Black Rock frame of mind

Gerald Franzen

Gerald Franzen looks at one of his photographs of the Black Rock Desert, which he calls “almost like another planet.”

Gerald Franzen looks at one of his photographs of the Black Rock Desert, which he calls “almost like another planet.”

Photo By David Robert

The playa in the middle of the Black Rock Desert is a desolate patch of alkaline dust. The ground is hardened by a shallow, salty lake that forms there each winter and evaporates each summer. This 400-square-mile stretch, devoid of plants and wildlife, is one of the driest, flattest places you’ll ever see.

If it sounds like there’s not much to look at, photographer Gerald Franzen has some thoughts for you: “There’s no better place to get the lawn chair out, open a beer and look at it. I’ve had more moving sunsets there. There’s just something about the colors, the sky. It’s wonderful.”

His exhibit of hazy, color photographs of the Black Rock will be closing this week at the Nevada State Legislature, where the state arts council has been showcasing Nevada artists during the four-month legislative session.

Franzen, who teaches photography at Truckee Meadows Community College, went camping in the Black Rock earlier this year to show a friend from Chicago the place he describes as being “almost like another planet.” He’d brought along his view camera and some black-and-white film, thinking he’d follow in the iconographic tradition of the tire-track and cracked-earth photos that he and others have shot before.

Instead, he ended up taking in the textures and colors of the desert with his digital point-and-shoot, coming up with a selection of pictures that strike a balance between the classic rules of good 2-D composition and the strangely visually indulgent experience of actually being there.

Franzen watched the sun pass over the sky long enough to capture the atmospheric swaths of color that measure the passing of a day. Three pictures of faraway King Lear Peak appear side-by-side in a veritable rainbow of icy blue, rosy pink and purple-mountain-majesty purple.

Much as these photos are straight-up documentation of Franzen’s time spent looking at the desert, he says, “I was really trying to still be somewhat abstract.” The real and the unreal achieve a harmonic meld here. In some photos, craggy ridgelines of far-off mountains are half abstracted into squiggly lines. In others, scruffy, unromantic brush glistens gold during the last moments before the day disappears, and a rusty orange crust under the surface of a hot spring looks like something from NASA’s Image of the Day Gallery.

“For me, its always a balance between relating to the place—having some truth so that if somebody goes there, they’ll recognize that experience—and I try to extract from that as graphically strong an image as possible,” says Franzen.

He applies that concept to any kind of subject matter, whether it’s a scenic wonderland or a still life of a chair. The tone of much of his work is Edward Weston-ish.

“I end up doing everything,” he says. “My specialty, I guess you’d call it, is basically unmanipulated photographs of outdoor scenes done as graphically as possible.”

Franzen currently is working on photographing the same locations on the Comstock that were shot in the 1870s by Carleton Watkins, one of the predominant Western frontier photographers.

Whichever kind of subject Franzen’s looking at, he has an approach that seems to work for him in any situation: “My work as a photographer is to put a frame around this solitude and beauty.”