How did you miss that sunrise yesterday morning? Did you notice the light on the Loess hills as you drove to your meeting? Did you check out how the sky is reflected in flood plains after a rain? Familiarity makes places relevant but it also breeds apathy.
Though natural phenomena are around us all the time, we are often at fault for not noticing a sunset, a juxtaposition of cloud and tree line, the morning light on a grain bin. Fortunately, we have people like artist photographer John Spence to point out these fleeting and fickle gems of light.
On display this March at Modern Arts Midtown is the landscape photography of John Spence. Spence has photographed in almost all of Nebraska’s 93 counties, and is known for his colorful, and dramatic panoramic landscapes.
The exhibit, titled Nebraska: Room to Move, features his large-format prints of Nebraska’s rural settings with an emphasis on dramatic lighting, clouds and skies. The landscape photographer’s job is to make these spaces relevant and symbolic. Starting with the frame and his chosen perspective, his goal, in this artist’s words, is “to create an emotional response to the place where I am.”
High on everyone’s emotional response to nature are sunsets, but have you ever noticed how colors like cerulean, viridian, ochre, cyan, gris-de-lin add to this experience? The Midwest is known for providing some of the most interesting sunrises and sunsets in the world because of this varied palette. The “photographer’s light,” dawn and dusk, is more available in this region than in most places and Spence’s “eye” does it justice.
The open land he traverses provides an unfettered view of the horizon and of a sky as big as his eye can see populated by constantly changing cloud formations and storm banks and the above spectrum of enhanced blues, greys and oranges.
Born in Texas and raised in Beatrice, Nebraska, John Spence has been photographing for more than 40 years. He worked in the Nebraska Public Television film unit and is an independent film and video producer.
Distinguishing between purely physical space and a relevant and meaningful “sense of place” is the charge of the landscape artist. Spence takes on this responsibility with a visual language that is clear and concise.
His photographic interpretation is accessible and honest, listing toward exaggeration without losing its connection to reality. His reverence for the land and our place in it is always evident. These are nature photographs, but with a caveat; humans and their mark on the land are an integral part of this nature.
Each scene is a contrast of ethereal versus grounded, of spiritual versus the engineered. Whether it be a road disappearing into the horizon or a simple fence post next to a crop row, the photos illustrate the tenuousness of the light and weather grounded by a human presence on the land. Whether capturing a distant storm, as in “West of Lincoln, Lancaster County, Nebraska May 2, 2010” or a simple farmhouse as in “East of Clarkson, Colfax County, Nebraska, July 25, 2015” the contrast is clear.
As if tearing a page from his personal journal, the photos are titled only by date, and occasionally, location. Most of the works emphasize sky and cloud formations, with subdued morning or evening light on the terrestrial, often obscuring detail adding to the mystery of the land and the time of day; lyrical complexities in the quilt of the landscape, the geometry of the natural and the engineered, the stubble of freshly harvested crops, the perspective and vanishing point.
Almost as tangible as the place itself is the query of what lies beyond; beyond the horizon, beyond the four-sided frame of the photograph. To paraphrase C. S. Lewis; What’s left to imagination is the essence of the story. “June 3rd, 2016,” and “July 1, 2009” are salient examples of this interplay of ground and sky. In “East of Ashland, Saunders County, Nebraska, July 14, 2010,” the rainbow combined with a sulfurous ochre sky, momentarily takes us to another world.
A sampling of his portrait/figure work is also included in this show. These black and white works are evidence that Spence’s reverential eye transfers to subjects other than landscape, but the three or four pieces would be more at home in a like-themed exhibit, as they have no association with this show’s title and seem a bit of an afterthought.
Beyond being in the right place at the right time, according to the artist, “the right state of mind” is essential. Through an adept use of color and perspective, the works provide an epic view of the Midwest and reflect Spence’s personal connection to the landscape.
The exhibit Nebraska: Room to Move, landscape photography by John Spence, runs through March 30th, 2018 at Modern Arts Midtown. For details and gallery hours, go to modernartsmidtown.com.