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.
We 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.
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.
Finally, for those of you in or around New York City next 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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
With the candidate flailing in the polls, some on the right are wondering if a better version of the man wouldn’t be winning. But that kinder, gentler Trump would’ve lost in the primaries.
Last week, Peggy Noonan argued in the Wall Street Journal that an outsider like Donald Trump could’ve won handily this year, touting skepticism of free trade and immigration, if only he was more sane, or less erratic and prone to nasty insults:
Sane Donald Trump would have looked at a dubious, anxious and therefore standoffish Republican establishment and not insulted them, diminished them, done tweetstorms against them. Instead he would have said, “Come into my tent. It’s a new one, I admit, but it’s yuge and has gold faucets and there’s a place just for you. What do you need? That I be less excitable and dramatic? Done. That I not act, toward women, like a pig? Done, and I accept your critique. That I explain the moral and practical underpinnings of my stand on refugees from terror nations? I’d be happy to. My well-hidden secret is that I love everyone and hear the common rhythm of their beating hearts.” Sane Donald Trump would have given an anxious country more ease, not more anxiety. He would have demonstrated that he can govern himself. He would have suggested through his actions, while still being entertaining, funny and outsize, that yes, he understands the stakes and yes, since America is always claiming to be the leader of the world—We are No. 1!—a certain attendant gravity is required of one who’d be its leader.
A dustup between Megyn Kelly and Newt Gingrich shows why Donald Trump and the Republican Party are struggling to retain the support of women.
The 2016 presidential campaign kicked off in earnest with a clash between Megyn Kelly and Donald Trump over gender and conservatism at the first GOP debate, and now there’s another Kelly moment to bookend the race.
Newt Gingrich, a top Trump surrogate, was on Kelly’s Fox News show Tuesday night, jousting with her in a tense exchange stretching over nearly eight minutes. Things got off to a promising start when Gingrich declared that there were two “parallel universes”—one in which Trump is losing and one in which he is winning. (There is data, at least, to support the existence of the former universe.) After a skirmish over whether polls are accurate, Kelly suggested that Trump had been hurt by the video in which he boasts about sexually assaulting women and the nearly a dozen accusations lodged against him by women since. Gingrich was furious, embarking on a mansplaining riff in which he compared the press to Pravda and Izvestia for, in his view, overcovering the allegations.
A medical debate over the definition of death has led to some gruesome questions about exactly how far life can be stretched.
A few years ago, I was working in the intensive-care unit when an elderly male, pale as chalk, was rushed into one of the empty rooms. He had recently been admitted to the hospital with a brain aneurysm so large that it was threatening to burst. But before he could get surgery, his heart stopped. After almost an hour of CPR failed, the man’s surgeon went to the waiting room to tell his family he didn’t make it.
Fifteen minutes later, as I was managing a patient with a serious infection, a nurse came up to me and said that there was a problem: The dead man had a pulse. I went back to the man’s room and saw a clear, regular rhythm on the heart monitor. His wrist had a thready beat.
The man had experienced something extremely rare: auto-resuscitation, also referred to as the Lazarus effect. Sometimes patients spontaneously recover a pulse after all resuscitative efforts have failed. It’s hypothesized this occurs because of some residual medications floating around in their sera, which provide a final push to their hearts to start beating. Whatever the cause, these patients’ resurrected heartbeats almost always fade again soon.
Services like Tinder and Hinge are no longer shiny new toys, and some users are starting to find them more frustrating than fun.
“Apocalypse” seems like a bit much. I thought that last fall when Vanity Fair titled Nancy Jo Sales’s article on dating apps “Tinder and the Dawn of the ‘Dating Apocalypse’” and I thought it again this month when Hinge, another dating app, advertised its relaunch with a site called “thedatingapocalypse.com,” borrowing the phrase from Sales’s article, which apparently caused the company shame and was partially responsible for their effort to become, as they put it, a “relationship app.”
Despite the difficulties of modern dating, if there is an imminent apocalypse, I believe it will be spurred by something else. I don’t believe technology has distracted us from real human connection. I don’t believe hookup culture has infected our brains and turned us into soulless sex-hungry swipe monsters. And yet. It doesn’t do to pretend that dating in the app era hasn’t changed.
A century ago, widely circulated images and cartoons helped drive the debate about whether women should have the right to vote.
It seems almost farcical that the 2016 presidential campaign has become a referendum on misogyny at a moment when the United States is poised to elect its first woman president.
Not that this is surprising, exactly.
There’s a long tradition of politics clashing spectacularly with perceived gender norms around election time, and the stakes often seem highest when women are about to make history.
Today’s political dialogue—which often merely consists of opposing sides shouting over one another—echoes another contentious era in American politics, when women fought for the right to vote. Then and now, a mix of political tension and new-fangled publishing technology produced an environment ripe for creating and distributing political imagery. The meme-ification of women’s roles in society—in civic life and at home—has been central to an advocacy tradition that far precedes slogans like, “Life’s a bitch, don’t elect one,” or “A woman’s place is in the White House.”
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump prepare for the final sprint to Election Day.
It’s Thursday, October 27—the election is now less than two weeks away. Hillary Clinton holds a lead against Donald Trump, according to RealClearPolitics’ polling average. We’ll bring you the latest updates from the trail as events unfold. Also see our continuing coverage:
A society that glorifies metrics leaves little room for human imperfections.
A century ago, a man named Frederick Winslow Taylor changed the way workers work. In his book The Principles of Scientific Management, Taylor made the case that companies needed to be pragmatic and methodical in their efforts to boost productivity. By observing employees’ performance and whittling down the time and effort involved in doing each task, he argued, management could ensure that their workers shoveled ore, inspected bicycle bearings, and did other sorts of “crude and elementary” work as efficiently as possible. “Soldiering”—a common term in the day for the manual laborer’s loafing—would no longer be possible under the rigors of the new system, Taylor wrote.
The principles of data-driven planning first laid out by Taylor—whom the management guru Peter Drucker once called the “Isaac Newton … of the science of work”—have transformed the modern workplace, as managers have followed his approach of assessing and adopting new processes that squeeze greater amounts of productive labor from their employees. And as the metrics have become more precise in their detail, their focus has shifted beyond the tasks themselves and onto the workers doing those tasks, evaluating a broad range of their qualities (including their personality traits) and tying corporate carrots and sticks—hires, promotions, terminations—to those ratings.
Trump’s greatest gift to the GOP may be the distraction he’s provided from other party meltdowns.
Even though 2016 appears to be the year of painful, public disqualification from higher office, you may be forgiven for not noticing the extraordinary implosion of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. After all, the Trump surrogate and White House Transition chair has benefitted from his early endorsement of the Republican presidential nominee in unusual fashion: Christie’s power in the Grand Ole Party has decreased, rather than increased. The likelihood of a plum position in the Trump administration—Attorney General, perhaps, since Christie was spurned as the Republican running mate—is decidedly dim, what with the presently apocalyptic predictions about November 8.
Instead, Trump’s gift to Christie has been shadow: the top Republican’s national meltdown has obscured that of the one-time rising Republican star and sitting New Jersey governor. But make no mistake—Christie’s is a fall of epic proportions, precipitated by an unfathomably petty revenge plot. The contrast of the two, the top-heavy-ness of the fallout compared to the insignificance of the initial transgression, would be comic, were it not so tragic. Remember that in November of 2012, Governor Christie had a 72 percent approval rating. Today, it stands at 21 percent.
Evangelicals at the school are tired of politics—and the party that gave them Trump.
LYNCHBURG, Va.—When Jerry Falwell founded Liberty University in 1971, he dreamed of transforming the United States. As heput it, “We’re turning out moral revolutionaries.”
Forty-five years later, the school formerly known as Liberty Baptist College has become a kingmaker and bellwether in the Republican Party. Politicians routinely make pit stops in Lynchburg; Ted Cruz even launched his ill-fated presidential campaign from Liberty’s campus in March of 2015.
That’s why it was such a big deal when, two weeks ago, a group of Liberty students put out a letter explaining why they’re standing against the Republican presidential nominee. Jerry Falwell Jr., who has run the school since his father died in 2007, announced his support for Donald Trump back in January, and he has since spoken on the candidate’s behalf in interviews and at events. “We are Liberty students who are disappointed with President Falwell’s endorsement and are tired of being associated with one of the worst presidential candidates in American history,” the students wrote. “Donald Trump does not represent our values and we want nothing to do with him.”
Biology textbooks tell us that lichens are alliances between two organisms—a fungus and an alga. They are wrong.
In 1995, if you had told Toby Spribille that he’d eventually overthrow a scientific idea that’s been the stuff of textbooks for 150 years, he would have laughed at you. Back then, his life seemed constrained to a very different path. He was raised in a Montana trailer park, and home-schooled by what he now describes as a “fundamentalist cult.” At a young age, he fell in love with science, but had no way of feeding that love. He longed to break away from his roots and get a proper education.
At 19, he got a job at a local forestry service. Within a few years, he had earned enough to leave home. His meager savings and non-existent grades meant that no American university would take him, so Spribille looked to Europe.