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.