Harsh and unforgiving, the desert is a place of quietness and bold stark shapes. This is a place where trees, mountains and rocks are etched into the shimmering haze.
I first took my film cameras into the desert in the late Eighties. I was in my fifties then and looking for some peace and quiet. I found it in the Negev desert, in the south of Israel, which runs from the Dead Sea to the border with Egypt. It was barren, quiet and not at all lonely. If I stopped long enough I could hear the air moving.
I’m easily distracted by the minutiae of daily life and its obligations and I often worry that my photography ends up too far down my ‘do list’. The desert is my solution.
Since that first time, I have gone back many times. I know a lot of people find the desert threatening, a place without shelter or life but that’s not true. It’s a place to learn to feel comfortable with yourself and your photography. There is space, the sensation of being able to move both physically and emotionally – and I believe that a good photographer can capture some of those feelings.
The Negev desert is small by world standards with an area of only about thirteen thousand square kilometers. But it had its own version of the Silk Road, known as the Perfume Route. Camel caravans carrying frankincense and myrrh from Yemen in southern Arabia would travel northwards through the Sinai and Negev deserts and on to the Mediterranean ports. Only the Nabateans, an ancient desert people, knew the routes through the rocky valleys and where to find water for man and beast. They built cities where caravans could rest and re-supply but their trade vanished with the coming of the Romans and today only their ruined cities remain.
What touches each of us when we build images is very personal. In the desert I look for the play between light and shade. The Negev is a rocky desert and the bones of the land stand out clearly. The bones are clothed in contrasts, tones and textures; finding just the right combination is part of my job as a photographer.
I held an exhibition of my desert photography many years ago. I worked hard for six months, trekking back and forth to the desert. From about 500 images that I had taken 24 black & white and one color photograph were selected by the curator. All of the images spoke of a great expanse, contrasts and sometimes a hidden strength.
Creating an image out of the parts of the desert that speak to you means enduring the high temperatures, the dust, the winds that rise up unexpectedly and making the most of the cooler hours when the sun gives up roasting you and the landscape stops being flat for a little while.
I used to load myself up with gear – cameras, tripod, a number of lenses, not to mention food and water. I am now 80 years old and lugging too much gear leaves me with a painful back. The two film camera bodies and lens collection have been reduced to one Nikon D80, a telephoto lens and a Panasonic Lumix LX3.
Sometimes when I am fortunate enough to catch a ride in a 4 x 4 I will add another Nikon body and a quality wide-angle lens.
A few years ago, a dawn gallop to the top of a mountain to catch the rising sun on the surrounding hills made me rethink my strategy. I was carrying two camera bodies, telephoto lens, tripod, and all my other gear. After staggering to the summit I found myself almost too spent to take any interest in the beautiful golden flow of light on the hillsides.
A good trip is when I connect with an area or a specific object, when it ‘talks’ to me. A great trip is when I have captured some of those feelings as images. On one trip I went looking for a tree. I wanted an extravaganza of red flowers, but the flowers were late that spring. It turned out I didn’t need the flowers. The tree was a story in its own right, struggling for survival in a narrow creek bed baked dry and hard by years of desiccation. The rough texture of bark, its grim fight for life in such an environment showed me the tree’s strength. I missed out on flowers but I saw another story the desert was trying to tell me.
Photographing animals in the desert is the nature photographer’s marathon – training, endurance and strategy are all required, along with buckets of sweat. Animals are few and far between, so study the animal – where it feeds and drinks – and look for signs of its passage. Carry a telephoto lens and resign yourself to lurking for days at a time.
These days I don’t set out to photograph animals. On the other hand, if they find me I grab the opportunity. Even then, I often fail. I have many shots of backsides disappearing behind rocks and over cliffs. I once spent a hot and unsuccessful day searching for signs of ibex, jackals, wild asses or anything on four legs. That night I fell into my sleeping bag, frustrated and exhausted. I woke up to find animal tracks all about my campsite. They had come in the night to investigate the stranger in their midst.
Some trips have been complete failures. That happens when I try to do too much with too high expectations. The images come out flat, the composition dull. So take your time, there’s no rush in the desert. And being a desert, expect sand everywhere; sooner or later a grain will work its scratchy way into your camera and / or lens. Follow the obvious rules when changing lenses; get out of the wind and out of direct sunlight; get someone to stand in front of you, crawl into a cave or open your jacket and do the change inside it.
There are not many colors in the desert; blue skies and shades of brown and yellows, with only a touch of green. Because of the starkness, I tend to prefer black and white images; it provides a cleaner, more powerful picture and the contrast is there, as are the lines, shapes, and texture. But sometimes in the early morning or late afternoon there is a soft glow that is better captured with color. Water and color also make a great match. Water is life in the desert. It is often hidden in deep shadow-filled canyons exploding with plants. The vivid green against stark rock walls and clear pools sometimes demands a color image.
The desert is saturated with light and quietness. It will allow nothing to come between you and your photography. My dream is to visit the great deserts of the world. Until then, I will make the most of my own little desert.
Some relevant images can be found by reviewing the Gallery / Deserts.