At the Edges of Perception, Lisa K. Blatt Redefines Landscape Photography


September 11, 2018

Blatt in her San Francisco studio. (Graham Holoch/KQED)

Blatt in her San Francisco studio. (Graham Holoch/KQED)

I struggle to make out the image in an otherwise completely black photograph Lisa K. Blatt shows me in her studio. The overhead studio bulbs glare across the photograph, but eventually, hidden behind the glancing light, I find it. And once I notice it, I couldn’t unsee it: running vertically down the center of the print is a very faint, almost imperceptible, column of light.

Blatt explains to me that she was driving down a lonely road in Iceland one night around Christmastime several years ago. It was pitch black, and she knew no one else was on the road, so the mysterious light in her rearview mirror was a surprise. She doubled back to check it out, and discovered that it was an enormous waterfall, lit, even at night, for nonexistent visitors.

The resulting photograph highlights two traits common in Blatt's work: chance encounters, usually with nature, and an exploration of the edges and limits of photography.

It may take a story like the one above to realize a photograph is even representational, and in most cases Blatt is unlikely to reveal such details in her titles. But for Blatt, these images aren’t merely experiments in aesthetics. Her work engages with ideas about the relationship between nature and culture, and with human perception itself.

The photographer's work is part of 10,000 Fahrenheit, a group exhibition at the San Francisco Arts Commission Galleries opening Sept. 14 to coincide with the Global Climate Action Summit.

As its name suggests, this exhibition is about the sun, and Blatt’s dark photographs might seem out of place. In fact, visually, her work in 10,000 Fahrenheit couldn’t be further from the photograph of the ghostly Icelandic waterfall. The photographs on view at the Arts Commission Galleries, which she calls “heatscapes,” are starbursts of colors—intense pinks, purples, yellows and oranges. But the preoccupation with perception is still paramount.

In 2012, Blatt joined a scientific expedition to a lake high in the Andes that is so clear it sometimes looks black. Scientists were on site to test the Planetary Lake Lander (ultimately meant to explore the lakes of Titan, Saturn's largest moon) and to research a one-celled organism; Blatt was there to photograph.

She made a series of images with the aid of borrowed scientific equipment that allowed her to photograph heat and its variations in a landscape. Though she made the work over six years ago, Blatt said it took some time for technology to catch up in order to make quality photographic prints, and most of the work at the Arts Commission Galleries will be seen publicly for the first time.

In most cases these appear to be abstract, without any reference to geological features. But Blatt thinks of these as landscape photographs; they are direct representations of a given scene. The heat held in the ground or in a lake is no less real, no less essential to a landscape than the visible light reflected and processed by the human eye. “It’s a different way of seeing landscapes,” she says.

Back in her studio, Blatt shows me two photographs similar to the one of the waterfall. Again, they look completely black at first. But with less difficulty this time, I eventually discern curved lines running horizontally across both photographs, which turn out to be the outlines of hills outside of both Santiago, Chile and Reykjavík, Iceland. Above and below these lines, the shades of black vary ever so slightly.

She points out the difference between the quality of light outside the two cities, attributing it to the greater pollution in Santiago. And just like that, what was invisible seconds earlier can now be seen as a document of the effects of pollution, density and urbanization.

Blatt was in Iceland again sometime after the 2010 eruption of the volcano Eyjafjallajökull disrupted global air travel. The volcano is visible from a major national road only a few miles away; it doesn't have the stereotypical shape and prominence seen in volcanoes like Mount Shasta, but it is present and powerful enough to create global disorder.

And yet, when Blatt was there, thick fog erased any visual proof that Eyjafjallajökull even existed. Her photograph from the encounter is a blur of white with only a faint impression of land visible in certain places. This, too, is a different way of seeing a landscape. The fog is as defining as the volcano, but it is for purely subjective reasons that most artists would choose to represent this landscape with one feature over another.

In 2008, Blatt received a grant from the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artists & Writers Program, which allowed her to travel to the continent to make work. It was unlike most residencies. Blatt was required to learn how to use an ice axe to stop herself from falling or sliding (a skill she later needed), and she spent six days holed up in her tent because of a storm. In Antarctica, Blatt made work that would become heatscapes when printed later. She also made more traditional photographs of ice caves and the blindingly white landscape.

One might want to view these works alongside photographs Blatt made from White Sands, New Mexico, years earlier. One location is a large expanse of sand where the temperature reaches above 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer, the other is a continent covered in snow and ice where the temperature can drop to 100 degrees below zero.

And yet, Blatt blurs these distinctions. She doesn’t do so through deceit or by deploying illusionary tactics. She offers views of the world that aren't always available to the rest of us, either because the landscapes are extremely remote, or because the human eye is limited by what it can physically receive. Like all photographers, she favors certain aspects of her own perception over others, but Blatt does so in a way that both questions the boundaries of photography and the definition of landscape.