James Turrell and Roden Crater: “We Are Light Eaters”

Turrell inside the Roden Crater caldera.

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.

“Meeting” a skyspace at PS 1.

MoMA PS1 link

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.

Roden Crater from the southwest, photo by Florian Holzherr.

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.

Amazon.com — Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography link

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.

Amazon.com — Catching the Light: The Entwined History of Light and Mind link

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.

Viewing platforms inside the caldera, photo by Gridcity.

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:

Works & Conversations.org link

An occulus with camera obscura floor.

The Alpha tunnel leading to the East Portal.

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.

East Portal staircase at dusk.

The East Portal.

About John Bailey, ASC

John Bailey, ASC

John Bailey’s cinematography career encompasses such mainstream Hollywood films as Ordinary People, The Big Chill, Silverado, The Accidental Tourist, Groundhog Day, In the Line of Fire, As Good as It Gets and A Walk in the Woods, and such offbeat fare as Tough Guys Don’t Dance, That Championship Season, Swimming to Cambodia, A Brief History of Time and The Kid Stays in the Picture. He lives in Los Angeles and New York.


  1. Kurt Thomas

    Very interesting, and even with the low resolution of the videos, the visuals speak for themselves.

    On a sideline: Swiss precision. SF = “Schweizer Fernsehen” = “Swiss Television”.

    Many thanks for this article
    Kurt Thomas
    Bonn, Germany

  2. Christine Morrison

    Hi John

    I think the programme you are trying to track down was part of the BBC Imagine series, with the presenter Alan Yentob, called ‘Into the Light’

    Great feature, i’ve been following this project for a few years now, just waiting for it to be open to the ‘public’, just hoping it’s not just the affluent ‘public’ that will be able to afford to go there!

    Best from the Outer Hebrides (east coast neighbour to NY!)

    JOHN’S REPLY: Christine, thanks for the information on the documentary. As I understand it, LACMA is planning a major retrospective of Turrell next year. Just how close it may be with the opening of Roden Crater is anybody’s guess. In the meantime, getting an invitation to see it is about the hottest insider art world ticket you can imagine.
    You must be settling in for a long, dark winter in the Hebrides. Keep thinking of Turrell’s encompassing light.

  3. Peggy Weil

    Hello, In answer to your query about the video above:

    The narrator is Alan Yentob and the video is titled: James Turrell: Goldstein Skyspace & Roden Crater Projec’ [BBC, Arts Series Imagine, 2008]

    JOHN’S REPLY: Peggy,Thanks so much for the credit info. Very helpful.

  4. Nelson Coates

    How you find the time to write such eloquent and thought-provoking articles with all you have on your docket is beyond me! You continue to be an inspiration not only in your craft, but also through reaching into related crafts and shining a light on all aspects of the creative process and the visual narrative. What an inspiration to read this and discover yet again one of your “finds.” Looking forward to future collaborations.

    JOHN’S REPLY: Gosh, Nelson, you make me blush. Thanks so much and pass the site URL along to friends.It is my personal dream to see the Roden Crater when finished. It is such a shame that the late, great art critic Robert Hughes will not. What would have been his articulate thoughts about Roden will surely be missed.

  5. Mohammad Khawaja

    Dear John,

    What a fantastic title for a documentary film, “We Are the Light Eaters” and it would be something I hope you could direct with James Turrell as an exploration of how the nature and presence of light affects our lives. This is one of yours posts that I would like to see be delivered live in front of an audience, perhaps taking place in one of his own Skyspaces, and projecting newly shot footage by yourself to let audiences immerse themselves in this sculpted space, time and light. Instead of theme parks and other artificial entertainment I know that people would be curious to witness and feel what it means to be a Light Eater.

    The way you parallel both the focus of a cinematographer and James Turrell inspires and confirms the belief that it is wonderful to create! Most casual viewers would never know that in any given scene of a film the most important performance given is that of light. Light is as much of an actor and if directed with sensitivity and great intuition by the cinematographer and director then it can give performances of extraordinary range. Nature or clouds seem to be onlookers on an exterior shoot gazing curiously at the cast and crew, waiting for their moment to break onto set, and wanting to steal away from the performance given by light.

    I can’t remember which cinematographer said it but it was something like, “I can’t object too much because when I am outside I know the best gaffer of all is up there and it’s my place to watch and learn.” I like how you mention light as an instrument because most people take its presence for granted. The photographs you include are so hard to resist and I can just imagine the impact of feeling the radiating colors and light. I couldn’t help but think of Eiko Ishioka and the spaces you and her created in Mishima. Would a set designer for a film work with James Turrell to commission a entirely new kind of design that would give the director an entirely unique approach to the narrative told boldly through space, light and movement? Films often gives us remarkable passages built through interplay of space and light and Turrell’s intuition could bring a refreshing quality to and help illustrate the lives of characters in what would otherwise be a traditional narrative film.

    In a way we come into this world alone greeted by light and then make our departure from it alone leaving behind the light. It is a sign of what sustains us for a limited time we have in this world and the promise of what carries us through to the next life. The metaphysical ambience you mention reminded me of a poem written by Rummer Godden in Jean Renoir’s THE RIVER:

    “The river runs, the round world spins;
    Dawn and lamplight, midnight, noon.
    Sun follows day. Night, stars and moon.
    The days ends, the end begins.”

    I couldn’t believe it when I read your description of Turrell searching for and then deciding on Roden Crater. I read it over again and the way you describe it I could imagine the air search and his connection to the acres of acres of land vividly. How has this remarkable tale not been made into a complete film by now? I can see and hear Werner Herzog’s accompanying James Turrell and considering the immense sculpture that was to take place inside of this 200,000 year old volcano. It’s a wonderful thing you included Robert Hughes’ section on the Crater and the vision is something each person needs to have for themselves. That photo of Roden Crater from the southwest reminded me instantly of the house standing all by itself in DAYS OF HEAVEN as well the image of the house in the middle of open country in George Steven’s GIANT.

    The admixture of light and shade remains with us throughout our lives and becomes a kind of key to our memory of spaces we inhabit and then leave behind. Our fences and borders etched into photographs or maps are arbitrary and Turrell is very true when saying that light is the material that continues to redefine space. Nomadic communities would agree with this because they too relied on light as material to identify and help them in tracing their movement from space to space. I’m glad you said “it is the manipulation of light that is at the heart of their work” because too often promising films get unnecessarily weighed down by an over attention to composition, coverage and camera movement with no feeling for the light. VISIONS OF LIGHT is always a good reminder and I will be looking to pick up the new edition of Masters of Light and Zajonc’s book which I am glad you recommended in this post.

    Storytellers of the oral tradition carried as their provision various strands of truths from which they would unravel a great many tales taking the imagination far and wide. For the cinematographer there is but one strand of truth that taps deeply into the imagination and creates a charged sensory experience within the audience. It’s an unbelievable gift to be able to fashion and shape this truth of light that continues to elude us all of our lives.

    John’s reply: Mohammad, your articulate and sensitive “apologia” of the cinematographer’s work with light is an inspiration to any emerging cinematographer who may have temporarily relegated “light’ to a lower priority than composition and exciting movement. I am currently writing an introduction for UC Press for John Alton’s “Painting with Light;” it will accompany Todd McCarthy’s important essay on Alton’s work and life that appeared in the 1995 edition. It has led me back to a new viewing of many of Alton’s seminal “noir” works, especially with director Anthony Mann, an apotheosis of the style. Light, in art, as in life, is what makes us alive.

  6. Dahn Haven

    A friend of mine in Gloucester, Mass., Joy Dai Buell, told me about your work at Roden Crater, and I have been following on the Internet ever since. I now live in Polacca, AZ and work at the Hopi Health Care Center as a nurse on the In/patient Unit. I am now so close and yet so far away. I really want to see and experience the Roden Crater.
    I respectfully request and invitation for a visit.

    John’s reply: Me, too, Dahn. I guess we’ll all just have to wait a few more years til Mr. Turrell opens it to the public. Or maybe it’s time to do another film on the crater. Hmmm.


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