Pete McCutchen: Photographing an Alien Landscape

Photographing an Alien Landscape: an interview between James Madison University student and budding photographer Amanda Marie Harner and Pete McCutchen concerning his solo exhibition The Thermal Zone showing at Touchstone Gallery August 31-October 2, 2016.

Harner: What drew you to photographing Yellowstone?

McCutchen: I was going on a family camping vacation, which included Yellowstone National Park along with a number of other destinations. Once I saw the thermal zone in Yellowstone, I knew immediately it was for me.

Yellowstone Thermal Zone 13

Yellowstone Thermal Zone 13

Harner: What aspect of the park thermal zone, in particular, made you feel that way?

McCutchen: I absolutely loved the colors -- the rich reds, browns, very vibrant but also earthy, the lush blue of the thermal pools themselves, the steam rising from them, and the shapes and textures I found.  I've done work that's very realistic, very traditionally photographic, as well as very abstract work.   But I like work that sits at the edge of abstraction – imagery that has an abstract quality to it, but still looks at least a little like the thing being photographed.

Harner: Speaking of your earlier work, much of it appears to be focused on aspects of the world that aren’t the most aesthetically pleasing – rusted surfaces, junky cars. How did you approach photographing Yellowstone? Would you say this was outside of your comfort zone in some regard?

McCutchen: It was!  One visitor to my studio -- a boy about eight or nine -- said, "you take gross stuff and make it look cool."  Of course I've photographed things that look naturally beautiful before -- roller coasters for example -- but it's true that a lot of my work focused on finding the beauty in subjects people would think of as ugly. Everybody knows Yellowstone is beautiful, so it was an interesting challenge, and as you say, a bit outside of my comfort zone.

Yellowstone Thermal Zone 2

Yellowstone Thermal Zone 2

Harner: That being said, what were your main goals? What were you trying to convey?

McCutchen: My approach to photography is to really listen to my subject. Then I convey what I'm hearing from that subject.  Sometimes the result is very traditionally photographic.  Other times less so.

In the case of the thermal zone, what spoke to me about the area was the richness and depth of the color, the wonderful abstract forms, and also, how alien the landscape seems.  In some ways, it literally is an alien landscape -- the cyanobacteria that give the runoff its color can only live in those conditions.  Somebody asked me when I’d been to Mars, and it really does look that way.  But here are hints of the surrounding (Earthly) wilderness, too.  Reflections of the forest in the water, footprints of animals, trees dimly visible behind the haze.

Harner: Since you were in such an, as you say, "alien landscape" would you say that there were any unique technical challenges that you faced?

McCutchen:  Actually, yes.  All of what I'm photographing has a sheen of water on top of it -- runoff from the hot springs.  As a consequence, I see a lot of very harsh highlights.  The light at that altitude was a bit harsh as well.  The camera's light meter wants to overexpose the images I chose to deliberately underexpose by one or two stops.  This helped me retain highlight detail and also helps convey the richness of the colors.  That's an old trick I learned in the days of shooting transparency film.

Harner: What equipment was used to create these images and how were they processed?

McCutchen: Everybody loves to talk about gear.  I think it’s more important to think about vision than about tools.  I’ve seen great images shot with an iPhone. That said, I chose to print these big, and when going big it’s important to have a technically strong image.  I shot of the images in this show with a Nikon D800E using a Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 lens -- a very sweet lens. The images are all either a f/2.8, which gives very shallow depth-of-field or f/13 or f/16, which gives lots of depth of field.  Nothing is in between.  I guess in a lot of ways that's my motto.  Nothing in between. 

Harner: How are your images printed?

McCutchen: I printed them with an HP Z3200 printer on Moab Slickrock Metallic Paper.  I love the richness and sheen the metallic paper gave this series.  A lot of photographs look better on the screen than in print, but I like the print to have enough unique strong elements that it looks better in person. The Metallic paper was by far the best for this project.

Harner: What is the size of these printed images?

McCutchen: Most are 30x45 -- one is a diptych of two panels that size, three are 40x40, and one is 30x60.

Harner: Did anything surprise you seeing them printed that large?

McCutchen: Seeing your work that big always bring surprises.  Sometimes you get a bad surprise, because some images don't stand up to that much enlargement.  But in this series, the surprises were all good.  So many small details came out -- reflections in the water, animal tracks, subtle color shifts.  I feel like they just explode off the wall.

Harner: What makes this body of work most successful, in your opinion?

McCutchen: The thing I'm most proud of is the fact that I took a subject that is very heavily photographed and put my own stamp on it.  These are my unique images. Does that answer your question?

Harner: Sure!

McCutchen: Oh and I should add that Yellowstone Thermal Zone 13 will be appearing in the Berlin Photo Biennale  in October, along with two of my other images.

Harner:  Congratulations!

McCutchen: Thank you.

Harner: Well, thank you for taking the time to answer my questions! It has been very interesting hearing about your approach to creating this show. You did an incredible job, as usual. Congratulations again!

McCutchen: Thank you!  Hope you get a chance to see the show in all its glory.

Pete McCutchen

Pete McCutchen

Pete McCutchen’s The Thermal Zone show is up at Touchstone Gallery August 31-October 2, 2016..  Opening: Friday, September 9, from 6:00 to 8:30.  McCutchen’s Artist Talk: Sunday the 25th at 2:00 PM.

Wed-Fri 11-6 and Sat-Sun 12-5.