Focus on Denver: Evan Anderman’s Aerial Photography Provokes Discourse on American Land Politics

Terminus, Eleven Mile Reservoir, CO, 2013.

Terminus, Eleven Mile Reservoir, CO, 2013.

Evan Anderman’s documentation of agriculture and energy development on Colorado’s eastern plains mediates public fascination over aerial photography reminiscent of Google Earth with the energetic expression of shooting photography while piloting an airplane. From commentary on the ethics of human land usage to criticism of the almost imperial land distribution politics at work on the plains, there is no denying that Anderman’s work is dazzlingly, intellectually, perilously challenging as a call for serious discussion about limiting human impacts on the natural environment.

Anderman holds a PhD in geological engineering from the Colorado School of Mines and undergraduate degree in geological engineering from Princeton University. His photography has exhibited at a variety of venues in Colorado including the Denver Art Museum, Denver International Airport, Carmen Wiedenhoeft Gallery, and Robischon Gallery. Anderman’s work is also in the collection of the Denver Art Museum. His Imposition series will be on display in a solo exhibition at the Carmen Wiedenhoeft Gallery in Denver opening on September 12, 2014. Further images of Anderman’s work can be found at evananderman.com.


Paul Weiner:
How is your work as a photographer informed by your background in geology?

Evan Anderman:
I think that photography is all about seeing. You can’t take a good picture unless you can see what you want to take a picture of. As a geologist, I can’t help but see the land differently because once you know how something is made you see everything that went into making it. It’s funny to think back to when I was first taking geology courses at Princeton. I would come home on break and drive up to the mountains through the various roadcuts along I-70 and 285, and it was all right in front of me and suddenly all made sense. It’s lucky I didn’t get in an accident. Once you know what you’re looking at, the rocks tell you their story, and you can see it right there. There are certain characteristics that you look for in the different formations that tell you how they were formed. It’s not just the old igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary labels that everyone learned in school. You really see the small details and how they form the land. To fly over the western United States in an airplane is better than any geology textbook. You get to see examples of practically every different geologic process laid out before you. I always thought I liked being a pilot because of the mechanical aspects of it, but I have only just lately realized that I fly because I want to look at all the geology around me. Taking pictures from the airplane made me realize that because now I have a way to show people exactly what I see when I look out the window of an airplane. My wife never flies with me because she doesn’t like to look out the window. Plus, she says that I chatter all the time because I am so excited.

Inky Patterns, San Juan Basin, NM, 2013

Inky Patterns, San Juan Basin, NM, 2013

Paul Weiner:
Tell us a little about your process for finding locations to take these high-altitude shots.

Evan Anderman:
I’m not really a planner. When I head out to take pictures, I like to be in the moment and just react to what is in front of me. The challenge for me is trying to find that interesting picture wherever I am and whatever the lighting conditions are. That extends to my aerial photography as well. In my airplane, generally I am not heading to a specific location, but rather a general area. Sometimes I don’t even make the decision until I’m in my airplane with the engine started. I’ve been known to change my route in the air, and that always works out for me. There’s an element of serendipity involved with finding locations, and that just fascinates me completely. I have been concentrating on the eastern plains of Colorado and have flown numerous flights over all seasons of the year. It’s interesting to me to see how things change from week to week and month to month. I don’t necessarily visit the exact same location multiple times, but I visit the same general area and see how it has changed. The farmers are always out doing their farming things, and I am always on the lookout for new things that are interesting to photograph.

I have also been trying to branch out a little and visit the various states around us: New Mexico, Wyoming, Kansas, Nebraska. It doesn’t really matter where I am. I generally can find something interesting to photograph.

Sometimes I do have a specific destination in mind that I want to explore. A couple of months ago I flew up to Gillette, Wyoming to look at the huge, open-pit coal mines up there. It is crazy how much land has been disturbed up there. I also flew over the Pinyon Canyon Army Maneuver site near La Junta; it is crazy how the landscape is covered with vehicle tracks for miles and miles.

It helps to be curious and to constantly be on the lookout for that interesting relationship that makes viewers curious about what they are looking at. Canadian photographer Edward Burtysnsky calls this the essential element, that one thing that has to be in the photograph. Once I see it, I have the technical foundation to be able to capture that element in an interesting way. I tell people that I’m looking for the needle in the haystack. That is what I am collecting.

That being said, there are times when the light is just terrible, so it may be a long time in between when I take a picture because I know the conditions will not allow a decent photograph to be made. You just have to accept the conditions and stay vigilant when they change.

Farmer Palette, Yuma, CO, 2014

Farmer Palette, Yuma, CO, 2014

Paul Weiner:
How large is your archive of photography for your Imposition project, and what considerations influence your selections of photography that you feel is worthy of displaying?

Evan Anderman:
I started working on the Imposition project last November when I flew down to Gallup, New Mexico to meet up with my brother. I flew over the San Juan basin, and the geology was just incredible. I couldn’t help but make photographs of it. This geology inspired the likes of Georgia O’Keefe and is what Eliot Porter called the Black Place. I knew that my Conformation series was winding down, and I was looking for the next thing. This one flight inspired this next series. I wanted to step back from the boldness of the feedlot pictures and concentrate more on the stunning beauty of the land. I also got very inspired by the New Topographics group as I started working on the series and was inspired to try to say something with my pictures as well. So, I decided to show the way that man has done some very curious things to the land in the activities that we need to support our society. Once I had this idea in mind, I started taking more flights and found photographs everywhere I looked.

All this is to say that I have taken thousands of pictures for this project so far and have literally hundreds to choose from for the upcoming exhibition. I really envision this work being presented at a large scale, roughly 4 feet by 5 feet, and the gallery can only handle a limited numbers of works that large. That’s where the hard work starts, narrowing it down to the eight or ten images that will be included in the show. In the first cut, I removed all the pictures that did not clearly illustrate the influence of man, and that reduced the group to about eighty. From that group of images, you could pick several different shows depending on what you wanted to concentrate on. I’ve had a lot of help from my assistant Valerie Santerli, a photographer herself and well-known Denver creative who also runs the Rule Gallery. I consider myself extremely lucky to be able to work with her! Slowly, we’ve whittled it down to sixteen images so far, but have to cut that number in half. That process has consisted of making test prints of the images and laying them all out next to each other to see how they talk to each other. You can see a picture of us doing this on my Facebook page. We move them around and start to get a flow, removing all of the ones that just aren’t working well with the others. It takes some time, and I find it hard to eliminate some because they have become a favorite for some reason or another. And then I complicate matters by going flying and taking more pictures, but they have to be truly special to be added into the mix. I had a great flight a couple of weeks ago and added 4 images to the grouping! That will happen as we move closer to the exhibition. There will be an ebb and flow as new images get added, and the weaker ones are eliminated.

I started working with Carmen Wiedenhoeft in January of this year, and it has been a really nice process. She is interested in my background and identifying the various influences on my photography. She is a very gentle, thoughtful, and intelligent person and has given me the space to make the show mine. This has been really eye-opening for me since I tend to get caught up in the moment and don’t necessarily think about the big picture of how I got where I am now. It is only in the last month or so that we have started thinking about the images themselves, and I am getting very excited about the possibilities with the show.

Turquoise Reservoir, Deer Trail, CO, 2014

Turquoise Reservoir, Deer Trail, CO, 2014

Paul Weiner:
You mentioned the influence of man on the environment. What effects have you observed that human land use have had on Colorado’s eastern plains?

Evan Anderman:
I reached a turning point last summer when I realized firsthand that man has a great influence on the environment in eastern Colorado. I was camping out at the Pawnee Buttes, about an hour north of Greeley on the border with Wyoming. I had taken a hike and shot the sunset around the buttes, and it was a gorgeous evening to be out of Denver. On the drive up there from the south, I noticed all the oil-field activity and found that curious. Additionally, there is a vast wind farm on the buttes to the north of Pawnee that has been there for a number of years. The interesting part came when the sun set. I noticed that the wind turbines each have a blinking red light to keep airplanes from running into them. They all seem to blink in unison across miles of the horizon. And each of the oil wells had a very bright flare from burning off the natural gas that is produced with the oil. It is just not profitable to collect the gas, so they burn it right at the well head. I felt surrounded by all of this light pollution. It made me realize that even in what I thought was a very remote location, it is not so remote anymore. It struck me, and I made a panorama of this to remind me of that moment. I printed it out about 12 feet long and hung it in my studio. You can also see the glow of light from the various cities around that area, and there are ten airplanes in the sky, something I hadn’t noticed when I took the picture.

I don’t know why it was such an epiphany to me to realize that there is basically nothing untouched on the eastern plains. I guess it was a surprise because it is such a vast area, but anyway I’ve realized on all my various flights out there that every square inch has been used in some way.

Obviously agriculture is the predominant use, the cultivation and irrigation associated with farming. Those areas that are not conducive to cultivation are dedicated to grazing of livestock, the sand hills where I guess the soil is just too permeable to hold water or there isn’t water available. I’ve spent a lot of time on Google Maps looking at the satellite photo function. It’s interesting to see where the circles are from the pivot irrigation systems along the Platte and Arkansas rivers and their tributaries. The geology is largely responsible for that. But there’s also an interesting cluster in the northeast corner of the state between Wray and Yuma where the Ogallala Aquifer is. They seem to be irrigating the sand hills. The water must be so readily available that they can’t resist irrigating even though the soil is not the best. Where there’s not water to irrigate with, there is dry land farming, seen on the satellite photos as rectangles rather than circles. I think it covers a larger area of the state than the irrigated land.

Where there is grazing, there are also feedlots, and many of those are so big that they are visible on the satellite photos as well. There’s something about flying over a feedlot, the unnatural jet-black color of the soil that the animals walk on. It just can’t be good for any of us, the cows or humans. I have spent some time studying the photos I made of the various feedlots in northeastern Colorado because I find it fascinating. It is industrial architecture at a large scale. I’ve never been emboldened to talk to one of the feedlots to figure exactly what is happening, so that remains a mystery to me.

Finally, the energy industry has been busy with their various activities. There are a couple of new wind farms, and the oil industry has been very busy in Weld County.

Cultivation Boundaries, High Plains, CO, 2013

Cultivation Boundaries, High Plains, CO, 2013

Paul Weiner:
Seeing these photos of land usage seems to suggest a conversation on environmental politics. Do you find your work to have any inherent political undertones regarding land use and regulation or is the work more of a documentary than a political statement?

Evan Anderman:
I’m glad that you think my photographs would spark a conversation on environmental politics. That is the whole point of what I want to do with my work. I want to show you the beauty in these things and hopefully spark your interest to learn more about these parts of our society. But it is a complex conversation, and I do not have the background to make any conclusions about what is happening in my photographs. I leave that for the experts. I just want to start the conversation.

Drainage Layers, Badger Creek, CO, 2013

Drainage Layers, Badger Creek, CO, 2013

Paul Weiner:
A common trend in contemporary art is the intertwining of science and aesthetics. What is the ideal forum for your work to be displayed in? Would you rather see your work in a museum of science or art?

Evan Anderman:
I would like for my work to be seen in as broad a range of venues as possible, and I would love to hear the conversation that is started in each. I think that the art museum community would have a different take on my images than the science museum community. I look forward to having those conversations and hearing what people think.

Wanderings, Anton, CO, 2013.

Wanderings, Anton, CO, 2013.

Paul Weiner:
Aesthetically, what are a couple of your favorite geological or man-made structures to photograph?

Evan Anderman:
I love to photograph anything geologic, but I guess I am most fascinated by rivers and the forms they create as they drain the land. They are interesting at just about any scale, small or large. I also like to photograph icebergs and glaciers. I have traveled to both Antarctica and the Arctic and would go back to either in a heartbeat. They are surprisingly hard to photograph well, but you get to see some incredible shapes and forms as the ice reflects the light. I should admit that I have actually gotten bored of photographing icebergs on some of these cruises I’ve been on, especially in Greenland where I was distracted by the stunning geology in the Scoresby Sund Fjord complex on the east coast. Rodfjord was especially interesting. It looked like Ayers Rock rising out of the water. It was just incredible with the icebergs floating around in front of it. Now I really want to go back there as well.

Leftover Marks, Flagler, CO, 2014

Leftover Marks, Flagler, CO, 2014

Paul Weiner:
What are some of the technical challenges you’ve found when shooting from an airplane?

Evan Anderman:
It is hard shooting from the airplane because it is moving fast, and I don’t always have time to get the picture that I want. Just to be clear, I only photograph when I have the autopilot flying the airplane so I can divert my attention out the window. Obviously, my priority is to fly the airplane, and I keep an ear open to hear if there is anything unusual happening with the airplane. It generally lets you know. When I first started shooting from the plane, I used a 24-70 zooms lens, and that was difficult because it covers such a wide angle of view. I always shoot with a very high shutter speed and almost wide open aperture. You don’t need a lot of depth of field, but you want to minimize any effects from the motion. I moved on to a 70-200 lens to isolate the various elements that I would see on my flights. Lately, I’ve been shooting with an 80-400 lens, and I really love having all that range to get exactly the picture I want. It was a great investment.

Oval Drive, Beebe Draw, CO, 2014

Oval Drive, Beebe Draw, CO, 2014

Paul Weiner:
Tell us a little about the Denver art scene. What are a few of your favorite galleries and artists to see in Denver?

Evan Anderman:
The Denver art scene is definitely up-and-coming, and there are a lot of exciting things happening. I was part of a group of people that helped convince the director of the Denver Art Museum to form a separate photography department in 2007. I was on the international search committee that hired the curator Eric Paddock, and he is celebrating his sixth anniversary this summer. The Denver Art Museum has a fairly new director, Christoph Heinrich, who has done wonders to really activate the museum, landing the Yves Saint Laurent show a couple of years ago and the Cartier show that will be opening this November. Denver is the only North American location for these shows. The Museum of Contemporary Art is a nice counterpoint to the art museum, under the very able leadership of Adam Lerner. We also have the Clyfford Still Museum, the Vance Kirkland Museum, and the Redline Art Center. All of these are located in downtown Denver.

As for the gallery scene, we have many different art districts in the city that provide lots of opportunities for artists to get their work in front of the public. My studio is located in Denver’s Art District on Santa Fe, and it has a very busy First Friday Art Walk. The Golden Triangle, Cherry Creek North, RiNo (for River North), and Highlands are some of the others.

I’ll just mention two specific galleries here. First, I am very excited that the Carmen Wiedenhoeft Gallery in RiNo will be having my first solo exhibition of my Imposition series opening September 12th. Also, my assistant Valerie Santerli has recently reopened the new Rule Gallery, and I have high hopes for the success of that gallery.


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