Michael Light is a San Francisco-based photographer and pilot, focused on the environment and how contemporary American culture relates to it. His work is concerned both with the politics of that relationship and the seductions of landscape representation, particularly as found in the arid Western spaces of America.
For the last fifteen years, Light has been photographing the settled and unsettled areas of American space, using a large format camera, pursuing themes of mapping, vertigo, human impact on the land, and various aspects of geologic time and the sublime. A private pilot, Light owns a small, two-seat, high-wing aircraft specifically designed for aerial photographic work.
In his series on Black Mountain, Nevada, Light’s photos put viewers in the plane with him as he glides over 640 acres of dynamite-flattened hilltops, carved through with pristine roads and cul de sacs linking graded house foundations. But there are no houses. No lawns, no pools, no sidewalks. No guard-staffed gates. This is the site of the Ascaya luxury housing development, which has lain dormant since the economic crash of 2008.
“Once they get built, it’s hard to un-build them,” says Light. From the air the sculpted earth reads like a strange code cut into the brown hills.
The Sun Belt cities experienced the most rapid growth of any American urban area in the early 21st century, and were hardest hit in the economic downtown. The ferocious demand for housing — over-sized, over-watered trophy housing — resulted in major alterations to the landscape.
The theme continues in Light’s work on Lake Las Vegas, a complex of luxury housing, country clubs and casinos fringing an artificial lake. The photos capture the surrealism of these “instant cities” made even more uncanny by their stalled development. Huge faux-Mediterranean mansions and irrigated yards neighbor bleak scrub brush. Residents use the empty lots next door for parking. Swaths of velvety golf lawns are framed by barren dirt.
He has exhibited extensively nationally and internationally, and his work has been collected by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The Getty Research Library, The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The New York Public Library, and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, among others.
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