The Making of a Photograph
It has been my experience that on the way to the making of my best photographs something unusual happens. Sometimes it is a fortuitous change in atmosphere or light. Other times it is may be a “letting go” of preconceived expectations that leads to an opportunity that otherwise would be missed. And, often it is simply about getting out of the way of oneself. Luck and serendipity may play a role at times. Sensing when to hold ’em or when to fold ’em can be the key to finding the moment and the place, the when and where a fine photograph beckons.
In late October, 2013, I travelled with a couple of photographer friends to the Mesquite Flat Dunes at the northern area of Death Valley National Park. We went there planning to explore and photograph the exquisite shapes and lines at this fabulous place. Inspired by other photographers who had come before us, we hoped to create some of our own original compositions.
Too Many Footprints
Sunday Afternoon, Oct 27, 2013
Our plan was to photograph in the early mornings during our visit. To plan for it we visited the dunes the afternoon before to check out the vistas and possible worthy locations for compositions. It was discouraging to see all the footprints, for the dunes had been trampled by hordes of visitors during the weekend. It was late Sunday afternoon, and the dunes looked like an invading army had just departed! We resolved to change our plans for Monday morning and the next sunrise we headed out instead to Badwater to photograph there. Even so, we weren’t yet ready to surrender to a future morning visit to the dunes at Mesquite Flat.
A Change in the Weather at Badwater
Monday, Oct 28, 2013
The sky had changed overnight and to the north we saw turbulent weather approaching. As we worked along the crusty salt patterns at Badwater you could feel the atmospheric pressure changing. As the afternoon came, the wind really picked up. The long views to the north, from where we came, were quickly becoming obscured by rising dust. We packed our gear and began the long drive back toward the dunes. Perhaps an omen– on the way back, we witnessed an incredible sunset created by the dust stirred up by the wind.
We were curious what the dunes would look like during this wind event. As we approached the place where we thought we’d see them, we couldn’t find them! The wind was really howling and sand was blowing across the street, buffeting our jeep. When we got within a mile or two, we could barely make out the major shapes of the Mesquite Flat Dunes. No one said anything, but I could feel the spirit sagging in our little group.
At dinner that evening, our conversation was low-key. We had only one more morning remaining at Death Valley before we would have to head to our next destination. Outside, the wind was really blowing fiercely. Things were not looking good. There was some talk of sleeping in, foregoing our next morning’s photo walk in the dunes, if the wind was still howling at sunrise. We would wait and make that call about an hour before sunrise. Everyone would awaken early and we’d discuss it then. As I walked from the cafe back to my motorhome, the wind had grown stronger. I cupped my hand over my brow to protect my eyes from the sand in the air.
I retired early and set my alarm for 5 AM so I could check the conditions outside very early the next morning. I climbed up to the loft and tried to surrender to sleep. The RV was rocking back and forth, sideways on its wheels as it was blasted by the windstorm outside. The wind whistled loudly. Finally, letting go of my discouragement about our prospects, I fell into a deep sleep.
Early Tuesday Morning, October 29, 2013
The alarm jarred me from my dreams. As I sat up in bed I was surprised at how quiet the world was. I went below, opened the door. The stars shone out of the inky black sky and not a breath of wind! I wondered what the dunes would look like on this still morning. Sunrise was not until about 7 am, but we still had a short drive and a longer walk ahead of us to arrive at the best place, deep into the most magnificent area of the dunes.
My friends and I gathered quickly in the dawn and drove out to the dunes. A spirit of excited expectation permeated the car. In the gathering dawn light we found the pull out we had chosen earlier and then made haste to our location. We planned to get there and set up before the sunlight spilled into the scene.
As we approached our favorite area, where the dunes began to tower like softened mountain ranges, we were greeted by a view that took my breath away. The evening’s windstorm and swept the dunes clean of all footprints. The sun started spilling into the beautiful curves, casting shadows and raising highlights until it was difficult to decide which way to photograph first! The wind that seemed an enemy the night before had become an unexpected and heroic partner to us at morning. In a reverie, I worked on several compositions. Such beauty of form defined by light! My favorite is at the top of this post. Here is another one that expresses what I saw during the first light on that day.