This beautiful, land art-inspired photography series was given the 1st place, Series award in the LensCulture Exposure Awards 2015. Discover more inspiring work from all 31 of the winners and finalists.

In the series Of Heaven and Earth, I address my place on both the human—and cosmic—scale. The photographs are constructed by marking the land in front of my camera in such a way that the path of heavenly bodies interacts with the marks that I have made. To orchestrate these interactions, I must take very careful measurements based on my camera position and the position of the sun or moon in the coming hours.

To produce each photograph, I leave open the shutter for a very long exposure. The result is an image of the moon or sun playing off of an altered landscape. In this way, the heavenly meets with the human, the immense with the intimate and one of the most constant forces in our world—the movement of the solar bodies—interacts with a line of rocks or grass: a mark that is small and completely fleeting in meaning and form.

This work stems from the gap between the knowledge of the vastness of time and space and the unshakable notion that the tiny acts we engage in each day matter. From our notions of belonging to the land and the land belonging to us. From the allure of the single-point perspective that photography gives us. Indeed, the meaning of my marks is only evident from one vantage point (the camera’s) and for just one night. So, these photos are about the importance of a few hours in a very specific place, alongside the importance of the eternal and unending scale of time and space itself. They are about mortality. Long after the lines I have made disappear into the land, indeed long after I am dead, the moon will continue on its elliptical path. I make these photographs to draw a line between these two modes of understanding the world.

—David Shannon-Lier

Interview

Shannon-Lier’s photographs feel particularly touching due to their seamless combination of understated simplicity and cosmic proportions. Managing editor Alexander Strecker reached out via email to find out more about how these lovely images were made.

AS: What was the inspiration behind this series? How did you get started? Did you have any particular “a-ha!” moment?

DS-L: I first began thinking about this project when I moved from Massachusetts to Arizona with my wife and son. We drove across the country which gave me a lot of time to think about size and space. In contemplating the scale of our move, I realized that our old home was no longer on the horizon, but actually below it (due to the distance traveled and the curvature of the earth). It occurred to me that we don’t often think about scales in this way and in some ways still see our world as flat.

Besides that, I have a deep and long-running interest in astronomy and cosmology. I have always felt a tension between the incomprehensible vastness of time and space, with the sense we have as humans that the things we do and say on this tiny speck of dust matter. All these things worked together to create in me a desire to make (temporary) marks on the land that would interact with the (eternal) heavens.

AS: I gather that these photos took a lot of preparation and planning. Can you talk about that process more? Have you always worked in such a deliberate way or was this series a departure for you?

DS-L: To be honest, the process is somewhat tedious. And getting to the point I am now was even more tedious. I started with a compass and a homemade sextant, but my results were very mixed. Eventually, I ended up using a surveyor’s transit and precise information about the positions of the sun and moon to make my marks and then replace the transit with my camera (very carefully).

I have not always worked this precisely in my projects. But since I usually shoot with an 8x10 camera, attention and patience have always played a big part in my working method.

AS: What are your thoughts on landscape photography? Do you consider yourself a landscape photographer or are genres unimportant to you?

DS-L: I do see the work as landscape photography in that its reading is tied intimately to our notions of the land—notions which come primarily from landscape photographs (and landscape painting before that). I also see a connection with land art. People have been marking the land in an attempt to create meaning since time immemorial: from Stonehenge and the Nazca Lines to Spiral Jetty.

As for myself, most of the photographs I make consider the land in some way…so I suppose that makes me a landscape photographer. The term tends to bring to mind so many modernist notions about the land and photography, which is why I think some people may bristle at it. But I think our notions of both are changing, so we can bring the term along with us.

—David Shannon-Lier, interviewed by Alexander Strecker


Editors’ Note:
We first discovered this great work when David Shannon-Lier submitted some of these photos to the LensCulture Emerging Talent Awards. Even though the international jury did not select the submission as an award-winner, the editors of LensCulture liked the work so much, that we decided to publish a feature article about it and conduct an interview with the artist.

Shannon-Lier then resubmitted this work to the LensCulture Exposure Awards 2015. With a different jury, he was picked as the overall winner! Congratulations to David (and his perseverance!), we are so pleased to see this work get the recognition it deserves.