Alan Sislen, a Bethesda-based photographer, has traveled around the world making landscape photographs. But for his current exhibition, he found compelling material just steps away from his home.
CityPaper: Where do you live now? Where did you grow up?
Alan Sislen: I grew up in Bethesda, and that’s where I live now. However, for almost 20 years my family and I lived in Chicago and New York City. In 2002 we decided to move back “home,” where many old friends and family still reside.
WCP: Is photography a full-time career for you, or do you have a “day job.”
AS: After over 35 years in the financial services industry, photography became my full time passion about 10 years ago. Photography rekindled some of that creativity that only occasionally had a chance to emerge during my business career.
WCP: Describe for me some of the prior series you’ve done, and what drove them?
AS: I’ve had a fascination with landscape photography for the last 10 years. I enjoy the natural beauty of the world around us, and I try to convey that beauty, and sometimes mystery, in my photography. I am very much a traditionalist when it comes to both subject matter and my approach to image processing. Although there are amazing new tools to process images, and I use many of them, I grew up in the darkroom and that foundation remains my major influence today.
I often travel to locations that are thousands of miles away to experience and photograph. I have photographed in New Zealand, Italy, France, Iceland, Chile, the U.K., South Africa, Namibia, Canada and Spain, and obviously all over the U.S. It’s always exciting and invigorating to travel to new places. For me, it is often the novelty of a new location that gets those creative juices flowing.
My previous projects have focused on two major areas—-one, is the desert. I love the desert and sand dunes, especially White Sands in New Mexico, Death Valley in California, the Sossesvlei in Namibia and the Atacama Desert in Chile. The other major project has been my five trips to Tuscany in the last nine years. The beauty of that region of Italy keeps me going back.
WCP: What is the subject matter of the images in the new show, and why are they meaningful to you?
AS: The photographs in my “Variations” exhibit are very different from most of my other landscape work because the images were made one flight of steps down from my bedroom, and 15 feet from my kitchen table. It started out as simply enjoying the view we have of the Cabin John Trail and creek in Bethesda. Every morning I would wake up, look out the window and be amazed at the beauty and variety of what I saw. I began making photographs about four years ago, and then the objective of trying to capture the constantly changing beauty of the scene began to crystallize. I realized that what I had first viewed as ordinary, was in fact, quite extraordinary. I photographed the exact same scene from the exact same spot in all seasons, in all kinds of weather, and I continue to do so today.
The forest-like environment that each of the photographs depicts has meaning for me because it is a reminder of why, in the frenzy of our daily lives, we often take for granted or overlook the beauty that surrounds us. I liken these photographs to the variations on a theme that are abundant in music. In this case, nature has provided the theme and the stage, and through time, the mood and the feelings that those players on the stage convey change over and over again. We just need to slow down to appreciate the beauty that stands before us. These photographs are that reminder for me.
WCP: Tell me about the process used to make the images in this exhibit.
ASThe photographs in the exhibit are all panoramas. Each panorama is actually made up of 12 individual vertical photographs, that are then “stitched” together using software. The end result is a photograph that can be printed very large, but still retains detail. For this exhibit, the photographs are 59” long and are not framed in traditional frames with mats. I decided to have them “face-mounted” using acrylic material on the face of the image. This results in a very clean, modern look. The images can be framed traditionally, but I wanted to do something a little different for this exhibit. However, one shouldn’t get caught up with the format of the images or the way they are presented. Today, too many photographs are more about the “technique,” than the vision of the photographer. In the end, the vision and how it is executed always wins.
WCP: Who are some of your influences, and why?
AS: Like all photographers, it’s impossible not to be influenced by those whose work we respect. I find I am constantly looking at work by Eliot Porter, Ansel Adams, Charlie Waite, Sebastiao Salgado, Michael Kenna, Edward Weston, and scores of others. In 2003, when I first saw landscape panoramas done by former National Geographic photographer, Bruce Dale, I was hooked, and thanks to Bruce, that format became an important part of my work.
“Variations” is on display at Multiple Exposures Gallery, 105 N. Union St., Studio 312 at the Torpedo Factory Art Center, Alexandria, Va. (703) 683-2205. Daily 10–6, Thurs 12–9. Free.