Given just the right optical conditions, a mountain can appear to hover above the Earth. Photographer Mike Osborne sought to capture that effect, and other fascinations of the landscape of the Great Basin Desert between Utah and Nevada, where the real world becomes alien.
Mike Osborne: Floating Island, released this week by Daylight Books, brings together the photographs he took in this strange terrain from 2011 to 2012. The monograph — with a milky, translucent dust jacket that gives a map of the region a murky topography — takes the viewer from the desert to the people who’ve made their homes there, from its past as a military center to its present of neon casinos with tacky sci-fi decor and unnaturally green grass.
The Austin-based artist arrived in the straddled community of Wendover, Utah, and West Wendover, Nevada, as part of the Center for Land Use Interpretation’s Residence Program. The area was rich with stark spectacle for Osborne’s cinematic, documentarian eye. There are abandoned structures from its time as an Army Air Force base in World War II, where the Enola Gay pilots trained before dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. When the military left, the casinos filled in the economy, along with rampant mining. There are also the Bonneville Salt Flats, where people race cars, and which have a surreal blankness that, Osborne notes in his introduction, has been used in film to “tell stories of catastrophe, invasion, and the afterlife.”
Long ago the salt flats were a lake; now they generate mirages, technically known as “inferior images,” in which their alkaline geography causes objects to appear as if hovering on wavering water. Osborne was especially drawn to the “Floating Island” of the book’s title. He writes:
Twenty miles from the interstate, Floating Island rises out of the white expanse, its gray-brown rocks made blue by distance. Its profile is low and sleek, as if designed with velocity in mind. Light and heat make an inferior image. They turn the salt into a mirror that brings a sliver of sky down to the ground. The island hovers slightly above the horizon — a real illusion.
In the past, Osborne has captured the bright colors of Stuttgart, Germany’s subterranean infrastructure in Underground (2009–10), as well as the frenzy of Chinese modernization in Enter the Dragon (2006–08). Here, however, in both color and black-and-white photographs, he uses long exposures and quiet images to capture the complicated cycle of life and destruction in a Martian-like terrain.
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