Mountain Interval



"We want the world because it is beautiful, its sounds and smells and textures, the sensate presence of the world as body."

- James Hillman [1]

Renate Aller’s dynamic compositions are rich with implied narratives, and the photo- graphs in her Mountain Interval series are the fullest expression of her exploration of the interrelationships of romanticism, memory, and place. Capturing the most celebrated and challenging mountain ranges across six continents, photographing while standing at elevations as high as 22,500 feet, her pictures present vistas that are forbidding yet strangely intimate, and never exactly what they seem at first glance.

Aller’s mountainscapes are generally displaced from contextualizing surroundings or perceptible human interaction. Each image acts as an individual portrait of rock and snow, at once familiar and enigmatic in its singularity. Certain of the places we see in her photographs don’t exist, however: these hybrid places are Aller’s own invention, separate mountain ranges layered one on top of the other by the artist to create an aesthetically compelling whole. Works like #1USA, Colorado, Rocky Mountains, Nov. 2015 | Swiss Alps, March 201 (plate 59) are identified only through the title notations of place. They present a new reality, a sort of deeply felt postcard from the artist’s imagination. One could say that Aller landscapes her perceptions—and ours—just as a gardener might arrange and juxtapose disparate elements in the service of a harmonious experience. In this context the word landscape functions also as a verb, describing actions taken for aesthetic improvement. Whether composed or straightforwardly recorded, Aller’s photographs convey a sense of transcendent grandeur that is inherent to the natural world. Calling attention to the importance of experiencing and perceiving nature, her work embodies the cultural historian Simon Schama’s observation that “there is a difference between land, which is earth, and landscape, which signifies a kind of jurisdiction. It always meant the framing of an image.” The word landscape, Schama continues, “originally came from the Dutch and had to do with making pictures. From the earliest time, it has been loaded with wishful thinking. All the images we have of Yosemite are of Edenic places. You never see people in Ansel Adams photographs or Albert Bierstadt paintings.”[2]

In painting, drawing, or photography, a landscape depicts a particular place. The word can also refer to a situation, such as a social or economic circumstance, or to an emotional or psychological state of being—all aspects that play a role in Aller’s approach to her photographs. In his book Landscape and Memory, Schama contrasts the physicality of the land with the idealized landscape images central to Western culture and examines how the primeval forests of Germany and the American West illuminated legends that shaped elemental social characteristics.[3] Aller, who was born in Hamburg, spent her childhood vacations hiking and photographing in the mountains of Austria, Germany, and Italy, locations recalling the Romantic paintings of Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840). Friedrich’s works epitomized an aesthetic that sought to integrate art, science, and philosophy to communicate an ideal of transcendence. While Aller feels a deep connection with this sensibility, what makes her images singular is the sense of displacement they achieve. Instead of transcendence, her scenes are redolent with silent anticipation. In fact, she says, “I’ve always been fascinated by the space between memory and expectation. I used to compose music, and the notion of the interval—really the silence between notes—became for me a way to think about what exists in the world that is unseen and unheard, but that exists. This is why I call this series Mountain Interval. The mountains are an extension of all the work that came before. There is a relationship between the ongoing Oceanscapes project begun in 1999, and the desert pictures I have made over time and the more recent mountain pictures.”[4] In the book Ocean| Desert (2014), for example, she juxtaposes images of the ocean near her home on the South Fork of Long Island with those of vast expanses of sand dunes in New Mexico and Colorado. For Aller, two disparate locales are intimately connected. In Mountain Interval she moves away from horizontal planes of ocean and sand while retaining the sensibility of calm intensity of those earlier works.

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.

—Renate Aller [5]

Throughout American history, landscape imagery has defined an expansive nation-al identity relating to exploration, exploitation, and reclamation, in terms of both natural resources and political power. The primary goal of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s Corps of Discovery expedition, a two-year research and mapping project commissioned by Thomas Jefferson after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, was to claim the newly acquired territories, assess and inventory their features, and establish trade ties with the Native American peoples who lived in them. By the late 1800s, artists such as Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902) and Thomas Moran (1837–1926) were touring the western territories, and sketching and producing painted studies. Upon returning to their studios, they painted monumentally scaled, often idealized canvases that celebrated the nation’s westward expansion. Other artists, including Frederic Church (1826–1900) and Martin Johnson Heade (1819–1904), made worldwide peregrinations in search of unique, rarely seen vistas. Church’s Heart of the Andes afforded a sensational rendering of a remote South American mountain range. Presented as a coherent observational record, the painting is in fact a composite of several types of topographies Church saw and recorded in his travels throughout South America. Works like this, conveying distant terrains in extreme scale and detail, are clearly antecedents of Aller’s Mountain Interval photographs.

Siting nineteenth-century aesthetic values in the wilderness was not limited to painting. Eadweard Muybridge (1830–1904) and Carleton Watkins (1829–1916) employed the recently invented medium of glass-plate photography to record the Yosemite Valley and other remote western territories. Muybridge and Watkins gradually departed from the Romanticism prevalent in the work of eastern painters—notably those associated with the Hudson River School—in favor of an environment “sublimely unpeopled, with huge vistas under open skies. . . . The sublime invited the viewer to gape in awe at the vista, often seen from above.”[6] The same subjects were revisited and recontextualized by twentieth-century photographers such as Ansel Adams (1902–1984), who exaggerated tonal contrasts to intensify or distill drama in his images of Yosemite National Park.







LEFT: Moon and Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, California, 1960. Photograph by Ansel Adams.

RIGHT: #109 s – USA, California, Yosemite, Dec. 2017. Photograph by Renate Aller.

A compare-and-contrast between Adams’s Moon and Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, California (1960) and Aller’s #109 s – USA, California, Yosemite, Dec. 2017 (plate 59) shows how two distinct yet philosophically related approaches can result in dramatically diverse expressions of the same subject. Adams’s vertical portrait orientation of Half Dome is moody and theatrical, with the overhanging moon acting as a far-off character in the pictorial composition. Aller’s horizontal format places the dome centrally, but at a greater distance, contextualized by the surrounding hills and crags.

In his comprehensive American Photography, the art historian Miles Orvell proposes three main types of landscape photographs, “according to their respective purposes: the view, which renders the scene itself as a spectacle of wonder; the aesthetic landscape, where the photographer’s artistic vision animates the image; and the topographic photograph, where the image is more descriptive and is part of a larger political or scientific discourse.”[7] Traveling widely, locating her images across Europe, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas, Aller embraces all three categories. She approaches making her photographs as if they were portraits, not only of place and time but also of emotional and psychological attachment. Peering through the high-definition digital 400mm fixed lens of her camera, she can “grab the texture of these giant granite blocks—and later, when viewing the images on my screen and as test prints, it feels as if I can touch them; they become very tactile.” Further, she says:

Humans’ relationship to scale fascinates me. When we walk through a forest, or in the mountains, or even in the city, it’s difficult to gauge distances and relative scale. In using a digital camera, I can bring things from the far distance into a sharp focus that interferes, in some way, with how we understand where we are in the world.

It is a truism of our era that the boundary between the natural and man-made worlds has blurred beyond utility.

— Nancy Princenthal [8]


When I think of Art, I think of beauty. Beauty is the mystery of life. It is not in the eye, it is in the mind. In our minds there is awareness of perfection.

— Agnes Martin [9]


In the Mountain Interval series, Aller subtly informs us about her process by noting place and date, adding the designation “s” to signify factual, unaltered images, as opposed to the composites that she creates digitally with overlapping images of different locales. When we look at #12 s Swiss Alps 2 April, 2016 (plate 41) alongside #6 – Italy, Dolomites, Nov. 2016 | New Zealand, The Remarkables, Dec. 2016 (plate 27) it is difficult to tell the difference, which is entirely the artist’s point. As she explains: “In this picture of the Swiss Alps, there is a beautiful rising of cloud, fog. Sometimes the combinations look like the same place, while a single shot can look like combinations. It is really about impression as much as it is about geography.”

Aller has carefully crafted the sequence of images in this book, producing narratives through contrasts and harmony. One striking link is between #85sAlaska, Matanuska Range, Aug. 2017 (plate 30), pictured on the left, and #68s Nepal, Himalayas, Everest Region, Dec. 2016 (plate 31), shown on the right. Of this visual narrative, the artist says:

I like the compare-and-contrast of these two images. They are worlds away from each other in location, but have so much in common. Although they have a different history, have a different origin, are made from different materials, and spiritually have a different energy, I think that they are actually telling me the same story.

Ultimately, Renate Aller has a story to tell about our changing relationship with the world in which we live. This story has been cast with the hourly changes in the personality of the Atlantic Ocean as viewed from a single point on the eastern Long Island coast; with the organic undulations of sand dunes in New Mexico and Colorado; and, as in Mountain Interval, with the massive, seemingly immovable mountains that remain among the last wild places in the world.



[1] James Hillman, “The Practice of Beauty,” in Uncontrollable Beauty: Toward a New Aesthetics, ed. Bill Beckley with David Shapiro (New York: Allworth Press, 1998), p. 264.

[2] Mel Gussow, “Into Arcadia with Simon Schama,” The New York Times, June 5, 1995, http://www.

[3] Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory (New York: Vintage, 1995).

[4] All quotations of Renate Aller, unless otherwise noted, are from an interview with the author conducted in the artist’s New York City studio, October 25, 2017.

[5] Renate Aller, artist’s statement,

[6] Miles Orvell, American Photography (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 43.

[7] Ibid., p. 41.

[8] Nancy Princenthal, “The Ghost’s Machine,” in Landscape Reclaimed: New Approaches to an Artistic Tradition (Ridgefield, CT: Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, 1996), p. 13.

[9] Agnes Martin, “Beauty Is the Mystery of Life,” in Uncontrollable Beauty: Toward a New Aesthetics, ed. Bill Beckley with David Shapiro (New York: Allworth Press, 1998), p. 199.


TERRIE SULTAN has guided the Parrish Art Museum as director since 2008.
She has more than 28 years of experience as a museum professional, having served in senior positions at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and the Blaffer Museum at the University of Houston. She has organized more than 45 exhibitions in her career, including Julião Sarmento: Artists and Writers/House and Home, Chantal Akerman: Moving through Time and Space, Jessica Stockholder: Kissing the Wall, and Chuck Close: Prints, Process, and Collaboration. An accomplished writer, she has authored or contributed to dozens of publications, including Jennifer Bartlett: History
of the Universe (2013), Alice Aycock: Some Stories Are Worth Repeating (2013), Damaged Romanticism: A Mirror of Modern Emotion (2008), Jean-Luc Mylayne (2007), and Kerry James Marshall (2000). Sultan is a member of the International Association of Art Critics; served on the College Art Association’s award committee for Lifetime Achievement for Art Writing; and was a founding board member of Étant donnés, the French-American Endowment for Contemporary Art. In 2003 she was awarded a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres by the Government of France.

Born in Germany, RENATE ALLER lives and works in New York. Mountain Interval is her fourth monograph published with Radius Books, following Ocean | Desert (2014), dicotyledon (2012), and the long-term project Oceanscapes – One View – Ten Years (2010). Together, the four series represent the artist’s investigation into the relationship between Romanticism, memory, and landscape in the context of our current sociopolitical awareness. Aller’s artworks are in corporate and private collections, as well as museums, including Lannan Foundation, National Gallery of Art, Yale University Art Gallery, George East-man Museum, New Britain Museum of American Art, Hamburger Kunsthalle, Chazen Museum of Art, and Parrish Art Museum.


The mountain peaks in Mountain Interval are familiar and at the same time appear to be abstract. To engage with these images is to enter a non-quantifiable space — a disembodiment due to the loss of sense of scale, a disruption of the equation between your body and what you experience.

This interval, the space in between, is about the moments during which apparently nothing happens, but without which no change could happen. This state of stillness and transition is a space between memory and expectation.



Book published by Radius Books

Distributed by D.A.P Artbook

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