“Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it” (Confucius)
During the winter, when many of my friends are basking in the hot Caribbean sun at such popular vacation venues as the Dominican Republic or Puerto Vallarta, I can be found roaming the remote, sun-parched back roads of the California Mojave Desert. Likewise, while most people are visiting Nevada to revel in the bright lights of Vegas, I can be found exploring the lithified sandstone dunes of Red Rock Canyon or the Valley of Fire.
I am a Canadian fine art photographer whose passion is shooting monochrome landscapes across Canada and the United States. One of my favorite winter vacation destinations for photography is the American Southwest desert country. While many of my peers often question my choices for recreation and leisure and view the desert a bleak, lifeless place, I have developed an idiosyncratic connection to the desert. This affinity goes well beyond my appreciation for the physical beauty of its landscape. It is a connection that integrates the mind, body and spirit.
It all started in 2003 on my first trip to the Southwest. I attended a photography field trip to the high desert of Sedona, Arizona. The landscape was utterly strange and surreal. I was so awe-inspired by the other-worldliness of the landscape that I decided to make it a perennial photographic venture. It has become my passion, and now I make the trip down to the southwest each winter to capture a different region of the desert’s timeless beauty. I have now been doing this for twelve years, and I have photographed vast expanses of the southwest terrain — from the Black Mountains of the Mojave Desert, to the salt flats of Death Valley, to the great canyons of the Moab Desert. But even after so many trips, I still often ask myself– what is it about the desert that beckons me to capture its grandeur? What exactly is the allure? I have begun to realize that my annual sojourn to the desert country is more than just a photographic journey. Above all else, it has become a journey of self-discovery. An annual crusade – a sacred ritual of sorts– affording me the opportunity to stoke my creative fire and redefine my photographic vision.
There is also a strong Zen connection that starts with the sense of freedom I experience from migrating across desolate, wide-open spaces and the peace and solitude that comes from bonding with nature. The loneliness and isolation are energizing and nourish the heart, mind and soul. Apart from the spiritual connection, there is also the allure of the desert’s geological beauty. In New Mexico, you have the vast, boundless desert vistas of barren sandstone cliffs sculpted through the ages by the effects of wind and water. In Death Valley National Park, California, you find pristine, white sand dunes, artistically inspired by nature, stretching infinitely beyond one’s imagination. Further to the south, the sun-baked, windswept tracts of California’s Mojave Desert where survival is tenuous but, mysteriously, can sustain life despite the extreme environment. In southwest Arizona, the majestic Saguaros populate the landscape and stoically guard the countryside like sentinels of Mother Nature. Over a third of America’s national parks are in the states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and California and each state’s desert region boasts its own unique geological characteristics.
Though I’m officially on vacation when I travel to the southwest, I am not lazing around sipping Margaritas (okay, maybe a couple after sundown). In fact, photographing the desert can be very taxing on both the mind and body. There is a lot of hiking and conditions can be harsh. There is also a lot of driving, and I am constantly on the go trying to catch up with the light. As a photographer, the creative use of light is one of the fundamental aspects of my desertscapes and often I must wait hours before the sun is in the right position to capture the shot. There is also a considerable amount of planning and organizing that must be done before each trip. I choose to plan my trips during the winter months, usually between November and February and for obvious reasons. At this time, the desert heat is far more forgiving and more conducive to hiking and exploration. As any photographer will attest to, the cooler, comfortable winter temperatures make all the difference, especially when one has to lug around heavy photographic equipment. Each trip to the southwest is carefully planned out many months in advance. I research where I want to go and then spend considerable time reading up on the region. To gain a virtual perspective of the area,
I use Google Earth to study the area further. If the venue is near or in a National Park, I will contact National Parks Tourism requesting literature and maps although, nowadays, most information is available online. On occasion, I may order a land survey map of an area if one is available. I may also contact other landscape photographers for feedback on their recent experiences to the desert southwest. In the past, their advice has proven to be invaluable for providing insights such as the best vantage points to shoot a particular scene or how to access hard-to-reach points of interest. Also, their input on road conditions and road closures come in handy.
After deciding on a definitive destination, my wife and I plan the itinerary. The planning includes everything from flights to and from the region, car rental, accommodations and a detailed daily touring schedule of locations I want to photograph. On occasion, we invite other like-minded photographers to accompany us on our photographic mission. Typically, we fly from Toronto, Canada to any one of three major southwest junction points. Depending on our itinerary, I find that starting the road-trip leg of the journey from Las Vegas, San Diego or Phoenix provides easy access to most southwest national parks, trails and desert preserves. And the driving distances to these destinations are quite manageable. Occasionally, I fly to Albuquerque for closer access to New Mexico desert regions and southeast regions of Utah. The next priority is to rent a sturdy SUV with good wheel clearance and moderately good four-wheel drive off-road capability. While some areas I photograph may be popular with tourists, I much prefer to seek out the off-the-beaten-path venues where there are fewer people, cars, and less commercial activity. More often than not, I hire local guides to gain access to these remote, off-lying areas. In doing so, this inflates the cost of the trip, but is well worth the investment in order to annex other less-traveled desert lands.
My acute sensibilities for the desert mystic are the driving force behind my continued monochrome photography. It has shaped my creative vision. The desert is a vast, desolate and timeless, and I strive to capture the emotion in each of my monochrome photos. When setting up each landscape shot, I use my mind’s eye view to visualize the photo in black and white and the emotion the final print will hopefully convey. I look beyond the colors and instead try to visualize how shapes, textures and tones will be recorded by the camera. I study how the ambient and reflective light fall upon the landscape. I pay attention to the subtleties of tones and shades of gray that will add depth. Composition is equally important so I look for strong leading lines. If shooting in the harsh midday light, I will regularly use an ND or Polarizer filter but usually my shoots take place early to mid-morning and again in the late afternoon to sundown.
In the post-process stage, I tend to use strong but very selective tonal contrast to exaggerate the interplay of light and shadow. As well, I often enhance textural values in specific parts of an image. Both these applications help simulate my original vision of the harsh desert environment Depending on the image, I may also use a forced perspective technique. This technique alters the scale of relative objects in a landscape and creates the illusion of depth. The final image is a departure from reality but represents my visual interpretation of the original desertscape scene.
As of late January, I have once again begun to ponder my next trip for the fall of 2015. Presently, I have several venues in mind but the southwest desert is vast, diverse and interminable. There is so much more to see and photograph, and I have barely scratched the surface of the Great Desert. And that makes it all the more harder to decide.
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The Lure of the Desert