The Arts
June 21-28, 2006

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Life Back in Balance

In a preview of the summer's must-see Cabrillo Music Festival opener, photographer Frans Lanting discusses the ideas and imagery behind 'Life: A Journey Through Time'

By Bill Forman

Metro Santa Cruz 2006 Summer Guide:
Frans Lanting | surf spots | theater | concerts | festivals

Frans Lanting travels from Australia to Siberia so that we don't have to. And then he returns home to Santa Cruz, bringing with him images that transform nature into high art that somehow conveys both the visceral and the spiritual dimensions of its subject matter. It's a talent that's made him one of the most revered photographic artists working today, and laid the groundwork for his much anticipated collaboration with Cabrillo Music Festival's Marin Alsop and New York composer Philip Glass. As its title suggests, "Life: A Journey Through Time" is an unprecedented multimedia project that aims to do nothing less than convey the development of life through the ages. Alsop will, of course, conduct, while Glass, whose new score draws upon earlier works for small ensembles, will also be on hand for the July 29 premiere.

The following conversation took place last Wednesday afternoon in Lanting's Santa Cruz studio. For more information on this project, visit

METRO SANTA CRUZ: Could we begin by talking about how you got into multimedia presentations of your work? I'm wondering if 'Koyaanisqatsi' [a.k.a. 'Life Out of Balance,' Godfrey Reggio's 1983 collaboration with Philip Glass] and Philip Glass' other film projects were something that got you excited about it?

Frans Lanting: Yes, in fact I do know Koyaanisqatsi, and yes, it really grabbed me when I first saw it, as it did many people--both because of the form as well as because of the message. But I have actually known Phillip Glass' music even much longer, at least since the mid-'70s. And I've been very fond of his music and that whole musical movement ...

Minimalist artists like Terry Riley ...

Yeah. And so, you know, working in multiple media, that's something I've done with other musicians in Santa Cruz, but of course this is much more scripted and of a different nature, a different caliber. And I have to acknowledge Marin Alsop, because she came to see me I think two years ago when we were still deeply involved in shaping the project. She was enthusiastic right away and said, "Yeah, we can do this, and I'd like to do it." And it was really the combination of Marin and the festival that we came up with the way that we are going to present it to the public.

What were the challenges that you encountered on the way, in terms of combining these elements?

Well, I think something like this, there's no precedent for it. I looked around to see what else had been done in this area that we could learn from and we didn't come up with anything. So we had to invent some new things in order to bring this together. And it was a challenging ride. It still is. It's not done yet.

Have you heard the finished score yet?

Yeah, the music is fabulous. And by combining it with the images and the stories behind it, it's going to be special. We're working now on the editing and sequencing. And at the same time, the stage crafting is still being dealt with. At the heart of it all is that--and this is my belief and it's seconded obviously by Marin--that images and music can tell parallel stories. And sometimes they're specific stories. Sometimes they're more conceptual. Sometimes they're emotional. And we're trying to weave this together into a whole experience that challenges people to allow themselves to be taken on a journey through time, to experience through images and music and with their own imagination, to experience the Earth from its earliest beginnings to the way that it exists today.

Like 'Koyaanisqatsi,' do you have an environmental message that you're putting across?

It's more conceptual. We're challenging people to take a look at life on Earth as a totality, as opposed to looking at things as trees and animals and separate landscapes and ecosystems. This ends on a note of life as a totality.

In terms of being a unity? What's the difference between viewing life as an ecosystem vs. the way you're talking about it?

Thirty years ago a visionary scientist named James Lovelock published the concept of Gaia as a proposition. He invented the notion that life on Earth has been responsible for creating and maintaining conditions on Earth that are conducive to sheltering life on Earth. And that was a rather preposterous idea at first. But 30 years later, I think there's a lot of evidence that there are feedback mechanisms and loops that connect all ecosystems on Earth into an integrated whole of which life is a vibrant, active ingredient. It isn't just a passive recipient of the way that conditions are on Earth. I think that's a very powerful way to look at nature, and to integrate it with a sense of what is alive on this planet. And that includes us.

So how do humans fit into that, and through your photography and interaction with wildlife, what sort of things have you learned about that?

You know, we carry within every cell in our bodies the story of how life on Earth came to be. And that sense, and that realization, is incorporated into this production of images. And it's connected with this vision of life as a whole. Specifically how it happens, I invite everybody to come see for themselves. Or to get a copy of the book when it becomes available.

When does it come out?

We will have first copies of the book available at the performance, and also here at the gallery.

How did you first hook up originally with [European art publisher] Benedikt Taschen?

He sought me out as an artist and we've produced a number of books for the publishing house. And Benedikt likes to be challenged and stimulated in his own thinking and he likes to present books that are different, and this one fits into that tradition.

His range of work is just so eclectic, and yet the one thing that's consistent is just amazing quality.

And amazing visions.

And that's so much the opposite of where mainstream publishing is going.

Well, there's great books that are coming out all the time. But Taschen has definitely created new standards, and has been maintaining old standards, depending on how you look at it.

Tell me a about the visual design for 'Life.' Are you using a single screen?

It's a huge screen about 45 feet wide that'll be set up across the stage. And I'm working with a video editor who's sequencing my images under my direction and guidance, to make sure that the time line meets the criteria that we have set for it, which is that it has to be consistent with the findings of science. And we're never going backwards; we're moving through time.

When did you start moving toward shooting more animals--why animals over people?

It's not animals over people. It's animals and people. I do a lot of work with people, and it doesn't always get the recognition that that photographs of wildlife get because, you know, my reputation is based in that. But when I work with animals, my work's always embedded in the sense that there is a human environment, there is a human context. So it's the same thing with this project. In the story of life on Earth, humans need to be there as well.

When you look into an animal's eyes when you're shooting them, what do you see?

It can be many different things. It can be a fleeting glimpse. A recognition on the part of that animal that I'm there as a presence in his environment. Or it can be something from my end, I'm recognizing something that we both have in common. Or it may be a realization of the other.

What kinds of things in common, and with what kind of animals?

With every animal. That is the other implication of this project is that we have so much in common with everything else that is alive on this planet. Of course we have the most in common with other members of the great ape family. But as you go backward in time, the connections do not disappear; they just become different. What connects us with reptiles is that we reproduce through eggs as well. What connects us with salamanders is that we share backbones, too. What connects us with bacteria is that, yes, we maintain our genetic origins through DNA that replicates itself. You can make the connections as deep and profound as you want to.

And what is it that separates us?

What separates us? Perhaps only a belief that we are not connected ultimately, and that we can exist independently of everything else. The notion of a living planet is a very inclusive concept, and we cannot exist apart.

The late comedian Bill Hicks, in one of his more caustic moments, referred to humans as 'a virus with shoes.' Do you get the sense at some points, like when disasters happen, that we've pushed too far? And, of course, global warming comes into all of that.

Not specifically in connection with this project. This is really meant as a journey through time, from the very beginnings to the present diversity, and to give people a sense of life as a totality. But just beyond the scope of this project is of course the realization that we are acting now as an agent collectively in a way that is shifting the conditions in which life gets to exist on this planet. So climate change is a paramount issue.

Have you witnessed it? You've gone up to Siberia ...

Not just in Siberia. You can witness it here if you pay attention. Any naturalist, anybody lives here, who keeps records of the days when migratory birds arrive and leave, will notice differences. It isn't just something you have to go to Siberia or the Antarctic for. It's global climate change. No area, no place is free from it.

Through all the different branches of sciences, we're learning more and more, but at the same time we're seeing a resurgence, particularly in the last six years, of the whole intelligent design movement and not wanting to acknowledge Darwin. Does that surprise you?

Yes, in a certain sense. Because the evidence and the accumulated knowledge that have come from the Earth sciences in the last 30 years have been nothing short of astonishing. And when you think back to how we were thinking and talking about life on Earth and how it got started, we have a much more sophisticated picture today. And to see that at the same time the religious fundamentalists are trying to push the clock back to a different interpretation that is really not of this time any more, is an unusual dichotomy. And even though this is not to force evolution in a specific way on to people's minds, it's very clear that the evolutionary perspective of life on Earth is the underpinning, and it is the storyline that is woven through this whole project.

Do you think that this current backlash is just a blip on the map of time?

I don't know if it's a blip. You know, I hope it's a blip. There's a lot of pretty dramatic cultural changes that are affecting people, and not just here. Religious fundamentalism is manifesting itself through Islam and Hinduism, and also through Christianity, its believers. So it may be something bigger; that in the face of uncertainty, people cling to what they think is a better or simpler way to understand things.

So do you still have bobcats and coyotes on your property? Do you have any pictures of those?

Yeah, but none that fit into the project [laughs].

One last question: In Werner Herzog's documentary about Timothy Treadwell, the guy who lived among grizzly bears, there's an odd moment where Herzog counters Treadwell's optimism with a voice-over in which he gives his own opinion of nature as a brutal force. I'm curious as to how your experience with so much of nature has shaped your view of it as a force.

Well, you know, nature is the source of everything on this planet, and this planet is nature. And I'm taking a view of life as a new force that is acting on this planet. And in that sense it's neither brutal nor pessimistic nor optimistic. It's just the way it is. Or at least that's how I look at it.

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