Liz Potter, On the Road with the Horizon 202

JTF (just the facts): Self published in 2021 (here). Staple bound zine with matte laminated cover, 8.5 x 11 inches, 32 pages, 30 monochrome images, with introduction and extensive captions by author. In an edition of 100, each signed by the author with tipped in inkjet photo. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: As the end of the coronavirus pandemic looms slowly into view, photographers can help us to absorb and make sense of this epochal period. In some ways, their experiences are unexceptional. They have had to quarantine and adjust daily schedules and sanitation routines over the past year just like everyone else. But since photography uses reality as its raw material, the pandemic has also provided a once-in-a-lifetime resource. Many photographers have spent the past year not just enduring the pandemic but documenting its various effects and converting them into history. It’s likely that we will see a slew of pandemic-related photo projects emerge over the next few years, as they reach fruition in book and exhibition form.

One of the first out of the gate is from Liz Potter. Her zine’s title is a good summary of how Potter spent 2020: On The Road with the Horizon 202. The Horizon 202 is a Russian-built panoramic camera which uses a rotating swing lens to create exposures sequentially onto a curved film plane. It captures the world in wide swaths of 140 degrees, and the images are characterized by extreme depth of field and warbling vision similar to a fish-eye effect. These traits make the panoramic swing lens tough to harness, and only a handful of photographers have applied one seriously – Jeff Bridges, Sylvia Plachy, Michael Ackerman, and Michael Spano are among those who’ve excelled. But in the grand scheme of things, it remains a relatively unexplored tool. The territory was wide open for Potter when she acquired a Horizon 202 in December 2019, more or less on a whim.

There is a spark of excitement which accompanies the first few months using any new camera, as one fumbles through its features and quirks, of which the Horizon 202 has plenty. For example, Potter’s exposure frame swoops outward in the pictures’s right corners, producing a distinctive negative shape when printed into the carrier. This was just one in a string of minor foibles she had to adjust to, including “lots of film rips, a lost roll, exposure issues, and a learning curve that fortunately went sharply upward.” Her child-like spirit of discovery comes through in the zine, in both the photographs and the warm anecdotal captions which accompany them. There are 30 pairings in all, marking various moments between her initial purchase and December 2020, each carefully annotated with date and location. As she writes in the introduction, “a lot happened that year, to put it mildly.”

The Horizon 202 proved a particularly apt tool for Potter due to physical geography. She is based in Alpine, Texas, in the extreme southwest corner of the state (near Marfa, to place it in an art world context). This is high arid country where the word “horizon” sluffs off its city skin and broadens into something quite different. The panoramic format grabs what it can of the landscape, but no picture can quite contain it, even one with a wider aspect than usual. “I wish this photo came with how it felt,” muses Potter’s caption below a sweeping photo of Big Bend Ranch State Park. Even though this complaint is perhaps a universal sentiment of photographers everywhere, it gains acute credence in West Texas.

The vast open territory surrounding Alpine had been a lure, but it took on particular urgency for Potter with the pandemic. “I was feeling trapped and overwhelmed with the drastic changes…,” she writes in an early caption. A few photographs later, her escape has transitioned into full-fledged sanctuary: “March was the month where everyone started to understand something big was going on. I knew there were impending closures of many places I had planned to go…I made a day trip to the salt dunes at the base of the Guadalupe Mountains. The day was almost too beautiful to comprehend, deep blue skies, a cool breeze, a stillness that erased all the heaviness of the mind, and fields of yellow flowers ushering in spring.”

As the year wore on, Potter was pulled more often and more deeply into the empty countryside. These trips with her new Horizon became a recurring bright spot in what was shaping up as a rough year. “There was a pandemic-related restriction on non-essential travel for a long time,” she explains, “but I viewed my retreat to the park as quite essential.” All of her trips were by car. “If you don’t enjoy driving, this region is not for you,” she explains. The zine has something of a travelogue flavor, but it does not fall easily into the road-trip genre. The photographs are sequenced non-chronologically and cover an assortment of locations. They do not track any particular journey, instead snagging bits and pieces from various trips. Ultimately they are less about movement than refuge.

The cover image manages to convey both impulses at once. It shows Potter ensconced behind the wheel, reflected with her camera in the driver’s side mirror. Beyond the car’s edge is her rough agenda for the day, some distant hills, a barn, a slice of highway, and more. This picture is repeated on the inside flap in the form of a tipped in inkjet print. Paired with her signature on the facing page, this spread offers a hand-crafted imprimatur, and a sign of what’s to come: more road trips, more open skies, and more discoveries.

Potter’s photographs are generally shot level to the ground, with their horizons varying somewhere around the midpoint. From this vantage, they systematically record huge swaths of sky almost as an afterthought. In the foreground, Potter favors vegetation when she can find it, and sometimes relics of the built environment. She documents rocks, mountains, trails, and forlorn terrain. But her photographs are bulked up mainly with raw space. In capturing wide chunks of nothingness, Potter tapped into the forte of the Horizon, which tends toward expansion wherever it is pointed.

As she leaned into her new toy over the course of months, her results proved revelatory. A photograph of a lonely looking shrub comes with an excited caption: “Ranch Road 505…is a whole lot of fabulous nothingness. The space is almost absurd…The desert plants spot the landscape like sculptures; an exhibit only for those who care to stop and look.” A photo of her small tent dwarfed under clouds is paired with a gushing epiphany, “I could see the sliver of the immense Sierra del Carmen in Mexico as the sun set, turning everything into a vibrant painting and giving me the huge sigh that I needed.” Another tent shot caption boils positivity down to brass tacks: “I love my tent so much.” Occasionally her alacrity assumes a tender caretaker attitude. “The old Santa Fe Railroad building is close to falling down,” she captions an old relic, “so I shoot it regularly knowing there will be a day when it could be gone.” 

If Potter sounds as if she’s drunk the West Texas Kool-Aid, that’s not far from the truth. “You either fall under the desert spell, or you don’t. There’s no in between,” she says. “I was possessed by the sky, the climate, the wide WIDE open spaces, the people, the plants and animals the very first time I experienced this part of Texas…[it] ultimately led me to uprooting from 30 years in Austin, Texas and moving to a remote town of less than 6,000. I’ve never been happier.” Her move to Alpine occurred before the pandemic. Perhaps she would have discovered the nearby desert in due time anyway. But the coronavirus catalyzed her wanderings, and the Horizon shaped them into being. In the borderlands of West Texas, she found her happy place, an invaluable asset during a crazy year. In communicating that feeling vicariously, her zine may provide emotional stasis to distant readers. 

Potter is a skilled craftworker (she makes her living as a purse maker) and her zine has a tailored polish which belies its homespun origin. As a tactile object, it feels closer to a professional publication than hand-crafted zine. Beveled page corners are an elegant touch, as is the tipped in opening photo. The layout bounces simply between top and bottom, and right and left alignment to keep the reader’s eye moving across its landscape. The text below each photo contains a wealth of information. They are closer to journal entries than traditional captions. They share plenty but without overwhelming. A simple image on the back cover shows Potter’s Horizon camera against a blank background, looking as clean-cut and serious as any product shot. This picture is paired with a colophon icon inside the rear flap showing a roll of exposed TMax on white. The two photos aren’t much, just film and camera, but they seem to convey an entire year’s worth of experiences in two simple figures. Altogether, the object is so physically tidy that it makes perfect sense to sell on Etsy rather than through a traditional photo site.

Potter’s pictures tends to circle around similar visual motifs, and their translation into panoramic format lends another layer of congruity. If the whole enterprise feels a bit like the wheels are spinning in place, that is a good metaphor for the past pandemic year. In some ways 2020 was a lost period of thumbs twiddled and clocks watched. But when one peels back the facade of emptiness, real transformation has occurred. Potter’s photographs describe a steep learning curve, regular episodes of discovery, and an irrepressible positivity which might serve as a beacon as we move past the coronavirus.

Collector’s POV: Liz Potter does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up with the artist directly via her website (here).

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  1. Pete /

    If I may add another photographer to your list of noteworthy panoramic swing-lens camera users, it would be Swedish photographer Jens Olof Lasthein.

  2. Blake Andrews /

    Thanks for the comment, Pete. I like Lasthein’s photos.

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