Documenting nature and time | November 21, 2008 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - November 21, 2008

Documenting nature and time

Photographer Lukas Felzmann captures the ghostlike qualities of the Sacramento Valley

by Johanna Toivio

While most see the Sacramento Valley as a flat and uninteresting place — miles and miles of open landscape, scattered trees and lots of sky — photographer Lukas Felzmann was inspired by the barren and largely unpopulated landscape.

Felzmann looks at how the land has been changed by farming, how the waters get caught up in mud and concrete canals. He sees where it can be ghostlike.

Through mid-December, Felzmann's photographs of the valley will be on display at the Thomas Welton Stanford Art Gallery. The exhibit consists of 160 photographs, which is merely a fraction of his work on the Sacramento Valley.

The work displayed at the gallery "is actually from a decade or 15 years of photographing the valley," Felzmann said. "I've created an archive of the place."

Felzmann developed his fascination for the valley when he saw a large flock of birds flying over as he was driving. The area is right underneath the Pacific Flyway and every year, migratory birds travel through the valley headed for warmer climates. Today he's working on a book on the flock movements of migrating birds.

The name of the exhibit, "Ghostpile" came from a sign Felzmann photographed and he liked what it stood for. The name consists of two words, ghost, which is metaphorical and refers to "remnants of thing left behind, or a layer of information that describes something that isn't there anymore," Felzmann said. Pile refers to "something that forms through time, like a pile of debris, stones or layers." The black-and-white photograph titled "Man on Train" reflects these themes as it portrays a ghostly character holding onto a train. This timeless view captures the themes Felzmann often likes to explore in his work and what is essential to the history of the Sacramento Valley.

Felzmann said his inspiration is "already within me. ... I am curious about places that look interesting, I love to go and look at art, nature, places, people," he said.

When Felzmann photographs, he usually does so without an agenda. "Photographing is a long process that includes photographing, editing, printing," Felzmann said. "I try not to think, but to look and react."

In addition to the larger prints of Sacramento Valley, there are several series of small prints, including "Currents." What the pictures present is "the idea of movement and transformation, movement of animals, air currents, light currents," Felzmann said. The pictures include abandoned belongings, such as used computers dumped at a pool of water, lost gloves.

Felzmann likes to explore themes that deal with the "interaction of nature and culture" and "how we relate/connect to nature" and the "passing of time." His pictures are largely open for interpretation, but the photographer himself is fascinated with his subjects. In a picture titled "Globe" there's a globe reflected on a store window, with people in the store seeing only their side of the globe, rather than the reflection showing the other side of the world.

The exhibit includes thoughts and marginalia from Angelus Silesius and John Berger, two collaborators for Felzmann's book, "Waters in Between." Silesius writes: "I know that God could not live an instant without me. If I were returned to nothingness, he'd immediately render up his soul." The pictures and the notes complete each other in an exhibit that is bound to raise some thoughts about the human existence and consumer society.

Felzmann was born and educated in Zurich, and received his M.F.A. from the San Francisco Art Institute. He has taught photography at Stanford since 1993.

"Switzerland has influenced me a lot," he said, referring to his "European sensibility." He is also working on a book with a European publisher, requiring him to go back and forth to Europe on a regular basis.

Felzmann hopes people will be touched some way, and the exhibit will "trigger some kind of reflection of what it means to live within today's times."

What: "Ghostpile," an exhibit of photography by Lukas Felzmann

Where: Thomas Welton Stanford Art Gallery, 419 Lasuen Mall

When: Through Dec. 14. The gallery is open Tues.-Fri., 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sat.-Sun., 1-5 p.m. (closed Nov. 25-28).

Cost: Free

Info: Call 650-723-2842 or go to or .

Editorial Intern Johanna Toivio can be e-mailed at


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