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Wednesday, January 25,2012

Cutting to bedrock

Photographer Curtis Miller brings his spare vision of the Great Lakes to Lansing Art Gallery

by Lawrence Cosentino

The austere Great Lakes images of Howell photographer Curtis Miller don’t make you pine for the cottage up north.

“I’m not looking to do ´pretty,’” Miller said. “I’m looking to do ´strong.´”

Many of the pictures, on display at Lansing Art Gallery through February, record Miller’s solo backcountry trips to the shores of Lake Superior in the off-season. With no human in sight, sheets of ice build into massive crags, push colorful beach rocks into black walls and scour the casual footprints of summer to a blank slate of bedrock.

The start-from-scratch feeling that permeates “Solitude” is no accident. Miller, 56, started the project at a tough time in his life, when his parents became ill and he was going through a divorce. 

“The first few times, I was uncomfortable about being left alone in the middle of nowhere, with my thoughts, with the woods growing dark,” he said.

Last January, Miller snowshoed four hours with a 50-pound pack of equipment to Chapel Rock on Lake Superior, only to find the shore whited out by a stormfront. He camped in the woods two nights, lashed by snow and wind from the lake.

The result was an unforgettable experience, but yielded no usable shots.

On other trips, he got both. “I see the images as existential reflecting pools,” he said. “This enormous world that seems to have been there forever, reflects back on your short stay on this earth.”

Up until three or four years ago, Miller was primarily a painter. When he turned to photography, to his surprise, he found that the resulting images were “almost more personal” than his paintings.

“I’m taking self-portraits everywhere I go,” he said. “I carry around this sense of the world, my outlook, I guess, and I look for places that reflect that.”

When Miller was a kid, he and his brother got a 64-crayon Crayola box and a ream of Manila paper each year. By the time he got to high school, he “lost the thread” of creativity — with the help of a bad art teacher. In his second year at Albion College, he took another art class.

“I needed a humanities credit,” he deadpanned.

The requirement changed his life. Two weeks into the class, he knew he wanted to be an artist.

“It must have struck some unconscious chord,” he mused. At the end of the semester, students had to package their drawings in a creative portfolio. Miller made a replica of a 64-crayon Crayola box.

In a subsequent drawing course, Miller was unfazed by his “complete incompetence.”  His first figure drawing was a 6-inch doodle on a 20-inch piece of paper. “The head was bigger than the body,” he said. “It was just terrible. When people tell me they can’t draw or paint, I pull that out.”

Miller believes that with practice and training, anyone can do art, providing they have one crucial trait.

“People who practice as artists are people who can overcome horror,” he said. “Every painting looks horrible at some point, if not many points.”

Miller turned to photography only in the last few years, a circumstance that may explain the depth and resonance of his “Solitude” images. From painting, he brings to photography a deep feel for composition, design and what he calls a “sense of the possibilities of art.”

He was already taking reference shots for landscape paintings in the 2000s, when digital photography was swiftly improving. He became intrigued when details such as grains of sand on a beach or individual ears of corn in a silo could be captured in large formats. 

The familiar farms, fields and orchards of central Michigan took on elegiac nobility under Miller’s eye. His first keeper was a shot of a recently pruned orchard in winter, each branch etched in black. “It had that feeling I was looking for,” he said.

He began to desaturate the images, subtracting color, wringing the calendar prettiness out of his newfound world, filling it instead with eloquent shading, rich textures and haunting spaces.

For those who still pine for the cottage up north, Miller has color versions of the “Solitude” photographs on file.

“If people want to buy them, I’m not going to argue, but my vision is monochrome, at least for now,” he said.

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