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Oriental i, Allies

Atmospheric Perspective 1998

Oriental i, the title of this image, was not plucked out of thin air. I have always been particularly attracted to Asian calligraphy and painting. Ancient oriental paintings rely on overlap and atmospheric perspective rather than linear perspective to depict the recession of space on a flat plane. I particularly like the way they treat morning or evening mist over mountains. One abstract shape precedes another, successively growing paler, and each is paler at the bottom and darker at the top. You can see the atmosphere. It is so thick it begins to hide the objects within it. Without the objects in it, you wouldn’t see the atmosphere as clearly. The lack of clarity the atmosphere brings to the objects within the scene reveals the invisible. It reveals space.

This is a reversal of Western tendencies. More often than not, we try to minimize the effects of haze to make objects within that space appear more clearly. While it increases clarity, many times this reduces space. When skillfully applied, atmospheric perspective allows us to maintain clarity and increase space.

Atmospheric perspective helps describes spatial relationships, usually those involving great distances. When I demonstrate this technique, I mention other ways of treating spatial relationships — linear perspective, tonal sequencing, scale, overlapping planes, texture gradients. Atmospheric perspective can be coupled with any or all of these for even greater effect.

I use atmospheric perspective in so many of my pictures that when it came time to demonstrate the principle in words, I had a hard time singling out one image. What’s more, generally I accentuate atmospheric perspective subtly. In a majority of my images you wouldn’t know that it had been accentuated, but you’d feel it. Space is extremely important in my work so this technique is one of my cornerstones. Needing an image that demonstrated the method dramatically, I created a new one.

I had been planning to do an image like this for quite some time. As I sorted through my sketches, making new ones all the while, I remembered how much the Scottish Highlands look like woven tapestries in the autumn. They are at once flat and spacious, abstract and literal — like many of my images. With this in mind I began to shape an image that worked in a similar way. I decided to create a desert tapestry, placing one dune in front of another in succession. A procession of earth emerged.

The subject of Oriental is so organic that the effects of linear perspective are nearly invisible in it. Like oriental paintings, the image relies on overlap and atmospheric perspective to describe space. Saturation is successively reduced and color is made progressively cooler, increasing space. The atmosphere remains invisible, but its presence can be felt.

In the full-color version, the image recedes from saturated color to less saturated color. In the final version, the image recedes from color towards black and white. Subtlety won out again. While I liked the full-color version, I liked the subdued color version even better. Reducing saturation equally throughout the entire image diminishes the intensity of the effects of atmospheric perspective, but it is still present. However subdued, you can still see and feel it at work.

The Great Sandunes National Monument, where the initial exposures were made, shares similarities with both Scottish Highlands and Asian mountains. They are abstract and spacious. There, one mountain of sand precedes another. It is difficult to determine the scale of the dunes. As you walk out into them they seem to grow larger. They shift. New dunes become visible. The wind sighs and sand drifts across the plains and into the air. Its breath is made visible.

One cannot say this image objectively represents the place the exposures were made, nevertheless there are many ways in which it is true to the place. There are times when fiction can reveal the truth of our experience better than nonfiction.

While the image contained no symmetry, either in the environment or in the sculptural objects within it, the image seemed to belong with my series, Allies. Aside from the fact that it favored a subdued color palette, I couldn’t tell why at first. It seemed to mark the emergence of a new theme within the body of work. It is only as I write this that it becomes clear to me. It is a constructed land that suggests an organic, living entity. Its themes and methods are very much the same as the other pieces in the Allies series.

I thought I was creating an image for one series (Elemental) but it ended up being for another (Allies). Such a shift does not indicate a lack of clear intention but rather a flexibility, a willingness to listen to the work. You have to listen to the work to keep it alive. In the end, the image became more mine than I had imagined. Sometimes you have to abandon yourself to find yourself. Preconceptions cannot lead you to your true voice, only the experience of it will. Though it may sound strange at first, when you hear it you will know. Time and again it has been the exploration of the unknown that has clarified and drawn me back to something I know so well — my own vision.