“The Desert is calling, and I must go” John Muir didn’t say, but I will.
The desert isn’t as easily loved as other landscapes, like the mountains in Muir’s famous quote. Its beauty is often more subtle, rewarding only those who are willing to slow down and fully immerse themselves in it.
To those who have learned to love desert, who have smelled the creosote or sage brush after a fresh rain, who have admired the way an ecosystem often inhospitable to humans is still thriving with life perfectly adapted to it, who have appreciated the often strange and surreal geological features that call the desert home, who have an inclination to solitude and open spaces, the appeal of the desert is undeniable.
Sarah and I left the cold winter temperatures in Colorado for a 4-week trip in our Airstream. There was only one item on our itinerary: the desert. After six hours of driving we still didn’t know where we were going, but the looming exit on the interstate forced our hand, and we headed west to Joshua Tree National Park. A week later and we were in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in southern California, and then we closed out our trip with a week in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in southwest Arizona.
All three locations were new for us. We were guided only by the dim light of our ignorance and it was wonderful.
There were no icons for us to check off our list. There were no photos to try and emulate. There were no expectations or pre-conceptions weighing us down. This is the type of photography that appeals to me: I would much rather fail on my own terms than succeed on someone else’s. There is more risk involved with this approach, there are no sure bets, and one has to be willing to expect, accept, and even embrace failure. But the payoff, when it does happen, is much greater.
It is also important not to confuse the failure of the photography with the failure of the experience. The latter, to me, is always more important. I was into nature long before I was into photography, and the ability to immerse oneself in these places is always rewarding even if the photographs fail to do the experience justice.
At each location, I concentrated on what made it unique or distinctive to me, and tried to make my photographs highlight those aspects. In Joshua Tree National Park, the crazy jumbled granite boulders and flat expanses of Joshua trees stood out. In Anza-Borrego, it was the lush and diverse Sonoran Desert flora, mountains, playas, and badlands. For Organ Pipe it was the Sonoran flora and especially the namesake Organ Pipe cactus.
This is a bottom-up approach, where I let the landscape, in concert with whatever light is present, dictate what I photograph, rather than a top-down approach, where I have some pre-conceived idea that I try to force whether the conditions are there to support it or not.
When the desert is calling, it is best not to interrupt it. It has a lot to say, all you have to do is show up and listen.