(“A Photograph Exposed” is a series of posts looking more closely at the background of some of my photographs.)
Two Rocks, Morning, Racetrack Playa. Death Valley National Park, California. April 3, 2006. © Copyright 2006. G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.
Moving rocks, lenticular clouds — morning on the Racetrack Playa.
This photograph from Death Valley’s Racetrack Playa is one of the first I made when I began photographing this landscape seriously, and it may still be my favorite photograph from the park — yet it also carries a flaw that I’ll mention below.
My first visit to Death Valley National Park had been perhaps seven years earlier at the very end of the previous millennium, when I was one of several adults accompanying a group of middle school and high school students on a visit that was to include a short backpack trip in the Cottonwood Canyon area. The story of that trip deserves its own article. That article would describe snow, near-hypothermia, winds that blew down tents, a retreat from the pack trip, an attempt to hike down the upper portion of Death Valley, water shortages, a dust storm, a dangerous situation with a bus, and more.
I’ll never forget my first view of this great valley. We had arrived in the park after dark, stopping between Towne Pass and Stovepipe Wells at a small campground a few thousand feet above the valley floor, where we set up in the darkness and went to sleep. Having never seen the Valley before, the next morning I unzipped my tent and stepped outside to see the stupendous “oh wow!” landscape of the valley and the mountains on the far side in the beautiful morning light. I was hooked, and I’ve been going back annually for more than fifteen years.
In those years I was on a bit of a hiatus from photography. I had shifted my focus more towards being in the landscape and away from making photographs of it, and I only carried a small film camera loaded with slide film, mostly to document my experiences. I’m sure I have the slides somewhere, but I’m equally sure they are nothing spectacular. But this was also just before the first viable digital cameras came on the market, and a few years later I had acquired one, and this began to rekindle my interest in serious photography. I was not ready to commit to the new digital systems, but I was in the mood to give them a try. Testing the waters of the conversion from film to digital, I went through a series of small digital cameras before deciding to try one of the early small DSLRs with an inexpensive zoom lens.
On this visit to the Racetrack I was perhaps still perhaps more focused on visiting such places and wandering about in them than in photographing them, but this trip probably marked my reconversion to a passionate photographer.
This was before the more recent radical increase in the number of people photographing such places. Other people were around that afternoon when I arrived at the end of the long, bumpy drive, and I joined them photographing on the playa. But as they headed back to “civilization” late in the day I stayed behind, setting up camp a few miles down the road and then returning to the playa to shoot at night under moonlight. I recall returning to my camp in the dark and experiencing some of the deepest quiet I can recall. No one else was there, and I was completely and happily alone.
The next morning I was up early and back on the playa well before sunrise. The conditions did not look promising, but I’m not one to give up too quickly, especially after investing two days and 55 miles of driving on awful roads to be there, so I stuck around. The sky was overcast and the wind was blowing wildly as I wandered far out on the playa trying to figure out what and how to photograph in these conditions.
As so often happens if you are “out there” enough, the unpromising conditions began to shift in ways that were more or less miraculous. The thick overcast that was hugging the tall mountains to my east began to thin and break up, and as it did so a line of spectacular lenticular clouds was revealed above the mountains to the north beyond the far end of the playa, and the mountains were dramatically lit from the side by the early sunlight. The wind, which was still a photographic challenge, blew the tattered clouds away from me, creating alternating bands of shadow and sunlight that raced across the playa, producing one of the most dynamic landscapes that I had seen.
At first the light was only at the far end of the playa, and I was still in the shadow of those tall mountains. But it didn’t take a lot of thinking to see that the light would soon reach my position as the sun rose. I recall quickly running about to find some foreground arrangement of sliding rocks that could create a composition in conjunction with the larger landscape. I soon found these two rocks, with the track of the nearer one curving off toward the Grandstand and the distant mountains. I set up quickly and within moments the first light arrived and I made a few exposures.
I recall emerging a short time later from that highly focused altered “flow” state that we sometimes enter when we are engrossed in photographing a subject — a state in which we lose our conscious awareness of time and of anything besides the subject of the photograph. I remember looking up and realizing that I was almost the only person on the playa in these stunning conditions — one other photographer was visible some distance off — and that the moment had now passed.
I think I have two regrets about this photograph, one technical and the other a not-unusual response to such an experience. The technical disappointment, though a somewhat minor one in the grand scheme, is that I was photographing with what was more or less “test gear” — the somewhat low-end equipment that I had picked up to explore DSLR photography. As a result, this photograph will always be seen as a relatively small print. No 30″ x 40″ prints are likely from this one! The other regret is an ironic one. After the powerful magic of such a morning on the playa, I eventually realized that I’m unlikely to encounter anything quite like that again in this particular spot, a realization that has come back to me on each subsequent visit to the place. But I’ll accept that in exchange for one morning like this one!
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