Beth Dow and The Dynamic Range

by Andy Sturdevant


Catalog essay for Underlined Action exhibition at the Katherine E. Nash Gallery, University of Minnesota, Spring, 2015


When NASA began releasing the first images from the Hubble Telescope in the early 1990s, the public was mesmerized with what they saw. Finally able to step out of the pollution-choked, hazy greenhouse of the earth’s atmosphere, the telescope could capture theretofore unimaginably stunning, high-resolution images of the heavens. Many of these early images are now famous: the Pillars of Creation, for example, that cluster of cloud-like tendrils of stardust and light, alternately red, yellow and pink, curling upward through a field of stars the color of an early evening sky, covering unfathomable distances from top and bottom. This, the images suggest, is what the universe would look like, if it could be observed while floating in space, or from the window of an interstellar starship.

Which is partially true. The public images of the telescope’s view of the depths of interstellar space are in fact carefully crafted: hundreds or thousands of individual images are pieced together, color (and contrast) is enhanced or saturated, lighting is sweetened, compositions are artfully cropped and positioned. There’s no “up” or “down” in space, of course, so there’s a very arbitrary aspect to how something like the Pillars of Creation is represented. It almost looks like it could be a particularly majestic sunset in Yellowstone. Or, as writer and scientist Elizabeth Kessler points out in her book Picturing the Cosmos, they could be cropped from 19th century paintings of the wild, untamed American frontier by Alfred Biertstadt or Thomas Moran – images that showed Americans back east the wild and untamed Eden that Manifest Destiny had bestowed upon them.

Beth Dow has a phrase for this sort of experience in her own work: “Uncanny, but not too uncanny.”

Consciously drawing on these notions of aesthetics, the Hubble images show the unfathomable in a way that’s still somewhat familiar to earthbound humans. NASA, in fact, has often put its Hubble photos in the context of the most sublime landscapes on earth: “Like the Grand Canyon,” it writes of one set of photos, “the Orion Nebula has a dramatic surface topography – of glowing gases instead of rock – with peaks, valleys and walls.” They’re otherworldly images, yet still expressed (and formatted) in familiar terms. In other words: uncanny but not too uncanny.

Dow’s work depicts landscapes, shot on medium-format film, digitized, with much of it printed on 44” rolls of paper and placed in wall-sized sequences that dominate the viewer’s entire field of vision. The landscapes she shoots are themselves sublime places, like the Badlands of South Dakota. Sublime though they may be, however, they’re still places familiar to most American tourists of the past fifty years. Like a Hubble scientist, Dow is engaged in a little bit of image correction when conveying her photographic findings to the public. In fact, she’s doing almost the opposite: taking familiar, sublime landscapes and making them less comfortable – enhancing their otherworldliness in a way that doesn’t call back to the earthbound. They seem as if they could be the results of a type of Super-Hubble, a telescope that can throw its gaze millions of light years through space and arrive on the cold, alien vista of a rocky planet circling a distant sun. The sense of the unknown doesn’t necessarily call to mind the sublime promise of a new horizon, but instead carries a slight charge of menace.

To encounter Dow’s photographic installations is to be plunged into a landscape that resists an easy initial identification. Are these depictions of earth? Or space? Where the hell are we? The dark skies seem to be night, but are devoid of stars – they’re not uniformly black, we find upon closer inspection, but richly multihued, like ink spilled across a wet piece of heavy paper – in fact, this richly physical quality orients the viewer to the fact that they’re spending time with an object, not a flat image. The ways in which shadows fall over the peaks and into the valleys suggest some sort of dark light from a distant source. If we encountered such a scene at the movies, we’d probably attribute it to CGI. 

Dow’s processes are much more low-tech than that, though.

Otherworldly images are something Dow has been thinking about for a long time. Her father, an employee for Honeywell in Minneapolis, brought back images of the moon landing from his work. Honeywell had been responsible for, among other things, the analog flight computers the astronauts used, and images of the trip to the surface of the moon were one of the spoils for the project team members. The idea of a range of landscapes and surfaces – not just in Minneapolis or even the planet earth, but also anywhere in the universe – stuck with her.

One of those tools of disorientation that Dow pulls out is a sense of bemused wordplay in how she describes the work, a corollary to the optical tricks she uses. In the way a good joke can temporarily disorder one’s sense of reality, there is a sort of visual pun embedded in these works. The dynamic ranges we see in the pieces (that is, the vital ridges or bold buttes) are, in fact, dynamic ranges. In the visual representation of photographic information, the dynamic range describes the degrees of luminance in a picture, from the darkest shadows to the brightest highlights. When you look at the histogram on a phone or digital camera, the mountain-like range of peaks and valleys that show the under- or overexposure of an image, you see a shape that’s very much like these images. It can, of course, be slid back and forth to change the look of the image. That’s the idea – in some sense, we can see these images as moving the dynamic range on a histogram from one extreme to another. This mountain moves to the left, and the environment is underexposed. To the right, it becomes overexposed. Landscapes are mutable things, whether to a photographer charged with depicting them in the most flattering or magnificent light, or at the behest of the systems that transform them over the course of millennia.

Just like the earliest astronomers gazed up at Mars through a telescope and wondered if those canals might have once held water that irrigated a long-dead civilization, we constantly seek to imbue otherworldly scenes with some sort of human context – uncanny but not too uncanny. Dow’s photographic objects remind us of the limitations of that sort of thinking. Just when we think we can find a scene familiar, the range on the histogram can move to the left or to the right and disorient us once again.