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Originally published Friday, December 23, 2011 at 5:30 AM

Art review

'Open Ocean': panoramas of water, light, vapor

Port Ludlow photographer Michael Berman takes you far from any landmarks in "Open Ocean," an exhibit of panoramic photographs on display at Seattle's Center for Wooden Boats.

Seattle Times arts writer

EXHIBITION REVIEW

Michael Berman: 'Open Ocean'

10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays through Jan. 14, closed Christmas and New Year's Day, Center for Wooden Boats, 1010 Valley St., Seattle; free (206-382-2628 or www.cwb.org)

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Anyone who has been to sea knows how all the rules of light, space and proportion are altered once you're out of sight of land. With no stable reference points, instability itself becomes a kind of landscape. With no solid ground beneath you, ocean swells become a mocking replica of an endless plain.

It's a world that's difficult to capture on film. But Port Ludlow photographer Michael Berman has done it in his "Open Ocean" series of panoramic shots.

Nine photographs from the series — all made while Berman crossed the Atlantic from the Canary Islands to St. Lucia in 2007 — are on display at Seattle's Center for Wooden Boats. Each captures the sense of how a midocean vista is simultaneously an infinite watery "prairie" (Berman's word) and a tipsily protean surface.

All the images are titled "Open Ocean," followed by a number and the longitude and latitude of the locale ("Open Ocean 2 — 18deg04N 015deg24W," "Open Ocean 13 — 25deg36.38N 030deg24.25W," etc.). But the sights they depict are anything but a dull continuum.

In "Open Ocean 26" — the most colorful shot, thanks to a rainbow Berman caught on camera — the waves form their own specific fleeting geography: a single whitecap, like a snow-dusted ridge seen from far away, with undulating slopes of slate-gray water surrounding it. Up above, the panorama is an action shot of shining squalls and thunderheads with inky undersides.

"Open Ocean 16," with its puffy white clouds passing over a dark sea, vividly conveys a sailor's sense of being below a mounting horizon of water with its own hummocks and outcrops. In "Open Ocean 13," the waves are pushed into even more distinctly "geological" formations, while their reflective surface gives the water a heavy molten-metal look.

Atmospheric phenomena can sometimes create dramatic "sculptural" effects. A midocean downpour half-resembles a dark volcanic eruption rising from the gloom of the sea in "Open Ocean 39." Cloud-light and wave reflectivity get downright psychedelic in "Open Ocean 32" (not in the exhibit, but posted on www.michaelbermanphotography.com).

In his artist's statement, Berman says he's creating "minimalist compositions that distill my fascination with the ocean to its basic elements: water and sky."

He adds: "Landscape photographers carefully choose a location, make a composition and then wait — perhaps even returning again and again — for the perfect conditions to make a successful photograph. But on a moving boat, in the middle of a moving ocean, there is no location to choose and no location to revisit."

His focus, instead, is on each "perfect ephemeral slice-of-time" in which ocean, vapor and light assume an eye-captivating alignment. A maritime chart identifies the coordinates where Berman took each shot. But the "locations" depicted existed only in that moment.

Like yesterday's weather, they're gone — except for this record of them.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

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