Black-and-white landscape photography doesn’t exactly fall along the leading edge of contemporary art. But Noelle Tan still finds something exotic in casting the familiar world in light and shadow. In fact, it’s the boundaries she’s concerned with: In her latest photos—split into a white series and black series—the features of the landscape aren’t even apparent.
“The white is subject without environment, and the black is environment without subject,” says Tan.
The work that’s currently on display in “From Here to the Salton Sea,” a solo show at Civilian Art Projects, is the artist’s white portion. In a series of small- to large-scale photographs, the Shaw resident portrays scenes around the Colorado Desert’s Salton Sea in Southern California. The photographs—custom-printed and overexposed—look more like incomplete pencil sketches of a smattering of trees or a pair of telephone poles.
“When I take the pictures, I overexpose them as much as I can,” says Tan, 37. “That already starts to pare down the landscape. When I print them, I print very lightly on a very light white matte paper, so they look like drawings.”
The artist arrived at her white period after exploring the black. That body of work, developed as she pursued a master’s degree in fine arts at the California Institute of the Arts (which she completed in 2002), featured scenes shot in the dead of night. She photographed various cities—primarily in Southern California, Oregon, and Wyoming—on their outskirts. Features in these photographs barely emerge, shot in dim light over long exposures.
For the white series, Tan has preferred to shoot in the desert for technical reasons, though she notes that some of her white work captures parts of Key West and ice fishing in Maine. “The project requires an already pared-down environment,” explains Tan. “I tried shooting in this area…but it’s too busy.” The desert, Tan says, also epitomizes the opposites that play into her work: day versus night, black
“One half of [Salton Sea], they attempted to develop. The other half is more parklike, more agricultural,” she explains. “A friend of mine had been out there. Sometimes it rains a lot in the desert, and she said it looks nothing like the dry season. Things were flowering, it was all moist and pretty. But when I went out, it was intense heat and barrenness. You don’t really see any people around.”
Tan prints the works herself: the smaller ones at New York’s Print Space, the larger “Salton Sea” pieces at San Francisco’s Rayko Photography Center. The costs of the process are considerable. Tan applied for and received a finishing grant from the Creative Capital Foundation in 2005, which allowed her to shoot and print “Drawings,” a series of 16-inch-by-20-inch photographs. “As soon as I finished the small project, I started conceptualizing the large project. So I asked them for more money, and they were like, ‘OK,’” says Tan. “They have to say ‘no’ to so many people, but once they say ‘yes,’ they like to [keep saying] ‘yes.’”
The artist is done shooting the desert for the time being, but she isn’t leaving it for good. “Even when I’m done with this project, I’m going to go out there once a year,” says Tan. “[T]here’s something so incredibly soothing about being able to see forever.”
“From Here to the Salton Sea” is on view from noon to 6 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, to Saturday, Oct. 20, at Civilian Art Projects, 406 7th St. NW. Free. (202) 607-3804.