"Manifestations of the Magic"
The photographs of William S. Pierson

"All any artist does is try to show you their world -- what they see. Ultimately, that's their universe."
--William S. Pierson

Surfaces are integral to photography. For light to be recorded and experienced as a photograph, it must have a surface to interact with. Surfaces, however, can be deceptive. Most of the photographs in William S. Pierson's extensive body of work include some aspect of land, sea, or sky. The surfaces are familiar, even pedestrian at times. And yet, much like the combination of common ingredients can, when skillfully handled, produce a sauce that is perceived by the tongue as much more than a blending of those common ingredients, the familiar surfaces Pierson records are perceived by the eye as holding something much more.

Despite recurring natural motifs, Pierson does not consider himself to be a nature photographer and he is not interested in landscape in a traditional sense. To say Pierson photographs landscapes or takes nature photographs is like saying Morandi painted bottles. While the statement is true, it falls far short of being an accurate description of what the artist captures in his work. For Pierson the objects and surfaces are, in a sense, secondary. He is looking for moments when something much more profound shows itself through those objects, for what Pierson describes as "manifestations of the magic of the universe."*

"[Pierson's work] is not based solely on subject matter, it's based on the sensuality of the moment… He can photograph a puddle of water and make it look like the universe."
--Don Antón

When pushed to describe his work, Pierson often says he takes photographs of reflected light off of the world around him. Fair enough. The natural world certainly plays an important role: rocky coastlines, waveforms, clouds, the night sky, trees. But this description doesn't address the aspect of his photographs that sets them apart from traditional landscape or nature photography: the otherness. This otherness that Pierson captures in his work often comes in the form of unexpected real and imagined elements discovered within familiar surfaces: pathways, portals, voids, dividing lines, symmetry. They are aspects that our eyes, as we rush through our daily lives, would likely miss. Pierson captures them for us to see and consider. Suddenly, the everyday object contains something more. It is the embodiment of Minor White's directive to, "not only photograph things for what they are but for what else they are." In Pierson's photographs the what else, the otherness, can be profound, meditative, spiritual, even, at times, sensual.

By photographing these surfaces, through his attention to and manipulation of the light he captures, Pierson allows us to see as he sees. Suddenly, almost magically, the familiar becomes new and surprising. We are transported to the realm of the unknown beyond the surfaces. These images, by virtue of being external representations of the artist's internal state (what captures his eye and imagination), function as self-portraits -- glimpses into the artist's internal life, reflections of the artist's internal world.

"A very receptive state of mind... not unlike a sheet of film itself -- seemingly inert, yet so sensitive that a fraction of a second's exposure conceives a life in it."
                        --Minor White   

Calligraphy of geese
against the sky --
the moon seals it.
                        ----Yosa Buson, 18th century haiku poet and painter                 

Pierson doesn't chase after the perfect picture. He isn't one of those photographers that goes everywhere in daily life toting a camera. He prefers to let the images come to him,
likening his creative process to Thoreau sitting at Walden and watching: "I just kind of sit, and they come to me."

What Pierson collects in his photographs are moments: moments that transcend light or surface in that instant of time to become something more. Something other. The often overlooked, everyday moments that contain the universe.

Over the years, Pierson has developed an acute awareness of the moments that have the potential to become William S. Pierson photographs. "When I see something [I want to photograph] it's visceral," he said. "I'm looking for manifestations of the magic of the universe."

When Pierson is presented with one of these moments, what he calls an "a-ha moment," he captures it. This can be much tougher than it sounds. "The whole photographic experience is capturing reflected light and light changes constantly and it doesn't wait for you. Sometimes I'll have a photograph where the light is only the way it was for 5 seconds," Pierson said. He went on to explain that it is impossible to capture these fleeting moments if you don't allow yourself to be completely in the moment. Attentiveness is key. Distraction is the enemy.

Pierson's creative process and project have a great deal in common with haiku. The condensed, nature focused, image driven, poetic form requires of the poet great receptiveness and mindful attentiveness to the world around him. The subject matter in a successful haiku, much like a Pierson photograph, will seem simultaneously small and large -- simultaneously familiar and extraordinary. Both mediums rely on the image to convey meaning, emotion, and ideas. The captured, external imagery of the natural world reflects the artist's internal emotional state. As the imagist poet William Carlos Williams famously put it, "No ideas but in things."

"In my years of photography I have learned that many things can be sensed, seen, shaped or resolved in a realm of quiet, well in advance of, or between, the actual clicking of shutters…"
-- Paul Caponigro

Pierson initially pursued drawing and painting. Then, in the early 1970s, he became interested in the possibilities that the photographic medium held. Once he found photography, he never looked back.

Glimpses of what would develop as Pierson's definitive aesthetic are evident in prints dating as far back as the mid-1970s. His earliest work explored the female form's inherent sensuality, but it was not long before he abandoned that surface for the natural motifs that dominate his later work.

A seminal moment in Pierson's aesthetic development came during the mid-70s when he was preparing to photograph a model in an outdoor setting. The model fell ill and had to leave. As Pierson began gathering his gear to depart, he took one last glimpse through the viewfinder at where he had posed the model moments before. What he saw there changed the direction of his work from that point forward. Pierson discovered that the sensuality he was trying to capture with the model was still there in the viewfinder. His epiphany: the sensuality he sought in the female form existed beyond the body. It was there in the play of light in the environment itself. Suddenly, the expressive possibilities in nature seemed limitless. All the complexity and emotional content he searched for in the human form was present in non-human natural forms. He realized that the path to emotional intensity and clarity was, perhaps, more direct without the body.

While Pierson recalls this transition from human form to primarily natural forms happening in a kind of lightning strike moment, looking at the body of work from the period contains subtle suggestions of what was to come. In one early photo, a female figure is posed with her hair obscuring her face and shoulders in such a way that the viewer might mistake her for some kind of large, unusual flower. In yet another photograph from the same year, the figure is nearly completely obscured by foliage in a way that makes the lines of her body and the lines of the plants almost indistinguishable. In many photographs taken in the time leading up to that fateful afternoon, the female form was pushed to the perimeter of the frame or abstracted to the point of becoming merely another element in the environment -- a note in the composition rather than the song itself.

"A meditative spirituality -- a looking in rather than a looking at."
            -- Curator Dennis High on Pierson's work

Pierson travels extensively within Northern Californian and Hawaii, and a majority of his work uses imagery discovered in these natural environments. Utilizing a wide range of digital capture approaches including time exposures, Pierson photographs light reflecting off familiar, natural surfaces in such a way as to transcend what we expect of everyday objects, ultimately capturing the unexpected.

In Pierson's most recent work, the images range from immediately identifiable natural objects to more abstracted representations of natural elements that read more as patterns of light and dark. Even the pieces that at first glance appear monotone contain, upon closer inspection, subtle shifts in color. The images are evocative. The best even manage to reproduce the sense of quiet attentiveness in which each moment was perceived and captured. Pierson's intensified focus on the world around us allows the opportunity to see beyond the surfaces of object and artist. It is the resultant marriage of physical form and emotional content that makes his pictures resonate.