On Assignment: Technology in Desert Photography

Even though I enjoy and greatly appreciate technology, a number of friends and others over the years have often referred to me as a Luddite. I resisted the change from analog to digital audio (I bought into CD’s years after everyone else and still prefer the warmth and quality of good analog audio); I resisted the change from analog to digital photography (I still prefer film and a view camera); and I resisted iPhones until their 3rd version, when owning one became a very obvious way to increase my productivity on many fronts (Status Updates from the field are not relevant to productivity ;)). The iPhone and other bits of technology became very relevant and important recently when about three weeks ago I went on assignment into the California Desert for The Wilderness Society (TWS).

Unless you live in the western United States, you’re likely unaware that the U.S. Department of Energy has fast-tracked twenty-four solar energy development projects on desert public lands throughout six southwestern states. Here in California, four Solar Energy Zones (SEZ) have been proposed, with the majority of the acreage occupying pristine California desert landscapes. It goes without saying that these are controversial and contentious proposals, and the conservation community has recommended that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) not designate two of the proposed solar zones in California (Pisgah and Iron Mountain) because of conflicts with wildlife habitat and nearby National Parks. Accordingly, TWS hired me to illustrate the diverse and undisturbed plant communities, wildlife habitat, and overall beauty found in these proposed SEZ’s. Because these SEZ’s are only in the proposal stage, no ground has been broken; there are no boundary lines or stakes on the ground; and no fences or other guides to indicate the exact boundaries of these huge proposed SEZ’s (the proposed Pisgah SEZ is 23,950 acres; the proposed Iron Mountain SEZ is 106,522 acres). So how does a photographer determine where to stand and point the camera when working with such a large and remote “job-site”?

I used all of the following technologies to research, scout, and photograph for this assignment: Google Earth (using provided KMZ files to indicate the SEZ’s); Ephemeris (I use an old desktop application; many prefer The Photographer’s Ephemeris); satellite images with SEZ overlays (provided by the U.S. D.O.E.); my iPhone; the iPhone compass app; the SunSeeker iPhone app; a paper San Bernardino County Map (provided by Automobile Club of Southern California; they make the best county maps and show roads that other maps do not); the WWW for various research and imagery while in the field; and finally, good old visual reckoning while in the field (does not break; does not require signal; requires no batteries). There is some overlap in these tools and I could have done away with one or two, but I used what was fastest and most convenient to me.

I had a one-week deadline. I did my research the afternoon and evening I received the assignment, and left the very next morning. In three days in the field, I covered nearly 600 miles of driving, a number of miles of hiking, and netted thirty-nine photographs for The Wilderness Society’s campaign. They’re soon to publish an extensive Solar Energy report which will use my photographs to hopefully to eliminate the Pisgah and Iron Mountain SEZ proposals.

I spent three days wandering alone these vast and primordial Mojave Desert landscapes. I was often overcome with grief and sadness when I could see before me the acreage that DOE proposes for these SEZ’s. These are huge and undisturbed landscapes where even during the most bearable season (Oct-Mar) you are more likely to see coyote, tortoise, or raven than a human.

No DOE employee nor Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has ever had encounters with tortoise, bighorn sheep, and coyote like I have. No DOE employee nor Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has ever scaled the Mojave Desert’s steep mountains to watch the new sun throw its blaze across these majestic and untarnished landscapes. And No DOE employee nor Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has ever had a physical or emotional investment in this desert or in California’s heritage. What right have they to designate these zones as wastelands fit only for thousands of square acres of solar panels?

You are visiting the blog of fine art landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his official website.

10 thoughts on “On Assignment: Technology in Desert Photography

  1. Very thoughtful post Michael. Like you, I have resisted much of the latest technology until it was obviously necessary for productivity in this modern world. I am also a longstanding member of the Wilderness Society and many other fine conservation organizations and strongly believe that we must preserve wilderness whenever possible.

    Where I’m starting to feel conflicted is when new green technologies like wind and solar are a viable alternative to oil and coal, but still leave their footprint – however green. Clearly the Dept of Interior needs to plan carfully when approving any new energy projects and at the same time we all need to reduce our energy needs.

  2. That is fantastic Michael ! Thank you for doing all that work – for all of us really. Even being just a low skill, part-time, amateur photographer, I understand a little of what it takes to get a good photo with the right framing, right angle, right light, etc. But your description (and just a summary I’m sure) of what you went through to get some good shots on this project is very interesting and very revealing about all the wonderful photography we see everywhere and tend to take for granted. Keep up the great work and thanks for your blog.

  3. Thank you, Russ and John!

    I tried to refrain from making this a politicized article even though the issue is entirely about politics. I agree: We have to ramp up the pursuit of renewable energy. However, there are much better and more logical places to site solar energy zones. ANY previously developed/degraded habitats for starters. The Pisgah and Iron Mountain proposed SEZ’s are neither and should be killed from these proposals.

    The EPA has identified in California alone 1.7 million acres of degraded lands that are potentially suitable for energy development. In light of this, why are pristine California desert landscapes containing threatened species considered for these projects? Perhaps because these are virtually free public lands, for corporate taking and destruction?

    This is a complex issue and one to which every Californian and Western US resident should be paying close attention. OUR public lands are at stake: Once the panels are raised, the tortoise, its habitat, and our sacred places are gone forever.

    To learn more and to help:
    Solar Done Right http://solardoneright.org/
    Basin and Range Watch http://www.basinandrangewatch.org/

  4. Thanks for this heartfelt and passionate description of what you do, Michael. I live on the doorstep of the Mojave, and while some might call it a wasteland, its got an inherent beauty that many travelers on the 15, 10 or 40 freeways don’t take the time to stop and appreciate. I’m happy your images are helping in the fight to protect this landscape from unnecessary waste…

    I’ve seen the question asked on other blogs whether an artist should have an “agenda.” In other words, should your art be for art’s sake, or should it be produced with the agenda of–in this case–helping to protect a landscape. For a while I believed that the two things should be separated, that the creative mind shouldn’t interfere with the agenda. However, after exploring many of my own true motivations behind my photography and reading many of your thoughts, I think my mind has been changed.

    Wilderness is our heritage, and it needs way more protectors than it has right now. Thanks for all your hard work in protecting the landscapes of southern California! Maybe I’ll run into you somewhere in the Mojave this winter…


    • Hey Greg: Thanks so much for your contribution!

      I believe that sincere and passionate artists are unable to separate their work from their “agenda” (this word carries negative connotations and do not like to use it in this capacity), and given the daily challenges and assaults on Wilderness, nature, open space, and wildlife, I consider it somewhat irresponsible for any “nature photographer” to pursue this genre while ignoring the challenges and foes that consistently challenge these ideals. Were it not for the dedication and passion of photographers such as Ansel Adams, Philip Hyde, Eliot Porter, Galen Rowell, Robert Glenn Ketchum, et al, it’s doubtful to me that we’d have protected today what has been protected.

      Honestly, my sole motivation is to create from nature beautiful, inspiring, and insightful art, yet I haven’t found it possible to advocate for the protection of these places without being in the trenches and directly engaging in the fight. Ignorance is bliss, but once it’s gone, it’s gone forever. Thanks, Greg.

  5. Politics aside, sounds like a great assignment and a great time in the desert.

    Politics up front: I’m a bit upset that this is the first I’ve heard about these proposals for the desert. It deeply saddens and frustrates me that the same big hammer approach of big oil is being used for alternative energy. I look around me and I see 100k’s of available acres of space for solar panels. All the roofs of the infrastructure we already built! I see new sub divisions going up near me and no solar panels. Only this summer did the local schools utilize their parking lots to deploy large solar power shade structures.

    I wish we would stop the big corporate think and start the local solution think and Enablement (though that opens a whole different can of political worms).

    I agree with Greg and yourself that you can’t separate your work from your personal beliefs (aka agendas) as they are one and the same. More transparency and acknowledgment between the two is what we need in this world…

    (BTW: is that a high tension power line tower peaking over the left hand hill in that first image? 😉 )

    • Hi Greg: Thanks for your logical insight. ‘Distributed generation’ of solar makes perfectly good sense as opposed to irrevocably destroying old-growth creosote and wildlife habitat. I wish we could stop Big Corp think, too. Hopefully these Occupy protests will have meaningful effect, and hopefully everyone will think twice about leaving on lights and wasting electricity.

      Good eye! Indeed it’s a transmission line, and I intentionally included it to demonstrate undisturbed desert, even with transmission lines crossing it. I also supplied to TWS images that included Interstate 40 and tractor trailers. Both are mere blips on a relatively unchanged old-growth desert.

      Thanks for your comments!

  6. Hi Michael, I am so happy to see you doing conservation work, or whatever you want to call it, to protect wild places. I especially agree with what you said here in reply to Greg’s comment:

    “I consider it somewhat irresponsible for any “nature photographer” to pursue this genre while ignoring the challenges and foes that consistently challenge these ideals. Were it not for the dedication and passion of photographers such as Ansel Adams, Philip Hyde, Eliot Porter, Galen Rowell, Robert Glenn Ketchum, et al, it’s doubtful to me that we’d have protected today what has been protected.”

    Solar and wind are definitely the way to go and far less destructive environmentally than coal or oil extraction. However, as you mention briefly above, there are all sorts of lands that have been used and abandoned. We do not need to tear up pristine, untrammeled desert, or any other kind of land for that matter. Why can’t solar panels stay on rooftops? Or if they can’t find enough rooftops, which seems ridiculous because rooftop glare and heat contributes noticeably to global warming, why not use old gravel pits, and the many other places already scraped up? I hope that while you are defending the wilderness that someone else is offering these people alternatives. The whole thing seems strange and unfortunate, particularly having environmentally aware people fighting environmentally friendly technology.

    • Thanks for your comments, David. As to alternatives, The Wilderness Society on Monday released a long report (Smart Solar: Focusing on Low-Conflict Zones to Promote the West’s Economy, Protect Wildlands, and Build a Clean Energy Future http://wilderness.org/content/smartsolar) which will helpfully guide and shape responsible solar development on public lands in the west. This article on distributed generation (http://www.mojavedesertblog.com/2011/03/distributed-generation-can-save-desert.html) cites a UCLA study which found that L.A. rooftops alone could generate as much as 5500 megawatts of solar. The Obama administration says that distributed generation cannot be developed fast enough, yet it is our government who set the arbitrary deadlines after decades of waffling and inattention. And of course, the most glaring item missing from all of this talk is *conservation*. Electricity is still used like it’s free and harmless, and office buildings and homes throughout this metropolis remain lit through the night even when not used.

      This is a difficult, maddening, and saddening topic for me.

      Thanks for commenting, David.

  7. Pingback: The Artist as Activist | MICHAEL E. GORDON PHOTOGRAPHY

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