Photos Capture Essence of Landscapes – Cleveland Plain Dealer

Thursday, October 12, 2006 – by Sarah Crump
Love of the wilderness was born in landscape photographer Robert Turner before he owned a camera. Beginning when he was 11, his parents occasionally dropped him and several friends at a spot on the Appalachian Trail near their northern New Jersey home.

DogwoodsFive days later, they would pick up the grade-school boys 30 miles from where they left them.

In the days before cell phones, but also before stories of human danger on the trail, his parents “were cool; they kind of believed in this stuff,” said Turner, now 63. The boys didn’t cover much ground in their forays. It was about being out there — not the hike.

“We built lean-tos and watched beavers build dams,” said Turner. “It was the beginning of my belief in the value of wild places.”

On Saturday, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History opens “Rare Places in a Rare Light,” an exhibition of 43 of Turner’s mesmerizing photographs. Each brings together subject, light and rich color intensified by drenching rain and exposures that last as long as a minute.

His adult sojourns, now solitary, are wherever he is directed by the National Weather Service Web site of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

October ShowersTurner looks for storms that he gambles will clear to heavy clouds and amazing playings of light. Then he jumps in his truck and drives to say, Utah, from his Carlsbad, Calif., home on the coast near San Diego. A two-week stay may yield only 100 shots, four of which may become photographs.

“And that’s a good trip,” said Turner, who drives 40,000 miles a year in search of his art. The prints of his photographs, sold in limited editions of 100, are priced from $500 to $3,000.

Formerly a documentary filmmaker steeped in collaborative effort, he relishes spending two or three days at a time completely removed from people. It’s a rare time of no distraction, when it’s just Turner, his bellows camera, and the contemplative Bach and Prokofiev CDs he listens to while waiting for a luminous sunrise or sunset.

Part of the process is getting the city to leave his head before he covers it with the big focusing cloak that bellows cameramen use to block out light.

“It probably takes the first two days just to quit calling in for messages. Then my mind clears, and I start to see better.”

Turner’s objective is to transport an onlooker to whatever wild place he photographs. He calls this “distilling the essence of a landscape.”

“You want to capture the elements that evoke the experience of being there,” said Turner, who often gets e-mails from visitors to his peace-evoking exhibitions. “We’re barraged with harsh, strident imagery every day. Some people seek the [exhibition] space out as a refuge from that.”

Turner remembers decades ago standing on a hill in his native Mahwah, N.J., looking east to the Empire State Building 20 miles away and west to the Delaware River. In that direction, 150 miles of forest bumping over the Ramapo Mountains lie at his feet. Experiences like that define his art, he says.

“The camera doesn’t take the picture, your brain and your life history do.”