Getting vertical

Photographer Dean Burton presents a new kind of desert vista

“Silver Lake” by Dean Burton.

“Silver Lake” by Dean Burton.

A sweeping, panoramic view can take your breath away, as can a photograph that recaptures that panorama via the wide-angle lens. It seems strange to think that one could enjoy a landscape when permitted to view it in only thin, vertical strips.

One can do exactly that, however, at Dean Burton’s Vertical Landscapes, an exhibit on display at McKinley Arts and Culture Center. Instead of placing photographs side by side to recreate a wide panoramic view, Burton lines photographs up vertically, so that a vista rolls out before us from ground to sky. Almost all of these black and white photographs show a desert landscape. In many of the pieces, the bottom photograph shows a dry, cracked desert floor, the middle photograph shows barren hills in the distance, and the top photograph reveals the desert sky.

The effect is beautiful, but also a bit dizzying. There is something strange about moving your eyes from the detailed ground to the distant horizon, then down again. It’s not the way we usually look at things.

However, Burton says, when spending time in the desert, it’s necessary to keep one’s eyes on the ground to keep from stepping on rocks, snakes, etc. When walking, one can only look up for short periods of time.

“You’re looking at close and far away at the same time,” he says. “To look side to side, you have to stop walking.”

Burton says that his works also simulate the driving experience. His pieces are not seamless but are divided into three sections—the foreground, the horizon and the sky—by black bars. Burton explains that most of us look at landscapes from behind a car windshield—particularly desert scenes, which are far more comfortable when seen from an air-conditioned vehicle. The landscape is thus fragmented, split into sections by the frame of the car.

The bars also emphasize certain horizontal elements in the works. A bar placed on or just above a hilltop, for instance, calls attention to the horizon. The bars also remind us to study each section individually. If the landscapes were seamless and cohesive, we might get caught up in the centered photo, the one that shows the horizon. We might forget to look at the foreground photo of wonderfully textured desert earth, or the top photo of the vast desert sky.

One of my favorite works is one of the most simple. In the middle section, tire tracks stretch out toward the distant hills. In the top section, two long, wispy clouds stretch through the sky, mirroring the tire tracks almost perfectly. The clouds and tracks heighten the vertical nature of the work, while the black bars, placed just above and below the tracks, add drama.

“Because the image is vertical, you’re drawn toward anything that’s horizontal,” Burton says of the bars.

Works like this one show Burton’s love for contrast, his fascination with the idea of polarity and juxtaposition. Burton says that the “visual and technical challenge” of creating compositionally dramatic works is what motivates him.

“I keep pushing the technique and seeing where else I can take it,” he says. “My struggle is, can I take [a landscape] and make it interesting, not just for the moment, but something you’d want to view repeatedly.”

After one look at Burton’s works, it becomes clear that these dynamic and unusual photographs beckon the viewer to stop and stare.