I made this image in 1987 very early in my understanding of B&W film and how to shape what I wanted to communicate in a photograph. This image is one of the first successful renderings of a scene where I was able to carry off what my mind saw and translate it to film. What film actually renders is dramatically different than what our eye and brain perceive and that understanding is the foundation to carry off a Creative image.
The idea of giving more exposure to an already blazingly bright scene went against traditional wisdom but that is exactly what I did and then reduced the film development to lower negative contrast with the intent of using a hard contrast paper in the final process to accentuate the minor dark areas and the receding shapes of the dune field. That methodology goes against traditional wisdom in dealing with the B&W negative process, nevertheless that methodology has become the hallmark of my negative design and Silver prints to this day.
The StovePipe Wells dune field is huge; there are many access points as I would later learn from many subsequent visits. With our first visit we picked what looked to be the closest access and shortest walk into the dunes. I believe to the final spot we picked that morning was over 1 mile hike in loose sand and a heavy back pack. Unfortunately, the tallest dunes are directly in front of us and the trek in was challenging in loose sand and total darkness.
With most sand dune shots you rely on the sun being just above the horizon so as to create long shadows which create graceful and flowing shadow lines which you cannot tell until the sun peaks above the horizon, so it is somewhat hit or miss as to the composition that one ends up with each morning. Mornings are always more still, however this particular morning the wind was blowing very hard; we would learn the next day was a blessing in disguise. No matter what time of year there are scores of photographers in the area and consequently hundreds of footprints, this morning the footprints would be blown over in a short period of time, unlike the next morning where the dunes were virtually of no interest to me due to footprints everywhere !
I was traveling with my friend and Mentor Jack Holowitz, we began around 5 am anticipating a 6:30 sunrise; both of us went our separate ways that morning and found a shot or two to do as the sun just peaked above the horizon. Usually camera angles are somewhat off axis of the rising sun to create the long shapely shadows as well as keeping the lens from directly looking at the sun. Morning shoots usually end ½ hour after sunrise as the sun climbs in the sky. As I began my walk back towards the road I could see my companion still working and far from the car.
Constantly climbing the loose sand I would have to stop often to catch my breath as well as remove layers of clothing as the temperatures rise dramatically with the sun above the horizon, especially in Death Valley. During one of my rest stops I turned and looked directly West, the low sun immediately at my back and saw this scene that looked like it was alive with bright sand and muted mountains in the background and these wonderful symmetrical flowing lines converging somewhat in-between the far off mountains. The wind still blowing hard and in the direction of me this time I decided I had to make an image here. However, I would not risk putting an expensive lens on the camera and subject it to blowing sand. I had an old Kodak 127mm Ektar I used without worrying about blowing sand. I gave a little extra exposure and called for reduced film development with the intention of printing on a high contrast paper which would accentuate the small areas of very dark sand. The textbook would never suggest to compress negative contrast and then turn around and use a hard contrast printing paper, experience told me otherwise. In fact, dozens of people who see this original print remark that it looks more like an etching than it does a photograph.
Interesting to note, look closely and you can see a single set of footprints coming up on the right side of the dune for a short distance; those are in fact my footprints as I never dreamed of making a photograph on the sand dunes around 8:30 am in full sun. This remains one of my three favorite images I have ever created and it is either # 3 or # 4 in print sales for me since I began selling prints in the mid 80’s