Feature: A Conversation with Barry Underwood

Juxtapoz // Tuesday, 30 Aug 2011


Humankind has left a variety of footprints on this planet. Barry Underwood examines the effect of light pollution on natural landscapes in a series of photographs that feel ethereal and fantastical, despite being rooted in reality.

Interview by Jasmine Cabanaw

Jasmine Cabanaw: Can you tell me about the first photo you took that was in this vein of photography? What was the inspiration?

Barry Underwood: Fish I and Fish II. They were the first two photographs I made in the series. I call this series “Scenes”. They are from the same installation and taken from two different vantage points, at two different times. The Fish I was photographed at midnight and Fish II at 4:00am.


(Fish I)

The inspiration was a combination of bio-luminescent algae, pollution, my college background in theatre, and thinking about some of the prior work that I made. Basically, I wanted to make a shift in my work by combining my background training in theatre and photography. Instead of taking photographs or framing (composing) ideas or events, I wanted to construct ideas or events. I made a series of drawings and Fish I and Fish II was the first installation and the first photographic images made from these drawings.


How is your work a blend of photographic and theatrical elements?

Traditionally, theatre and photography are forms of storytelling viewed from a singular particular vantage point. Both use stylization to heighten a type of reality.

What is involved in creating these images? Do you lean toward creating sets or do you also like to pull from what is already there (re: light pollution)?

Both. I look for a location that I can build upon and that would offer some sort of additional light effect. A car or ship passing, or light pollution from a near by light source, a store or city.

(Parade Field)


When the shoot requires building a set, what is involved in creating the light installation? How long does it take to build the installation?

All of the installations have a support system. The building process for the support system can be small and take a half hour or it can take several days. The longest install took several weeks. I built a triangular shaped platform, constructing it so that it appeared to hover over water. Most often they (the installs) take two full (12 hours, thereabout) days. Which of course is followed by a full night of photographing.

Then there is the prepping of the light sources to shape the light. This process can also be quick- an hour or two- or it could take several days to prep. For example, dipping LED lights in gel medium to diffuse them, or wrapping hundreds of glow sticks in freezer paper.

(Rodeo Beach)

(Trace Yellow)

Do you have a regular crew that helps you create these sets or do you use different artists?

I do not have a regular crew. I do from time to time have assistance. Depends on location. For the work made at the Headlands Center for the Arts, I worked with the same two artists assisting me on multiple installs. At the Center for Land Use Interpretation in Wendover, Utah, I installed and photographed all the work by myself.

(Trace Blue)

Your photos have an ethereal look to them and yet they also hint at the reality of a planet affected by light pollution. Do your photos symbolize the footprint humankind is leaving on the planet?

Yes, but my attempt is not to portray environmental issues in a heavy-handed way. I think about science fiction and how the fantastic or supernatural is supported or given credibility by a ubiquitous everyday world. Within the storytelling there is a moral to the tale. There is a looking inward process or a self-evaluation (on cause and effect) and the consequences of one’s actions.

(Wendover II for John)

There is a juxtaposition in your photos between nature and technology. Do you think that these two things exist in harmony or in contrast to one another?

Again, I go back to the ideas of science fiction. In this genre, nature and civilization are not separate, neither are humans and the ways in which we interact with technology. We are fundamentally tied to this planet. I think of the painting The Raft of the Medusa, and how this can be a metaphor for all of humans. Technology is the raft and the sail. Though they are tools that can be utilized or exploited, we are inescapably at the mercy of the wind and tide.

(Aurora Green)

Certainly, the affect of artificial light on a natural landscape alters that landscape and draws the eye toward the light. What affect do you think artificial light has on the natural world and our perception of it?

Color affects all of us. Each type of lamp emits a particular type of light wave that causes a particular type of color. So, consequently- though our conscious self may not be aware of it- our bodies are affected by the different types of colors in different ways, either positively or negatively.

Can you give some examples of how you think we are affected, either positively or negatively?

I think that long exposure to particular lighting conditions as well as light deficiency can cause psychological reactions to color and light. For example, working under fluorescent lighting conditions, especially without any windows or daylight, can cause psychological and physiological harm.

(Blue Line)

Is there a reason you are drawn to photographing landscapes?

I am working in the art historical context of landscape; be it painting, land art or cinema. Landscape allows for a certain type of storytelling. It encapsulates the ideas of the sublime, humankind’s power over nature, and nature’s power over humans.

What draws you to certain landscapes?

I have been working at artist residencies around the US and Canada: the Banff Center in Alberta, Canada; I-Park in East Haddam, Connecticut; The Center for Land Use Interpretation in Wendover, UT; The Headlands Center for the Arts, in Sausalito, CA; and most recently The MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. I travel to these places for several reasons. They all have various types of landscape within or near their property. They are organizations that allow me to build my artwork on location. They are artistically rich environments, where I can meet, converse and collaborate with artists, writers and musicians.

(Headlands II)

Do you already have an idea of what you would like to shoot or are you primarily influenced by landscapes you encounter?

With particular installations, it is mostly one of two ways. Sometimes, I have an existing idea (as a drawing) and I look for a landscape that will fit that particular idea. Other times, the terrain itself inspires me. Usually my first week or two on an artist residency is spent walking, investigating, and photographing. From here I make drawings or rough sketches based on ideas inspired by the new landscape.

What are some of the landscapes you would like to photograph in future shoots?

I would like to work in the winter with snowy or icy conditions. And I would love to work on a warm tropical beach.

(Miwok Trail)

Can we expect a similar style of photography or do you have plans to explore a different route?

I have also been thinking about making installations in more urban locations. Somewhat similar to the work made in secluded locations, but using existing light conditions, like streetlights and store fronts.

For more information about Barry Underwood, visit: BarryUnderwood.com


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