Photographic memory

Nolan Preece

Nolan Preece is ready to shoot.

Nolan Preece is ready to shoot.

Photo/Kris Vagner

Nolan Preece's exhibit The Driest State: Nevada Watersheds is on view through May 28 at the CCAI Courthouse Gallery, 885 E. Musser St., Carson City. Gallery hours are Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Mention a photographic technique or process to Nolan Preece—historic platinum prints, wet-process darkroom prints, ink-jets, abstracts, landscapes, you name it—and there’s a good chance he’ll pull open a flat file, flip through a portfolio or reach into a stack of framed photos and pull out an example he’s made. Preece is a retired Truckee Meadows Community College art professor who’s shot and developed thousands of photographs of just about every type there is.

In summer 2014, at the Nevada Museum of Art, he exhibited the kind of work he’s best known for, “chemigrams,” which involve “painting” onto the photo paper with light and light-sensitive chemicals. Preece has been honing this technique for decades.

Shortly after that exhibit closed, Capital City Arts Initiative invited him to show some work at the Courthouse Gallery in Carson City this spring.

Perched comfortably in an armchair on the lower level of his Reno ranch house, which doubles as his studio, Preece recalled recently. “They said, ’We don’t want chemigrams.’ I said, ’Don’t worry, I’ve got plenty. I’ve got a huge range. What would you like?’” He has about 20 different portfolios to base an exhibit on. They agreed on a series of 29 color photos of Nevada watersheds.

Preece said he started shooting landscape images as a “pet project” after graduating with his MFA from Utah State University in 1980. He’d studied the “Ansel Adams school,” of reverent, romanticized landscape photos. He’d also learned about the “New Topographics” movement of the 1970s, wherein photographers showed a starker, less rosy version of the land and acknowledged our environmental impact head-on.

Influenced by both those perspectives, he began working as survey photographer, taking pictures for environmental impact studies that were required for mining or dam-construction projects.

“Everything I did for the companies they kept,” he explained. On each expedition, though, he carried along his medium format film camera, and when time allowed, he shot photos for his own collection.

“I covered about 11 Western states in one way or another,” he said. Naturally, water use was a theme that came up frequently.

Over the years, samples from his ever-growing collection of landscapes were shown in museums in Utah, while in Nevada he became known more for his abstract work and elegant detail shots of historic buildings.

Recently, Preece has been taking pictures from a Cessna, and the watershed collection has expanded even more. In the 35 years he’s been shooting landscapes, some things have changed—he swapped his medium format camera for a Canon 5D Mark II—and some things are still the same. He still sees the landscape through those two perspectives he started his career with, reverently romantic and starkly realistic. In the watershed photos, Nevada’s reservoirs, rivers and dams are rendered in meticulous detail. The familiar terrain looks altered and sobering from 3,000 feet up, but in a way the pictures are still beautiful. A few even have traces of those sumptuously abstract chemigrams. In a photo of the Fernley Sink Wetlands, the apparent lack of water registers as disturbing, while the pallete is a rusty rainbow that suggests an abstract painting, and the thin, black, parallel lines made by Interstate 80 bisect the picture as elegantly as if they were placed there by a graphic designer.

Later this year, Preece is planning to reshoot some Reno-area watersheds that he first shot in 2010, before the drought. He’s quick to expresses concern about the climate change that the reshoot will no doubt highlight. But in a typical Preece perspective-balancing act, it’s possible he’ll schedule the shoot for fall, when the colors look best.