The Cracktrack: Confessions of a Drug Runner

Some years back, my good friend Steve told me about finding old aircraft tracks on Death Valley National Park’s famous Racetrack playa (where the stones “mysteriously” move). In 2004, author Michel Digonnet released a wonderful adventurers guide to the Park, and he too, mentioned the aircraft tracks: “…a few decades ago the Racetrack was used by drug smugglers as a landing field.”

Steve, Scott, and I were at the Racetrack again in December 2010, and we found the aircraft tracks on the playa after walking across it while aiming towards one of the old mines east of the playa (photo at right).

Finally, just last week, the Los Angeles Times published a Framework multimedia piece by Don Bartletti entitled “Flight of a Drug Cartel Smuggler“. Within the first two minutes of this video, you’ll see images of Death Valley and hear drug smuggler/pilot John Ward detail how he used to land at night on the Racetrack, carrying upwards of one ton of marijuana or cocaine. Unless there was more than one smuggler using the Racetrack as a landing strip, I assume that the tracks seen in the photo at right belong to none other than John Ward.

The mystery of the Racetrack’s aircraft tracks is no more.

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

It’s All About the Light…

Wherever there is light, one can photograph. Alfred Stieglitz

Striped Butte

Striped Butte. Death Valley National Park.

Last night I gave a presentation to the Santa Clarita Valley Photographers Association (SCVPA) (a great group of people, and a more organized and attended-to camera club than I would have ever imagined). The most ironic thing about teaching and presenting is that I always learn as much as the audience. No matter how often I may speak about my work and my philosophies, I learn something about my photographs and beliefs every time.

As I moved through and talked about the 96 photographs I shared with the SCVPA, I was alerted to my use of any and all light. It’s not a new discovery, and other photographers often comment on my use of whatever light. The fact is, I have a photograph(s) in my collection to represent virtually every hour of daylight. The notions that there are only “golden hours” or “sweet light” under which to practice photography have been perpetuated for far too long amongst the nature and landscape photography community. It’s enforced by books, workshops, online photo forums, and far too many photo instructors. It’s time to change this line of thinking, for believing that photography can only be practiced for a few sweet hours of each day and then setting out to capture only specific images that capitalize on that sweet light is akin to photographing with dark blinders on. Any light is available light, and how you choose to see it and whether you choose to photograph under it determines the diversity of your abilities, your vision, and your work. I’d venture that photographers are missing a lot of beautiful photographic opportunities when they’re locked into a singular and exclusive method of photographing.

All light is available light. Sweet light is any light you choose to photograph under. The Golden Hours extend from sunrise to sunset. With few exceptions, failure to create photographs under any light is not a failing of the light; it’s a failure of vision. Take off the blinders and be free.

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

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2010 California Desert Wildflower Prognostications

Ocotillo and Arizon Lupine. Colorado Desert, California

Despite the copious amounts of rain and snow that have fallen on California’s deserts since late November 2009, the 2010 desert wildflower season (if there is to be one) is off to a rather poor start. The attached photograph was made on March 9, 2008. If I were to take you to this location today, we would find nothing like the sweep of Arizona Lupine we see surrounding these Ocotillo. In fact, as of a few days ago, flower-less was this location and many others that are typically in flower at this time. Many high desert residents have delayed their spring gardening, as winter has hung around for as much as one month longer than in most years. The continued precipitation, cold, and wind has done little to encourage growth. Regardless, close inspection of the ground, plants, and buds reveals what may be an underwhelming bloom, despite all this rain!

I initially had scheduled a Desert Wildflower Photography Tour for March 6. I would have typically counted on this date, but on March 6 of 2010, there was virtually nothing in flower. So I postponed the Tour until March 20. I have spent recent days in the locations I had planned to take the tour, but because most of these locations are tremendously late and possibly altogether flower-less this spring, I have canceled any plans for a Desert Wildflower Tour.

I concluded a private workshop last Sunday in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. As Ron Niebrugge and Phil Colla have already reported, Sahara Mustard (Brassica tournefortii) has radically altered the Borrego Valley landscape, stretching from Borrego Springs all the way to Salton Sea. I even found it in remote canyons and washes during my stay. Unfortunately, the spread of this plant is out of control, with millions of acres of Colorado and Sonoran Desert having already been transformed, and with many more acres at risk from this noxious and invasive species. I’ll, too, join the choir in declaring that the vast fields of wildflowers that made Borrego Valley famous may now be a thing of the past. The only real solution at this time is hand-pulling, which is not terribly effective when thousands of acres have been inundated with this devil weed. You can help! If you spot Sahara Mustard while in the field, KILL IT! The entire plant – roots and all – must be pulled, placed in a tied-off plastic bag, and properly disposed of. Simply pulling the plant and tossing it aside is not enough, as the seeds can and will still disperse from a pulled plant.

There is a possibility that things could flip quickly, as we are finally experiencing spring-like conditions throughout most of the California desert for the next week or so. Should I find a remarkable transformation out there, I may offer a short-notice one day tour. Barring this, I am currently at work on putting together a late March/early April 2010 trip to southern Death Valley’s stunning Owlshead Mountains. Only there can I guarantee spreads of wildflowers, towering sand dunes, and vast and stunning landscapes. Click here for more information about this tour.

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

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Lessons in Light and Visualization

There is no such thing as “good” or “bad” photographic light. There is just light.
Brooks Jensen, LensWork.

Just last week, while photographer Floris van Bruegel and I walked towards Death Valley National Park’s Ibex Dunes, Floris commented that I used direct light in my photographs more than most photographers. I harbor no shame about this, and believe that I’m at an advantage in being able to visualize photographs in whatever available light is before me. While many nature and landscape photographers would have you believe that we are limited to the Golden Hours or to the twilight found at each end of the day, there simply exists light that best benefits your subject or light that is less than ideal for your subject. If you’ll contend that the light is “bad”, I’ll counter that you’re just looking in the wrong direction.

VoyagerThe photograph at left, Voyager, was made in the extreme southern end of Death Valley (the Valley proper, that is) last Wednesday. The time was 9:30am. I was up at 5:30am that morning. I had already covered a fair bit of ground, and had even cooked and eaten breakfast by the time I found this scene. I would estimate that 99 of 100 photographers would have told me that this was horrible light and no photographs could be made. Were it not for my experience and ability to visualize a scene in the final print (there is no such thing as PREvisualization!), I might have concurred. Fact is, were it not 9:30am and had the sun not been beating harshly on this wet mud, I doubt that I would have ever been able to see this. Before you rule out “bad” light, rule out your preconceptions and make the exposure. For digital photographers, this costs nothing. For film photographers, it costs only a modest amount to expand your seeing and possibilities. What could you possibly have to lose?

Voyager - raw film scan

Voyager - raw film scan

I’m about to do something here that I don’t believe I have ever done online before: share a raw film scan of the original negative (no manipulation). A cursory glance at the raw negative might lead one could suggest that this is “bad” light, but the proof is in the final print. The exposure was calculated to preserve all highlight and shadow details (no bracketing; no guesswork; I teach my film exposure techniques during my film-based workshops). From the moment I found the scene, I visualized not “bad” light or a difficult-to-print negative; I saw a voyaging vessel in a distant galaxy and a luminous final print. When Ansel talked about “visualization”, he was referring to this ability to visualize a final print (not the “capture“). I would venture that this is one of the most difficult if not liberating ways of seeing. If one cannot visualize the final print, one is not seeing the light 😉

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

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Images of the Subconscious Mind

Darkman

Darkman

One week ago today I found the photograph at left in Death Valley Junction, California (just east of Death Valley National Park). I instantaneously saw the caped and hatted man in the broken pane of glass, assumed it to be Sherlock Holmes, and photographed it and moved on. I thought it was neat – end of story. Upon arriving home, I shared the image with my good friend, Johnny, who emailed back the word(s) “Darkman”. I recalled that there was a film of this name, so I did what we all now do: I Googled. And I was floored.

I barely watch television (I’d rather kill it) and see only one cinema film or so per year; sorry to say to you Darkman fans, it apparently never made my important list of films to watch. But somehow, somewhere, the image from the film stuck with me for nearly twenty years (Darkman was released in 1990). And despite not having seen Darkman, I found him in Death Valley Junction last Monday. I find the similarity uncanny.

It doesn’t end here. If an unimportant twenty year old image can lay dormant in my subconscious for this long, what about direct photographic inspiration from other photographers? Have the images of others inadvertently come out in your own work?

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

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My 2010 Workshops and Tours

Large Format Photographer in the Alabama Hills

My first private workshop of 2010 took place last weekend (January 9-10) in the remarkable Alabama Hills and Owens Valley, California. David, Sue, and Erik Haake (David is the Program Director for the West Los Angeles Group of the Sierra Club) hired me for a day of Large Format photography instruction with Erik on Saturday in the Alabama Hills (Erik is seen in the photo at left shooting sunrise in the Alabama Hills), and on Sunday we toured a few special locations in and around the Owens Valley (concluding our tour at an incredible and hidden petroglyph panel in the Volcanic Tablelands). David and Sue are avid birders, and although I can’t currently call myself an avid birder, it is something I have spent a fair amount of time doing in the past and I do have a fair number of species on my life list (even though I don’t keep a life list!). Incidentally, the scope of my guiding was altered last weekend, and according to Sue: “you were a wonderful birding guide to top it off.” Thanks, David, Sue, and Erik, for being wonderful clients!

I am currently have one scheduled 2010 group workshop and three more in the planning stages for this year:

    Introduction to Large Format Photography Workshop. February 13-14, 2010, Alabama Hills, Eastern Sierra (just outside Lone Pine, California). Limited to only 5 photographers; $349 per person. My teaching methods and techniques are direct and easy to comprehend, and I will successfully put you in full control of your camera. At the completion of this intensive two-day workshop, you will be able to efficiently and confidently compose, focus, and expose your own photographs. Click here for more information and to register for this workshop.

    March 6-7, 2010 California Desert Wildflower tour: Our “wet season” started wet (despite the name, it doesn’t always work this way!) and although we had a recent dry and warm spell, things are slated to turn again next week and the state of California should again get quite wet. This may bode well for spring wildflowers in the desert. But my intention is to only lead a tour (likely a one day driving tour) if I can *guarantee* good blooms at the best locations (desert wildflowers are wildly unpredictable). Only time will tell, and I’ll be updating this blog as things develop.

    October 2010 Eastern Sierra Autumn Color Tour: Fall color varies from year to year, but it’s always predictable enough to guarantee great photographs under incredible settings. I’m tentatively planning a three-day tour during the first week of October. The tour will range from Mono Lake in the north to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in the south.

    Nov-Dec 2010 Death Valley National Park Backcountry 4WD Workshop/Tour: We will spend about a week driving, hiking, and photographing locations that most photographers have no idea even exist! I have personally driven most of Death Valley National Park backcountry roads (including the most difficult and challenging) and have hiked and photographed locations well off the beaten track. Had enough of Zabriskie Point, Badwater, and the Mesquite Flat dunes? Come tour with me. Logistically speaking, unless I can locate and work with an authorized 4WD outfitter for Death Valley NP (I am currently at work on this), each client will need to provide their own 4WD and advanced driving experience. I’ll continue to update my blog as details develop.

If you have interest in any of these workshops/tours, please leave me a reply or shoot me an email.

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

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15th Anniversary Celebration of the California Desert Protection Act

desert_15_flyerSigned into law on October 31, 1994, the California Desert Protection Act designated 7.8 million acres of land as wilderness, changed areas previously designated as national monuments into Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks, and established Mojave National Preserve. This bill was the single largest land protection bill in the history of the lower 48!

Please join the National Park Service and the National Parks Conservation Association to celebrate this historic anniversary at Mojave National Preserve’s Kelso Depot Visitor Center in Kelso, California. Entertainment, education, food, and an incredible line-up of speakers will add to your enjoyment of our celebration, located at the Historic Kelso Depot in the heart of Mojave National Preserve. Only a few miles from the 700 foot tall Kelso Sand Dunes.

Visitor Center open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

* Activities begin at 10 a.m.
* Kelso is 34 miles south of I-15 at Baker on Kelbaker Road
* Celebration event at 1 p.m.
* Lunch concessions available

This event is free and open to the public!

For more information call 760-252-6100 or visit us online at www.nps.gov/moja

You can download a flyer for this event here.

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

Lean

Joshua Tree, Death Valley National Park

Joshua Tree, Death Valley National Park

I’ve just returned from an eight day sojourn into Death Valley National Park. Here’s a new image of a Joshua Tree (Lean) made on the rim of Perdido Canyon, overlooking Hidden Valley (just east of Racetrack Valley).

My vintage Wollensak Verito lens, combined with camera movements and shallow aperture (f11) gave me the historomantic effect I desired (historic + romantic; my newly invented word; perhaps you can find a use for it in your vocabulary :)).

Thank you for your thoughts.

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