Javier Romero is an artist, a pilot and a practicing Buddhist. Perhaps the only one to have manoeuvred the controls of a light aircraft with his knees whilst taking photographs. He makes about 10-12 solo flights a year across the Atlantic, mostly from Spain to Chile, in his small single-engine airplane. Due to its limited speed and range the trip takes 4 days if the weather is good, flying for about 10 hours a day before landing for fuel and sleep. Usually the weather is clear, the skies and sea blue. But then he enters the Intercontinental Convergence Zone, a wall of permanent clouds and thunderstorms close to the Equator known, by sailors, as the doldrums. Of these spectacular cloud formations, which he photographs from the plane’s window, he says: “You’re alone with yourself. You could die at any moment. At night it’s even more intense. In the middle of the ocean it’s like being inside a black hole, without even the blue for company. And then the moon comes up over the sea, and is big, and blindingly shiny, and is the most amazing thing in the universe, and you feel like crying….” Nowadays he’s set up a tripod with a remote shutter cable so that he can take photos without putting the airplane in jeopardy. (He has had his share of scary moments).
Philosophers, poets and artists have sought to evoke the Sublime for centuries. There is Wordsworth’s Prelude, J.M.W.Turner’s fiery skies and John Martin’s cotton-wool clouds bathed in heavenly light. For the Romantics the Sublime was an expression of the spiritual force of the natural world. Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) explores ideas of the ‘terrible beauty’ (to quote the poet Yeats) experienced in the face of Nature’s turbulence. For the Romantics towering mountains, erupting volcanos, violent seas and storms represented this awesome beauty. For believers they demonstrated God’s divinity, whilst for the increasing number of 18th century sceptics, they represented the autonomous power of nature.
Javier Romero started his education as a painter with the Nicolaides method at the Art Students’ League of New York. After working on oils, he moved to watercolour and acrylic. Now he uses photography as he’d use a brush on canvas to create Romantic, lyrical works. He believes that contemporary society has lost its way. “Deep inside,” he says, “we know it’s not right to spend our lives in an artificial place pretending to be ‘an architect’, ‘a doctor’, ‘a salesman’…. And things are getting worse, technology helps the body, not the mind”.
The conventional rules of landscape photography dictate that the photographer needs to place an object in the foreground to prevent the viewer from getting lost. But that’s precisely what Javier Romero wants us to do in his luminous cloudscapes, these secular visions of heaven where, if we’re lucky, we might discover something of the mystery of being alive.