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Lake Lahontan | Lake Bonneville — An Interview with Michael Light

Book Store Interview Lake Lahontan | Lake Bonneville Photographs by Michael Light Interviewed by Alexandra Jo Alexandra Jo sits down with Michael Light to discuss his fourth Radius book in his aerial series Some Dry Space: An Inhabited West journeys into the vast geological space and time of the Great Basin—the heart of a storied national "void" that is both actual and psychological, treasured as much for its tabula rasa possibilities as it is hated for its utter hostility to human needs.
Lake Lahontan | Lake BonnevilleBy Michael Light.
Lake Lahontan | Lake Bonneville
Photographs by Michael Light

Radius Books, 2019. 
72 pp., 39 illustrations, 10½x16".

Michael Light has the unique ability to think and see along a wide spectrum of concepts. Like the landscapes he aerially photographs while carefully piloting a small plane, his creative vision is vast and encompassing. The photographic work in Some Dry Space: An Inhabited West, his ongoing project about the environment of the American West, simultaneously interrogates the conceptual spaces between human presence and absence, beauty and terror, emptiness and lack-thereof, American culture’s power, and the dwarfing of that power in a monumental landscape. The work brings up issues of scale and transformation, revealing the “automatic writing” that human existence etches onto the face of our planet, which in turn points to other transitory marks that the history of life on earth has left behind.

Light’s photographs are lithe, shifting to examine relationships between order and chaos, appearance and erasure, and human kind’s presence in the world. While his eye for color and composition are easily legible in the images, Light’s keen sensitivity to objecthood manifests itself firmly in his photobook projects. His most recent publication through Radius Books, Lake Lahontan/Lake Bonneville, commands attention with a large physical footprint and a unique do-si-do reversed binding. The book’s striking color palette undulates through quiet greys, warm yellows, electric green-blues, and shocks of charcoal black, referencing an array of subjects and sparking the viewer’s imagination. Along with the strong versatility in the photographs of these two ancient lake basins, the tactile pleasure and substantiality of the book are part of what draws viewers into the complete experience of the project. The book is bound so that it must be turned over, handled, interacted with, for viewers to read all of the poetically curated text and see each image. The design elegantly separates and opposes the two bodies of work while creating a coherent conversation between them.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Light about Lake Lahontan/Lake Bonneville. He expands on the book’s relationship to the Some Dry Space: An Inhabited West project as a whole, his incredible and risky process for shooting the photographs, and his background as an artist and maker.

Lake Lahontan | Lake Bonneville. By Michael Light.

 Alexandra Jo: How did you get your start in photography?

Michael Light: I started making images in high school, as the proverbial “pencil-necked geek”—it was a way to exercise some power amidst my peers and some exigency in the New England forest landscape that I was trapped in for those four years. I ran the yearbook for a couple of years, which morphed later in my undergraduate days to editing the visual section of the college literary journal, and was always pulled to the outdoors, to what I’d call the “not-us,” to spaces and environments larger than myself and that of the culture that surrounded me. My father was a professor of painting at Rochester Institute of Technology and my mother’s first husband wound up being tenured in the photo department there—Minor White was around—and at graduation from high school I was presented with a used monorail 4x5, a Beseler enlarger, and a white Ford F-150 with no power steering and a “three on the tree.” It was DESTINY, and I got as far away from New England as I possibly could at every opportunity. I headed West permanently at the age of 22, a week after receiving my BA in American Studies. I’ve now been perched in the Bay Area for 33 years, a great place from which to explore the larger West.

AJ: How did you start making photo books?

Lake Lahontan | Lake Bonneville. By Michael Light.
ML: Books were around in a big way in my family—not only literarily but also in an antiquarian, fetish object sense—and I learned early on what red goatskin, endpaper marbling, and vellum were, and what they might mean. Books had an almost biblical authority in my world, and this goes back as far as I can remember. There were also some famous writers around where I grew up, some who were mentors, and I youthfully worshipped their ability to shape experience and create meaning out of the often senseless chaos of life. And of course, I wanted to be them, as much as I was intrinsically and already an image-maker. Ultimately and in retrospect, the photobook was the perfect melding for me of the two disciplines of writing and imaging, and I have always worked hard to imbue my books with a strong sense of what one might call “object-wonder,” which can slyly and in the best instances lead to “object-authority.” My first and most enduring education in photography was self-taught and through the photobook form, driven by a visceral hunger, beginning in maybe 1979 when I was a junior in high school. I inhaled every photobook I could thereafter. They shaped the way I think photographically, and at this point, I can’t really create a body of work without creating some sort of book. I can image freely, without thinking of the book form, but the only way I can edit and shape is through a book sequence.

AJ: Your website mentions that you’re focused on “the environment and how contemporary American culture relates to it.” This feels like a very important and timely topic to explore as an artist today. Can you talk a bit more about how this concept manifests itself in your work overall?

ML: Overall my career has been concerned with investigations of space, scale and place on the one hand, and human alteration of those things on the other. I am interested in the point where what we might call built and unbuilt worlds collide, and in the power relationships that ensue. Tool-bearing homo sapiens are very powerful beings—we don’t need to look far in the Anthropocene’s human park to find evidence of that—but there are also points and places and situations where that power is dwarfed. My work aims to look at the consequences and limitations of that human power carefully in the context of beauty and terror—the fundamentals of the classical landscape sublime—as well as attempt to channel and transcribe some of the power inherent in the many and almost infinite worlds that are not us. Arguably one could title all my work “What We Do.” The American part comes in because I’m a US citizen who studied the history and politics of that nation deeply early on, living in the American West, and one who prefers to work relatively close to home. All my work can be said to be an examination of Western space, whether literal or mythic, lunar or atomic. It’s also true that American power, being the most pervasive on the planet so far, does deserve an especially relentless look. The American lens happens to be my own, but I think my work extends beyond that space to examine larger human and environmental verities.

Lake Lahontan | Lake Bonneville. By Michael Light.

AJ: Additionally, can you speak more specifically about this concept in relation to the multi-volume Some Dry Space: An Inhabited West project that the Lake Lahontan/Lake Bonneville book is a part of?

ML: Some Dry Space: An Inhabited West is an effort to look at various aspects of how we live in that part of America that still offers a mythic—and to some degree, actual—promise of emptiness and the concurrent sense of possibility that attends it. The project is archetypal, rather than encyclopedic, and examines both settled and unsettled areas, deeply altered places as well as more pristine. I make large – 36” x 44” when open – handmade books in the studio, and at this point, there are 19 that relate to Some Dry Space. The three works that I’ve published with Radius Books previous to this year are based on some of the big books and touch on mining, Los Angeles and its hell-spawn, Las Vegas—space that is very heavily settled and altered. With the latest work and the most recent book it became, I felt it was time to venture more deeply into a more overtly empty territory, effectively to make something from “nothing.” Of course, a key premise of the larger project is that there is no emptiness, that we are at this point everywhere, always, and also that what we might consider from a human perspective to be a non-scape is actually bursting with myriad realities that we often overlook.

AJ: The photographs in this book specifically seem to create a dynamic push/pull sensation between the micro/macro in scale and perspective. What are you thinking about as far as perspective and scale go when you’re planning and creating these images?

Lake Lahontan | Lake Bonneville. By Michael Light.
ML: I’m piloting my 600 lb, 100 horsepower aircraft about 500 feet above the ground—carefully!—and trying to make images that convey the greatest sense of vastness and scale possible. The goal with this work was to venture as much as possible into a spatial and psychological unknown. Deep space, wholly open to interpretation, while still keeping just enough visual moorings to eventually be locatable in a landscape. I’m thinking about going as far as I possibly can into a world of actual and perceptual danger, and coming back alive. The method of obtaining these images is not for the faint-hearted. And yes, I am flying and imaging at the same time. They happen by having real skin in the game; no drone could make them.

AJ: When I first looked at the work, I was reminded of many different branches of visual expression from abstract expressionist painting to contemporary drawing practices. Do you think there is a relationship to drawing or painting here? How so or how not?

ML: Of course, and the relationship in the images is intentional. One of the things that’s most interesting to me, however, is not the references to art history, but the larger statement about humans themselves engaging in kind of automatic writing on the surface of the planet. Parts of the Bonneville imagery refer in my mind to the densest urban spaces: they evoke Times Square in New York, or the metastasizing residential valleys of outer L.A. And in that writing, where is the line between madness and coherency, between the grid and chaos? Are they one and the same on occasion? The Lahontan imagery revolves around the actual grid of Burning Man’s Black Rock City, an 80,000-strong conurbation that paradoxically is built and disassembled annually, but whose decades-deep palimpsest of earthly marks is erased by fierce annual Winter floods and storms. A lost Atlantis drawn, erased, and redrawn again and again.

Lake Lahontan | Lake Bonneville. By Michael Light.

AJ: I feel like transformation also plays a large role in these images. You’re transforming these vast, arid landscapes into images that evoke imagination and could reference so many things visually from computer chips to alien worlds to microscopic biology. At the same time, as a viewer, I become aware of human presence in the landscape with vehicle tracks, etc. How does the concept of transformation resonate with you?

ML: We are everywhere—and also not. I wanted these images to offer things yet unseen, to offer more than what the lens sees merely optically. There is a deliberate transformation of standard perception here. We drown in mimetic imagery; why make more unless it offers something heretofore unknown? I should say that these images, while not what the lens and the eye immediately sees optically, technically remain “whole”—I increase contrast and tonal separation in them after the fact, and the color palette accordingly becomes more extreme, but all colors were there in the image to begin with, and each remains an uncomposited photograph of a specific place. I think one of the most amazing things about art is that it posits that what we think to be a known world can actually be something else—that there is, in fact, no one “real world”—that, as the writer, Peter Matthiessen once said to me, “there are many worlds, all of them real.”

Lake Lahontan | Lake Bonneville. By Michael Light.

AJ: Can you elaborate on what drew you to these two sites, Lake Lahontan and Lake Bonneville, specifically?

ML: "Lake Lahontan" and "Lake Bonneville" are the historical names of the Pleistocene lakes that once covered to a depth of 900 feet almost all of Nevada and a great deal of Utah, 10,000 years ago. They also mark a lot of the Great Basin, which is that part of the West where all water drains inward and evaporates, rather than flowing to the sea—a great metaphor for a kind of landscape meditation as well as the place traditionally thought of as the most “empty” in America.

AJ: This book encompasses photographs of both sites, Lake Bonneville and Lake Lahontan, and the reversed do-si-do type design elegantly coheres the two bodies of work by keeping them separate but creating a legible relationship between them. It’s also pleasantly substantial as a physical object. How did you decide on the design for this project?

ML: Thank you. I decided carefully! The book is the 23rd edition published of my work. Key to the design of the book was establishing both a dyadic relationship between the two neighboring Pleistocene spaces, which have related but different tones in the imagery, and a profound sense of vertigo, where up is down and down is up and there is no beginning or end or back or front. I’ve noticed in book signings that people will often unwittingly look through the images upside down, which in this book—two books plural, actually—is an easy mistake to make.

Lake Lahontan | Lake Bonneville. By Michael Light.

AJ: The text in the book is rather poetic and seems just as gracefully designed and curated as the rest of the book. Where does the text come from and what was the idea behind selecting/designing it?

ML: There are three texts in the work: a rather poetic one by the writer and critic Leah Ollman, a boisterous and incantatory one by the poet and naturalist Charles Hood, and an expository one about the geology and history of the Great Basin by the writer William L. Fox. There is also a pull-out folded reproduction of a key Great Basin map published in 1849 by explorer John C. Fremont, which served as an inspiration to me. A strange and compelling line of (offensively and almost laughably colonialist) text arcs through the tabula rasa emptiness of the Basin . . . .

AJ: You’ve worked with Radius books before… what is it like to work with this publisher?

ML: Radius is great—David Chickey and I have now done four books together, all to the same trim size, part of a single inter-related series, and he and I are hand in glove when it comes to design decisions and together collaborate extremely well. He is all one could ask for in an editor/designer/publisher, in that he takes what an artist is doing and distills it into the best form possible, making it that much more potent and liberating it to be that much more itself.

AJ: What is the next step in the Some Dry Space: An Inhabited West project?

ML: Getting people to buy and review and enjoy the latest book! As for the next and perhaps final book in the published series, stay tuned.

Purchase the book

Lake Lahontan | Lake Bonneville. By Michael Light.