Wednesday, January 25, 2012

White Sands

White Sands (1988) [8x10 Platinum-Palladium Print]

White Sands, New Mexico has been a pilgrimage destination for serious photographers for nearly a century. Brett Weston traveled there after leaving the service in the late 1940's, and created a portfolio which is among the wonders of post-war image-making. I first went there myself to photograph in the late 1980's, lugging my 8x10 Deardorff around the sandy bluffs. (The photograph above is one I made during my first visit, which I later contact printed in platinum-palladium emulsion.) White Sands is now a National Monument, and is run according to strict rules. Unfortunately, the park opens well after sunrise, and closes before sundown, making serious art photography difficult, since the best shots are only possible when the light is horizontal, creating shadows on the mercilessly white sheet of sand, which at midday provides almost no variation of tones. Nevertheless, it's still possible to make interesting compositions out of the desert flora, which hugs the slopes and depressions. This desert foliage is less common in other dune sites of the West, which is one of its attractions.

In the 1940's and 1950's, when Brett Weston was active there, I doubt he had to deal with any of these nuisances. The biggest problem then would have been the risks involved in wandering alone in the outback, since there would have been no one to rely on in the event of an accident or unexpected injury, unless one were accompanied. As civilization has spread relentlessly across the globe, many of the nicer places to photograph have become dearer, and harder to access. Brett made amazing compositions, as these samples attest:

Weston preferred very large format in those days, as I did when I first took up landscape photography seriously in 1985.

This could be me, in 1988, though of course it's Brett Weston, almost certainly somewhere among sand dunes--though this shot might have been taken in any of several sandy places.

Sand is a poetic substance, constantly shifting, sensual, restless, sleek. Our desire to capture its changing moods feels primordial. Before the advent of cameras, did people appreciate the dreamy abstractions created by the unidirectional light playing across the graceful slopes, the ribs and waves, contrary patterns of sand dunes? Or did they seem barren, meaningless humps of lifeless matter, whose consistency and fragile formations held no key to the purposes of life or the ulterior codes of universal meaning? We shall never know, since there are no recorded instances--at least that I am aware of--which document humankind's aesthetic regard for the shifting sands. The sands of time is a stale old chestnut, but like many such phrases, it carries a grain of truth. A grain of sand on the shore of time. Count their number, like unto the stars of heaven.

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