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“Shiprock and Duststorm” by Jory Vander Galien

A desert sand and dust storm blankets the famous and iconic Shiprock outcropping in the New Mexico desert

“Shiprock and Duststorm” by Jory Vander Galien


People have been asking me to produce more work in color. Like Ansel Adams saw it, color is just not musical to me. One might have to be a musician to grasp this notion, but music and black-and-white photography are very much intertwined. The tones and pitches in music go hand and hand with the tonal scale on a black-and-white photograph. Color can take on so many dimensions and tones that it is difficult to even render a true emotion. Not that it cannot be done, but color is a completely different animal and life of its own.

So back to the question, “When are you going to make color work?” The truth is I always make color work, but I am not willing to let the world know it or see most of it. It has to be something different from me—something special. In fact, only my color work is now in limited edition. When I am setting up or even following weather forecasts before I get to a location, I already know what my image will look like in B&W before I get there or before it is processed. On the contrary, this does not occur with my color work. Perhaps one of the main reasons I shy away from color images is the current mass-production of oversaturated images that do not even look like real nature. I know people like bright colors, but it is not realistic. The first thing I do is unsaturate an image before I even begin the thought of making a color image, then I adjust the tones of cool and warm to bring the image to an emotion I want to convey to my audience. Finally, the last step is just simple dodging and burning.

As an artist, I feel I am an entertainer. If I cannot bring you into my world, then I have not done my job successfully. When you are able, however, to step out of your world, even for a little bit and enter the world of the photograph before you, then I know I have done my job and done it effectively. I feel I have been able to do this with Shiprock and Duststorm. I should also mention that Shiprock and Duststorm is an image dedicated to my wife, Vanessa. She has always encouraged me to get out of my comfort zone. She knows I am at ease with creating B&W images; thus, she has requested me to pursue color in a way that will not threaten the ideology of the kind of art I want to make.

The first step I take in planning for a photograph is to watch weather patterns like a hawk. I go out when everyone else stays in. Perhaps the biggest risk I take is that I work alone in isolated locations. I also have a tendency to sacrifice my equipment by exposing it to extreme heat, cold, snow, downbursts of rain, climbing rocks, lightning, and of course wind. Most people are nervous of the sand in their lenses and cameras, and in truth, yes, of course I worry about that too; nonetheless, I see this risk as an opportunity to make a photograph not too many others will have a chance to create. The extreme weather conditions in my work depict a battle between good and bad, a light in the darkness. However, as a free-thinking artist, I hope my audience feels free to interpret my work as they see fit. This is why the titles of my work do not contain words that will limit it to only poetic interpretations; instead, my titles focus more on location as I feel it is imperative to rescue the many hidden gems our land has to offer.

The night before driving up to Shiprock, I knew I had the potential to come home with a great image. The weather forecast was calling for mighty, mighty winds at greater than 65mph. Welcome to the high desert in spring, my home—Albuquerque, New Mexico. Considering I have to drive through a few miles of rutted dirt roads with my old truck, it is a 3-1/2 hour drive from home to the foot of Shiprock. If the roads are wet, forget about even getting there—even with a 4×4. The dirt is actually clay, and during the monsoon season, these roads are extremely slippery.

I got to Shiprock at about two in the morning, and if you have never seen the stars in all their radiant glory in the middle of the high desert, please, I beg you to come to my stomping grounds. The desert is a beautiful place; it is mystical and perilous all the same. At 6,000 ft., the air is crisp and aromatic with sage, and the only light is that of the moon and stars. I was taken back to a time when it was just the native peoples who roamed these deserts and made homes (as they still do) in them. I also thought of the great overland roads of the world crossing great and vast deserts like the Silk Road traversing through Asia or the Great North Road leading out of Chaco Canyon scattering out across the New Mexico high desert, and finally the Great Inca Highway or Qhapaq Ñan stretching from Ecuador to Chile, traveling over the Altiplano at elevations of over 14,000 ft. The night sky, in its entire splendor, was still the same night sky those ancient travelers witnessed. When I sat at night during the silent peace of the midnight desert looking at the ominous black outline of that large structure called Shiprock, I could not help but to be taken to a place of thought and reflection alongside the ancients of old. This calm in the night sky was about to end as a spring cold front would approach by dawn.

By daybreak, the winds were gusting 20-25 mph. The nice thing about being at Shiprock is that there is not a lot of need for true hiking. No, you cannot climb on Shiprock, so please be respectful if you ever visit; however, you can hike around it. There is a network of little roads everywhere. The roads are rough and unimproved; a lot of the places I photograph are off the beaten path. I deliberately look for austere places that not many have ever seen or bothered to even explore. Nonetheless, Shiprock, or “Tsé Bitʼaʼí” in Navajo, which means “Rock with Wings,” is an icon. For me it is one of these places I go to for some inspiration all over again. It is like a “pick me up.” Having been there almost every month and witnessed every kind of light, I know where I want to be for certain idyllic compositions I want to create. Shiprock, as mentioned, is an icon of the southwest, and it should be photographed with this in mind. Is it possible to photograph such an iconic place and still produce a distinctive image? I believe Mitch Dobrowner has been able to accomplish this through his Shiprock triptych. This might be one of the greatest modern images of Shiprock. It is time in motion with fury of a winter storm. I have studied this image for inspiration and even driven up to Santa Fe to see the real print and put myself there—in that very moment. While I thoroughly enjoyed Dobrowner’s depiction of Shiprock, I knew I wanted to create my own image of this place. I decided to capture the splendor of this fortress-like rock during a spring windstorm.

On March 26, 2014, I had the opportunity to make the image I had pictured in my mind because the weather conditions permitted it. As the day carried on, it got windier and windier. By noon, the prevailing west/northwest winds were gusting well over 55 mph and sustained at 35 mph. The afternoon hours are generally when high-desert windstorms see their climax. I read an unofficial wind report of over 87 mph that day. I tend to believe it, too, as I can confirm a 71 mph gust with sustained 48 mph winds for greater than five minutes at a time. Unfortunately, the windshield on my truck received a few unwanted gravel pits and chips. I stayed in one spot pretty much all day, waiting for the afternoon clouds associated with a typical spring storm. As I would wait in my truck with tripods set up in certain predetermined vantage points for specific compositions, I would run out to a particular tripod between the waves of wind, sand and dust. What I was waiting for was the light to pierce through the clouds, illuminating a plume of dust before the dust would reach my location. With winds screaming over 60 mph, I had to act fast. Sometimes I was not fast enough, however, and found myself cradled and fetal over my camera and lens just to protect them from the missiles of sand and gravel and other projectiles flying through the air. It was the most extreme spring storm I have photographed. At times, I did think to myself I must be crazy to put my equipment through this much abuse, but not a soul was out there but me, and I knew I was creating something special.

Then, it happened; just as I planned it. All these years going to Shiprock and studying how the slanting light would look piercing through the clouds had paid off. All the preconceived images in my mind were happening right before my eyes. The wind gusts were staying in front of me just as I wanted. (At least long enough for me to get what I wanted.) I do not spray and pray. I do not do HDR nor do I bracket. These images were carefully and meticulously conceptualized technically, and therefore, I metered for the bright spots giving the tonally dark and enveloping feeling. With a tight focus at 35mm on a Nikkor 16-35mm lens, I set my Nikon D800E to 100 ISO (which is where it is at 97.4% of the time) at f/13 and 1/125 of second to give my audience a shrinking feeling with this massive structure in the background and the plume of dust racing toward them in the foreground.

I had gotten my shot; I knew it! It was about 3:30 PM or so. It was almost as if I just did not care about the rest of the light of day. Actually, the funny thing is it clouded up completely and there were no more rays of light to be had for the post-ceding thirty minutes. The daylight had run its course. The winds were still screaming, but by now, looking around it was getting dark. With dust in the sky a mile high and overcast skies, my visibility was down to less than about a half mile. This was an indication that it was time to pack up and go home.

Packing up was somewhat surreal as I looked around. I was so fixed upon getting that one image all day that I had rarely looked yonder past my present location. I had not really noticed what was going on all around me. As I mentioned, my visibility was low by this time. In the desert, you can lose yourself at quite an astonishing rate. It is so big and wide open, you can become struck with its immensity and feel insignificant. You become a dot in the universe and long for some sort of God-breathed reality to pinch you, and let you know you are still there and alive. The blowing sands made the desert feel small for the first time. Not that I have not felt this before, but this was quite a storm, like nothing I had seen before. Driving through dirt and rutted-out roads to the main road, I was thanking God the whole way, knowing I had seen and captured something unique and all together mystique. By the time I reached U.S. 491 (formerly U.S. 666), there were red lights galore. Visibility was below a quarter mile in the blizzard of dust, and it was now almost dark. It is hard to imagine traffic backed up in this remote corner of the desert, but it was backed up. The road was blocked; in fact, it was downright shutdown. I was starting to think I was going to spend another night in my truck at the foot of Shiprock. I walked up to one of the Navajo Officers blocking the road and asked what was going on and what my options were. The kind female Navajo Officer informed me 491 southbound was shutdown due to a fatal accident as a result of the blowing sand. She said I could go north, which was ok anyway as that is my way back to Albuquerque.

Upon her giving me this sad news, my heart sank. On March 31, it would be the one-year anniversary of my mother’s death. The days leading up to that day were especially difficult, and learning of the fatal accident did not help much. I am trying to make new work and carry on as my mother would have wanted. Beyond learning of this accident, I was also transported to a time in my youth growing up in the big woods of Wisconsin. My father and I were bow-hunting whitetail deer way up in a tree all day. It had started to snow, and you do not really know sometimes what is going on around you until you leave. On our way down the tree, from a 4-hour hunting expedition, it had snowed over a foot. Our trail was completely covered up and many of the trees did not look the same as they were either all broken or hanging over due to the weight of the wet early fall snow. Being that I was then as I still am today, I am extremely good with directions, I promised my father we were heading in the right direction, guided by our dimly lit flashlights to the logging trail that our truck was parked on. Consequently, the rest of hunting party called it a day hours before we did, and they were scared we were lost in the woods for that cold night. Point being, we were fixed upon one thing and one thing only: the big buck, “da turdy point buck,” as we would say in Wisconsin.

With my day at Shiprock, I had not paid any attention to my surroundings all day. I wanted that all allusive perfect image. It was really severe sandstorm conditions, and now that it was dark, the visibility was worsening. There had been a fatal accident, and it was time to drive on. The last thing the officer said to me was to be careful, as these conditions would persist into the early evening all the way to Albuquerque. On my way home, I called my bride. I informed her of the current conditions as she was actually in Portland getting her share of the opposite, wet and rainy weather. It is ironic when you think about how contrasting weather can be from location to location, and how each setting makes a different and yet amazing landscape. I cannot help but to think of God’s mighty hand on it all, giving us this amazing place called Earth to enjoy and be stewards of such beautiful places. Sometimes we do not do such a great job of this, but I still believe there are great wilderness places to enjoy.

By the time I got into the town of Shiprock, sand drifts were piled along the curbs of the road about a foot high, the streetlights appeared as dim as candles through fog. Yes, this is typical for a sandstorm, but this one was big. I had fairly good reception in town, and my wife asked the inevitable question. “Did you shoot anything in color, and did you get anything good?” I answered, “Yes, Love. I may have gotten a good image or two and yes, there is a color image.” – Jory Vander Galien

This image is available as a print by emailing Vander Galien here. See more of Vander Galien’s work at his website, Follow him on 500px or on Facebook via his personal profile or his Facebook Page.

Equipment and settings: Nikon D800E camera, AF-S NIKKOR 16-35mm f/4G ED VR wide angle zoom lens – 1/125th @ f/13 – ISO 100