Thursday, January 4, 2018

New Years Desert Trip

   There's nothing like the Southern California and Arizona desert to spend the time around Christmas to New Years around, so on Christmas day my girlfriend Jozlynn and I packed the bus and set out for a little photographic adventure.  With me I brought 4 cameras.  Zone VI 8x10 and 4x5, 4x5 Orbitar by Burke and James (it's a fixed 65mm lens super-wide) and a whole plate Scovill Waterbury that with just a slight modification I converted to be a stereoscopic camera. 

  We headed north to Joshua Tree National Park, which is located east of Los Angeles on a relatively high plateau with average elevation of 3000ft.  There's some great rock formations and it's very popular with rock climbers, plus it's one of the few places in the world where yucca brevifolia (Joshua Tree) grows in large numbers and that combination makes for a very interesting landscape. 

  With the bus it's a 4hr drive from San Diego and we got there by early afternoon. After seeing a bit of the town we drove into the Joshua Tree Park itself right around sunset and found a parking lot where I thought it was good to park for the night started making tea.  There was already an RV with an extended Chinese family of tourists and in an oversized converted van a very nice Australian traveler with whom we chatted for a while.  Right as the tea was being consumed a couple of park rangers stopped by and politely informed us all that in fact it was not ok to stay in the park overnight except at designated camping areas and all of those were full.  We had to exit the park, find a hotel and come back the next morning.  Through the day I made plates in several locations not far from the main road that traverses the park form north to south.  The whole park would probably need more than a month to thoroughly explore, so I'll have to come back again some other time, but here are the fruits of my labor, all made with 4x5 Zone VI and various modern and vintage lenses. 

  While I busied myself with camera and chemistry Jozlynn painted a few scenes using watercolor.  She's actually a rather talented artist and I truly hope she finds more inspiration and time to dedicate to the craft as perfection comes with practice. 
  The southern part of the park is a lot less picturesque and the road gets rather monotonous with long straight sections, so everyone tends to speed up.   There was a curve after one of such straightaways and, well, I guess I forgot that my 4x5 Zone VI was still set up on a tripod behind me and took it at a speed that made the camera topple over and hit the floor pretty hard.  I heard a splintering sound and knew it wasn't good.  When I pulled over I saw that both of the standards have broken off from their geared base rails and basically now instead of a camera I've just been using all day I now had an accordion with a lens on it.  The situation was especially worrying because this was the beginning of our trip and many more locations were yet to be photographed...  Here's the picture of the base and all the pieces I managed to collect form the floor of the bus. 

  I didn't have wood glue or clamps onboard, but luckily the sun goes down pretty early this time of year and so we were near the exit of the park at around 4:30, which meant that we can get to the nearest town east where a hardware store could be found in time before it would close.  
  Taking apart the gears to the point where it's serviceable turned out to be easier than expected.  I had to apply the glue and let it set under pressure in two stages, but the operation was successful and in the morning the camera was functional again.  Here's the picture of the patient back and ready to make images. 

  Now it was on to Quarzsite (a small town just east of CA border on the intersection of highways 8 and 95) and then a bit south.  There's a spot between Quarzsite and Yuma where I've been going camping for just about 20 years, probably been there a dozen or more times over that period.  I've made some great memories as well as images there and so I've wanted to make some wet plate it for a while now.  The landscape consists of an open flat desert with a mountain range on the edge of which an extinct volcano with one side of the caldera wall collapsed.  You can park at the bottom and hike in through that opening and go all the way to the rim.  It's rather spectacular inside, but unfortunately it's much too far of a hike for collodion plates to stay wet, so I'll have to go back there with a setup I can carry and make plates further in some other time.  We arrived at sunset and took a bit of time soaking in the view, it's just too nice and so below are a few quick phone captures. 

  A slight tangent here on topic of field mice.  They are hungry creatures in general and in the desert I'd imagine it being even more so.  Not long after we finished supper, watched the ambers of the fire go out, climbed into beds and turned off the bus lights we heard a slight rustling on the counter.  After a few seconds it turned into a sound of little teeth gnawing on a plastic bag.  It only went on for a few seconds before I was up and turning on the light. I saw a tail disappearing behind the edge of the counter, already 3 of the bags left there had little holes in them.  The culprit worked fast. I made some noise hoping to convince our visitor to vacate the bus, but to no avail.  Five minutes after I settled back down he was back.  This time I was armed with a flashlight and wooden spatula, the best weapon I could find to fit the occasion. I was quick, but the mouse was quicker and I only managed to smack the table a couple of times a few inches away from the furry scampering ball zigzagging between cups and boxes.  Even that close encounter did not deter him and in 10min he was back on the surface.  After his last appearance I put all easy targets, like cerial and bread, in the cooler and refrigerator and grouped the rest of the food toward the center of the 10ft counter so there would be more room and better visibility for my late-night assault.  I also now was more cautious and didn't turn on my flashlight until I was within striking distance.  The result was a successful ambush and there was one less field mouse in the desert.  I'm sure they aren't endangered and I do feel bad about it, but this was the the little guy's third offense and he was plentifully warned.  Filled with a blended feeling of sad accomplishment I went to bed again.  It was very late and the sudden periodic disturbances made it hard to fall asleep, so I laid and tossed and turned in my sleeping bag.  Maybe 30 minutes later I was enraged to hear familiar sounds of little nails on wood!  My guess is the neighbor of the previous mouse realized that the bounty of food was now unclaimed and moved in on the territory.  I moved with similar stealth as during my last mission, but this time my opponent was way faster.  I did manage to smack his tail as he was rounding the edge of the counter.  That seemed to drive the fear into his heart and for the rest of the night he gave up.  He was back the next night though and I was waiting and ready.  This time I got him in the first round and no more of his brethren dared to invade The Photo Palace again.

  Now that the above side story is done here are the plates I made during the two days we were there.  On both days I managed to use all 4 cameras at my disposal. 




  In the morning of the first day Jozlynn and I took a nice long hike and managed to make our way to some of the few palm trees that grow in the crevasses of the calderas interior.  It's really both a lot of fun hiking around that place and also a bit challenging at parts.  To get to some places you have to either climb on the side of a cliff like a mountain goat or pass under a crack beneath a boulder the size of a small apartment building, which makes you feel like a small lizard. I made a few plates in the afternoon (they are shown above with ones made on the first day).  Then we moved on from that amazing spot and spent a night in Yuma before going a bit further east to another very special location.

  The desert has been home to waves Native American populations stretching back many thousands of years and some locations were recognized as spiritually significant by various tribes through time.  At locations like that petroglyphs can be found dating back over ten thousand years and at the place which was our next destination had layers of them dating back to 12.500, 3000 and 1.500 years.  It is a truly sacred space with deeply moving presence and I was honored to find out about it about a decade ago.  Back then I went there alone in a small car (a Chevrolet Sprint - two door hatchback with tiny wheels and a 3-cylinder engine in which one of my cylinders was out and so apparently I was running on two for a number of years).  This time I was navigated only by that distant memory, but I felt somewhat confident as the directions were pretty simple - get off the highway in the middle of nowhere, go under the overpass on northern side and immediately take a meandering sandy dirt road for about 7 miles north.  Don't get stuck in the sand and avoid ravines in washes and you'll be all right.  Well, the all right part was a slight optimistic exaggeration conjured up by my imagination.  While Gilli-the-Bus handles the sand beautifully and was able to squeeze by a few rather sketchy points where the road was eroded pretty deep, the last pair of turns however lead you through the lower part of a dry river wash that is densely vegetated and even a small car would touch the hardy bushes on the sides... It was no good.  Jozlynn tried bending back the branched a bit, but they were too strong and plentiful and the futility of such effort was quickly evident.  The turns are literally within 50ft of the parking spot and having come this far and with visual reward being so close and so great turning back was not an option.  I decided to power through.  Gilli didn't like it a bit.  The branches made of symphony of high-pitched noises as they dragged and clawed along the sides of The Photo Palace and when we emerged on the other side of these two quick turns the paint on her sides were far from the pristine state in which it have been for close to 40 years...  And then of course there was the way back two days later and so now I'm sitting here writing this and thinking of what I'm gonna do about it.  They aren't terrible, but even with the thickness of the paint which was put on on school buses in a few instances some of the scratches made it all the way through.  Most of the damage will probably buff out, and I'll be sure to dedicate some resources to doing the buffing right, but sadly, Gilli is going to bare the marks of this heroic effort until she's ready for a new paint job.   Here's the first of those two quick fateful turns - try to imagine a 35ft-long bus making it though there...

  Anyhow, paint loss aside, our experience there was overwhelmingly satisfying and there's no regrets.  The first night we spent there was the last full night of 2017.  I'm not much of an early riser in general.  Even when I travel in Gilli I prefer to sleep in until the heat or huger wake me up.  On the morning of December 31st though something made me open my eyes at the break of dawn and I saw the white drawn curtains being very bright pink color.  I felt that this was deserving of investigation and stepped out to see what was shaping up to one of the most astonishing sunrises that I've ever witnessed.  I woke up Jozlynn and we watched the sun peek from behind the bushes on horizon while the sky kept changing like a scene from Daguerre's diorama show.   Here are a couple of images I took with my phone, but nothing can relate the stillness of the cold fresh desert and nothing can quite capture the 20 seconds or so which happened just as the sun broke through the distant patch of clouds seen there and was first visible.  During those 20 seconds a pack of coyotes, which must have spent the night within half a mile of us, woke up and called to each other with howls of hunger and cold mixed with what seemed like joy of greeting another day...  Maybe they knew that this was the last sunrise of 2017 and marveled at it's magnificence, but I somehow seriously doubt that.  Whatever made them do their quick roll call is superfluous to the story, but it sure made for a magical moment.

  Amazing sunrise or not, it was still very early and so we went back to sleep and after waking up around 10 I made plates all day until the sun touched the horizon in the west.  
  Petroglyphs are a lot harder to photograph with collodion than I have expected.  They are etched on the sides of heavily weathered rocks that over time have turned almost black from the heat and the sun and that black is rather shiny and reflects blue from the sky more than one thinks.  Images themselves are of various shades of orange with older ones having faded closer to the black base color over the period of 12.000 years.  Wet plate emulsion is UV-sensitive, which makes blue register lighter than it looks to the eye and at the same time anything in red or yellow spectrum comes out a lot darker.   So some of the scenes that were vivid and stood out brightly even from a hundred yards came out a lot duller on my plates no matter how I varied exposure/development ratio.  In the end I think some of them are rather acceptable.  I spent a good portion of the first day making a series of stereoscopic views, which I plan to finish by mounting them on good mat board and present for sale in hopes they will interest a collector of stereographica. 
  We were also blessed by excellent weather - the day was slightly overcast with the sun being thinly veiled by high clouds and so I had time to run up the sides of the cliffs surrounding Gilli to where the petroglyphs were and back before the plate dried up.  Each run/climb-over-boulders was about 2-3min each way and by the end of the day after 18 plates made my quadriceps, not being used to serious workouts, were starting to really make me aware of their existence.  Even 3 days later as I sit here typing it hurts a bit to get up or walk downstairs.  It was all worth it though. 

  New Years night was spent around a campfire with an excellent dinner of chicken soup by Jozlynn and a variety of items prepared on coals (potatoes, Brussel sprouts, bacon and for a bit of a desert dessert marshmallows and baked bananas stuffed with chocolate and nuts - YUM!).  If you haven't spent the night staring at the fire and listening to the desert silence I highly recommend it. 

  The next morning I again made a few plates.  I'm really glad I retried the last scene I made before sunset as my first plate of 2018 turned out to be one of the best  This time the morning sky was perfectly clear and the sun made the patten on the rock show up a lot better.   Not wanting to leave too late and with a location to shoot on the way out in mind I only made the following plates on that second day. 

  During both days I made images with the now-stereoscopic Waterbury whole plate.  Afer quite a bit of hunting and trading lenses I managed to find two 4in Darlot Petzval lenses that matched perfectly.  Working with that camera and a set of lenses is cumbersome and slow going and so very rapid shooting is not possible.  As far as making the plate it's not different than making a 2-D view, but after that making the actual 3-D cards that fit into a stereoscope viewer and look nice in the meantime is also very time-consuming.  In the end it's very much worth the effort though because once aligned correctly they do look fantastic.  I made a total of 9 stereo pairs of petroglyphs over two days.   I decided to offer toss one of them (petroglyphs didn't even really show) and keep two for myself.  The rest 6 are going to be offered for sale as a set - it should be ready sometime in early February.  I want to make it really nice as the images are fantastic.  In order not to have the images all over the web and preserve their uniqueness even further I decided to present all 6 of them uncut and in a little collage.  If you think you might be into buying this hand-made set please let me know via email on my contact page. 

  I showed Jozlynn the basics of collodion a while back and she wanted to make an image of a particular petroglyph.  After a rather prolonged break without pouring any plates she did great - perfect collodion pour and very near perfect developer spread, which she corrected momentarily.  The contrast of that particular crop was good too, so it turned out.  Here she is during the 3-second exposure and the resulting 1/4 plate image.

  We drove back out through the bushes and sand and stopped by an abandoned house that's visible from highway 8 right by the exit.  It looked interesting and old enough when we drove by it on the way in and so I wanted to make at least one plate there.  By then I was actually out of all of my 4x5 aluminum plates and only had two pieces of black glass left.  On the way from the bus I saw the remains of a water well in front of the main door and not paying much attention to it went inside the crumbling stone walls.  Aside from the short stretch of a walkway leading in from what was the front door, which was cement inlaid with very colorful local rocks, and a really neat oversized fireplace there wasn't much there actually.  Slightly disappointed I started to look at things closer and in the corner saw quite a few small bleached out bones of animals eaten there by coyotes.  I picked up a 2in pelvic bone that is sure to show up later in some of my still life images.  I decided that the fire place was the most picturesque subject available and headed back through the front door toward the Gilli to get my camera.  While passing the well again I noticed a foul foul stench of rotten meat and wondered how I missed it on the way in.  Wondering where the smell was emanating from I looked to the right as to my utter surprise saw a pile or coyote fir with bones and skulls in it that was at least a foot tall and covered about 5-6 square feet.  How in the world did I miss that?  Not only that, one of the skulls, still fully intact and even with the nose present, was laying upright within inches of where I must have stepped while passing last time.  I found it to be too gritty and symbolic to pass up and so the two plates I made there was a 4x5 ambotype with a 90mm Nikkor-SW and a stereoscopic view of those remains of what must have at one time been a fierce and beautiful animal, most likely killed and eaten by his fellow troop members after it aged and became the weak link in the pack. 

  The drive back was long, in a bus it would have taken about 6-7hr to get to San Diego, and I don't like driving that far in one stretch as it does a number on my back, so I wasn't opposed when Jozlynn suggested we get a good night's rest at a hotel somewhere around half way point.   That point happened to be the town of El Centro, California.  El Centro is a small agricultural town located about 5 miles form Mexico border.  It's got a character of its own of which I will not elaborate here.  Suffice to say that from my perspective the only true attraction there is the excellent Mexican cuisine and we treated ourselves to a great authentic meal at Guadalahara's restaurant, which I can not recommend enough if you happen to passing through town and are hungry.  Easily some of the best Mexican food I've ever had and I've been living in Southern California for close to 25 years now. 

  As a quick summation the trip went great.  Gilli behaved like a true champ with not a hiccup along the way and even for some reason took the last mountain pass between El Centro and San Diego at 25mi/hr when previously she slowed down there to 18 and sometimes 15.  We saw a whole two excellent instances of cloud iridescence - one of my favorite natural phenomenons to witness, which up until now I thought was called a sun dog, but now after a quick reference with wikipedia I see that that's a whole different optical light effect and now I want to go to some insanely cold place sometime in hopes to at least once witness a true sun dog...  Many plates were made and among them I think a there's a few real keepers.  The weather was great and Jozlynn and I worked well as a team on her first prolonged Photo Palace trip.  Basically good times were had by all and I look forward to taking Gilli out again soon, so stay tuned to learn about more Photo Palace adventures.  

  By the way, if you wish to be part of a photo outing aboard Gilli-the-Bus or even help planning one, be it short or moderately long, please feel free to contact me.  I'm currently working out a system by which I can create customized packages for individuals or small groups where traveling around the landscape folks could either simply have a fun time making images along with me or have an immersive wet plate workshop completed with sightseeing and making plates on location.  That plan is still very much in the beta stage and I'm still crunching the numbers as far as cost (and unfortunately no matter how you try to turn it travel in Gilli is not economical, but I truly think it's worth it), but I'd be glad to discuss my thoughts and present various possibilities to you.

  Also I should mention that almost all of the plates seen above are for sale.  Should you be interested in purchasing one or more plates please do contact me and let me know which ones struck your fancy. 

Thank you,

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