Harsh Beauty

January 25, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

The desert is a place of mystery.  Maybe it's because I grew up in the Great Basin of Nevada where the desert is home; maybe it's because there is so much space and a huge sky; or maybe there is a spiritual factor...a feeling of closeness to God.  Whatever it is I always feel more at peace in the solitude of the desert.

Recently I spent a day photographing in Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California.  Normally a day would hardly be enough to even scout the place, but having been there before I was focused on what I wanted to accomplish and wasted little time with orientation.  I wanted to capture the feeling of spaciousness and the harsh character of the desert.  At the same time I wanted to capture it's incredible beauty.  The result is represented in the accompanying portfolio, Harsh Beauty.  

Joshua Tree is a transition zone between two very different deserts, the Mojave and the Sonora.  The western part of the Park above 3,000' is in the Mojave; the lower eastern portion is in the Sonoran Desert.  The flora and fauna found in each is quite different.  For instance, Joshua trees, really a specie of Yucca, are found in the upper elevations of the Mojave; Cholla Cactus (pronounced Choy-ya) and Prickly Pear are found in the Sonoran zone.  While the different deserts might host differing plants and animals they share the commonality of being harsh environments where only the especially adapted can survive; and both offer their unique beauty.  

For those who have not been exposed to a desert environment beauty may seem a strange appellation; after all, what is beautiful about shades of gray?  There are several things I find beautiful.  I see lots of color, perhaps muted at times, but color none the less.  For instance, color is to be found in the sand, in the rocks, in the plants, in the animals.  It's everywhere but one must look closely.  The unique lighting in the desert enhances these colors.  Finding a backlit garden of Cholla rewards one with a sea of thorns glowing in the sunlight.  A desert sunrise or sunset is special to behold.  The rising sun brings with it a sense of renewal and hope; watching it drop behind the western mountains in the evening instills a feeling of peace and fulfillment.  Who has experienced the aroma of sage and not hastened to draw the heavily scented desert air deeply into his lungs?  A garden of Prickly Pear can delight the eye with hues of reds, greens, and yellows.  Spring in some years will see the desert come alive with flowers of every hue and color.  My first visit to Joshua Tree several years ago was such a year, perhaps one of the best years for desert wildflowers in recent memory.  Even the fauna, bearing colors that in the whole blend in with a mostly grey green environment can display a surprising array of vivid color if one looks closely.  An example might be the colorfully beaded back of a Gila Monster, or the colorful patterns on the back of a Diamond Backed Rattlesnake.  I recently photographed a Mexican Grey Wolf that appeared mostly grey as his name implied, but when observed close up displayed gorgeous black and white markings around his eyes, ears and mouth.  What a remarkably beautiful animal! The portfolio on this site named "Abstract Expressionisn" was photographed in the Arizona desert where the overall impression was gray-brown; these images are among the most wildly colorful images in my portfolio.  But the best attribute of the desert is it's mystery.  I can't describe it in words, it must be felt.  It has to do with the the seeming emptiness, the vast space, and yet the feeling of closeness with God.

Because I wanted to emphasize the harshness of the desert and to create emphasis on lighting I chose to render most of the images in this portfolio in black and white, or more accurately in chromatic gray scale.  All these images began life in color, and it is that color which is responsible for the gray scale tonality in the images.  These images too were made in the month of January, a time when the least color appears in the desert.  Even so, I do not sacrifice beauty in the character of the plants, in the way the light strikes desert features such as backlighting on Cholla cactus, or shading on the rocks.  This is a land of contrast and extremes, little water at times and at others raging torrents down desert gulches as evidenced by the patterns in now dry watercourses; scorching hot days in the sumner, freezing temperatures at night in the winter; intense color in the midst of monochromatic gray-greens and browns.  It is indeed harshly beautiful.  


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