A Tale of a Flood and Mud
In Capturing Context, we share the story behind the image, providing insight into the photographer's approach and experience, and allowing the reader to connect more deeply with the work.
As photographers, we all have a few favorite places that we never tire of visiting and photographing. They’re locations where we never get bored shooting, and we can always come home with an image that we love. These places keep us curious and inspired, and we never rest from exploring them further. One of those locations for me is Death Valley National Park in Southern California. I have spent every winter there for the last three years, and it continues to be a source of inspiration with its mountains, playas, mud tiles, and dunes. It's an area where I've learned and practiced what it means to slow down and produce more thoughtful and creative images. I've come to find that visiting these places to hike and explore without a camera, and spending time studying weather patterns, can help the process of slow photography. Using these insights, I walked away from this year’s visit with some new abstract images that wouldn't have come to light otherwise.
This winter, Death Valley had some of the craziest, rainiest, and snowiest weather I have ever experienced there. While these conditions are not exactly unheard of during the winter months, it was the frequency of them that made it unusual. During the winter months, I spend a lot of my time in the park experiencing and hiking in newly discovered areas, as well as revisiting old favorites. I do this to help my creative process, and to connect with each area I photograph. Most of the time, I drag my camera gear around with me when exploring. While this is not a bad thing to do, sometimes I do also find it necessary to leave it behind. By keeping my back free of the pack and weight, I find I explore areas more in depth than I would with a heavy pack full of gear.
I recently visited an area that I had always wanted to go explore in the backcountry of Death Valley. It was an part of the park that I had been wanting to spend time in for a while, hopeful it might reveal some interesting mud patterns. Given the rain and snow that the park had been getting, I figured it would be worth it to go see if there was new mud. On this particular occasion, I wanted to use my eyes and legs to explore the area first, without camera gear. I hiked into the area I was curious about, hoping to find new textures and abstracts that might yield some exciting new patterns. I encountered an area of ground strewn with crazy cracks, small peeling mud tiles, and textures. By the time I found them though, those textures had dried up, victims to the harsh environment and baked by the sun.
Nevertheless, I could tell the scene had been a paradise of patterns and movement back when it first formed. I spent some time looking around at the different sections of ground. Some areas had cracks, some had peeled, and some had parts that I couldn't tell what the texture had been at all. The desert wind and sun had made it indistinguishable. Studying the geography around me, I could surmise that this area was prone to flooding. I guessed that after the water had evaporated, it left these beautiful textures and patterns in the mud. After walking around a bit more, I determined that I needed to watch the forecasts in this area for the next time it rained, and come back with my camera in hand. I made a point in my GPS so I could find the spots I found interesting again.
Now with the scouting completed, it was time to wait for the right conditions. It rained a little a few weeks later, and I stopped back to check the area out. While there were some small areas of interest, the majority of the area had not gotten the flooding needed to reset and create new patterns. I stayed patient and vigilant until, finally, there was a week of substantial rain. There were reports of flooding , so I knew it was likely that my promising little area had flooded as well. It took a few days for the clouds and rain to pass, and then another few days of sunshine and warm temperatures to help heat and dry up the ground. I ventured out to my scouted spot a week later and found what I had been anticipating. The ground had indeed flooded with water that had since evaporated and dried up. Already, the harsh elements of the desert had already gone to work on the area.
There were not only areas of fresh peeling mud, but also vast areas of cracks, textures, and patterns. It was mid-day when I walked out, and I knew that these patterns and textures would photograph well after the sunset and during the blue hour. I returned later that afternoon with my camera gear in hand. I spent a good deal of time walking around the area, investigating all the patterns, and taking in the whole scene. There were so many varieties of textures and colors I had never seen before. I set to work photographing what I saw and began the task of putting together compositions using the lines, shapes, cracks, and patterns. My abstract brain was very excited, and as the light went away and the blue hour set in, the colors started to pop. The blue hour provided a slight glow to the peeling mud, giving it perfect highlights on the curled edges. There were areas of mud where it had frozen before drying at some point, giving the ground a cracked look ,with small fissures spreading everywhere.
I used my wide angle and my telephoto lenses to capture these small and intriguing scenes. The wide angle was useful in obtaining a larger area of patterns, and the telephoto was instrumental in zooming in for a tighter view of a scene. What fascinated me most about these scenes were the intricate lines and details. Some reminded me of ruffled feathers on a bird, geometric shapes, mosaics, and polka dots. The blue twilight made the white areas on the mud tiles reflect the blue from the sky above. Using a longer shutter speed as darkness crept in rewarded me with beautiful glowing tiles.
The best part of this whole experience was slowing down and taking the time to explore this area and understand the context of it, even before the flood. Using the knowledge from being in the park many seasons, I was able to use the weather as my guide, as I pursued these exciting new outcomes in my abstract photography.
We sometimes get so caught up in exciting moments chasing light, that we forget the first step in getting to know a place is to learn the nuances of an area, and the weather patterns. These exercises are an essential part of better connecting with nature. Knowing the weather conditions and how they affect an area can take your photography to another level, once you've taken the time to study and capture your subject during different situations. I feel this is a necessary part of the slow photography process. Getting out and exploring an area in different weather conditions and light can yield great photographic rewards to those willing to put the time in to study locations further.