Freezing time in images of changing sea

The Southampton Press

By Will James
Southampton, New York

Renate Aller at an exhibition in Santa Fe, New Mexico, earlier this summer. Photo by Chiaroscuro Contemporary Art

A decade ago, the photographer Renate Aller had just moved from London to an oceanfront home in Westhampton Beach.
One day, she was moved to photograph the Atlantic Ocean. She liked the subject and so she decided to make more photos of the same view, again and again over 10 years, until the practice evolved into the longest project of her career—an exploration of waves, sky, horizon and time that she recently compiled into a book, “Oceanscapes: One View. Ten Years.”

“I just sort of carried on,” she said. “But I did realize that it was the project that anchored me. It actually helped me to arrive in this country because of its nature.”

Ms. Aller took the 39 featured photographs from either the roof or the second-floor deck of her Dune Road home, where she lives with her husband, Hugh. In a series, the photographs show how much a single view of the ocean, given enough time and attention, can vary in texture, color and tone. In one, the water is smooth and gray as graphite, the sky as white as paper. In another, foaming waves are churning under a jumble of clouds and sunlight.

In an essay at the front of the book, the critic Richard B. Woodward called Ms. Aller’s photographs at once “ravishingly sumptuous” and “coolly austere.”

“Shot outdoors under conditions dictated by her huge, primitive, volatile subject, the Atlantic Ocean, they are a record of open water as it acts like a giant mirror, reflecting what is happening that second in the sky,” Mr. Woodward wrote.

Sometimes, the photographs capture stillness, at other times, motion. Ms. Aller said she didn’t look for any particular quality of the water or sky while she was shooting. She just waited for conditions to align in a way that moved her. Over time, she said, she came to anticipate those moments before they happened—one of many ways in which the project evolved over the last decade.

“I can see some energy there, like a diagonal, a sort of interesting light, where the sky becomes a landscape,” the German-born artist said. “And sometimes what fascinates me is the amazing stillness when the ocean just looks like a painting.”

Over the years, Ms. Aller said, the many ocean photographs (she declined to estimate how many she took in total) became a sort of diary, marking birthdays, anniversaries and periods of her life. Her ocean gazing, meanwhile, became a sort of meditation. The horizon, she said, was the focal point, where she could project her thoughts “into it, over it” and then come back to herself again.

Ms. Aller said she went through four cameras over the course of the project; the first two were analog and the latter two digital. She said that although she was able to shoot more photographs with a digital camera, she remained selective throughout.

“Each time I look through the viewfinder, I actually compose and choose the cropping, the image, when I decide to take the actual picture,” she said. “I choose it for that very moment, for that picture, which I think is the right way to go about it.”

The frequency of Ms. Aller’s work on the project varied. Sometimes, Ms. Aller said, she would go out to shoot the ocean three or four times a day. But in the wake of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, she put the project on hold for some time. She said she shot images in Manhattan on the day of the attacks, and in the wake of the disaster.

“I stopped taking pictures for a while,” she said. “I don’t know how long, because I just thought I could never ever take a picture like that ever again.”

But, after enough time had passed, she returned to the ocean, which she said has a healing quality.

The photographs in “Oceanscapes: One View. Ten Years.” appear in no particular order. Ms. Aller said she shied away from dating her work, suspecting that the date stamps might taint the viewer’s perception: “Do you know when you have a piece of music, you don’t really look at the single note? You look at the complete piece. That was one thing I thought was important. If I put the dates, then people would think that I put it together, that the dates had a relevance in the sequencing.”

Ms. Aller said she broke that rule for her current solo exhibition at the Adamson Gallery in Washington, D.C., which began on Saturday, September 11. There, she labeled her images with a season, year and time of day; one of her favorite photographs bears the title “Winter 2006, 2:25 p.m.” “I only came up with that because, when I wrote it down, I thought it was like a poem,” she said.

Another of Ms. Aller’s favorite photos is featured on page six of her book. In it, the ocean looks like a series of scratched gray lines under a flat gray sky. “That one I think I can sit for hours in front of it,” she said. She said her fascination with moving water began in childhood, when she was growing up along the River Elbe in Hamburg.

“A lot of my images, when I look at them, what I find fascinating sometimes is the water sometimes looks like a precious metal, like a piece of jewelry or something, which is always moving but can always freeze.”

Nancy Grover, a collector of contemporary photography from East Hampton and a friend of Ms. Aller, said she watched the artist grow increasingly absorbed in her project over the years.

“I think she became probably more and more committed to it as it went on, because the endless, almost infinite possibilities of that one siting at any given time became very absorbing for her,” Ms. Grover said.

The end result, Ms. Grover said, is, in part, a study of time: “From a purely aesthetic point of view, my reaction is the fact that while it captures a specific moment in time with each image, at the same token, every image participates in the timelessness of nature, the timelessness of the joining of the ocean and the sky, the timelessness of the horizon.”

“Oceanscapes: One View. Ten Years.” is available for $50 through the online store of the publisher, Radius Books, at store.radiusbooks.org.