the air, often in his own light two-seater plane with an assistant who takes the controls when he finds what he is looking to capture on film, but also in a helicopter when he wants to be closer to his subject.

    The results are layered and textured views of the natural and developed landscapes: how the manmade lights of Los Angeles play against the velvety blackness of the night sky, the hairpin curves of a river’s meandering journey, or the imposition of hierarchical order in the form of subdivisions on the unruliness of the Arizona desert.

    “In a fixed-wing aircraft, you can’t stop,” he said. “You fly in circles. It’s a trajectory. You have a minute or a minute and a half before you have to turn or hit a mountain or whatever else comes along.” While piloting, he takes the time to set up his shot or series of shots, flying through the subject first, so he is prepared for what he will photograph once he gives up the controls. Still, since the angle of approach may not be perfect or the light conditions could be slightly off, “I burn a lot of film,” he said.

    “It’s a very different process than Cindy Sherman, more of a classic landscape approach.” Even when he thinks he has what he came to see, he keeps shooting, “to push past what you think you knew to get to those things you didn’t know existed and to make more perceptive work. You almost have to outshoot yourself, outfox yourself.”

    Along with its intellectual aspects, “it’s a very physical act.” The camera is 20 pounds. The aircraft is light and open. “It can be ecstatic.” The images taken can seem to him and the viewer like imprints of the land, gravestone rubbings, or charcoal drawings.

    “I want to make the land as much of an actor in this duet of what we humans do to it and what it is. Beauty and grandeur enter into it” and are highlighted in this particular gallery installation. He said that James Danziger, the gallery owner, “curated a show that highlights the beauty and sublimity, and a certain romantic thread” in the pictures. The exhibition takes over three rooms, including a space set aside to peruse his mammoth artist’s books.

    Here, images from his expeditions are collected and put into a narrative sequence, titled with the name of the place or time captured, such as “Roden Crater/Meteor Crater,” “Salt River,” and “LA Night” (with its companion “LA Day”).

    With the “Meteor Crater,” a nearly three-quarters of a mile impact site in Arizona, he spent a lot of time thinking about how to approach it as a subject. “It’s the largest and best preserved crater on the planet. How are you going to actually make work about this?” Given the size of the subject, “I started by just spinning around it to see what I could come up with.”

    He said this kind of orbital movement can be a “sensuous and textural experience.” The book format helps bring the tactile qualities of these acts to the viewer as they turn the large pages to reveal the next colossal image. The book is bound with his “Roden Crater” shoot to underline again the distinction and sometimes similarities of natural and human impacts on the landscape.

    Mr. Light’s pictures can seem romantic. “I’m aware of art historical tradition,” he said. Further, they touch on the sublime in the classical sense, in both the natural and built environments. It is apparent, for example, in the books “Meteor Crater” and “LA Night,” the latter of which needs to be seen in person to comprehend the textural richness of its prints, looking like velvet studded with diamond drippings or constellations and planets in a pitch-black universe.

    His explorations were based on questions and issues that have been with him a long time, even since college. “The larger part of my process is to suggest that the untouched American wilderness was always a fantasy. For one thing, there were people here before we got here, who manipulated the landscape too.” He is not going into these shoots with an agenda, however. 
    “I want to figure things out: fuel consumption, beauty, the history of landscape photography.” He suggests that we need to let go of the fantasy. “Let’s acknowledge that we are here and can be better or worse stewards of the land, but it is inhabited. That’s a fact.”

    In a series of images taken in Wyoming, the subject is gas extraction, “but I wanted to set a stage.” His image of the Green River headwaters, looking southeast, gives no indication of the gas fields, but the ones that follow do. “You can’t do a landscape today and just show the Green River in a Sierra Club calendar shot and not actually talk about that half a mile away is the Jonah Gas Field. It’s trying to engage with both that I find really interesting. It’s the line between that is fraught.”

    Still a frequent visitor to New York and the South Fork, he plans to give the Northeastern United States a similar treatment and has done some exploratory forays into New York Harbor, but he said his work on his current project is not quite over. “My subtitle is ‘An Inhabited West.’ It’s my particular take, six or seven takes or slices of the contemporary moment” as realized in his books.

    “I’m taking the single square image as far as I can. The books are more of an actual record of the process and underline the limits of photography,” in relating narrative. “As much as we move into an iPhone world, I am going in the other direction,” looking back to the 19th century. He said he is thinking of Timothy O’Sullivan’s railroad surveys of the western territories and the early efforts to explore and record the West. Those documents, too, he said, were preserved in mammoth albums and presented to Congress.

    In order to capture the reality of the American West, Michael Light chose both natural and man-made features of the landscape in photographs such as these:

“Meteor Crater Looking Northwest, Near Winslow, AZ,” from 2011
“Sun City, AZ,” from 2007
“Interchange of Highways 60 and 202 Looking West; Mesa, AZ,” from 2007
“L.A. River Looking Northwest, I-5 and Los Feliz at Left,” from 2004