Posted by: kerryl29 | September 1, 2011

The Moment

For as long as I can remember, long before I became serious about photography, I wanted to visit White Sands, in southern New Mexico. Something about the place, based on what I’d read about it and pictures I’d viewed, intrigued me in a manner I can’t adequately describe.

Four years ago I finally had the opportunity. My wife and I took a week-long trip to New Mexico and I made sure that White Sands was on the itinerary. We flew into Albuquerque, rented a car, and immediately drove to Alamogordo, the jumping off point for White Sands National Monument.

Heart of the Dunes Black & White, White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

I’m sure we’ve all experienced events where something that we’ve dreamed about for years falls short of expectations. It’s the old problem of anticipation being better than participation. But for me, in this instance, White Sands more than lived up to advanced billing. In fact, it surpassed my expectations. I can recall my first impression, driving around the packed sand road that runs from the entrance gate into what is called “the heart of the dunes.” I remember repeatedly thinking: this place is amazing! And so it was.

And it was there that I experienced one of the singular, seminal moments of my life.

“Sole Survivor,” White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

One of the downsides, of sorts, of landscape photography is that it can–ironically–blind the photographer to what is right in front of his/her very nose. There’s an inclination to be so caught up in trying to capture a scene via photography that one misses the true majesty of the place, of the light, of the moment. A good photographer, it is widely thought, should be focusing (pardon the pun) on his/her craft, on his/her art, when all the elements of natural beauty come together. If that recipe isn’t being followed, the opportunity for great image-making will be missed. There is more than a kernel of truth in this, but of course, a tunnel vision approach to “making the image” may mean missing the greater moment–seeing the scene unfold, in real time, with one’s own eyes. I’m not at all convinced that, every once in a while, it isn’t worth missing the shot to savor the chance to experience the natural moment.

I spent a fruitful first full day at White Sands. I was out before sunrise, and nabbed some shots of a unique and unspoiled landscape that essentially is swept clean every day by the wind, rendering an awe-inspiring, pristine environment. I spent the rest of the morning exploring a variety of areas in the dunes, before losing the soft light. I spent mid-afternoon hiking the length of the fascinating 4.6 mile (round-trip) Alkali Flats Trail–without my camera gear. It was a scouting mission. (The light was poor, but I noted many photo opportunities to be mined in better light.)

Dunes Abstract, White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

When early evening rolled around, perhaps an hour-and-a-half before sunset, I hiked into the trackless Heart of the Dunes, with my gear in tow.  The sky was completely devoid of clouds, so I set aside thoughts about photographing a great sunset and wandered around, looking for compositions that I thought optimized the already-good-and-still-getting-better ambient light.  I eventually found what I ultimately labeled “the cavity,” a kind of naturally sculpted indentation in the sand, and spent the remainder of the time I was there taking advantage of the sublime sidelight until the sun disappeared completely behind the mountains to the west.  At that point, I gathered up my things and began the rather lengthy trudge back to the spot where I’d parked my car.

“The Cavity,” Heart of the Dunes, White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

One of the most appealing features of White Sands is that it’s an easy place to find solitude.  Simply wander at least two dune rises from the road and you’re very likely to be by yourself.  On this particular evening, I’d hiked over considerably more than two dunes from the parking area and had been alone, out of sight and earshot of anyone or anything, the entire time.  But I’d been concentrating so intently on what I was doing that I really hadn’t noticed.

As I reached what was approximately the halfway point of my return walk I completed the descent of a rather tall dune and found myself in an “interdunal” area–a flat, firmly packed locale, between dunes.  The return journey was basically eastward; I’d hiked essentially due west into the dunes so I was now heading back to the east.

As I reached the interdunal area I looked up and was  mesmerized by what I saw.  I was met by the most overwhelming incidence of Earth shadow that I’d ever seen.  I’d seen the effect countless times before, but–perhaps because of the clarity of the air, perhaps because of the wide open setting, perhaps as a result of some combination of the two or some other reason entirely–I’d never seen anything like this.  The sight of this spellbinding scene made me stop in my tracks.  I simply stood there, awed by the spectacle, my backpack still slung over my shoulders, my tripod still in my hand.  I remained in this stationary position for several minutes, simply drinking in the scene.  During that time I became fully aware of the solitude and tranquility of the place where I found myself.  There were no other people there, nor any other creatures.  There wasn’t so much as a whisper of wind.  It was so quiet–a positively ear-aching quietude–it took my breath away.  Nothing moved.  The entire universe seemed to be at a standstill.  For one brief moment, everything seemed right with the world.

Though I scarcely have any memory of it, at some point I regained my senses enough to pull out my camera and capture an image or two, though I was still sufficiently addled to fail to do any of the things that I ordinarily preach about good image making.  I simply set up my tripod at full height and, from the very spot in which I’d been standing all along, captured the scene before me.  It is, very possibly, the rawest photograph that I’ve ever made.

Earthshadow, White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

I don’t know that this image is among my best, but it’s definitely one of my favorites because, within, it holds the power of enabling me to return to the fleeting, harmonious moment when all was right with the world.

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Responses

  1. Wow Kerry — your images and words are…??? Words elude me. Wonderful, full of wonder, exquisite and more…

    “Ear-aching quietude.” What a lovely way to describe your experience(s). The real gear was/is your spirit, the cameras came along for the ride. Thank you for sharing this journey.

    John

    • Thanks, John. I very much appreciate your kind and thoughtful remarks.

      • Your post reminded me of an experience I had one morning in the spring of 2010. I had set up my tripod at the end of Emerald Lake thinking I would take a few photos. It was so quiet. A pair of mating geese swam by. They were getting ready to fly. I was a captive witness who didn’t take a single photo that morning. It didn’t matter.

        Later I composed an image in words “Morning on Emerald Lake” and posted to my blog. I hadn’t thought of that morning nor my post until yesterday when you posted. Last night I went back to the Morning in Emerald Lake post for the first time in months. Thanks for the encouragement.

        John

        • John–that’s a great compliment, because there’s nothing better than learning that a post resonated enough to produce meaningful reflection. Thank you.

        • I found the entry you referenced, John, and I’m linking it here. It’s brief, but brilliantly evocative.

          http://awarewriter.wordpress.com/2010/04/14/morning-on-emerald-lake/

  2. Isn’t it amazing how we, who often witness and create images of awe-inspiring moments, are sometimes so overwhelmed by the raw beauty and majesty of a place or scene that we are captive to its power to hold our concentration? Some of the most powerful images in my mind’s eye are the ones that I never created a photograph of. I believe they are intended to remain that way.

    A beautifully written and eloquent testimony to the aesthetic that inspires creative landscape photography, Kerry.

    Kudos to you, and thanks for an article that I will return to again and again when I seek to be alone with my own “moments”.

    • Jim, thanks very much. It means a great deal to read remarks like this from someone as talented and accomplished as yourself.

  3. […] his Lightscapes Nature Photography Blog a few weeks ago. When I received an email notification of The Moment, Kerry’s latest […]

  4. […] Most Beautiful – This puts me in the rather uncomfortable position of having to determine which combination of my writing and images is the “most beautiful.”  Ugh.  Make that double ugh.  I suppose the meaning of the term “beautiful” is open to interpretation, so I will–essentially by default–choose the one that I feel has the most personal meaning:  The Moment. […]

  5. […] I ws feeling–and it’s not a very good one, I’m afraid–is to point you to a piece I wrote 3 1/2 years ago, based on an experience I had a White Sands National Monument in New Mexico in 2007.  Since […]

  6. […] been a victim of this syndrome myself.  I remember my reaction when I first visited White Sands National Monument in New Mexico about ten years ago.  I was virtually awestruck and had to “snap out of […]


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