Keeping His Eye on the Horizon (Line)
THE soft-colored photographs of Sze Tsung Leong capture contrasting landscapes: the verdant green of Germany; the mirage of shimmering towers in Dubai; the urban geometry of Amman, Jordan; the red tiles roofs of Italy. But always the eye is drawn to the distinct line where sky meets earth.
In Mr. Leong’s panoramic photographs of major cities and rural landscapes around the world, the horizon line consistently falls in the same place. So when his images are hung side by side — as 62 of them are now at the Yossi Milo Gallery in Chelsea — they create an extended landscape of ancient cities and modern metropolises, desert vistas and lush terrain.
“The horizon is such a basic way of comprehending the space around us, comprehending our basic relationship to the globe,” Mr. Leong said one recent morning over tea in Manhattan.
If the horizon seems to offer possibilities, he said, it also establishes a boundary. “In terms of looking, the horizon is the farthest we can see,” he explained, yet in terms of knowledge, it reflects “the limit of experience.”
For the last seven years Mr. Leong, a 38-year-old Chinese-American with a British accent and a Mexican birth certificate, has expanded his experience by traveling to unfamiliar cities, where his first priority is to find a sweeping view from an elevated position.
“When I’m really familiar with a place, it is more difficult to visualize it,” he said, citing New York, his home, as an example. “But being confronted with a new situation, I find that I’m more aware of things visually.” He traveled to Amman because he hoped the uniform construction of its buildings might cast an even pattern and tone across the surrounding hills, which would offer him distant vantage points. And the Roman ruins there attracted him as a reminder of the reach of the Roman Empire across national borders.
He often travels alone to new cities. Asked about his sense of isolation during his five days in Amman, he referred to his childhood in Mexico City, where he lived until his family moved to Los Angeles when he was 11. “There’s always a sense that was natural to me from the beginning of being an outsider,” he said. “I don’t think about feeling foreign, because that is the natural state.”
He studied at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., and then earned degrees in architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, and at Harvard. Perspective drawing fascinated him. “I was interested in figuring out the mechanics of how you represent space on a two-dimensional surface,” he said. “And of course the horizon line plays a very important part in perspective drawing.”
He points out the similarities between perspective drawing — in which divergent lines extend to vanishing points — and the flattened projection of an urban landscape against the ground glass of his 8-by-10 view camera. The grid in the viewfinder lets him compose images with matching parallel lines.
His panoramas integrate broad swaths of natural terrain, urban architecture and symbols of culture, and Mr. Leong said architectural history courses at Berkeley had a great influence on how he sees the built environment. “Their approach was to consider buildings and cities and their social and political contexts,” he said. “Buildings are the result of social forces and political power.”
Before traveling to Egypt, Mr. Leong picked up Max Rodenbeck’s “Cairo: The City Victorious.” “I read about this ancient trash heap that had been in use for several centuries, which had gotten taller and taller,” he recalled. “From the top you get this view of the old part of Cairo.”
He shot his panoramic image of Cairo from this ancient trash heap, now a park on a hill. He returned three times before the lighting conditions provided the tonal quality he sought. The best conditions for his preferred evenness of light occur either at noon, when the fewest shadows are cast, or when it is overcast. “When things fall into deep shadow, it is more difficult to capture a detail,” he said.
Mr. Leong photographed Dubai because “it is a new city created out of oil wealth,” and he shot his skyline panorama several miles away, from the surrounding desert. “I was afraid the film might get damaged,” he said, since the outdoor temperature was 110 to 120 degrees in the noonday sun. “The camera was hot to the touch.”
By contrast he went to Venice in January, when the winter sky was most likely to be overcast and the light would yield the finest detail. His picture “Canale della Giudecca, 2007” was taken at dusk from the mainland. The densely packed, sharply articulated buildings hover in a narrow line between water and sky.
“For this image the exposure time was about a minute,” he said. “So anything that’s moving becomes a blur or disappears. The water that is moving becomes a blank sheet. People sometimes ask if this picture is Photoshopped because of the blankness.”
Mr. Leong still uses negative film and makes all of his prints in the darkroom. He believes that light projected through a negative onto paper provides more continuous tone than is possible with the digital process. “If you blow up a digital scan, you’ll see it is made up of different squares, each one a different color, which corresponds in the computer’s mind to a numerical value,” he said. “In analog it will be a continuous curve.”
Mr. Leong acknowledges the influence of 19th-century photographers like Felice Beato and John Thomson, who photographed in China and India using a view camera. But he also cited the contemporary photographer Thomas Struth, whose technical precision Mr. Leong admires, as well as his images documenting cities. “You’re not only looking at what is depicted on the picture plane, but a kind of emotional context he is trying to describe,” he said. Citing Mr. Struth’s photograph of the Pantheon in Rome, he added: “There’s a heaviness, the weight of history and the weight of the light. A certain sense of sadness about it.”
It’s a sentiment that may come to mind when viewing an earlier series by Mr. Leong, “History Images,” which documents the vast rows of modern towers in China that are rapidly engulfing the country’s cultural past. The photographs were shown in 2006 at the High Museum in Atlanta, and Julian Cox, its curator of photography, called the work prescient in capturing what Mr. Leong has labeled the “erasure of history.”
Last year the Yale University Art Gallery acquired 15 of Mr. Leong’s panoramic images, and he worked with Joshua Chuang, assistant curator of photographs, on their installation at Betts House, the university’s center for international studies. Placed side by side, Mr. Chuang said, the images juxtapose modern industrial landscapes with those that are slower to change, like mountain ranges and bodies of water. “We’re left to contemplate, along with the photographer, how much longer these landscapes will look this way, and why,” he wrote in an e-mail message.
Another example of Mr. Leong’s interest in contrasting natural terrain with the constructed environment is “Victorville, California, 2006,” which depicts suburban sprawl between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
“I wanted to include an image of the new cities in the U.S., cities that lie outside of the recognizable cities,” he said, adding that he was seeking an image to “communicate this sort of flatness and impending urbanization,” one providing a “counterpoint to the other images I had of natural landscapes and dense cities.”
The cul-de-sac in “Victorville” at first glance could be a pond. Only some of the newly built houses are occupied, and the picture was shot before any landscape planting had begun. As in so many of Mr. Leong’s photographs, the natural terrain is visible and vast, even as the architectural imprint of humanity begins to encroach.