For millennia the desert has represented a space and experience, where one left all their roles and responsibilities behind to seek solitude, direction, and respite.
Some also intentionally went to the desert to seek wisdom, purpose, and enlightenment. Many diverse monastic traditions sought to live a life of prayer in the solitude of the desert. All major religions have desert experiences as an important part of their sacred writings. It is this religious tradition that guided and instructed me in the meaning of solitude in the desert.
This show is a visual reflection on the sojourns into my own desert experiences, wrapped up as if they were all within one day.
Not everyone is drawn to the desert. I would guess that most are not. Yet I clearly am for the chance to remember my most fundamental place in the universe. There are times when the headiness and participation in the complex structures of life in our society and culture make me feel disconnected from a deeper sense of meaning. I begin to feel a bit lost.
I must return to moments of solitude and remember what it feels like to be close to the earth.
Unlike Soren Kierkegaard, who found solitude in the center of a bustling city, I must return to nature, and the experience of being alone in nature.
From those experiences I can remember the most basic aspects of being alive on this planet. From there I can move back into relationship and life in society with a greater sense of clarity and purpose.
In these periods of solitude and silence, and, after having the time to clear the clutter from my mind, I can listen to myself and to what life is asking of me. It is a non-verbal conversation that only later becomes verbal or conscious.
I take pictures and form them into the art I share as a way of returning with that unspeakable experience. For "life is to be shared." That is what I hear.
Now not all that is desert is without life. That definition appears to be based on someone's notion about yearly precipitation. Yet the experience of desert is much different. The experience of a person confronting themselves uncloaked in nature is not the norm, yet sometimes needed...and it is far from devoid of life.
Desert Experiences #1 Sunrise at Factory Butte
Before there is enough light for the land to have much form, there is color. Millions of colors come to life before transforming to other colors as the sun reaches for the horizon. These moments must be cherished, as they are so transient and evanescent, like sand sifting through your fingers. This pre-dawn time makes me become more alive and aware of the moment, as this moment will soon fade into another and will never be again.
Desert Experiences #2 Sunrise South of Sedona
Sometimes the light comes from a source we cannot easily appreciate. It is hidden. We sense it is there, somewhere, but we do not know exactly where. We do know that morning is coming nonetheless. And we continue to search and wait for the source of the light.
Desert Experiences #3-6 The Slot Canyons
In the bottom of a slot canyon there is no sense of time and very little sense of color. It is here that I first became aware of how our eyes tell us one thing, but the camera corrects us about what is really there. The forms and movements in the rocks can be appreciated, but not the color. We see subdued reds and yellows and oranges, but we cannot see the blues and purples and magentas. Our eyes have moved to night vision, where black and white and contrast are most easily appreciated. Only the camera can see the reality of the colors present.
I love the slot canyons for many reasons, but most of all, because they taught me to be a bit more cautious about assuming that what I saw and perceived was in truth reality.
Desert Experiences #6-7 Midday at a Copper Canyon, Hole to the Underworld
I must remember that it only takes the willingness to see to know what is there. Experiences in the desert do not just walk up and slap you on the head. You must seek them out. For me this takes the form of wandering around the areas I have chosen to photograph and focusing on something that attracts my attention. What is it that attracts my eye? That is revealed only as I walk an artistic path.
The act of moving from looking to seeing is of paramount importance. Looking connotes a brief assessment of what's visually present. Seeing is much different Seeing is intentional rather than perfunctory. It organizes what is perceived into a vision of meaning. When I get to a place of being able to listen and see, the desert forms and colors come alive and show more of life than was every previously thought possible.
My primitive self wants to make gods and supernatural forces of it all. Yet I am of the 21st century. I clearly know more than these old ones. I know of the forces of nature that made all that I see. I can reduce what I see to formulas and concepts long known to scientists. What I see can be clearly comprehended by my conceptual mind.
Yet as a good friend once said, "Life didn't have to be so beautiful and wonderful!" But it is.
There are so many simple delights in the desert. Lines that wave this way and that. Sand reflecting the color of the sky. Unexpected colors. Changes in texture and shape. The unique shapes born of erosion by wind and water. These can be insignificant to the passer-by, but are of utmost delight to the careful eye, and the one seeing with a sense of meaning.
Desert Experiences #8-10 The Sand Dunes
Sand dunes are often found in the desert from small ones scattered here and there to huge dune fields. They are often synonymous with the desert because of their paucity of plant life and the sense that nothing can grow here. Perhaps that is true to some degree about the plant life, but far from true aesthetically.
Interestingly most of the desert is not sand. It is bare sandstone. So in truth sand dunes are quite uncommon.
Some see colors first, but I see forms first. One of my favorite forms is the line. The swaying, sensual movements of the lines of dunes are a constant source of delight and make me think that the dunes were the source of our learning to dance.
I used to sail and loved the fact that sailing was all about being responsive to the wind and using the wind to go where I wanted. Here the dunes and their lines conform and respond to the wind in a truly submissive, not willful, manner.
Edward Abbey has a small essay in his collection Beyond the Wall about how the sand lay naked before the wind. I like his vision of sand dunes.
There are no angular lines in dunes, only the rhythmic forms of the the wind. Here the sand does not resist the wind as in sailing. It just responds.
Sand dunes remind me that there are times to resist the wind and others to be grateful for its direction.
Desert Experiences #11-12 Afternoon at the Navajo Wave, Afternoon Storm over the Maze
The high, bright sun washes out the subtlety of the morning colors and heightens the clarity of the forms in front of us. We no longer have the broad strokes of color in the sky as before dawn or the subtle changing hues of evening. Here we see the little specks on the rock, the different tones in the trees, and the differences between a rock in the sun and a rock in the shade.
Many times on the internet we see travel photography of beautiful places. They engage us for a moment, and then they are lost to memory, because they contain no meaning. It is difficult to see a work of art in the landscape in the blazing sun. To show true beauty in the glaring midday sun is difficult. The picture is easy, but the deeper meaning is elusive.
Midday is also the time when we should be doing something important...not staring off to see what the day has to say to us. We should be active, self-directed, and purposeful, as if we were determined to make life in our own terms.
Yet when seen from a point of stillness, there are many, many ways to see and hear and do in a much different manner of doing. This opens much greater opportunities for creativity.
One option photographically is to capture images in black-and-white. That reduces the scene to shades of gray. That is much simpler. And there are a great number of masters of this form of photography, including the originators of my field of work, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and Imogen Cunningham, among many, many others.
However I see in color, and that's the experience I wish to convey. Over time I find black-and-white photographs to be more cerebral and less inviting and more difficult for me to have a lasting connection. So I always return to the color experience.
(Now mind you, I am not averse to producing black-and-white photographic art. It is just not my preferred mode of displaying my work. At times it is the perfect way. But for now, color is my working palette.)
It takes many days in the desert for me to see well enough.
Desert Experiences #13-16 Waterholes Canyon 1-4
When the sun is bright, and I think that there are no photographic opportunities, I just have to look down at my feet or into the shade.
The intimacy of the desert is marvelously enigmatic. It is surprising, intriguing, and delightfully moving.
Here, after searching intently, I saw a repetitive pattern of lichen on the walls of the canyon. In these prints I share the delight and surprise I found in hours of scouring these canyon walls in the shade of the high sun.
Desert Experiences #17-20 Storm Brewing over the North Rim, A Passing Storm through the Grand Canyon, Creation
As the sun sets, what is shown has not been seen before. Colors become more intense and edges become highlighted in a way not seen earlier in the day. The day is ending, yet attention to each moment becomes much more imperative. As in the early hours of the morning, what is seen now will change within a few minutes. It must be captured or remembered, or it will be no more.
Sometimes what I see in the light, sky, and land reminds me of a distant time before recollection. There is a moment when what has been is present in this moment. Time does not matter for these fleeting minutes. Sometimes it takes time to understand what is seen. This scene may not only have been mine to see, but it may have been many others before me. This scene must certainly have occurred many times before in the eons before now.
Desert Experiences #21 Night Walk Through Antelope Canyon
Even in the darkest of moments, the forms we see in the daytime still surround us. They are hard to discern, but we know they are there. The night is dark, but only to our eyes. The camera can again see what we cannot. What we have seen is still there, even though we thought it was gone.