I had a very busy start to this year shooting a variety of corporate, commercial and editorial projects, but as little of what I’ve shot has published yet I have practically nothing to share! So, let’s take a nature walk while we wait. Last week we joined some friends of ours for a weekend of camping and hiking in the Los Padres National Forrest outside of Ojai. The original plan was to go out to the San Bernardino Mountains, but a bad weather forecast had us looking for last minute alternatives. Our timing couldn’t have been better for where we ended up. We found a fantastic campground in the woods and on an afternoon hike ended up finding an amazing stretch of deerweed in full bloom along the Maricopa Highway. One patch had grown over the trail so thick it felt surreal pushing our way through them. I tried to capture the feeling w/ a slo-mo iPhone video I’ve posted below the jump. I also shot a video showing the seemingly endless stretch of them as we wound our way along the road. I’ve probably said this before, but one of the great things about California is that it’s so large that in our 8 years of frequent traveling and camping outings we rarely repeat experiences. We’re constantly amazed that we’ve found yet another gem of a spot and wonder how we could have missed it. I’m looking forward to more discoveries!
It’s been an amazing and busy year. The only downside to that is that we’ve hardly had a chance to get out and do one of our favorite things, exploring the parks and wilderness that are only a short drive from Los Angeles. In the past few weeks we tried to make up for that deficit by heading out to Joshua Tree National Park and then, shortly thereafter, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. We first visited Joshua Tree in 2009, shortly after moving to Los Angeles, but hadn’t been back since. Anza-Borrego was completely new to us. Considering how close it is to Palm Springs, we were amazed it hadn’t even been on our radar, but were happy our friends invited us out there on a day trip over Thanksgiving weekend. The highlight was Fonts Point, pictured in the first photo as well as below. It’s an amazing, craggy expanse of badlands that you don’t even see until you drive out along a 4-mile stretch of washboard road, walk up to its edge and suddenly see the earth drop away in front of you. At Joshua Tree we camped with friends and spent the days bouldering and visiting several of the park highlights. We were somewhat unprepared for just how cold it would get overnight, but managed to survive. I’m unsure of the actual overnight temperatures, but a two gallon jug of water was half ice when we awoke the next morning if that’s any indication. Still, we had a great time and I managed to make some nice landscapes along the way. I have nothing to complain about this year, but am hoping that next year we’ll get to do stuff like this more often.
Last year, following two weeks spent in Death Valley shooting a story for National Parks Magazine, I made several return trips to keep shooting. On the first trip back, I finally made it up to the Eureka Dunes, which had been closed off because of poor road conditions on my previous excursions. I wrote about the experiences I had on those trip in previous posts, here and here, but never shared the final images! So here they are, in a series I’m calling “Drift.” My idea for these images was to photograph the dunes in a way I hadn’t seen before. Rather than trying to make them look epic and unforgiving, I decided to decontextualize them by cutting out the sky and the surrounding mountain ranges, only focusing on the elegant lines and shadows formed by the overlapping slopes and the changing position of the sun. Through lens choice and the decision to eliminate environmental elements, I also made it hard to tell whether you’re looking at something massive or small, though many of the scenes here depict areas that are several hundred feet apart and quite tall. The idea for the title of the series came from the realization that I would probably never be able to repeat any one of these images. Despite appearing static, the dunes are constantly being reshaped by the winds that formed them in the first place. Those winds, combined with the unique composition of the sand there, are also responsible for making them some of the only “singing dunes” in the world. Despite a few visits I still haven’t heard it, but when the winds are right, the sand is said to create a hum not unlike a distant prop plane. Another idea I have is to go back to record the sound, which could then be played in the background in a gallery exhibition. Speaking of which, I’m working on making master prints of the series, which I hope to display soon. So far the images range from 17″ x 11″ and up to 60″ x 40.” Although I’ve displayed images in galleries and numerous art events, I have never worked toward a solo exhibition, so this is an exciting challenge!
We recently returned to Death Valley National Park to continue work on a project I started during a previous visit. These are a couple of shots I took along the way at Eureka Dunes, one from out in the middle of the mile-long stretch dunes and another from our campsite at night. In order to get the photos I wanted for the project, we decided to head out in the middle of July when temperatures at Badwater Basin (the park’s center 200 feet below sea level) were registering over 120 degrees.
The hope was to find absolutely no footprints in the dunes, about 50 miles from the basin. Droves of so-called “heat tourists” were known to be visiting the basin to experience the extreme temperatures, but I was fortunately correct in guessing that they would not venture far beyond the nearby hotels and cabins providing them an oasis with A/C and cold cocktails they could sit around sipping while discussing how unbelievably hot it was out there.
Despite that the Eureka Valley is about 3,000 feet above sea level, resulting in much “cooler” temperatures of around 105, it’s probably not a good idea to head out to these parts for very long in the summer. It’s not only hot, but there’s no source of relief for miles. If you’re going to do venture out, your best bet is to rent a Jeep outfitted with off-road tires and bring LOTS of water. We brought the water, but were driving my 11-year-old Nissan Sentra. It’s been a good car, but she was surely out of her element. On my previous trip to the dunes I had rented an appropriate vehicle – a Jeep with off-road tires – and therefore didn’t realize just how bad, and how long, the roads out there were. To reach the dunes you have to travel over a good 10 miles of washboard road, which, in a Sentra at least, restricts your speed to a maximum of 10 mph. She handled it like a champ though and after about 2 hours of incredibly slow, bumpity-bump-bumpy driving we reached the base of the dunes. Ten miles in a desert valley really doesn’t appear that far, which made it all the more torturous as the giant dunes were in our sites from the moment we were on the road, yet never seemed to get any closer. Thank god for podcasts.
The long wait paid off though, and when we got there we had the entire valley to ourselves. Upon arriving, we set out on the dunes to catch the last two hours of light. It was hot as hell, but didn’t seem all that bad as long as we kept drinking water. As night fell, we were treated to one of the more unique camping experiences of our lives, sitting at the base of the largest dunes in North America under a nearly full moon. We ate a meal of farro and mushrooms cooked on a portable camping stove and stared out at the mountains of sand, that were almost as bright as they appear in the photo. Trying to turn up the “epic” factor to 11 we put on some tracks by Sigur Ros and blasted them out of our portable Bluetooth speaker. If there’s an ideal setting, other than a mile under the sea with Capt. Steve Zissou, to listen to Sigur Ros, I think we found it. The next morning we were up at 6 a.m. to trek back out over the dunes in the morning light. We finished by 8 and hopped back in the car to get out of dodge before the heat came back. Definitely amazing. And I’ll definitely remember the Jeep next time.
For a number of reasons I’ve been spending a lot of time in the desert recently. This time I returned to Death Valley National Park in order to continue working on a body of work started for my recent assignment for National Parks Magazine. The above image was taken on a return visit to the Racetrack Playa, the large flat lakebed known for it’s “sailing stones,” an example of which you can see in my previous post showing the published spread. As always, my goal when visiting a frequently visited location is to find a unique way to shoot it. More so when I have the luxury of shooting for myself with no deadline or expectations. We arose early that morning to catch the last of the moonlight and the first daylight. Unlike my last trip though, there were no clouds in the sky, leaving me with a bunch of images I considered fairly ordinary. After shooting we returned to our campsite for breakfast. On the way out we decided to hit up the Grandstand, a large set of boulders situated on the lakebed, despite that the sun had now risen high, leaving us with us with contrasty light not usually preferred by landscape photographers. We were fortunate while there to be the only ones around other than a lone, barefooted and shirtless man wandering around the lakebed. This was the element I needed to show the scale of the environment in a way that a picture of a rock can’t. To me it also made the scene look otherworldly. Having found this I was satisfied enough to move on to the next location, the Eureka Dunes. Neither I nor my friend Matt, also a photographer, had been to this particular set of dunes before. On my previous trips the roads leading to the dunes, found on the north end of the massive park, had been closed, making accessing them, by going all the way up and around the exterior of the park, impossible given my time restrictions at the time. This time we had a Jeep and the direct road was open, so we made a point of getting there. Unlike the centrally located Mesquite Dunes, which cover a wide expanse, but are only 100 or so feet tall, the Eureka Dunes, nestled against a set of mountains walling off the Eureka Valley, reach 700 feet at the tallest dune. They are also much less trafficked due to the difficulty of accessing them and their distance from the center of the park, where generally everyone stays. Surprisingly though, after my initial awe at their massiveness and beauty, I found myself quickly bored of photographing them. These too have been photographed by a large number of very talented landscape photographers, and again there were no clouds in the sky to lend the scenes any drama. Looking for something different I began to notice that I could find all of these abstract, perfectly defined lines as one dune overlapped another and began shooting very abstract images focusing on only the lines and shadows. Suddenly I found myself working on a sort of a fine art project-within-a-project that kept me entertained until the last of the evening light had gone. I plan on eventually offering a series of fine art prints from the shoot, which I may add to if I get the chance to return again in the fall. I’ll also be adding a finished edit of the overall Death Valley project to my site very soon.
Rainy but delightful days between the holidays were spent in Pismo Beach and the Santa Ynez/Santa Maria valleys tasting wines and then tasting some more at the area’s numerous vineyards with Erinn and her visiting parents. Between tastes and downpours I managed to bring out the camera to capture the abundant, beautiful landscapes the region has to offer. As they say, bad weather makes great photos! I was recently reminded of this when I took two separate trips to Death Valley National Park to work on an ongoing magazine assignment that will run in the spring. The first trip had beautiful, cloudless blue skies and I came back with some rather boring landscapes. The second trip was partly overcast, adding instant drama to the shots and yielding much better results. These aren’t so dramatic, but the skies definitely lend a quiet, wintry mood that I like. Bring on the clouds!