In 2019, I made a promise to myself to return to Death Valley after a 5-year absence. I was booked into a workshop with Guy Tal and Michael E. Gordon for early December 2020. Spoiler alert: we all know how that went.
Taking a chance on the new vaccine window of opportunity (and a seat sale), I booked my flight in the late summer for December 2021. It was so weird; it felt like I forgot how to plan trips. All the websites looked different, everything had changed. And there was a boatload of paperwork to fill in and tests to be booked. I was a good girl, I got my vaccines, I even got my booster. I really, really wanted to cross the border.
In the fall, the Canadian government finally announced that on November 30, they would relax the border restrictions. My flight was already booked for just exactly that day. And yet, I couldn't let myself get excited. I wouldn't believe there were not going to be more cancellations and shutdowns until I was wheels down in Las Vegas.
It had been almost two full years since I left my home province of Ontario. I was heading back to the desert in Death Valley, California, a place that I was warned would "get in my blood". These last two years have been difficult for many reasons. I needed the silence the desert provides. It had been almost exactly 6 years since my first trip there.
I didn't know in 2015 how much impact that trip would have on me–on the way I saw the world, or on the people who I now consider "my tribe" and who continue to influence the way I create my art. Back then, I was still working in the corporate world. It wasn't a coincidence that just after that trip I decided to give up my day job to become a full-time artist.
I approached this return with a certain amount of trepidation. There were extra anxieties about travel that previously didn't exist, like how and where I would stay, the masks in my luggage, and the extra procedures to ensure my health safety. Nebulous warning voices in my head also whispered about the dangers of "going back".
I am always cautious about not looking at images of a place before I go, in order not to lock myself into other people's expectations. It is important that I keep my mind and my eye fresh to put my own interpretation on what and how I see. But...I have been staring at my OWN images for the last 6 years. Not to mention all the memories. I needed to put all of that previous experience behind me, so I didn't get in my own way. (Ugh; artists are very adept at getting in their own way!)
I landed in Las Vegas and picked up my rental car. All the things that I used to do travelling for my art felt just a little off. Maybe it was the mask on my face, or maybe it was constantly being on the lookout for a spike protein to ruin everything! I decided to just head straight to my first destination, rather than wending my way, in order to get my photo ya-ya's out.
The last time I was out this way, I had read about this strange place called the Amargosa Opera House. A fascinating story about ballet dancer Marta Becket, who got a flat tire out in Death Valley, and ended up staying for the rest of her life in the old Borax mining residence hotel across from the garage where they towed her car. I heard about her six years ago, but I couldn't make it work last time. Sadly, Marta passed away in 2017; I would have loved to have met her.
I couldn't have asked for a better place to begin rediscovering the magic of Death Valley. There is NOTHING out in Death Valley Junction other than the Amargosa Opera House, and hotel. I got there just as the light was changing; it was December, after all, and the days are very short. I threw my bags in the room and ran out with my camera to catch some shots with the Belt of Venus evident in the landscape. As the light disappeared, a stunning clear night sky followed. This city girl was once again enchanted by the volume of stars visible when the light pollution of a big city was long behind her.
And oh, the silence. It is palpable out there. I could practically hold it in my hands; I could certainly feel it in my heart. A light wind was the only thing making a sound. I felt safe out there, alone in the desert, in a way that I never do in the city when I am out at night with my camera gear.
I was still on Toronto time when I awakened way too early the next morning. “No time like the present; might as well hit the road,” I thought. I went out in the early light and grabbed a few more shots of the property before I left.
I had planned my route deliberately, to enter Death Valley from the opposite end of the park than I did last time. As I passed the signs telling me I was officially there, my heart swelled. There were no cars on the road; I had it all to myself. I have one very specific image of my entry point from last time, and if I was going to wipe my own images out of my head if I was going to get out of my own way… it had to start with that one.
I pulled over to the side of the road and grabbed the camera. The sun hung high, and a touch of cloud cover filled the sky with some glorious light. Mist clung to the hills. I was surrounded by gifts from the photo gods. As I pressed the shutter, I thought, "I am back!!!". With that one shot, I wiped the slate clean, ready to make new art.
I don't normally set goals for my images when I travel. When you set goals, you may be so focused on attaining them that you miss other opportunities that present themselves. And if you don't attain said goals, you tend to overlook the good things that happened by serendipity, because you don't have those little boxes ticked off.
All of that is fine in a location I am completely unfamiliar with, but this is one of the rare times I returned to a location I already knew. Though I was determined not to replicate my work from last time, I also knew there were three things I wanted to accomplish during my visit. First, the colours. Oh, the colours in the desert are such an unexpected gift, and I really wanted a chance to play with them this time.
Second, the sand and dunes in Death Valley. I live in a city with 6 million people; sand is not a common sight here in Toronto! There is SO much to see and work within the sand. Finally, I wanted to convey the feeling of insignificance in that vast landscape by bringing some sense of scale to my viewers. I often try to portray silence in my work, and presenting the immensity of Death Valley’s landscape does just that.
For the next 11 days, I simply created. I don't like working my images when I'm on the road; my eyesight is pretty nasty at the best of times, so trying to process photos on a 13" laptop screen just gets ugly. I downloaded my images each night onto an external drive and did a first-round cull, but I didn't really know what I was dealing with until I got home to my big girl screen.
Reintegrating into my everyday routine after a trip to the desert hasn’t been easy. That absolute quiet I mentioned…it's hard to come out of that back into the hustle and bustle of real life. I'm having a harder time this time. It's weird, really; normally, I am very efficient about processing my images. I get home, I sit down at my computer, and I create a portfolio of new images to dole out over the internet in a carefully spun way to keep potential clients interested. But this time… After being grounded from travelling these last two years, I find I am not ready to share these images yet.
I feel like I'm hoarding them like I have some secret lover that I don't want anyone to know about. I am drawing it out, with an almost sinful enjoyment, like I've taken a mouthful of something I really shouldn't be eating (probably something with a lot of caramel in it...) and just trying to make it last. It's been such a long dry spell, and I need these to last me for a while. Who knows when or if I will ever return? The travel restrictions are being put in place again; having this little window of opportunity to get away feels like an illegal substance in my veins.
Now that I've had some quality time with my raw files, I'm starting to see the art emerge. I can feel the difference in time in the images. There have been major changes in my world since 2015, and massive growth in my knowledge. There is a sense of maturity in what I'm seeing come out of my hands, a more sophisticated viewpoint. I feel like I’ve earned this; it’s my reward for forcing myself to remain open to new ideas and new interpretations. For not allowing myself to be sidetracked by the haunting refrain of an old song doing endless loops in my brain.
We talk a lot in photography about "finding your voice", and developing a specific style. Personally, I see those as two very separate issues. In my mind, finding your voice is more about gaining confidence, and not being afraid to make changes or take chances. Conversely, I have always felt that if you settle on only one style, doing the same thing over and over again, you have not grown as an artist. These sites have stood, unchanging, for eons. I don’t want that to happen to me. As an artist, I need to take chances; I need to leap and trust that the net will appear. Just because the site hasn’t changed doesn’t mean that I must follow suit.
Thank you, Death Valley. Your magic continues to burn bright.