Rare Places in a Rare Light: The Wildlands Photography of Robert Turner

Where the wild things are By Chris Bergeron / Daily News Staff

Driving his pickup across the country, photographer Robert Turner spends days, even months looking through his lens for the precise moment primordial splendor shines through the landscape.

He calculates color and light with a painter’s eye and a meteorologist’s attention to nature’s changing moods.

Tripping his shutter of his Toyo large-format camera, Turner aims to “capture the essence of wilderness in a place.”

Cresting waves surge into a rocky cove on the California coast. A gnarled bristlecone pine thrusts upward into a seamless blue sky. Three aligned doorways lead through Anasazi stone ruins in Chaco Canyon.

“I’m looking for places and moments when light, forms and colors come together,” said Turner last week as he set up his show. He hopes his photos preserve the ephemeral moment when “I have witnessed something that has transcended the realm of ordinary experience.” …

The startling colors and panoramic breadth of his images suggest a pictorial amalgam of Claude Monet’s impressionist paintings and William Wordsworth’s lyrical poems.

Like Wordsworth, who sought to convey “spots of time” in poems of heartfelt remembrance, Turner roots his scenes in particular places and times: a sunset at Dead Horse Point near Moab, Utah; red maples reflected in a pond at Arcadia State Park in Maine; or a twisted juniper tree in Valley of the Gods in Arizona. …

The exhibit includes photographs Turner took from 1997 to this year while logging an estimated 40,000 miles annually crisscrossing the country from the Pacific Northwest to the Great Smokey Mountains, from New England to the Colorado Plateau.

Often traveling with his wife, Karen Messer, he drove his Toyota pickup into Canyonlands National Park in Utah and chased thunderstorms across the Great Plains. They trekked together through the Sonoran Desert and Maine’s hardwood forests.

The 62-year-old Turner said he searches for places where he can freeze “a fleeting moment of light, color, motion or stillness that gives the image a sense of heightened reality.”

“The Holy Grail is capturing intense color in soft light,” he said.

Turner said he uses “traditional methods” to take and print his photos. He doesn’t employ lens filters to enhance natural colors and uses commercial film that reveals sharp nuances and contrasts. …

Turner said his recent work reflects his early training as a painter through its nuance of color and composition. He cited the influence of 19th-century artists Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran whose lush paintings caught the Edenic beauty of an unspoiled country that he seeks in his photos.

An ardent conservationist, Turner hopes his work inspires others to protect and preserve natural resources including the public lands where most of his photographs were taken.

A slim, effusive man who looks like he would be as much at home on the Appalachian trail as a darkroom, he compared America’s wild places to “a refuge, a sanctum, an escape from urban chaos.

“I hope my photographs work on several levels,” he said. “I hope they inspire belief in the restorative power of wild places and the importance of protecting them.”

OPENING NOVEMBER 5, 2005 at The Harvard Museum of Natural History

From the San Diego exhibit several years ago:
Rare Places in a Rare Light: The Wildlands Photography of Robert Turner