Desert Photo

Los Angeles / Palm Springs / Joshua Tree

[ s. hansen / ISO50 ]

Key Points:

  • Companion article to 67 new images in the PHOTO section.
  • The photographic tension of Mojave solitude and civilization
  • Tools + specs: iPad photo technique, digital darkroom and image-editing bay
  • Location notes and engrams: Early spring in the desolate place, Desert X and the art scene, the oasis under Mt. San Jacinto, and L.A. in fragments

Reach into Wildland and Metro Desert for Clues

We live in a vastly complex society which has been able to provide us with a multitude of material things, and this is good. But since at least the 1950s, Americans have been suspecting that we’ve paid a high spiritual price for our plenty. Each person would like to feel that they are an entity, a separate individual capable of independent existence, and this is hard to believe when everything we eat, wear, live in, drive, use or handle has required the cooperative effort of millions of people to produce, process, transport and, eventually, distribute to our hands. “Man” simply must feel he is more than a mere mechanical part in this intrinsically interdependent industrial system. We enjoy the comforts of highly organized production and technology, but don’t we sometimes feel that we are living a secondhand sort of existence, in danger of losing contact with the origins of life and the nature which nourishes it?

[ s. hansen / ISO50 ]

Fortunately, there is a saving streak of the primitive in all of us who sought to escape the increasing complications of modern life by running off to some remote desert, forsaken pine barren, or windswept South Sea isle to eat coconuts, fish and breadfruit. In retracing ancient instincts upon an otherworldly California desert landscape, I realize how very few of us will ever be faced with the necessity of living off the wild open country for any extended period of time. The venerated outdoor skills, crucial to the survival of our ancestors, are now utilized in the service of recreation.

There’s another prospect that grows larger than brute lifeforms, transcendent and impenetrable in the way it engulfs Los Angeles—if not for bold engineering, next-level tech and the limitless risks of ruthless entrepreneurs straight out of “There Will be Blood,” it really shouldn’t be there in the first place. In some ways L.A. shares ambivalent similarities with Miami, which is as much a sub-tropical jewel of a destination city as it is a foundationless, drained, mosquito-infested mangrove swamp, and not at all linked to human habitation as it sat fetid, gator-choked and brambly at low tide a few hundred years ago. L.A. and Miami know a thing or two about a gentle, balmy breeze on an early December night. There’s an abiding gratification in making exotic, meaningful stuff out of nothing in difficult-but-beautiful places, the way California sets up shop deep in the drought spot directly over the creaky rift zone, somehow one-upping our predecessors by mastering the struggle.

Beyond the population center there is a renewal of interest in faded connections to the primeval. Frame a sublime “memory cache” of stolen feral moments in the empty high desert. Imagine a protected oasis along the salted crust of San Andreas Fault lines where palpable traces of the Pleistocene are still detectable. Getting lost in it wouldn’t descend us into deplorable atavism, but serve as a creative demonstration against the artificiality of our daily lives. We gaze downslope at the glittering L.A. basin power grid and see how we built futuristic sanctuaries, which in turn drove us to seek sanctuary from ourselves.

[ s. hansen / ISO50 ]

SoCal Identity and Photo Technique

I’m looking for visual themes that offer a vantage point in the cut between “ourselves” on one side and “what’s left of the natural world” on the other, which isn’t new. The camera sways to emphasize spacious high-desert parklands, the substrate, the parched low-desert leisure vibe of abundance, and a sprawling, inscrutable, mirage-like 21st century Los Angeles. To avoid redundancy, make a compendium of flaws and forensic evidence in the environment, architecture, art and cities. Light and shadow play off of one another, beguiling echoes resonate in dust, and we enter the Californian desert chiaroscuro. Nearby we’ve optimistically erected lush resorts by desert hot springs to offset the stressed infrastructure of an arid seaside megalopolis. Its existence grafts the Holocene epoch to the Anthropocene’s opening chapter, accelerating us into a new subdivision of geological time. OK, now I can take the photo.

[ s. hansen / ISO50 ]

Desert Photo Kit / Tools / Specs

I hiked with a minimalist backpack in Mojave Desert altitudes ranging from 3,000′ to 5,500′ feet, putting in 18 trail miles over two days. The more strenuous routes led to open, untrammeled terrain “out the back,” multiple clicks away from the nearest tourist hive. To lighten the load, the Nikon DSLR kit was left at home. I quickly found out that the iPad Pro 9.7” is one fine and tolerable “downgrade” (with a lightweight tripod/mount on hand to steady about 40% of shots), and I think it worked better than most other digital cameras in the sub-DSLR tier. On this excursion I want to be unencumbered enough to jump boulders and climb rock faces. The tablet’s impressive 12.2 megapixel rig far surpassed my low performance expectation. The trade-offs and limitations were understood with a fixed f/2.2 aperture and tiny light sensor, all in the absence of professional lenses. There was a forgivable lack of sharpness that required digital darkroom mojo correction.

Heading into Palm Springs and L.A., I put in a dozen or so urban hiking miles to boot, and filled gaps in the rigid itinerary with unstructured wandering. On days one and five (out of seven), I took no pictures at all.

Afterward, the 70 or so “keeper” photos (out of 410 total) were methodically processed through the iPad’s native image editing software, then tweaked stepwise through a combination of apps (props to Hipstamatic, AfterLight, Luminance, Snapseed and Diptic) and the Adobe desktop suite (Photoshop/Lightroom with Exposure 2.0 plug-in). It’s easy to manipulate photo-realism and bring back the look of dead films from the 1960s and 70s once you find the time and the discipline not to overdo it. I kept a full-sized set of RAW/JPEGs of up to 6MB, then created a reduced, optimized set for web galleries (see PHOTO page for full set). Much of the initial file quality was preserved while compressing them down to 7% of the originals. To the discerning eye, there’s a compromise of quality versus download speed. On the web, your intended color and saturation shifts slightly, and vague pixelation/artifacts are introduced. By contrast, originals bring finer detail and correct color output for physical prints and blowups. Every photographer wants that clarity and smoothness. I had a few choice images printed professionally, revealing just how shockingly well the wafer-thin iPad did its thing in terms of technical proficiency, given how it still lacked the tack-sharp detail and macro, telephoto, manual capabilities of the Nikon.

[ Panamint Range, Death Valley ]

Three Distinct Locations

The trip was timed with a late-winter wildflower explosion in the lower elevations, following several months of flooding rains that ended a five-year drought. California would eventually go on to break its old winter rain/snowfall records as a string of “atmospheric river” storms flowed into April.

Location #1: Mojave Desert, Joshua Tree National Park, and the remote installation of Noah Purifoy’s Outdoor Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Sculpture. Purifoy was an L.A.-based junk Dada-style visionary in his own niche. His site-specific environment plays upon industrial deterioration as it succumbs to sun, wind and time. We can see something fresh in the falling-apart, the traces of on-site vandalism, the softening of edges more than a decade after the artist’s death. If you look at before/after photos using 2005 and 2017 for comparison, you notice how some souvenir-level theft has occurred recently, enabled by open access and site usage operating on the honor system. In these days of GPS-everything it’s nice to ply the scarce remaining outlands, baffled by poor signage, down a series of kinky rural dirt roads devoid of people or street lights. The artist’s intention, apparently, was to deliberately let this anonymous slab of desert slowly reabsorb his work as it decays, so that it is always changing and adding patina.

[ Arch Rock and Geminid Meteor / Joshua Tree N.P. ]

Joshua Tree National Park has a raw, unearthly vortex-like energy that’s amplified by tactically avoiding crowded days, times and attractions near the main roads. It’s the size of Rhode Island, so there are various veiled reserves in and around the park boundary where idylls of solitude can be found. Obscure or remote locations also increase the odds for unique imagery and wildlife encounters.

[ “Circle of Land and Sky,” Palm Desert (PK Smith III) ]

Location #2 summed up Palm Springs through the lens of mid-century modern architect Albert Frey’s iconic perch over California’s premiere desert playground. These photos strive to illustrate the splendor of enduring design through degradation over time. To no one’s surprise, even the cracks, weather damage and aging surfaces can develop more beautifully as they meld with their surroundings, inhabitants and 20,000 sunsets (if you measure the days from the 1960s-today). It is preserved, yet never updated. Gaps, warped details and distortions test the old structure like a silent tutelage, and render parts of it timeless. Frey is a true legend in Palm Springs, blending Bauhaus, Swiss, Frank Lloyd Wright and other styles before adapting them to the desert, his muse. He also designed many of the city’s iconic municipal buildings, which are now tended under official historical conservation methods.

[ inside view ]

Above Palm Springs looms Mount San Jacinto, a towering snow-topped tectonic shard of rock that throws an imposing evening shadow over the Coachella Valley. I was also in town for Desert X and Modernism Week simultaneously. Inspiring, cool and uncanny…out there in a windswept sandstorm lives a distinct and vibrant desert art/design scene. The billboard photos (below) show just one of several clever Desert X installations. On the main road into Palm Springs (Gene Autry Trail), four “ads” were set up to show a continuation of the exact mountain profile that lined up on the horizon behind the signs, temporarily “paying” to reclaim the disrupted view from commercial interests:

[ “Visible Distance / Second Sight,” Palm Springs (J. Bolande) ]


Location #3 hits the final stretch to Los Angeles with a side focus on the downtown (DTLA) art circuit, including The Broad Museum, LACMA, MOCA, and the LA Art Book Fair at Geffen Contemporary MOCA in Little Tokyo. In the Mid-Wilshire LACMA backyard, there is an unlikely rendezvous of fossil-rich tar pits and Levitated Mass. Doug Aitken was on display at MOCA, and he also has a new project off the coast of L.A. near Catalina Island.

[ “Mirage,” Desert Palisades (D. Aitken) ]

.[ inside view ]

.[ same room, reverse, facing Palm Springs, 4 hours later ]

No one can smell the beach in DTLA. It’s set back on a petroleum-laced promontory and there is a vibe in the night, the constancy of movement, and the gathering of a global talent pool. It’s natural to draw on that atmosphere, attempt to identify with the hidden subtext of a city, then point to something that says “this is the emblem of L.A.” When it comes to photography, here’s a city that’s been loved to death, which means long intervals of “why bother.” The camera almost never came out. It has to want to come out, and won’t be lured by redundant bullshit.

[ DTLA / Rooftop ]

Infinite L.A.

How to describe what it feels like to experience the inside of artist Yayoi Kusama’s enigmatic Infinity Mirror Room at The Broad Museum? Booking the museum’s miserly, almost cruel 60-second time slot to see the perpetually sold-out exhibit ends up being quite the logistical chore. This merely adds to its flavor and the precious value of each second. Yayoi Kusama is 87 years old. The curators at the Broad and other museums try to intellectualize what her body of work is about, but the answer ends up being painfully simple. As Philip Kennicott of the Washington Post once said, Kusama has been obsessed with one goal:

“Grappling with the fundamental fear that animates religion:
the sense of bewilderment that we are thrown into life
without having ever been asked to participate,
and the only way out of this mess is death.”

Now there’s a dry dose of logic to quicken the pulse. The car pulls off a fabled Mulholland Drive lookout just before midnight, L.A. does its reverse Infinity Mirror Room impression in twinkling points of light, competing with the stars, and we’re grounded in this desert spectacle.

[ Infinity Mirror Room silhouette ]