My photography is based in the American Southwest and my motivation to explore a new location is simple curiosity. My interests in hiking, camping and backpacking and the various information resources I peruse on a daily basis keep a steady stream of luscious landscapes, descriptions and images constantly feeding my imagination and sense of adventure. Living in the Sonoran Desert, I’ve fallen in love with its history, geology and the complex environment.
White Sands National Monument located in Southern New Mexico between Las Cruces and Alamogordo has long been on my radar so I recently made the trek. Technically speaking, the dunes are not sand but a 275 square-mile-white-gypsum-dune. It is the largest gypsum-dune field in the world. It is the result of an ancient lake that dried up millions of years ago leaving the mineral deposits behind.
As I head into any new location I’ll first check the NWS reports to see what I may expect for my skies. Unfortunately, heading in I knew I’d encounter completely clear skies so I had to formulate a game plan. My first day in a new area I’ll keep my expectations low. I arrived at the dunes in the late afternoon to get a feel of the monument and where I wanted to shoot the next morning as I’d be coming-in in the dark.
Without dramatic skies as a backdrop for the already stunning landscapes, I knew I had to shift my focus solely to capturing light and color as my background. After spending the afternoon hiking the area, I had formulated a plan for the shapes of the dunes and how I wanted to photograph them. A cloudless sky means light will be harsh most of the day and for my own tastes, uninteresting. After studying the sunrise and sunset tables I also knew my window of opportunity would be short lived as I wanted to hone in specifically on twilight. After that, I’d concentrate on the early morning light which is low on the horizon and creates great contrast lighting for capturing lines, ripples and interesting dune forms. Then it would have to be more intimate shots of the dune grasses, plant life and anything not showing the harsh sky. That became my crude game plan.
However, as I’ve learned in photography, almost nothing goes as planned. Arriving before sunrise, I hurriedly trekked far back into the dune fields to locate areas not trampled on by the previous day’s tourist attack. I felt a bit rushed as I could sense the landscapes getting lighter around me and I hadn’t yet found the dunes I wanted to use. Thankfully, the gypsum seems to be nicely packed and walking wasn’t as labored as in Death Valley or the Great Sand Dunes in Colorado. The early morning temps were brisk at 22º F. I struggled a bit to find my composition and then this magic color started to glow in the cloudless sky with an amazing dusky purple hue that started to lighten as a darker band of blue formed underneath in layers. The San Andres Mountains in the background started to take on a golden cast as twilight ended and the sunrise began.
I hiked the rest of the morning which I found very relaxing and enjoyable then headed into Alamogordo for waffles, coffee and a new game plan. After all, I’d given myself 4 days to get it right. I’d return in the early afternoon to scout my sunset locations. I repeated this everyday I was there and then something happened. I fell in love. It stopped becoming a place to simply stalk and capture an image and more of place I just wanted to be. I started hiking way back into the dunes in the very early hours and would wander around all day. I’d sit way out there and eat my breakfast and lay my head on my backpack and daydream. I started to see the areas differently as I immersed myself among the features and I got a very clear sense of what I wanted to say.
Sculpted by time and nature, these dunes seem like delicate works of art. Pristine and perfect, I’m completely fascinated by them. Patterns and textures; and in the early early hours they glisten like fields of diamonds. I can’t help but feel that I could solve all of life’s mysteries and complexities if given enough time atop a sand dune. Time I had, and deep thoughts I fancied, in a minimalistic mood.
Trying to sum up the totality of the first impression; the very first word that came to mind was poetic. The rise and fall of the curves, the delicate light on pristine sculptured, scalloped striations. The intermingling of the delicate desert grasses and plant life. Cue the most exquisite color palette that ushers in just before the sun rises and just after it leaves. The composition becomes so much more than an image, it becomes poetry and you are the audience. The place feels distinctly feminine and graceful to me and you’ll see that as I process my images.
There is something about this time of day when the first rays of light cast upon these beautiful sculptures that you feel incredibly fortunate to be just standing there. It’s this experience that I seem to crave. This is why I go into the cold and dark to witness those first moments of exquisite light, color and warmth. When the senses seem to heighten with clarity and life is the most real it ever gets.
The rest of the world, the trivial, the trite, the noisy simply, fall away.
This image was taken the evening before I left, just-past-sunset. I’ve never witnessed such spectacular twilight colors and the white dunes as a foreground reminds me of a blank sheet of watercolor paper just waiting for those brilliant hues to drizzle down and create a wonderful work of art. – Valerie Millett
Equipment and settings: Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM telephoto zoom lens @ 200mm, Promaster Digital HGX ciruclar polarizing filter, Hoodman Hoodloupe optical viewfinder, Induro BHD1 Dual-Action ballhead, Induro Carbon 8x CT114 carbon fiber tripod – 1.6 seconds @ f/22 – ISO 100