If you look at a map of California, and follow along I-10 just south of Joshua Tree, you’ll see a small place called Chiriaco Summit. It’s a small stop in the middle of the desert and offers the only services between Indio and Blythe, California. Maybe 50 or 60 people live there. I’m one of them.
My partner Elaine and I manage a small campground here just behind the town, if you want to call it that, and the George Patton Museum. It’s a good life. A perfect home base.
Last spring we got rid of our cars and got a small motorhome. After spending five months in Montana we came back here to the desert last fall. It’s our only vehicle right now. We go to town once a month for supplies, but once we get back and get settled again we don’t go anywhere with it. Yet. We of course could, and no doubt will. Getting another vehicle is on my ‘to do’ list — being able to jump into a pickup to go up to Joshua Tree or wherever without having to pack up the RV would be cool, but for now I’m content with exploring my immediate surroundings on foot.
I have plenty of desert outside my door. I have the community to wander in. There’s the museum grounds. There are tanks and flags and signs and wooden crosses and antique vehicles all a short stroll away. These have been the subjects of my pictures lately. I’m out every day, and I’m keeping busy finding new ways of looking at the same subjects day after day. It’s good practice. A good exercise.
I wake up every morning well before sunrise. I start my day by fueling myself with coffee. Plenty of coffee. When the sun comes up I grab my camera, wake the dog, and we set off to see what our world looks like. As we set out we pass by our campground sign and flag. It looked pretty good this morning.
By the mid-1980’s the majority of my photography was black and white. I was still taking Kodachrome into the backcountry with me, but most of what I was doing day to day was done with my trusty FM2 loaded with Tri-X, or my Mamiya C220 loaded with the venerable Verichrome Pan which was only available in medium format rolls. To my mind Tri-X and Verichrome were two of the greatest B/W films ever made, though the later T-Max films ranked right up there. I was pretty much living in the darkroom in those days developing and printing my own stuff. I was also developing and printing for other people and doing some copy work to bring some money in. Some friends and I rented the space collectively and we had a small gallery along with the darkroom to try to sell some of our prints. I never made a lot of money, but I did learn to develop and print.
This photo was done in the spring of 1987 on a trip I made to visit my parents who were wintering in Phoenix. I got on a Greyhound bus with a bag of clothes and my FM2 with a few rolls of Tri-X and away I went. I had another friend who ran a small travel agency, and when I mentioned heading out to Arizona on a bus, he said he could probably get me a more extensive trip for about the same price as a round-trip ticket to Phoenix, so I said let’s go for it. I ended up going from Phoenix to San Diego, and then up the coast all the way to Seattle on 101, with a couple of days spent in LA and San Francisco. Then it was back to Missoula after three weeks on the bus. It was all new country for me, and a thoroughly enjoyable trip, but I don’t think I’ve been on a Greyhound since… That was my first time to California, and I would never have thought at the time that now, over thirty years later, I’d be living here. Life takes some funny turns if you hang around long enough.
By this time I was doing fewer grand landscapes, and more of these close up views of the natural world. This is one of the few from those earlier years that I think stands up to the test of time.
I’m gradually moving some posts from my old photomontana archives over here. This originally appeared in September 2010.
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I like to challenge sacred cows. It’s fun, and it can be quite interesting. There are times too when it can lead to breakthroughs in the way you work as a photographer.
One cliché that I hear all the time, and one that is accepted as conventional wisdom, is that every picture tells a story… but I don’t buy it. I don’t really think that a photograph, an individual photograph, can tell a story. A series of photographs, like a photo essay or a book for instance can. Maybe. If they’re done well. But not an individual photograph. A photo can suggest a story, it can illustrate a story, any number of stories can be built around it, but it can’t tell one. A story is an event that unfolds over a period of time, whether that period of time be long or short. A photograph captures a fraction of a second and freezes it in time. It shows us that frozen moment. That’s not telling us a story, it’s showing us something. Feel free to argue that.
Photography is visual communication. More often than not words fail in trying to describe it. A great work of art grabs you right in the gut. It reaches you emotionally. It takes you where words can’t.
One of my favorite quotes comes from Victor Hugo regarding music:
“Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.”
Those words can be applied to photography, and all visual arts for that matter, as well. Trying to pin down a fine photograph with words can be as futile as, say, trying to describe a Pollock painting. They can grab you, they can move you deeply, but they exist in a realm that words simply can’t reach.
Photography as an art form is just that in my book. It’s expressing that which cannot be said. I’d say we’re far better off as photographers working with ‘that which cannot be said’ than we are in futilely trying to tell a story.
I’ve been taking pictures for a little over forty years now — and yes, I take pictures. Snapshots. I don’t make photographs. I’ve gotten a pretty good idea of what I like and don’t like. What I want to do and don’t want to do. What I will do and won’t do. Mostly I’ve come to grips with what I need to do.
I’ve played with different kinds of equipment over the years. I experimented with 4×5 which I didn’t like. I did quite a bit with a 120 TLR which I did like and used for several years. Eventually 35mm became my main instrument. I took up digital some years back when I could no longer do my own darkroom work, first with a simple point and shoot, and later with a DSLR which I used up until about three years ago. I got tired of lugging it around and my pictures were beginning to feel stale so I gave it away. It ended up back in my hands again about a year ago, but it sits on the shelf with my old film cameras now, collecting layers of desert dust. These days I play strictly on my phone.
I don’t particularly like cameras. I get extremely impatient with equipment. But I do like taking pictures. It’s more than a like — it’s one of those things I need to do. My phone fits the bill perfectly for me. The fluidity, the spontaneity of so simple an instrument is freeing beyond measure. The image quality is more than adequate for my needs. I seldom print, and never big — an 8×12 or 9×12 image on 11×14 paper is as big as I’m ever likely to print, and the quality of my phone shots is just fine for that size.
I’m more interested in, and exploring the possibilities of, putting my pictures into small books. I’ve tried making a couple as gifts for family and I like where that may lead. They’re more like printed hardcover portfolios, and I think that’s an ideal way to present those shots that I deem worthy of preserving. I’ve never cared much for framed prints on a wall. To me pulling a book off the shelf and spending some time with the pictures is a far more enriching experience.
In short, I can do anything I want to do at this point in my picture taking life with my phone. And best of all it fits in my pocket.
Originally posted about three years ago. I’m reviving it here. It’s still a challenge I’m working on, though I’ve expanded my subject matter to include life in the desert and human impacts as well as the natural world around me.
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Photographing the desert well can be a real challenge. The beauty of it, the starkness, the openness is there for all to see, and countless photos have been made of it. Many are quite good.
The obvious photos aren’t that difficult to do — the brilliant sunsets, the more subtle but equally beautiful sunrises, the 30-mile vistas, the Joshua trees and rock formations here in the area I’m in — these are all pretty easy to get pleasing photos of. But to capture the real soul of the desert, the harshness, the feeling of sparseness, the pace of life in an extreme environment — these aren’t so easy to express visually. You need to take some time to connect with the pulse of the desert, to adopt it’s pace and rhythm. Only then will it begin to reveal it’s power and spirit.
The challenge for me will be to go beyond the obvious, to get beneath the surface, and begin to portray the vital and powerful spirit of the desert through my photographs. Time will tell if it’s a challenge I can meet.
Thought I’d pull this short post from the archives, dust it off, and give it a new life here. It fits in well with what I’ve been pondering and working on lately. It doesn’t say a lot but feel free to add your own thoughts.
To be aware of the history and the accepted standards of your chosen medium but not be bound by them… to be willing to experiment with new tools and techniques and ideas… to not only think outside the box, but to ignore the box altogether… to keep an open mind to different philosophies and ways of working…to me these are the cornerstones of a rich, rewarding, creative life as an artist.