The sky’s the limit
Fire and Ice: Alan Friedman and Douglas Levere
From print to print in the exhibition Fire and Ice, the visitor is confronted by images of tremendous burning energy and of quiet, frigid, crystalline forms. The show, which opens on Friday, Jan. 29, at Photo-eye Gallery, juxtaposes telescopic images of the sun’s surface by Alan Friedman and microscopic studies of snowflakes by Douglas Levere. By using filters on the camera, one can photograph the sun. Friedman’s photos reveal fascinating textures and effects. There are solar flares, sunspots, and erupting gaseous phenomena called “prominences.” Even the “calmer” areas of the sun’s surface are filled with activity — it looks somewhat like a hayfield being blown in many directions at once. “Those structures are in the chromosphere and the atmosphere of the sun,” Friedman said.
He has been shooting the sun for many years. He first attached a camera to his telescope in the mid1990s. “I actually just had a licensing request from a European magazine, New Scientist, and it was for the first image I ever had published. I thought that was kind of funny, but I do love that one. It’s a film image, a double- exposure shot of the first- quarter moon.” The sun pictures are not simply made, and the camera is a type that most people never see. The astrophotographer said that the “streaming industrial cameras” he employs in this work are similar to cameras used to catch red-light violators at city intersections and also to computer webcams. Another
unusual aspect of his technique is that each photo is made from thousands of frames. His camera records at the rate of 11 frames a second, so during a typical two or three minutes of exposure, he gets 1,500 or 1,600 frames. Perhaps 15 percent of those will be sharp enough to “stack” to come up with the final image. “I use software to help me analyze the frames, and it sorts them from best to worst,” he explained. “When you stack, you’re basically taking all the best frames and averaging them together with the software.
“The big thing I have to tackle is atmospheric turbulence. I’m shooting something 93 million miles away through a lot of atmosphere and everything makes the subject move, whether it’s heat coming
THERE ARE SOLAR FLARES, SUNSPOTS, AND ERUPTING GASEOUS PHENOMENONS CALLED “PROMINENCES.” EVEN THE “CALMER” AREAS OF THE SUN’S SURFACE ARE FILLED WITH ACTIVITY.
off the asphalt roofs and driveways nearby, or the jet stream above Buffalo. This is what we call ‘astronomical seeing’ and it is the limiting factor for anybody taking pictures of the solar system.”
Friedman’s technology yields monochrome images. He adds color himself. “That’s part of the aesthetic process and part of what makes my images look different than those of others: There are thousands of solar photographers out there. It’s just part of the storytelling process. The solar work has been my niche for a period of time. I had a little viral run with an image I published in 2010, and since then I’ve been looked to for this work. I think what I’m doing tells a story that’s a little bit different than other people are telling, and I feel I have more stories in me for a while.”
Friedman has a bachelor’s degree in fine art and comes from a printmaking background. After college, he wanted to make a living at something related to that profession, so he opened a card company. Great Arrow Graphics, his day job, has been in business for almost 40 years. “We’re the only company in the country that does silkscreen greeting cards, although there used to be a man in Albuquerque who did that and who had a retail shop there.” In the early years, Friedman’s cards boasted his own work; today the company licenses work from 130 contributing artists from around the world.
He came to astronomy as a young father. “When the kids were little, I had a telescope in the backyard for the little free time parents have, at night.” Doug Levere has a similar story when asked about the beginning of his garage-based snowflake photography. “That’s right, and I’m a photographer for a university so I am not able to do my art all the time. Part of my story and why I’m doing snowflakes has to do with how much time’s available.”
It so happens that he and Friedman are both from Long Island, both went to the University of Buffalo, and both have businesses (Great Arrow and Douglas Levere Photography) in the Tri- Main Center in Buffalo. Another correspondence they are fond of noting may be a bit of a stretch: If you hold your arm out, your pinky nail will approximately cover the sun in the sky, and the largest snowflake is about the size of a pinky nail. A longtime photographer, Levere is the author of New York Changing: Revisiting Berenice Abbott’s New York (Princeton Architectural Press, 2004). For that project, he was inspired both by Abbott’s 1939 classic Changing New York and by Mark Klett’s re-photography of western U.S. landscapes that were originally shot in the 19th century by William Henry Jackson, Timothy O’Sullivan, and others.
Levere’s earliest pictures were made with a little Keystone 110 camera his father gave him. For the snowflake work, he uses a Canon digital SLR with a 5x microscope lens. “I’ve only been doing this for about three years,” he said. “Kenneth Libbrecht is the king of snowflakes. We had a few of his photos on the wall of my son’s room for years. In what Libbrecht has written, he’s very generous about his process, but he held a few techniques back. He tells you what lens to use, but he doesn’t tell you, for example, that the lens also needs a tube lens behind it. I’ve figured out a couple of things myself.”
He also likes the work of Canadian photographer Don Komarechka, who shoots snowflakes from the front, against a black background, so they’re quite realistic. Levere’s process, illuminating them from below, results in images that look as if the snowflake forms are embossed in metal. There are also some surprising shapes, including an asymmetrical hexagon with what appears to be a hole in the center and no branches — it looks more like a steel automobile emblem than a snowflake. “I don’t think it has a hole in the center,” the photographer said. “I think it’s opaque. I’ve never seen a snowflake with a hole in it. That one is tiny and it’s actually the beginning of a snowflake. They grow from the center out.
“The other part of this project is that I live in Buffalo, and it’s been so negatively portrayed because of the snow. Photographing snowflakes in this city that is just a laughingstock all around the country for snow is a joy. And these things are such beautiful objects.”
Levere works when it is cold and snowing, and he also stacks. Most of his images require up to 50 exposures, which are focused at slightly different depths. “I’m basically using Photoshop, where I’ll organize them so they’re all layered in one file. My setup is a little Rube Goldberg, but this is called ‘ focus stacking.’ The software finds the parts that are sharp and puts them all together.” The great range of snowflake forms is the result of many subtle factors, among them different humidities and temperatures. “It’s not completely predictable. There are charts that will give you some idea, but you really can’t know what that one flake has gone through.”
Levere discovered Friedman’s work four and a half years ago. Their new show is the culmination of an idea the two photographers talked about soon after they met. “Douglas and I would like to build this,” Friedman said. “We love this process of enjoying one another’s work and that helps us to be excited about our own.”
▼ Fire and Ice: Alan Friedman and Douglas Levere
▼ Opening reception 5 p.m. Friday, Jan. 29 (artist talk 2 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 30); exhibit through April 2
▼ Photo- eye Gallery, 541 S. Guadalupe St., 505-988-5152
Douglas Levere: top, Snowflake 2014.02.09.011; bottom, Snowflake 2014.02.09.007; right, Snowflake 2014.02.09.010; opposite page, Alan Friedman: Solarsaurus, September 16.2015; all archival pigment prints
Alan Friedman: 2013 May 31 Ultraviolet, archival pigment print