Vision Play with Land and Sky

Photography is mindful vision play.

Soon after I started photographing landscapes I noticed—especially in the Eastern Sierra–how often I was distracted upward by scenes in the sky; sunsets, crepuscular rays, wave clouds, mare’s tails… hmm, what if I start treating the sky as the primary subject? What if I invert my perception and my priorities and look not for a landscape, but a skyscape. That playful idea started an ever unfolding process of noticing how we perceive, operate in, and value our world, and I haven’t seen the same since. I’ve come to see how land and sky are interdependent partners that create our world. Sky is the dynamic, active element, and land is the stable, receptive element. A landscape or skyscape picture is like a yin-yang diagram; the relative proportions and prominence of land and sky tell you what the photographer had in mind, and their interaction is a portrait of balance as perceived by the artist. We of course have a long tradition of focusing almost entirely on land and landscapes, so to start giving the sky its rightful place I’ve started working a lot with skyscapes, for instance putting out an annual Sierra Skyscape calendar. Here’s some images from the 2014 calendar.

Spring Storm over Crowley Lake Aurora SeltersJunesummer014 Summer thunderstorm clearing, E. Sierra

The practice of shifting my vision between land and sky has encouraged me to ask how differently we relate to them. How is it we see the world as land first, and sky only when it becomes ultra spectacular? At one point I tried standing on my head, asking if inverting the pull of gravity on my body might shift my instincts. The sky is of course the source of weather, and for that we’re always trying to predict the future. The sky is also synonymous with the heavens, our long assumed ultimate destination. Conversely, the earth of course is about geology, not to mention archaeology, sciences that are always trying to decipher the past. The earth is also the resting place of our ancestors, and the venue for the stories of history. Future and past, active and stable, sky and land…these things together create each place and present moment.

As I’ve played with how we prioritize land over sky, it has suddenly made sense why we are plagued by air pollution and climate change. We take the sky for granted at every level, starting from our basic perception of the world, to our priorities in engaging the earth, to international resource management. Would that we could create national parks of the sky, and skyscape photography could contribute to our awareness of those sky places, same as was done for Yosemite, Sequoia,…

By the way, the strange “sunset” with stars is actually an image of the aurora from the Eastern Sierra.