Finding a Vent for Their Creativity

Kristine McKenna is a regular contributor to Calendar

How to explain the terrible beauty of natural disasters? Earthquakes, fires, volcanic eruptions; they can result in devastating tragedies, of course, yet the human mind is fascinated by their sheer scale--perhaps because such displays of nature's power temporarily absolve us of responsibility for the world. Even man, that most egotistical of creatures, can't delude himself that he's running the show when the planet itself is convulsing.

This may begin to explain the hold volcanoes have on the imaginations of Diane Cook and Len Jenshel, whose work is the subject of an exhibition opening Friday at Paul Kopeikin Gallery. The photographers, both born and raised in New York, met in 1979, married in 1983 and have devoted themselves since 1991 to documenting the volcanic landscape of the United States.

Five years of intrepid picture-taking have resulted in several gallery exhibitions for the pair, as well as "Hot Spots: America's Volcanic Landscape," a book recently published by Bulfinch Press/Little, Brown and Co. that presents 42 color photographs by Jenshel and 42 images in black-and-white by Cook.

"Hot Spots" is the third book by Jenshel, 47, whose previous volumes were "Charmed Places" and "Travels in the American West." Jenshel, who earned a bachelor of fine arts degree in 1975 from New York's Cooper Union, has supported himself for the last 15 years with photo-graphic essays for magazines shot in tandem with his wife. Cook, 42, graduated with a bachelor of arts degree from Rutgers University in 1976 and, like her husband, has built her work around themes of American culture and landscape.

"Standing next to each other, Diane and I photograph the same thing very differently, yet we've always gravitated toward the same imagery and always knew we'd do a collaborative project someday," says Jenshel, speaking by phone from the couple's home in New York.

"We knew volcanoes would be the subject of the joint project we'd been considering the minute we saw a fresh lava flow--once you've seen it, it gets in your blood and you're hooked," he says. "It started for us in 1991 during a visit to Kilauea [in Hawaii], which has been continuously erupting since 1983. We saw lava flowing into the ocean and generating an incredible steam plume; then when dusk fell, the lava created a magnificent fireworks display in the sky.

"Visually, it was just so powerful, and at the time we didn't know if we were witnessing creation or destruction. We know now it's both--that volcanoes are one of the planet's tools of creation, and that day in Hawaii we were seeing new land being born right before our eyes."

Most of the world's volcanoes are located in the so-called Ring of Fire, a belt created by plate tectonics that brushes the western edge of the United States and the Chilean coast in South America and also covers areas of Alaska, Russia, Japan and Indonesia (the last being the world's most volcanically active area.)

Of their decision to restrict their pictures to volcanic sites in America, Jenshel explains that "it was a way of approaching what otherwise would've been an impossibly huge undertaking."

"Initially, we planned to do a survey of 20th century volcanism," he says, "but the project evolved into a study of volcanic landscape. Say the word 'volcano' and most people think of Mt. St. Helens or Kilauea, because they are, or have been, recently active. In fact, there's residue of volcanic activity throughout the United States, but much of it is so old and eroded it no longer resembles anything volcanic.

"Not every volcano is photogenic, and we only included images of 50 of the approximately 100 sites we visited. Many of these sites prohibit visitors too, so they're not widely known. There's an underground fern cave created by a lava flow in Northern California, for instance, that's a sacred site to the Modoc Indians, so you're forbidden to visit unless you're accompanied by a ranger. The fern cave was one of the most amazing places we saw too. Above ground, the nearest fern is 200 miles away on the Pacific Ocean, but underground is this magical garden of lush, delicate greenery."

There are three types of volcanoes: active, dormant and extinct. Less commonly known is that there are four types of eruptions that range in intensity.

"Mt. St. Helens is an active strata volcano of a type often referred to as a composite volcano, and it erupts violently," Cook explains. "Mt. St. Helens is far enough from Portland that it didn't do much damage, but Seattle is right next to Mt. Rainier, which is the same kind of volcano as Mt. St. Helens, only much bigger. It's enormous, and if it showed signs of life they'd have to evacuate Seattle because the blast would cause glacial melting that would create terrible floods."

"Similarly," Jenshel adds, "I doubt that many of the 20,000 tourists who drive through Yellowstone every year know they're driving through the caldera [the basin-shaped depression at the summit] of an immense, active volcano that could erupt much more violently than Mt. St. Helens did.

"Yellowstone has a history of three of the most violent eruptions ever recorded, and geologists know it erupts every 600,000 years and that the last eruption was 600,000 years ago. With geysers and steam coming from deep within the Earth, there's obviously a magma chamber below, and though it's unlikely to erupt in our lifetime, in geologic time it could happen any minute."

Assisting Cook and Jenshel on their project was a revolving cast of geologists who advised them where to go and when to go there; occasionally the geologists were a bit blase about the dangers.

"We went for a walk with some geologists in Hawaii's Volcano National Park to see a fresh lava flow and prior to the walk were instructed to wear long pants, long sleeves and leather gloves and to bring two liters of water for this one-hour walk," Cook recalls. "So we began the walk and soon noticed it getting increasingly hot; first it felt like we were in a sauna, then it was like walking in a blast furnace.

"At one point, I looked down and saw that we were walking on a very thin crust that had formed over glowing red lava. The second I stopped to look down, one of the geologists screamed, 'Don't stop!'--and I now know it's because the surface tension of that thin crust can break if you stop and it has to support your full weight. Luckily, the lava flow we were looking for wasn't much farther so we saw it, then got out, but in that one moment I stopped, the soles of my hiking boots melted."

Also crucial to the project were the helicopter and airplane pilots who enabled Cook and Denshel to get the aerial shots that make up much of the series.

"It would be impossible to get several shots we took today, because there's now a 2,000-foot ceiling limiting the flying of helicopters over national parks," Cook says. "This law passed after we finished shooting, and I'm glad it's gone into effect, because helicopters are extremely disruptive and there were too many pilots operating unsafe vehicles in unsafe conditions.

"We realized there was no getting around the use of helicopters for some of the pictures we were after, particularly in Hawaii, so we worked with the same pilot there and got to know and trust him. Because we took the doors off and were harnessed in so we could lean out, we needed a pilot who knew what he was doing. And believe me, when you're hovering 25 feet over an active lava flow, you're acutely aware of who's at the wheel.

"Hawaii is such a rich area in terms of volcanic activity. We just scratched the surface in terms of photographing there."

Adds Jenshel: "The Hawaiian landscape changes constantly, yet the volcanoes have consistent and distinct personalities. Haleakala, for instance, has a mythology that revolves around the moon, and when I was walking in the crater there I really felt like an astronaut."

"The project taught us a new way of working together because we were working in different mediums toward a common goal," Cook says. "It was a much more giving experience, and there was no sense of competition between us--even when we shot exactly the same picture, which is what happened with the last image in the book, which depicts the sun setting on a volcanic cone in Yellowstone. Both of the pictures came out well, too, and we knew we couldn't use them both--so we forced our friends to choose," she says with a laugh.

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"HOT SPOTS," Diane Cook and Len Jenshel, Paul Kopeikin Gallery, 138 N. La Brea Ave. Dates: Opens Friday. Continues Tuesdays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Ends Jan. 21. Phone: (213) 937-0765.

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