October 01, 2011 — “In Buddhist mythology … Mt. Sumeru stands at the center of the world and is surrounded by nine impenetrable mountain ranges called the Cakravala. This central mountain is symbolic of ultimate truth, and legend says that the secrets of the universe can be found at its peak.”
The Rocky Mountains are known for many things—picturesque snow-capped peaks, Lewis and Clark, beer slogans—but Zen Buddhism is typically not one of them. Yet it is within this iconic North American range that a few years ago Nick Pedersen, a recent MFA graduate of the Pratt Institute, began a long journey of artistic and self-discovery to envision, create and finally realize his most personal and stunning project to date—Sumeru (SOO-muh-roo), a story of a Zen master’s spiritual quest to attain truth and knowledge.
Unlike his more politically motivated and environmentally concerned earlier work, this project “felt like it poured out of me,” says Pedersen. He spent a couple of years roaming the slot canyons and glacial valleys of Utah and Colorado, gathering the photographic raw materials that, with time and creative digital manipulation, have yielded this already lauded series of otherworldly illustrations.
An artist from a young age, Pedersen has worked in various mediums over the years, but began his fine art photography career experimenting with collage and printmaking techniques. His familiarity with these analog processes benefited him significantly with Sumeru, which uses HDRI and digital compositing to great effect. In dramatic black and white, Pedersen regales us with the narrative of the everyman, a truth-seeker, in sharp relief, as he hikes through hill and shadowed forest, meets and masters a mysterious tiger, braves menacing mountain passes and steadily trudges toward the summit of Mt. Sumeru, a spiritual and intellectual zenith in Buddhist mythology.
This journey is, of course, metaphoric, and its premise and imagery are borrowed from traditional Buddhist koans, or “stories about ancient Zen masters that use really beautiful and mysterious literary imagery to describe what happens in the mind.” Pedersen has been invested in Zen Buddhism and koan study for the better part of 10 years. He says his idea for Sumeru was to “take these metaphors and make them visible to really illustrate this path that is undertaken in Zen training.” Featuring elements from some of his favorite stories, Sumeru is an elaborate allegory that Pedersen calls a “visual koan.”
Although it debuted in a gallery as a selection of large-scale prints for his master’s thesis, Sumeru was originally conceptualized in book format, so as to frame its narrative structure. The image titles fulfill a similar role: “Trudging Through the Mire,” “Entering the Stream” and “A Death Dealing Blade” (all excerpted from famous koans) give the viewer a sense of the story’s arc, which Pedersen describes as “an existential drama” of the inner struggle toward truth. But beyond the faintly suggestive titles, Pedersen leaves the viewer with few clues as to how exactly the metaphor is to be read. Someone ill-versed in Buddhist spiritual texts, for example, might find themselves groping around for meaning in an interpretive darkness that is as opaque as the shocking all-black slide “Returning to the Source.” This indeterminacy is, of course, Pedersen’s intention and challenge to the viewer. “The main motivation behind this project is in laying out a path for the viewer to follow, and to have them contemplate these profound mysteries.”
Aesthetically speaking, Sumeru is indebted to the Chinese landscape painting known as shan shui (“mountain water”), which since the seventh century has been less interested in portraying nature realistically than it is in capturing nature’s emotional register through a brush and ink technique similar to calligraphy. The dark, imagistic fine-art photography of Robert ParkeHarrison and the macabre work of Dante’s Inferno illustrator Gustave Doré also helped shape the style of Sumeru, and it’s no surprise why: All of this art is firmly situated in the surreal, the otherworldly, the spiritually romantic. Pedersen needed to access a world that only existed in the imaginative landscape of ancient mythological texts. He found his way in with HDR.
Over the past decade or so, since it really began gaining traction among fine art and commercial photographers alike, we’ve seen digital HDR techniques responsible for some spectacular art. But along with such a powerful tool comes the potential for great evil: HDR has been shamelessly applied to banal still lifes and images of famous landmarks; it’s become gimmicky, an addition to the list of cheap, in-camera effects for your point and shoot. HDR is so ubiquitous, it’s even an automatic feature on the iPhone 4. We get the message: Everything is better with HDR. But for many untrained amateurs it’s often something of an obfuscation, duping the lay viewer into believing a photo is more than it actually is. With Pedersen’s Sumeru, however, we are treated to an example of how subtly and gracefully a technique like HDR can be used without overshadowing the work’s true focus. Pedersen rightly notes that the process is the foundation for, not the subject of, his vision.
In fact, he spent years experimenting with the technique while hunting for source material in the Rockies. “I started by capturing seven bracketed photographs of each picture, ranging from three f-stops overexposed to three f-stops underexposed. It was essential to photograph with my camera on a tripod and set at the highest depth of field (f/22) to achieve maximum quality. Also, most of these digital images were created as panoramic composites using the photo-merge feature in Adobe Bridge. In order to get the highest possible detail, each of the HDR images actually consists of up to 63 digital photos merged together.” The subsequent steps meant countless hours in front of the computer, compositing the images, blending the layers and building the envisioned landscapes piece by piece. (For more on Pedersen’s process, check out this month’s “What’s Inside” on pg. 50.)
Although Sumeru demanded such complex processes, Pedersen says “the idea in the end is to hide them, to not show how it is created, and to really harken back to those older forms of art making.” The resultant illustrative look of Sumeru is precisely what Pedersen had in mind for his imagined, fictive space. And beyond this aesthetic, there is plenty else to be astounded by. It took Pedersen 10 trips to the same zoo to get enough material to feature the enigmatic tiger as a prominent character. The unyielding and faceless truth seeker also carries the viewer’s fascination throughout.
There is, of course, a cultural risk in doing this kind of work. How does one depict the mythological stories of an Eastern religion accurately without misrepresenting the religion itself or trivializing it before a Western audience? The West has made this type of misstep for centuries, in the pieces of popular painting, literature and film that have taken an aspect of Eastern culture as its subject. Pedersen is well aware of this history, and thus has made a concerted effort to steer his project away from any reductive representations of Zen Buddhism. First, he ensured that the truth seeker’s clothing and props were authentic: “The character’s outfit is a traditional seven-piece Zen monk’s robe that I had custom-made in Japan. The sword is symbolic, and it represents Zen spirit, which is said to cut through all entanglements, and the straw hat is worn by certain sects of Zen Buddhists and it covers the face to show an egoless state.”
Second, as the project is intensely personal for Pedersen, it lacks a political or social agenda. “The entire philosophy of Zen Buddhism is about this mystery and trying to discover your own insights into it,” he says, “and so I guess this project represents my understanding of the mystery.” Rather than constructing a subjective history and presenting it as representative of a whole culture or people, Pedersen invites the viewers to bring their own histories along the character’s path of self-discovery.
While the recent MFA has been pursuing this journey of self-discovery for many years now, he has no plans to abandon the life of the truth-seeker. He’s working on a solo show in the spring and hopes to experiment with color using his HDR technique for future projects, which may feature a return to some of his environmentally conscious work. As it turns out, for Nick Pedersen, reaching the mountain’s peak doesn’t mark an endpoint, but means only that he will circle back and begin anew.
To view the entire Sumeru narrative, as well as Pedersen’s other works, go to www.nick-pedersen.com.
Nick Pedersen’s Camera Bag:
Cameras: Canon 7D and EOS-1 Mark II
Lenses: L-series 16–35mm, 28–70mm, 70–200mm
Lighting: 2 Elinchrom strobes w/ softboxes
Software: Photoshop CS5
Plug-ins: Maya Auto Depth, Photomatix HDR, Genuine Fractuals.
Jared Smith is the former Senior Editor for Rangefinder and AfterCapture magazines. He is an editorial associate for the Los Angeles Review of Books and is currently pursuing a master’s and doctorate in English literature.