“Robert Turner: Rare Places in a Rare Light”
A traveling exhibition featuring the large-format, richly detailed images of distinguished landscape photographer Robert Turner.
Harvard University, 26 Oxford Street, Cambridge, MA 02138 (617) 495-3045
Through March 26, 2006.
Going to a photography exhibit like “Robert Turner: Rare Places in a Rare Light” makes me feel like I spend days with my eyes wide open but see nothing. I don’t have to drive 40,000 miles a year in a pickup truck like Turner does to find places to photograph. I don’t have to surf weather service web sites like he does to find storms that I think will produce ideal light conditions in which to take pictures. But I do have to pay more attention to the quality of light around me. A walk through 43 of Turner's images on display at the venerable Harvard Museum of Natural History is a good reason to see why.
You can practically hear Pete Seeger singing “This land is your land, this land is my land…” as you gape at Turner’s large format photographs taken in the Pacific Northwest, the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee, the canyons of the Colorado Plateau, and the forests of Maine.
Turner is a poet with a camera. His credo is simple. “I want to create individual pieces of art that will endure well and create uplift for people. I want to show the value of wild places, and the feeling of awe, peace, drama, that an interaction with the environment can stimulate.”
Like the 19th century world-class English landscape painter JMW Turner (no relation), he’s fascinated with the quality of light. Unlike his predecessor, who treated light romantically, Robert Turner faithfully reproduces the light he captures on his 4x5 inch transparencies, then meticulously prints them.
The results are jaw-dropping operas on the chromatic scale of light. Storms produce the intense color and soft light that are Turner’s Holy Grail. For the series in Utah, Turner zeroed in on the weather service web site and watched the progression of storms across the country. When he found one that he liked and could get to in a day and a half, he jumped in his truck and drove there. And waited for moments “at the edge of a storm, after a rain, in the afterglow of sunset - when light upon the land intensifies color to almost magical proportions. The effect is other-worldly and profoundly evocative.”
“Storm Over The Green River”, Canyonlands National Park (attached), Utah, is a stunning example of one of those moments. Turner found a spot he liked and waited. He was hunkered down with a garbage bag over him and his camera when a shaft of light moved over the park’s terrain and spilled onto a spot that portrayed a nearly surreal moment of peace in that wild place. The colors in his images are so rich that you can practically feel the early morning mist evaporating from your skin or smell the musk of decaying ferns underfoot in a mountain pass.
Photo courtesy of Robert Turner's web site
Turner’s art is his pulpit. He’s preaching especially to city dwellers, those of us whose idea of wilderness is a walk on the nearest Audubon Trail. He intends that his permanent images of “rare places in a rare light” awaken an appreciation of nature’s grandeur and the need for us to conserve it. If the Wilderness Society had membership forms outside the exhibit, their membership would soar as people filed out of Turner’s exhibit.
Is there something in the American culture that values communing with nature as a solitary experience? If Henry Thoreau had a camera, he’d probably take photos like this. There are no people in Turner’s photographs. In his mind, we viewers provide the human presence and peering into Turner’s images, the viewer can easily feel not only solitary but also diminutive in scale. Think about the everyday beauty around us the next time you see a magic moment in a shaft of morning light. And think about ways to keep images like Turner’s a part of our wilderness environment for a long time to come.
IN the meantime, “Robert Turner: Rare Places in a Rare Light” is an opportunity to commune with nature without having to drive a day and a half in a truck to see the action.