Linda Alterwitz: States Project: Nevada
Lenscratch is handing over the entire week to Linda Alterwitz as she features work from the beautiful state of Nevada for The Lenscratch States Project. But first, I had a chance to speak with Linda about her body of work Just Breath, how it began, and how it has transformed since her mid-career retrospective. With the sky being ever expanding, a blanket that connects us all, these photographs are a result of a meditative response towards looking off into forever. Linda sets a camera on a participant’s chest, and as it points upward it is simultaneously capturing both the sky and the subject’s breathing patterns. As a result, these photographs paint a unique gesture of the relationship between person and sky.
Linda Alterwitz is a visual artist whose work embraces science, technology, and art explores these boundaries and reinforces their interconnections. She has exhibited her work in both traditional exhibition and site-specific installation presentation formats in the United States, United Kingdom, Japan, Spain, Israel, and Poland. In 2014, Alterwitz received the Visual Arts Fellowship from the Nevada Arts Council. That year she had a solo exhibition at the Trifecta Gallery in Las Vegas, participated in Krakow Photomonth and was commissioned to create a site-specific installation incorporating photographs, video, and sound elements for the invitational art and music festival Life is Beautiful in Las Vegas. Earlier solo exhibitions include Frank Pictures Gallery in Santa Monica, California (2012), the Los Angeles Center for Digital Art in Los Angeles (2011), and The Donna Beam Fine Art Gallery at UNLV (2011). Her work from her series Thermal was featured in Smithsonian Magazine in 2013.
Earlier this year, Alterwitz’s mid-career retrospective exhibition While I Am Still was on view at The Studio in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Las Vegas-Clark County Library District Foundation named Alterwitz their first Artist-in-Residence beginning with the debut of this exhibition, which coincided with the release of her new limited edition publication While I Am Still. In the summer of 2015, Alterwitz participated in an Artist-in-Residence position (with accompanying educational programming and solo exhibition) at the Mayo Clinic, Jacksonville, Florida. In 2016, an installation from her series Just Breathe will be unveiled at Kindred Healthcare Center, Las Vegas (artist will be present and speak about the project). This installation will become part of Kindred’s permanent art collection.
Alterwitz lives and works in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Linda shares her perspective of being a Nevada photographer:
Being a photographer from Nevada, I can say with certainty that there is no lack of subject matter in our state. While selecting photographers to represent The States Project, I chose artists whose photographs capture some of that diversity. Casinos, destination getaway scene, urban and rural life, mountains, basins, lakes, and desert – Nevada has so much to offer in equal shares of beauty and depravity.
My camera is often pointed toward the Mojave Desert. It’s not one specific quality that draws me in. Rather, I attribute my fascination with the desert to the characteristics of our extreme desert conditions. For me, the Mojave Desert reminds me of unavoidable obstacles encountered in life and our ability to move past these obstacles for survival.
These photographs document human life on a scientific and emotional level. Each portrait is captured by resting a camera on the participant’s chest and pointing the camera up to the night sky for a 30-second exposure. Acting like a fingerprint, the unique movement of each person’s breath creates a visual oscillation of the stars above. As a result, the portraits possess distinctive properties that are reflected by varying factors such as weather, ambient light, GPS coordinates, and each person’s breath patterns. These individual portraits are assembled into a greater wall installation giving the appearance of a large star field in the night sky and making reference to a microcosm of human life on earth.
What is your background? Has Nevada always been your home?
I was born and raised in Gary, Indiana. At that time, I lived in a community called Miller, which was located on sand dunes and beach areas of Lake Michigan. I thoroughly loved the smells of the seasons, the wet leaves, the snow, and ice-covered ponds. I remember living in a house that was surrounded by forests, possum, and beautiful birds. My mom, who was a fine art painter, bought me an easel and oil paints when I was about six or seven. She set my easel up next to hers in the basement, and so began my lifetime passion for visual art.
When I was 12 years old, my family relocated to Las Vegas. It was a small town back then, and we were literally surrounded by the Mojave Desert. When I was younger, I didn’t like Vegas, especially when I compared the dry dirt to the green of the Midwest. Yet, the Mojave Desert, by default, became my home. I continued my art education and moved away to greener places around the United States and Europe. Eighteen years later, I returned home to the Mojave Desert.
Some people may look at the desert and see land that is colorless and empty, as I did when I was a girl. But I was too young or just plain wrong. There’s a stillness to the Mojave, one that affects my psyche, and helps me to find the stillness within myself. When I encounter those moments, the harsh desert environment seems to transform into a metaphor for human life.
I image living in Nevada and being in constant awe while looking at the expansive night sky. Was this the inspiration to the body of work?
The series Just Breathe actually originated in the Dominican Republic. My husband David and I were on holiday and the most memorable time spent in the country for me was the night sky. Each night we would walk to the beach. Initially, I wanted to photographically capture the “beauty” of the waves and sky. I knew that in order to capture what I was looking at through my camera, I would need at least a 10 second exposure, yet I didn’t have a proper tripod with me. What I did have was this small bendable plastic 4” tripod. Recklessly, I attached my camera to it and stuck it in the sand. Of course, the tripod couldn’t hold my camera still, and it slowly sunk into the sand while bending back toward the sky.
Right before it fell into the sand, I grabbed up my camera and looked at the image. The movement of the camera caused the light of the stars to move. It was better than the beauty I had originally hoped to capture. Then something just clicked in my head. I immediately laid down on the sand and placed the camera on my own chest and started experimenting with movement and exposure. It was a beautiful, meditative and exhilarating experience. It was a magical evening.
This work really took off during your artist residency at the Mayo Clinic Jacksonville. How has evolved since then?
The project Just Breathe was born in the Dominican Republic and from that point on, I continued to photograph participants in cities and countries all around the world. Just Breathe was exhibited as a large installation in Feb-May 2015 at my Mid-Career Retrospective entitled While I Am Still at “The Studio” at Sahara West in Las Vegas, Nevada. The installation was 220” wide and 110” high. I used to refer to these individual pieces within the installation as “Star Portraits” because every photograph was taken under the night sky. All of that changed in August 2015.
During my artist residency at the Mayo Clinic, Jacksonville, Fl, the “Star Portraits” became more like sky portraits which were captured during the day. The participants included doctors, nurses and support groups from the Mayo Clinic. Due to the health care provider’s tight schedules, I was required to photograph at specific times during the day. I used neutral density filters to keep consistent with the parameters I originally set for the project in regards to exposure. But some things just had to change. For instance, I had about 35 minutes to take 35 portraits of the Internal Medicine Residents group. To get this accomplished, we rented five cameras and five neutral density filters. We also enlisted five additional people to take the photographs. Each camera was properly set up to take a daytime 30 second exposure. Each photographer was instructed to guide the participants through the process. First, the photographer had to get each person focused and comfortable, then place the camera on the participant’s chest pointed up to the sky, and then take the shot. 35 photos, 35 minutes. Never say no.
It is interesting that each sky portrait is unique as a fingerprint. The photographs become so much about the person rather than solely about a meditative state. What prompted the decision to make this body of work more collaborative in nature?
A state of awe comes over me when art, through any medium, reminds me that I am merely a microscopic speck of sand on this large planet while simultaneously offering me the reassurance that I am an important part of something much larger. I started the project Just Breathe in order to capture portraits of people, a unique documentation of the individual. I managed to capture “the grain of sand” feeling, yet the feeling of being part of something much larger didn’t materialize until after the project had begun.
That inspiration came from seeing Grammy-winning American (Nevadan) composer, conductor and speaker, Eric Whitacre. I watched a Ted Talks video of his “Virtual Choir” project in which he brought individual voices from around the globe together into an online choir. The feeling of unity that it invoked in me was so strong. Eric’s project inspired me to think of a way to find this feeling of unity within my own project. Hence, the individual “Star Portraits” became a galaxy within its final format.
Can you talk more about the residency and why you pursued this work at a medical clinic?
Through photography, I embrace art and science. I welcome opportunities with healthcare facilities because of the art/science connection.
The Artist Residency at Mayo Clinic, Jacksonville, helped me to recognize the full potential that arts and humanities can offer to help enrich a community. During my time at the Mayo Clinic, I had the privilege and opportunity to create a daytime version of my project Just Breathe, with doctors and nurses as the participants The art experience offered the healthcare providers an opportunity to deepen their understanding of mindfulness and meditation, as well as a method in which to find balance in stressful situations or insight that may help a patient heal.
Are you currently working on any Nevada related projects right now?
I am constantly photographing the Mojave Desert. The most current project captured in the Mojave Desert is entitled Complicated Beauty. By combining the visual languages of art and science, I create dreamscapes of the invisible body navigating familiar landscapes through medical images. In this series, I re-photograph the actual films of mammograms and combine the breast tissue imagery with familiar landscape. This work gives reference not only to the fragility of human life but also raises awareness to the myriad of feelings including those of fear and hope in regards to challenging times in one’s life.
Finally, describe your perfect day.
A perfect day is when everything just clicks in my head, more specifically a moment of extreme clarity. Like that time I described at the Dominican Republic beach, looking at the results of the near sand disaster in my camera, and recognizing the potential. Looking back, that was a perfect day.
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