A cinematographer can spend much of the day staring at the shifting light of the sky. So can the artist James Turrell. But his focus on that light is of a different order than the filmmaker’s.
Even during a normal day’s exterior filming, the hour to hour light changes of the sun moving east to west present a challenge to the cinematographer, part of whose mission is to maintain lighting continuity for the length of a two to four minute scene. Many times, it requires considerable legerdemain as well as a lot of busy grips flying scrims and silks— to create the illusion of continuous time over the hours it takes to photograph the camera angles necessary to shape the action into a seamless whole. When the procession of the sun toward sunset is broken up by scudding clouds or a dramatic change from heavy cloud cover, the frustration level of the cameraman rises. Nature, or at least the clouds, seems conspiratorial. What a casual viewer looking into the sky may read as lyrical change, the poor cinematographer reads as chaos.
James Turrell, however, embraces the fluidity of light change in nature not only as an instrument of poetic, even religious, transcendence—but also as the very stuff of his art. “Stuff” may seem an unlikely label for something as immaterial as “light,” but this is, in fact, the very material of his craft. He does create “pieces” for galleries to sell to collectors that seem to radiate light, but it’s art often made with traditional media. He also builds steel and concrete structures, installations he calls “Skyspaces,” small rooms radiating on the inside walls seeming sourceless and changing colors of light. The Skyspace’s dominant feature is a circular, elliptical, or square opening at the top allowing skylight or the night sky to be viewed without peripheral distraction.
Many Skyspaces are commissioned by museums; others are art objects prized by singularly wealthy and acquisitive collectors. They are not exactly fungible, as each one is created for a specific location. In an interview Turrell even questions what exactly the collector is getting:
When somebody buys a work of mine there is the question, what is it they own? And in some way I can honestly say that you “own the light that is passing through.”
One of the Skyspaces titled “Meeting ” has been on public view at MoMA’s PS1 in New York since 1986.
Turrell’s titles for these spaces such as “Meeting” are not arbitrary. Raised as a Quaker, he served as a conscientious objector just before the Vietnam War. A wooden bench seating about a dozen people often rings the skyspace interior. It is meant to evoke the quiet, even metaphysical private space of a Quaker meeting. Turrell recalls how his grandmother advised him at a meeting to “go inside and greet the light.” He speaks eloquently about the near metaphysical ambiance that surrounds viewers who come to one of the Skyspaces, especially as the waning daylight shifts slowly into dusk, magic hour, and night.
For Turrell the sky is not merely something we grounded beings gaze into; it is the ocean of his frequent aerial voyaging. Young Turrell began flying airplanes at age sixteen. Then, in the early 70s, he used some grant money to buy a single engine plane, beginning a multi-state, multi-year, 500 hour air search for a place to build his magnum opus, a Skyspace so large and complex that it would dwarf even the ancient pyramids of the Egyptians and Mayans. He found his site in Arizona, near Flagstaff, at the edge of the Painted Desert, inside a 200,000-year-old extinct volcano called Roden Crater. It and the surrounding thousands of acres were privately owned, so he bought the property—and with its vast land holdings also became a cattle rancher.
That Turrell continues to fly today is born not merely out of the vast distances of the Western landscape and the need to cover them for his far-flung work. Being in the very air that embodies the medium of his art (light) is its own sustaining, even renewing experience. Here is how he expresses it in an interview with Richard Whittaker:
As you fly, you do see space that is determined not so much by physical confines, but by atmospheric and light phenomena within the space. I’ve seen sometimes a contrail that goes through the sky where you can see its shadow come down through the sky, the shadow of the contrail. This beautiful shadow actually divides the space in an amazing way. And so for me, sitting up there in this cockpit, I’ve seen so many things that reminded me of this other way of seeing, where light is the material and this makes the space.
As quantum physics has taught us, light is indeed a material (photons)—as well as a wave. Its materiality seems to be malleable and it is this quality that engages a generation of light artists like Turrell, and includes the fluorescent tube assemblages of Dan Flavin and the delicate scrimmed walls of light of Robert Irwin. Light is also the “stuff” of cinematography. Though many cinematographers speak of composition, scene coverage, and camera movement, it is the manipulation of light that is at the heart of their work. Several of the key books on cinematography, such as John Alton’s Painting with Light, and Schaeffer and Salvato’s Masters of Light (soon in a new UC Press printing for which I’ve written an introduction), focus on the power of light in cinema to create not just setting and mood, but to reveal character and propel narrative line. The 1992 documentary Visions of Light features interviews with more than two-dozen men and women who trace the history of cinematography, especially their use of light, in the theatrical feature film.
Turrell waxes not just philosophically about light but reminds us that we humans are “eaters of light.” Our bodies manufacture vitamin D from our cholesterol by using sunlight for synthesis. The enervating properties of lack of sunshine have been well tracked in studies of far northern climates. The history of light in its historic, aesthetic, and even metaphysical properties is told in a compelling book from 1995 by Arthur Zajonc, Catching the Light: The Entwined History of Light and Mind. Its riveting account of how humankind has defined itself in its addiction to light gives sharp focus to the larger context of what James Turrell is creating in the northern Arizona high desert.
Roden Crater is at 7000 ft. elevation and the quality of the light and the purity of its cerulean cast becomes palpable to the privileged few who have visited the site, a more than thirty-year work in progress.
Among the pilgrims to Roden Crater is the eloquent art critic Robert Hughes, whose oft-controversial views on contemporary art made him the bad boy of the Manhattan art world, both praised and maligned even up to his death a week ago on August 6. His highly personal 1997 BBC and PBS series on the pageant of American art, American Visions, ends with a visit to Roden Crater. A YouTube video clip begins at 2:00— at the conclusion of his visit to the late sculptor Louise Bourgeois. A visit to a collector’s Skyspace in Los Angeles serves as prelude to his visit to Turrell. At 4:57, a stunning one minute aerial shot tracks their vehicle over a dirt road leading to the base of the crater, then rises straight up and tilts to reveal the crater’s caldera. Once inside, the hyper sophisticated and articulate Time magazine critic lies on his back in the dirt and pumice to see the arced rim of the volcano framing the sky. Since Hughes’ visit 15 years ago, a large circle with viewing platforms has been constructed in the bowl, but Hughes perspective is just as awesome. The image of the sky segues to Hughes’ final reflections on the sorry state of contemporary American art, a jeremiad against its mediocre offerings. In a montage of 19th century Luminist paintings that concludes the entire series, Hughes defines the heroic vision of American landscape painting as he stands on the crater’s rim. He offers but small change that art such as Turrell’s will lead America down a new path, true to its grand vision, away from the effete conceits of the Soho and Chelsea galleries.
A more in depth and personal exploration of Turrell and the thought behind his work is in a two-part YouTube posted video. I have been unable to discover the BBC series or its narrator in my research. (Anyone who knows, please leave a comment on the site.) It begins with a visit to another Los Angeles skyspace owned by NBA superfan, billionaire, and eccentric dresser, James Goldstein, who commissioned a Skyspace adjacent to his John Lautner designed residence in the Hollywood Hills. Goldstein explains how the changing interior light mixed with the view of the twilight open sky disorients many viewers, a sensation associated with the phenomenon of the Ganzfeld effect. The clip continues with a drive to the crater as Turrell explains how he chose the Roden site from among the 400 extinct volcanoes in the area. (The clip appears to be cropped as titles are not complete, and the images are squeezed, an indication that it was meant to be seen at a 16×9 ratio. However the content of the two clips renders this distraction worth the view.)
The visit to Roden Crater continues with a visit to the crater caldera, the largest skyspace of all—the shaping of the rim by bulldozers demanding the removal of more than one million cubic yards of volcanic earth. The sequence ends with the commentator’s climb up the bronze staircase at the end of the 900 ft. long Alpha tunnel as Turrell’s hand reaches out to help him up onto the crater floor.
Another documentary, in German without subtitles, shows with Germanic precision and detail the grand scheme of the Roden Crater site. I highly recommend watching it. The camerawork is refined, and Turrell’s voice is often heard below the translation. It begins in silence, broken by Turrell’s boot striking a tunnel floor.
A revealing, in-depth interview with Turrell by Richard Whittaker can be found here:
The fundamental job of any mainstream cinematographer whether in fiction or non-fiction films is to tell a story. Most of the tools he uses are mechanical—camera, lenses, film or tape drives, dollies, cranes, grip flags and nets. Only one of these, his lighting instruments (“reflectors” as they were called by John Alton) — unwieldy, hot, and heavy as they may be, the lamps create an elusive, ephemeral, but often deeply emotional state, a state that in “film noir” is largely responsible for the existential dread emitted by these movies. But light is created through combustion, whether by the sun or by tungsten, fluorescent, LED and HMI lamps. Turrell speaks of its destructive element in a physicist’s voice.
There is a truth in light. That is, you only get light by burning material. The light that you get is representative of what is burned. So whether you take hydrogen or helium, as in the sun, or whether you decide to burn xenon in a bulb, or neon, or tungsten wire, something must be burned to get this light. The light that comes off this material burned, is characteristic of that material burned, at the temperature at which it is burned. So you can then put a filter in between or you can bounce it off paint, but there is truth in light.
Like Turrell and his army of workers with bulldozers and bore machines, the cinematographer works with a dedicated crew to create emotional states using the insubstantial tool of light to shape our experience of the world. The light masters of cinema, regardless of style or national origin share this one common trait. Light—natural, artificial, single sourced or a maze of contrasting and intersecting planes, pure white or kaleidoscopic colors, is the vocabulary with which the cinematographer, just like James Turrell, speaks to his audience.