The Artistic Nature of Death Valley Photographs
What comes to mind when you hear the term “Death Valley”? I would assume you envision a barren desert landscape, lacking color, and crawling with undesirable critters such as rattlesnakes. You would also probably not include Death Valley as a photography location for a beautiful fine art landscape print.
So you may wonder … why would the landscape of Death Valley make a subject matter for fine art photography? As shared in my March 2018 Trip Report, Death Valley photographs make outstanding fine art prints as the variety of textures and colors in the sand dunes and salt flats allow for the creation of a unique fine art photograph that would make a riveting focal point in your home or office décor.
One of the most interesting aspects of Death Valley pictures is how they lend themselves to Abstract Art. Merriam-Webster shows an essential meaning of abstract as “expressing ideas and emotions by using elements such as colors and lines without attempting to create a realistic picture”. You may feel that “abstract art” has no meaning. Yet Death Valley landscape pictures provide the opportunity to own fine art prints with an abstract art feel but ones that still have meaning and tell a story.
For example, the valley floor is full of intricate details … broken mud cracks and hexagonal salt patterns. These patterns and lines are represented in well-known Death Valley iconic pictures of The Racetrack or the Badwater Basin salt flats. There is also a sense of “mystery” as seen in the Death Valley photos which capture the famous “moving rocks” as they “travel” across The Racetrack. These photographs are true conversation pieces. Why did the rock curve and change direction? Was it done all at one time? How did that happen?
Equally visually fascinating are the Death Valley photographs of the Mesquite Sand Dunes with the early morning sunrise shadows or photographs of the Mesquite Sand Dunes with their dramatic curves and soft ripples of sand. What makes the photographs of the sand dunes so striking is they look like they had to be taken in another country. You find yourself asking—was this picture really taken in the United States?
So are photographs of Death Valley truly worthy of being called fine art photography? For you, the collector of fine art prints, this is a topic worthy of some serious consideration. A fine art photograph must deeply express the feelings of the photographer and clearly reveal it was created by an artist and not by just the camera. The image should make you think “Gosh, I wish I had been standing there with you when you clicked the shutter”.
I am certain, as you view the photographs in my Death Valley National Park collection, you will find yourself wishing you could actually have been there…. walking along with me …. and you will be captivated by the combination of both the simplicity and complexity present in these fine art Death Valley photographs.
Visiting and Photographing Death Valley National Park
I think just about everyone’s first thought about Death Valley National Park is “Why would I possibly want to go there?”
Guilty as charged. I thought the same thing. They say don’t judge a book by its cover. After I was seriously involved in landscape photography and was paying attention to the places that photographers were going, I began seeing some really cool images, and they got my attention.
I was used to shooting water and mountain scenes, but this desolate desert thing was completely foreign to me. My first trip was not very successful, which is common with first visits, but it was magnified by being something so new to me.
It’s a very large National Park and the photographic opportunities are very spread out. There is one set of opportunities in the south end where you can stay at The Ranch at Death Valley and another set of opportunities in the north end where you can stay at Stovepipe Wells.
My favorite time to visit is in March. I have found there to be more wind then, which can clean the sand dunes from foot tracks and from some of the black particles in the sand that reduce the beauty of the dunes.
The south end includes locations like Zabriskie Point with Manley Beacon, Twenty Mule Team Canyon, and Artists Palette located on Artists Drive. The location that got my attention the most for a trip there is Badwater Basin with its geometric formations in the salt flats.
Badwater Basin is famous for being the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level. The designs in the salt flats can range from fairly rough close to the perimeter to something much more refined a mile or so out in the middle, which is where I chose to photograph them.
Following the road south from Zabriskie Point will take you to the high mountain overlook called Dante’s Peak. This is a great place to view and photograph a huge section of Death Valley from high up, including Badwater Basin in your composition.
The main attraction in the north end of the Park is the Mesquite Sand Dunes. Early morning is the time to photograph them, which requires a pre-dawn hike out in the dark. It’s probably a mile or so out to where the dunes are large and clean. If you’re lucky enough to have the wind blowing the sand, be sure to take good tight goggles with you to protect your eyes.
The Park is also famous for The Racetrack, where large blocks of rock have moved over time and left trails in the Playa. If you go, be sure to rent a Jeep with heavy tires as the rock road will cut normal passenger tires ruining your day. Also, if it’s wet from a freak rain, please stay off the playa so it doesn’t get permanent footprints that ruin it for those that follow.
The view of the valley from high above at Auguereberry Point is one of the most rewarding photographs I have had the pleasure of taking. It’s a slow, rough, washboard rock road to get there. Sunrises are amazing, so leave well before dark and check it out.
One last location not to be left out is Eureka Dunes. I admit I was only there once and the conditions were amazing with storm clouds draining over the mountain. I have no idea how often that happens, but it’s worth keeping an eye on the weather for a trip there.
Well, there you have it. A location you wouldn’t normally think of to visit that has many dramatic photographic possibilities. It's just one more for your list.
Fun Facts About Death Valley National Park
Death Valley Monument was established in 1933 and contained nearly 2 million acres. In 1994, another 1.3+ million acres were added and the park was re-designated as Death Valley National Park. It includes all of the Death Valley floor which is a 156-mile-long north/south-trending trough that lies between two mountain ranges—the Amargosa Range and the Panamint Range. It is the largest national park in the Lower 48 states.
When you think of Death Valley, one iconic image that comes to mind is the 20 Mule Team pulling a massive wagon. This was made popular by the advertising campaigns promoting 20-Mule-Team Borax soap. This was a challenging 165-mile trip during which wagons hauled borax from the Harmony Borax Works to the railhead near Mojave. These teams operated from 1883 to 1889.
But more modern images of Death Valley exist in today’s movies – for example, are you a Star Wars fan? If so, you would not have to visit a galaxy far, far away to experience the desert-like setting of Tatooine, the home of Luke Skywalker. Instead, you would recognize the landscape of Death Valley as the backdrops for scenes in Episode IV – A New Hope and Episode V – Return of the Jedi. Scenes of Luke Skywalker’s home of Tatooine along with interactions with C-3PO and R2-D2 were filmed at various Death Valley locations including Artists Palette, Dante’s View, and the Mesquite Flat Dunes. The dramatic landscape of Death Valley helped to set the tone for the meeting between Luke Skywalker and Old Ben Kenobi at Kenobi’s humble hut.
When is a shortcut not a shortcut? In 1848, gold was discovered in California and in 1849, settlers began flocking to that state in hope of striking it rich. These groups of pioneers were nicknamed the 49ers. A group of waggoneers left Salt Lake City in October of 1949 very much aware they needed to cross the desert before snow began to fall on the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. There were countless obstacles along the way and the wagon train broke up into more than one group traveling different paths without the help of any kind of map. They were simply trying to continue on heading west past gaping canyons.
Two groups decided to take a “short cut” but even they took different paths along the way but each eventually wound up in the Death Valley Area. At that point, one group decided to follow an Indian trail to take them south eventually towards civilization. The other group, worn out by exhaustion, waited for two months for supplies to arrive. As they left the area, legend has it that one of the settlers proclaimed "Goodbye, Death Valley," giving the valley its morbid name. It took almost another month to arrive in California. The “shortcut” had added 4 months to their journey during which many travelers died and there were increased hardships for the survivors.
But the 49ers were not the only group of settlers to try to use Death Valley as a shortcut to California. Pioneers used to drive cattle from Texas to California and would travel a 20 mile stretch of land through Death Valley – trying to use it as a shortcut. But that also did not work out too well as it was so hot and dry that thousands of cattle died each year on the journey.
How many “est” can one place have? In the case of Death Valley National Park – it has three “est”s. It the hottest place on earth with a recorded temperature of 134°F on July 10, 1913. The next “est” – Death Valley is the home of the lowest elevation in North America which is found at Badwater Basin (282 feet below sea level). The final “est” is that Death Valley is the driest national park in the United States.
Do you like to race matchbox cars or enjoy NASCAR? Then you will be fascinated by Death Valley’s own Racetrack which is known for its strange moving rocks. If you visit this area, you will see hundreds of rocks throughout the flat, dry surface of a dry lake. The rocks appear to have been dragged across the ground leaving long trails. As some of the rocks weigh as much as 700 pounds, this would be no small feat. The question for years was “What force is moving them” and no, the answer was not a Star Wars “May the Force be With You.” Scientists discovered a different force.
In 2011 scientists began an experiment by attaching motion-activated GPS units on some of the rocks. It was not until 2013 that certain environmental events came together and they realized that the thin layer of mud/silt in the lake (if the conditions were right) could freeze to form sheets of “windowpane” ice and, when melting, breaks up into floating panels of ice sheets that shoves the rocks in front of them. The amount of time the rocks would be moving would range from a few seconds to many minutes. The rocks “moved” for the last time in 2006. They are still there today as well as the trails created when they were dragged across the desert floor.
Although it is named Death Valley, the area is very much alive as the Park is home to more than 1000 species of plants and nearly 400 species of native wildlife ranging from mammals to birds to reptiles. Due to a shortage of water, wildlife has evolved over the years so they need less water. For example, bighorn sheep can go several days without water but they can also drink several gallons at one time to rehydrate. Living in the desert is challenging but Death Valley wildlife has found a way to survive and to grow. Desert dwellers such as the desert tortoise and kangaroo rats have successfully made Death Valley their home.
And in spite of the heat and desert-like conditions, there is still beauty to be found whether simply touring the park or hiking the various trails. There is the contrast of the snowcapped mountains with the desert valley; depending on the year, the wildflowers that bloom in winter and spring can create a breathtaking vista of color which becomes more stunning against the desert landscape backdrop; the light and shadows created on the Eureka Sand Dunes are unique and mystifying; the cracked mud on the valley floor creates a landscape jigsaw puzzle effect; and the sunrises or sunsets over the mountain peaks or the Badland Basin can be awe-inspiring.
Although the name, Death Valley, brings to mind a place that is gloomy and dead, as you can see from above, Death Valley is a place that is rich with history and filled with many wonders to see. For a completely different experience, you should add Death Valley National Park to your list of places to go.