The desert exerts on me an inexplicable force of attraction.
In eighteenth-century Europe, an aesthetic of landscape painting arose that was called picturesque. It meant, quite literally, like a picture. What made an image picturesque was the harmonious arrangement of its various parts: foreground elements to frame the scene, points of interest in the mid-field and a pleasing distant vista. The picturesque was a kind of theatre, and gardeners were hired by large estates to shape and tame nature to better accord with its aesthetic.
Not all landscapes were picturesque. In contrast there were majestic mountainscapes, endless oceans and raging storms that, while they each had their distinctive beauty, struck awe in the viewer. These were described as sublime. While the picturesque was comfortably human in form and scale, the sublime was overwhelming. The force of the sublime was not simply visual and physical, but intellectually and spiritually compelling.
The Mexican artist Alfredo De Stefano is drawn to the sublime beauty of deserts; to their physical nature and metaphysical possibility. For three decades he has been making images in many of the driest regions of the world. However, he does more than simply photograph their vast arid terrain; he interacts with it, creating artistic performances and installations that set up a dialogue with the landscape. This extends beyond the awestruck rapture of the sublime to engage an experience of the desert through a form of a visual conversation.
Over the past decade, he has been working on a major body of work entitled ‘Storm of Light’, created in many of the great deserts of the world. Despite the austerity of these locations, he finds in each a kind of intimacy. Alfredo De Stefano’s photographs occupy that liminal space connecting our inner self and the outer world; a threshold between seemingly endless tracts of waterless exterior and the deep well of human imagination.
Alasdair: The works for which you are best known were all made in desert regions. What draws you to these austere environments?
Alfredo: The desert exerts on me an inexplicable force of attraction. That is why I return to it again and again. It is like peeling back the layers of an onion; so many layers… and, in the middle, a teary, happy astonishment! I see its wandering sand dunes, which travel like pilgrims across the landscape. I see its valleys encircled by fragile crests that shift and scurry at the whim of the winds. I see all this – these scenes I know so well that I can read them the way a sailor navigates by reading the stars. I see all this, and I ask myself why … if I know it so well, if I understand its inherent nature … why it still bewitches me?
What do you think the answer is?
I never cease to marvel at the desert. It fills me with energy! I want to get close to the essence of what it means to live and to die in the desert. I want to answer these questions for myself, if only to prepare myself for the next questions that will come. In the end, the first and only question I always asked myself is this: with such intense sunlight in the desert, where is this ‘storm of light’ leading?
This series of articles is looking at the work of photo-artists who have a different ‘way of seeing’ – one that seeks to move beyond the conventions of photography as document. How would you describe your way of seeing?
It derives from the specific place where I am. My approach is not simply to represent each environment or identify the elements with which it is constituted, but to allow it to host the strange, the fleeting.
How do you go about making these strange and ephemeral interventions, placing objects and people in the frame?
I use a wide range of natural and artificial elements, and sometimes include human figures. I am creating scenes or staging events amid the vastness of the desert. That vastness can feel oppressive, but within it I construct intimate spaces, which I then photograph. Some of these images are visual metaphors for the painful desertification of the planet caused by human beings [through unsustainable farming techniques and global warming]. But in other images, the scenes are created to suggest the ironies of our relationship with the desert, which is both magnificent and terrifying.
What do you want to communicate through your images?
My intention is to create visual stories of life and death. When I make my interventions in the expansive scenery of the desert, I do so as part of an internal dialogue with my own personal concepts of Life and Death. This is not the extreme and painful fear of death conceived as the tragic ending of an existence, which our Western culture tries always to escape. Rather, this is death understood as the epilogue to a life for which birth is the prologue. Birth and death are two aspects of the same thing. I believe there is no better place to reflect on the meaning of life and death than in the desert; that inexhaustibly vital horizon; dynamic and vigorous. A horizon in perpetual renewal.
You have said that your work “embodies the place”. What did you mean by this?
My work has an intimate relationship with nature; it must maintain an internal dialogue with the space it depicts. I establish a dialogue through the relationship between the objects I arrange there or the events I stage and the natural landscape of the desert. For me, each place requires a unique intervention – an action to complement the environment and what happens there.
This is what I mean when I say my work “embodies the place”. This is an idea proposed by the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) in his essay on art and space. He argued that the interplay of art and space should be thought of in terms of the subjective experience of a place. In this way of thinking, sculptural or installational art would not be a conquest of space, rather the installation would be the embodiment of place as an idea and not simply its surface features.
What was the first desert you photographed?
During the 1990s I began to make photographs in the Chihuahua and Sonora Deserts in my native México and I have continued to make work there ever since.
You then went on to undertake photographic projects in many of the world’s great deserts.
Yes, in 2008 I went to Egypt to photograph in the eastern Sahara and later in 2012, and again in 2014 I went to Morocco to photograph in the western part of that great desert. Also, in 2008, I began a project in the Atacama Desert of Chile returning there in 2014. Since then I have made work in many parts of the world: the Kalahari Desert in Namibia (2011 and 2018); the Puna Desert in Argentina (2012); the Gobi Desert in Mongolia (2013); the Sechura Desert of Perú (2014); the Thar Desert which straddles the Indian–Pakistani border (2014); the deserts of Arizona and Utah in USA (2015 and 2016); the White Sand Desert in the Tularosa Basin of New Mexico, USA (2017) and the frozen plateau of the so-called ‘Black Desert’ in Iceland (2018).
What draws you to each place?
There are things that make each desert unique: the diverse geological forms and colours; the cultures of the people who live there. It is this variety that leads me to make such different and very specific readings in each location, which I then use in creating my images.
So, there is a lot to discover in the desert?
For most people, when the word ‘desert’ is mentioned, they immediately imagine an empty place with only sand dunes. After all, we use the word desert to describe a remote and desolate place devoid of life. But each desert is an ecosystem with many diverse species and habitats. The drylands of the world are home to more than two billion people and cover around forty per cent of the planet’s surface.
That is surprising! I did not know so many people lived in the deserts of the world.
Many have been inhabited by human beings for hundreds of years. What is perhaps surprising is that, although these deserts lie on different continents, separated by great distances, the cultures of the people living there – their behaviour, clothing, architecture, food and so on – share many similarities. The inhabitants of the desert have always been interconnected, in a peculiar way that is sometimes difficult to explain or understand. This is also something I try to show in my work.
You have also spoken about the interconnectedness of actions: how something that happens in one part of the world can have an impact that reaches across great distances. What did you mean by this?
Let me give you a scientific example of these profound interconnections. The great storms that form over the African deserts create huge winds that cross the Atlantic to South America where they play an essential role in pollinating many of the plants in the Amazon jungle. Significant areas of the flora of that region would not exist if it were not for the sand of an African desert carried over thousands of kilometres on those winds. In some of my images, I try to explore these connections, but, in a photograph, such vast ideas must necessarily be very abstract and conceptual.
Is that difficult for audiences to comprehend?
It can be. The most frequent initial response to my images is in terms of beauty and peace. Of course, I understand that this is what many members of the public feel when they first see my work. But the meaning is deeper than that surface beauty.
What did you discover that you had not expected to find?
I plan ahead and when I go to make work in a desert, I always go with predetermined ideas about the environments I expect to find. However, the desert is full of surprised and sometimes I find I must modify my original concept once I am in the place itself. It is very important for me to know how to ‘listen’ to the space, to live with the people that inhabit these landscapes and get to know their culture. I must come to understand the light of each desert – physically and culturally – in order to discover what would otherwise be hidden from us.
Can you give an example of what you mean by understanding the landscape culturally?
I was on a scouting trip for a project in Australia that, in the end, never materialized. We were in a remote region of the Gibson Desert in the central west of the continent, exploring ways we might develop the proposed project with the local Indigenous community. As a way of explaining how I work, I was showing them some of my earlier photographs made in deserts around the world. But as I presented each photograph, they remained silent and did not respond in any way. It was like that all the way through until the very last photograph. This was an image of a circle of fire, and the moment they saw it, the silence broke, they began to talk among themselves and then… laughter. It was then that I understood that, in their culture, fire is a very important element. It was only when the image contained a meaningful symbol that we found a common starting point to begin our conversation.
When you visit each desert to make these photographs you are also involved in producing a film shot in the same region. Is the film an extension of the ideas in the images?
The documentary was shot in parallel to the photographic work, but it is a different project. In fact, the film is already finished. It provides a complementary way of understanding the desert as seen through the cultures of the people who inhabit them.
You do many things as well as make photographs and films.
Yes. As well as my work as an artist, I founded and direct a non-profit organisation called Luz del Norte [Northern Light] which is dedicated to promoting and expanding the diversity of photographic practice. Through this organisation we do a number of things. We initiated the largest and most important photography contest in Latin America. We manage scholarships for Mexican photographers to undertake artistic residencies overseas. We present an award to an academic or photographic historian who has been working in the field for more than twenty years. And, in addition to this, we publish books of essays on photography by writers from México and across Latin America.
What motivated you to create this foundation?
The reason I founded this civil organisation is because in México practically all the cultural promotion, as well as its financial support, comes from the Government. Every year, the Government budget for culture gets reduced. There is also some private philanthropic support for the arts in México, but it amounts to very little. So, our organisation, Luz del Norte, manages resources to promote, support and disseminate the diversity of Latin American photography.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a series called ‘Extinctions’ that also takes place in the desert. However, this time the images are all made in the desert near where I live. I have always made some video as well as creating the photographic images; the former complementing the latter. In this new project I am extending that use of video with photography. I am also using drones, but I am doing this in a different way to how almost everyone films or photographs with these devices.
In what way is your approach to using drones different?
Most of the images or videos of drones are simply aerial views that previously would require a helicopter. Today, there are hundreds of near-identical photographs taken by professionals and amateurs using drones. In contrast, I am using drones to create ‘interventions’ in the desert, this time from a different perspective, adding a new dimension of movement in the video.
What have you learned from your time in the deserts of the world?
The French naturalist Théodore Monod (1902–2000) wrote: “deserts thrill us because they show us nature before the arrival of humankind. They may also represent the way the world might look after humankind has disappeared.” I will add to his quote: It may appear as though nothing there is alive, not even hope. But this bad reputation is unjustified; the desert is, after all, a magic place where Life and Death meet.
Alfredo De Stefano was born in 1961 in Monclova, Coahuila, a desert city in North-eastern México. He has a bachelor’s degree in communication and marketing from the Universidad Autónoma de Coahuila. Widely consider to be one of México’s most important contemporary photographers, his work has been exhibited in over one hundred solo and group exhibitions, across five continents, including one-person shows at Centro de la Imagen, México City (2002); the International Biennial of Guangzhou, China (2009); the Fourth International Biennial of Photography, Amsterdam (2010); the Recoleta Cultural Center, Buenos Aires (2012); Nairobi National Museum (2013); and the National Gallery, Bangkok (2017).
His work is held in many prestigious public and private collections including The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas; Museo de Arte Moderno, México City; Museo del Barrio, New York; and Museo De Arte Contemporaneo De Salta, Argentina. His published monographs include ‘Replenishing Emptiness’ (2002), ‘Brief Chronicles of Light’ (2007), and ‘In This Place’ (2008).
Alfredo De Stefano is the Founder and Chief Executive of the non-profit organisation Luz del Norte, which is dedicated to promoting and disseminating the diversity of Latin American photography across various platforms. He is the director of Luz del Norte-Foto International Photography Festival in Monterrey, México.
Photo © Daniela Villarreal
This article was first published in Chinese, in the July 2019 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing.