Ocean and Desert

"Once in a while, we stumble upon a photo or series that leaves us in a state of wonder. German-born photographer Renate Aller’s new book Ocean | Desert (Radius Books) does just that. Though her subject matter is hardly novel, the vantage point through which she photographs these landscapes captures them in a way that is simultaneously spectacular and calming. Aller is internationationally known for her ocean photography but has also begun to photograph deserts in recent years, and most of the book’s spreads feature both terrains. She captures the similarities and contrasts between the two, and the human elements she occasionally adds reveal our relationships with these formidable landscapes."

New Republic – October 6, 2014

Links to order book:
Radius Books
DAP Artbook

Exhibition prints accompanied by monograph
The Illusion of Separateness
By Janet Dees

Renate Aller is not only an artist whose work I admire and find inspiring, she is also a dear friend. Last year, she introduced me to the book The Illusion of Separateness by Simon Van Booy. This beautiful novel, by another gifted artist and thinker, poetically explores several characters whose lives seem so far apart from one another but, we discover as their stories unfold, are interconnected in very meaningful ways. Van Booy traces the profound impact that small gestures, perhaps long forgotten by one character, have had on the life of another, revealing core connections between seemingly disparate people.

In a similar way, with Ocean|Desert, Aller explores the illusion of separateness between two “landscapes”—the ocean and the desert. The ocean as experienced from Long Island’s southern shore and the sand dunes of New Mexico and Colorado are locations that lie thousands of miles apart, but for Aller are intimately connected. Through the juxtaposition of photographs from each of these locales, Aller invites us to meditate on the relationship between these two distant landscapes. This project is the latest manifestation of Aller’s continued interest in Romanticism, memory, and landscape. As Aller describes, she has “ always [been] fascinated by the phenomenon of the oceans and deserts/sand dunes, an intimate relationship that is based not on proximity but on shared history. They both carry each other’s memory…. Both the ocean and the sand have trace minerals that are all-present and carry an ancient memory, the oldest memory there is.”

For Ocean|Desert, Aller draws from two bodies of photographs. Since 1999 Aller has photographed the view of the Atlantic Ocean from the same vantage point on Long Island’s east end. These painterly photographs capture the effects of changes in weather and light in compositions imbued with complexity. This dedication to repeated and engaged viewing has been compared to Monet’s studies of the cathedral at Rouen. The Romantic view of the landscape evoked by these photographs has earned them comparisons with work of the nineteenth-century German painter Caspar David Friedrich, whom Aller has cited as an influence. More recently, Aller began visiting the White Sands dunes in New Mexico and the Great Sand Dunes in Colorado, and created a body of photographs taken over the course of five visits to these sites between 2011 and 2013. Aller’s painterly approach is evident in this body of work as well, as she luxuriates over the complex textures and intricate details of these desert landscapes.

Ocean|Desert builds upon strategies that Aller has employed in other bodies of work. The idea of continued engagement with the same landscape that is at the core of the oceanscapes series, informs the these new photographs. In dicotyledon (2012), a parallel project to oceanscapes, Aller began experimenting with pairing photographs of different types. In this series, portraits of humans and animals situated in the landscape are paired with oceanscapes or rich details of water, land, and flora. The choice of the name dicotyledon for the series has important philosophical implications. Aller states that “the term refers to a plant that has a pair of leaves within the embryo of the same seed.” It is not just about the bringing together of two things, but about two things that share an originary connection. This idea of reuniting two entities that share an origin informs the Ocean|Desert project as well.

As with dicotyledon, the figure enters into the Desert photographs. In dicotyledon the figures are frontal and occupy a large percentage of the picture plane. In contrast, the figures in the Desert series appear with their backs turned to us, or looking off into the distance, and are decidedly figures within the landscape. Their activities in the sand dunes signify a comfortableness in and ownership of the space, while compositionally the figures’ arrangements underscore the vastness of the landscape. This is heightened in the images from White Sands, where the stark-white gypsum-infused sand creates an effect that is ethereal, surreal, and disconcerting all at once. A productive tension is created between the intimate and the sublime.

In a way, Ocean|Desert is visual argument, however poetic, for recuperating the presence of the ocean in the desert and vice versa. Many of the spreads in this book deliberately blur the lines between the desert and ocean and prompt us to question our assumptions about our understanding of these landscapes. Two of Aller’s trips to White Sands took place on Easter Sunday, a time when local New Mexican families inhabit the site as a place of recreation and engage in activities similar to those performed on beaches near the ocean. In some pairings, the dappling of light across the dunes mimics the undulation of the ocean’s waves. In others, we are not sure if we are encountering two photographs from the same locale, or one from the desert and one from ocean.

As with other works of art, the photograph is an invitation to the viewer to focus on something that the artist deems important. Inherent in the photographic process is a thoughtful selection of what is before the camera and a careful framing of the subject. If part of the creation of a single photograph is the process of framing, the arrangement of photographs within this book, both their juxtaposition within spreads, and the consecutive sequencing of these spreads, can be thought of as a reframing. This reframing serves to highlight different aspects of these compositions than what one might notice if they were experienced individually. Through the form of the book, a unique conceptual experience is created, and like the photographs contained within it, this book has its own visual rhythm.

In his 1869 volume Culture and Anarchy, English poet and critic Matthew Arnold, defending the purpose of art, stated that “art is the criticism of life.” Revisiting Arnold’s volume almost 140 years later, philosopher Alain de Botton further explicates this idea by commented that for artists “embedded in their work, there [is] an impulse to correct the viewer’s insight or teach him to perceive beauty,…to reanimate his sensitivities, to nurture his capacity for empathy…. [Artists] act as guides to a truer, more judicious, more intelligent understanding of the world.” De Botton’s analysis came to mind as I was pondering Aller’s new body of work. Ocean|Desert implores us to “perceive beauty” in these landscapes, but it also subtly calls for much more. What that “much more” is will differ from viewer to viewer. For me, the “much more” involves a recuperation of the ocean’s and desert’s shared memory, a reminder to dispel the illusion of separateness in other aspects of life, to reach a “more intelligent understanding of the world.”

Copyright © 2014 Radius books All artwork © 2014 Renate Aller The Illusion of Separateness © 2014 Janet Dees

Radius Books is a tax-exempt, 501 (c) (3) not-for-profit organization founded in 2007, whose mission is to encourage, promote and publish books of artistic and cultural value. Books give an accessible form to rich and complex creative visions. They become the vehicles for beauty, reflection and change. In this spirit, Radius Books donates copies of every title we publish to libraries and schools, with the hope and expectation that these books will reach and inspire new and expanding audiences. Radius Books titles are distributed to the trade by Distributed Art Publishers (D.A.P.). Limited editions are available at selected galleries and directly through the publisher.

  • dicotyledon


"The dicotyledon, which provides the title of Renate Aller’s photo exhibition at Adamson Gallery, is a kind of flowering plant whose blooms come in pairs. “Dicotyledon” is not a selection of flower pictures, but it does include several pairs: diptychs that contrast urban and rural, or human and environment. Aller is known for austere seascapes, and there are a few of those in this show. But the German-born New Yorker has started to add animals and humans (all children) to her crisply detailed, meticulously framed compositions, and sometimes arranged the images to converse with each other. In addition to the diptychs, there’s a six-panel study of sky and clouds in which two squares are pure blue — both empty and saturated. Aller captures shimmering, gem-like moments, and offering multiple views only increases the sense that she has perfect timing."

Mark Jenkins, Washington Post – May 25, 2012

…Romanticism provides the background for Aller’s photographs. From Keats’s Grecian Urn to Faust’s “Verweile doch, du bist so schön!” and such latter day offspring as Bo Widerberg’s film Elvira Madigan (1967), “the Romantic agony” (as the cultural historian Mario Praz described it) has fed upon the conflict between passing clock time (chronos) and a more subjective or spiritual sense of duration (kairos). Indeed, for every Newtonian bid to measure the world with clinical detachment—from the Enlightenment, through the Industrial Revolution, and unto the virtual present—there has been a Blake or Novalis for whom, once the doors of perception are cleansed, that selfsame reality waxes infinite. In instances as various as Constable’s clouds, Turner’s seas, American Luminism’s preternatural clarity, Runge’s enchanted Times of Day cycle and Friedrich’s mists or mornings, Romantic painting explored this dichotomy, swinging between empiricism and the ideal. So does Aller’s camera…" read full essay

- excerpt from essay “Transience” by David Anfam for the forthcoming book (Radius Books) dicotyledon

The way we look at nature from a distance is similar to the way painters of the romantic period presented their work to the viewer. While our human desire is to tame nature, and our relationship to it is one of intervention and domination, our ambivalence with nature is reflected in the way we look at it. We use the landscape image as a mirror of ourselves—filled with illusions, desire, and nostalgia—and as a fulfillment of our idealized self. We expect nature to present itself as a stage set for our entertainment.

Playing with the effect of an image by putting together two visual representations, or a grid of multiple images, the viewer is asked to make the connection of multiple experiences. There is a similar effect in the linguistic world, where the placement of multiple words creates meaning depending on the placement and relationship of these words. There is no linear narrative. Reality cannot be found outside representation and therefore representation cannot be tested against the real. The search for truth is irrelevant and eliminates objectivity.

“dicotyledon” is an extension and a parallel development to my ongoing photographic project “oceanscapes — one view – 1999 to present” and supports my investigation into the relationship between romanticism, memory, and landscape—in the context of our current socio-political awareness.

Renate Aller

oceanscapes – one view – 1999 to present

Recent Acquisitions

Lannan Foundation
Santa Fe, NM

Parrish Museum
Watermill, NY

New Britain Museum of American Art
New Britain, CT

New Mexico Museum of Art
Santa Fe, N.M., USA

Chazen Museum of Art
Madison, WI

George Eastman House
International Museum of Photography and Film
Rochester, NY, USA

National Gallery of Art
Washington, DC

Hamburger Kunsthalle
Hamburg, Germany

Yale University Art Gallery
New Haven, CT, USA
(from the Nancy and Robinson Grover art collection)

HBC Global Art Collection
New York, NY, USA



“…There are obvious similarities to Hiroshi Sugimoto ’s photographs and Mark Rothko ’s division of space, but Aller manages to avoid being derivative with hypnotically beautiful combinations of light and texture that meld abstraction with representation in arresting yet simple compositions…”

Nord Wennerstrom, ARTFORUM, Critic’s Choice – June, 2006