We'll stop at 1,000 feet and circle right," says pilot David Marshall as we lift off from Murray Field. "There might be a little bit of turbulence."
I'm in the back of a small, four-seater aircraft watching Ellen Land-Weber at work on her newest series of photographs. Clad in blue jeans and a pink V-neck sweater, she shifts, aiming her camera at the receding terrain. Late-morning sunlight bounces about the tiny cabin as we gain altitude. Humboldt Bay slips away under our roaring propeller.
"Go a little bit more toward the ocean," says Land-Weber, directing our passage through the sky. "Oh! This is nice," she shouts through scratchy headphones. Over the Arcata Marsh, we bank hard, traveling roughly 175 miles per hour, while she aims her Nikon D5100 toward the patches of green and blue below us. After a few circles we zoom up to Big Lagoon, following the coast and rotating again over river estuaries and other notable water features.
A half-hour before this flight we were in Land-Weber's Fickle Hill home discussing the aerial photos she's taken of the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary. Leaning forward in a leather armchair, Land-Weber draws up her glasses to point out distinctive aspects of the marsh landscape. "You can photograph the same thing over and over again because the light's changing, the season's changing. The algae comes and goes and changes colors," she says with a hint of wonder. "Every time it's different."
Land-Weber, an emeritus professor of art at Humboldt State University, has photographed the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary since the early 1990s. Among other subjects, a dominant focus in her artistic work has been our human relationship to water, especially the waters of the North Coast.
As her understanding of the Arcata Marsh unfolded, Land-Weber struggled with her comprehensive views of the flat landscape. Her camera could only capture simple vistas of this complex biome. Not one to settle, she utilized new digital technologies to create photographic collages that revealed the complexities of life in the marsh. With the powers of Photoshop, she could combine various viewpoints to illustrate the multifaceted life forms present there.
In the early 2000s, Land-Weber was a pioneer of digital photography. To teach digital arts at HSU, she had to work with the science department to find computer classrooms that could handle the editing software needed to produce professional art. Marshall, an information technology specialist, worked closely with Land-Weber to create classrooms that met her needs.
More than a decade later, Land-Weber has relinquished her emphasis on specific species to explore the marsh as an entity in itself; a biological unit composed of human and natural forces. In the meantime, Marshall attained a pilot's license and bought a small airplane. What began as a professional relationship has now become a creative one. When conditions are right, Marshall now calls up Land-Weber to take flight and capture bird's eye views of Arcata Marsh. "He just calls me," she says, smiling, "and says 'Do you want to fly?' And I have to be there in five minutes."
Land-Weber's new show focuses on the photos she's taken above the marsh. Her collages of microscopic plant structures have ballooned into aerial images of the sewage treatment facility from a vantage point few get to see.
There is something about the familiarity of one perspective that makes you want to see that same thing from another vantage. "Why does everybody want to look at their own house from Google Earth?" asks Land-Weber. Her new show replaces our earth-bound views of the marsh with photographs that present it in a distinctly holistic manner.
These images, while recognizable, become abstract slices that let the landscape spread out before the viewer. Human manipulations merge with the natural world, forcing us to view the marsh in a new context. From the sky, foreground and background perspectives disappear, lending an abstract quality to Land-Weber's work. In her photos, our influence on the natural world seems puny, almost comic.
And yet, this managed landscape that transforms human waste into seawater, revealing map-like patterns of human influence, also hosts more than 300 species of birds. "What's natural about nature?" Land-Weber asks. Her photos seek an unlikely answer — that we may have crossed a boundary into which natural and human-crafted landscapes overlap.
During our hour-long flight, Land-Weber took more than 600 photographs, of which only a few will be published. The bouncy ride, window glare and continually shifting vistas challenge her to find shots that reflect off-the-cuff reactions rather than carefully controlled compositions. "You just work with your limitations," she says. "I was taught that in photography."
At 1,000 feet, Land-Weber's quick glimpses at Arcata's attempts to treat sewage become omens. Her marsh images evoke the hit-or-miss attempts we make to balance the natural world with our human endeavors. They stand as photographs in their own right, but also give us a removed perspective from which to contemplate our place on, or above, this earth.
Ellen Land-Weber's show, "The Arcata Marsh if You Were a Bird," will run through October at the Marsh Interpretive Center on South G St. in Arcata. There will be a closing party and reception on Friday, Oct. 31, where participants are encouraged to come dressed as their favorite Marsh animal.