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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Transient As The Light

QT Luong is a French-born scientist, mountain climber and artist. He’s also a master of landscapes whose passion was ignited by the magnificent scenes of the Sierra Nevada.

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"There is something missing in Adams' series," he continues, "and that is color, which I think is an essential component for setting up mood and atmosphere. So I sought to make a photograph in which color would be an integral part. Since the Yosemite granite walls are gray, the most color contrast would be found at sunset between the yellow/orange illuminated cliff tops and the valley bottom, which would turn blue because of the open shade conditions. Most evenings, the valley bottom would be too dark, but if there was some fog in the bottom, that would lighten it up and enhance the blue tint. One evening, I noticed the fog forming and a hole in the western horizon. I rushed to Tunnel View and here was the image, almost a decade and maybe a hundred visits after my initial one."

Because Luong has spent so much time photographing in the national parks, these days he has switched from 5x7 film to digital SLRs, and the goal is creating a comprehensive record of each park—he can't shy away from the iconic locations and vantage points. Not only does he not avoid them, but he appreciates why they're popular.

Crater Lake with low clouds colored by sunset, Crater Lake National Park, Oregon.
"Although they are iconic because of the ease of access," he says, "there are often other good reasons for them to reach that status, and it's something I want to find out for myself. Even if the images are too derivative to stand on their own, they can help tell a story in conjunction with other images, not to mention generate a few stock sales. But to me, the most important reason for shooting those 'same old shots' is that once I've done them I can move on. I'm constantly trying to create photographs that I haven't made before. To me, this seems more natural than always trying to create photographs that haven't been made before at all. If you spend enough time to get to know a subject, you'll do something more original without needing to be a particularly original person yourself."

Yosemite remains Luong's favorite, but it's the diversity of the national parks that first started him on his journey, and which keeps him exploring to this day. He marvels at the similarities he finds in vastly different landscapes—like two very similar views of Death Valley and Denali. The scientist remains well skilled at analyzing structures and spotting patterns.

"These are two very contrasted environments," he explains. "It is an illustration of the diversity that drew me to the parks. One is a photograph of one of the coldest mountains on earth and the highest point in North America. The other is one of the hottest deserts on earth and the lowest point in North America. And, yet, notice how the layout of the mountains and valley is similar down to the appearance of the Badwater salt pan and the northeast fork of Kahiltna Glacier. I emphasized this similarity by the way I framed the Death Valley image, and also by the choice of the time, as many would choose to photograph earlier or later in the day when the light may be 'better,' but the salt pan would be in the shade of the high mountains. The first was made Galen Rowell-style in an extreme location with a tiny point-and-shoot because extreme cold caused problems with my SLR. The second was made Ansel Adams-style only 10 minutes from a parking lot and well-visited overlook with large-format film."

Luong likens his national parks project to deciphering an interconnected giant puzzle. And although it required years of hard work, thinking of it as an academic study misses the point. At its simplest, it offered an opportunity for an outdoorsman to spend more time in some of the most ruggedly beautiful landscapes in the world. At its most profound, it allowed an artist to help us to understand the importance of our interconnected natural world in hopes that we will be moved to protect it. It is, at its core, a work of love.


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