Monday, August 27, 2012

Six Minutes With Rock Art Magician Peter Juhl

Peter Juhl
I discovered Peter Juhl's photos of rock art two weekends ago at the Bayfront Art Fair. Most of us have seen the growing interest in rock assemblies and sculptures here and there, along a creek in the park or as a decorative piece in a rock garden. What you have never seen are the kinds of rock sculptures Mr. Juhl enjoys making. It was a delight watching people stop in to see his photos and to examine the examples he had balanced there, some which seemed impossible. "There's no superglue" he explained as he disassembled and re-assembled an unusual piece.

EN: What's the story behind your rock balancing photos? How did your interest in rock balancing begin? 
PJ: I began balancing rocks on vacations to the North Shore of Lake Superior when my children were young. We'd spend hours on the beach hunting for agates and skipping stones. I recalled a kid in my junior-high lunchroom balancing a tilted salt shaker on a little pile of salt, then blowing the excess salt away. That made a big impression on me.

I tried the technique with rocks and little piles of sand, and quickly found out that it didn't translate, but I did discover that I could use any little chip or depression on an outcropping to nestle the end of an oblong rock in and maneuver it around until it balanced. Soon I was trying to get two or three up, and succeeding. I played with simple balancing for about fifteen years and took a few photos to give as gifts. It was always on a kind of back-burner simmer, but I didn't have a lot of time to devote to any of it until my kids were in college.

So about four years ago I decided to take some time during a family vacation to balance a lot of rocks and take a lot of photos with the new digital SLR I had gotten. It didn't really pan out because I was too distracted by all the other fun things like cookouts, hikes, and general socializing that happen on a family vacation. That's when I decided to go up to the shore alone and just work all day for a couple of days. And I discovered the importance of having time to focus. I got some really nice photos from that trip, and now I separate my vacation trips from my working trips.

EN: Were you doing photography before this?
PJ: I've been interested in photography for most of my life. I collected cameras for a long time and actually used the old cameras a lot. I took some of my first balanced rock photos twenty years ago with a 4X5-inch Speed Graphic like the ones used by photojournalists in the nineteen-forties. I still have a darkroom in my house, with a huge enlarger for those 4X5 sheet film negatives. These days I shoot mostly digital, but still haul out the 4X5 from time to time. The photos you can get from a large negative and good lens are really smooth and delicious, and the whole experience of being in the darkroom with the smells of the chemicals and the slower process of "discovering" the photos is good to come back to.

The first requirement for a good photo is an interesting subject, and not being blessed with a very good eye for subjects, I've sometimes fallen into the trap of letting it be all about equipment. Once I got some rock balancing skills, I had subjects I was passionate about, and the photography, while still a struggle sometimes, suddenly had a very specific foundation on which to grow.

EN: Do you have an "artist statement" about your work?
PJ: Here's the statement I've been using:

A good magic trick presents what we know to be a deception and makes us want to believe it’s real. A good balanced rock sculpture does the opposite: We know it’s real, but want to believe it’s a trick.

Drawing on elements of performance art, sculpture, and meditation, I arrange natural stones found on location, using only shape, weight, and friction to create a unique composition. I don’t use glue, magnets, or other artificial supports: The rocks are held up by nothing more than high-school physics and maybe a little karma. The sculptures may last a few minutes, or a few hours – with luck, long enough to be photographed. The photographs provide a kind of second incarnation to the sculptures, which have long since returned to the environment.

Though I try to create sculptures that look implausible, I also strive to elevate the stones in another sense, taking them from objects disregarded under our feet to essential elements in an organized and beautiful structure. My goal is to contrast the simple strength of these individual stones with the complexity and fragility of the work as a whole, which evokes a sense of serenity and comfortable tension.

EN: You appear to be having fun with this. Does part of the enjoyment come from having an audience and from seeing peoples' reactions?
PJ: This art form gives back to me in so many ways. I do love to balance in front of an audience and see the amazement on their faces. It really seems to delight people, and that is always gratifying. But I also love spending a whole day alone on a lovely beach, creating and trying new things. The moment when I give a final twist or nudge and can release a new piece into the world is like a mental "pop" releasing me from the many minutes of focus I put into it and freeing me to relax and enjoy the result. And I really love the thought that my photos are hanging in people's homes, being enjoyed.

To see more of Peter Juhl's beautiful photography and art, visit



LEWagner said...


rock photography said...

Rock art.Great creativity.

wedding magicians said...

Full marks to Peter, I am both amazed and enjoyed. Now, I realized how creative rock art can be. Cool!