Jeff Alu: Desert Dreams
Jeff Alu is a freelance digital artist and photographer who spends most of his free time roaming California's desert areas in an open-ended journey of personal and visual exploration. His black-and-white photographs play with lighting, scale and perspective to transform the mundane into something ominous and alien. Visual equilibrium becomes a tenuous concept, as the viewer tends to feel trapped between dimensions of reality and surreality. Yet no matter how unbalanced things become, one is invariably seduced by the dark poetry of Alu’s post-apocalyptic visions.
You studied to be a musician, but began taking photographs in 2000. What drew you to the medium?
I’ve always been attracted to photography, and even entered a few competitions in junior high school, but I was much more interested time in music at that time, so that’s where I concentrated most of my efforts. I’ve always loved the desert and hiking in remote areas. I bought a digital camera in 2000 to document some of my hikes, without any real intention of breaking into fine art. It was only after playing with some of these images in Photoshop that my love for black and white was reborn. And from there I just couldn’t stop.
People are largely absent from your work, with the exception of a couple of series. Are you more comfortable photographing unpopulated locations, or is this more of an artistic/philosophic choice?
I also do commercial work, which always features people. But for my fine art work, it’s true, I’m much more interested in shots without people, even when I photograph in densely populated areas like New York City. I try to project human emotions and feelings onto inanimate objects; I’ve done that ever since I was a kid. So when I come across a small bush or rock in the middle of nowhere, I feel like it’s trying to say something to me, like it wants to be photographed, to be noticed. I don’t hear an actual voice, of course, I just get a feeling that the scene has something to say and needs to be recorded.
You seem most at home in desert locations. Why do these kinds of locations speak to you more than other kinds of landscapes? Your bio references an absence of complexity. What else?
I think it also has to do with the difficulty in finding subjects in the desert. It’s not like the city, where everything is close together. I like to have to work for what I find, which turns it into an adventure. I think maybe it goes back to the work I used to do at the Jet Propulsion Lab, hunting for comets and asteroids. It took lots of time and patience, but when I found something, it was well worth the effort. I no longer do that kind of work, but my desert trips are a continuance of that mindset. It’s really all about discovery. Although, I must say, I’ve found city photography to be equally as rewarding.
You’ve written on your website that you now see the desert in a new way since you began taking photographs. What exactly do you mean?
Well, it’s not just the desert, but everywhere. Doing photography has taught me how to see in 2D. We’re used to walking around, seeing everything in 3D. Everything looks great in 3D. But stop walking and look at the same scene, from the point of view of a camera. It can become less interesting when seen that way. So, doing photography has really taught me to notice interesting compositions that I would normally just walk past. And these compositions are available to us all the time, everywhere. You just have to stop and look. Otherwise they fly on by unnoticed.
The digital manipulations you perform look as if they could conceivably have been performed in the darkroom. In other words, your photographs have a more organic feel to them than most digital images. Do such distinctions matter to you?
There’s no doubt that I look for ways to create an organic, and even traditional, feel to my images. My processing techniques in Photoshop are very basic, converting to black and white, using the dodge and burn brush, a little sharpening here, some blur there. I don’t work in layers when processing, I just do everything to the original image layer. I like to keep it basic. I think I would probably be doing the same kinds of things if I were working in a traditional darkroom.
Have you ever worked with traditional photographic materials and methods?
Back in junior high school was the first time. Just your normal photography class. The second time was while I was working at the Jet Propulsion Lab, We would go up to Palomar Observatory and use the 18” Schmidt Camera and make images of the sky. There was no room at all for art; everything in the darkroom was very procedural. I spent many hours in there processing those films, and listening to music was the only thing that got me through it. After that, I had no desire to go back into the darkroom, so the digital age is what brought me back into photography.
There’s a kind of artificial quality to many (but not all) of your photographs in that they look more like tabletop dioramas than actual locations, giving them a surreal aspect. Do you recognize this quality and, if so, is this intentional?
The tilt-shift style of focus that I use in some of my images brings that about. I was attracted to that effect ever since I first saw it, and I think using this technique is yet another way to isolate subjects, making them appear to be hidden away within something.
Come Out and Play
Surrealism is, of course, a route to the unconscious. Does your photography tap into submerged feelings and ideas that you’re perhaps not fully aware of?
I don’t believe that I have a full grasp of why I create the images that I do. I’m not exactly sure where my desire to create these kinds of images comes from. But honestly, I try not to think about it too much. I just go with the flow. I know that when I’m most happy with the way an image turns out, it usually means that I feel I’ve created something from a different point of view from which I’m used to seeing it, and that I’ve given it a new meaning of some kind. But what that meaning is exactly, is not always clear to me.
Your images tend towards harsh contrast. Why do you print this way? Is it to enhance the abstraction of the images?
I’ve always used the word “impact.” Not to be trite, but I think this gives the images more impact, at least for the kinds of things I’m trying to express. Indeed, it does enhance the abstraction as well, which helps to take the viewer out of reality, at least a little.
According to your bio, you don’t set out to photograph with a particular theme in mind. Do you sometimes unravel the meaning of your images after you have manipulated them digitally?
I generally take and image because I see “potential” in it. Sometimes it’s very obvious when I take the shot. Other times, I don’t see it until I actually start playing with the image. Many times, I don’t actually process the image until a couple of years later. I have a huge backlog of images, and every once in a while I revisit images which at first didn’t mean much to me, but only after a time have become important.
What kind of statement(s) do you want your photographs to make?
In my 3D animation work, everything is created from scratch. I can create anything that’s in my mind, even though it doesn’t exist in the real world. But actually, I’m much more interested in finding interesting, surreal scenes that are in the real world. Almost like they could have been created from scratch with a computer, but are in fact, real. I guess I’m interested in showing the kinds of fantastic things that do exist in the real world, that are often overlooked. Art is everywhere.
Photography seems to be a way for you to filter out the extraneous baggage of urban life and pressure, practiced in a kind of Zen manner in which you’re completely open to chance. Is that an accurate read?
Yes and no. That is to say in the final product, yes. But in going out and gathering my photos, even though in the case of the desert it’s an escape of sorts, it isn’t always especially relaxing. I usually like to photograph in extreme heat. I’m constantly worried about my Jeep breaking down, etc. The part about chance is right on. I usually photograph very quickly, and I don’t hang around in one location for very long. I find that the more I think about things, the less interesting the photographs become. Or the more I know about a location ahead of time, the less interested I am in photographing there. I like to “discover” as I photograph, and that’s when I take my best shots.
Is mood always more important to you than subject? To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, is the mood the message?
Hmm, great question! Mood is certainly part of it. A big part of it. But I can’t create the mood without the subject. That is, it’s the subject that attracts me in the first place. The subject dictates the mood. I’m going to have to go with 50-50 on this one.
The mood your pictures evoke is typically dark and brooding, even Gothic, yet it’s also strangely inviting. Do you strive for this duality?
I don’t think I strive to make things inviting, but I always strive to make things interesting, if possible. It’s true, many of my images are dark. I think the darkness comes more from my interest in extremes, rather than my interest in creating a dark, gothic style. I’m just trying to create a more powerful image, and darkness sometimes solves this problem for me. Plus, darkness is a great way of getting rid of extraneous parts of an image and homing in on what I feel is important.
There’s a mesmerizing quality to many of the images. Do you find yourself in a kind of trance-like state when you make the exposure?
Sometimes I do. I have a certain way of putting myself into this state. Very little sleep the night before, very little food the day of, lots of caffeine, and lots of sun. Crazy as this sounds, it can get me into this mood. I’ve done this a few times when shooting in the desert, but in fact, I don’t find that I come back with better photographs. I haven’t done this in a while. I think when I’m shooting, it’s all about the potential I see in the image, and I don’t need to be in that actual state at the time of the exposure.
Are you satisfied with your command of the medium, or do you feel like you can improve your technique?
My technique always evolves. If you look at the shots in “g1” on my site, and then “g13” you can see an evolution of sorts. Back in the beginning, my shots were cropped, sharpened, with perfectly straight horizon lines, and I was striving for “perfect” compositions. Now, I often use tilts, blurs, and I usually don’t crop at all. I find that without cropping, I sometimes discover interesting compositions. Just when I think I’ve found the perfect technique, I discover new methods. So yes, I’m always finding ways of improving or changing techniques, it’s all very organic. My actual shooting technique has always been the same though: default settings on the camera, no tripod, shoot quickly and move on, using $300.00 digital cameras. Basically point and shoot.
Your images leave lots of room for interpretation. Is this something you strive for? What kind of reactions does your work elicit?
I think that is something I strive for. I don’t want my shots to be too “obvious,” as in, “Oh, there’s a picture of a rock.” I want to try to give that rock some kind of alternate life, to make it more than just a rock, if possible. So when the viewer looks at the photo, they have to process it a little and think about it, and hopefully, that will bring them back to look again at a later time. As far as reactions to my work, they really have a wide span. From the very same image, I’ve gotten reactions such as “turbulent,” “calming,” “apocalyptic,” “inspirational.” I’m always glad when I create a photograph that brings out these kinds of diverse reactions, because I think then I’ve done my job.
This comment from your blog seems relevant here: “My idea of a gallery show is to hang the images on the outside of my jeep, drive at least 100 mph, and require the visitors to drive along side me to see the images. Then they would better understand my mindset.” Does the traditional gallery setting somehow impede full understanding of your imagery?
I don’t think it impedes understanding of the final product, but I do think it might impede understanding of my methods of getting these images into my camera, which I suppose, really isn’t all that important in the end. It’s just funny to me how these images can have such rough-and-tumble beginnings, and then end up quietly hanging on a wall in a nice air-conditioned room.
I like how you play with perspective to lend element of unreality. It’s somewhat akin to Bill Brandt’s approach to landscape. And the contrast and abstraction call to mind Brett Weston. What photographers in fact have inspired or influenced you?
Wow, lots, I think. Way too many to mention. I’m not one who dwells on a particular photo for too long, but I’m always looking at other photographers’ work. One influence was my friend and fellow photographer Greg Fisch. The first time he showed me his portfolio was a real inspiration. Another influence in the beginning was the work of David Fokos. His use of minimalism really opened my eyes to what can be done with incredibly simple subjects. Another has been Keith Carter, with his amazing way of defocusing his images. So many others.
Who or what else do you derive inspiration from?
My mother’s art has been a major inspiration. I grew up watching her paint in a mostly abstract style, and that really taught me to see differently than I would have otherwise. Cinematography is also a big influence. I’m a huge fan of black-and-white movies, Italian neorealism, etc., those old gritty movies that were filmed under harsh conditions with minimal equipment. I try to put some of that grittiness into my images. Modern cinematographic techniques have really influenced me as far as tilting the camera, and thinking in terms of my images being a single frame from a moving sequence. I really hope to break into cinematography at some point. And then there’s music. The expansiveness of the music of Sibelius, Bruckner, many others, has had a huge influence on my way of seeing, and has pushed me to see on a larger scale.
(You can see more of Jeff's unique work at his website: http://www.jeffalu.com.)