Liminal Camera: Drought

Exhibition Dates: Opening 10/22/16 on view through 11/27/16

1040 MASS MoCA WAY North Adams, MA 01247

In 2010, Lauren Bon, and artists Richard Nielsen and Tristan Duke formed the Optics Division of the Metabolic Studio, which is devoted to reinventing photography in a post-industrial era. Their exhibition, focusing on the epic drought in the American West, opens at MASS MoCA on October 22nd.

Since photographing the Rochester Kodak factories as the company declared bankruptcy, the Optics Division has embraced a return of the medium to its alchemical, and handmade foundations. The team has sought to re-contextualize photography as a land-based practice that explores the photochemical agency of the natural landscape. From mining silver in the Sierra Nevada Mountains; to making gelatin from local cattle; and formulating developers out of native plants and mineral sediments of the Owens Valley—the Optics Division has made photographs that are literally of the land.  

The central tool for this work is the Liminal Camera—a giant functioning camera made from a 20-foot shipping container, which can be seen in the courtyard of MASS MoCA from October 22nd through to November 27th. The team has traveled the country making photographs with the Liminal for the past six years. Transported by flatbed truck, barge or train, the Liminal is both a camera and a darkroom in which the Optics Division captures and develops monumental format negatives. The word “liminal” refers to a threshold and an in-between spacea fitting name for a camera where people are invited to come inside, and experience where image and place meet.

The selection of images on view at MASS MoCA represent Lauren Bon and Metabolic Studio’s sustained engagement with the Owens Valley. The Owens Valley was drained dry by the thirst of the sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles, 200 miles to its south. Opened in 1913, the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which ferries water from the Valley, still provides LA with 35% of its water supply. Bon and The Metabolic Studio’s first action of reconciliation occurred in 2009 when she drove a tanker truck of water from the LA River and deposited it back in the lakebed. In 2013, on the 100th anniversary of the LA Aqueduct’s opening, Bon led 100 mules on a 28-day (one lunar cycle) journey, tracing the entire length of the aqueduct. 

The search for photo-reactive elements in the Owens Valley led the Optics Division to a blood-red pool of briny water in the dried lakebed. Teeming with extremophile bacteria, the pool proved to be a concentrated source of sodium thiosulphate—a chemical “fixer” essential to the photographic process. One night, under a blanket of stars, the team took a Liminal negative and buried it in one of these pools. The next morning, the image was not only fixed but also transformed by a flow of chemical reactions.

The Optics Division’s practice in the alchemical landscape of the Owens Valley results in images that bear the trace of their own making; photographs in and of the landscape imbued with the very chemical composition of the Valley. Mineral residue obscures the image, while also revealing the starkness of this solitary landscape, including the dead trees that are casualties of the dropping water tables and droughts in the region. These images are at once beautiful and heartbreaking. Some contain aurora borealis-like swirls across the surface like the oil slick of a troubled environment. Equally, this iridescence can symbolize a rainbow of hope that this landscape may be healed, and prevail. 


Trees off Tuttle Creek Road (Horizontal)

Dead Cottonwood by Paiute-Shoshone Reservation

Dead Cottonwoods by Owens River 2

Dead Cottonwoods by Owens River




  • Metabolic Studio is pleased to announce we are producing a film from Suzanne Lacy's project De tu Puño y Letra. For more information click here.

  • The next Reimagine Everything Print workshop will be Thursday September 21 from 5-9 pm for anyone who would like to come silkscreen a shirt or paint a poster or protest image. Please RSVP to Our kitchen will be open for potluck sharing. Suggested donations appreciated in the form of used clothing for people to print on—and or some healthy food to share with whomever shows up to print that night.

  • Upcoming Exhibition at Mana Contemporary (A collaborative community bringing together art, dance and music under one roof), Jersey City, New Jersey. Artists Need To Create on the Same Scale that Society has the capacity to destory, on view October 2017–January 2018. For additional information, click here

  • The Optics Division will have two works included in a group show at Fresno Art Museum. The show is called California Nature, curated by Jay Belloli. The prints will be on view starting January 27 through June 10, 2018.

  • Two Optics Division prints [Hoosick: The Beyone Place 1 and Hoosick: The Beyond Place 2] have been commissioned by MASS MoCA and will be unveiled at their newly renovated building opening May 28, 2017. These images will be on view until 2019. For more information, click here

  • Register Now for the 2017 Art + Environment Conference Thursday, October 19 through Saturday, October 21, 2017. Join Lauren and other artists at the symposium as they discuss the Greater West. 

  • Lauren Bon and the Metabolic Studio will be participating in a panel titled Saving the Greater West as a part of the Knowledge/Culture/Ecologies International conference in Santiago, Chile November 15-18, 2017. For more information click here.

  • Friday Happy Hours at the Gertrude Stein Salon—now open for visitors on Main Street in Lone Pine on Fridays with tea from 6:00-8:00 pm. The Salon is open for groups, meetings, visits by appointment by calling 800-571-0745.

  • Upcoming Summer of 2018A Portable Wetland exhibition at Various Small Fires. Stay tuned for more details.


  • For a limited time, watch the One Hundred Mules Walking the Los Angeles Aqueduct (Artist Cut, 2015) at this link.
    Review our News Archive to see where this film has screened in the last year as well as the awards it has received.


  • View the Optics Division Collection Here.