Jason Langer is anxious. The ever-looming pandemic has turned something as seemingly simple as Halloween into a bewildering exercise of social distancing while celebrating. But Halloween was then. Now, a presidential election barrels down the track. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, amid historic West Coast wildfires, amid social unrest and a racial reckoning, “Everything is on edge, and everything is possible,” Langer says.
For the last three months or so, Langer, a Portland-based photographer, has been trying to channel that anxiety the only way he knows how: with his camera. And his new series 100 Sunrises (Before the Election) comes on the eve of the election, at a time when we could all use a little bit of hope. “These pictures are my way of getting up early in the morning and just doing stress relief with the idea of contributing something hopeful,” he says.
100 Sunrises (Before the Election) is, in a lot of ways, a departure for Langer. Most of his work, which began in the mid-‘90s, explores the interplay between light and darkness. Using primarily black-and-white film—this series is his first true foray into DSLRs and editing via photoshop—his work includes intimate portraits and urban cityscapes that are both lonely and lively, darkly mysterious and despondently ethereal. His current focus is on landscapes, capturing the moment just before the sun crests. What we end up seeing is all mood and tone, quiet and desaturated, an emphasis on the way the sun gives us color and light and life.
But in some ways, the series isn’t different at all.
“I’ve always thought that one of the basic ideas behind photography to begin with is capturing light surrounded by darkness. That’s what a lot of the creative process anyway, which is starting with nothing and adding creativity, and in this case adding light. So this idea of light coming out of darkness has always been with me in my work, and this was maybe the ultimate example of it,” Langer says. “It’s just that it got upended by the real conditions that were happening this summer and this fall in Oregon. So, I just decided to capture that whenever I went out, whatever I saw.”
Over the course of Langer’s project, Oregon experienced unprecedented wildfires that burned more than 1 million acres of land in the state and sent shockwaves down the West Coast, reinvigorating discussions around climate change and Indigenous land sovereignty. His work touched on those topics, with images of reservoirs and lakes blanketed in dust-brown smoke in late summer. And as we drifted into fall, foggy mornings permeated through the lens.
“It’s interesting that my thought was to go out with the idea of hope in mind, but what I came across was foggy mornings, moody mornings, the smoke, and the feeling [and] the tone of many of these images are still in those darker recesses. It just sort of came out that way,” he says. “I think there’s something to be said for being part of the artistic journey and seeing where the work takes you. You may have an idea that sparks the impetus to go create, but then the journey itself creates the work.”
For Langer, working on this series has been three-fold: a stress reliever, an exploration of uncharted photographic territory for him, and an homage to the barebones creative process that got him excited about photography in the first place.
With the election just hours away, Langer has hope. He says it is what will get us from one day to the next. Hope is in the sunrise, and our yearning for it to crest over the trees, to shine its light on our waters and give warmth, color, and life to a world consumed by shadows. This series, this year, this election has taught Langer the value of appreciating—friends, family, yourself, home, food.
“I see the election as a metaphor for the rest of life,” he says.