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Michael Light: Aerial Reflections on the East End

North Amagansett by Michael Light

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November 1, 2016

By Yvette DeBow-Salsedo

In the summer of 2016, Michael Light set out to rediscover the place of his youth from above. Having grown up on the East End in the 1970s, Mike has lived in the San Francisco Bay Area since graduating from Amherst College in 1986. Drawn back to the South Fork with the passing of his mother Deborah Ann Light last year — Mike’s aerial journey was a coming home of sorts, a reconnection with places he knew well from the ground …  but a land revelation from above.  

An acclaimed photographer exhibited and collected by museums worldwide (MoMA included), Mike’s aerial work has largely focused on the vast landscapes of America’s West. This summer he turned his attention around, flying his tiny two seat, 600lb, 100 horsepower plane —  a Flight Design CTSW specially designed for exceptional aerial visibility — from California to New York (and back again). With a base in Montauk, Michael took 32 flights across the East End and southern New England in June and August.  

His photographs capture both how much has been developed on the dense northeastern seaboard but surprisingly also how much has been saved amidst the geological wonders of terminal moraines like Long Island and Cape Cod, with the pastoral beauty of the truly exceptional East End agricultural soils revealed. Here is a peek into Mike’s view:  

What was the inspiration for this summer’s journey?   

ML: I’ve always been interested in the history of landscape representation as it evolved on the East Coast – the atmosphere is different in the east than the west, there is much more moisture in the air, and of course the summer topography infinitely greener — and I was curious to see if I could make art in the complicated place where I grew up, something I’d never done.  It was great to come back at the age of 53 with an evolved skillset and my little bird to do what I do from the air – and attempt to comprehend more clearly some of the forces that comprise the place that formed me.  

As an artist in general I tend to image two things: the land itself, and what humans do to that land.  Ideally I want both to be equally strong actors in my pictures.  

The view across Napeague Harbor toward Lazy Point in East Hampton
by Michael Light

Were there surprises? Disappointments?    

ML: Long Island is very flat and the minute you get above it – even at 500 feet – it’s genuinely astonishing what you can see all at once, especially if one has spent one’s formative years so intensely in a place without ever making those connections.  It is radically different than being on the surface, liberating and fascinating to see how it all knits together as a kind of quilt or textile (to channel my mother!).  My preconceived notions as an aerial imager and environmentalist are generally pretty cynical and tough, and I had a certain trepidation about seeing all the change on the East End – my mother and I arrived in 1967 — but the minute I got above things, I was stunned at how hauntingly beautiful the area is, even now. I was not expecting that; I was expecting dismay.  From above one really does see the splendor all this rich Bridgehampton loam gives: spectacularly productive land but also gorgeous hardwood forests perched above sandspits, a landscape that is far more diverse and gracious than the Cape’s, which didn’t get Long Island’s beautiful silty glacial soils.  

Another revelation was to actually see in context just how much of the area’s agricultural land has been preserved. It’s quite an impressive percentage, and it’s due to planning by the various East End towns, Suffolk County, New York State and of course organizations like the Peconic Land Trust who have allowed and encouraged people to conserve.  And from many, many individuals doing what they could, my mother included.  From the air you really see the impact of this multi-pronged effort.   

The farm fields and woods along the Long Island Sound to the east of Oregon Road
by Michael Light

What are your further plans?  

ML: I have a wild fantasy of hangaring the aircraft on the East End for a year and coming to work in each of the four seasons – what does it look like in the snow? What does it look like in the grey bare stripped-down days of February? Or on a crisp fall day where the air and the light have that certain kind of uncanny clarity? How does the ocean behave in winter? What is the quality of the light?  It would be a pleasure to work with varied atmospheric conditions and explore the different ways light scatters.  In high summer in the East what you get is this great, green agrarian breathing living majesty. I found myself helplessly, and very enjoyably, responding to the rather classic humid romanticism of it all.  I’d love to plumb the area’s harsh grey opposites as well.  

We appreciate Mike’s sharing a bit of his experience with us, and look forward to sharing more of his work with you in 2017 and beyond — and hope his dream to have his plane anchored in Montauk for a year-long exploration of the East End’s lands becomes a reality. For more on Mike and his art, visit him online at www.michaellight.net.