A Photographer's Journey
by Justin McAffee
A desert is defined as a place receiving less than ten inches of sporadic rainfall annually. It doesn't mean a place uninhabited by flora or fauna, but the lack of rain certainly limits a desert’s capacity to host large numbers of people, plants, and animals. But wastelands, they are not.
What it does mean is that visiting these places is an escape from more crowded spaces, ones marked and decimated by the human footprint. Today, the few remaining places on Earth not badly fragmented by human civilization are harsh landscapes like tundras, jungles, and deserts. Deserts are places to witness where vast natural spaces still remain. Forests often conceal fragmentation by agriculture, sprawl, the lumber industry, and other human presence. The desert cannot hide things so well.
When I visit the wide-open spaces in the Great Basin and Mojave Deserts with my cameras, my aim is to tell this story, and share the awe I experience being a witness to these places… at least while they last.
I grew up in a wonderfully-forested landscape in Southern Illinois. There were always patches of forest to get lost in. Getting a view into the vast distance of every direction was nearly impossible. I can remember getting a sense of distance after climbing to the top of a water tower on a hill at Giant City State Park, or standing on a cliff edge overlooking the Mississippi River Valley from a place named “The Little Grand Canyon.” Then you would see the towns, roads, and agricultural footprint. A visit to Google Earth does a much better job of revealing these now.
Spectacular vistas are commonplace in my home of Southern Nevada and the surrounding areas. Add to that the colors and textures of the rock, and the spotting of vegetation throughout, and it can be truly magical. No one landscape is the same.
Early in my photography journey, I discovered the magic of the celluloid, coated with a light-sensitive emulsion. While the world has mostly moved on to digital, myself included, I have found the look and abilities of film offer something that the digital image does not. This is even more so in these wonderful desert spaces.
I became a fan of the work of Ansel Adams as a young man. A few years ago I purchased a 50-year-old camera called a 4x5 Crown Graphic, similar to what Adams used. With black and white film and a red filter, suddenly the depth and texture of these spaces pop off the image.
They almost become three dimensional. The skies become black, contrasted with white clouds, and the landscapes below offer many shades in between. Pictures I have taken years ago will still strike awe in me when I pause to gaze at what they represent.
I soon began to realize that these places, as amazing and impactful as they were for me, just aren’t appreciated by the population-at-large as they ought to be. Before moving to Nevada, I had no idea what these desert places really were. I thought of them as mostly dirt and “weeds.” I soon realized they were much more. Over time, I fell madly in love with them.
Ironically, in a turning of the tables, I now become incensed when I hear people disparage their value. That happens all too often in my opinion.
I wondered if perhaps photography could express their beauty to others, much in the way that the photos of Ansel Adams helped grow national support to protect Yosemite. I decided it was worth trying.
One of the first areas I documented was the Desert National Wildlife Refuge. It is one of the largest protected spaces in the lower 48 states, but it is continually threatened by military expansion. I spent several months scouting locations and timing the photos with the presence of clouds, which add more depth to the images. I captured several I am quite proud of.
I’ve also spent a great deal of time in the area now proposed for a new national monument called Avi Kwa Ame. The Joshua trees in the Wee Thump area near Searchlight are vast and a sight to see. Each offers a unique subject with a variety of backgrounds, including Spirit Mountain and the Castle Mountains.
More recently, I have been traveling to places where vast areas of land are being planned for solar development. This has been especially heartbreaking to ponder.
Whether it is 90,000 old-growth yucca at the Yellow Pine project in the Pahrump Valley, or the 70,000 Joshua Trees on the border of Death Valley National Park that would be saw buzzed for the Sawtooth Solar project on Sarcobatus Flat, I have realized that even wonderful photographs may not be enough to stop the results of horrible planning from decades past.
I still try. Lately I’ve been using video cameras to put some motion to my images. I invested in a cinema camera to get as much range of light and color as needed to capture the blue skies and the colors of the desert below. Add to that the people who care about these landscapes and their voices in efforts to protect them.
I’ve spent several days at a time following Laura Cunningham and Kevin Emmerich of Basin and Range Watch around the northern Mojave, discovering basins I had never laid eyes on. Together, we have created a series of short films about the various areas threatened by solar development. We call the series Desert Apocalypse, as we feel the planned developments will be nothing short of apocalyptic for this habitat. View at:
These deserts tell us the story of biological evolution, geologic time, and even human history. Evidence of early human presence is found in the petroglyphs. We see the wagon trails crossing wilderness areas, and the small mines that dot the hillsides, or the ruins of old buildings and cabins. The ancient Joshuas and Yucca, the eagles, hawks, burrowing owls, kit fox, bighorn sheep, mountain lions, pronghorns, desert tortoise – these are all kindred to someone who is connected to this landscape. Their homes are as important as my own.
Seeing all of this covered by solar farms, new freeways, transmission lines, new rail lines, new airports, and urban sprawl – and with water tables going lower and lithium mining pits growing wider – sometimes it is too much.
I sometimes feel like I am documenting what those in the future will never see. At other times, I hope people will see more in this place and be inspired to fight for what we love. I cannot know the future or what will happen to this place. What I can do is stand up and yell a little louder than I did the day before, and just maybe I’ll get someone’s attention. It’s hard to be heard over the loud voice of billionaires who make the bucks by exploiting these lands.
I use the photograph, because a picture is worth a thousand words. Soon, my photographs will be highlighting places bulldozed and covered with industrial energy infrastructure. We’ll then know what we’ve done. We won’t be able to hide from it when we drive by these places, when potentially every basin from Las Vegas to Reno is filled with these marks of a time when humans pillaged a landscape.
My heart is in this desert place. The photographs are a pale attempt to convey my feelings. It brings me joy to engage in the process. I just wish it were under better circumstances.
All photos by Justin McAffee.
Justin McAffee is producer and director of a film series, Desert Apocalypse which has won Best Documentary at the Yucca Valley Film Festival and the Silver State Film Festival. He is finishing his final semester in the film studies program at Nevada State College. He volunteers with the Sierra Club and runs a small creative agency in Las Vegas, Nevada.