Monday, November 9, 2009

Continental Drift and the Ocean Floors

The photographs of the whole Earth taken during the first manned flight to the moon had a stunning impact on our perception of the Earth. Those images gave us us a new perspective of our planet and its place in space. Humans had seen the moon, sun, and stars as mysterious presences from the dawn of our consciousness. Our imaginations had endowed these celestial objects with the powers of gods and mythologies were grounded by these existential archetypes. Being able to look back at our own planet had a similar effect, as theories like the Gaia principle sprung from people's awe of this new vision. Wall posters had been published in the late 1960's and I got one in 1969 that still has an enduring fascination for me.

"Continents in Motion", a book published in 1974 by Walter Sullivan, came to my attention around that time and offered a detailed account of the establishment of the theory of plate tectonics and continental drift. The scientific investigation into the formation of the planet's ocean floors had only recently provided conclusive evidence that the grand continents of the Earth had been slowing crawling across the face of the planet for thousands of millions of years. Thus, these images of the Earth provided an image that encapsulated the reality that we are living on a planet that is an evolving, living thing. Wow. And so it remains.

National Geographic has given us many inspiring images and their series of ocean floor maps are among their best. Here is the Atlantic Ocean floor showing Africa and South America fitting together like puzzle pieces. (As Alfred Wegener had proposed in 1915.) Click to enlarge - it's beautiful.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Moab Utah and Fisher Towers

I came across an issue of National Geographic in the early 1980's that had an article about some rock climbers climbing Fisher Towers near Canyonlands Park, about twenty miles outside Moab Utah. The photograph of the climbers on the sandstone formation was stunning. The eroded sandstone is beautiful in its texture and complexity and I immediately began seeing figures that were to lead to new work in clay. I eventually mined about eight pieces out of this photograph by cutting, pasting, and painting on color xeroxes of the photo. I have always developed ideas through this sort of Rorschach method and this photo became a fond companion.

Eventually, I had used the image up and made a pilgrimage to Moab to experience the landscape myself, with camera in hand. The National Geographic article spoke of the pilot of the plane slowing to the point of almost stalling when the author was flying by to shoot the climbers. I had it in my head that I wanted to fly by the towers and photograph it myself. The plane I hired flew past the towers in five broad circles. The side door had been taken off to give an open shot for the camera. I was intimidated by the long way to the ground but, as the flight went on, I felt secure in the tight seat belt and was hanging out toward the open door. Unfortunately, the angle to the towers was leaving the shots I wanted behind.

We stayed in Moab for a week and I found much of what I wanted to photograph on the ground. I used twenty-two rolls of film through the area and still am using them today. One of the beauties of the internet is the sharing of photographs on sites like Flickr. I find myself trolling now and then to find new images of the towers taken by people who got closer than I did. The sandstone and geology of that area remain deeply moving to me.