Aller’s “Oceanscapes – One View – Ten Years” reviewed in “Pasatiempo”

Santa Fe New Mexican, The (NM)

Published: June 11, 2010

Inspired photographers of the natural scene become expert at enclosing special rectangles (and sometimes squares) of that vastness within borders. That by itself can be daunting. Go up into the high Canadian Rockies, where you’re surrounded by — cradled by, dwarfed by — a magnificent jutting landscape of peaks and vales and rocks and glaciers, and try to place the “most significant” piece of it in your viewfinder. 
For more than 10 years, Renate Aller has tackled another sensory frontier: the Atlantic Ocean. In her Oceanscapes series, a sample of which hangs at Chiaroscuro Contemporary Art, she escaped the dilemma of trying to isolate the most compelling section of the scene. The camera is fixed. She shoots the same section of sea every time. And she has produced a stunning portfolio of her subject’s tremendously variable moods and colors.
Oceanscapes: One View, Ten Years hangs in Chiaroscuro’s Gypsy Alley space. It features 14 large-scale photographs, the biggest ones a whopping 67 inches wide by 47 inches high. “It’s rare that I give someone the whole gallery, but I’m doing that with these photographs, just because of the scale and mood,” gallery director John Addison said.

The show coincides with the release of Renate Aller: Oceanscapes from Santa Fe publisher Radius Books. Reproductions of her photographs are accompanied by essays from Richard B. Woodward, New York journalist and art critic; Jasmin Seck, German photo-art historian; and Petra Roettig, head of contemporary art at the Hamburger Kunsthalle museum in Germany.

Aller was born in Germany and studied for four years at the Chelsea School of Art and the Byam Shaw School of Art, both in London. In the early- and mid-2000s, she was an artist in residence at the Monaghan County Museum in Ireland and then at the Villa Romana in Florence.

“I started the ocean photographs when I moved from London to the United States, to a house at Westhampton Beach on Long Island,” she told Pasatiempo. “I started taking pictures, and it wasn’t an art project, really; it was just something I did, and I probably found my bearings doing that.

I think that was very important, because, you know, coming to New York as an artist is quite scary.”

The early images for Oceanscapes were captured using a film camera. She scanned the negatives in order to make digital prints on her preferred paper, made by the English company Arches. Later on, she switched to Hahnem Ahle paper, made in Germany, printing directly from photo files created with a digital camera.

Prompted by the suggestion that she made the camera change because digital cameras are easier to use than traditional film cameras, Aller at first agreed and then corrected herself. “I wouldn’t say it’s easier, because digital cameras like controlled light. They’re perfect for studio situations, but they’re not really that happy with highlights and lowlights, which is what I’m dealing with. It’s just a change. I’m still doing an analog [film] project, photographing 10 women over 10 years. I have found it quite exciting to use a digital camera, but it’s quite tricky when you can’t control the light source.”

The light source in her seascapes, of course, is the sun. It may be a constant, but the quality of light is intensely changeable, as evidenced by Aller’s prints. The water may be shimmering, placid, or tempestuous and filled with whitecaps; the sky ranges from almost white to nearly black and from blank to pregnant with colorful cumulus clouds.

Her photographs are gorgeous, but they also function as scientific documents about the ocean and light in a relatively controlled situation. (The only variable in the photographer’s action of creating each image is the position of the horizon line; she can move the camera up or down.)

“When I take the picture, I just take that one picture as it should be for itself,” Aller said. “The other thing is that it’s the anticipation of the moment yet to come. By the time I take the picture, because there is always a delay, I kind of feel I capture the moment of the anticipation and the actual moment, which is quite a different energy than taking a picture of something you’ve already reflected upon.

“I have a lot of time to think, being on the ocean,” she said with a laugh, “and this is maybe also about the way we always want to hold on to the moment, that beautiful moment, the familiar moment. But at the same time, our yearning for the next moment is as strong. It may be scary or wonderful; it doesn’t matter. But we definitely have a yearning. So there’s that contradiction.”

She intends to continue the Oceanscapes work, which has occupied her for more than a decade. “I never designed it to be a 10-year project. We just did that for the book,” she said. “It has actually been going for 11 years now. I only stopped doing it after 9/11 for a while, because it seemed to be so irrelevant. I think I was embarrassed to do the seascapes right then. I did a project about the people in the neighborhood, which was more like a workshop situation. I took their pictures and listened to their stories, more as a social worker would have done, which they didn’t.”

Each print at Chiaroscuro bears a descriptive title: simply the month and year the photo was taken. “I was hoping to have no titles at all, but galleries have a really hard time with that,” she said. “I’m doing the month and the year, but it’s really a compromise, because I think a title keeps people from engaging in the work in the way they should.

“Titles are very powerful. I did a video called Whose place is this anyway?, but the title was part of the work, because it’s about who’s entitled to a place — you know, if you’re an immigrant, what entitles you to be somewhere, that whole problem.”

Much of Aller’s other work is figure-based: the 2003 photo installation You’ve red between the lines, her 2006 Italian Portraits, and photos in the 2008 Mayim Rabim project, for example. Asked about that in relation to Oceanscapes, Aller said, “I think we project ourselves on the ocean. It feels like our presence is maybe even more so there when we’re not in it.”

When she considers the Atlantic Ocean, she said, her choices about the ideal moment to click the shutter and about placement of the horizon line are more intuitive than intellectual. “I think it’s a subconscious thing. When I look through the camera, I feel what’s the right proportion between sky and ocean. I think it’s not that I decide that, but it’s the experience. I do believe if you’re very centered in the now and here, then your decisions and your projections are much clearer.

“At the moment [early evening, June 1], I’m looking at the ocean, and it’s very gushy and hazy, and the horizon seems to be nearly towering over me, whereas this morning it felt very far away and very low. Sometimes the ocean appears low or high and sometimes very close by or very far away. That’s not just the ebb and flow, but I think it’s how the particles in the air reflect. It’s an optical illusion.”

Renate Aller: Oceanscapes: One View, Ten Years

Exhibit through July 3

Artist book signing June 19, 2-4pm 

Chiaroscuro Contemporary Art, 702 Canyon Road



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