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Gated “Monaco” Lake Las Vegas Homesites Looking West on Grand Corniche Drive, Bankrupt MonteLago Village and Ponte Vecchio Bridge Beyond, Henderson, Nevada (2010)

Photographer Michael Light divides his time between San Francisco and a remote house hear Mono Lake, on the eastern flank—and in the shadow—of the Sierra Nevada. An artist widely known for his aerial work, Light flies the trip himself in a small airplane, usually departing very early in the morning, near dawn, before the turbulence builds up.

Michael Light preps his airplane for flight; photo by Venue.

Venue not only had the pleasure of flying around Mono Lake with Light, but of staying in his home for a few nights and learning more, over the course of several long conversations, about his work.

We took a nighttime hike and hunted for scorpions in the underbrush; we looked at aerial maps of the surrounding area—in fact, most of the U.S. Southwest—to discuss the invisible marbling of military & civilian airspace in the region; and we asked Light about his many projects, their different landscape emphases, the future of photography as a pursuit and profession, and what projects he might take on next.

Flying with Michael Light over Mono Lake; photos by Venue.

From SCUBA diving amidst the nuked ruins of WWII battleships in the most remote waters of the Pacific Ocean to spending years touching up and republishing photos of U.S. nuclear weapons tests for a spectacular and deeply unsettling book called 100 Suns, to his look at the Apollo program of the 1960s as an endeavor very much focused on the spatial experience of another landscape—the lunar surface—to his ongoing visual investigation of housing, urbanization, and rabid over-development in regions like Phoenix and Las Vegas, Light's own discussion of and perspective on his work was never less than compelling.

Thoughtful about the history of landscape representation and the place of his work within it, highly articulate—indeed, it's hard to forget such phrases as "the mine is a city reversed," or that the sunken ruins of WWII battleships "are dissolving like Alka-Seltzer" in the depths of the Pacific—and with an always caustic sense of humor, Light patiently answered our many questions about his work both above the ground and below sea level.

We discussed the overlapping physical pleasures of flying and SCUBA diving, how nuclear weapons have transformed the Western notion of the landscape sublime, what cameraphones are doing to the professional photographer, and what it means to transgress into today's corporate-controlled air spaces above vast mining and extraction sites in the West.

Shadow at 300’, 1300 hours, Deep Springs Valley, CA (2001)

Finally, for those of you in or around New York City this month, Light coincidentally has a new exhibition opening at the Danziger Gallery on October 30. Check back with the gallery's website for more information as the opening approaches.

• • •

Geoff Manaugh: I’d like to start by asking how the aerial view ties into the nature of your work in general. You’ve spoken to William L. Fox in an interview for the Some Dry Space exhibition about a feeling of spatial “delirium,” suggesting that the experience of moving through the sky is something viscerally attractive to you. I’m curious if you could talk about that, as a physical sensation, but also about the representational effects of the bird’s eye—or pilot’s eye—view and how it so thoroughly changes the appearance of a landscape.

Clouds Over the Jonah Natural Gas Field, Pinedale, WY (2007)

Michael Light: The short answer is that the aerial view affords a breadth of scale that offers direct access to many of the bigger, more “meta” themes that have always been of interest to me.

But let me take a few steps back and try to explain where all this came from. I got a B.A. in American Studies from Amherst many years ago, and I have since been an Americanist—not in the sense of being an apologist for America, but in the sense of someone trying to figure out what makes this country tick. It is a very, very vast country.

Sheep Hole Mountains at 400’, 0700 hours, Twentynine Palms, CA (2000)

I grew up on the end of Long Island, and I was always getting onto Highway 80 or onto more southerly interstates and heading west. The metaphor that always accompanied me, oddly enough, was one of falling into America rather than crossing it. I was falling into the vastness of America and the sheer scale of it.

Of course, after I moved to California in 1986, I caught myself coming back east quite a bit, for family or for work, and those commercial air flights across the nation, flying coast to coast, were formative and endlessly interesting to me. I don’t ever lower the window shade as requested. If the weather is clear, the odds are that what’s unfolding below, geologically, is the main attraction for me. I just found myself looking down—or looking into—America a lot, and that sense of falling into the country just grew and evolved.

I did a big piece back in the 1990s, when I was still in graduate school. It took a couple of years, but I figured out how to make pretty decent images from 30,000 feet, from the seat of a commercial airliner. For instance, you have to sit in front of the engine so that the heat doesn’t blow the picture; and it’s a contrast game, trying to get enough clarity through all the atmospheric haze and through two layers of plexiglass, and so on and so forth. That piece was based specifically on commercial flights and it was liberating for me in lots of ways.

While working on one of those images, in particular, I had something of an epiphany—I think it was somewhere over Arizona. It’s very spare, arid country, and the incursions of human settlement into it that you see from above look very much like a colony on Mars might look, or the proverbial lunar colony, and I thought “Ah ha! Look at that!” And I realized, at that moment, that maybe I could try to find or document something like a planetary landscape: the way humans live at a planetary scale and through planetary settlements.

Chidago Canyon at 500’, 1800 hours, Chalfant, CA (2001)

This was what got me, pretty soon thereafter, thinking above and beyond the earth: looking toward NASA, and their various programs over the past few decades, and that eventually became Full Moon.

FULL MOON: Composite of David Scott Seen Twice on Hadley Delta Mountain; Photographed by James Irwin, Apollo 15, 1971 (1999)

Manaugh: There’s an interesting book called Moondust by Andrew Smith, which began with Smith’s realization that we are soon approaching an historical moment when every human being who has walked on the moon will be dead. He set about trying to interview every living person—every American astronaut—who has set foot there. What makes it especially fascinating is that Smith portrays the entire Apollo program as a kind of vast landscape project, or act of landscape exploration, as if the whole thing had really just been at attempt at staging a real-life Caspar David Friedrich painting with seemingly endless Cold War funds to back it up. The place of Full Moon in your own work seems to echo that idea, of NASA lunar photography as something like the apotheosis of American natural landscape photography.

Light: The Apollo program was absolutely a landscape project—but also an extreme aerial project. And Full Moon, of course, was also driven by my own interest in the aerial view, or the aerial exterior. That project is nothing if not a really serious exploration of the aerial: that is, if you keep going up and up, the world becomes quite circular and alien. You see the world quite literally as a planet.

FULL MOON: The Ocean of Storms and the Known Sea; Photographed by Kenneth Mattingly, Apollo 16, April 16-27, 1972 (1999)

Anyway, for me, yes, the aerial view has an intense physicality. I’ve been flying planes since before I was driving. I soloed in gliders—engineless aircraft—by 14, and, by 16, I had a private pilot’s license. A glider offers a particularly intimate and very physical way of flying, because you have to work with thermals and updrafts. You don’t have an engine. You actually want it to be turbulent and bumpy up there, because that means that the air is unstable—that parts of the atmosphere are going up and other parts are going down—and, if you can stay in those up parts and find the updrafts, then you can ride it out for hours.

Also, I was lucky enough to start SCUBA diving at the age of 9.

Michael Light at 9 years old, Bimini, Bahamas (1972)

Flying and going underwater are completely connected, at least in my mind. The three-dimensionality of each of them is something I’ve experienced from a very early age, and it is one of my greatest ongoing pleasures. I would say that there’s a tremendous amount of physical pleasure in both—and that, occasionally, it would even be accurate to call it ecstasy.

It’s like skiing or long-distance running: everything’s in the groove, everything sort of falls into place, you’re flying really beautifully, or, oftentimes in my work, you’re transgressing over something, or you’ve got a very intense subject, and you are trying to figure something out as an artist or as a citizen.

Michael Light at 49 years old, Petaluma, CA (2012)

You mentioned delirium. There’s also a certain kind of delirium—a spatial delirium, sure—simply in the pleasure of learning something new and, for me, hopefully putting that 3-dimensional experience into 2-dimensional photographic form. And if it’s good—if the image is good—then hopefully other people can get some of what I got.

Manaugh: This reminds me of a conversation I had with a writer named Kitty Hauser about the history of aerial archaeology. To make a long story short, aerial archaeology, using photographs, was born from military reconnaissance flights over the European front in World War I. The pilots there began noticing that they could see features in the landscape—such as buried or ruined buildings—that were invisible from the ground. When that technique of viewing from above was later exported to England, particularly as the leisure classes and retired military types found the free time and the personal wealth to purchase private airplanes, aerial archaeology as a pursuit really took off, if you’ll excuse the pun. And these early pioneers began to realize that, for example, there are certain times of day when things are more clearly revealed by the angle of the sun, including shadows appearing in wheat and barley fields that, when seen from above, are revealed to be an archaeological site otherwise hidden beneath the plant life. I’m curious how coming back to the same locations at certain times of day, or in certain kinds of light, can make sites or landscapes into radically different photographic experiences—with different depths or different reliefs—and how you plan for that in your shots.

Light: If I go out on an expedition for weeks shooting with an assistant, I don’t immediately fall into that groove. A few days in, everything will align. It certainly is a kind of discipline. You’re flying and imaging and circling—again and again and again, around and around and around—because you can’t just move the camera two inches to the left, or wait 15 minutes. You’re moving along at 60 miles an hour through space. So you have to shoot it again and again and again, until, finally, you get to a point where your physical senses are moving faster than your mind, and you’ve made all the shots that you think you should make—which are generally the worst ones—and it’s at that point that you come up with something genuinely new.

Specifically, I tend to shoot early in the morning and then again in the evening, which is pretty much standard practice because, of course, the lower axial light gives that 3-dimensionality and creates a feeling of revelation. Every once in a while, though, I will shoot in the desert at midday, but it’s usually only when I’m specifically seeking a flat, blown out, almost stunning or hallucinatory light.

Deep Springs Valley at 500’, 1600 hours, Big Pine, CA (2001)

But, early in the morning, the sun seems to go off in the desert like a gun—and, of course, the sun is much softer in the evening, because there’s so much more dust in the air. You really have to get up early. I’ll shoot for an hour and a half, which is all I can really take with the doors off of the aircraft. It’s very windy. It’s very intense. The camera I use is about 20 pounds. So we’ll come back and we’ll have some breakfast—and I’m exhausted. I’ll probably nap around noon for an hour or two then, come 4:00pm or so, we gather our forces and go back up.

It’s always much more turbulent in the afternoon in summer. Summer is when I tend to fly, though, because, of course, in the colder months it’s just too cold. It’s also just a lot more dangerous to cross the mountains when there’s snow on them.

But, on summer afternoons, it can be a wild ride. You strap in there tight. My glider background is helpful here; I know the plane will continue to fly, for instance, and that there’s nothing to be super-scared of. I know I’m at the edges of my equipment’s performance. The specifications on the plane degrade measurably when you take the doors off, because you generate a tremendous amount of drag. In hot temperatures, the engine also tends to run hot and, the hotter the summer air is, the fewer molecules there are under the wings of the aircraft, the fewer molecules there are to combust with the engine fuel, the fewer molecules there are for the propeller to bite into, and you get much more turbulent air. Your aircraft performance falls off measurably.

Afternoon Thunderstorm Looking West, Near Rock Springs, WY (2007)

For example, I often fly from San Francisco over the Sierras to Mono Lake in the summer. The Sierras, on the west side, have a very gradual slope. But on the east side it’s a very dramatic, very steep escarpment. It’s a drop of 7,000 feet almost in a straight line. You have a very smooth, very fast trip up the western slope, but, when you get to the escarpment, you hit what’s called a “rotor.” That’s a very turbulent place where the usual land-to-airflow relationship completely falls apart, because the support has been taken away. For those five miles or so, going east, you’re in a tumbly, sometimes chaotic atmosphere and it can be extremely dangerous, depending on the speed of the wind.

When I hit the rotor, I just think of it in terms of river rafting: looking for eddies, back-flow currents, whirlpools, and so forth. Even though it’s invisible, I know where I’m going to hit turbulence. Even though I can’t see the air, I know, extrapolating from the way that water behaves, where the turbulence will be—like, beyond that rock mountain spire over there, it’s going to be gnarly.

City-Owned Motocross Park Looking North, I-70 Beyond, Lakewood, CO (2009)

To go back to your question: in the six, almost seven years I’ve been flying with engines, the landscape is so perceptually dependent on the type of light that’s illuminating it. You really do get radically different spaces in different kinds of light. A different kind of vibe. Seasons will also change the way a landscape looks—or, I should say, the light itself seasonally changes.

On an artistic level, the ever-changing nature of what I do and how I do it, and even the instability of my position in the sky over the landscape—it’s all part of my process and it’s something I enjoy.

Manaugh: Let’s go back to SCUBA diving. When we talked four or five years ago in Nevada, you were heading off to the Bikini Atoll, to dive amidst the ruins of U.S. warships, and I’d love to learn more about that project. How did it come about, what were you seeking to document, and what were the results? I’m also fascinated by analogy of being in the empty volume of the sky versus being buried in the very full volume of the ocean and how that affects the sense of space in your photography.

Light: The Bikini work grew out of my earlier involvement with imagery of nuclear detonations, which, as you know, was a project called 100 Suns. That was an archival endeavor that came out in 2003.

100 Suns (2003)

As a photographer or maker of images, I’m always as interested in trying to figure out the meaning of the trillions of photographs that have already been made as I am in making new ones of my own. And, culturally, I find it interesting to think about the meaning of photography, in the very large American contexts of Full Moon and 100 Suns. I think of both projects as landscape projects and, certainly, they are also investigations into American power and the peculiarities of American scale.

Nicola Twilley: As a side note, how does an archival project like 100 Suns work, technically, as far as reproducing the images goes?

Light: You scan them. You go in and you clean them up. You do whatever the approach of the hour is. You wind up almost lovingly inside each of the historical photographs. And you get very fond of them; you think of them almost as your own. Of course, they’re not—primarily because you haven’t had the experience of actually going to that space at that particular time and choosing how to make that image.

But I had a very strong desire to go—to make a pilgrimage—to, if not the Nevada Test Site, which I never could get into, then at least to the Pacific Proving Grounds, which I could get to. I tried to get into the Nevada Test Site. You can visit it, physically, but to get over it—in the air—and to make images is basically impossible. The last person to get permission to do that was Emmet Gowin, with his remarkable images. He got in in the 1990s. It took him a decade, and that was before 9/11. I tried again, and I was negotiating directly with the head of the site, but I just could never do it.

However, one can get out to Bikini, and the way one gets to Bikini hasn’t changed. At the time I went, there was a dive operation there run by the people of Bikini—who actually live 500 miles away, on a rather awful rock without a lagoon, in a place that they were moved to in 1945. They were basically booted off their atoll by the U.S. government. The people run this dive operation really for propaganda reasons, using it as a method to tell their story.

Bikini Island, Radioactively Uninhabitable Since 1954, Bikini Atoll (2003)

What one goes to dive for there are ships that were sunk in the Operation Crossroads tests of 1946.

At that point, the U.S. Navy—this was, of course, right after Hiroshima and Nagasaki—wanted to know if naval warfare was now utterly obsolete. Could a single bomb destroy an entire navy or a flotilla of ships?

100 SUNS: 058 BAKER/21 kilotons/Bikini Atoll/1946 (2003)

So they gathered almost 100 vessels for the tests, making all sorts of strange, mythic gestures. For instance, they brought the Nagato, which Admiral Yamamoto was on when he orchestrated the attack on Pearl Harbor. They brought that all the way from Tokyo. They brought out the Prinz Eugen from Germany, which was Germany’s most modern battleship. They brought the first American aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Saratoga, out.

The ships they chose were these giant wartime icons, and they were bombed both from the air, with the Able test, and from 90 feet underwater, by the Baker test. The Baker test gave us the most spectacularly iconic images of Bikini: a water column being blasted up into the sky with the Wilson bell cloud around it that we all know so well.

100 SUNS: 059 BAKER/21 kilotons/Bikini Atoll/1946 (2003)

Those ships are 180 feet down at the bottom of Bikini Lagoon, to this day. They were functional at the time, and they were fully loaded with weaponry and fuel. They were unpopulated, although there were farm animals chained to the decks of the ships. So it’s creepy.

Diving there is pretty hairy. It’s way beyond recreational safety diving limits. 180 feet is dark. 180 feet is cold. You take on a tremendous amount of nitrogen down there. It’s pretty technical. You have to do decompression diving, which is inherently dangerous—you have to breathe helium trimix at about thirty feet below the boat for nearly an hour after twenty minutes at depth, hoping that no tiger shark comes along to eat you, as you adjust.

Shark, Bikini Lagoon (2007)

Once you’re down there, you can penetrate the ships, which are dissolving like Alka-Seltzer. It’s very entropic. You’re suffering, at that depth, from nitrogen narcosis. It’s like having three martinis. You’re pretty zonked out.

I went twice: in 2003 and, again, in 2007. During those trips, I made images from the air, on the surface, and underwater. I dove Bikini Lagoon, down to those ships on the bottom, twice.

Diver descending to 180 feet, Bikini Lagoon (2007)

It was one of the most challenging landscapes I have ever worked in, because almost inconceivable violence occurred to these places—both to Bikini Atoll and to Enewetak Atoll. I only physically went to Bikini Atoll, although I did fly over Enewetak. But both atolls were subjected to human gestures that are, as I said, almost inconceivably violent. To try to represent that photographically is very, very difficult.

In fact, the radiological disaster that occurred in 1954 happened simply because the winds changed direction at the wrong time, blowing back over the atoll at Bikini. During the largest nuclear detonation the United States ever did out there, which was 15 megatons, the winds shifted and everything blew back over the islands. It’s the worst radiological disaster in U.S. history.

Manaugh: I don’t want to sound naïve, but is it safe even to be there? Can you walk around and swim in the water and not get radiation poisoning?

Light: Bikini Atoll is still radioactive and still uninhabited to this day, but, yes, you can go there. As long as you don’t drink the water or eat the coconuts—anything that actually comes in contact with the soil, which has a layer of Cesium-137 in it—then you’re fine. The islands have healed. You know, it’s tropical. They’ve healed. There aren’t five-headed crabs walking around. The fish are fine; you can eat the fish. But it’s still pretty radioactive. I’m walking around in a Speedo bathing suit, thinking, “Wow, I’m glad I’m never having kids, ever!” You can’t feel radiation, but it’s there.

So there you are, having a tropical paradise moment, surrounded by tropical paradise visuals, yet you know, in your head, that this is one of the most violent landscapes on earth.

100 SUNS: 086 MOHAWK/360 kilotons/Enewetak Atoll/1956 (2003)

Two commercial aircraft fly the Marshall Islands. There is no access to private aircraft. The distances are too great. Bikini and Enewetak are in the middle of nowhere—that’s why they were used as test sites in the first place. To get aerial access to them was extremely difficult. I had to shoot from those two commercial air shuttles.

Over Enewetak I was able to get some pretty great images of the Mike crater. Mike was the first H-bomb test or, I should say, the first test of a “thermonuclear device.” It was not a bomb.

Mile-Wide, 200’ Deep 1952 MIKE Crater, 10.4 Megatons, Enewetak Atoll (2003)

That was Edward Teller’s baby, and one big-ass crater. That was 10.4 megatons. The scale of that kind of explosion dwarfs all of the ordinance detonated in both world wars combined. Five seconds after that detonation, the fireball alone was five miles wide. These were really, really big explosions. It’s hard to get your head around how big they were.

100 SUNS: 065 MIKE/10.4 megatons/Enewetak Atoll/1952 (2003)

Getting above and working with the Mike crater was terrific. I was able to get above Bikini, but not above the Bravo crater or out to the farthest edge of the atoll. Bravo was the 15-megaton test that left Bikini radioactive.

100 SUNS: 099 BRAVO/15 megatons/Bikini Atoll/1954 (2003)

However, I was able to dive in the Bravo crater while I was there, which was one of the creepiest experiences of my life. It’s still quite radioactive out on the edge of the crater. There’s a bunker right on the edge of Bravo Crater that’s sheared off at the top.

Radioactive Bunker Facing Mile-Wide, 200’ Deep 1954 BRAVO Crater, Bikini Atoll (2003)

Anyway, it’s obviously very deep and very rich territory. It was pretty amazing to be able to make the pilgrimage after having spent so much time with the archival material as I worked on 100 Suns. I have always felt ambivalent about the Bikini work. I’ve never known quite what to do with it. It is hard to work out there. I think that, ultimately, I will do a small book that will move between historical imagery of the ships and of the servicemen. There were 40,000 servicemen stationed there for several years while the Crossroads tests were happening.

I went back in 2007—I think that was right after you and I first talked about this. I got to do some aerial work and some more work on the ground, but, primarily, that trip was about bringing out a digital camera, which I did not have in 2003, and using it underwater. I had a housing and some lights, but I was not very successful in imaging those ships recognizably at those depths. It’s hard.

Ship Sunk by 1946 Crossroads Tests, Bikini Lagoon (2007)

There’s a lot of organic matter in the water. It’s incredibly dark. It’s very difficult to figure out, conceptually, a way to image the country’s first aircraft carrier. For example, I can’t back away from it enough, underwater, to get the whole thing. In theory, one could put together composite images, shot at a fairly close level, and then sort of stitch together what should look like a ship. But it’s a challenge.

Growth on Ship Sunk By 1946 Crossroads Tests, Bikini Lagoon (2007)

For me, throughout the Bikini work, both in 2003 and in 2007, I have taken the approach of reversing the positive as a conceit toward a sense of visually representing radiation and visually suggesting multiple energy sources other than the sun—multiple sources of light. There are also questions about narrative: about entropy, light, Hades, narcosis, dissolution.

You’ve got this kind of X-ray death trip, if you will.

Tower of the IJN Nagato Battleship, Sunk By 1946 Crossroads Tests, Bikini Lagoon (2007)

It’s a very, very strong feeling, diving amongst those ships, and the ghosts of all the people who died on those ships, and knowing what they were used for and how they were sunk. It almost feels like the last gasp of an industrial era that’s now long over and gone. It was really an age of iron. It’s as far from the digital world that we live in now that you can imagine. It’s a dead era, and the work is tough. It’s not warm and fuzzy, or nostalgic. None of that is what Bikini is about. It’s about as dark as you can get.

Along the USS Saratoga, Sunk By 1946 Crossroads Tests, Bikini Lagoon (2007)

Manaugh: In the context of 100 Suns and even hearing you say things like, “as dark as you can get,” it almost seems as though sites like the Mike crater and even these tropical ruins are like spatial byproducts of very large-scale light events. It’s as if the light of a counter-sun—the nuclear explosion—has created its own landscapes of extreme over-exposure and violence. The scenes you’re documenting, in a sense, are byproducts of light.

Light: Yes, some of this is important to me, and I do tend to think oppositionally, in rather binary terms.

Inside Radioactive Photographic Bunker Built In 1956, Aomon Island, Bikini Atoll (2003)

There are so many levels of meaning to the bomb. There are landscape meanings. There are political meanings. There are industrial meanings. There are scientific meanings. To me, as I mentioned, this is a landscape book at bottom.

I personally see the moment that the Mike device detonated in 1952 as the moment when the classical landscape sublime—which, of course, up to that point was the domain of either the divine or of massively powerful natural forces beyond human control—switched. In 1952, the landscape sublime shifted wholly over to humans as the architect.

I was interested in looking closer at that moment when humans became “the divine”—as powerful as, if not more powerful than, the natural forces that they’re subject to on the planet. What was the effect of that—what did that do to landscape representation—when the sublime became an architecture of ourselves?

100 SUNS: 081 TRUCKEE/210 kilotons/Christmas Island/1962 (2003)

With the attainment of a thermonuclear fusion device, humans are igniting their own stars. What does that mean in landscape terms? What does that mean in architectural terms? When you talk about light itself creating a landscape and leaving behind these giant craters, it’s very resonant territory.

Arguably, humans firing up their own stars could be seen as the absolute pinnacle of a tool-bearing civilization—although it’s equally fair to say that it could be seen as humanity’s greatest tragedy, because it came out of a cauldron of violence and was immediately put back into a cauldron of violence.

100 SUNS: 093 BRAVO/15 megatons/Bikini Atoll/1954 (2003)

To bring us back to ground a little bit here, I did 100 Suns, and I did Full Moon, and I continue to do my aerial forays into the American West, because these are things that I want to learn about and try to understand. I just truly didn’t understand fusion and fission; I really didn’t understand space. I think that, while I have a taste—and the human mind has a taste—for scale, there’s only so much scale that we can take. Even then, we need to have it served to us in smaller chunks.

I found that other books and investigations pertaining to outer space were just way too broad and, in the end, didn’t tell me anything. I don’t get much out of the Hubble images, for example. They’re too big. I have no entranceway into those to conceptualize or think about the subject, so I wind up with cotton candy or some nebula image that’s pretty, sure, but I can’t get any substance out of it.

100 Suns never would have happened without having spent five years on the surface of the moon, metaphorically. Studying the nature of light in a vacuum—that was really the primary interest of mine, artistically, in taking on that project.

FULL MOON: Astronaut's Shadow; Photographed by Harrison Schmitt, Apollo 17, 1972 (1999)

How does light work without atmosphere to break it up? It’s sharper than anything our eyes have evolved to see, and it behaves very differently than it does when diffused by an atmosphere. What does that do to the physical act—the actual technology—of photography as it tries to capture that light? What does that light do to a landscape?

What does that landscape do to all the other landscapes we’ve already seen in the history of landscape photography?

FULL MOON: Morning Sun Near Surveyor Crater, With Blue Lens Flare; Photographed by Charles Conrad, Apollo 12, 1969 (1999)

I spent a lot of time looking at the sun’s effects on the surface of the moon, in near-vacuum conditions, and I thought, “Well, what’s the next logical step for this?”

FULL MOON: Solar Wind Collector; Photographed by Alan Bean, Apollo 12, 1969 (1999)

Certainly, it’s not Mars, as so many publishers would suggest. It seemed more logical to go look directly into that sun and, at least in terms of the 20th century, very clear that I should step back just two or three decades, and deal with the bomb. Of course, the Apollo program never would have happened without ICBMs.

On that level, it’s logical—but it also acts as a kind of psychological journey. In 100 Suns, there’s no handholding that occurs for the viewer to guide them between attraction and repulsion. You’re just thrown into it. There’s science afterward; there’s text afterward; there are explanations afterward; there are politics afterward. But that kind of frontal experience was what I wanted you to feel, as a viewer.

It was a very daunting subject. The scale of America, and the scale of its power, offers an infinite mountain of mystery.

Twilley: In terms of both the moon and some of these military ruins, like the Nevada Test Site, physical access for the photographer is all but impossible. Has this made you interested in remote-viewing, remotely controlled cameras, or even drone photography? What might those technologies do, not necessarily to the future of photography, but to the future of the photographer?

Light: Absolutely. I think it’s important to remember that the vast majority of the Apollo photographs were made without anyone looking through a viewfinder.

Those cameras were mounted on the surface of the moon or on the chest area of the spacesuit. With a proper wide-angle lens and an electric advance, the astronauts basically just pointed their bodies in 360-degree circles, at whatever area they were collecting the samples from, and that was the photograph. They were trained very carefully to make sure they could operate the cameras, and there are certainly examples of handheld camera images on the surface of the moon, but a lot of the images were these sort of automatic images you’re talking about—photography without a photographer.

FULL MOON: Alan Bean at Sharp Crater With the Handtool Carrier; Photographed by Charles Conrad, Apollo 12, 1969 (1999)

It’s one of those things that I find interesting about Full Moon, that what we consider to be interesting, photographically, can happen absent of a human set of eyes making the image. Today, as you mention, it’s only getting more extreme.

I should say, at this particular photographic moment, as a photographer myself, I feel overwhelmed. I have not figured out where photography is going. I don’t think anyone has. I certainly know that it’s changing, radically, and sometimes in ways that make me want to run back to the 19th century.

For one thing, everyone’s a photographer now, because everyone has a phone, and those cameras are getting very good. The cameras themselves are doing more and more of the work, as well, work that, traditionally, was the field of the photographer, so the quality of photographs—in the classic sense of things like quality of exposure, density, resolution, contrast, and so forth—is going up and up and up. And, of course, as you well know, there are now systems in place for total and instantaneous publishing of one’s work via the Internet. I think we are entering a world of total documentation.

Obviously, all of this visual information is going to continue to proliferate. I don’t know how to navigate my way through that. I tell myself—because I have my own methods, my own cameras, and my own crazy aerial platform—that my pictures have a view that you are not going to get from a drone.

Personal drones are going to proliferate, and our eyes, soon enough, are going to be able to go anywhere and everywhere without our bodies. Humans have a tremendous interest—they always have had—in extending themselves where they physically cannot go. That’s just picking up more speed now—it’s going faster and faster—and the density of the data is thickening, becoming smog.

I think that photography, or what we currently consider photography, will become more about the concept or the idea driving the picture than the actual picture itself. Maybe that has always been the case. Metaphors are obviously applicable to everything, and you can find them in everything, if you want to. It’s not so much the picture—or, it’s not so much the information in the picture—it’s the spin on it. Information does not equal meaning. Meaning is bigger than information.

I used to fly model aircraft as a kid. It’s a powerful fantasy: mounting a camera on a little electric helicopter and running it around the corner, lifting off over the fence, the hedgerow, the border, and seeing what you can see. I actually do it physically now, in airplanes, and I’m very invested in the physical experience of that. It’s a big part of my aerial work: the politics of transgressing private property in a capitalist society.

I may not be able to get into that gated community on the outskirts of Las Vegas—which is what I’m photographing now, a place called Lake Las Vegas—but, legally, I can get above it and I can make the stories and the images I want to make.

“Monaco” Lake Las Vegas Homes on Gated Grand Corniche Drive, Henderson, NV (2010)

That homeowners’ association, or that world created by developers, wants total control over its narrative, and, in general, they have it. They exclude anyone who wants to tell a different story. So far, with the exception of military air space and occasional prohibited air space around nuclear power plants and that sort of thing, I can still tell my own stories, and I do.

A couple of years ago I went out to Salt Lake City. I sold one of my big handmade books to the art museum there, and I also made an effort to see Kennecott Copper, which is owned by Rio Tinto. I thought they might be interested in buying some of the work—but, as it turned out, they were not at all interested, and, in fact, seemed to wish I didn’t exist.

I met with their PR person—a very nice, chatty PR kind of lady. I showed her this spectacular, 36-inch high and 44-inch wide book of photographs featuring this incredible, almost Wagnerian hole in the ground. And the only thing that she could say, upon seeing the book, was: “How on earth did you get permission?” Not: Wow, these are interesting pictures, or whatever. She instantly zoomed into the question of the legal permission to represent or tell the story of this site. I said: “Well, I didn’t get permission, actually, because I didn’t need permission.” And that was anathema to her; it was anathema to the whole corporate structure that wants to control the story of the Bingham Mine.

Earth’s Largest Excavation, 2.5 Miles Wide and .5 Miles Deep, Bingham Copper Mine, UT (2006)

Anyway, I think it’s through my own selfishness that I would not want to send a drone up to transgress over a site when I could do it, instead. I could just sit at my computer screen and kick back in my chair—but we spend enough time in chairs as it is. It’s more that I am putting my butt on the line; I’m breaking no laws, but there is the experience of physical exploration that I would be denied by using drones. Obviously, in areas where I truly cannot go—like the moon—or where I wouldn’t want to go—like on the edge of one of those nuclear detonations—then I’d be thrilled to have a remote.

Manaugh: You mentioned control over the narrative of the copper mine. It’s as if Kennecott has two-dimensional control over their narrative, through image rights, but they don’t have volumetric, or three-dimensional, control over the narrative, which you can enter into with an airplane and then relate to others in a totally different way.

Light: Of course.

My particular approach, aerially, is very different. The obvious answer is: why not just Google Map it, and zoom in, and then throw a little three-dimensionality on it by moving a little Google Earth lever? But the actual act of going in at the low altitudes that I do lets me make these particular images. I don’t do verticals; I do obliques, because they allow for a relational tableau to happen. To go in low—to make that physical transgression over Bingham or over Lake Las Vegas or over this or that development—is great, and I think it’s a viewpoint that is unique.

Looking East Over Unbuilt “Ascaya” Lots, Black Mountain Beyond, Henderson, NV (2010)

Manaugh: You’ve mentioned Las Vegas, but I’d also like to talk about your Los Angeles work. You basically have two oppositional series—L.A. Day and L.A. Night—which really makes explicit the role light plays in changing how we see a landscape. For instance, in L.A. Night, the city is represented as this William Blake-like microcosm of the universe, with the lights of the houses in the Hollywood hills, and the cars on the freeways, mimicking the stars above them. The city becomes a copy of the sky.

Untitled/Downtown Dusk, Los Angeles (2005)

Then there’s L.A. Day, which confronts the massive Ballardian geometry of the freeways themselves, baking under the sun.

Long Beach Freeway and Atlantic Boulevard Looking Southeast, L.A. River Beyond (2004)

I’m interested in what the city is doing for you in these photographs. Is it a representation of the end of civilization, or is it a strange depiction of new, golden dawn for urban form? What is your attraction to and metaphoric use of the city—of Los Angeles, in particular?

Light: Well, these are very interesting questions. One thing to bear in mind, first of all, is that the day work and the night work is now quite old work to me. The day work was shot in 2004 and the night work was shot in 2005 and it’s just a Los Angeles; it’s not the Los Angeles. It’s very much a particular spot in time that I found myself at that moment. I’ll get into that in a little more detail in a minute.

Back in 1986, when I moved to San Francisco, I wanted to come west for a lot of reasons, one of which was to work for the environment. I had worked for the Sierra Club doing political lobbying with their D.C. office for a couple of years right out of school in the late 1980s. I’ve remained a pretty strong environmentalist, although I try not to make my work tendentious or overtly activist in that sense. I want to be more complicated than that.

Looking Northwest, Somewhere Near Torrance (2004)

Anyway, in San Francisco, the default attitude is to look down your nose at the Southland—like, “Oh, yeah, Los Angeles. It’s everything that’s wrong with America.” The more I’ve lived in California, though, which is 26 years now, the more I have come to realize that this is an extraordinarily common, but very facile, view of Los Angeles. I hope I have grown in the depth of my views about L.A., I’d say, because, if there’s any one thing I’ve learned about photographing Los Angeles—like anywhere else, but particularly L.A.—it’s that, every time you shoot, it’s a different city. L.A. in the spring is one thing. L.A. in the dry summer is another. L.A. day. L.A. night. L.A. color. L.A. black and white. I have been humbled, I think, in a positive way in my views of Los Angeles. Of course, maybe I’ve just gotten more cynical or maybe I’ve gotten a little more complicatedly environmental. But I’m not condemnatory about that city the way I used to be.

L.A. is a massive thing. This is one of the reasons why I was drawn to it in the first place. It’s so big. It’s so complex. Is it apocalyptic? Well, yes; it has a certain apocalyptic quality to it. But, if I’m trying to understand America, or trying to understand the bomb, how could I not try to understand L.A.?

So L.A. Day came directly out of doing 100 Suns. 100 Suns came out in 2003 and I had been spending a tremendous amount of time metaphorically looking at “suns.” Obviously, in L.A. Day, one of the major tropes is that I am shooting directly into the sun, and I’m dealing with air, light, and atmosphere. In that regard, I’m also exploring many of the same things as Full Moon.

I was also just beginning to work with 4x5 negatives, and wanted to go as high-key as possible, to go back into that annihilating desert light. A lot of it was shot either early in the morning or very late in the day, but the whiteness of the light at midday is a very dry, Western, annihilating light that I was also interested in investigating. There’s an image that I’m particularly fond of: it’s downtown L.A. with the river in front, and the city is almost vaporizing. It’s almost just lifting up into the ether. I guess I wasn’t overtly looking for a nuclear moment, something coming so literally from 100 Suns, but, in my mind, that image really—at least, metaphorically—bridges those two projects.

Downtown Los Angeles Looking West, 1st Street Bridge and L.A. River in Foreground (2004)

The night work was kind of a binary reflex. I had been thinking about the old 19th-century blue-sensitive films, where the skies would go pure white, for a while. Full Moon, obviously, is the reversal of that, where the ground—the surface of the moon—is white with undiluted sunlight and the sky is endlessly black.

In the day in L.A. you get the obverse: a terrestrial sky, if you will. L.A. Night is another reversal and a kind of the binary analogue to the moon and its vacuum sky.

Untitled/River Stars, Los Angeles (2005)

Those things were operating in my mind, although the night work also came out of a technical challenge I wanted to face. I wanted to get this 4x5 camera to work from a helicopter. I can only go one-sixtieth of a second. Slower than that and I get a blur. The challenge was: can I actually get enough light on the film at one-sixtieth of a second, either at dusk or in pure dark? Can I even make this work?

I discovered very cheap—relatively speaking—Robinson R22 helicopters, operating out of Van Nuys, that I could get for something like $230 an hour with a pilot. The physical thrill of having your own private dragonfly, really, which is what these helicopters are, also drove my interest. I was doing all this day work and I thought, well: let’s try a night flight. Let’s actually drift over the vastness and the endlessness of the city, and all the light washing around in that basin. It is exquisitely sparkly. It’s delightful. It has some enchantment in a way that Los Angeles, in daylight, does not. It’s rife with metaphor with all the little lights standing in for all the little people.

Untitled/Hollywood, Los Angeles (2005)

I think that, in all of my work since the late 1980s, there has been a transposition between up and down, or a loss of gravitational pull, and that’s very important to me.

FULL MOON: Edward White at 17,500 mph Over the Gulf of Mexico; Photographed by James McDivitt, Gemini 4, 1965 (1999)

A sense of vertigo or spinning in space, the full 3-dimensionality of space—the spatial delirium we were talking about earlier. I’ve always been interested in imagery that gives me a sense of looking up when I am actually looking down. That reversal is something I try to look for.

Sawtooth Mountains Diptych, ID (2012)

But that night work was very much of a moment in time in my own production—meaning that I would not go back to L.A. and make pictures like that again.

The work I’m doing over Vegas couldn’t be more different. It’s color. It’s very much lower to the ground. It’s much more specific to its content. In aerial work for me, not only is there tremendous pleasure in moving through space, 3-dimensionally, there is also tremendous pleasure in moving over and around and amongst geology and amongst actual formations of the land. Much of the content of the western work is about that dialogue between geology and the built world.

Empty Lots in the “Marseilles” Lake Las Vegas Community, Henderson, NV (2011)

The subtitle of my larger project, Some Dry Space, is An Inhabited West. My point is that there is no place that’s untouched anymore. The west is a giant human park.

But, that said, there is still lot of space left and it’s really fun to move through that space. It’s fun to say, well, okay, here’s Phoenix or here’s Los Angeles, but how can I make images that actually show the power of the geology of a place? How do I represent two different time scales? How do I photograph the human one and the tectonic one? I find that dialogue, between a human time frame and the time frame of the land, to be an interesting one. I try to capture both when I can, preferably adjacent to each other in the same picture.

New Construction On East Porter Drive, Camelback Mountain Beyond, Scottsdale, AZ (2007)

Twilley: What have you been trying to capture or represent in your most recent trips out there?

Light: Every flight is different. Every mindset is different. I find that I take radically different pictures each time I go up. It’s an interesting thing. I’ve contained myself to two areas—Lake Las Vegas and the MacDonald Ranch, which is this whole side of a mountain that’s been completely sculpted into house pads. It is the most spectacular, simple engineering project I think I’ve ever seen. It’s very dramatic. Parts of it are built out; parts of it aren’t. I don’t know what the final awful sales name of the development will be, but these will be very high-end homes.

I’ve really taken on the domestic side of Las Vegas, where “California dreams” are to be had on the cheap—and then on the extraordinarily inflated side of things, the delusional, opulent side of things.

Vegas is a very easy target for the sophisticated East Coast cultural critic to come out and judge. But that line of critique is a dead end. It’s not new territory, and it also dismisses the people—the end-users—without asking any questions about how they got there. I’ll nail the developers any day of the week: this is a calculated, rationalized capitalist agenda for them. But the people at the end, on the receiving side of it, the people who are trying to build their lives and their dreams, on whatever unstable sands that they can or can’t afford out there—I would like to present them critically but without condemnation.

Halted “Bella Fiore” Houses and Bankrupt “Falls” Golf Course, Lake Las Vegas, Henderson, NV (2011)

The L.A. work was too high and atmospheric to get political. Now that I’m down, flying much lower and getting closer and closer to the material, I think the work can carry more of an agenda. It is a presentation with sophisticated layering, I hope, rather than a blanket condemnation. Otherwise, I’m looking down my nose, saying, “Oh, look at these poor fools living in Las Vegas, while I’m up in San Francisco living the way people should live.”

The more work I do in Las Vegas, the more I see parallels between the mining industry—and the extraction history of the west—and the inhabitation industry. They do the same sort of things to the land; they grade, flatten, and format the land in similar ways. It can be hard to tell the difference sometimes between a large-scale housing development being prepped for construction and a new strip mine where some multinational firm is prospecting for metals.

Unbuilt “Ascaya” Lots and Cul De Sac Looking West, Henderson, NV (2011)

In other words, the extraction industry and the inhabitation industry are two sides of the same coin. The terraforming that takes place to make a massive development on the outskirts of a city has the same order, and follows the same structure, as much of the terraforming done in the process of mining.

That was a revelation for me. The mine is a city reversed. It is its own architecture.

Hiking Trail and Unbuilt “Ascaya” Lots, Black Mountain Beyond, Henderson, NV (2010)

This latest shoot also resulted in some structural advances in the photographs, in the way that they are composed and the way that they are offset and fragmenting. I was pleased with it. I was also testing out a new camera I had rented.

Twilley: Are you shooting digital?

Light: I am beginning to. I’m trying. I’m renting all the Hasselblads—60 megapixels—that I can get my hands on.

Two years ago now, when I had already been doing the Vegas work for a while, I wanted to get away from the very, very new. I wanted to get away from what was, before the crash, the fastest-growing city in America, and go out to find the very, very old. I flew out to the Acoma Pueblos and the Hopi Mesas, which are the oldest, continuously inhabited settlements on the North American continent.

I worked out there twice, on two separate trips, that summer of 2011. It was amazing: the super-old against the super-new. Obviously, the Vegas work is by helicopter, whereas I’m in my small aircraft over Acoma and Hopi land.

The Hopi outlawed photography, recording, and anthropological visits and sketching back in 1913. You do not roll up onto Hopi land and take pictures or make recordings without their specific permission. Likewise with Acoma: you ask permission. This is sacred territory.

Now, I’m in the air. I don’t have any problem transgressing over corporate property—private property—when I’m in America: it’s my country and I’m an American. I’m an arrogant motherfucker. If I want to make a picture, I’m going to make a picture. I don’t care who you are; I’m going to do it, if I can legally get away with it, and, in the air, I can legally get away with it.

However, I do not have that right over Hopi land and Acoma. I don’t have that right over Native American territory. It is not my country; it’s their country. It’s not my nation. It’s not my inheritance. It’s not my heritage. It’s not my politics. It’s their sovereignty. I truly do not have a right, morally, as far as I am concerned, to transgress those boundaries. I respect them.

On the other hand, I am a photographer—an aerial photographer—and I’m looking for images. I did a lot of legwork. I spoke to photographers who work aerially, and who have worked aerially for decades, in Navajo land and Hopi land. Morally—and, again, this is my compass, not necessarily your compass—my feeling is that if I’m there, in the air, and I’m able to make the image, I’ll make the image. Of course, whether I can use that image after the fact remains to be seen, and that will only be determined after open discussions with various tribal entities.

So, basically, I made images that I may never be able to publish. I made them because I wanted to make them. I made them for myself. I made them as unobtrusively as I possibly could. Mine is a small aircraft. It makes absolutely no sound if I cut the power and I descend. Then, eventually, I have to add power and climb up and out, but it’s a pretty quiet little number. And I would never photograph religious ceremonies.

But if I were ever to publish any of that work, I would show them all the images first; I would give them a copy of all the images; and I would probably offer any revenues from those images to the tribe. But there is a difference between acquiring images and presenting images to the world. It is interesting, these politics.

U.S. Magnesium plant, Great Salt Lake, UT (Google Maps, 2013)

Take the chlorine magnesium plant outside of Salt Lake. This is a plant that’s owned by—I’m blanking on his name. That plant outside Salt Lake is the worst polluter in America.

Manaugh: You mean the Hummer guy? Ira Rennert?

Light: That is exactly right. Ira Rennert. He owns the largest private residence in America. It’s in Sagaponack, New York. I grew up 12 miles from Sagaponack. I know that area very well.

Ira Rennert residence “Fair Field,” Sagaponack, New York: 29 bedrooms, 39 bathrooms, 110,000 sq feet built structures (Google Maps, 2013)

I have a mind—and I have had a mind, for a while—to transgressively photograph his insane, absurd residence at the end of Long Island. I would do a bifurcated book, featuring images of his house and images of the chlorine magnesium plant outside Salt Lake, and let him sue me. Bring it on. But, oh boy, would I have to talk to the lawyers beforehand. You have to plan for lawsuit attack.

Here’s an interesting story: There was a couple—a man and a woman—who made a bunch of money on the Internet, cashed out, and bought a Robinson R44 four-seater helicopter. They did this thing called the California Coastal Records Project, where they systematically documented every single piece of the California coast and put it online. I think you can even zoom in—the images are pretty high-res. I’m not sure if they identified everything on the coast, but there was probably some identification going on. This is the land of Google, right?

But, when they were flying past Malibu—which is just one part of the California coast—they happened to photograph Barbra Streisand’s house. She sued them for $50 million. She claimed invasion of privacy. Happily, the judge threw it out and said, “Grow up, Barbra. This is not about you.” And that is true: they weren’t singling out Barbra Streisand.

Now, if I tackle Mr. Rennert, then that is singling him out.

Anyway, the more I photograph, the more I have become attracted to architecture and the meanings of architecture. As it appears here and there out west in the landscape, architecture stands out so much. It’s just plunked down, naked and exposed. Whatever intentions it has, if there are any, are so apparent.

Houses on the Edge of the Snake River Lava Plain, Jerome, ID (2009)

As I have come to photograph these inhabited landmarks, it’s more and more obvious how the affluent choose to manifest their affluence through architecture. They manifest it by getting or obtaining a certain piece of land—a spectacular piece of land in the spectacular west—and then by building some sort of structure there. They want to insert themselves into the most sublime location possible.

They take in the sublime, as we all would, and as I do, but then they try to project it back out again through a generally dirty and dark architectural mirror. You see it on the Snake River, with the potato barons. You see it in Colorado. You see it in ski towns. In my view, it’s just a re-projection of the American business ego—let’s just call it the American ego—back out into the landscape, via this or that villa. It’s an architectural version of wanting now to be the true authors of the landscape sublime, and part of this abrupt shift from classical, uninhabited landscapes to built landscapes of our own monumental and violent design. That’s all part of what I mean by “the inhabited west."

Geoff Manaugh and Folkert Gorter at Superfamous HQ.

At the risk of seeming recursive, Venue stopped by Superfamous, the Los Angeles-based design studio behind our own graphic identity and website, to discuss the architecture of the Internet and the process of exploring and expanding its potential with Dutch interaction designer Folkert Gorter and developer Jon-Kyle Mohr.

As the co-founder of online networks and creative communities, such as Space Collective, Cargo, and but does it float, Gorter's perspective on the Internet is deeply influenced by the sixties-era counter-culture in which the early web's artist-engineers were immersed. The design projects he regularly features on but does it float—in addition to his own quite stunning photographs—often feature other-worldly landscapes, surreal geological forms, computer-generated geometries, and more, as if part of a visual quest to uncover the programming and code beneath the forms of the world, the frustratingly inaccessible HTML behind planets, continents, oceans, and skies.


Flickr gallery, Folkert Gorter.

Mohr, meanwhile, comes to programming from a lifelong background in drumming and sound art; he pointed out, after our interview, that he had more or less grown up inside a recording studio. Like Gorter's formal interest in extreme landscapes, Mohr's musical tastes veer toward patterns, mathematics, and code, finding unexpected polyrhythms through experiments with wires, electricity, and back-of-envelope calculations.

Our conversation ranged from psychedelic science fiction to scroll bars and the future of skeumorphism, all the while asking what it means to inhabit virtual space.


Space Collective, "a cross-media information and entertainment channel for post-ideological, non-partisan,
forward thinking terrestrials," was co-founded by filmmaker Rene Daalder and designer Folkert Gorter.


• • •


Folkert Gorter, Jon-Kyle Mohr, and Nicola Twilley at Superfamous HQ.

Geoff Manaugh: Folkert, we were joking on the way here about something you said in an interview once on Los Angeles, I’m Yours. Back in 1994, apparently, you had the realization that you were going to dedicate your life to the Internet.

Folkert Gorter: [laughter] I can’t believe you read that!

Manaugh: Where did that realization come from? What made you want to work in online design?

Gorter: I was at the School of Art, Media and Technology in Utrecht, one of the first schools in Europe that took the virtual, digital revolution kind of seriously—although it wasn’t a revolution yet, but its emergence. They brought in a lot of conceptual thinkers to talk about—well, it was not really the Internet back then. It was more like CD-ROMs, multiple-ending films, parallel storylines, and so on.

It was interactive thinking—where information technology meets interface design meets art and education. The more conceptually inclined people who were professors at these schools were almost psychedelic, I think. They came straight out of the sixties and seventies counterculture in California.


New posts gallery, Space Collective.

As interactive design went online, these people who I really identified with—these artist-engineers—were the ones who were asking how they could put their stuff online. And they started making art specifically for what was possible—the basic things that you could do in the rudimentary browsers at the time, like Shockwave and animated GIFs and trying to figure out how you can scroll more than the height of a browser to show more content.

I think that group of people, who first came to the Internet as artist-engineers, completely set the tone for what the web is now. For example, browser standards are totally based on what was being pushed back then, in terms of multimedia content.


Diagram showing the relationship between identifier, resource, and representation, from Architecture of the World Wide Web, Volume 1.

Nicola Twilley: Are you implying that the Internet could be quite different today, if different kinds of people had been experimenting with it at the start?

Gorter: Right. That’s what I think. Take, for example, blogging. I think blogging probably became popular simply because it became possible to scroll vertically in web pages.

Before blogging—before vertical scrolling—there was a 640-by-480 screen, and everything that didn’t fit had to go below the fold. That was a disaster, because people couldn’t scroll, which meant you had to make all sorts of new interface artifacts—“previous” and “next” buttons, page folding, and God knows what else—until people finally said, “Screw it. We need scroll bars.”

That’s why I call them artist-engineers, because they were making a medium that was able to carry what they wanted to express.

Of course, scroll bars already existed. They were carried over from all the other OS technologies like Windows, which is why they also get really high system priority—the mouse and scroll never lag because they’re driven directly by the operating system. It wasn’t that the concept of scrolling was new, but it was definitely one of the innovations that was necessary at the beginning of the web in order to push the amount of content that you could show on sites.


Scroll bar design, Chris Norström.

The scroll bar is a great device—I have always been most excited about it as my main user interface device. Way back, I started experimenting, along with a whole bunch of other people, with making scrolling interfaces. I would put up a ton of content, but you couldn’t see all of it. It was as if the browser was the viewfinder of a camera, and, instead of moving the viewfinder, you could just scroll the page.

Manaugh: Based on some of the images and quotations that you put on but does it float and Space Collective, from people like Timothy Leary and Terence McKenna, as well some of the things you’ve said in the past about wanting to see how human culture could move online, there seems to be an overlap between your interest in information technology and an almost psychedelic interest in things like the “Singularity.” I’m curious as to how those two strands weave together for you—if one led to the other.


Screengrab, Jon-Kyle Mohr.


Screengrab, Fluid simulation with Turing patterns, linked by Folkert Gorter.

Gorter: I’m really glad that you picked those things out. Those are the peaks of the landscape that I try to hang out in, pretty much. The web is a space of infinite potential, especially when I first met it, and it has not been charted. We can only go as far as our current interfaces and technologies let us go—in the same way that human language gives us a territory in which we can dwell—and it’s almost impossible to get outside of that.

I’m really excited about trying to make that space bigger—to create more land, as it were, the way the Dutch use ever more sophisticated technologies to pump out water and now we can live on the sea floor.

To bring that back to the psychedelia thing: for me, that feeling when you dive below or beyond or above language—when you’re in that zone—that is very much akin to being on the Internet. You can be somebody else. You don’t even have to be a human. You can speak using media.


Artwork by Anton van Dalen, posted to but does it float?.

Do you know the book Starmaker, by Olaf Stapledon? At one point, the narrator has evolved so far that he’s using the brains of different organisms as hosts. He’s sharing the minds of a flock of birds sitting on some mountainside, describing the amazing sensation of feeling an entire mountainside through a collective, distributed mind. He says—and I’m paraphrasing—that it was almost as though a blind race, through technology, could have invented organs of sight.

Manaugh: He was using the birds as a browser.

Gorter: Right. The Internet is a sensorium in the same way. Thinking about it as a biological, technological extension makes a lot of sense to me. What’s mainly interesting to me, at least right now, is that you don’t carry the limitations of the body with you in the virtual domain.

Twilley: So the limitations of this virtual world come from our interfaces—both the hardware and the software. Can you give some examples of things you’d like to do but can’t because of these kinds of technological limitations?

Jon-Kyle Mohr: Some of the stuff that we’re starting to explore right now is only possible because today’s browsers are capable of enabling it. Before, there were technological obstacles like latency. Latency is the bane of my existence. If you do something, you want to feel as though you’re affecting it, and not that there is a 15-millisecond lag—that there is latency. That’s what’s so great about your phone: you flick it and it responds immediately. It feels like you are actually manipulating it.

To give another example: right now, everything uses the metaphor of a page. We’ve been playing around with Z-space—that is, breaking out of the metaphor of a page and moving into three dimensions, the X, Y, and Z axes, but still within a browser. People have been playing around with how to represent three dimensions forever, but figuring out how to do that within the interaction history of the browser is particularly interesting.


Screengrab, gallery, Space Collective.


Artwork by Anton van Dalen, posted to but does it float?.

Gorter: Virtual reality has been the frontier forever, and people have thought about it as if you were walking into a big sphere or you were wearing goggles and all of that. But, to me, thinking about virtualizing ourselves is much more interesting if you think about expanding what is possible online.

True Names, by Vernor Vinge, is a really great book to read on this subject. He lays down a lot of amazing metaphors for inhabiting cyberspace.

I mention that because what we’re trying to do with a Z-space interface is reintroduce the whole notion of the peripheral. Part of it is to do with the Tumblr and Pinterest thing: all these people posting millions of images and the way that styles seem to emerge from that stream.

If we compare vertical scrolling in blogs to driving in your car in a landscape, what we want to do now is lift off and be able to see all these image feeds, for example, as geological strata. If you’re flying above the landscape at 30,000 feet, there’s stuff to see—stuff you can’t see from your car window. That’s how we want to enlarge or expand the interface.


Flickr gallery, Folkert Gorter.

What we’re talking about now is really more of an actual environment, in which everything you see informs how you see the things around it. That’s one thing we want to accomplish with this interface, so that when you’re looking at one visual, you can also see it as part of a pattern—you can see all of its connections.

Back in the early days of the Internet, these artist-engineers I was talking about pushed for browsers to be able to handle what they wanted to do. We still have that power. Whatever the W3C sets as its standards is just based on what people want. With the whole web 2.0 fiasco—let’s be honest—it’s as if people stopped really pushing new things, because everyone was just happy together, using Facebook and Twitter and pushing their shiny social buttons.

But we need to keep pushing new stuff. It’s a really delicate process, because if you push too far, then it’s going to be clunky and no one’s going to be able to use it; but, if you don’t push far enough, there’s not going to be any change and it will never catch on.


Folkert Gorter and Jon-Kyle Mohr at Superfamous HQ.

Mohr: It’s an accessibility thing. You have to make sure that you’re still innovating, but that you’re not excluding everybody from that innovation.

Gorter: Because if you’re excluding everybody, then there’s no critical mass.

Mohr: Degradation in digital design is also really interesting—it’s almost like time-travel, in a way. If you try to look at the Wired website on a browser that was last updated four years ago, it’s going to look like hieroglyphics.


Jon-Kyle Mohr working on a sound installation.

Manaugh: Jon-Kyle, you’ve done a lot of sound-related work. How does that relate to your online design?

Mohr: There’s a lot of overlap. A lot of sound design is just designing space, and directing the ear’s attention to certain things—how you use one rhythm to offset something else, for example. Then, all the looping and cloning translates to pagination and scrolling really well. It’s all math.



Gorter: I remember you saying that you credit being able to program to being a drummer.

Mohr: Totally. They’re both additive and subtractive processes. They use the same metaphors. They loop and repeat in similar ways. It’s actually kind of funny, because, ever since I started to do a lot of the programming with Cargo, it’s influenced how I perceive music now, as being much more programmatic.



Twilley: I love this idea of useful metaphors. If the browser is to be more than just a “window” and the web is to be made of more than just “pages,” where else might you go to find new metaphors that could expand what we can do online?

Mohr: Those are great questions. Skeumorphism was such a hot topic last year, and it was that exact same question, asking about the extent to which you need to be literal with your references versus the extent to which you can be more free and abstract.


Apple's skeumorphic calendar design, via.

Gorter: I think the way we get around this is that we try to not make a specific interface. Instead, we always use the content as the interface. This is how we always design. In Cargo, there’s no design, there’s just content. You click on a thumbnail, but the thumbnail is just a smaller representation of the project.

Essentially the browser is the canvas—it is the design—whereas, with a lot of web design, you see people making designs inside the browser, like a box inside a box, and then shading here, adding a bar there.

But we don’t do that. We try to disappear.

Twilley: You’ve described Cargo as not social but rather collaborative. That difference between closed and open, complete and unfinished, is really interesting. There are actually not a lot of middle spaces on the Internet that manage to straddle that division, whereas Cargo is populated by user content but still feels aesthetically coherent.

Gorter: I think, again, that’s because the design is the way the interface works, rather than being some kind of overlay.

Even if you completely disassociate your personal site from the platform, the brand is the interface. We care so much about the feel and the behavior of the interface—when you click something, something happens to bridge the waiting time between the click and the response, and the typography is always properly in proportion—that it still feels like Cargo, at the end of the day, no matter what it looks like.


Screengrab, gallery, Space Collective.

You’re in a structure, but the only things you see are content.

Twilley: Most of the time, when you enter a social network on the Internet, the structure is very visible. If you’re on Facebook, for example—

Gorter: Everything is a dull blue. [laughter]

Twilley: It seems to me that you could maybe split the Internet between broadcast and community. Those two different kinds of platforms have very different design aesthetics.


Screengrab, Cargo Collective gallery..

Gorter: I think that’s true. We are always trying to find out where we are, between those two poles.

We’re now working on something called trace-marking. It essentially started as favoriting images across the Cargo platform. It’s one of a few attempts we’ve made to go a bit more into the community direction. The thing about Cargo is that, although our community is definitely there, it’s built on people digging how we do stuff, then trusting us with their material.

We have implemented a few community things, though: you can follow people, and there’s internal commenting. We built that functionality for student networks that we’re now running with UCLA and Art Center College of Design, and a few other places.

This new trace-marking thing is a way to visually connect. If you see an image you really like, you can save it in your own space and you can create categories for how you want to save it—whether it’s for reference or simply to tell somebody that you love their image. It becomes a visual collection tool mixed with a book-marking functionality.


Tableau De L'Histoire Universelle depuis la Creation jusqu'à ce jour, 1858, posted at Bibliodyssey, posted to but does it float?.

But this is really early days. We always let the process determine the outcome. Today, Jon-Kyle made the first steps: you drag an image, a little shelf opens up, you put it there… So now we have to figure out: what’s next?

Twilley: It seems as though images are the quickest thing to get detached from their source online.

Gorter: Exactly. That’s always bothered me! Tumblr does a great job of showing the thread of reblogs, but then no one gives a fuck about who made the original image. Creating that kind of trace for images is important.

Manaugh: Our final question, just to bring it full circle, is about the process of working on the Venue website, and whether that allowed you to explore any new territory. Perhaps it did, perhaps it didn’t.

Mohr: The integration with Google Maps for Venue was really fun. I had never used their API. We’re actually starting to work on an API for Cargo, and working with Google Maps’ API for Venue really influenced how I’m approaching that.

It was also really fun to play with spatiality. Google Maps is already interesting in terms of its Z-space functionality—the way that you can zoom in and out in satellite view—and we spent a long time playing around to find a comfortable zoom level for Venue, and so on.


Screengrab, Jon-Kyle Mohr.

Gorter: It was a great project for us, I think, because we’re always looking for excuses to extend Cargo’s functionality. The only reason we make new stuff for Cargo is in response to a specific request. We never say, “Hypothetically, people would love such-and-such new feature—let’s make it!”

And, because we don’t design websites—we don’t make layouts, we just put content in—the Google Maps integration is not simply decoration. It’s actually integral to how the site works. What I really love about what we accomplished was that we put the Google Maps in there, but we imposed the Venue aesthetic over top of it.

We’ve done projects with Flash before where we work the same way. The problem with Flash is that it’s like an aquarium—all the content sits behind a thick layer of glass. You can’t touch it; you can only look at it. It’s imprisoned. What we've done is use Flash in a new kind of way, as a background environment, and then put a flat HTML layer over top of it so that you can interact with as if you were interacting with any website.

Now, if you guys do another iteration of Venue, we can imagine even more integration. Come back in 2014, and we’ll talk!

The thumbnail image used for this interview on Venue's "Explore" page was taken by Jonas Mlynek, ETH Zurich, courtesy of National Geographic.
On a visit delayed by a long stretch of rain the day before, Venue drove east from downtown Los Angeles to visit the Puente Hills landfill—the nation's largest active municipal dump—near the city of Whittier.



An astonishing and monumental act of landform construction, Puente Hills is scheduled to close in October 2013, to be replaced by the much larger and geographically far more remote Mesquite Regional Landfill, two-hundred miles southeast in the Imperial Valley.



As we approached the site, the scale of the landfill became more clear, and the rhythm of its expansion was also evident in the traffic all around us, as dump trucks bumped and rumbled down the highway off-ramp, all on their way to add mass to the trash mountain looming on the right side of the freeway, blocking the sun.



At the entrance to the dump sits the unassuming two-story headquarters of the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts. Basil Hewitt, a public information officer, met us there to escort us up the mountain in his minivan.



Over the next few hours, Hewitt patiently answered our many questions about the site's history, its design, and its impending closure, while good-humoredly tolerating our recurring expressions of awe at just how unearthly a place Puente Hills can be.



The landfill opened in 1957, and was taken over by the Sanitation Districts in 1970. It sits on a 1,365-acre site, half of which is devoted to a buffer zone and wildlife preserve, leaving an area roughly the size of New York City's Central Park to receive one third of Los Angeles County's trash.



Over the past three decades, Hewitt told us, Puente Hills has received nearly 130 million tons of garbage. As Edward Hume writes in his excellent book, Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash, this is a hard quantity to visualize. He offers the following analogies to convey its truly monumental scale:

Here's one way to picture it: If Puente Hills were an elephant burial ground, its tonnage would represent about 15 million deceased pachyderms—equivalent to every living elephant on earth, times twenty. If it were an automobile burial ground, it could hold every car produced in America for the past fifteen years.

What began as a small municipal dump, filling in a canyon on the edge of the San Gabriel Valley (acting literally as "landfill") has turned, over four decades, into a mountain-building exercise.



Hewitt told us that Puente Hills now rises to the height of a forty-story building, meaning, as Hume notes, that if the landfill was a high-rise, "it would be among the twenty tallest skyscrapers in Los Angeles, beating out the MGM Tower, Fox Plaza, and Los Angeles City Hall."

For quite some time, the garbage mountain of Puente Hills has been rising above its surrounding terrain, resembling nothing more than a huge and eerily modern version of an ancient tell—those giant mounds in the Middle Eastern deserts that mark where once-might cities rose and fell, and that now lie bured and broken beneath the sands.

We headed upward in the minivan, stopping to learn how the weigh station worked. Pulled over, we watched as trucks rolled up, paused on the gigantic scale (Puente Hills currently charges $38 a ton), then coughed and belched their way further up the hillside.



As he started the minivan back up, Hewitt made the fascinating observation that just a few years ago, this line of trucks would have been significantly longer, backed up sometimes all the way to freeway off-ramp. Toward the end of 2007, all of a sudden, Hewitt told us, "Puente Hills was like a ghost town. People who had worked here for forty years had never seen anything like it."

From a peak of 1,900 trucks per day in summer 2007, thirty or forty of which would be loaded with construction debris, Puente Hills' traffic decreased to only 400 trucks a day by the end of the year. "When it first happened, we didn’t know what the heck was going on," Hewitt explained. "We're not economists, but, in retrospect, we figured out something was up in December 2007, and all those banks didn't start to fail until fall 2008."

Had the Puente Hills landfill called it back in 2007, when the U.S. was on the verge of the Great Recession, perhaps we'd all be singing the praises of garbology as economic indicator.



From the weigh station onwards, the road bed sits on trash: "You can tell," Hewitt explained, "because trash is not homogenous, so you'll get differential settling, and the road will give you a little of a roller coaster at Disneyland-type ride."



If the bumpy ride was exciting, things at the active dumping site were more chaotic still. Because of the rain the day before, the working surface had become slippery and operations were confined to a "winter day" footprint—a smaller-than-usual area, given grip with a layer of crushed asphalt.

Hewitt, otherwise an extremely low-key and calm presence, became quite agitated as we tried to maneuver between dump trucks, compacting machines, and piles of shredded green waste. "This is not good!" was his repeated refrain, as heavy equipment backed up toward us without warning.

His alarm was justified: in Garbology, Hume notes that eight landfill workers nationwide died in 2010, and that the risk of "drop-off"—the chance that some of the twenty to thirty feet of uncompacted trash that builds up each day could start to slide, tipping them off the edge of the mountain altogether—is omnipresent.



On a normal day, Hewitt told us, the active dumping site at the top of Puente Hills is usually about an acre in area, and twenty feet deep. It's called a cell—not, as Edward Hume writes, "in the prison-block sense, but more akin to the tiny biological unit, many thousands of which are needed to create a single, whole organism." In other words, the garbage pile that the bulldozers and graders push, compact, and sculpt each day, is a landfill building block—a brick in the pyramid of trash that is Puente Hills.

The resulting "fill plan," designed by the Sanitation Districts's waste engineers and staked out afresh each day, informs the particular topography that the heavy machinery massaging the trash are trying to achieve. Down to its cell slopes and road patterns, the landfill is an entirely managed and manufactured terrain, a shape calculated in advance and then sculpted, incrementally, with every shift of every machine.

Hewitt's description of a mountain-building logic formed of "cells" could not help but remind us of historians Martin Bressani and Robert Jan van Pelt's discussion of 19th-century architect Eugène Viollet le Duc—designer of, among other things, the plinth or artificial hill upon which the Statue of Liberty now stands.

Sketch of Mont Blanc by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc; for more on Viollet-le-Duc's mountain-building analyses, from the perspective of a geologist, see Michael Welland's blog Through the Sandglass.

Viollet Le Duc, as Bressani and Jan van Pelt explain, was inspired by the "structural network" of Mont Blanc to develop an architecture based upon crystal forms, employing "lifelong observations into mountain formation" as his chosen method of research.

His sketches are often extraordinary, analyzing mountain peaks, slopes, and even glaciers for their formal, geometric qualities, looking for what he called "the great crystalline system" underlying it all.

Further analytic sketches of Mont Blanc and its glaciers by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc.

Bressani and Jan van Pelt's description of Viollet Le Duc's opening chapter, which analyzes the geological processes behind the creation of Mont Blanc in architectural terms, is worth quoting at length:

An expanded mass of soft granite (protogine) below the earth’s thick surface erupted through the crystalline crust above, producing a domical rock formation sprouting out of a buttonhole-shape slit. As it slowly cooled and crystallized, this gigantic mass of granite progressively shrank and retreated. According to Viollet-le-Duc, the subtraction process followed a very precise rhombohedral prismatic pattern consistent throughout the whole. Mont Blanc thus acts as one huge crystal formation—every edge, every peak and aiguille follows a geodesic structure. The pattern creates a network of cells, a type of formation that Viollet-le-Duc found also at the micro level in glacial formation. This hexagonal configuration, based upon the equilateral triangle, proved the most fundamental and consistent principle of organization within Viollet-le-Duc’s late writings and architecture.

It would seem that a similarly analytic study of the mountain-building logic behind Puente Hills could be done here in greater Los Angeles, treating this astonishingly massive artificial landform as its Mont Blanc: held in place and given shape by methane pipes, geotextiles, concrete roads, and carefully choreographed "cells" of daily growth, and, in every sense, a work of architecture.



Puente Hills' daily construction cycle ends at 5 p.m.—or whenever the daily intake limit of 13,000 tons has been reached, which, before the recession, would happen as early as 1 p.m.—at which point, its machine operators use laser-guided markers to level the top of the mound, and then cover it with a twelve-inch layer of clean dirt and green waste.

That daily blanket, explains Hewitt, stops "vectors" from scavenging—primary rats, but also flies and coyotes—and is what makes Puente Hills a sanitary landfill.



In addition to the active cell, its traffic jam of heavy machinery and dump trucks, and a pile of green waste and clean dirt for the sanitary layer, Hewitt told us of the twin banes of landfill construction: siloxanes, a chemical found in many hair gels, mousses, and conditioners, which pits the equipment, and, surprisingly, tires:

We collect tires, and we have to shred them before we bury them, because we found out if we bury them without shredding them they kind of float up and burst through our cover and our liners.



We step out of the minivan for a moment, making Hewitt even more uneasy, and are immediately struck by the site's lack of stink. It smells like trash, of course, but it's really only as bad as the early-stage rot of a full domestic garbage bag. "In January," Hewitt tells us, "it actually smells really quite nice, because of all the mulched-up Christmas trees."



Nonetheless, Puente Hills is now a sufficiently large landform to generate its own microclimate and wind patterns—with the effect that several gigantic fans and berms dot the edges of the plateau, to keep wind from blowing over residential areas of Whittier.

Meanwhile, what look like large fishing rods stuck into the ground are actually bird deterrents. "In the old days," says Hewitt, "they would just shoot a sea gull in the morning—this was back in the 1960s or 70s. They’d wing a seagull, leave it out, and it would squawk and warn the other seagulls away. You don’t do that anymore."

Instead, the thin monofilament lines hung from the rods disrupt the birds' landing glide. They are often sufficient control on their own, but, Hewitt explained, "When the weather’s bad out at the ocean, that's when all the gulls come inland looking for food." Plan B starts with noisemakers, and ends with what someone flying a remote control airplane to buzz the birds, which Hewitt described as "the coolest job."



The rats are apparently even less difficult to control: Hewitt told us that the District's solid waste research group had "done a study, way back, which found that when they compact the trash they kill about fifty percent of the rats. Then, by covering it, the other fifty percent die from lack of oxygen. They can't survive the landfill process."

After one too many close calls for Hewitt's comfort, we retreated, retracing our steps before taking a side road round to an overlook in the buffer zone.

Standing next to a water trough (the park half of Puente Hills is criss-crossed with equestrian trails), we looked first west over Rose Hills Cemetery, the landfill's immediate neighbor, to the skyscrapers of downtown LA, and then back east to the brown plateau of the active dumping site, and the lush green of the terraced mountain, its contours defined by a spiderweb of white plastic tubes.



Decomposing garbage oozes toxic "leachate" and releases a steady flow of "landfill gas," which is a mix of methane, carbon dioxide, and other trace gases. As a result, both the interior and exterior of Puente Hills are filigreed with a network of plastic pipes—trash plumbing, to divert the leachate from groundwater and collect the landfill gas to prevent explosions and generate electricity.

Hewitt proudly points out the Puente Hills Energy Recovery from Gas facility, or PERG, which generates more than forty megawatts of electricity per day from more than 30,000 cubic feet per minute of landfill gas.



In Garbology, Hume describes Puente Hill's pioneering role in transforming landfill gas to energy:

Back in the eighties, the Puente Hills engineers decided to break with landfill tradition and stop merely "flaring" the gas—the practice of burning it inside a giant torch to keep the raw methane from entering the atmosphere, where it becomes a potent greenhouse gas—and instead put it to use for power generation. They soon ran into the same problem others had encountered when trying to mine energy from landfill gas: Over time, as the trash in the landfill decomposed and settled under its own weight, the pipes would crack, crush, and break. The ingenious, low-tech solution—adopted first at Puente Hills, now employed all over the world—was to use plastic pipes of varying diameters and fit them together loosely, with plenty of overlap, like arms in a sleeve. As the trash mound settles, the pipe sections can move up and down at different rates and angles without damage, yet stay connected.




This gas will continue to flow for another fifteen to twenty years after the last piece of trash is accepted in October this year, which brought us to our final question for Hewitt: What happens when Puente Hills closes its doors for good?



"There's no closing party or celebration plan," Hewitt told us. "No, we’re just trying to save money. We’re going to be in rough waters, because when this landfill closes, we’re going to lose a huge revenue stream."

Nonetheless, work will continue at the site for the foreseeable future. In addition to the power plant, Puente Hills will become the intermodal transit site for the new "Waste-to-Rail" system that will funnel the County's trash out to the new Mesquite landfill — which has sufficient capacity to accept 20,000 tons of trash per day for one hundred years. Meanwhile, the closed landfill will still need to be monitored for leachate contamination or methane drift—a precaution that will have to continue for at least fifty years, according to Hewitt—and, of course, there is the landscaping work to transition this canyon turned garbage mountain into its next reincarnation, as a county park.

Hewitt grimly predicts that most people in Los Angeles County won't know Puente Hills landfill was ever there until it's gone—when the region's private landfill operators take advantage of the gap between its closure and Mesquite coming online to raise their rates.

And with that, we got back in the minivan, slowly winding our bumpy way down from the heights of terrestrial artificiality, back to the sculpted highways of greater Los Angeles, heading west into the city again.
Some of the most fascinating, unsettling examples of landscape painting in the contemporary United States are to be found in its prison visiting rooms, where they function as painted backdrops for family photographs.


James Bowlin, United States Penitentiary, Marion, Illinois; photograph courtesy Alyse Emdur. Note the fake trout.

Ranging in subject matter from picturesque waterfalls to urban streetscapes, and from ski resorts to medieval castles, these large-format paintings serve a dual purpose: for the authorities, they help to restrict photography of sensitive prison facilities; for the prisoners and their families, they are an escapist fiction, constructing an alternate reality for display on fridge doors and mantlepieces.


Prison Visiting Room Backdrop, Woodbourne Correctional Facility, New York; photograph by Alyse Emdur.

With nearly 2.3 million Americans in prison today—an astonishing one out of every hundred adults in the United States, according to a 2008 Pew study—this school of landscape art is critically overlooked but has a mass-market penetration comparable to the work of Thomas Kinkade. And, like Kinkade’s work, these backdrops, which are usually painted by talented, self-taught inmates, are simultaneously photo-realistic and highly idealized. Cumulatively, they represent a catalog of imagined utopias—scenes from an abstracted, perfected elsewhere, painted from behind bars.

A few years ago, artist Alyse Emdur was looking through a family album when she came across a photo of herself as a little girl, posed in front of a tropical beach scene while visiting her elder brother in prison. She spent the next few years exploring this overlooked school of landscape art, tracking down examples across the United States.


Emdur family photo in front of prison visiting room backdrop; photograph courtesy Alyse Emdur.

At first, she wrote to prison administrators to ask permission to photograph the backdrops herself—a request that was inevitably firmly denied. Instead, she joined prisoner pen-pal sites, and asked inmates to send her pictures of themselves posed in front of their prison’s backdrops, eventually assembling several hundred photos and more than sixteen binders full of correspondence. Finally, in summer 2011, she gained permission to visit and photograph several prison visiting room backdrops herself.


Prison Landscapes; Published January 2013 by Four Corners Books.


Michael Parker and Geoff Manaugh looking at Alyse Emdur's correspondence and work in their shared studio space; photograph by Venue.

Venue visited Emdur’s studio in downtown Los Angeles in June 2012, as she was collecting all this material for a book, Prison Landscapes, published this month by Four Corners Books. After a studio tour conducted by her partner, artist Michael Parker, we followed up with Emdur by phone: the edited transcript of our conversation appears below.

• • •


Alyse Emdur's large-format photographs of prison visiting room backdrops on her studio walls; photograph by Venue.

Nicola Twilley: From the hundreds of photographs that prisoners sent you, as well as the ten or so backdrops that you were able to photograph yourself, it seems as though there is almost a set list of subject matter: glittering cityscapes, scenes of natural landscapes, like beaches and sunsets, and then historical or fantasy architecture, such as medieval castles. Did you notice any patterns or geographic specificity to these variations in subject matter?

Alyse Emdur: You do see some regional realism—so, prisons in Washington State will have evergreen trees in their backdrops, prisons in Florida will have white sand beaches, and prisons in Louisiana will have New Orleans French Quarter-style features. There’s also the question of where the prisoners are from: one thing that I’ve observed is that in upstate New York, for example, many of the prisoners are actually from New York City, so many of the backdrops in upstate New York prisons show New York City skylines.

Fantastical scenes are actually much less common—from what I gather from my correspondence, realism is like gold in prison. That’s the form of artistic expression that’s most appreciated and most respected, so that’s often the goal for the backdrop painter.

Twilley: Do you have a sense of how you get to be a backdrop painter—do inmates chose amongst themselves or do the prison authorities just make a selection? And, on a similar note, how much artistic freedom does the backdrop painter actually have, in terms of needing approval of his or her subject matter from fellow inmates or the authorities?

Emdur: That’s one of the questions that I’ve asked of all the backdrop painters who I’ve been in touch with over the years. The answer is always that if you are a “good artist” in prison, then you’re very well-respected within the prison—people in the prison all know you. You’ll be making greeting cards for people or you’ll be doing hand calligraphy for love letters for friends in prison—you’ll be known for your skills. The prison administration is already aware of the respected artists, because they shine within the culture, and so they are usually the ones that are chosen. And when you’re chosen, it’s a huge honor.


Genesis Asiatic, Powhatan Correctional Center, Statefarm, Virginia; photograph courtesy Alyse Emdur.

Something to keep in mind, though, is that backdrops do get painted over. In some prisons, the backdrop can change a few times a year.

One of the artists I’ve kept in touch with is Darrell Van Mastrigt—I interviewed him for the book, and he painted a backdrop for me that was in my thesis show. In the prison that he’s in, the portrait studios are organized by the NAACP. He said that the NAACP had seen his paintings in the past, and when they selected him, they gave him creative control over what sort of landscape he chose to paint.

Obviously, there are some rules. The main restriction is that you can’t use certain colors that are affiliated with gangs. So, for instance, Darrell painted a mural with two cars and they had to be green and purple—they couldn’t be red or blue. But, from what Darrell has told me and from what I understand from other painters, they don’t get much input from other prisoners. At the same time, they’re very conscious of wanting to please people and maintain their status within the prison, of course, and they get a lot of pleasure out of doing something positive for families in the visiting room.


One of sixteen binders full of letters and prisoner portraits mailed to Emdur; photograph by Venue.

Another interesting thing a painter told me was that she was very conscious of not wanting to do a specific, recognizable cityscape, because she knew that not everyone in the prison was from the city. So she deliberately tried to paint a more abstract landscape that she thought anyone could relate to.
And a lot of imagery they work from is from books in the prison library, rather than just their memories.


Brandon Jones, United States Penitentiary, Marion, Illinois; photograph courtesy Alyse Emdur.

Twilley: In some of the photographs you were sent, the prisoners are in front of off-the-shelf printed backdrops—some offering multiple pull-down choices—rather than hand-painted ones. Are these standardized commercial backdrops gradually replacing the inmate-produced landscapes?

Emdur: The backdrop-painting tradition is definitely still vibrant and strong, but my sense is that these store-bought backdrops are becoming more and more common.

For one thing, the hand-painted backdrops are not always as realistic as a photograph, and, often, the prisoners and their families are looking to create the illusion that they really are somewhere else. So, the more realistic, the better. When I went to photograph a backdrop in one New York State prison, I found an amazing hand-painted mural of a New York City skyscraper with a cartoon-like Statue of Liberty in front—she almost looked alive. But it had been completely covered up by a pull-down, store-bought, photographic backdrop of the New York City skyline. I tried to photograph the backdrop in Fort Dix Federal Prison in New Jersey and they told me that they had just painted over the hand-painted backdrop and replaced it with a commercial photography backdrop.


Small prints of Emdur's backdrop photographs on her studio wall, alongside a few examples of her extensive collection of self-help books; photograph by Venue. Notice the hand-painted cityscape with Statue of Liberty on the left.

Of course, another thing is that it’s easier to buy a backdrop than it is to engage with a prisoner, you know? And attitudes vary from prison to prison. In some prisons, you’ll find murals throughout the facility, not just in the visiting rooms. I went on a tour of a privately-operated women’s prison in Florida, for instance, that lasted four hours because there were paintings everywhere—in all the hallways, dorm rooms, and offices. The PR person who assisted me on that tour explained that having prisoners paint murals is really a way to keep them busy and out of trouble, so they saw it as a really positive activity.

Of course, I see these paintings as a way for people in prison to temporarily escape the architecture and culture of confinement, and that’s what makes them so important for me.


Antoine Ealy, Federal Correctional Complex, Coleman, Florida; photograph courtesy Alyse Emdur.

Twilley: There’s an uncomfortable overlap between the escapism of the landscapes and then the other purpose of the backdrops, which is to not allow photographs of the prison interior to get out.

Emdur: Yes—I found that really concerning. The prison administration either thinks that photographs of the interior of the prison could help inmates escape or, at the very least, the administrators are trying to control the imagery of the prison that reaches the outside world.

During my research, I’ve been trying to figure out how long these kinds of backdrops have been used. From prison administrators to PR people to wardens and prisoners, everyone told me they don’t even remember—these kinds of painted backdrops have been used in visiting rooms for as long as they can remember. I’ve spoken to a sixty-five-year-old warden who just said, “You know, they’ve been here longer than I have.”


Robert RuffBey, United States Penitentiary, Atlanta, Georgia; photograph courtesy Alyse Emdur.

I do know that at some point in the last twenty years, companies came along that would charge inmates to substitute in a different backdrop. If you’re a prisoner and you have a photograph of yourself or yourself and your kids in front of the painted backdrop in the visiting room, then you could send your photograph to one of these companies and they would take out the painting and then put in a Photoshop background. That’s not very common at all, but it’s pretty bizarre—one fake landscape being replaced by another.

Going along with that is the replacement of Polaroid with digital photography. All these portraits were Polaroid up until the last five to ten years, I would say. Some prisons still use Polaroids, but from what I gather, it’s basically all digital now.


Prison Visiting Room Backdrop, Shawangunk Correctional Facility, New York; photograph by Alyse Emdur. Unlike the family portraits, Emdur's own large-format photographs deliberately show the prison context that surrounds the backdrop landscape, for an unsettling contrast.


One of sixteen binders full of letters and prisoner portraits mailed to Emdur; photograph by Venue.

One thing to remember is that all the prisons have slightly different rules and they all organize their prison portrait programs differently. In most state and federal prisons in America, the only place where a prisoner can be photographed is in front of these backdrops, and the only time they can be photographed in front of the backdrops is when they have a visitor—but then there are all these exceptions. At some prisons, for instance, you can get your picture taken at special events, like graduations or holiday parties. Then some prisons have murals elsewhere in the prison, not in the visiting room, that you can sign up once a month or something to have your picture taken in front of.


Kimberly Buntyn, Valley State Prison for Women, Chowchilla, California; photograph courtesy Alyse Emdur.

This question of the kinds of images of prisons that are allowed out is quite interesting. In fact, I’m working with a photographer who’s been in prison for almost 30 years in Michigan, on what I think will be my next book. In the 1970s and 80s, he ran the photo lab in Jackson Prison, and he was in charge of developing and printing all the inmates’ photographs. At that time, the rules of photography were very different in prison—there just weren’t as many rules, basically. This guy has hundreds of photographs from all over Jackson State Prison.

It’s just fascinating to see the differences between these very staged and framed visiting room portraits and the reality of the prison as seen through this guy’s eyes—through an insider’s eyes. I think his situation was extremely rare when it happened, but today it’s totally unheard of. The majority of photographs that come out of prisons today are these visiting room portraits. I suppose some prisoners are smuggling cell phones with cameras into prison, but those images aren’t easy to find!


Binders full of letters and prisoner portraits mailed to Emdur; photograph by Venue.


One of sixteen binders full of letters and prisoner portraits mailed to Emdur; photograph by Venue. Several of Emdur's pen-pals adopted the "prison pose," a low crouch, while others incorporated props or flexed their muscles.

Geoff Manaugh: Both Nicky and I were amazed by the amount of correspondence you’ve gathered in the process of researching these backdrops—binder after binder organized and shelved in your studio—but I can’t imagine that it’s been easy to edit it all down into a book, or to get releases from all the prisoners, for example. How has that process worked?

Emdur: It’s been really tough. With 2.3 million Americans in prison today, just think how many of these portrait studio photographs there are circulating in family albums and frames all across the country. A big part of me wants to document more and more and more. But, for a book, I figured it was really important to step back a little bit and not go crazy, and instead try to focus and pull out the different genres of backdrops and the different poses and the stories.

In terms of the process of getting releases, that was a huge effort. As you know, I collected the images through contacting prisoners on pen-pal websites. I sent out something like 300 letters and about 150 inmates responded really quickly with photographs of themselves in front of these backdrops.

A lot of prisoners are looking for engagement with the outside world, so it was very easy to collect the images. The challenging thing was getting releases for publication. Tracking down people who’d been released was one thing. For minors, we wanted to get our release approvals from both the incarcerated parents and also from the non-incarcerated parents, and that really was challenging.


One of sixteen binders full of letters and prisoner portraits mailed to Emdur; photograph by Venue.

But, really, the most difficult thing for me about this project is just how emotionally challenging it is—how draining it is—to correspond with hundreds of people who have a very different reality than I have and live a very different life than I do and who don’t have the privileges that I would normally take for granted.

The relationship between the incarcerated and the free is a very complex relationship, and that’s something that I’m interested in showing in the book, and that I hope comes out in the correspondence.


 
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