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Margaret Harrell
Cloud Conversations & Image Stories--Leonardo's Theory

Adult; Art & Photography; (Market)

How does Leonardo's theory of chance images, “accidental” inspiration, relate to clouds? In Cloud Conversations & Image Stories, Margaret A. Harrell weaves her own cloud photography into the art history of chance images, bringing in related drawings, scrying, and our relationship to Mother Nature. Regarding Robert Desnos’ trance drawings, Andre Bréton called the “tangled web of lines” a result of chance, but the figures that “appear suddenly from this chaos,” he said, were “born somewhat like those one sees in clouds or in the cracks in walls.” Soak up the beauty as these clouds reveal images, many of which look like paintings. In nooks, in corners, of the photo, an unexpected face or whole scene appears. Harrell began photography, walking in the steps of dreams that showed her looking up, seeing scenes unfold, shifting panoramas everyone else failed to notice. One day the dream stepped into reality. In this book, Harrell gives Leonardo da Vinci a prominent role, as he found clouds and other nondescript stimulants to the imagination useful. He had a theory about stains, blots, clouds, as have other artists, such as Victor Hugo. Harrell brings them in, joining with her to take on a relatively untackled topic in art history and creativity: where creation comes from. She asks repeatedly whose images is she photographing? Why do they appear to her in clouds but not on a blank canvas? Printed in full Premium color, each image composed only of sunlight dazzles down on the page.

“I see in the clouds a cast of characters speaking to me,” Harrell (The Hell’s Angels Letters) writes in this searching, soaring collection of cloud photography, an art she practices, contemplates, and celebrates while exploring its deep mysteries. “Whose are the images I see as if miraculously, in creating my own photography? How did they get into the sky? Is my mind—really capable of making up such elaborate images?” Harrell’s own images, striking and surprising, suggest multitudes, yielding rich new visions of figures and scenes the longer one gazes into their tufting splendor. An early photograph captioned “Angel Squadron,” for example, might offer a browser, at first glance, a suggestion of a solitary winged figure. Let your eyes linger, your imagination engage, though, and the seemingly abstract cloud gauze around that angel can bloom into a host, every billow and hump alive with sudden definition.

Harrell’s cloud photos are collaborative, between artist and nature, between beholder and photograph, between our at-a-glance perceptions and the deeper, expansive visions we tend to allow ourselves only in meditation or reverie. In inviting prefatory essays, Harrell persuasively links the art of cloud photography to “chance” images from the history of art, especially to da Vinci’s contention that “by indistinct things”—by this he means “the stains of walls, or ashes of a fire, or clouds, or mud or like places” “the mind is stimulated to new inventions.”

Harrell’s writing and photography here both combine the ecstatic with disciplined research and honed practices. The result is both inspired—the photographs reward patience with revelations—and inspiring: for readers, those revelations need not be the same ones that Harrell herself discerned. A chapter on clouds “as a meditative tool” explicitly encourages what the photos implicitly do, urging the discovery of “minute interconnections” in nature. Excerpts from others’ work on the history of chance images illuminate the material.

Takeaway: Seekers will relish this collection’s rich cloud photography and history of “chance images.”

Great for fans of: Robin Kelsey’s Photography and the Art of Chance, Rachel Eisendrath’s Gallery of Clouds.

Production grades
Cover: B+
Design and typography: A-
Illustrations: A
Editing: A
Marketing copy: A

Sandro Serradifalco

The intensity of beauty is expressed through a rare use of perspective. When we talk about landscapes, we imagine them in an ordinary way, structured with order that follows the rules of reality. Here, instead, we have a totally new perspective that is mind blowing to the spectator, offering a new point of view from which to observe what surrounds us, to find the real inner beauty of things. A technically talented artist . . . reproducing an intense inner moment of solitude, alone with the sky and the clouds.—Sandro Serradifalco, Italian art critic/editor of Effetto Arte, writing about Cloud Tapestry in the Palazzo Ximenes Panciatichi (Florence, Italy) exhibit catalog, "Contemporaries in the City of the Uffizi"