Expressions of Exuberance: Michael Light’s Aerial Desert Photography

Hosfelt Gallery's "Michael Light: Great Basin Autoglyphs and Pleistoseas" is nothing short of transfixing.

In the photos that Michael Light takes from his small plane, the lines, curves, and zigzags etched onto landscapes make the earth look primordial — as if forces of nature were abstracting the terrains that Light has captured with his camera. But Light’s new images, which he’s exhibiting at Hosfelt Gallery in February, are spotlighting shapes that are also manmade. Tire tracks are a major source. And so is the wear and tear from encampments. Rubber and metal make patterns of marks, even if people don’t realize the visual and physical legacy they’re leaving behind. It takes a photographer like Michael Light — a San Francisco photographer with his own plane, and a photographer who’s obsessed with finding the grooves of the earth’s surfaces — to reveal that legacy.

Michael Light: Great Basin Autoglyphs and Pleistoseas” focuses on two areas that are relatively quick flying distances from San Francisco: Utah’s Great Salt Lake region, and Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. Both are part of the Great Basin, a 200,000-square-mile stretch of terrain that goes from the Sierra Nevada to the Wasatch Mountains in Utah and Idaho. By flying as low as five feet above the ground, and by using digital means to accentuate the fissures and marks he finds, Light becomes a kind of photographic detective. The clues were there all along, waiting to be revealed. 

Light is part of a pantheon of aerial art-world photographers — including Edward Burtynsky, David Maisel, and Jamey Stillings — who abstract the acreage they see from an airplane or helicopter. All of them can turn anything from freeway overpasses to farm lands into scenes of dissonant beauty. “Michael Light: Great Basin Autoglyphs and Pleistoseas” has him in familiar terrain. The Black Rock Desert hosts Burning Man every year, and Light has been a regular attendee at the summer event where tens of thousands traipse, frolic, and commune with art and each other. Burning Man turns Black Rock City into a temporary desert metropolis. But in Light’s image called Black Rock City in October, Looking Northwest, Pleistocene Lake Lahontan, Gerlach, Nevada, the photographer strips the location of all people and turns it into a warren of bluish and brownish quadrants and rectangles. The borders appear to be remnants of a lost nomadic city. The title’s reference to “Pleistocene Lake Lahontan” is to something else that’s lost: The Ice Age lake that existed there until about 10,000 years ago.

Light’s Salt Track Looking Northwest, Pleistocene Lake Bonneville, Wendover, Utah, is a similarly jarring flashback to a prehistoric epoch, where we can see the gravitas of the land — but also the de facto graffiti that people have left. A giant, snake-like mark — likely left by drivers having their way — winds through Light’s image. Like NASA’s early images of Earth from space, or Camille Seaman’s images of icebergs in the Arctic and Antarctic, Light’s new photos offer views of the planet that people have likely never seen before. Sure, they’ve seen Burning Man and the area around Salt Lake City. But not like this. In Utah, Light took his Great Basin images in blinding light. His digital touch-ups made clear the contrasts he really did capture — contrasts that push the man-made shapes over the visual edge.

“In classic photographic terms, they became ‘revelations,’ in the sense of something coming up mysteriously on white paper in a wet darkroom as the chemicals work,” Light tells SF Weekly. “In a way, I think of the camera as a prosthetic eye that goes into these highly illuminated, reflective spaces. These Pleistocene lake beds — even today — flood in the winter and dry out every summer. Each year’s markings get softened. But these photographs can penetrate to past years and past tracks that the human eye would never see.”

Light calls the manmade marks in Utah’s Great Basin “vehicular expression of exuberance — petrol-filled, generally male exuberance. It’s like, ‘OK, I’m on the tabula rasa, and I’m in a vehicle that gives me a sense of power, speed, mobility, sexual virility, whatever else — and there are no rules. What am I going to do, be it in a motorcycle, a car, or some sort of all-terrain vehicle.’ And when people don’t have a direct goal, they go in circles. And they go in these elaborate, undulating lines that can be read in any kind of metaphorical way.”

“Michael Light: Great Basin Autoglyphs and Pleistoseas,” Feb. 2-March 16 at Hosfelt Gallery, 260 Utah St.,

Five Other Exhibits We’re Excited About This Winter

Mildred Howard’s “TAP: Investigation of Memory”
Feb. 2-Sept. 1 at Oakland Museum of California
Howard, a longtime Bay Area multimedia artist, investigates gentrification, activism, and other subjects in what promises to be an insightful and powerful show.

New Work: Rodney McMillian
Feb. 9-June 9 at SFMOMA
A Los Angeles artist and UCLA professor who frequently delves into social issues, McMillian gets his first solo
museum exhibit on the West Coast.

“Monet: The Late Years”
Feb. 16-May 27 at the de Young Museum
Almost 100 years after his death, one of the titans of Impressionism gets a show that centers on his later paintings.

“Hans Hofmann: The Nature of Abstraction”
Feb. 27-July 21 at BAMPFA
Whether on paper or canvas, Hofmann’s works were worlds of color, contrasts, and artful collisions.

Charley Brown
March 7-30 at Dolby Chadwick Gallery,
Brown’s recent passing makes this exhibit bittersweet — a posthumous celebration of a painter whose abstractions were big in both size and spirit.


Read more from SF Weekly’s Winter Arts issue:

Still Squicky After All These Years, 1980’s Grimiest Movie Is Coming to the Drafthouse
William Lustig’s Maniac arrives at the Alamo Drafthouse New Mission on Tuesday, Jan. 29.

The African Dream, in Mfoniso Udofia’s America
Two plays in her “Ufot Family Cycle” make their Bay Area premieres this season, showing the Nigerian Civil War through one clan’s experience.

Columbine Author Dave Cullen Sees Hope in Parkland
The esteemed reporter returns with a new book focused on a group of students who refused to let others tell their story.

Meet Adia Victoria, Blues’ Heiress Apparent
In one of the most male-dominated genres in the rock pantheon, she knows how to establish the mood.

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