Tuesday, July 7, 2015

For some, the earth is a darkroom tray

Preece, Walker River near Shurtz, NV, Nov. 2014
Those who follow this blog closely know that Nolan Preece is an experimental photographer, an adept of the darkroom in all its dimensions, a zealot for the secrets of the old chemistry.  He has spent a lifetime producing work, mostly cameraless, driven by this, work that is finding itself increasingly praised for its grit, inventiveness, and engagement.  Many examples can be found in these pages, particularly the three-part series in 2011-2012.  But how many of us know him also as a naturalist, an environmentalist, even an activist, in the Great Basin region of his beloved Nevada?  What are the points of contact between his environmental photography, at its grandest scale as seen here, and his abstract and relatively intimate chemigrams?

The truth is, he was an ecologist and surveyor of wildlife before he even thought of plumbing the recesses of nonfigurative photography.  For years, back in the days before computers and GPS, Nolan would trek into the remote badlands of that vast arid region between the Wasatch Mountains in the east and the Sierra Nevada in the west known as the Great Basin, with notebook in hand, recording everything he saw, plants, birds, animals, snakes, lizards, whatever lived or moved.  It was a sagebrush ecology: cold winters, torrid summers, prehistoric lakes with no outlet to the sea.  After a century of overgrazing and misguided water management it had also become a fragile and endangered environment, with ancient habitats dwindling, riparian woodlands eviscerated, riverbeds run dry, but one with a terrible beauty for those sensitive to it.  Nolan was its advocate. 

Preece, Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge, Carson Sink NV 2013

Preece, Quinn River-Black Rock Desert Wilderness, NV 2009
In recent years he has been renting small Cessnas and flying out over the Basin, leaning from the window and taking pictures.  He returns with images that bear witness, that show and document, and they have all the power of the bare unencumbered look - just as a chemigram shows us what has eroded and what remains in the tray, and we just stare at it.  The pictures tell the story.  There is no aesthetic trickery in Nolan's images, no code to decipher, no conceptual agenda: it is as if the earth itself is doing the talking.  Earlier this year he exhibited a large group of these pictures in Carson City, the state capital, and the project continues, just as the problems and concerns raised in it continue.

Preece, Lahontan Dam and Powerstation near Fallon NV, 2014

Preece, Willow Lake, Carson Sink - Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge, NV, 2013

Preece, Quinn River Sink - Black Rock Playa, NV, 2009

These are clearly the shapes and patterns of an overpowering natural world, to which Preece is acutely attuned.  They have resonated over the years in his darkroom work, in his chemigrams and glassprints, and have given it both a clarity and a greater intensity than it would have without it.  Here's a chemigram from 2012, made quite possibly after a flyover of an ancient sink or a parched riverbed:

Preece, Colony Collapse Disorder #2, detail, 2012

For more information on any of this, contact Nolan himself at preecenolan@gmail.com.