Time & The Space Between

by Sharyn Udall

Gunnar Plake, with camera in hand, has ranged over much of the West finding fresh approaches to landscape. His decision to photograph the Grand Canyon was not taken lightly. He knows, for all its breathtaking splendor, that the chasm holds a vast store of cultural baggage: with Everest, Victoria Falls and the Great Barrier Reef, the Canyon is generally included on any list of the world’s great natural wonders. It must also rank near the top of the world’s visual clichés. By the thousands, paintings, photographs, prints, films, travel posters and advertisements have made the canyon into a visual spectacle. So familiar are its landmarks that it is difficult for any of us really to see them with any degree of freshness. Dashing along the rim from overlook to overlook, perhaps with the remembered strains of Ferde Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite playing in our heads, we try to comprehend within a few hours its dimensions (in places, up to 18 miles wide and more than a mile deep) and its almost unimaginable age. Exposed for our view is an expanse of time stretching back nearly two billion years during which the Colorado Plateau lifted and the Colorado River cut its channels through layer after layer of rock.

The canyon’s resulting landscape, often described as timeless, is anything but. It’s all about a confrontation with time, a longtime preoccupation for Gunnar Plake, who feels doubly challenged by the enormity of Western space and the gnawing sense that there is always too little time to confront it.

In his obsession with time Plake is hardly unique: all photographers, and many painters, concern themselves with it, particularly if they return repeatedly to the same subject. Thomas Moran, surviving the dangers of a Grand Canyon expedition with John Wesley Powell in 1873, went home to paint the first of the monumental, poetic canvases that turned the chasm into a visual icon. Moran’s vision of the canyon often included ephemeral weather effects such as showers, mist and rainbows. And the great teacher Arthur Wesley Dow, in seventeen paintings made there in 1911 and 1912, struggled to capture fleeting color effects at the formation known as Shiva’s Temple: “At sunset,” wrote Dow, “it catches the full power of the level rays and becomes flame-red.”

Among photographers, Plake’s distinguished predecessors at the Canyon range from William H. Jackson to Alvin Langdon Coburn to Eliot Porter, each with a singular approach to time in the chasm. Coburn, photographing there in 1911, wrote of “a day of fast-moving clouds racing before the sun, and casting shadows, alternatively concealing and revealing.”

It seems almost inevitable that Plake’s experiments with Western space and time would lead him to the Grand Canyon: “If ever there’s a place that says time, it’s the Grand Canyon.” Unintimidated by his artistic forebears, Gunnar Plake has dared to revisit the Canyon’s storied scenes where, in repeated visits of four or five days, he has learned to play with time, accelerating, shifting, capturing and redirecting its flow through the space of his photographs. He could have proceeded in the manner of French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, an early influence. Cartier-Bresson revolutionized photographic time, beginning in the 1930s, by working to capture the decisive moment–in his words “to fix eternity in an instant.” Despite his admiration for Cartier-Bresson, Plake’s vision has evolved in a different direction: “I don’t think we see things frozen,” he says. In recent years he has sought not to arrest time, but to overlay landscape with the passage of time. This he achieves by moving his hand-held camera during exposures.

From a vantage point at the edge of the canyon, and shooting at relatively slow speeds, Plake moves his camera in various trajectories across or into the space surrounding him. On film, the resulting lines of motion — or strokes, as he calls them — embody the photographer’s eye and hand movements, visibly implicating his own gestures to a degree more common in painting than in photography. Embody is an apt term here, because these images summon us into a kind of participatory perception — joining the photographer in an ongoing exchange of energies between our sensing bodies and the Grand Canyon as animate, expressive landscape.

Besides inviting us into the image, Plake’s strokes open other lines of inquiry: sometimes they are inscribed as arcs, creating a curving field of sensations, or a shallow zone of surface pulsations. Always, they affect his color, blending emulsions and, in Plake’s term, “stretching” the chromatic possibilities. The effects are often nothing short of ravishing. In certain images the strokes are reminiscent of the soft marks of a pastel crayon; in others, they take on the appearance of small threads, each created within a fraction of a second, collectively stitching together past and present time in the exuberance of the living moment.

In his photographs of the Grand Canyon Gunnar Plake gives us access to a sensuous landscape where we glimpse recognizable features: cliffs, clouds, shadows, an occasional raptor winging upward on the Canyon’s thermals while, far below, a river roars in urgent conversation with its rocks, unheard at the high canyon rim. All these create evocative shapes and patterns that take on an ineffable immateriality when Plake overlays them with the element of time. We think we recognize the topographical features, only to discover, with patient looking, that in his photographs we have passed from the familiar into a continual, felt relationship with the unseen. The result is not unlike the old notion of a fourth dimension, cherished by philosophers and visual artists in past centuries, that beyond three-dimensional visual perception lies some kind of higher reality, perhaps defined by time itself.

Gunnar Plake never set out in search of something so elusive as a higher reality. He is more interested in landscape aesthetics than in metaphysics; but he has slowly, despite considerable hesitation, come to realize that his photographs embody a spiritual dimension. Complex, engaging, their resistance to easy analysis renders them no less compelling. They remind us of something crucially important to our existence in a threatened twenty-first century environment: that awareness originates within the body (and the bodily earth) and that the actions of human beings are themselves a force of nature. It is more than enough for any art to give us.

Dr. Sharyn Udall is an art historian, curator, and author, who has taught and lectured widely on the art of the Americas. Among her books are Contested Terrain, Myth and Meanings in Southwest Art and Carr, O’Keefe, Kahlo, Places of their Own. She lives in Santa Fe.

1 Comment

  1. Every Move is special to us, be it Interstate Moving or Moving to Overseas, Relocations or Removals
    by many more other moves like Moving Overseas, Moving to, Interstate Moving, Household Moving, International
    Removals, Relocations, Office Relocation, Moving Companies, Machine Moving, Self Storage, Moving, International Movers, Furniture
    Removalists, Furniture Removals, Moving Home, Moving to UK, Moving to USA, Moving to NZ, Interstate Removals, Moving to
    London, Moving to Perth and. After your procedure is finished, you’ll be sent home
    with home care instructions. A federal immigration judge ordered Nassar removed from
    the country August 22, 2012, based upon his status as an alien convicted of two or more crimes of moral turpitude and as an alien convicted of a firearms offense.
    For many companies this included private important documents that need to be taken care of in a professional way.

    When water quality and complying with EPA standards became an issue, the village opted for obtaining water from the Troy public water system.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *