A Conversation with Michael Light

The primary components of Los Angeles:

A Conversation with Michael Light

The primary components of Los Angeles:

A Conversation with Michael Light

Lawrence Weschler
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Michael Light is a San Francisco–based artist and bookmaker whose work, by turns fiercely political and achingly rhapsodic, and not infrequently both at once, has come to focus, with gathering power and lucidity, on the rapture and the rupture that are man’s trace on the land.

Randomly born, as he likes to put it, in Clearwater, Florida, to a painter father and a weaver mother (who separated within months of his birth), Michael journeyed north with his mother, first to Greenwich Village (where they lived opposite E. E. Cummings’s widow) and then on out to the light-saturated flatlands around Amagansett on far eastern Long Island (Pollock, de Kooning, and Fairfield Porter country). So an abiding interest in light was more than just a matter of namesake inheritance with him (the name, for that matter, being that of his mother’s rather than his absent father’s family). Another big influence in his early years, he reports, was his mother’s father’s brother, Richard Light, “a world explorer and a great pilot in the ’30s who was actually the first person to fly around the world in a private seaplane about three years after Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic and was a grandfather figure to me and very, very glamorous.”

Michael pursued American Studies at Amherst, heading out west shortly after graduation, quickly securing work with conservationist outfits in the Bay Area and eventually tacking on an MFA in photography from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1993, focusing on landscape work from the outset (“always landscape,” as he says, though “always with a certain sense of beauty marked by violence and terror”).

Most readers, however, will have first become familiar with his name through his work compiling a man-on-the-land book of an entirely different order, the land in question being the moon, and the photos a brilliant cull (superbly rescanned) from among the thirty thousand that NASA and its astronauts had prized on the various Apollo missions. The resultant book, Full Moon—the sequence of images gorgeously choreographed by Light—proved something of a sensation when it was published in eight editions worldwide in 1999.

Light followed up his lunar work with something solar, or so he suggested in the title of his next compilation, 100 Suns, though here again his central concentration remained man’s trace on the land, in this case focusing on the years when man somehow brought the terrible energy of the sun itself down to Earth: that is, the aboveground tests, first in the American Southwest desert and then out in Micronesia, of the successive iterations of the atomic and subsequently hydrogen bombs. Seldom has Rilke’s insight into the sublime, at the outset of his Duino Elegies, seemed more pertinent, beauty in fact being “nothing but the beginning of a terror we can only just barely endure, and we admire it so because it calmly disdains to destroy us”—or has anyway thus far: every angel terrible indeed.

It was perhaps partly his work on those books that sharpened Light’s interest in the empty (almost lunar) expanses of the Great American Desert—or rather the ever-less-empty far reaches of those expanses. For man’s trace was increasingly everywhere. Light now began following in his great uncle’s footsteps, taking to the air (in light planes and helicopters) to document the encroaching human presence with photos of his own, in a project he has been calling Some Dry Space: An Inhabited West. The project is ongoing, ranging from a sequence of images of the gargantuan Bingham open-pit mine and, nearby, the towering Garfield stack, both outside Salt Lake City (gathered in another book, Bingham Mine/Garfield Stack, in 2009), to a host of surveys of specific ex-urban subdivisions (Las Vegas, Phoenix, and the like), and continuing this year in the release of a book version of his dark, bright paean to the granddaddy of all human gouges across the once-empty land, and in some ways Light’s most stunning and revelatory volume to date: LA Day/LA Night (out this month from Radius Books). Its imminent publication proved the occasion for our conversation.

—Lawrence Weschler


LAWRENCE WESCHLER: When did you start flying?

MICHAEL LIGHT: I was flying planes before I was driving cars. I didn’t know my maternal grandfather, who died when I was very young, but I knew his brother, Richard Light, who filled that role for me. He was an explorer, geographer, and pilot, and was the first person to fly around the world in a private seaplane a few years after Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic. Dick took a great interest in my nascent interest in flying, and his tales were rather glamorous for a young boy, to say the least. I started gliding when I was fourteen, about when I started photographing. I was a geeky kid, and the camera was a way in high school for me to have some power. Flying was, too, I guess. Flying was certainly formative for me; I have a deep and lasting ease with it as a result.

LW: And what sort of pictures were you making early on?

ML: Landscape, even then. I was self-taught and my heroes were the giants of the canon. I was just barely becoming aware of contemporary production; it was the late 1970s. I’m almost embarrassed to say it, but we all have to start somewhere: Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Paul Strand, and Stieglitz.

LW: But it’s only nowadays that one would be embarrassed to say that; I think there’s a backlash of sorts. What exactly is that about?

ML: Well, on a deep personal level, I’m very much a romantic and attracted to idealized pastoral beauty. I love idyllic places and the kind of suspension of history they offer. But noble beauty is not enough these days. One must complicate the picture, because there’s now nowhere to “escape” to on the planet in pursuit of a hermetic pastoralism or a redemptive wilderness sublime. Earth is now a human park.

LW: Another way of putting it would be that Ansel Adams took all those pictures and failed to notice all the other stuff that was going on.

ML: Exactly. The New Topographics exhibition in 1975 irreversibly shattered the concept of “landscape” as being what one finds in a national park. We now commonly speak an entirely different language in photography.

LW: You were aware of that as a budding photographer?

ML: No, I figured it out slightly later, but it didn’t take long. It was liberating to conceive of “nature” as including the parking lot as well as the waterfall at Yosemite, or even the suburban backyard in the San Fernando Valley. Once one crosses a conceptual threshold of rethinking what nature might or might not be, it can multiply outward radically. The world becomes a more interesting place to be, and one is perhaps somewhat less judgmental.

LW: We like to think we know more than our ancestors, which is true: we know them.

ML: And they can’t know us! I simultaneously conjure and kill them all the time, like the Buddhas they are. I’m attracted to the garden, without a doubt, but I always try and image the wolf that’s there, too. And that wolf would be us. It’s not that we’re malevolent or evil—we’re marvelous, fantastic, tool-bearing beings and capable of so much—but there are so many of us, and we don’t tend to take responsibility for what we do.

LW: In that sense, I would say that you’re a photographer of the tragedy of the commons. In other words, humans as individuals are wonderful, but they have no interest in taking responsibility individually for things that they do en masse.

ML: Yes, with an emphasis on my home territory. I’ve always been amazed at the vastness of America itself and what it does and how it does it. I’m interested in the mechanics of what makes this country happen, the power structures, the natural splendor.

LW: Philosophically, does photographing get in the way of understanding, or does it heighten the sense of presence of the thing that you’re looking at when you’re flying? Right now we’re looking at a picture of L.A. on the table. Do you find that you aren’t really able to see L.A. when you are photographing, because you’re so consciously trying to figure out how you’re going to frame it? Or, conversely, do you see it more intensely, with hawk eyes, because, quarrying your prey, which is a perfect image, you’re having to look even harder to attain it?

ML: I think for me it would be closer to the latter. My process of both flying and photographing is a kind of perfect union. Each feeds the other. Like most of us—at least in our dreams—I have a profound passion for the act of flying. It’s very freeing, with an intense physicality, but it also gives an Olympian, god’s-eye view, which fuels a larger cerebral and structural analysis. And when I go up, especially if I’m paying for a small helicopter and pilot, I’m on, you know? I’ve got an hour and a half and the clock is ticking and it’s costly and I enter into a super-heightened state of mind.

LW: Is it a god’s-eye or hawk’s-eye view?

ML: Well, I think it’s both and it can vary. For me, photography doesn’t get in the way. The representational-image urge is actually a kind of heightened perception, and I don’t stop to think. I don’t freeze up—it’s actually a kind of letting-go. It’s like dancing. At a certain point it’s conscious, unconscious, everything is kind of coming together.

LW: Flying is like doing the Lindy Hop: the two dancers flinging past each other as counterweights.

ML: And to have the photographs after this dance is so lovely. They give me an analog to my physical movement through space, sometimes more interesting than the actual experience, sometimes less. There’s that picture in LA Night where the camera is moving right through the middle of the buildings of downtown. I wanted so badly to do that shot and couldn’t resist. I said to the helicopter pilot, “Can we do this?” He’s like, “Sure, we can do it.” Spoken in that outrageously understated way that pilots sometimes can. And it was one of the most amazing things that I’ve ever done. Unforgettable. Unfortunately, the photograph doesn’t capture the level of ecstatic disbelief of what was actually going on in my head, and maybe that’s a limitation of a still picture versus motion footage….

LW: It reminds me of a flight I once took with the great L.A. helicopter pilot Bob Tur, right after a storm. There were these fantastic clouds, and the light was just unbelievable, and so we headed downtown and then turned around. He planned it in such a way that the sun was just setting over the ocean as we were heading back, and I exclaimed, “God, that was great.” Then he said, “You liked that? Should we do it again?” And he went up several hundred feet to where we could see the sun again, and it was great all over again. I said, “Let’s do it again,” and we had three sunsets in ten minutes. As we were coming back I said to him, “You had just better hope there’s no such thing as an afterlife because if there is, yours is going to be one of eternal disappointment.”

ML: It doesn’t get any better than that.


LW: Why Los Angeles?

ML: Around 2000, I began seriously making aerial work, a kind of light-and-space imagery out in the Great Basin and Mojave deserts. Light and space with a whole lot of geology, a genuinely planetary landscape. Some years passed, and I realized that if I wanted to truly talk about vastness and the sublime and scale and the West—recurrent themes in my overall work—I needed to engage with the vast ocean that is Los Angeles. It was time to deal with the octopus.

LW: The giant octopus in the room.

ML: Exactly. Los Angeles functions for me as a kind of holy template. It is postwar America. There’s Levittown on Long Island and Lakewood in L.A., and everything moves outward from those two initial planned tract-home points. What better way to actually deal with L.A. than to get above it and engage with the horizontality and scale of the basin itself? Drive to Van Nuys, get into this tiny little dragonfly of a machine, a flying motorcycle with a seat belt, doors come off….

LW: Doors come off! Exclamation point!

ML: Oh, it’s so great: who needs a door?! And the pilot says, “Where do you want to go?” and that’s always a rather existential question, because naturally I think a bit about where I want to go, but of course I can’t really know where I want to go, in advance. I know it when I see it.

LW: It reminds me of the neurologist Oliver Sacks, who likes to describe himself as a clinical ontologist, somebody, that is, for whom the question “How are you?” is the clinical question. How do you be? Whereas in your career, you are somebody for whom the clinical question is “Where do we want to go?”

ML: What I said to the pilot’s question on that first L.A. flight was “Well, I really don’t know, but let’s follow the river”—that much-maligned and concretized spine of the city.

LW: Not so much maligned as corseted.

ML: Corseted, overlooked, beaten, kicked. So we followed the river, and that became the LA Day work after a number of flights. I was astounded at the vastness of the city, and I began working a metaphor of infinity. There’s a picture in LA Day called Somewhere Over Torrance, which for me typifies the endlessness of the basin.

LW: Well, it’s not for nothing that Los Angeles is where the light-and-space movement in art begins. Those are the things of L.A.… light and space. My other primary associations with it, by the way, are its atmospheric reflectivity and glare. I once talked to Glen Cass, an environmental and chemical engineer at Caltech, about his interest in the optical properties of smog. He didn’t care what it did to his lungs, he just wondered why when he went on the roof of the geophysics building at Caltech and looked toward the San Gabriel Mountains—the tallest rise from basin to peak anywhere in the world, and only two miles away—he couldn’t see a thing. So he does all this work and he figures out that there are different sizes of emissions particles, little tiny ones, bigger ones and the biggest ones. He realizes that it’s the middle ones that happen to be exactly the size of the wavelength of light. And so light bounces off them—at that point he said to me that “it’s like having a billion suns in your eye.” If the sun is behind you and you’re looking at the mountains, you do have a billion suns—but then I have a friend who pointed out to me that it’s actually a billion moons.

ML: Right, because they’re reflecting.

LW: And then Glen said to me, “The name we’ve invented for this”—I got ready to write down a really complicated scientific term—“is airlight.Airlight! Such a great name. We all know about airlight because the minute the sun sets you can see the mountains and clouds that you didn’t see all day long suddenly appear.

ML: Fascinating.

LW: But in the middle of the day, you get airlight, and it’s all over the LA Day work. The particular combination of airlight and glare is a lot of what’s happening here.

ML: In outer space there’s no atmosphere to diffract or refract the light, so “skies” there are black and utterly empty—the sort of thing I was able to explore in my Full Moon project and book. Here in L.A., by contrast, you have skies that are utterly full, all atmosphere: purely white skies and variations thereof, skies that are all diffraction, all obfuscation, skies that are almost terrestrial. So full of energy. Whereas absence and vacuum are what hover over the moon.


LW: How much time did it take to make the pictures?

ML: LA Day was shot in about two days. I wanted to break certain photographic rules and image directly into the sun. I wanted the highest-key kind of pictures that I could make, where the whites just almost float up and lift off the page, but yet still with black that could moor things back down. I printed to deliberately lift the skies and overdeveloped the film so that reflective surfaces glow somewhat. People will often ask if the film was infra-red—it’s not—because of the way surfaces almost radiate their own sources of light.

LW: How many photographs did you take and, by the way, with what kind of camera?

ML: I shoot with a camera called a Linhof Aero Technika, which uses five-inch aerial roll film. One of the marvelous things about the camera, aside from it offering a big, juicy four-by-five-inch negative which enlarges beautifully and gets incredible detail, is that I can get about 220 images, electrically advanced, on a single film cassette. You have to wait about three seconds between shots….

LW: It’s digital?

ML: No, no, it’s very much old-school film, an analog beast from another time. I’ve culled its pieces together on eBay, as it’s no longer made. It’s almost like a thirty-five-millimeter camera with a motor drive, which is very unusual and counterintuitive for a large-format camera. I don’t have to think about film: the camera falls away and I can completely lose myself….

LW: And your viewfinder is?

ML: A little range-finder at the top, which also falls away, and I just become a giant surveilling eye, the proverbial Emersonian naked eye with legs and arms looking down and peering around at things.

LW: And so you’re doing that, and wound up with how many pictures from those two days of flying?

ML: I think about four cassettes. So we’re talking about nine hundred pictures for the shoot.

LW: What is your selection criteria as you go through them all? Why do we end up with these particular pictures?

ML: That’s the question, isn’t it? It’s a hard one to answer. “Mr. Novelist, how is it that we wind up with this exact story?”

LW: But that’s exactly one of the answers right there, because the LA Day work is a narrative! It turns out to be a narrative. The spine of the work is—as you say—the river becoming the freeway.

ML: Exactly. LA Day is about the freeway as the “real” river, or at least the merging of the two.

LW: And then we turn the book over and we’re in another world.

ML: LA Night was done about a year after LA Day. It seemed logical after the white skies of the day work and its stunning, if not quite annihilatory, light. The light in the day work carries a certain fear. How do we as people, as a thoughtful culture, genuinely take on L.A. and what we’ve created? It’s almost too big to deal with. One can never get the whole of it. Conceptually, LA Night is rather simple: a negative image of the day work. Inasmuch as the day work is harsh and analytical, the night work is soft and dreamy. It’s a journey from representation and some degree of specificity of place to an ever-reduced, distilled abstraction.

LW: Are you trying to approximate what you actually saw in this work, or are you at this point dealing with something that’s purely interpretive?

ML: Both, but certainly I’m in more metaphorical terrain at this point.

LW: Now you’re doing poetry.

ML: Guilty poetry. It’s the drifting. It’s the most majestic, bedazzling drifting imaginable, and to do it specifically over L.A., that most complicated and environmentally compromised of cities, is double-edged. If you really look at the city in the day, it’s a tough proposition, rife with politics and failed systems and a great deal of ugliness. At night, there’s no problem. It’s all just a glittering jewel, and one made by human hands, even.

LW: Well, I think one of the things that happens is that as a human you feel that you’re part of nature rather than opposed to it—liberties traditionally offered at night rather than during the daytime.

ML: Interesting. It gets darker and darker, and by the end the night is purely black. Possibilities open up but they also dwindle. It’s both freighted and ebullient. There is a point where I am looking down at the lights of L.A. but then things swivel around in a vertiginous reversal and I’m actually looking up at the vault of the starry, celestial sky. There’s an extraordinary sense of unity….

LW: Night for day here.

ML: And up for down. Technically, it’s a bear. As any photographer knows, when you want to make an image in dim light, you put the camera on a fixed platform and you open the lens aperture so that light builds up over time on your film surface, eventually collecting enough to give a decent exposure. In the air, however, I am on a moving platform, and there the trouble begins. I can’t make an exposure below a sixtieth of a second before blur sets in from that motion. I have to be equally reckless in terms of craft, over-developing this film until it practically smokes, and in some of these pictures you can see a tremendous amount of grain. I think of all my images as gravestone rubbings, but particularly these ones.

LW: Grain is what?

ML: Grain is where the silver in the film gets very thick and becomes granular.

LW: Almost crunchy?

ML: Exactly. It’s not so much light that’s being represented, or subject matter, as it is the actual materials in the film making themselves evident. This work would not be possible without postproduction digital scanning of the overdeveloped film, where I can modulate the grain and print with great care. If the grain becomes too big and begins to compete with the delicacy of the urban particularity shown, the picture will fail.

LW: This process almost sounds like lacework done on sand.

ML: It’s about as involved! And you need a big large-format negative to make the larger grain that much smaller relative to the image depicted on the film.

LW: Or perhaps lacework on obsidian or lava or pumice. I’d call this a very dark pumice-y lace, like that kind of black sand you get in Hawaii.

ML: It’s exhilarating when it works. On a larger level, it becomes a question of trying to do something with such a reduced palette, where the darker it gets, the grays disappear, and one winds up with purely white point sources of light floating in a black sea. One might be able to see a few billboards and self-illuminating things—street corners and sidewalks are wonderful—but really it’s about letting go and imaging in the midst of nothingness. Can that be done? Can we drive with our eyes closed in the desert? It was a soft, warm summer July night, and the absurd pleasure of floating over the largest agglomeration of twinkling human triumph and calamity ever witnessed took over. You’ve written about this, but anyone who’s flown into LAX at night has experienced the same sense of astonishment. We did this? It makes Vegas look like a toy. Vegas is certainly Los Angeles’s child, in my opinion, and without L.A. there’d be no Vegas.

LW: Right, absolutely.

ML: And what’s so amazing about L.A. is that it’s not self-conscious in a way that Vegas is, right? It just is what it is. Vegas is a stage set. L.A. is an entity unto itself.


LW: When I am in my moments of deepest despair, thinking about global warming and so forth, I do realize we did this in a hundred years. Who knows what we could do in another hundred years. If we reworked the energy systems, it could be done. We could certainly turn the corner.

ML: There’s no particular reason that we’re stuck with the world as we know it, with its four-wheeled transportation appliances called automobiles. That level of despair is with me all the time. I do find a lot of solace in geology, however.

LW: That could be another title for this book: The Solace of Geology.

ML: And then there is the solace of other things. The Jesus Saves picture was an amazing aerial moment of exploratory recognition. I didn’t even know there was such a neon sign in L.A. I saw the Bendix sign above it first and said to the pilot, “OK, I’d like to go lower, work with me here. How low can we get? Let’s give five minutes to this.” And then I saw the other sign.

LW: Jesus slammed into your viewfinder.

ML: Hallelujah! That sense of discovery goes back to that question of “Where do you want to go?” and the response of “I don’t know yet, that’s why I’m going there.” Helicopters, because you can pick any point in space to go to, are so different from fixed-wing aircraft. It’s harder. I could, in theory, storyboard out every image and then go try and get preconceived images, but I don’t do that kind of work. I’d rather go take a stroll, be a flaneur in the air, see what comes my way.

LW: You’re an aerial boulevardier.

ML: Yes, I am, and especially so in this night work. Maybe it’s fair to say in the night work that L.A. itself was more in charge. L.A. was teaching me there, whereas in the day work, I was perhaps working with my own ideas and preconceptions about the city. The night work cried, “Shut up and look.”

LW: The work reminds me of Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire, what he does cinematically over nighttime Berlin. But his is no longer the hawk’s-eye view, it’s the angel’s. The sheltering angel, just kind of looking down, and the people are all asleep.

Or else Superman’s, as in the poet Vijay Seshadri’s marvelous invocation of a “Superman Agonistes” who can’t help himself, he can’t stay away:

I have to fly down
to watch them pray,
to watch them couple,
to watch them fight,
exposing myself
to their kryptonite.

Whereas, certainly to my mind, the daylight work has more of a prowling raptor quality to it.

ML: Squinty-eyed. This is more wide-eyed.

LW: Well, wide-eyed but also just sheltering, you know, “Look at them: they’re all sleeping.” There’s a beneficent quality, the feeling of an angelic lullaby.

ML: One of the things I learned after doing the night work was that whatever one might think about L.A., it is actually something else. It’s far more than one’s cheap and hackneyed preconceptions. It shifts constantly. Color work on an overcast day; the difference in seasons; puffy Hudson River School clouds in between spring rainstorms versus late-fall harshness—it’s startling. It’s bigger than the one doing the looking and judging, certainly.

LW: It reminds me of an L.A. cinematographer who once said to me, watching the sun setting and all the changes in the light, “God, the effects that guy gets with just one unit.”

ML: L.A. as the ultimate studio.

View a selection of supplemental images by Michael Light

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