midday sun/ joshua tree

joshua tree | 2018

Cloudless sky, midday sun — time to set the camera aside, seek some shade, and wait for the long shadows and golden light of evening. Right? Not in my book…

 

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barrel and cholla

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barrel and cholla | 5.16.18

This is a tough place. A harsh, hot, dry place. A land of sun and wind and rock and sand. And cactus. And snakes and scorpions and other prickly, gnarly things. This is the desert. My kind of place.

Brief thoughts on desert photography

ocotillo | 2018

I love the desert. I love it for it’s starkness. I love it for it’s bare-bones, elemental spirit. It can be a harsh, hard-edged, unforgiving environment. I like to roam in it, and to get to know it. I’m learning how to take pictures of it.

When I first came to the desert, and up until recently, I was shooting strictly in color. There is a world of color here, sometimes subtle, sometimes not. But I reached a point where color didn’t satisfy. I’ve been doing black and white almost exclusively for a few months. That’s what’s been speaking to me.

I want to get past the surface color and dig in to that stark, raw, knife-edged harshness and spirit. To me, for now, black and white comes closer to it.

I want that to come through in my snapshots. I want most of all to grow out of the tendency to “prettify” the desert. It deserves better than that.

saguaro

saguaro | 2018

Saguaro cactus aren’t very common here in the low desert of California, but there are a few around. None seem to be of any size though. There are four of them here near the campground. The biggest is about five feet tall — this one in the picture is a little over three feet.

digging in to my world

rock and cross | 4.9.18

 

Years ago Alfred Stieglitz made a series of photographs from his window looking down over New York City. He actually did it from two windows, from his apartment and from the window of his gallery, and over a period of time. He did these in a straight fashion — crisper and more hard edged than his earlier pictorial work — and in my opinion some of his finest work. Ruth Orkin did a similar thing. Every day she’d shoot pictures of Central Park from her apartment window. Same vantage point every day, but every day the photographs were new and fresh. These resulted in two books. In both cases, Stieglitz and Orkin, some very strong and moving work came out of photographing essentially the same scene day after day.

We spent five months last year traveling in a small motorhome. Mostly in Montana, but also in northern California, and parts of Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, and Arizona.  We saw some beautiful country. Bears Ears and Hovenweep and  Canyon de Chelly — these places in particular stirred my spirit. I took very few pictures though, and fewer still are worth working with. I didn’t know the country.

We’ve been back here in the desert now for a little over six months. Aside from monthly trips to Indio for supplies we haven’t traveled at all. But I’ve been out every day with my camera. My snapshots have almost all been taken within about a mile of my door, most much closer than that. I have interesting subject matter around me. The desert itself. The Patton Museum grounds and the old tanks behind it. The boneyard behind the town with it’s antique vehicles and abandoned equipment. Various signs, flags, wooden crosses, and a steady stream of travelers and truckers passing through.

It would be easy, too damn easy, to say that I’ve exhausted the possibilities around me and grumble about needing to get out more, to see some different country, to expand my subject matter. I could do that, and will in time, but I’m not about to say I’ve exhausted the possibilities here. The subjects don’t change much, if at all, so I have to look harder, dig deeper to find new ways of seeing the familiar. For now that’s my ongoing project — to dig deeper, to look closer, to improve my vision of things I see every day without resorting to trickery or manipulation or processing to get a different look. I’ve experimented with that and it almost always sounds a false note.

Looking closer, digging deeper into my immediate surroundings is good practice and good exercise. Now and then I even get something that works.

shooting it straight

These tanks are lined up a little way from my door. They belong to the General Patton Museum here in Chiriaco Summit, and are stored out in the lot behind the museum. I take a lot of pictures of them, along with everything else right outside — the signs, the old cars and buildings, the desert itself.

I’ve played with different camera apps over the last few months as well as different processing looks to give a different feel to the same subjects. Sometimes it works well, sometimes not — what might look interesting at first often reveals itself as weak and overdone simply for effect. That’s easy to do.

What seems to be a good way to handle a picture shows itself, over time, to be an affectation. Artifice. That seldom satisfies, even more rarely stands the test of time. For awhile, at least, I’m putting my processing app on the back burner and sticking with posting snapshots of these same subjects, but straight out of the camera — no cropping, no adjustments, no processing of any kind. Straight, like this one.

For now I’m not interested in how I can make a picture look after the fact, but rather in how I see it in the first place. For me that’s really the heart of it and what I need to continue practicing.