Chris Shaw transforms the Californian desert into an otherworldly plane

Chris Shaw transforms the Californian desert into an otherworldly plane

Leafing through British photographer Chris Shaw’s new photobook feels like entering a wormhole. Yucca trees flare like starburst galaxies and cacti radiate with an unearthly aura – Joshua Tree’s arid landscape seems as alien and foreign as the surface of Mars.

Published by London-based Adad Books, Horizon Icons stems from a six-week long artist residency Shaw undertook in the middle of the Californian desert in the summer of 2013. ‘I took all the photos between 6am–8am; after that it was too hot. The sun would come over the horizon like an arc light and suddenly it was too bright – too light,’ the photographer explains.

Shaw would print for three hours every evening with an enlarger he’d shipped in, setting up a makeshift darkroom in the washroom of the rental. ‘It was not an exact science, and the stains and fogging of a homemade darkroom were part of the magic,’ he adds. ‘Finally, at about 10pm, I would finish, go outside and get in the hot tub and look up at the stars.’

The Liverpool-born photographer is seemingly alone in the sprawling national park – save for his subjects (and alien companions), which take on a life of their own in his photographs. Joshua Tree, normally a rich tapestry of colour, is imagined as a far-flung and otherworldly terrain, while the surrealism of its geological features become amplified by a powerful flash in this series of gritty, monochromatic images.

Artist and singer Alison Mosshart introduces the book with a lyrical monologue, penned while driving through Joshua Tree (‘Romantic bitch bastard desert is as hard as it comes. But it’s love,’ she muses). And it’s a fitting preface to Shaw’s rough and ready images, characterised by their bleeding edges, fingerprint marks, off-kilter frames and titles scrawled in thick black pen.

In Horizon Icons (which he dubs the ‘Californian counterpoint’ to Weeds of Wallasey), Shaw’s images take on an almost photogram-like quality, as though he has pressed his desert specimens onto photographic paper and exposed them directly. Shaw gets beneath the surface of Joshua Tree, casting the desert in a whole new light.

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