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Joshua Tree National Park (and Musings on Photography as Art)

Joshua Tree National Park Black and White Photography

All images shot on Ilford Delta 100 film
using a Shen-Hao TFC 617-A Camera
Please, oh please, click any picture to see it bigger

I've been to Joshua Tree National Park more times than I can count. Sometimes I go and, no matter how hard I try, I just can't find a photo worth taking. Those times can be mind-numbingly frustrating. Because really there's no better way to feel like a hack than being unable to take a good picture when you're literally surrounded on all sides by beautiful vistas, stunning rock formations, and stately Joshua Trees. A 3-year-old with an iPhone should be able to take great pictures when they got this kind of scenery to work with.

But I've learned after enough of these failed attempts that there's a difference between creating great photographs and creating art. *Cough* *Cough* Oh, God *Cough* Sorry...I nearly choked on the pretension of that sentence. Hold on, let me put on a beret and an ascot before I proceed with this line of thinking. Okay, at the risk of sounding pretentious, here goes. And I write this not as a person who has it all figured out. I write this as an aspiring artist who is trying to figure this all out.

Here was the basic evolution of my photographic style: I started by aspiring to copy my idols (Galen Rowell was the main one for me). I studied and practiced until I could create a pretty good facsimile of the pictures I admired. I got good at it, too. I could create a pretty damn good imitation of what I thought a National Geographic photographer would do. I even took it a little further, putting a slight spin on this style so I could call it my own. I was content with this for a long time - creating pictures that were good, some of them great. But eventually I got bored. I felt like I was repeating myself again and again. It became a formula - use this lens with that composition with these filters. "It's resulting in great photos - why change it?" Same thing over and over.

And then I crashed (creatively, not literally). I got so fed up with photography that I barely ever picked up the camera anymore. I was sick of it. How many more high-saturation wide angle epic-foreground-under-a-fiery-sunset pictures could I bear to make? It was a very troubling time for me. I felt like I was losing my identity as a photographer/artist. But really, it was never my identity to begin with - it was my best imitation of the professionals I admired. I was the photographer-equivalent of a cover band.

But slowly, I began to realize what the problem was. I wasn't striving to create art. I was simply doing my best impression of Galen Rowell and Peter Lik and a million other people on Flickr.

*** Keep scrolling...More pictures below ***

I still do that style now and then, but I view it differently now. To me, it's not creating art. That high-saturation stuff with the predictable compositions, it's paint-by-numbers. Good clean fun, but nothing deeper than that. And don't get me wrong, there's a place for the paint-by-numbers style of photography. It's therapeutic, it's fun, and it makes for great pictures. But if I never go out and try to make my own creation - something that truly comes from deep inside - I'll never really feel that deep sense of artistic satisfaction.

I can't define art and I certainly don't have "what makes good art" figured out, but I know how it feels when I'm trying to create real art and when I'm just painting by numbers. The trips to Joshua Tree that go well these days, those are the trips where I'm really working to break out of the paint-by-numbers groove. When I'm really trying to create art, that's when I'm burning through rolls of film in the very same park where last time I couldn't find a single photo.

My most recent trip to Joshua Tree National Park was one of those times where I was in "art mode." And what does "art mode" mean to me? It means I'm open to the landscape, I'm ready to see what it shows me with no preconceived ideas of what pictures I intend to or should make. I'm a blank canvas going in. And I have to feel a deep affinity for the environment around me, I have to want to be there and I have to clear my mind so I can see what it has to offer. I also have to be okay with getting no good photos. If inspiration doesn't strike, that's okay. When you're not painting by numbers, there's no guarantee you'll have a picture at the end of it.

It can be difficult to get in that mode sometimes. The distractions I was supposed to leave back home often cling to me like barbs. Plus, my preconceived ideas of what I "should" be doing with composition, light, color, etc. can paint my blank canvas before I even get there. If that happens, I'm painting by numbers again. But if I can clear my canvas, open my mind, and let myself get in touch with that monster rumbling deep down inside me that wants to create true meaningful art - if I can do all that, I will come home satisfied.

Now whether or not true meaningful art is actually created, that's beside the point. I suppose that's for the viewer to decide. But ultimately for me, it's about creating something I'm proud of and, most importantly, something that I feel is a reflection of my inner fiber. I'm happy to say in that respect, this trip was a success.

Okay. I've now removed my beret and ascot. Let's talk unpretentious camera-geek stuff. I made all the pictures here using my Shen-Hao TFC 617-A 6x17 panoramic camera. They were all made with Ilford Delta 100 Professional film, all of them push-processed then scanned with an Epson V750. Tone curve adjustments done in Adobe Lightroom.

Joshua Tree National Park Black and White Photography

Joshua Tree National Park Black and White Photography

Joshua Tree National Park Black and White Photography

Joshua Tree National Park Black and White Photography

Joshua Tree National Park Black and White Photography

Whitewater Country Club: An Abandoned Wasteland in Palm Springs

Whitewater Country Club, Palm Springs, CA

Sand dunes reclaim tennis courts at the
abandoned Whitewater Country Club in Palm Springs.

Images shot on Fuji Velvia 100 film - Click to Enlarge

On the northwest end of Palm Springs, California there sits a sprawling expanse of land where nature is reclaiming cracked tennis courts, crumbling foundations, and golf cart paths that once guided visitors through lush fairways. Sand traps that were carefully placed decades ago are now virtually indiscernible from the natural dunes accumulating along deteriorating fences and cinderblock walls. Palm trees dot the landscape, shabby and neglected, some with their tops sheared completely off.

This is Whitewater Country Club.

Formerly know as Palm Springs Country Club, this golf course opened in 1954 but fell into disrepair about 10 years ago when the owner passed away, millions of dollars in debt, sending the Whitewater Country Club into foreclosure. Since then, it's been left abandoned and decaying in the harsh desert elements.

There are plans to revive this land with condominiums and single-family homes, but the process is slow-going. Permitting, approvals, local pushback...you know how that goes. From what the news articles report, it sounds like some residents are hesitant about the proposed plan due to how dense the housing could be. But it goes without saying that pretty much all residents agree that something needs be done about this place. After all, can you imagine what a rundown post-apocalyptic-looking golf course does to their property value?

Although this little slice of the apocalypse is a real drag for local residents, for visiting photographers like myself it's a veritable playground. Photographers love urban decay. I'm ashamed to admit it - because it's just so damned cliché - but there is something about deteriorating structures that begs to be photographed. My appreciation might stem subconsciously from a rebellious urge towards big developers. Having grown up in Irvine, California where for decades there has been a ceaseless gobbling up of wild spaces by multi-billion dollar corporations to make way for more overpriced high-density housing, a part of me gets some deep satisfaction in seeing nature reclaim what's hers. It's a nice reminder that even greed is ultimately powerless against the elements.

Greed and overindulgence has created countless environmental catastrophes and longterm destruction including climate change, but in the grand scheme of things, humans are just a blip on the radar screen of Mother Nature. We may pollute this planet into uninhabitability, but nature will bounce back in the long run. It's incredible when you think about it. This planet could flick us off like so many gnats and, in fact, would thrive without us around. Nature reminds us of this all the time. Hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes - little reminders here and there to show us who's boss. And of these "reminders," I think the decaying remnants of human development are one of the least-destructive and most fun to photograph. The desert's reclamation of this property is really a quaint and harmless example of our species' impermanence compared to the awesome force of a hurricane.

I don't mean to sound bleak. Environmental issues are near and dear to my heart, and it's because I'm in absolute awe of nature's beauty and power. Mankind has made countless mistakes in caring for this planet, but we are moving in the right direction. Changes are happening and people are caring more. We have a long way to go yet, but we're on our way.

But enough with the serious environmental stuff. Let's talk photography.

I shot these photos using a Fujifilm GA645Zi medium format rangefinder camera with Fuji Velvia 100 film. This film is a high-contrast high-saturation film that gives these photos great vibrance and harshness, that "punchy" look as some photographers will call it. I shot in late afternoon to get some of that warm desert light coming in at a low angle, which creates depth and color. I'll be the first to say that these photos are not "beautiful" in the traditional sense. I mean, look at those palm trees with the sheared-off tops. Is there anything more sad than a palm tree missing its top? But there are two things that stand front and center in these photos - the passing of time and the decay of things - and those can both be beautiful through the right eyes. They certainly are through mine.

Whitewater Country Club, Palm Springs, CA

Whitewater Country Club, Palm Springs, CA

Whitewater Country Club, Palm Springs, CA

Whitewater Country Club, Palm Springs, CA

Whitewater Country Club, Palm Springs, CA

Whitewater Country Club, Palm Springs, CA

Whitewater Country Club, Palm Springs, CA

Whitewater Country Club, Palm Springs, CA

Whitewater Country Club, Palm Springs, CA

Whitewater Country Club, Palm Springs, CA

Whitewater Country Club, Palm Springs, CA

Whitewater Country Club, Palm Springs, CA

Whitewater Country Club, Palm Springs, CA

Whitewater Country Club, Palm Springs, CA

Self portrait

Octopus Agave, Puffy Clouds, and Fuji Velvia 100 Film

Octopus Agave on Fuji Velvia 100 Film

Octopus Agave on Fuji Velvia 100 Film
Shot with a Fuji GA645Zi Camera

Click Images to Enlarge

There are three things I love - succulents, puffy white clouds, and Fuji Velvia 100 film. And when they all come together at the same time, that’s a perfect storm of good vibes.

This year’s El Nino has brought some great things to southern California. Of course, the extra precipitation is a godsend with the ongoing drought, but there are certain other side effects to El Nino that I’ve really enjoyed. First, this spring we’ve had a higher-than-normal share of days with what I call “the perfect sky.” It’s that crystal clear blue color behind a sea of fair-weather cumulus clouds - those herds of puffy cotton balls gently migrating across the sky. And second, El Nino has coaxed out some impressive spring blooms.

Back in March I found myself with some spare time on one of these “perfect sky” days, so I grabbed my delightfully fun-to-use Fuji GA645zi camera, loaded it up with Velvia 100 film, and ventured out to the Jeffrey Open Space Trail in Irvine. I went out with no plans of what exactly to shoot. All I knew was I wanted to incorporate the sky in some way.

The Jeffrey Open Space Trail is a developed walking trail with landscaping that features some very impressive succulents. As I ventured along the trail, I came across a cluster of Octopus Agave plants - an agave from Mexico with fleshy leaves that twist and crawl out from its core. Shooting up from the center of each plant was a long, slender spike about 15 feet tall, each wrapped in countless green-yellow bulbs. They were stunning. The flowers were not in full bloom on this day, but still, the unique shape and design of these plants were begging to be photographed.

I decided to concentrate my compositions on these alien-like spires shooting up into that Monet sky because I loved how unusual they looked. I excluded the base of these plants from my compositions to preserve the bizarreness of what stood before me. With no base to provide context, these spikes became even more curious. I kept my aperture relatively wide open to let the background blur out ever so slightly, further drawing attention to the plants against their backdrop. And that color palette of green-yellow, sky blue, and white…man, oh, man…Mother Nature really knows how to pair colors, doesn’t she?

Octopus Agave on Fuji Velvia 100 Film

Octopus Agave on Fuji Velvia 100 Film

Octopus Agave on Fuji Velvia 100 Film

For the film geeks out there, I want to tell you a little more about the camera. I bought this Fuji GA645zi off eBay as my “walking around” camera. My main landscape photography cameras are so big and slow to set up (a Shen Hao TFC 617-A and a Mamiya RZ67) that I decided I should carry a lightweight, point-and-shooter to fill in the gaps. This old camera has a lot of modern amenities including auto focus, auto exposure modes, flash, exposure compensation, and even a power zoom lens (albeit not a very wide focal length to work with).

Fuji GA645Zi Medium Format Camera

I have to say, I have fallen in love with this camera. The size is just right, it’s easy to use, and the power zoom function is great for fine-tuning composition. I use this camera most often in Program (P) mode or Aperture Priority (A) mode instead of full manual so I can concentrate on the composition instead of metering. The auto exposure meter has been very reliable. Exposures are often perfect and the exposure compensation lets me sway it when I know it’s going to make a mistake. This camera is flat-out fun to use, which might be the best reason to own a camera.

I learn something new or am reminded of an old lesson every time I take out my camera. On this occasion, I was reminded that I need to get out with my camera in-hand more often - no plan, no preconceived ideas of what to shoot - just get out with my camera and see what the world shows me. Because who knows when you’ll find a 15-foot tall alien plant against a perfect sky?

Octopus Agave on Fuji Velvia 100 Film

Octopus Agave on Fuji Velvia 100 Film

Agave on Fuji Velvia 100 Film

Agave on Fuji Velvia 100 Film

Octopus Agave on Fuji Velvia 100 Film