(Article appeared online May 31, 2008 and in print April 1, 2008.)
By Allison Hersh
Photographer Scott Wheeler found inspiration for his latest body of work, quite unexpectedly, while driving down Interstate 95 at night, glancing at illuminated billboards on either side of the interstate.
"I noticed these islands of light alternating down the highway," he said. "I decided to cast them as close encounters of the third kind."
In "Invasion," Wheeler's M.F.A. thesis show currently on display at the Savannah College of Art and Design's Hall Street Gallery, this California native turns his lens toward billboards lining highways and interstates within a 20-mile radius of Savannah.
Shooting at night using long exposures ranging from 15 to 40 minutes, he captures the eerie effect that artificial light has on nocturnal landscapes in a series of 17 digital prints.
"They're very strange, suggestive spaces," he said. "I'm interested in how this harsh, garish light affects the landscape at night."
Originally from Clayton, Calif., Wheeler graduated from Brigham Young University-Idaho with a B.F.A. in photography before moving to Savannah in 2006 to pursue an M.F.A. in photography at SCAD.
Many of Wheeler's photographs convey the jittery urgency that a UFO might land at any moment on these carefully manicured patches of grass - or that one may have already touched down, shining its blinding white light into the shadowy night.
These desolate landscapes vibrate with familiar and yet disconcerting combinations of light, color and contrast. In "J.C. Lewis Ford," he juxtaposes a blurred white moon overhead with the artificial light shining on an open field of grass.
His work is most cryptic and haunting when the billboards are hidden from view, as in "Boat Show" and "The Reserve at Savannah Harbor," each depicting an otherworldly halo of light illuminating a stand of trees.
The long exposure time turns passing automobiles into laser-like beams of colored light, adding to the dynamic nature of these desolate landscapes, which Wheeler shot with film and a medium-format camera.
In "Pilot Travel Center," he focuses on a mutilated pine tree that has been pruned mercilessly on one side to make room for power lines and telephone poles, as a foreboding crimson light illuminates the highway as well as the roadside trees. Our own thoughtless impact upon the natural world, Wheeler seems to suggest, is far more destructive and dangerous than an alien invasion could ever be.
"Invasion" ultimately examines the psychological effect that advertising has on the human psyche, suggesting that, in many ways, commercial messages stage their own "alien invasion" on the mind of the public 24 hours a day. Instead of looking to the skies for forces threatening to brainwash us, he suggests, we only need to look as far as the nearest ad, billboard or commercial.
"The invasive nature of the billboards' reflected light stands as a metaphor of a presence that permeates our public and personal space and extends into our very minds," he explained. "The sponsor leases not only the billboard, but a portion of our own consciousness."
Wheeler's first solo show in Savannah marks the debut of an insightful photographer with a future even brighter than the roadside footlights he documents in "Invasion."
IF YOU GO
What: "Invasion," featuring new photography by Scott Wheeler
When: Through June 4
Where: Hall Street Gallery, 212 W. Hall St.
Hours: 8:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Monday-Friday
For information: 525-4743 or www.scadexhibitions.com