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An Interview with Desert Photographer Stephen Strom

Stephen Strom has been photographing the deserts of the American Southwest for thirty years, creating arresting images of forbidding, breathtaking landscapes containing geological formations and striking colors like nothing else on earth. Strom worked for over a decade as an astronomer at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Tucson, where he first began to “love the desert.” Strom’s photography has been featured in several books, including the recent Otero Mesa: Saving America’s Wildest Grassland and the new Earth Forms (Dewi Lewis Publishing, 96 pages, 43 photographs, $45), which collects his entrancing photographs of multi-colored mudhills in New Mexico, the red rock formations of Canyonlands National Park in Utah, and canyons, cliffs, and desert lands throughout California, Nevada, and Arizona. This fall, Strom will present Earth Forms at several galleries, including Tucson’s Etherton Gallery (book signing on October 17, 3-5 p.m.), the Tubac Center for the Arts in Tubac, AZ (book signing on October 28), and Santa Fe’s Verve Gallery of Photography, which will display Storm’s photos from November 13 through January of next year. I recently interviewed Strom via email about his work process, his explorations of the desert, and how the desert at times becomes “a two-dimensional painting.”

New West: What first attracted you to the desert landscapes that you photograph?

Stephen Strom: The time I spent in Tucson from 1972-83 (as a staff astronomer at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory) transformed me into a confirmed desert rat. I learned to love the desert, and over time, began to see and feel the subtle rhythms – color, sculptural, floral – of what appears to most people to be desolate and lifeless.

My time spent teaching on the Navajo Nation (summer of 1981, ’82) brought me particularly close to that magical, lyrical landscape. The images gathered over time in the four corners area have found their way into three books: Secrets from the Center of the World (with Joy Harjo; UA Press); Tseyi: Deep in the Rock (with Navajo poet Laura Tohe); and most recently, Earth Forms.

NW: How does your work as an astronomer inform your photography?

SS: It’s hard to find a direct, linear connection. However, I have spent over a thousand nights on various mountaintop observatories, usually overlooking desert landscapes. There were two periods of the day where an astronomer (at least in the past!) had a few moments to reflect both on a night’s work – just before sunset, and just after sunrise. It is at those times that the desert transforms from a highly three-dimensional landscape molded by the glancing rays of the sun, to a two-dimensional painting, lit by the soft glow of twilight or dawn. I think that some of the spatial ambiguity and lighting choices manifest in my images in some way reflect what I inculcated overtime watching those transformations.

NW: According to Gregory McNamee’s introduction in Earth Forms, in your work as an astronomer, you photographed “the distant reaches of our galaxy.” Do desert landscapes remind you of anything you’ve seen through a telescope?

SS: Again, not directly. However, one of the marvelous qualities of a desert landscape is the revelation of the passage of time and the actions of the forces of nature (continental drift; uplift of mountain ranges; erosion…) which are less easily perceived in other, “overgrown” landscapes. The same is true when you look with an informed eyes and powerful analytical tools at virtually any segment of the universe: the ability to look back in time, see the evolution of galaxies over billions of years, and piece together an understanding of how our Milky Way came to be.

NW: In some ways your photographs remind me more of abstract paintings than traditional landscapes, perhaps because it’s sometimes difficult to determine the scale when there are no figures or buildings present, and also because your compositions are striking for their arrangement of color and geometric shapes. Do you consider your work to be abstract?

SS: It’s ironic that images that are themselves pure representations of the desert landscape can somehow appear to be ‘abstract’ (“apart from concrete existence”). I suppose that they could be considered so because the images reflect my strong reaction to the multitude of rhythms displayed in the desert landscape: color rhythms and patterns; sculptural rhythms; the rhythms imposed by flora. So, in the sense that the images are attempts to capture and share the feelings inspired by those rhythms, rather than to evoke a sense of place, they could be called ‘abstract.’

NW: What other artists’ work has inspired you?

SS: Frederick Sommer, Harry Callahan, Wynn Bullock, Edward Weston, Max Yavno, Aaron Siskind.

NW: How do you find the places that you photograph, and once there, how do you select the best vantage for photography?

SS: By driving and hiking to broad areas (the Navajo Nation; Capitol Reef; Grand Staircase of the Escalante…) that I know or sense will display a wide range of geological features and provide broad vistas. I’ve learned over time that my best images are those that emerge from surprise, rather than being at a pre-selected place that I imagine might be ‘good’. Often, either when driving or walking, I’ll ‘sense’ a place that seems to capture the essence of the broader landscape through a unique combination of color, form and detailed pattern. Having the time and space to be ‘open’ is far more important than being in the ‘right’ place.

NW: How do you get to these remote places? Do you camp there? Do you hike around?

SS: Nowadays, mostly by driving and via modest length hikes. In the 1980s and ’90s, my wife and I would often camp. However, each of our bodies has developed the minor maladies that come with age. As a result, the equipment I carry is lighter, my hikes less ambitious, but my ability to concentrate a good deal better. I’m more at peace spending time in one place and soaking in its peculiar rhythms than I was at a time when I was restless to see what was around the bend.

NW: What photograph in Earth Forms are you proudest of? Which was the most difficult to capture?

SS: I would say the images from Death Valley, not because they are particularly stronger than the other images in Earth Forms, but because they were taken after recovering from a mild heart attack. The difficulty in capturing those images derived not from any physical impediment, but rather from the need to redevelop that confidence in myself and in my vision that has always characterized my life – either as an astronomer or as a photographer. So I’m proud of those images because they represent a triumph over fear, and a reaffirmation of self.

NW: What’s your favorite season to photograph the desert? Some of my favorites of your images are your winter landscapes with their lovely, muted colors.

SS: I would have to say late fall through early spring when the desert is a bit more forgiving on the body and when the light is gentler and warmer. However, some of the images in Earth Forms were taken in mid-summer on days when you needed to be overwhelmed by the landscape to record it!

NW: Usually your photographs do not contain any hint of human activity, but occasionally there are dwellings, such as in the photo “Winter, Looking Across Beautiful Valley, Near Ganando, Arizona.” Have you met anyone who lives out in these areas? If so, do you ask them to point you toward interesting places to photograph?

SS: As I mentioned, my wife and I taught on the Navajo Nation in the early 1980s. Talking with Navajo people and trying to understand their culture and the importance of their connection to the land was essential to me. I didn’t feel that I could ‘take’ photographs without giving something back and knowing something of the people who populated the landscape.

I am never particularly motivated to ask for ‘good’ places to photographs, because I find that ‘good’ is more related to the resonance of a landscape or pattern with my innermost feelings – something that would be impossible for others to full know or understand.

NW: Do you consider any of the places you photograph to be endangered?

SS: I consider all places that are not protected legally or by strong cultural values to be endangered. The motive for short-term profit easily leads to exploitation with little regard to what might be lost to future generations. So in that sense, I consider my images to have some value insofar as they evoke a sense of wonder that might, at least in some, transcend the motive for profit.

NW: Do you work with digital images or with film? Why did you choose one or the other?

SS: Earth Forms contains images derived from both 4×5 Ektachrome transparencies as well as from digital images (Canon EOS 5D 13 Mpx). I’m working entirely with digital equipment these days as carrying a 4×5 view camera with a 36” rail is a bit beyond the capacity of my 5’4” body! I also have come to appreciate the ability to ‘experiment’ afforded by digital cameras – cameras that allow me to take multiple images of the same place from slightly different perspectives or with different lighting. It often takes me years to evaluate which image best captures a particular landscape – a decision that often rests on examination of a larger body of work that implicitly contains ‘clues’ to what I was feeling and what I was trying to express.

NW: What is your next project?

SS: I’m working on several. One is aimed at capturing the evanescent patterns of sand at the ocean’s edge. I’ve been gathering images for about four years and believe that the work is ‘converging’ toward a coherent statement. Another is a study of sandstone forms and patterns. The last, and perhaps most surprising, is an effort to capture the calligraphic patterns of grass gestures. I’ve collected thousands of such images and have begun to put together several groups. I don’t know whether I’ll choose to display them as individual images or to incorporate them somehow as calligraphic gestures in a larger construct. We’ll see!

This fall, Strom will present Earthforms at several galleries, including Tucson’s Etherton Gallery (book signing on October 17, 3-5 p.m.), the Tubac Center for the Arts in Tubac, AZ (book signing on October 28), and Santa Fe’s Verve Gallery of Photography, which will display Storm’s photos from November 13 through January of next year.

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