From sand to sky

Photographer Michael McCurry takes a hands-on approach to capturing the desert landscape

“Eureka Valley” by Michael McCurry.

“Eureka Valley” by Michael McCurry.

Photo by David Robert

How does a photographer make his presence felt in a landscape photograph? Sometimes, he’ll allow his shadow to enter into the frame or place his gear in the corner of the shot.

Long-time photographer and wilderness advocate Michael McCurry, however, uses art as a means of interacting with landscape by hand-painting the photograph itself. With bachelor’s in anthropology and philosophy, McCurry has always had a hands-on approach to dealing with nature and art, from navigating a rubber raft down the Missouri and Mississippi rivers in 1967 to later working as a blacksmith in Mendocino, Calif. McCurry says that he likes to aim for this hands-on quality in his photography, printing photographs on canvas using a digital printer and then hand-coloring them using traditional techniques employed in the early part of the 20th century.

Enchanted Places, a series of McCurry’s hand-colored giclee on canvas works, is on display at the Enoteca Wine Cellar inside the Siena Hotel Spa Casino. The exhibit is drawn from a line of greeting cards designed by McCurry, which primarily feature scenes from the Great Basin desert and other areas of northern Nevada. As chairman of the Sierra Club’s Great Basin Group, McCurry feels that representing place should be both an artistic and a political process. However, McCurry insists that his work comes most from an “emotional and spiritual interaction with the landscape.”

Although it is a small exhibit, Enchanted Places attempts to bring home the mystery of the desert. Each canvas on display features scenes from either the Great Basin or what appear to be coastal dunes. The stark contrast between sand and sky is a major theme of the exhibit, and the emphasis on texture is magnified by the subtle hand-coloring.

The pieces that make up Enchanted Places fall into one of two categories—they are either deep, rich representations of the sagebrush desert or experiments in the play of shadow across bare sand. “Eureka Valley” shows oncoming clouds making their way across the Great Basin, while the small bits of sagebrush in the foreground lend complexity and texture to the otherwise bare landscape. “Dune,” on the other hand, seems too perfect. The fantastic play of shadow and light creates a stunning portrait, but the viewer is left wondering if the image is actually a real place.

“Nevada has an incredible amount of remote space and there’s a lot of beauty to take in," McCurry says. "You just have to kind of settle down and let it seep in."