Desert, In The Field, Landscape, Photography, Travel

A Mountain Girl Goes To Death Valley

“Standing there, gaping at this monstrous and inhumane spectacle of rock and cloud and sky and space, I feel a ridiculous greed and possessiveness come over me. I want to know it all, possess it all, embrace the entire scene intimately, deeply, totally…”  ― Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire, about his time in Death Valley and Arches national parks.

Edward Abbey wrote, “There are mountain men, there are men of the sea, and there are desert rats.” Where is your happy place? For me, it is the mountains that make my soul sing. I grew up in Northern California, playing in the forests and creeks around our home. The mountains were full of life — birds, coyotes, deer, rabbits, pollywogs, bats, frogs, fish — all of which captivated my young imagination.

So, when I ventured to photograph Death Valley in January, I felt strangely off-balance. There were mountains, yes, but where were the trees, the flowing rivers and creeks, and the animals? I found this national park largely devoid of life, as its name implied. Compared to my beloved Sierra Nevada, Death Valley seemed very strange and mysterious. I did not feel at home in the desert as I did in the mountains, and I knew that photographing here would be a challenge for me.

We had a wonderful time exploring and discovering the mysteries of Death Valley. My friend, Claudia Welsh, took the photo of me in the field. Gary snapped the pic of me in the camper after I came in from the windstorm looking completely disheveled. And, that’s Michael Frye, Claudia’s husband, up on the dune with the rising sun behind him.
Making sense of the landscape

I often advise my students that, in order to make a truly beautiful landscape photograph, the photographer must feel an authentic connection to their subject. I definitely did not feel connected to this dry, arid landscape. Not only was it unfamiliar to me visually, I had very little knowledge about its geology, history, or biology. Since I try to practice what I preach, I decided to lean into my natural curiosity to spur my creativity.

I pondered Death Valley’s sand dunes. Why did they form in specific places, near the base of mountains? I fell in love with the graceful alluvial fans that formed over millions of years at the mouth of canyons. And, I learned about the endangered little Death Valley pupfish that thrive in Salt Creek, although I didn’t get to see one.  I read about the geologic history of the obscenely colorful terrain at Zabriskie Point and at Artist’s Palette, and learned that what I was seeing was a piece of our planet’s violent history. As I learned about Death Valley, my puzzlement gave way to an appreciation for its raw beauty.

A land of contrasts

Death Valley is full of extremes and contradictions. A rare rainstorm in October can cause a wildflower super-bloom in the Spring, bringing staggering brilliance to the otherwise bleak landscape.

Here’s another Death Valley fun fact. Badwater Basin is the lowest elevation in North America, at 282 feet below sea level. While, just 85 miles away is Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States, with an elevation of 14,505 feet.

Speaking of extremes, the hottest air temperature ever recorded on Earth was 134 °F on July 10, 1913, in Death Valley’s Furnace Creek. The same year, the valley’s lowest temperature was recorded at just 15 °F.

The mystery of the Sailing Stones
I visited Racetrack Playa back in 2013, when I made this photograph. Like a lot of other photographers, I found the mystery of the sailing stones absolutely captivating.

The most famous Death Valley mystery was around the “sailing stones” at Racetrack Playa. This remote playa is exceptionally flat and level with the north end being only 1.5 inches higher than the south end. Large boulders are washed down from the surrounding mountains during storms and come to rest on the playa. As evidenced from “trails” indented in the cracked mud, these boulders travel around the playa, but no one had ever witnessed them moving. I had read about this phenomenon and even photographed the boulders with their long trails back in 2013. I was a little sad when, later the same year, scientists drilled holes in several of the boulders, attached GPS devices to them, and ultimately uncovered the mystery of the rock trails.

Making the connection

Exploring these mysteries and many others helped me begin to appreciate the unique and extreme qualities of the park, and ultimately connect emotionally to it. In the end, I felt that I came away enriched by the experiences, and I managed to create a few photographs that were acceptable. But, I think it will take many more visits before I can be satisfied that I have expressed what I feel about Death Valley in my photographs. There are still more to discover on future trips.

I won’t tell you how the boulders move across the desert floor. It is certainly easy enough to find out with a simple Google search. Sometimes, it is more fun to discover things for ourselves, and allow others to enjoy the same pursuit.

About the Photos

Each of my photographs below has a bit of a story to go with it, which I’ve included in the captions. Click on the image to enlarge it.

“Sandstorm” — Mesquite Dunes. A powerful windstorm promised to blow away all the footprints, leaving pristine dunes for those of us willing to get up and out very early in the morning. When we arrived in the pre-dawn dark, the wind was still whipping up sand in our faces. I was terrified to take my camera from the safety of my backpack. However, my pal, Michael Frye, was intrepidly tromping around the dunes with his camera, so I got brave. I mounted my camera on the tripod and got off a few shots before the wind kicked up with a mighty gust and covered me and my camera with sand. I uttered some very bad words as I shoved the camera back into my bag.
“Life” — The really interesting stuff in Death Valley is off the beaten path. On this day, we rented a Jeep to get into a remote canyon via some pretty rough backroads — if you can call a wash a “road.” But, it was worth the bumps. We drove across sandy washes, through deep canyons, and hiked into a slot canyon, stopping every ten feet or so to study the different patterns on the walls. As the sun set, we decided we’d better get on the road, lest the “road” disappeared in the darkness. It was just the right amount of adventure.
“The Wash” — This huge wash sprawled across the desert floor. I tried to imagine it with water flowing through it. Would the water reach as high as where I stood? (As one of those “worst case scenario” kind of people, I’m always looking for an escape path.) High winds on this day kicked up sand high into the atmosphere, softening the horizon and creating wonderful depth.
“Light on the Desert” — Zabriskie Point was crowded, as usual. But I managed to find a corner where I could be mostly alone and contemplate the landscape. While everyone there was looking West toward the sunset, I looked South at the play of light across the landscape. That’s where I pointed my camera.
“Spumoni” — I didn’t know that mountains could contain so much vibrant color. These hills dazzled and puzzled my senses. A ride through Artist Drive was splendid and full of colorful surprises. If you’ve ever had a serving of Spumoni ice cream, you will understand why I named it thus.
“Winter Tones” — Death Valley is a place of contrasts. Mountains/valleys. Hot/cold. Color/monochromatic. Life/death. Here is Light/dark.
“Human Nature Six” — This is the sixth piece in a series I’ve been working on since 2018, adding an image to the project from time to time. Using some photographic magic, I hold a mirror to see how we look as we interact with the natural places we love. Lines are blurred between human and nature. And, while the landscape is still and unmoving, people appear as ghosts in the scene, as if Mother Nature knows that our place here on this planet is transient. You can view the entire project here. https://www.charlottegibb.com/human-nature
I will leave you with this. “Moon Over Death Valley” — As I looked out over this landscape, I felt that I was actually ON the moon.

Charlotte Gibb is a contemporary fine art photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area specializing in landscapes of the Western United States. Her images are often taken in familiar places for the well-versed landscape photographer, but she prides herself on her keen eye toward the subtle and sometimes overlooked beauty of the natural world. Growing up among the beautiful mountains of Northern California, she considers herself a student of life, learning about people, nature, music, and photography along the way. But always, her life-long passion for the wilderness shines through it all. Charlotte earned her Bachelor of Arts degree from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and has exhibited her work in several solo shows throughout California. Her darkroom, long gone now, has been replaced with digital darkroom tools, and her style has evolved from a somewhat journalistic approach, to one that pays tribute to the natural world. 

8 Comments

  • Kevin McLin

    Charlotte, I don’t know how you can not be pleased with these images. They are exquisite. The one of the dunes in the windstorm is one of the most gorgeous images I have seen. Ever. Brava! Thanks for sharing your photos and your experience of Death Valley. These remind me that I am overdue for a return visit there myself.

    • charlottegibb

      Wow, thank you so much, Kevin. I’m actually amazed that I was able to get anything useable in the dunes. I had my camera out for maybe a TOTAL of 5 minutes. I was certain that the sand would wreak havoc on my gear. I’m still not sure I believe Michael that my camera would be fine!

  • Geoff Allen

    Charlotte,

    A wonderful set of images, and the stories were fun to read. I especially like “The Wash.”

    • charlottegibb

      Thank you, Geoff. I like that one a lot as well. I have several compositions from that spot, but I picked that one because I used a longer focal length, which made the mountains more prominent in the frame.

  • G Dan Mitchell

    First… ” However, my pal, Michael Frye, was intrepidly tromping around the dunes…” It is official, from now on he shall be known as “Intrepid Tromper Michael Frye.”

    Almost ran into you and Gary in DEVA, but apparently you departed the day before I arrived. My later arrival meant that I missed most (but not quite all) of the sandstorm fun. Mine came a few days later in a more remote area of the park and was much more subdued.

    Your transition from “just give me the Sierra” to a broader view that encompasses the desert reminds me of my own similar transition. (Before the desert transition, it took a visit to Alaska to convince me that, yes, there ARE mountains other than the Sierra worth seeing.) I will never forget my literal first view of Death Valley. On a spring day about 25 years ago we arrived after sunset and set up tents at Emigrant campground in the dark. The next morning I unzipped the tent and stepped out to see it for the first time. I was stunned by the immensity of the scene and did not really quite know what to make of it. By the end of that week I had, or at least thought I had, experienced much of this new world – including high winds, a sandstorm, snow (!), running out of water, the spare terrain, and more.

    Perhaps needless to say, I was hooked, and I’ve been going back ever since, gradually and continually pushing out the boundaries of my knowledge and love of the place and learning how to see it.

    Welcome!

    Dan

    • charlottegibb

      Michael has many other names by which he is known. He also associated with the exclusive Yellowstone group known as the Geezer Geyser Gazers.
      Yes, we missed you at DV by just half a day. We decided to take off a little early to take care of some things that needed our attention at home.
      Thanks for sharing your own thoughts about how the desert worked its way into your heart. I can see that happening to me as well, although it is more of a slow burn. We shall see.