Terri Weifenbach, Cloud Physics

JTF (just the facts): Co-published in 2021 by The Ice Plant (here) and Atelier EXB (here). Hardcover, 8.25 x 11 inches, 215 pages, with 117 color and 7 black & white photographs. Includes an essay by Luce Lebart. Design by Terri Weifenbach and Coline Aguettaz. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The American photographer Terri Weifenbach is 65 and lives in Paris. Over the course of her long career, now spanning four decades, three continents, and twenty monographs, she has honed a distinctive visual style. Her photos typically feature natural scenes in bright summer lighting, shot at open apertures with compressed depth of field. Focused subject matter pops into prominence, while backgrounds muddy into broad color washes. That technique presented logistical challenges back in the film era. Even now, facilitated with digital tools, it remains somewhat unusual. With a run of books including In Your Dreams, Lana, and Between Maple and Chestnut, Weifenbach has claimed this small corner of photoland as her personal fiefdom. It might seem stylized, or even a shtick. But one can’t deny she’s developed a strong visual voice, and her photographs are easily identified amid a sea of other contemporary work.  

Her recent monograph Cloud Physics falls into form. Flip through any several pages and they leave no doubt: these natural abstractions are unmistakably Weifenbach’s. But with this book she’s given her work a novel twist, a scientific bent alluded to in the title. Most of the photographs here would fit into previous books. But interspersed with the “normal” photos are pictures of measuring devices. Each tool is shot in her familiar style, with a narrow plane of focus, and each one is accompanied on the preceding page by a graph depicting data gathered by that instrument in June 2014. This was the period of Weifenbach’s photo visit to the The Southern Great Plains (SGP) atmospheric observatory, part of the Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) facility in central Oklahoma. 

SGP is the world’s foremost climate research site, with myriad tools for measuring all aspects of the atmosphere. There’s a gauge for solar irradiance, one for rainfall, one to document cloud density, and so on. Weifenbach photographed six such instruments for Cloud Physics. Taken at surface level in photographic form, they take on beguiling shapes. They are Seussian constructions with physical quirks inscrutable to laymen. A pully here, a lever there, odd rivets fastened down there, and so on. Even the tool monikers are jargon. One is named Ceilometer. Another is called Cimel Sun Photometer. There’s a Zenith-pointing Solar Array Spectrometer. Weifenbach’s trademark abstraction is a good match for their mysterious qualities. The colored charts they produce are equally strange, with lines and numbers indicating information. Everything is explained eventually in a handy rear index. But when encountered initially in the main flow of photographs the effect is head-scratching. In this way they fit rather well the book’s visual mood, also somewhat obtuse and shifty. Surely there’s a horse in that cloud above? Another viewer might be just as certain it’s an elephant. 

These robotic devices are quite specialized, their operations and outputs only accessible to trained scientists. It’s no great stretch to wonder how Weifenbach’s photographic process compares. Are her pictures too aimed at a narrow audience? Do they require some advanced training to digest? Although cameras have become ubiquitous in modern society—much more so than atmospheric gauges— in pure function a camera is not so different than any other complex tool of measure. It records the light hitting its sensor over a certain time period, then spits out a “chart” which documents the findings. Back in the 1840s, a camera body might strike a laymen as strange and inscrutable. Fast forward to the present, and a modern viewer might find some aesthetic beauty in the raw data of solar meter or a rain gauge. Are these charts art? Are photographs science? Cloud Physics seems geared to raise such questions among readers, and to blur the boundaries of truth and beauty, just as surely as any wide open aperture blurs a subject.

That said, the instruments are a relatively minor player here. Only a small portion of Cloud Physics is devoted to them, and the majority of photos were not shot at SGP. Instead they were gathered by Weifenbach over the course of recent wanderings. Between 2014 and 2019 she traveled in Japan, Montana, Georgia, DC, California, Wyoming, not to mention her adopted Paris environs. Judging by the photos collected here, she was shooting freely during most of her travels, well tuned to variations in heat, precipitation, humidity, and wind. “In nature every single day is different,” she said in a recent interview. “The light, the way water responds to wind, the sky, birds, decay, all are constant changes in a landscape.” Much of the charm in these photos comes from the sheer joy of being out in the world, observing its cycles and patterns. In a recent short review—Cloud Physics was his favorite photobook of 2021— John Gossage was effusive. “A book of pictures that move between, where you are, what you feel, and what you know,” he wrote. “Terri’s most complex book with the largest number of photos, and the greatest aspiration to get it all right while still being always beautiful. A joy.” 

Putting joy aside for the moment, the particulars of place are somewhat lost in the shuffle of Cloud Physics. Locations are identified in a rear index, but without that information it’s tough to specify much vernacular detail amid the weathery mix. If this is Tuesday it might be Japan, or perhaps Wyoming. Wherever she might be, Weifenbach sticks mostly to plants, clouds, water, and wild life. Humans are shown swimming in a few photos, along with a few cultural artifacts. Hands are shown holding a snake and a scuzzy blob. There is one single shot of urban fabric, a dense overview of Tokyo which appears toward the end, feeling somewhat lost and out of place, as sometimes happens to travelers in Japan. But for the most part these are visual studies of, well, cloud physics. Or, as Lucy Lebart describes them in the afterward, “these color sketches represent a visual poem.”  

This is Weifenbach’s first book with The Ice Plant. With the backing of a Guggenheim and several years of steady work she’s produced her most substantial tome yet, with over a hundred photos. The sheer volume is helped along with some thoughtful sequencing, roughly grouping clusters of pictures by tonality or subject. Section breaks are marked by dual pages of graphs/instruments. If their specialized functions correspond to the general atmosphere of section photos, the connection is tenuous. Remember, these instruments are odd, too foreign to assign them much aesthetic weight, and their outputs murky. In any case, the opening passage feels its way through a dark forest, dripping with mist, sometimes spilling into outright rain. The pictures eventually find a clearing, with several photos of floral studies and bright patches. The book veers skyward for a little while to show clouds, birds, fog, and a weather balloon. Then it’s back into damp woods, this time with gorgeous twilight ambience. We see wood, fire, earth, and elemental motifs. Wildlife abounds. If not for the occasional hypermodern instrument, it would all feel rather primordial. 

This is not an overtly political book, but it’s hard not think of climate change when browsing edenic backdrops in the context of strange instruments. All these devices set up in an Oklahoma field, pouring forth information. They must pour forth rock solid evidence that the atmosphere is changing. I suspect that fact was at least partial motivation for the project, although it’s never stated. The process may be slow, beyond notice of the frog in the boiling pot, but it’s inexorable. Fortunately this wonderful planet still contains many places which feel relatively intact. Several of them appear here, looking quite inviting. But change is coming, a simple case of cloud physics, X leads to Y. At some point in the not so distant future, this book may well feel like a time capsule. 

The caption list at the end deserves mention. It is pitch perfect, and unique. Under the simple heading “DATA”, photos are listed in sequential order with place and date. That much is standard, but the information extends further, listing temperature, precipitation, humidity, wind speed, and atmospheric pressure for each shot. It’s not clear if Weifenbach took very good notes during exposure, or if she looked up the information later. In any case it’s a clever design touch, subtly echoing the scientific motif in an even-handed way. Here are the facts, the book says. They are irrefutable. Make of them what you will. 

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

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Read more about: Terri Weifenbach, Éditions Xavier Barral, The Ice Plant

One comment

  1. John Gossage /

    never put joy aside, especially these days

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