Desert Songs: The Art of Will Roger Peterson
“The desert could not be claimed or owned–it was a piece of cloth carried by winds, never held down by stones, and given a hundred shifting names... Its caravans, those strange rambling feasts and cultures, left nothing behind, not an ember. All of us, even those with European homes and children in the distance, wished to remove the clothing of our countries. It was a place of faith. We disappeared into landscape.” - Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient
Artist, Teacher, Innovator + Environmentalist
The desert of North America and beyond is a place of enduring mystery, power, and natural beauty. It is a ruse that this space of earth seems to it a kind of blank canvas quality, and man is so often tricked into believing that the desert can be owned, harnessed conquered, and taken. The winds of sand will show such ambitiousness the way, through veils of heavy sand, blinding, erasing, wounding, starving, and burying. For its unrelenting power, beauty, and majestic spirit, any artists have come to love respect and even fear the desert. This symbiotic way of interacting is very much at core of American artist Will Roger Peterson’s photographic practice.
Peterson is a conservationist, creator, and teacher. Having served as Chairman of Sierra Front, North Western Great Basin Resource Advisory Council and President of the Friends of the Black Rock-High Rock, he is the sort of forward thinking artist and radical thinker you want to know, his approach has an openness and fearless that we could all learn from. So after encountering his work, it is no surprise this man is also a co-founder of Burning Man. In all of his work, Peterson requires of his audience openness to power and mystery of the natural world, whether it be from a panoramic aerial perspective the Black Rock Desert, the multi-faceted and intellectually engaging black and white photography, or deeply sensual studies of flowers. There is a playful fluctuation between object, participant, viewer and voyeur.
Peterson began in analytical chemistry, working as a photo chemist at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Interested in finding new ways to understand the world, he would go on to earn his MFA, Photography, and serve as an Associate Professor of photography, RIT, working at the prestigious institute for over twenty years. There, he created and taught the course 'In Search of the Mystical Image'. Today, Peterson is noted for his creative formal or technical approach, notably a distinctive style of stop motion photography. Moreover, the artist’s work is well respected for a fluency of movement, certain enigmatic lyricism, and a truly esoteric quality that fascinates.
As one develops intellectually and artistically, often physical movement is the impetus for real growth. So, seeking a new space and challenge, in the early 1990s, Peterson decided to move to California and focus on portraiture, where he would become eventually involved in the wonderfully mind-blowing festival of risk takers and creativity -- Burning Man. The extraordinary freedom of the festival would act as catalyst for new and exiting work that seems to exist between two worlds, the surrealist photography of early twentieth century Europe, and the Bacchanal spirit of this world renown dessert festival. As well, the heroic and fantastic allure of the desert would come to be a key motif in the artist’s work, including astonishing aerial photographs.
A Fullness of Form and Emptiness
Peterson’s signature in motion style gives the impression of a dancing world of loveliness, whether the erotic dancer studies or the flower series. From Peterson’s erotic portraits to studies of the natural world in pictures of underwater ecologies or the grandiose beauty of the desert, one experiences a fullness of form and an emptiness, allowing a balance and intrigue. Peterson is a creative tour de force whose luxuriously beautiful photos intersect with a sense of the analytical; critics say this is a man who makes his subject dance, through light, color, and stop motion photography. Within this movement, there is a certain freedom to the work, a place where bold color, dramatic landscape or charged images of sexuality merge with quiet space.
A man fulfilled
Will Roger Peterson spends his time between the San Francisco Bay Area and Black Rock Desert region with his partner and muse, Crimson Rose.