Photographer Patricia Emerson Mitchell at work in a Death Valley canyon
Photographer Patricia Emerson Mitchell paying attention to the small things along a narrow canyon in Death Valley National Park. On a cloudy day with dust storms out in the valley we headed up this canyon in the afternoon and found quiet conditions following this narrow canyon as it twisted and turned its way up into the mountains along the east side of the valley.
We started our hike at the top of a monumental alluvial fan build of rocks washed down from the mountains through this canyon. We dropped over the edge into the main wash and headed uphill, with the canyon walls soon closing in around us. In many places the canyon walls are almost vertical and only feet apart. These are places of deep quiet and stillness, mostly cut off from the surrounding terrain, protected from the wind, and with only a narrow band of blue sky straight overhead.
A small brick-paved urban square in dappled sunlight
I have my reasons for photographing in urban environments, even though that might seem like an odd passion for someone who photographs nature and landscapes. The same attractions of form and light and texture and juxtaposition are found in both places, though the urban environment encourages me to photograph in a different way. Here I don’t use a tripod, and I often make photographs very quickly and instinctively, since the subjects are so transitory and it is a matter of photograph it now or never. Even a seemingly static and quiet scene like this one only lasts a moment before people again walk through the scene. If nothing else, it is an intense exercise in seeing.
The area of where I made this photograph is, despite the appearance, a very busy and noise place along San Francisco’s Market Street, a place where there are throngs of people and where traffic noise can be oppressive. Yet at times the crowds part and the scene can be almost empty. And there is often quite beautiful light — it comes from all angles as it reflects back and forth among the glassy surfaces of tall buildings, and at street level in some places the light can fill the scene from almost all possible directions.
Winter geese fly in to a Central Valley wetlands pond at dawn
Near the end of May I revisited some photographs from the past year, including a set that I made on an annual New Year’s Day visit to California’s Central Valley. For several years now a group of friends, photographers, artists, and more have greeted the dawn of the new year by going together before dawn to celebrate the new year and the annual spectacle of the winter bird migration into the valley. So, during the first week when the temperatures here in California rose into the nineties, I enjoyed recalling a foggy morning when they sat near freezing.
We arrived a half hour before dawn to find patchy, thinning fog. We set out trying to determine, in the half-light, where the birds might be, and soon some were spotted settling in on a nearby pond. We headed that way, and I lined up a view across the pond, past quiet foreground birds and past a row of trees toward the eastern sky, which was gradually beginning to brighten. I made this photograph as another small group of birds was flying in to join those already on the pond
Benches and a balcony, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
There is a small thread in my photograph of the interior spaces of buildings that looks through gauzy, diffused curtains, blinds, and scrims toward the world outside. For example, I have several in his line that I made at the Getty Museum in Southern California, and some things photographed in museums in New York that go in a similar direction. I made this photograph at the new SFMOMA museum in San Francisco during a members’ preview before the official opening last week.
I love the newly expanded and remodeled museum. One writer commented on the way that the new facility opens to the City. (The former building, as good as it was, was mostly closed off from San Francisco, with few places where the interior space opened to views of the surrounding area.) Now the new “back side” of the museum opens straight out over and into the urban environment, and there is quite a bit to see there — and the design creates a stronger link to this city. In this photograph, which was initially “about” the lines of the buildings in the upper part of the frame, the shapes and tones of the two foreground benches are beginning to interest me more.
One more photograph from my May Day quick visit to the Big Sur Coast and the lower Monterey Peninsula. I visited fairly early in the morning — not as early as dawn, but certainly before most of the tourists showed up along this popular coast on this weekend day.
I started with a plan to visit Point Lobos — and I did later end up there — but I was distracted by the formation of thing fog right along the waterline. More typically I would expect to see thick fog in the early morning, left over from the night before, with murky conditions until some clearing happens later on. But on this morning the pattern seemed reversed. It started out clear and then as the morning wore on the weather changed and a beautiful misty quality appeared along the coast, in places leading to the formation of fog.
Evening on Death Valley sand dunes with desert mountains in the distance
It was the first evening in Death Valley this season, and we had arrived after a lazy drive in from the Ridgecrest area. Having plenty of time, we stopped at Trona Pinnacles before reaching the park and after entering we took a long side trip out on a gravel road to a couple of somewhat remote canyons. We got settled in and it was time to head out for some evening photography — and since dunes were nearby they seemed like a good first evening destination.
The sand dunes go quickly through some remarkable transitions of light and color at the end of the day. In the full sunlight the tones of the sand can seem a bit flat and washed out, but the low angle light begins to highlight the textures — large textures of the dunes themselves, plus the finer textures of small patterns of windblown sand. The the color of the light begins to warm and the contrast drops and shadows fill with a soft light. At the moment I made this photograph the sun was still above the ridge to our west, but it had passed behind high, thin clouds that momentarily muted the light even more.
Urban landscape and an inflatable object, San Francisco
I recently read an interview with one artist whose work is on exhibit at SFMOMA, and he commented that despite what people may read into the work, it is largely all about the composition and juxtaposition of elements. If you want to read something into this, you are welcome to do so — and, in fact, there might be something there that I have not described or which I don’t see or admit to seeing.
But composition and juxtaposition did interest me. The rounded object at lower right doesn’t really fit the rest of the surrounding environment, or does it? That’s all I’m going to say…