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.

Recent Publications – The Wilderness Society

In mid-2010, I was contracted by The Wilderness Society (TWS) to photograph for their San Gabriel Mountains Forever campaign (discussed in my Aug 2010 blog post). It was a stimulating and challenging assignment which gave me the opportunity to discover ever more intimately the San Gabriel Mountains that have formed the mountainous backdrop of my lifetime here in the metropolis of Los Angeles. My work on this campaign provided the opportunity to have my photographs used as fuel for protecting this important human and biological resource. I recently received copies of the beautiful multi-page San Gabriel Mountains Forever brochure (printed with soy inks on recycled and ancient-forest-friendly paper); it’s a pleasure and honor to see it filled with my photographs (cover images and interior). My photographs from this campaign have since appeared in Los Angeles-area newspapers, the San Gabriel Mountains Forever website, and other TWS publications. I give great thanks to Annette Kondo at TWS for choosing my work to help preserve and protect the beautiful and rugged San Gabriel Mountains. See the rest of my campaign photographs on my Flickr site.

A few months back, The Wilderness Society released their 2010 Annual Report. It’s a great pleasure to have one of my photographs from the San Gabriel Mountains Forever campaign published full-page in this Annual Report!

Thank you Annette and The Wilderness Society!

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

San Gabriel Mountains Forever

San Gabriel Wilderness

Rising steeply from the nearly level plain of the Los Angeles Basin, the rugged San Gabriel Mountains provide numerous recreational opportunities and wilderness solitude for more than 17 million Los Angelenos. This rugged mountain range, which John Muir described as “more rigidly inaccessible in the ordinary meaning of the word than any other I have attempted to penetrate” (The Mountains of California, 1894), has been my recreational backyard during my entire life. I’ve stood on the summits of all its major peaks (10, 064′ Mt. San Antonio [Mt. Baldy] more than 50 times in all seasons), explored its steep and deep canyons, and have relished in the silence of its deep Wilderness. Despite its close proximity to downtown Los Angeles, its three Wilderness areas (San Gabriel, Sheep Mountain, and Cucamonga) are largely untrailed, unvisited, and offer incredible opportunities for solitude and silence like few other metropolitan mountain ranges can. “The

West Fork San Gabriel River

Angeles National Forest is an irreplaceable natural resource that gives Los Angeles County 70% of its open space, provides 35% of the region’s drinking water, and contributes clean air to a polluted region. The forest serves as critical habitat for many endangered and sensitive plant and animal species including the Nelson’s Bighorn sheep, California condor, mountain lion, spotted owl and the mountain yellow-legged frog.”

I jumped at the opportunity when The Wilderness Society recently contacted me about photographing for this campaign (my

Yucca and Wildflowers

first assignment with them was in 2007). San Gabriel Mountains Forever is a partnership of local business owners, residents, faith and community leaders, recreation groups, health and social service organizations, and conservation groups who have come together to protect wilderness and wild and scenic rivers in the San Gabriel Mountains. Most importantly, this campaign seeks to expand the three existing Wilderness areas (San Gabriel, Sheep Mountain, and Cucamonga) and hopes to gain Federal Wild and Scenic River designation for the San Gabriel River (east, west and north forks), San Antonio Creek, and the Middle Fork of Lytle Creek.

Middle Fork, Lytle Creek

Regardless of what I think of their images, I have always been most inspired by landscape and nature photographers whose work has been used to help protect and preserve threatened and imperiled landscapes (a few names come to mind: Ansel Adams; Eliot Porter; Philip Hyde; Galen Rowell; Robert Glenn Ketchum [American Photo magazine wrote recently that RGK "may well be the most influential photographer you’ve never heard of."]. As a fine art photographer, the primary vehicle for my work is the fine art print. I’m moved by the fact that my photographs adorn the walls of many homes and offices, yet the legacy I’d like to leave looks a lot like that of Adams, Porter, et al.

A family enjoys the North Fork of the San Gabriel River

The Wilderness Society provided me with a shoot list that would keep me busy. They’d asked only for about fifteen photographs total (I provided them with thirty-four in the end), but the locations are quite distant from one another and required that I put in a number of miles on foot, bicycle, and by car. I also needed to provide a few photographs of a family recreating on one of the creeks slated for Wild and Scenic River designation (see photo at left). Because I’ve been adventuring in the San Gabriel’s most of my life, I knew that this would be a fun yet challenging assignment. The rigid inaccessibility that slowed down John Muir would also slow me down. The San Gabriel’s are a striking range, yet the range doesn’t easily lend itself to idyllic and beautiful campaign photographs that would easily sway public opinion. I would have to work hard to create ‘iconic’ photographs in a range that has little to none. The lack of trails and vistas where I needed them to be would work me even harder.

Morning light and atmospheric haze over the Sheep Mountain Wilderness

Some of my campaign photographs have already been published in several local newspapers and used in campaign materials, including on the SGMF website. A few of my favorite photographs from this campaign are seen throughout this article. While these are less iconic images of the San Gabriel Mountains,

Morning light and atmospheric haze over Cattle Canyon and proposed additions to the Sheep Mountain Wilderness

they are images that for me best illustrate the ethereal light and mood and rugged character of the range.

WHAT CAN YOU DO TO HELP? Please tell Congress that you support protection of the San Gabriel Mountains! You can take easy action right on the SGMF website (they even have a sample letter with talking points that you can use). I THANK YOU in advance for helping to preserve the San Gabriel Mountains forever!

I offer my sincere THANKS to The Wilderness Society and the coalition! It’s a real honor and privilege to have my photographs used for such an important cause in my own backyard.

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

The Station Fire, Los Angeles

The Day Fire, Alamo Mountain, Los Padres National Forest

The Day Fire, Alamo Mountain, Los Padres National Forest

Photographer Brandon Riza has created an incredible time-lapse video (using a Canon 5D) of Los Angeles’s Station Fire on August 30, 2009. Although the Station Fire began only days ago, it is already one of the largest wildfires in recorded California history (the 2003 San Diego Cedar Fire is #1 at 273,246 acres burned), and with containment currently only at 5% and full containment projected more than two weeks out, it has the potential to finish in the Top 5. Let’s hope that it does not.

I tried to embed Brandon’s video here, but could not get it to work. See this amazing one minute and six second video HERE. Brandon’s also got a lot of great panoramic mountain photography on his homepage.

Since I could not embed the video, I’ve embedded one of my photographs from the Day Fire, California’s fifth largest recorded wildfire (264 square miles burned). In 2007, The Wilderness Society contracted me to photograph the post-wildfire environment on Los Padres National Forest’s Alamo Mountain.

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

Restore the Mendo

Incinerated - Alamo Mountain.


In late 2007 I completed a photographic assignment for The Wilderness Society on Alamo Mountain in the Los Padres National Forest, California. Just the year before, on Labor Day 2006, the Day Fire broke out on the Los Padres and burned continuously for nearly six weeks (becoming the sixth largest wildfire in state history). By the time it was over, 162,000 acres had burned, yet the conspicuously green top of Alamo Mountain remained nearly unscathed. How did Alamo Mountain escape incineration? Several U.S. Forest Service controlled burns took place before the Day Fire rolled through. During these controlled burns, trees were thinned and dense ground fuels were eliminated, thus protecting Alamo Mountain from the raging Day Fire that swirled about it.

After spending many days on Alamo Mountain exploring and making photographs for The Wilderness Society, I become a huge advocate of controlled burns. I was already an advocate, but here I was seeing with my own eyes the direct benefits of controlled burns. Standing amongst wildflowers and healthy pines atop Alamo Mountain, I only needed to look across canyon – where no controlled burns took place – to a blackened and devastated forest. This could have been prevented.

Headed by The Wilderness Society, a new coalition has launched an educational campaign aimed at generating more support for the Forest Service to conduct controlled burns in California’s Mendocino National Forest. Controlled burns restore ecosystems, protect people and property, and save taxpayer dollars. How can you help? Start by checking out the Restore the Mendo blog. There are instructions for writing letters to the Forest Service in support of controlled burns, as well as lots of resources where you can learn more about this topic. If you have a website or blog, please help get the word out with a link to the Restore the Mendo blog.

Thank you in advance for your help.

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