Posts Tagged ‘Stanford University’

The New Golden Decade by Steidl – Book Review

September 25th, 2017

Golden Decade: Photography at the California School of Fine Arts 1945-55

By William Heick, Ira H. Latour and C. Cameron Macauley, edited by Ken Ball and Victoria Whyte Ball

Book Review

The New Cover of The Golden Decade: Photography at the California School of Fine Arts 1945-55.

Cutting Edge of World Art Then, Publishing Today

A completely new, redesigned, re-edited and revised version of the Golden Decade: Photography at the California School of Fine Arts 1945-55, published by renowned photography book publisher Steidl based in Gottingen, Germany, has been selling steadily in the United States for close to a year. The new Golden Decade has already sparked glowing reviews by many major newspapers and magazines, instigated book signings at some of America’s most prominent bookstore venues and catalyzed a handful of exhibitions at major museums, galleries and art centers.

This year, Steidl, the book, or the photographers have been featured in USA Today, the New Yorker and many other prominent publications. Mainstay European newspaper, The Guardian, hailed the Golden Decade as the book about “the school that turned photography into art.” Beyond the Curtain, touted as Southern California’s premier art and society magazine, extolled the Golden Decade photography exhibition at the Laguna Art Museum as “not for the eye to miss” and “a special glimpse into California’s progressive cultural history.” The Beyond the Curtain review revealed the influential ties between Golden Decade photography and the world art scene, as well as the East Coast art establishment. The article in Beyond the Curtain showed how the West Coast, specifically the California School of Fine Arts, renamed the San Francisco Art Institute, between its painters and photographers, at the time became the world’s cutting edge expression of modernism.

Only five of the 35 photographers with portfolios in the book are still living, while none of the original authors William Heick, Ira H. Latour and C. Cameron Macauley are still with us. As a result, the book editors, Ken Ball and Victoria Whyte Ball are all but worn out by an extended season of bookstore events that launched at the end of last October with a book signing at The Strand in New York City and continues throughout California and other major art markets. For more about the development of the new Golden Decade at Steidl and a list of all 35 photographers see the Landscape Photography Blogger article, “The Golden Decade Book to be Published by Gerhard Steidl.

The New Golden Decade Book Versus the Old Book

Steidl’s new design for the Golden Decade is less folksy and not as loaded with memorabilia, but more artful, chic, streamlined and clean, though the book still weighs in at 416 pages. The book is far from sleek, but the design on each page is sleek, spacious and crisp. The book overall is less busy and more pleasing to the eye than the earlier self-published version. A section in the beginning now tells how the book came to be, followed by the feature essay in which Ira H. Latour, in easy-reading prose tells the story of the founding of the photography department by Ansel Adams and California School of Fine Arts director Douglas MacAgy. For more on how the Golden Decade began see the blog post, “The Golden Decade: Photography at the California School of Fine Arts.

From obtaining funding through the Columbia Foundation, to securing facilities, the radio announcement, the first classes, launching the full-time program, abstract expressionism and much more, Latour’s essay informs, but does not overwhelm. Ansel Adams modeled the school on a rigorous piano conservatory approach to hands-on practice and set up the curriculum based on his famous Zone System. Early on a few students complained that the advertising promised courses by Ansel Adams just as he had become scarce at the school while working on his Guggenheim project photographing the national parks. The complaining faded when Ansel Adams hired Minor White, who in turn brought in prominent photographers to teach including Dorothea Lange, Imogen Cunningham, Lisette Model, Eliot Finkels, Frederick W. Quandt, Jr., Clyde Childress from the Art Center School, Robert McAllister, Homer Page, Rose Mandel and others. Beaumont and Nancy Newhall even gave a few lectures. The most anticipated student outings were to visit Edward Weston and Brett Weston at Wildcat Hill in Carmel, as well as photography field trips with Edward Weston out to Pt. Lobos State Reserve.

Minor White taught his, at the time somewhat confusing, but later much lauded Space Analysis. Benjamin Chinn, Philip Hyde, C. Cameron Macauley and others who wrote or talked about Space Analysis each had different understandings of it, but in June of 1952, the American Annual of Photography published an article by Minor White that defined Space Analysis as simply “The Use of Space in Defining Pictures.” C. Cameron Macauley’s essay in the Golden Decade also has provides readers with an understandable summary. Space Analysis brought the photographer’s awareness to vacant space, filled space and the relationships between objects and space, with more emphasis on the space than the objects. Students applied Space Analysis both before exposure while looking at the ground glass and after the production of a finished print.

Besides teaching portrait and landscape photography with large format cameras, White encouraged the study of motion by studying rush hour and doing street photography using “mini cameras,” that is, medium format and 35 mm. He also promoted the photographic interpretation of other arts including sculpture, plays, various other forms of performance and festivals. Students photographed the lively Fillmore District, the coast along Highway 1, industrial and architectural subjects with real world assignments by Pacific Gas and Electric Company, Stanford University, the City of Mendocino, the Gold Country, ghost towns and many other locations and clients all over Northern California.

Essays By Star CSFA Students

The essays by William Heick, C. Cameron Macauley, Ira H. Latour and others illuminate all aspects of student endeavor, both the day and night classes, student social gatherings, the striking philosophical differences between Minor White and Edward Weston and between Minor White and Ansel Adams. The latter at times brought on heated classroom discussions. Latour’s essay in particular offers an insightful, incisive dissecting not only of technical, creative and academic aspects of the photography program, but of the philosophy and character of both instructors and key innovative students.

Separate essays, all rearranged for better flow in this new Steidl version of the Golden Decade, also cover student print exchanges, a student print-based fundraising event, the world-famous 1954 “Perceptions” show at the San Francisco Museum of Art and the founding of Aperture magazine with several students including Philip Hyde, Benjamin Chinn and William Heick, being featured in early issues. Another essay described the students hanging out and later mounting a show at Vesuvio’s Bistro in the bustle of San Francisco’s North Beach District, which soon after became the home neighborhood of the Beat Generation poets. “Vesuvio’s is usually crowded with painters, photographers, craftsmen and sighseers,” wrote C. Cameron Macauley.

An essay by Pat Harris, “A Woman’s Perspective” explained that though most of the men had just come out of Word War II and were going to art school backed by the G.I. Bill, the primarily non-veteran women enrolled in the classes had to scrape and pay for school on their own. People kept saying to Pat Harris that science was not for women at each school she attended previously, but Ansel accepted her into the photography program and with mentoring from Imogen Cunningham she thrived.

Similarities, Differences and Influences in Student Photographs

Students at the school came from diverse backgrounds and circumstances, but the similarities that ran through many of the photographs do not end at the often-evident influence of Adams, Weston and White, but begin with it and go beyond it. Emerging from World War II, the country, the world and San Francisco in particular, had tremendous creative energy and productivity, while at the same time civilization carried the weight of what it had seen and endured, moving past it with transcendence and new purpose. Aspects of all of this are evident in the photographs, as well as meanings beneath the surface in most of the images. Edward Weston said, “To photograph a rock, make it look like a rock, but be more than a rock.”

The student portfolios exhibit a quiet intensity with clean lines, a new take on the modernist aesthetic, with room around subjects, objects well-placed in space, whether through space analysis or by emulating the quiet balance conveyed by Edward Weston. Many of the students’ photographs exhibit a strong design element. All are carefully conceived. For more about the contemporary exhibitions of the photographs starting in 2010 see the blog post, “Over 500 People Attend Golden Decade Opening.

Ansel Adams spoke of photographs representing a spiritual experience. The Golden Decade nature photographs exemplify either subtle or more obvious post-war transcendence. The landscape photographs contain some kind of spiritual quality, either through the use of light, or the arrangement of the subjects. Symbolism, ironic juxtaposition and the careful handling of negative and positive space around objects is as important as the objects and people themselves. The influence of Minor White also shows in the patterns and psychological emphasis, sometimes on humor, sometimes on tragedy, but always giving added meaning to the images. Metaphysics often shows or is alluded to in the street and people photographs as well. Pirkle Jones, William Heick, Gerald Ratto, David Johnson and many of the others expressed their greatest artistry in their photographs of people.

The first photograph in the student portfolios, “Nun and Child” by Ruth-Marion Baruch, like many others in the book, was clearly best expressed in black and white rather than in color. The nun’s habit with it’s black and stark white oversized collar contrasted with various grays and off-whites of the surrounding children all framed in a dark doorway. Baruch’s “Benicia” also juxtaposed innocence, optimism and the liveliness of youth in the foreground with the disappointment, unfairness and misfortune of life in the background. The images of Philip Hyde, Stan Zrnich and the other landscape photographers tended to speak of timelessness and at the same time remind us that we are here by either grace or accident and that this moment, this vivid now is fleeting. ‘Gather ye photographs while ye may.’ The Golden Decade shines on forever and glows golden for only one bright decade. It continues on and ended just yesterday: a book worth learning from and keeping safe for studying over and over; a time in history worth struggling to grasp and hold onto whether you are a historian, collector, photographer or artist in another medium.

My Favorite Photographs of 2015

December 29th, 2015

Jim Goldstein at JMG Galleries Blog has once again put together his blog project for hundreds of photoblogs to show a selection of photographs from the year. Last year I labeled my review blog post, “Best Photographs of 2014.” For that year, “Best” fairly described my picks because I did review every image in each genre and ran them off against each other to select what were best in my opinion. However, “Best” does not always apply to images that you choose yourself. Perhaps a stock agency or a magazine or a gallery would choose “better” images than you would yourself. Whether it is a stock agency, magazine or gallery doing the choosing, may be more the point. Each of these uses would chose different images that would be “best” in its particular situation. Different uses demand a different selection.

In a year like 2015 where I approached 10,000 total exposures, there may be several “10 best Photographs,” lurking within the 10,000 made, depending on the project and purpose. Therefore, this year I have called these “My Favorites.” Early in 2015 I gathered more images of the Northern Sierra, specifically Eastern Plumas County, to round out my Sierra Portfolio that will split into a Northern and Southern Sierra Portfolio as I begin to assemble portfolios and build a new website for my own photography. Currently I have just two portfolios on PhilipHyde.com after the 25 Image Portfolios of my father’s well-known photography that influenced more than one generation of landscape photographers.

My old friend Topher called me to announce he would marry Kori on the Blue Moon at the end of July on the white sandy shores of Lake Michigan at Meinert Park Beach. I decided to drive up to the West Coast of Michigan for the wedding and continue to photograph barns around the Midwest as I had started to do in Northern California. Every country is only as strong as its heart. I traveled to the heartland to take our pulse as a country and to photograph barns, farms and the dying small farm culture that is leaving small towns heartless across the land. Industrial cities are also in ruin in the midwest, but besides ruin and decay, hope, rebirth and rebuilding are also evident across our agrarian and rust belted center. My trip filled up with obstacles and small and large disasters, to the point where “A Drive Through the Heartland” makes a good travel narrative, currently in progress, as well as a series of informational blog posts about various sections of my trip or stories I discovered along the way. As soon as I have one draft of my travel journal, I will get back to directly working on my book about my father’s life and work in conservation photography of our national parks and wilderness.

Near the end of the year back home in California I photographed more landscapes for my Portfolio One and other portfolios, as well as more historical barns and round barns to upgrade my California Barns Portfolio to be revealed in 2016 with my new website. In 2016, I plan to take the emphasis off of making photographs and put it on marketing them more.

Misty Sunrise, Millpond, Graeagle, California by David Leland Hyde.

Misty Sunrise, Millpond, Graeagle, Eastern Plumas County, Northern Sierra, California by David Leland Hyde. Photographed this sunrise on the way to the Lakes Basin Recreation Area, but got caught here a bit too long and missed the best light up at Lakes Basin.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

D. H. Day Barn From North, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan West Coast by David Leland Hyde.

D. H. Day Barn From North, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan West Coast by David Leland Hyde. Most people photograph this barn from the south or from the southwest near the national park service road. It varied from pouring to steady rain. I wore my rain gear and managed to keep my camera dry long enough to walk all the way around the field to make images from all sides.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Round Barn Near Conroy, Iowa by David Leland Hyde.

Round Barn Near Conroy, Iowa by David Leland Hyde. This barn is usually hard to find, but fortunately I asked at just the right building, when I first arrived in town. I made it to the barn in short time. The owner even drove up near the end of my photography session, just in time to give me publishing permission.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Three Cowgirls, Harlan Ranch, Indian Valley, Plumas County, Northern Sierra, California by David Leland Hyde.

Three Cowgirls, Harlan Ranch, Indian Valley, Plumas County, Northern Sierra, California by David Leland Hyde. I was happily photographing the Harlan Ranch Barn from the road, when two young cowpersons who had been riding a horse in a nearby corral approached me and asked if I would photograph them. Their mother nearby saw more or less what was going on. I made close to 20 frames of the girls, who also recruited their friend to total three cowgirls in most of the photographs. Talking with their mother afterwards, she said she liked the photographs and the whole idea as it kept the girls entertained for a little while.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Moving Moment In Hansen Wedding Ceremony, Lake Michigan, Meinert Park Beach, West Coast of Michigan by David Leland Hyde.

Moving Moment In Hansen Wedding Ceremony, Lake Michigan, Meinert Park Beach, West Coast of Michigan by David Leland Hyde. The wedding photographer was also present and doing a great job getting the “money shots” of the main players in the wedding. I meanwhile focused on either the whole wedding party and audience, or the whole scene including the setting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dogs, Farm Hand, Horse, Overlees Farm Near Franklin, Nebraska by David Leland Hyde.

Dogs, Farm Hand, Horse, Overlees Farm Near Franklin, Nebraska by David Leland Hyde. During my entire 10,000 mile, 14 Midwest State journey, I worked to incorporate not just picturesque barns, but the land, people, animals, equipment and overall culture of small farms and dairies. This was one of my better successes with the surrounding culture, which seemed to come and go out of my images depending on how much I focused on getting more than just the barns.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Children on Shore of Midsummer Pond Near Oberlin, Ohio by David Leland Hyde. At one farm, the lady at the house said I could photograph the barn, even though she was not the owner. She went back in the house and left me, a complete stranger, with her children. They followed me around while I tried to photograph the barn. At first the kids were a distraction, but then I just told them to go ahead and play between the barn and camera, which produced a number of great images. With no encouragement at all from me, they led me down by their favorite ponds and played while I made a few more images of them and the ponds. After about 45 minutes, I walked back by the house and the woman waved from inside.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amish Teenage Brothers and Horse Cart Near Holton, Michigan by David Leland Hyde.

Amish Teenage Brothers and Horse Cart Near Holton, Michigan by David Leland Hyde. Amish people do not pose, nor will they give permission to photograph them if they are asked for it. However, if they happen to be passing by and you capture them going about their regular routine as part of another photograph, they do not object. These boys with whom I exchanged names upon meeting them, were all under 18 except for the oldest. I mentioned what I had learned about photographing Amish. They said they could pose if they wanted to and that it was up to each person to interpret their faith in that regard. While they drove by, I photographed and made a number of good images.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cloudy Sunset, Olsen Barn, Lake Almanor Near North Fork Feather River, Chester, Northern Sierra, California by David Leland Hyde.

Cloudy Sunset, Olsen Barn, Lake Almanor Near North Fork Feather River, Chester, Northern Sierra, California by David Leland Hyde. I drove to Lake Almanor four different days and stayed into the evening waiting for a good sunset, but this one from the first evening after the Feather River Land Trust day tours, turned out better than any from subsequent nights. The Feather River Land Trust used this photograph of Olsen Barn in their campaign to acquire the land and begin to restore the barn. The FRLT completed the land purchase transaction in October and by November we had the first meeting for a stewardship committee to research how best to restore the barn. I am researching the pros and cons of being on the National Register of Historic Places.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Barn Skeletons in Soybean Field Near Oslo, Minnesota by David Leland Hyde.

Barn Skeletons in Soybean Field Near Oslo, Minnesota by David Leland Hyde. I was on my way off the main US Highway toward another historic barn when I looked back and saw these barn remnants dappled by late sun through the trees. I made a number of exposures at different focal lengths, but chose this one as my favorite as it includes all three barns and some of the setting, but also gives a sense of the immense size of the large barn.

Stage From Balcony, Historic Eastown Theater, Detroit, Michigan by David Leland Hyde. Alas, the iconic theater is no more. It was demolished this year. My photograph may become historically significant someday, especially if I am one of the few to make prints.

Stage From Balcony, Historic Eastown Theater, Detroit, Michigan by David Leland Hyde. Alas, the iconic theater is no more. It was demolished this year. My photograph may become historically significant someday, especially if I am one of the few to make prints.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hole Broken in Wall, Screw and Bolt Factory, Gary, Indiana by David Leland Hyde.

Hole Broken in Wall, Screw and Bolt Factory, Gary, Indiana by David Leland Hyde. I do quite a bit of street photography on the West Coast. I have always wanted to photograph the ruins of the Midwest and Eastern Rust Belt. Gary, Indiana was one of Lake Michigan’s thriving industrial centers for many decades, but has fallen into disrepair with loss of over half of its peak population at a rate exceeding 22 percent per decade.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Psychadelic Wall Mural, Chicago, Illinois by David Leland Hyde.

Psychadelic Wall Mural, Chicago, Illinois by David Leland Hyde. Driving past this wall along an elevated roadway in Chicago, all that meets the eye are murals as far as you can see. This one caught my eye with the bright variety of colors.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shawn Lee Opening the Door to Urban Renewal Through Art at Artist Village, Detroit by David Leland Hyde.

Shawn Lee Opening the Door to Urban Renewal Through Art at Artist Village, Detroit by David Leland Hyde. Shawn Lee said the ruins of Detroit are old news and overblown by mainstream media. He said the relevant story now is the rebuilding of Detroit. He took me to see downtown gentrification and thriving upscale neighborhoods, but showed me recovering middle-class neighborhoods too. Artist Village is one place that encourages artists occupying low rent studios and helping to re-establish neighborhoods. Recovery is evident on other fronts as well. All over Detroit, neighborhood gardens are helping to rebuild communities and economically reclaim the city street by street.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Racing Team Practice, Stanford Red Barn Equestrian Center, Stanford, California by David Leland Hyde.

Racing Team Practice, Stanford Red Barn Equestrian Center, Stanford, California by David Leland Hyde. Meanwhile, with the wealth of dot.com startups and new innovations in technology, the Stanford area will continue to grow richer for a long time to come, possibly until the land goes under the ocean due to climate change.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Drylands: The Deserts Of North America 3

August 26th, 2014

Excerpts From The Text And Photographs of Drylands: The Deserts of North America by Philip Hyde, Part Three

Continued from the blog post, “Drylands: The Deserts Of North America 2.”

Capitol Reef from Cohab Canyon, Capital Reef National Park, Utah, 1978, by Philip Hyde. Nationally exhibited and first published in "Drylands: The Deserts of North America" by Philip Hyde. A stronger, more majestic photograph than a similar earlier image published in "Slickrock: The Canyon Country of Southeast Utah" with Edward Abbey.

Capitol Reef from Cohab Canyon, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah, 1978, by Philip Hyde. Nationally exhibited and first published in “Drylands: The Deserts of North America” by Philip Hyde. A stronger, more majestic photograph than a similar earlier image published in “Slickrock: The Canyon Country of Southeast Utah” with Edward Abbey.

Drylands: The Deserts of North America with photographs and text by Philip Hyde, developed out of nearly 60 years of exploring and defending western North American wilderness, with special emphasis on the five deserts of the continent. Yolla Bolly Press, which also packaged Mountain Light by Galen Rowell and other foundational landscape photography titles, recently donated its archive to Stanford University, where Drylands and its production can be viewed. Drylands is now out of print, but can be found at various online booksellers including Amazon under Drylands: The Deserts of North America by Philip Hyde.

The previous blog article in this series, “Drylands: The Deserts Of North America 2,” tells the story of the making of the book. The first blog post, “Drylands: The Deserts Of North America 1,” contained the beginning of the first chapter of the text of Drylands itself. We continue now where that blog post left off…

 

Passing through vast expanses of land that appear to be nearly bereft of any living thing, I wonder at the sight of a small plant braving the harsh environment. Its difficult circumstances do not evoke sympathy; I wonder that the plant grows in spite of difficulties, that it conserves what little moisture it gets and responds to the slightest moisture by blooming exuberantly.

Still another delight feeds the photographer within: the light. Desert light is crystalline and brilliant, making deep shadows and sparkling highlights. This is at least partly a result of the scarcity of moisture in the air—and, until recently, the scarcity of humans and their activities. When there were fewer people, the light everywhere must have had the clear quality that is still to be seen in some of the more remote quarters of the North American deserts.

As a mountain lover, I especially appreciate a characteristic that our deserts share with most of the country from the Rockies west: the deserts of North America are uncommonly mountainous. The two snowiest mountain chains in the country, the Sierra Nevada and the Cascades border the northernmost deserts on the windward sides. Scattered throughout all of the deserts are a large number of lesser mountain ranges that cast their own rain shadows on the adjacent areas. Some of these lesser ranges are high enough and wet enough to support forests on their upper slopes. Rising high above the parched plains and valleys below, they may be snow capped in winter, like the higher ones to the west. The White Mountains, Toiyabe, Snake, Ruby, and other ranges in Nevada, along with the high plateaus of Utah and Arizona and the Sierra Madre in Mexico, create their own microclimates: islands of plenty surrounded by desert.

Nowhere in the world is there as much diversity of desert weather as there is in western North America. In western Oregon, California, and Nevada precipitation occurs mostly in winter, in summer only rarely. In the eastern and southern parts of the Mexican deserts, summer is the rainy season. Where rainfall records are available for desert locations, they show radical irregularity. Downpours may occur at random intervals and locations, sometimes exceeding the year’s average in a few minutes or hours. In some places droughts can last several years, with no rainfall at all. The North American deserts are second to none for intensity of summer heat, but the dryness of the air makes the heat more bearable. Death Valley can be as hot on a summer day as any place on earth, while at higher elevations a sweater may be necessary when the sun sets and the air cools.

The great diversity of the vast desert landscape of North America suggests natural divisions that coincide with most scientific classifications. But the actual boundaries of these divisions are not so easy to draw within those of the larger desert region. In most cases, one desert shades into another, so boundaries must be somewhat arbitrary and indefinite, as are all attempts by humans to circumscribe nature. As I write this I think of Sir Francis Bacon saying: “Nature is a labyrinth in which the very haste you move with may make you lose your way.”

Continued in the blog post, “Drylands: The Deserts of North America 4.”

Which is your favorite desert?

Drylands: The Deserts of North America 1

April 3rd, 2012

Excerpts From The Text And Photographs Of Drylands: The Deserts of North America By Philip Hyde, Part One

Celebrating Landscape Photography Blogger’s 200th Blog Post!

On this special occasion Landscape Photography Blogger presents an excerpt from Drylands: The Deserts of North America, with photographs and text by Philip Hyde. Besides Slickrock with Edward Abbey and a few titles in the Sierra Club Books Exhibit Format Series, Drylands is considered Philip Hyde’s magnum opus, or great work. Yolla Bolly Press, which also packaged Galen Rowell’s Mountain Light, recently donated its archive to Stanford University. Help celebrate Landscape Photography Blogger’s 200th Post by reading a page from the great book that is becoming more rare all the time…

Drylands: The Deserts of North America 1

The Five Deserts of North America

…nature is already in its forms and tendencies, describing its own design. Let us interrogate the great apparition that shines so peacefully around us.  –Ralph Waldo Emerson

White Domes, Valley of Fire State Park, Mojave Desert, Nevada, copyright 1970 by Philip Hyde. Cover Photograph of “Drylands: The Deserts of North America.” Color Transparency: 4X5 Baby Deardorff View Camera. Dye Transfer Prints, Cibachrome Prints, and Archival Digital Prints. See PhilipHyde.com for Image Info and pricing.

(See the photograph large: “White Domes, Valley of Fire.”)

Webster’s dictionary defines a desert as “an arid region in which the vegetation is especially adapted to scanty rainfall with long intervals of heat and drought…a more or less barren tract incapable of supporting any considerable population without an artificial water supply…Desert rainfall is usually less than ten inches annually.”

This bare bones definition needs expanding. For one thing, barrenness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Ancients regarded the desert as a place to avoid—literally, to desert. The biblical “waste-howling wilderness” is a description of the Middle Eastern desert, a fearful place for most people. But even then it was for some a place for contemplation, a retreat from the cares of daily life. In our times, the desert is commonly a refuge, though we can be grateful that the deserts of North America were avoided by so many early travelers, and thereby protected. More recently, parts of these great deserts have become increasingly attractive to sun-worshipers. It is an irony that the climate, attractive to so many people, is being gradually altered by air pollution generated by population growth and its attendant requirements for industries and automobiles.

Webster’s definition doesn’t explain the aridity of the desert. High mountain chains intercept moisture-laden storms, keeping rainfall from the land in the lee of the mountains. Wind also contributes to desert dryness. A map plotting the course of trade winds in relation to deserts around the globe would show most arid lands to lie in the path of the trades. Though our deserts are not as directly in the path of the trades as some, strong winds persist over most of them for long periods, particularly in the spring.

The North American deserts are unlike most deserts in that they are not confined to the interior of the continent. They reach to the sea on both coasts of the Baja California peninsula and along the west coast of mainland Mexico as well, creating some unusual meetings of desert and water.

The scarcity of rainfall in the desert has one advantage. The surface of the land in well-watered regions is often obscured by dense vegetation. In the desert, land forms are readily apparent, the often beautiful sculpture of their contours revealed. This may be why geologists are drawn to the desert and sometimes inspired to near-poetic descriptions. A classic example can be found in Clarence Dutton’s monumental Tertiary History of the Grand Canyon District, first published in 1882. Here is his description of the Vermillion Cliffs in the Painted Desert:

During the midday hours the cliffs seem to wilt and drop as if retracting their grandeur to hide it from the merciless radiance of the sun whose very effulgence flouts them. Even the colors are ruined. The glaring face of the wall, where the light falls full upon it, wears a scorched, overbaked, discharged look; and where the dense black shadows are thrown—for there are no middle shades—the magical haze of the desert shines forth with a weird, metallic glow which has no color in it. But as the sun declines there comes a revival. The half-tones at length appear, bringing into relief the component masses; the amphitheaters recede into suggestive distances; the salients silently advance toward us; the distorted lines range themselves into true perspective; the deformed curves come back to their proper sweep; the angles grow clean and sharp; and the whole cliff arouses from lethargy and erects itself in grandeur and power as if conscious of its own majesty. Back also come the colors, and as the sun is about to sink they glow with an intense vermilion that seems to be an intrinsic luster emanating from the rocks themselves.

The stone landscape of which Clarence Dutton writes might appear austere and unfriendly to the casual traveler suddenly thrust into it. Many people would not recognize it as a part of their familiar world, but something about the place immediately appealed to me. Perhaps it struck some of the same harmonic notes evoked by the clean expanses of granite in the High Sierra Nevada I had learned to love in my youth. The place spoke to me of the same kind of purity that Ralph Waldo Emerson was alluding to when he wrote of the integrity of natural objects.

I am not able to take up full-time residence in the desert; my roots are too deep in the northern Sierra Nevada where I live now. I can, however, happily spend a season there and feel quite at home. It was not always like that. The ease I feel now is the product of many experiences, not all pleasant, but all valued for what they taught. Nor did the ease come without struggle, but as a result of an effort to understand, to penetrate the discomforts, to clear away the debris of prejudice and preconception that can so distort one’s view of a natural environment. It is not necessary to change the country—or to develop it. As Aldo Leopold put it so well: “Development is a job not of building roads into lovely country, but of building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind.”

As a forest dweller and desert traveler, I am especially aware of the contrasts between an arid landscape and one that is well watered. The creek that flows beneath my window as I write; the groundcover, trees, shrubs, and flowering plants; the seasonal and atmospheric changes I observe here are all expressions of water abundance. In the desert it isn’t just the paucity of water that impresses me. I am delighted to discover water’s surprising, often beautiful presence in hidden places, as for example, the spring in Monument Valley that flows from beneath a high sand dune—or those few, small, spring-fed pools surrounded by the vast, sere, rocky landscape of Death Valley.

I also enjoy the contrast between desert vegetation and that of my home environment. In the southern part of the Baja California peninsula, the array of strange, even unique, plant forms is the result of the plants’ special adaptations to water scarcity…

Continued in the future blog post, “Drylands: The Deserts Of North America 2.”