Today it is close to the end of June, the start of the hot season in California, and it has been nearly 100 degrees where I live and hotter than that where I made this photograph. It is, at it is every year, hard to believe that it was only months ago that I was out in this spot on a freezing January morning, with snow-covered peaks to my east and west, watching the first dawn light on these spectacular clouds and listening to the sounds of early morning flights of migratory birds across the wetlands.
For this I will get up at 3:00 am and drive three hours in the pre-dawn darkness. I had not visited this location before, and as I turned off of Interstate 5, the main artery up this valley, and headed east on a two-lane road I wasn’t sure what I would find. The sky was beginning to glow and it seemed that sunrise was coming soon — perhaps too soon for my arrival. I turned off onto a gravel road and headed into this refuge, passing the entrance and heading out onto the perimeter road just in time for this astonishing morning light show.
A carpet of desert spring flowers, Death Valley National Park
My alternative title for this photograph might have been “What’s Underfoot.” We were a bit too later for this year’s (near?) superbloom in parts of southern Death Valley National Park, but we still found plenty of flowers during out late March visit. Many desert plants are opportunistic, holding off on their blooms in dry years and then going exuberantly wild in wetter years. This wasn’t one of the truly wet seasons, though it was wetter than the recent drought years might have suggested, and in many places the flowers responded.
I made this photograph in one of those Death Valley locations that might seem both very special and not at all special, depending on your orientation to the place. We drove out on a long road that traverses a high valley. By comparison to, say, the high peaks of the Sierra, the terrain seems unremarkable, with vast stretches of undifferentiated desert vegetation leading to dry and rocky ridges. But the vast space is special, in and of itself, and there turns out to be more to look at and experience than might first be apparent. I knew from previous visits that thick wildflowers were a possibility, and I knew that if we just pulled off the road and looked that we would find them. At one of these stops I simply took my camera and walked off a bit and found a dense carpet of plants and flowers, taking full advantage of this brief period of sunlight and a bit of moisture.
A curving diagonal of rock across sand dunes, Death Valley National Park
The sand dunes of Death Valley are more complex things than they might appear to be. For example, I have read that beneath their surface they actually hold quite a bit of moisture — quite a contradiction to our intuition about their dryness. (That intuition is based on fact — they can be hot and dry places, and the surface layer of the dunes is quite dry.) At the right times of day and of season they can be cool places, and they support plant and animal life.
These dunes also appear to stand on top of quite un-dune-like features. Around their edges you can find hints. You cross flat playa surface to get to them, and this surface holds abundant evidence of the work of water. In places you can even find areas that mimic perfectly the surfaces of contemporary playas, with their sedimentary formations covered with cracks. Here the edge of what must be a rather old example of this cuts diagonally across the landscape and still manages to poke its edge through the sand.
I photographed these well-worn and utilitarian merchandise racks on a walk down a Chinatown side street last summer. It almost appeared that they had been demoted from active use to side-street storage, and that perhaps they were just waiting to be dragged away, or possibly they were being kept around long enough that they could still be pressed into service if needed.
I like trying to read (or read into) the possible history of artifacts like these. For example, they give every indication of being “home-made” by folks who don’t follow construction “rules,” but who have probably built such things before. The colors are wild, between the fluorescent green and the yellow, red, and blue of graffiti. I love the angle on the lower front of the rack at the left — all I can figure is that it must have been designed to match the slope of the particular San Francisco street where it was once used.
A dust storm rages above sand dunes at the end of the day, Death Valley National Park
This was a wild evening, featuring an apocalyptic combination of tremendously strong winds, huge clouds of blowing sand and dust, periodic downpours of rain, and light that changed constantly from ominous and dark to luminous clouds backlit by sun to threads of virgo, and more. I had never seen quite this combination of conditions in Death Valley at one time.
Photography was quite challenging. Because sunset was approaching (and I continued to photograph into the dusk), it was often quite dark. The screaming winds made it virtually impossible to shoot from the tripod, so I was mostly reduced to bracing my camera against the window frame of my vehicle and working with the camera handheld. In the rough conditions I was forced to work from a distance with a long lens, since photographing inside the windblown clouds of dust and sand was not a good idea. Here the clouds and the dust above the sand dunes momentarily thinned, creating a backlit glow from the low angle sun about to drop behind mountains to the west.
Shoppers and tourists walk past Chinatown shops at night, San Francisco
Allow me to continue to indulge my (relatively) new obsession with handheld night street photography! This is yet another photograph made after dark in San Francisco, in a popular tourist area full of people, shops, and plenty of wildly colorful artificial light. This might look a bit like just a photograph of a crowd, but when I look closer I’m fascinated by the variety of faces and activities and ways of engaging that I see.
It was only perhaps a couple of years ago that I discovered that I can use small handheld mirrorless camera set to high ISO to photograph in the nighttime city environment. In the past this was sometimes marginally possible in very well-lit areas, but most such photography required a tripod and its attendant disruption of the scene — people behave very differently when they see a big camera on a tripod. But now it is quite possible to roam with a very small camera and produce viable photographs that can even be printed rather large.
Sand dunes and desert mountains in twilight, Death Valley National Park
Arriving in Death Valley earlier in the day, we had visited some canyon country that is a bit off the beaten path and then headed back to our home base in the park for the next few days. We got settled in, had some dinner, and headed out to make some photographs, deciding that it would be best on this first evening to photograph nearby.
We made it to an area along the periphery of the dunes before sunset and then continued to photograph during the evening light transition from warm pre-sunset color to the post-sunset blue hour light. Here there was still a bit of a glow from the west, but the sun had already dropped below the Cottonwood mountains, and the light was soft as we finished photographing in the evening stillness.