My most cherished museum experience occurred long ago when I discovered Edward Weston’s deserts. I loved the desert even then–albeit from afar–but I didn’t develop a deep attachment to photography until a couple of years ago, when my husband and I began to explore the Nevada High Desert. Then I embraced photography as a way to capture the beauty, space and solitude we found there. And with each successive trip to the high desert my photographs improved, deceptively alluding to a possible aptitude for the art. In truth, any of my photographs which proved enjoyable beyond sentiment were a mere product of good fortune or relentless clicking of the shutter; none gave me the image I anticipated.
I have since learned that desert photography is challenging, even for some experts, due to the inhibiting effect of desert light on its subjects. I am a novice photographer, with an early point and shoot digital camera, no wide angle lens, minimal zoom, and vague options via funny little icons for controlling light. These are deficits of which I was blissfully unaware two years ago when I began shooting in the high desert, confident my images would mirror not only the magnificent scenes I photographed but also the peace and gratitude those scenes evoked within me. After hundreds of disappointing pictures, however, I finally comprehended that I was underestimating a complex art and unless I narrowed my objectives, doomed to a collection of high desert photos comprised of mostly really bad pictures. I proceeded tentatively to learn and respect the limitations of my camera. Here are the results:
1. I discovered that my camera has seasonal affect disorder. It takes its best desert pictures on a clear autumn day when sunlight comes from an indirect angle that affords adequate light, but not too much. By contrast, in summer the infusion of white light that results from the sun’s rays being directly overhead creates a washed out effect that mutes or blurs object definition. In photography this effect is termed unsaturated color. Indirect light–such as that found in autumn–permits color to coagulate and resultant shapes to distinctly emerge.
2. I realized that unless I can tame an antelope and persuade it to pose in front of my camera, I’ll have to be satisfied with photographing its tracks. My camera has a slow response time and that, combined with a meek zoom and overall indifference to light, renders it ineffectual for wildlife.
3. I decided to forgive the limitations of my camera and be happy with any desert vista photos which reflect even a small amount of detail.
4. Foregoing my original goal of expertly capturing the exquisite vastness and solitude of the Nevada High Desert, I began to focus on small-to-medium subjects that are relatively close and cooperative: my husband, our dogs, our Land Rover, old structures, narrow canyons and select other scenes.
5. Although not without a tiny bit of guilt, I put a new camera to replace my old point and shoot at the top of my Christmas list and, hopefully in 2012, will patiently begin this process again.