Design and Architecture firm Workshop/APD has acquired a large Tranquil Waters print for a New York design project. It’s an honor to have my Pacific Ocean photographs make an appearance on the Atlantic side. These liquid abstractions are often the confluence of three movements: water, watercraft, and camera. All three are typically moving simultaneously in these photographs and the results are often surprisingly exciting or a complete failure. I may be better known for my monochromatic impressions of California deserts yet I’ve lived in close proximity to the Pacific Ocean my entire life. In my experience, the vast infinite and solitude of open water is not at all unlike standing on a desert summit with the vast and infinite stretched before my feet.
Ansel Adams stated (The Negative) that
“visualization is a conscious process of projecting the final photographic image in the mind before taking the first steps in actually photographing the subject. Not only do we relate to the subject itself, but we become aware of its potential as an expressive image.”
The photograph presented here (Sodium Altocumulus) looks nothing like what I actually saw on these salt-encrusted desert mud flats. The light was flat, the mud and salt were nearly color-less, yet I instantly saw the altocumulus clouds and recognized the expressive possibilities for this “bland” setting.
This is neither high art nor a masterpiece but it was enjoyable to visualize and make. I enjoy studying it the same way I enjoy studying big sky. This is a location which I return to frequently to indulge my creative needs and practice my form of abstract landscape photography. The location can change dramatically from day to day, even hour to hour. It’s arid year round and the evaporation rate exceeds the rainfall. Regular shallow flooding through winter and spring alters the surface of the flats and begins anew the salt crystallization process. I never know what I will find and I love this.
By foregoing the preconceived singular image (forget the dang shot), I can spend an entire morning out here in a flow state, engaged in nature’s fascinating details, and make numerous stimulating images.
Just go with the flow, man.
A challenging reality on the desert is heat. If each year it did not occur like clockwork, it would be rather difficult to pry me from this habitat. I’m the shrubfly on the lone stool in the distant stand of creosote; they have to kick me out when its time to close up for the season.
May 2019 was unseasonable on the California desert. Temperatures remained low and precipitation remained high enough to keep things cooler and greener than would be normal for this time of year. Early June temperatures were not quite yet deadly, so I decided to make one last chase: Smoke Trees (Psorothamnus spinosus). The beautiful Smoke tree can be found in California, Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico deserts in dry, low elevation (<1500′) sandy washes. For much of the year they are nondescript and scrappy looking compact trees. In late spring – following a bountiful winter – they can explode with brilliant blue fireworks. After the heat has fried the flowers, they revert to their common appearance: like whisps of smoke rising delicately from a desert wash.
While the photographs may be enjoyable to view, they omit a few important sensory details: the baking heat (if it wasn’t cathartic we wouldn’t spa nor sauna); dry desert winds moving through the wash; and the cacophony of millions of bees (video) and other happy winged insects who gather this bounty (see the attached close-up). This is a living desert.
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Some seem surprised when I inform them that on the California desert there is always something blooming somewhere every month of the year. Long after the spring annuals have spent themselves and have gone to seed, perennial shrubs and other unique annuals begin to appear (often coincident with rising temperatures and heat). This is the paradox and beauty of the desert. She never fails to reveal her beauty and she never disappoints.
Mariposa is Spanish for butterfly, and she is surely beautiful and delicate like a butterfly. She’s a member of the Lily family (Liliaceae) and rarely grows more than a few inches tall. Her color can vary widely from pale yellow to brilliant California Poppy orange. Noted taxonomist and botanist Philip A. Munz suggested that the desert mariposa lily is “probably the most beautiful of desert wildflowers“. Will you disagree with Munz? The Desert Mariposa Lily grows from barren soils and conditions (see the middle image above) and thus seems spectacularly beautiful against a drab canvas. The spirit of Georgia O’Keeffe often reaches a flower before me and stylizes it for my lens (above left).
I recall a well-known U.S. photography magazine in which they’d publish their annual travel calendar for nature and landscape photographers. This suggested 12-month calendar offered twelve or more different U.S. photographic destinations, one for each month based on the peak conditions of particular locations (for example: Jan: Winter Photography in Yellowstone NP; February: wildflowers in Death Valley NP; and so on…). As a photographic “specialist”, I always found this calendar slightly amusing. It’s taken me a lifetime of naturalist observation to develop my own twelve-month calendar in my own habitat. I’m sure as heck not passing up my Mariposa Lily bloom so I can stand with crowds of other photographers at the June hotspot.
Consider developing your own annual photographic calendar through a long and deep commitment to a habitat or subject(s). Time will be your only challenge – you will never find yourself at a loss for ideas or subjects.
This essay is about wilderness character, geotagging/location sharing; and overcrowding/vandalizing of public lands. Many articles have been published denouncing location-sharing due to their overcrowding and vandalizing. This essay is a rebuttal to those opinion pieces which advise readers to “keep on geotagging” while suggesting that those who enjoy wilderness character are elitist. I welcome your comments and feedback.
It’s late May on the Mojave Desert. The air temperatures and weather this spring have been remarkably unseasonable. Palm Springs, California is normally sizzling this month but in a few days it will record its coolest May on record. It’s been an extraordinary spring: the wildflower explosions; the millions of butterflies and bees (oh, the Painted Ladies!); and the gazillion pounds of biota respond in kind to a bountiful winter. Strangely, there is no longer a drought. This place is alive. I’m alive – a very happy and content desert explorer.
I arrived at the foot of the range mid-afternoon to long shadows. This place has a National in its designation, but being far from services, gasoline, lodging, and notable icons in the world of social media, the cooing Gambel’s Quail, Say’s Phoebes, and Phainopeplas and I have it all to ourselves. I plan to climb up high on the craggy ridge and traverse its length, returning to my truck from the opposite side of the ridge. I’m not sure what I’ll find along the way but I expect magic; it’s always there. The 360-degree views from the top are stunning; I can see an uncountable number of mountain ranges and into three different United states from my high vantage (there are five mountain ranges visible in the above image; the site for this journal). It’s breathtaking; I could cry. I should cry. The cackling White-throated Swifts and desert wind are the only people I see and sounds I hear (birds are my people). Except for my own, no human or vehicle is within miles of me. This is exactly why I am here. This might be terrifying for many, but this is my sanity and world peace. This urge is merely evolutionary and biological; I never suppressed it. I feel whole and alive.
A remarkable thing happened to the United States in late 1964. The passage of The Wilderness Act sought to assure that an “increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition”. The Act further defined “wilderness” as “in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean….retaining its primeval character and influence, without….human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions….. [and] has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation”.
In summary, the 1964 Wilderness Act set aside protected lands to retain their primeval character and natural conditions (a rather abstract and lofty concept for a nation hellbent on “progress” and sacking money). Secondly, it recognized the need for human-untrammeled lands and solitude (for the mutual benefits of both wildlife and humans). Sadly, The Wilderness Act arrived too late for the central and eastern United States but it allowed for the protection of much of western U.S. wildlands (U.S. Wilderness MAP) which draws millions of visitors from around the world (unfortunately, not all with the best of intentions).
In 1960, the great novelist Wallace Stegner wrote the now-famous “Wilderness Letter” to urge for the passage of the forthcoming Wilderness Act. Stegner deemed wilderness “an intangible and spiritual resource” which can offer “spiritual renewal, the recognition of identity, the birth of awe”. It’s impossible to define what these are and how they feel unless you’ve allowed yourself to have this experience. Stegner continued to assert that wilderness is “something that has helped form our character and that has certainly shaped our history as a people.”
Readers are surely aware of the recent spate of nuisance and destructive human behavior on public lands. It’s not just here in the Unites States – it’s happening everywhere (public lands and private). Everything from graffiti/tagging to illegal fires to rock stacking/cairn building to toppling prominent rock formations to trashing fields of wildflowers to outright habitat destruction. We don’t yet have any conclusive studies but many of us attribute it to the explosion of social media, geotagging, location sharing, and a very particular photo sharing platform for which people have proved willing to risk and take their lives for self-portraits (“selfies” in their vernacular). Many of us have repeatedly argued against sharing locations to help protect them from the destructive ways of humans; the F.O.M.O. Generation rails back with “elitist” and “racist”.
Let’s set the record straight: wilderness character is impossible to preserve if everyone is present. It’s not about keeping away any particular age, gender, or color – I want to preserve that intangible and spiritual resource. It’s long gone when one is surrounded by crowds, antics, and chatter. If you enjoy crowds and socializing, great! Please go where those qualities exist (recommendations provided upon request) but please don’t be upset with those who wish to retain the natural character of wild places.
It’s true: we cannot save these places from industrial destruction if no one knows them or loves them. But we also can’t save them from industrialized recreation if they’re equally shared by all 330 million Americans and a few million tourists from abroad. This isn’t elitism or racism – it’s reality. I welcome you to find and share my sacred spaces with me but please don’t be upset because I don’t provide a name, waypoints, or an e-guide. Gumption, legs, and burning desire will get you high on this desert ridge; geotags are for the elite.
“Without any remaining wilderness we are committed wholly, without chance for even momentary reflection and rest, to a headlong drive into our technological termite-life, the Brave New World of a completely man-controlled environment. We need wilderness preserved – as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds – because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed. The reminder and the reassurance that it is still there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in ten years set foot in it. It is good for us when we are young, because of the incomparable sanity it can bring briefly, as vacation and rest, into our insane lives. It is important to us when we are old simply because it is there – important, that is, simply as an idea.” Wallace Stegner
I recently concluded my last workshop of the season in Moab, Utah (Terrific Trio with friends and leaders Guy Tal and Bruce Hucko) and am happy to have come home with a new photograph for my desert botanicals collection. I gave a presentation during the workshop whereby I discussed portfolio development and my own methods of having several working projects under simultaneous development. During a brief off-road stop following the workshop, I spotted this yucca under sizzling midday light; not the ideal time for photography. I used my standard combination of modern tools and vintage aesthetics to make the photograph. The background is in full sun and provides a pleasing backdrop for the diffused light foreground.
Advice for photographers: always carry a diffuser.
The art of seeing has long been co-opted by the photographic community but its first use was likely Aldous Huxley’s unrelated 1942 book. We use this phrase to describe our own photography; that we possess some sort of gift, that our art is the ability to see and capture. I propose an end to this nonsense.
Art arises from artists who have good stories to tell about their subjects. Good composition is mere training and repetition, as evidenced by the many wonderful smartphone images I’ve seen by non-photographers and non-artists. A traditional operating mode for nature and landscape photographers is to find something beautiful; to use a wide angle lens; to stick something large, unrelated, and often obtrusive in the foreground and to keep the fingers crossed for an “epic” sky (apps can help you determine this but they can’t help you make art). But when photographs lack a backstory and/or deeper interest (which admittedly may vary greatly depending upon the viewing audience) the most likely reply from viewers will be a terse “that’s pretty” (a death knell for the artist, a potentially positive outcome for the camera operator).
As an artist, I’m still trying to find my voice after more than twenty years of working at it. I’m still in an “entry level” position. “Overnight success” has proved apocryphal; artist is for the long-haul. If you love what you do and have a story to tell, what’s the rush? It takes years to understand what you need to and want to say and to learn how to say it. There is no competition despite the apparent F.O.M.O epidemic. Good cameras and software and a large social media following will not ensure artistry or success. Having good ideas that are worth expressing is probably a better path to a long, artistic career.