Five Questions for Mark Dorf

The March/April 2013 issue of Orion contains a series of strange and beautiful images of the natural world, each of which is manipulated in subtle ways by straight and rigid geometrical forms. The images, which illustrate an essay on form and beauty (“Symmetrical Universe”), are by Brooklyn-based photographer Mark Dorf. Below, Mark answers a few questions about the conception and creation of his subtly abstract works.

Can you tell us about the creative process behind these images? How were they made?

The process behind these images varied greatly from scene to scene. There are some that are totally real and not photographically manipulated—ones that I actually created from scratch, such as Plate #18—and there are others, like Plate #8, that are digitally fabricated (to make the digital manipulations, I used a variety of programs such as Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, Maya, and Google Sketchup). But there are also many that lay in a gray area between.

While making this work, I wanted, in a sense, to perform my own scientific and mathematical experiments in the landscape—and I wanted to document them, however absurd they were.

Is the mix of photograph and geometrical form random, or is there some kind of mathematical logic at work here?

I wouldn’t say they’re random, but I wouldn’t go as far as to say that they are perfectly mathematical or scientific (I’m no mathematician or scientist).

There is, of course, reasoning behind the use of this highly geometric and digital language. When starting this project, I was interested in the ways our culture defines and quantifies its surroundings. We are constantly transforming elements of our world into abstract theory and calculation—and I find it interesting when the representation is compared to its real counterpart. You often find that there are certain discrepancies: the definition is never truly found, but in many cases we decide that we will see those definitions as being absolute until proven wrong.

In the end, I suppose, I am interested in the ways math and science fail to represent reality.

Plate #8

There’s something jarring and also beautiful about laying geometrically rigid forms—grids, abrupt angles, intersecting straight lines—next to images of the natural world. What are you hoping to explore?

Yes, the juxtaposition interests me because these forms are inherently human. Sure, we find geometric forms in the natural world, but never at such grand scales. By placing these forms in the landscape, I am also creating an interruption of the landscape—one that could mirror, in metaphor, the ways that our built landscapes grow via highly calculated decision-making.

I am also interested in the ways that we define primary experience. How do we today examine and experience the natural world when our day-to-day lives are so saturated with digital stimulation? At any moment we can search the web for a photograph of the Grand Canyon and find sweeping, digitally enhanced photographs that create some sort of representation of the place. But how do those digital experiences affect the ways we see and observe our surroundings?

How did you arrive at the mixture of math and photography as the basis for art? Do you have a background in math or geometry, as well as photography?

Growing up, I had a mixture of influences. My grandfather was a photographer here in New York City, and my grandmother was a painter. But then my father and his sister both studied math and science through university, so when I was young, I was pushed to study hard in my science and math classes.

Somehow, I ended up getting my BFA in photography, but, as is true of every artist, I am highly influenced by my surroundings, and for a long time my surroundings were of the academic variety. If I hadn’t studied photography, I surely would have gotten a degree in physics or math. I have always loved those fields.

Plate #18

The five images printed in this issue of Orion are part of a larger series, titled Axiom & Simulation. Can you tell us a bit about that project?

Axiom & Simulation examines the ways in which humans quantify our natural surroundings through the use of scientific and digital means. We are constantly transforming elements of our environment into abstracted, non-physical ideas, in order to gain a greater understanding of our complex surroundings. These transformations often take form through mathematical or scientific interpretations, and, as a result, the referent becomes clouded and distant.

When observing a three-dimensional rendering of a mountainside, for example, it holds the familiar form to what we experience in nature, but it has no physical connection to reality whatsoever—it is merely a file on a computer that has no mass and only holds likeness to a memory. When translating the file into the most basic of computer programming codes, we see only 1s and 0s—a series of numbers creating representation from a language composed of only two elements, which has no grounding in the natural world. These transformations generate, literally, a new reality—one without its original referent, a copy with no definitive source.

Mark Dorf’s photographs in the March/April 2013 issue of Orion are available in print and digital editions. Go ahead, subscribe!