Photographic prints have always served as manifestations of memory. Prints seem to know what memory sometimes fails to believe; and prints, born as digital ciphers today, connect the past to the present. It is from these times past, that we get the creative texture necessary to create new images, new memories. So it is with Fine Art Photographer Tom Lowe’s Mojave Moonlight exhibit, an Artist in Residence project for the National Park Service’s Mojave Preserve, that was born of boyhood memories.
Lowe’s artist statement wistfully recounts summer camping trips wherein he slept under the stars, while the rest of the family slept in the warm camping trailer. As the molten embers of a melting campfire died to ash, he watched the shooting stars streak through the Milky Way, traced the arc of satellites as they playfully mingled within the turns of the constellations, often falling asleep just before the pre-dawn gray. Those memories have straddled time and led him to print a very poised exhibit of the Mojave Desert sky.
Mojave Moonlight presents images of isolated rock formations, desaturated cacti, twirling star-shine patterns and moonlit desert landscapes that exceed the typical ‘wow’ factor that night photography inherently possesses. Nightglow softness removes daylight’s harsh shadows and seduces the viewer to see the desert’s free-form textures, elements that make the exhibit worth a visit on its own. However, Lowe goes further; he dismantles our standard perceptions of ‘night photography,’ and brings us images that celebrate night in the Mojave Preserve.
Tom Lowe’s work transcends the industrial documentary images that display technique with a sort of conveyor belt order to a revolving sky. These images are seductive, decoding ordinary daylight into an extraordinary nighttime tableau. As viewers, we feel like spies inching our way over hard ground and capturing a bit of the desert’s own social intrigue. Tucked into each image are representations, unseen in the daylight, of turtle rocks, vagina monologues, headlight roads, chollo trails massaged by hours of starlight, and a Christian Cross that speaks to the resurrection of night.
Stars and moonlight collide to deliver the traditional aesthetics of night landscape, but other elements in the images deliver the Mojave night as theater. In ‘Three Dancers’ the moonlight provides a dramatic megawatt of cinematic light and ‘Meatballs,’ a carefully composed composition of three scattered boulders jars us with its deadpan loneliness. ‘Lunar Dreams’, chosen by the Park Service Interpretive Officer as the show’s iconic image, is as otherworldly as astronaut captured moon images.
Lowe’s career as a producer of TV commercials, wherein he has precious few seconds to deliver emotion and product knowledge, serves him well for this thematic project. He uses the theater of the desert night to portray landscape components as individual actors with an immediacy that will resonate with viewers long after the curtain rises once again to reveal the sun. His compositions are cinematic but they do not mythologize the American West. Instead, we see rigorous framing, consistent points of view, and careful timing that delivers contemporary images that transform our understanding and appreciation of the desert night.
“The moon was my sole light source,” says Lowe, “and I had to find my images within that light space, for what we feel and see at night does not easily translate into what we see by day. I chose to shoot during the winter, because of the long nights, a necessity when you are working with exposures of 30 minutes or so.”
The Mojave National Preserve is 1.6 million acres of rugged land and a challenge to hike during the day and more so by moonlight and Tom recalls getting lost on several occasions. “A couple of times I’d get turned around making my way back to the car. I’d pause under the stars, listen to the wind, slow my breath, calm my nerves, and ask, ‘was it a right turn at the sagebrush or was it at the Joshua tree?’ then continue stumbling around in the dark until I’d find my car. Always right where I’d left it – not far from the trailer where that kid used to lay looking at the night sky.”
Mojave Moonlight is an exhibit that will calm your nerves, stir your soul and perhaps bring back your own memories. See it at the Desert Light Gallery, Kelso Visitors Center, Mojave National Preserve, Kelso CA.
March 8th to June 14th, 2014