The story was published in the November, 2018 edition of the Medium Format Magazine. You will find the second part “Driving North” by Benjamin Everett in the December, 2018 issue.
There was a dashed line and darkness. The headlights revealed a steep road plummeting through a blur of rock and sage. My main concern was heat. The overhead panel displayed a glowing 94 degrees and it was well past midnight. What would that read at midday?
Alongside me was a dream collection of Hasselblad gear: the 100 megapixel H6D and four lenses. I’d never shot medium format before and would be getting used to this kit over the next few days in the depths of Death Valley. Thereafter I’d be a free agent, logging nearly 4,000 miles of the American West in search of unique desert landscapes.
Six months before, on a whim, I’d entered the landscape category of the Hasselblad Masters competition, and won. In total, there were over 30,000 entrants across 11 categories. It felt a bit like winning the lottery. As part of the competition, winners were asked to shoot a series of images on Hasselblad equipment of their choice. These images would then be compiled into a beautiful hardcover collectors’ book. The pressure to live up to expectations was high.
Many of my artistic heroes were painters of the West. These wild landscapes lent themselves particularly well to interpretation. There is a fascinating correlation between the line quality found in art and design, and the lines nature tends to draw. For my series of images, I proposed exploring this across a variety of windswept dunes and Badlands. After a thousand miles driving from my home in the Pacific Northwest, Death Valley was the first real stop.
I spend a lot of time on the road. My Dodge Durango is getting close to the 200k mark, and I hope she can go as many more. Some may prefer the spaciousness of a camper van, but there’s something nice about the versatility of an unassuming SUV. The back seats fold completely flat and with a few foam pads, all six feet two of me sleeps blissfully.
Pulling into a quiet corner of the Mesquite Flats parking lot around 2 am, I shook my head while setting the alarm for 4:30. When it went off, just two and a half short hours later, I swung my legs down to the ground, and wondered how awake I was. Everything about the medium format gear was surreal, including its weight. The full kit came to about 40 pounds. I hefted this and took off for the dunes, enjoying cool sand under my bare feet.
Oceans and deserts are remarkably alike, silent and clean. Thoughts are distant like ships on the horizon, you see them a mile off cresting waves they roll towards you. For me, that space is a key to creativity. It’s an expansive emptiness that must exist before the good that fills it.
You have to go away from the parking lot to a place where there are fewer footprints and pretty soon, none. I set up the tripod and locked down the H6D. It was time to start experimenting with compositions. The camera was friendly. We got along straightaway. The menu is sleek and intuitive, as are the controls. The large kachunk of the shutter was a startling transition from a DSLR, but I see it as symbolic of the effort required to lock in a 100mp file. It’s like the vault door slamming shut on a newly minted gold bar.
It would be nearly month before I would see that digital gold on the screen, but yes, the files really are that good.
Drifting along, the lack of wind provided a perfect opportunity to experiment with lenses, something I’d appreciate later when the elements were not so kind. Quickly, the 35-90mm f/4-5.6. became a favorite. I’m used to prime lenses on my usual Nikon D810, so this range allowed me to move quickly. In the desert, it’s nice to have the freedom to compose different shots without disturbing the sand. As the sun crested the horizon, I made my way to the top of a large dune. Here, the 300mm f/4.5 shone. Abstract layer combinations lay in all directions. As raking light began to fall across the textured ripples underfoot, I switched to the wide angle of the 24mm f/4.8. The last of the four lenses, the Macro 120mm f/4 II, didn’t get used that day but after discovering its incredible sharpness, I wouldn’t make that mistake again.
As the sun rose further, so did the heat. This kicked up wind and wind brought sand and the lens now on the camera stayed on the camera. My initial concerns about temperature were valid. By midday it was 111 degrees. I protected myself and the gear as well as could be expected. But that wind! If I’d only known how it would become a constant issue.
Having wandered far into the dunes, I was low on water and ready to return. The path back was punctuated by stops and starts. The light went flat with a slight heat haze, but the forms were still there, teasing you. Countless times I pulled the tripod from my shoulder saying, “Just one more.”
On the road again, heading further south. There was a day lost to Las Vegas. During an oil change, the attendant showed me a tire gauge. “See this red area indicating danger?” “Sure.” “You’re way past it.” I pictured blowouts and precipitous plunges down canyon walls. “Go ahead with the replacements.”
Then it was over the Hoover dam and onward through Flagstaff. I spent the night on a utility road among sage and volcanic rock. Highway lights twinkled in the distance.
Arriving at the Petrified Forest National Park, I was shocked to learn the gates close several hours before sunset. Apparently, it’s harsh light or nothing.
Sitting in the Visitors Center, swirling a bad cup of coffee and concerned about the project, I had a moment of exasperation. Maybe Google has some answers. Pinching maps towards dark patches of crimson and gold, paved gray arteries led to dusty veins, and I’d found a road of new possibilities.
Upon arrival, there was a slight hesitation. This appeared to be the remains of a Navajo State Park. I steered my new tires around broken bottles, potholes, a lopsided park bench, and the graffiti-covered remains of a derelict restroom. Towards the end of the road, on the horizon, a sliver of red indicated hope. The color grew. A band of white, a band of gold, another band of red – I jumped from the car and ran to the edge. Draped across the horizon was a giant Navajo blanket of rippling color, geometric ridges and geologic patterns. The connection between the indigenous people of the southwest, their art and their land is immediate. Everything is connected. I laughed out loud.
It was the most beautiful thing I’d seen all day. There was a desire to turn and say to someone, “Can you believe this!?” but there was not a living soul in sight.
Later that evening, soft golden light exaggerated the beauty of those rolling forms. I walked about, aligning compositions and timing exposures. This was exactly the light and location I’d hoped for, but the wind was becoming a problem and appeared to be getting stronger. Soon I imagined great towering waves of air, cresting and falling in explosive gusts across the entire ridge line. Bracing low, I was thankful for a sturdy tripod and hoped things would be better in the morning. Unfortunately, the wind buffeted the car all night and the sun rose behind racing stripes of grey cloud. It was clearly time to move on.
Next stop, White Sands National Monument. This would be the first time I’d laid eyes on New Mexico, the legendary home of so many of the early 20th century painters I admired, including Ernest L. Blumenschein, William Victor Higgins, E. Martin Hennings, and Georgia O’Keeffe.
The wind continued to howl as I headed south through rolling grasslands. Did the car swerve because of wind or distraction? At times, fields of small green juniper trees stretched to the horizon, endless in their arrangements of Zen. I passed perfect window-framed scenes at 70 mph and turned circles in the road to find them again. Did front-seat yoga, twisting to brace the camera against car-seat, steering-wheel and dash-board supports. Selective windows were raised and lowered to minimize wind and dust. When all batteries died, it was a relief. I might actually make it to a hotel in Alamogordo that night.
Lying spread out on the cool sheets of a king-sized bed, I listened to the air conditioner hum while battery lights blinked softly in the darkened room. Inspiration was electric. I’ve always admired these Southwest artists for their creativity and style. After the day’s drive it became apparent that half the gratitude goes to the landscape. It was exciting to feel so at home somewhere new.
These are the sexiest of dunes, their smooth curves fast and low. The best experience is to spend a night in the heart of them. I reserved a site with the rangers and by mid-afternoon had hiked in and set up camp. It was a world that existed of two colors: soft white walls under a hard blue distant ceiling. With some time to go before the ideal light, I sat in the shade to meditate. The barely heard sounds of the park became more apparent. The wind was distant and muffled, like some great hourglass slowly pouring itself into the future, each grain heard tumbling in time. And then, the time is now. I’m up and taking pictures. It’s rare that meditation has blurred so directly into the process of photography. There was no destination, just the gradual motion towards a focused observation. No paths retraced, each fresh scene destroyed by moving through it.
The White Sand Dunes are wildly different from the gold ones of Death Valley and not just in color. Sand size and wind patterns create all new shapes to play with. Sweeping arcs rise up western faces to drop down steep walls to the east. Between each dune is an area of dry earth, reptilian scales of hardened soil that reveal sparse vegetation between the cracks. Photography there is often about excluding these low zones. Two compositions predominate: aligning crests of the dunes with a telephoto lens or focusing wide angles on the texture of broad slopes.
The sun dipped lower in the west and glinted off the blowing sand. Again, this wind! Each dune gained an aura of gold. When asked about the weather sealing of the H6D, Hasselblad answered a disconcerting, “None.” I wrapped the sensitive camera tightly in my windbreaker, feeling more clever than necessary by using the hood as a lens cover and battled on, heading west. Ridge after ridge of new and fascinating compositions. I battled stability, battled visibility, and finally gave up as the sun withdrew its final rays. ISO and shutter speed were no match for the gale.
Turning east, darkness had crept up from behind. A moment of disorientation rushed over me. I’d neglected to bring any kind of light. There was no moon, no footprints, and there was no trail. The dunes were a uniform blue turning quickly to a swallowing black. Soon I’d barely make out my feet below me. I fought a rising sense of dread. How could I have been so foolish? I’d read the warnings but passed them off as guidelines for city-dwelling tourists used to road signs and street lights. The wilderness was my home, I don’t get lost. Any judgements passed on others swung back with full self-critical force.
Looking back, this was the halfway point of my trip. Standing there in darkness, I would never be as far from home.
Breathing deeply, I focused on the horizon. To the east, the lights of Alamogordo were fixed stars, my tent was that way too. I found the brightest and set sail. At the top of each dune, this guiding light was visible. Plunging down a blank face, there was nothing, and there was walking forward into nothing. But then the light reappeared and I was on course. Up and down, trust then reassurance. After 45 minutes, I walked straight into a trail marker, and my tent soon after. Sleep was deep and easy. The gravity of my trip had shifted. It’s fascinating to watch a simple compass orientation affect your entire outlook. The fortitude to push south into the unknown became just as strong to go north and home.
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