I visited Death Valley several times in the 1970s and became interested in photographing its sand dunes by the middle of that decade. But it was new subject matter for me, and one that confused me. I didn’t quite know how to approach the dunes, how to photograph them in a way that made them feel “right” to me. What I really was seeking was to have some amount of dunes at the base of a photograph with a spectacular sky full of exploding clouds above it.
Well, you don’t always get what you wish for. I didn’t get the good clouds. So, I eventually started looking at the dunes themselves and made a photograph in 1976 that I titled Dune Ridges at Sunrise, which proved to be a whole new direction for my photography. It was very design-oriented—quite abstract, in fact. People who knew my photography up until then would remark, “Is this the same Bruce Barnbaum that I’ve known?” Questions like that threw me for a loop, and I became a bit reluctant to show the print. That all ended in 1979 when Ray McSavaney, John Sexton, and I took our workshop students (on our old Owens Valley Photography Workshop program) to the home of Brett Weston to visit with him and have him show us some of his own work. Virtually all of it was abstract, and seeing his extraordinary work gave me the passport to do my own abstract work. It was a liberating experience.
But I didn’t go back to Death Valley for another quarter century. In 2000, however, I did a workshop starting in Death Valley with Ray McSavaney and Jay Dusard, arriving in advance to do some photography. While there’s a lot of variety in Death Valley, I went directly to the dunes, making several photographs that excited me immensely. That began a whole new love affair for me with the dunes. This time, however, I wasn’t looking for great skies; I was looking for the forms and relationships and unusual situations within the dunes themselves. I was looking at the flowing forms within those undulating hills and valleys, and within the incredibly rippled landscapes that are created by the shifting winds.
Over the next several years, as I visited the dunes each year, I slowly began to realize several things about them. First, they offer incredible solitude and peace. You can be out there by yourself for hours at a time, thoughts and ideas as you cruise around. (You have to avoid the well-traveled tourist area from the parking area along the main road to the top of the highest dune. But aside from that badly trampled area, it’s empty.) It’s a very unique, wonderful experience.
Secondly, I realized that you can never be in the same place on the dunes twice. You can hardly find the same place at the same time of day (and the same time of the year) twice because there are no landmarks within the dunes, just more hills and more valleys. Beyond that, the most recent winds transform the landscape. So even if you do stumble upon the same location twice at the same time of year and day, it’s different, anyway.
Third, I realized that, to my way of seeing and thinking, the dunes are—above all else— incredibly lyrical. There is a fluid flow to them that can only be equaled by one other natural area I’ve ever encountered (and photographed extensively): the slit canyons of Arizona and Utah, which are sand dunes compressed into sandstone. So the two are integrally related.
Finally, because of the second revelation (above), the dunes offer an infinite set of working with your possibilities. You can never run out of new images. That’s fantastic, but it’s also a trap. You can get caught doing variations on a theme without realizing it, thinking that each new minor variation is really a whole new dune image, when it’s actually nothing more than a minor variation of previous images. So I’ve found that I not only have to pay attention to the imagery I’m creating at the time, but I then have to carefully compare it to my previous dune imagery to see if I’ve truly done anything new and different, as well as something that is especially meaningful to my feelings about the dunes.
But I also realized that I’m not the first person to photograph sand dunes. They have been photographed by a string of great photographers: Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Brett Weston, and many, many others. So the question becomes this: what can I do that is both photographically new (i.e., different from what has been done previously by others) and also good? To my mind, concentrating on the sensual lyricism and the many moods of the dunes gives them a uniqueness that I am seeking.
You’ll have to be the final judge of that.