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Equipped with a mirror, painter's easel, a camera, and his formal training in biology, scientist-turned-artist Daniel Kukla explores where the low Sonoran Desert meets the high Mojave.
Daniel Kukla spent last March living in Joshua Tree National Park in southern California as part of an artist’s residency. While hiking and driving, he would catch glimpses of the border where the Sonoran Desert met the high Mojave.
In the ecological sciences, the border space created by the meeting of distinct ecosystems is referred to as the edge effect. To document this unique confluence of terrains, Kukla took a large mirror and painter’s easel into the wilderness to capture opposing elements within the environment.
Guernica: What are some of the commonalities between your study of science and your career in art?
Daniel Kukla: I’ve always been fascinated by the natural sciences and this is what drives most of my projects. I approach making images in a very methodical fashion, which is very much the foundation of most scientific pursuits. I spend a large amount of time researching my subject matter before even approaching it with a camera. Once I feel as though I have a good grasp on the material I start making images and this process often feels like collection and analysis. The sciences are all about asking questions and my art allows me to investigate the world around me.
Guernica: Why is the edge effect important?
Daniel Kukla: Edge effect refers to the transitional zone between two distinct ecosystems. This is a dynamic place that is able to sustain species from each environment and in which high levels of biodiversity are found. There are not many of these places, and Joshua Tree National Park straddles a huge swath of land in the Southwest where this zone occurs. It is also an important area to focus on as we study the effects of large cities and climate change on the environment.
Guernica: In your images we also see reflections of the sky. Is that a different kind of edge effect? How does that fit with documenting two different ecosystems?
Daniel Kukla: I don’t see this project as a strict documentation of the land in the transition zone, so I’ve included some images of the sky to highlight factors contributing to these ecosystems—sunlight, weather, and atmosphere.
Guernica: Why the choice of a square mirror?
Daniel Kukla: When I first arrived in the park I was experimenting with about thirty small six-by-six inch mirrors, broken mirror shards, and rectangular mirrors. When I placed the rectangular mirrors on the easel I found that they too closely resembled landscape paintings or photographs, and the small mirrors and shards did not reveal enough of the contrasting landscape. The square mirror not only fit with the aspect ratio of the camera image, but also gave me adequate space to frame the opposing landscape.
Daniel Kukla, a native of Indianapolis, Indiana, currently resides in Brooklyn, New York where he works as a freelance and fine art photographer. He is a graduate of the International Center of Photography program in documentary photography and photojournalism. Prior to his photographic education he attended The University of Toronto and received his BSc in evolutionary ecology, biology, and evolutionary human anatomy. He works at the juncture of these disciplines, focusing on capturing images that have the power to articulate our ever-changing relationship with the natural world. His work has been exhibited in the United States, the United Kingdom, Burma, Canada, China, Malaysia, Singapore, and Spain, and has been published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, OnEarth Magazine, New York Post, and National Geographic.