11 August 2011

28 Miles of Washboard Road

It was 27 years ago that I had last traveled to Racetrack Valley.?? It was a bit rougher in those days: no GPS, no mobile phones, little in the way of signage, only topo maps and your own innate sense of direction (or not).?? We – my wife, our 9-year daughter, and our first golden retriever (Whiskey) – drove in through the northern ‘backdoor’ of Eureka Valley – not yet part of Death Valley National Park (in fact, the park was not yet a park, merely a monument) – via my old rattle-trap of a ’72 International Scout.?? That vehicle had a lot of character and the temperament to match.?? It could drive over anything…or break down trying.?? After a day and night of camping and climbing the Eureka Dunes we continued south past Ubehebe Crater and onto the Racetrack Valley road: 28 miles of mean washboard.

Back then, at the aptly named Teakettle Junction (mile marker 19), we took a detour on the Hunter Mountain Road, where we spent a night in the Cottonwood Mountains with a glorious view of Death Valley, before backtracking the next day to Racetrack Valley.?? Maybe I was just used to bumping along on stiff suspension back in those days, but I have no memories – negative or otherwise – of the Racetrack Valley Road being anything more than long. (Now, the Lippincott Mine Road is another story entirely, though one I’ll leave unsaid for now.) This time it really was a painful 3 hours of bumping and rattling and shimmying along.

But first, we made the mistake of asking at Park HQ in Furnace Creek how the road was.?? I proceeded to get the 3rd degree from a young ranger: What kind of tires do you have? How many plys are they??? What kind of vehicle are you driving? How many spares do you have? Etc. And then she started laying down the fear-factor: it’s a terrible road; lots of flat tires; big sharp rocks; you’re on your own; no tow service, ad nauseum.?? The road was rocky (small, not big rocks and they didn’t seem particularly sharp either) and washboarded, but beyond that her hyperbole does the Park Service a disservice.?? I understand that they have to deal with lots of boneheads who get themselves into stupid predicaments, but by deliberately inflating the risk of venturing out, they feed into the misguided mantra that the National Park system (read: the federal government) is just trying to “lock up the land.”

We also made the mistake of filling up at Furnace Creek: >$5/gallon!?? But, really, that and Stovepipe Wells are your only two choices for fresh petrol in the Park.?? (The latter is about a dollar cheaper so if you can, fill up there.)?? As we drove north, the air was still quite hazy from over 24 hours of high winds. Why hazy??? The winds created a sandstorm in the Mesquite Flats area that basically completely blotted out Stovepipe Wells Village and the upper Death Valley basin for the better part of a day.?? When you want clean sand dunes with little to no tracks, post storm is the time to wander in the dunes.

If you venture this will you leave the pavement at Ubehebe Crater. But, before you do so, check out the crater and surrounding ash lands left over from what appear to be a dramatic series of eruptions some 2,000-7,000 years ago.?? A nice hour-plus long walk around the rim of the ?? mile wide, 777 feet deep crater is just what you need before the grind on Racetrack Valley Road.????

Slowly we climbed the long alluvial fan to the high point of Tin Pass (4990’).?? This area is rich with Joshua Trees and if the light is right and you can afford the time, a break here to photograph the weirdly twisted and faintly anthropomorphic plants is a welcome reward.

A little less than an hour later and we arrive at Teakettle Junction.?? Legend states that over a hundred years ago a miner placed a teakettle at this fork in the bad road. Tradition has lead to hundreds of people doing the same over the last century.?? When I was last here there were but a few.?? Now? Perhaps 50.

In the distance, some 6 miles away, gleamed Racetrack Valley while just beyond reared the dark southern extremity of the Last Chance Range. This was all familiar to me now: like returning to a well-loved place after many years. Which, it is.

Next Post: Grandstanding and Moving Rocks


09 August 2011

Warning: Limited Vision Ahead

I was browsing Facebook last week and one of the photography forums I follow posted an image and requested comments.?? This is quite often an occasion for the fanboys to come out and say how ‘awesome’ even the most mundane of subject matter and composition is. (Surely, ‘awesome’ is one of the most frequently used and least meaningful words in the current vernacular of English. Don’t believe me? Still like to use it in everyday usage? Go to Flickr and type the word in the search bar. You will have over 2 million images of various levels of awesomeness to browse. Have fun!)?? However, on this forum I have read insightful and constructive comments that someone actually put some thought into.

The particular image that caught my attention was of interesting subject matter and was converted to black and white, which generally piques my interest.???? The composition was nice but what I objected to was the existence of an over-large watermark placed in the lower third of the image.?? I’ve already written about the disease watermarkis blotis, which seems to be plaguing so many photographers today. In addition, the photographer had processed the image to the point where the sky featured prominent haloing.?? There is using techniques to complement an image and then there is using it to effect.?? Where one ends and the other begins is certainly subjective.?? I have seen completely grunged-out images that work because the processing is well suited to the subject matter.?? And, I’ve seen the opposite, many times over.

I left a short comment referencing the watermark and haloing and upon checking back 10-15 minutes later was surprised to see a small flame-war between one individual who liked the processing and another who only liked “real” photography. ??The former was of the ‘live-and-let-live’ mindset while the “real photographer” (we’ll call him Mr. RP for short) was condescending, patronizing, absolutist, and quite full of his self.?? His statements became sillier as the thread lengthened.?? For instance, did you know that: HDR is fake; real photographers never have to use Photoshop; unless you are a “real photographer” you are merely a hobbyist; you must have a big camera to be “real photographer” and not merely a ‘cookie-cutter’ camera; if you shoot raw and in manual mode your image will need ‘nearly no’ post processing; if you're not looking to capture the “real thing” you should just steal an image off the net and manipulate it in Photoshop; and only full time photographers have anything of value to say about photography. Really? I did not know all of this. But, good news! Now, I do!

In all seriousness, I thought “this guy has got to be kidding.” I mean, I know a number of full time, and I would say quite real, photographers and they all use Photoshop, Lightroom and various plugins and yes, even the dreaded HDR software.?? But this is all computer gimmickry of course and these folks – who have collectively sold thousands of images and published over 100 books – can clearly not be “real photographers!”?? At least according to Mr. RP. So, I wondered; who the hell is this Mr. RP??? Though he did not list any websites on his public-facing Facebook profile (wouldn’t a real, full time photographer do that?), I was able to sleuth him out.

Navigating through his website galleries, some of his images were nicely composed and some were pretty journeyman-like, if not just plain boring.?? A few series featured nice colors, if somewhat standard compositions. Generally though many of them lacked pizzazz, interest or excitement and would have been greatly aided by the serious use of post-processing tools. Low-contrast, color-deprived images are not necessarily more “real.” They are just low-contrast and color-deprived.?? My goal is not to trash this unnamed photographer.?? After all, his images must be EXACTLY what he wants out of photography, no matter how limited in vision they seem to me.?? However, it is the visionaries in any creative field (be it art or science!) who push the bounds.?? If not for them, photographs would be strictly representational ?? la 1850’s and painting would not have moved off of the cave walls of Lascaux.?? I’ll leave it to Mr. RP to discuss with the ghosts of Messrs. Adams, Weston (all of them!), Brandt, Stieglitz and Steichen (amongst many others) the virtues of the wet chemistry equivalent to Photoshop.?? And, I’ll leave it to others to educate him that shooting in RAW is advantageous primarily because you have the most amount of information to “play with” (not because somehow that format is more ‘real’ in appearance than TIFF or JPEG).

No it wasn’t objectionable that Mr. RP’s vision seemed so limited but rather that he insisted others conform to his “wisdom.”?? Worse than parochialism is uninformed absolutism.?? Expressing oneself in such a fashion says much more about the critic than the criticized.

(Warning: below are Photoshop processed images. If offended, please avert your eyes.)


04 August 2011

The Allure of Sand

There is something poetic, majestic, romantic and sensuous about sand dunes.  I’m not talking about those scrubby little things dotted with dried-out fast food wrappers and sun-bleached soda bottles that you can find along most stretches of public beach.  But rather, the isolated and austere, expansive and sometimes towering stretches of dunes that entice you to wander into their curving and hidden folds, that seduce you to continue venturing deeper, searching for the most glorious view, the untouched ripples, the perfect feminine roll of land meeting sky.?? These are the dunes of mystery and power that figure in Lawrence of Arabia, Edward Weston’s visions of Oceano, Wilfred Thesiger’s wandering through the Rub’ al Khalil, and Frank Herbert’s detailed and developed world of Arrakis.

In the large swath of desert and mountains that comprise Death Valley National Park there are a number of areas were dunes reside, if not reign.?? Saline Valley’s dunes are low but seldom visited.?? Panamint Valley features a relatively small set of dunes sitting forlorn, almost forgotten in the northern, unvisited end of the valley.?? Eureka Valley, isolated at the tail end of 45 miles of washboard road, boasts the highest dunes in the Great Basin, towering over 650 feet above the floor. Death Valley proper hosts the most popular dunes in the park. Located in the Mesquite Flat area just outside Stovepipe Wells, these are the dunes I visited this past April.

Rolling into the campground late in the afternoon the first week of April, the temperature hovered around 101??F. Stovepipe Wells really is the most pathetic excuse for a campground.?? It is essentially one large gravel parking lot for the RVers bounded on the north side by 20 or so anemic looking campsites for those that still pitch a tent.?? The only saving grace was the hummocky mesquite bush-topped, miniature dunes that I was able to set my tent behind in order to gain at least some privacy.?? Duty done, it was time to head to the dunes, located just a mile distant.

There really are two good times of the day for photographers to hang out on the dunes: dusk and dawn.???? (A case could be made for a moon and star drenched evening with some long exposure work… as long as you can find your way back to your vehicle/campsite.)?? Late afternoon was hot but we wandered quite a-ways out on the dunes, looking both for relatively untracked sand and the perfect place to catch the glow of sunset.

The Mesquite Sand Dunes feature one obvious high dune that acts as both a centerpiece and magnet for photographers and tourists alike.?? So, my goal became to position myself to have the central high dune clearly in the majority of compositions.?? I ascended one final ridge, exhausted after 9+ hours of driving, setting up camp and finally trudging through the hot sand and hotter air, and with the big dune in front of me, declared a victory of sorts by planting my tripod.

As the shadows grew, the sand began a transformation to gold and the faint wispy strands of cloud shifted to coral-pink. This was the time to shoot. Which, I did – see below. (My shooting partner captured just about the perfect late afternoon dune shot here.)

For me, this is very much ultra wide-angle country.?? I want to capture the ripples of sand inches from my feet and the blackened mountains on the distant horizon…and all must be sharp.?? So, I stop down close to or at the limit of the lens I have mounted.?? Can I do that AND have the image sharp throughout the frame? Not always, but often.?? It is a trade-off, but compromise is usually part of the equation in photography.??

The next morning we were up before dawn and again trudged our way over the dunes.?? It was much cooler though and we were refreshed so the walk was pleasant rather than a “death march.”?? We deliberately hiked further out into the dunes to avoid the bulk of the human tracks.?? I eventually positioned myself above a sweep of virgin ripples and waited for the sun to rise. When it did, it provided intense side lighting and the sand ripples became topographically pronounced: perfect compositional fodder for my infrared cameras.?? I found myself laying on the dunes trying to get as low an angle as possible to capture the details and relief of the sand.?? I needed to shoot fast though as the landscape and shadows were changing rapidly.

Morning on the dunes is also a great time to look for tracks left by the various nocturnal creatures that wander at night.?? Beetle and small animal tracks were scattered here and there, but the highlight was when I found a sidewinder track and followed it for a 100 meters or so up and over the sharp crest of a dune.

By 9am we were pretty close to being finished shooting on the dunes.?? The light was turning quite harsh, though I was still getting some good images with my infrared cameras.?? (Infrared loves the strong contrast of mid-day and as long as you can maintain shadow detail and not blow out the sky, you can capture striking images.)?? It was time to move on other Death Valley treats and the sky promised another over 100?? day…not really a time to be wandering the giant sand trap of Death Valley Sand Dunes.

We enjoyed our sunset and sunrise on the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes and captured a number of strong images, but I was already thinking about other ways to capture the forms, light and emotions of this austere but beautiful landscape. I was also thinking back twenty-plus years ago when I first rattled up to the towering Eureka Sand Dunes.?? What I could do photographically with those dunes today!?? It would have to wait though as other locations, Racetrack Valley included, were on our agenda this trip.?? However, the promise was made: Eureka or bust next Spring!