Artist Mark Dorf Applies Scientific Methods to Manipulate Photos of the Colorado Rockies

With the invention of portable cameras in the mid-19th century, governments in the U.S. and Europe sent photographers on official expeditions to document landscapes around the world in the name of scientific exploration. This practice of using photography to map and understand the natural world has continued unabated, and serves as the focus of  Mark Dorf’s recent project, “Emergence,” currently on view at Postmasters Gallery in New York. But Dorf isn’t capturing and documenting the majesty of nature as his predecessors might have. Rather, he aims to undermine photographic and scientific “truth.”

Dorf has said that the landscape, since everyone is familiar with it, is a perfect vehicle for analyzing more abstract ideas about how humans define and explore their surroundings through science and technology. The series on view consists of digitally manipulated color photographs that Dorf took of the Colorado Rockies during an artist residency at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. They show stunning vistas, as one might expect, but there is clearly an intriguing element of digital reconstruction going on here. Working alongside ecologists and biologists at the lab, he co-opted their methods of data retrieval, analysis, and measurement and applied them to his own photographs, transforming pixels according to information found within an existing image.

The results of his analytic tinkering range from overt to subtle. In Emergent #7 (2014), for example, the same desert landscape is repeated in consecutive layers, arranged from darkest to brightest, superimposed over a larger image of the same landscape. The color and clarity of each spliced image is determined by different pixels found in the original photo he took. In Reassemblage #3 (2014), meanwhile, a lush, green mountain rises against an impossibly blue sky. The image is framed at the top and bottom by bands that resemble a digital color scale—a clue, perhaps, to the artist’s technological trickery. Although the mountain looks real, it is actually composed of individual images of a valley, which the artist digitally stitched together into its convincing form. Through such sleight-of-hand work, Dorf manages to effectively demonstrate the fallacy of our belief that we can ever fully know the world.


Karen Kedmey


Mark Dorf: Emergence” is on view at Postmasters Gallery, New York, Sep. 8 – Oct. 17, 2015.


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