We came across these jaw dropping images on Today and Tomorrow and were fascinated to find out how they were made. Here the artist Jim Sarnborn explains how the project came about, how the images were taken and how he brought an American interstate to a standstill…
“The topographic projections developed in this way, a year before this project I did a commission for the MIT microbiology department in Cambridge, Massachussets, I used a very powerful projector to project an image of a microscopic slide on a white marble disk on the floor of the entrance to the microbiology building.
“The slides were interchangeable and were provided by me and the lab scientists to reflect the things they were seeing through their microscopes. The projector cost about $50,000 – I could not afford to buy one for myself so I copied it precisely and made my own using only their lenses, for a couple thousand dollars. The slides I used were about 12” square.
“I had many different grids and patterns made on black film with clear lines. I practiced long range projections on warehouses near my studio in Washington DC and I also made small landscape models with trees and rocks and projected slides onto them to test the angles etc.
“When I was satisfied with the results I bought a generator, piled all the equipment into a jeep and headed out west to work. I was very familiar with the areas and landforms I projected onto because I had been visiting these places for many years as I found these places inspiring.
“In 1995, computer-generated photographic imagery was just getting started and I felt that it would be ironic to make images that appeared computer-generated but were not. In fact in order to have made these works with a computer would have required almost more effort than doing it the way I did “the hard way”.
“I would drive many miles off-road to a remote site where city and car lights could not reach. I used a hand-held device I made to determine, during the day, how far away the projector and camera had to be and at what angle as well.
“That night I would set up the equipment, test the result and I usually had to adjust the angles again before shooting. This was in the fall, sometimes 15-20 degrees Farenheit ,very cold and very windy.
“The equipment was heavy – 200lbs on the projector 100lbs on the generator , a 4×5 camera with 100lbs of sand bags to keep it from vibrating in the wind.
“In Ireland because of the boglands I had to pour concrete footers under the camera tripod. I was at the camera, my assistant operated the projector, we communicated by CB radio – I would tell her to turn on the projection and when to turn it off and use a searchlight to illuminate the landscape if there was no moonlight.
“I usually shot eight 4x5 images per night, exposures ranging from 10 to 40 minutes depending on the moon. What you see in the photos is what it looked like in real life at the site.
“The images were so strong on one night that it caused a semi truck traffic jam on Interstate 80 in Wyoming – the interstate was four miles away but the truckers thought it was some sort of “beam me up scotty” moment!
“After shooting, we would drive all night to get the film developed in Denver to see if it had to be re-shot the next night – full moons do not last long. All in all, I got 22 images that I am happy with over a three season period (1995, 1996, 1997). Most people though assumed they were computer generated – they missed the point.
“My memories of those nights are very clear and magical – the sky was amazing, many stars and shooting stars and even a UFO, or at least something in the sky I could not explain.
“I am currently developing a body of work about the global trade in looted antiquities, and just returned from Cambodia and Angkor Wat where I was studying the problem.”
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