By MIKE GILLAM
Photo © Mike Gillam
The nature photographer in search of quintessential desert images is confronted by a great many subtle details and demands. These include, in no particular order, planning, research, experience (mostly built upon a litany of failures and half way successes that act as inducements to keep trying against the odds), timing, climatic conditions, equipment, patience and dogged persistence.
Obviously spontaneity, flexibility, luck, lighting and composition also contribute to success. Then again, what is success, what are my motivations and what am I trying to achieve?
Following strictly commercial imperatives is surely the enemy. I’m more interested in spirit over spectacle. That thought has me worrying, in equal measure, about the cost of the trip and about my carbon emissions. As I point the vehicle westwards into the Tanami, I shake my head: so much compromise.
Desert photographers are also influenced and even straight jacketed by the promise of sunrise and sunset and the allure of the benign winter in preference to a scorching summer. We naturally avoid high contrast lighting that may require multiple exposures and laborious post-editing.
Furthermore, we almost always gravitate to moisture zones where aridity is attenuated, to the richest and most fertile veins and cradles of a given environment. This means passing over or walking through and ignoring the vast majority of our chosen arid landscape. A stony plateau is reduced to a few moist ravines and even then the ravines are intensively explored until we find the richest shady crevice or rare spring fed rock-hole.
Sand-plain deserts are treated similarly. In our quest for the most pleasing images and a comfortable life we risk endlessly celebrating the rarities and misrepresenting entire land-systems.
Of course, finding something vaguely representative is our best hope, because capturing a comprehensive and accurate picture of biodiversity in this extraordinary country is an elusive dream that is never seriously begun, never mind concluded.
For the perfectionist photographer, attempting to convey the spirit of anything more challenging than a single tree is likely to send them mad.
Pushing back against ingrained oases-centric behaviours, I’m always excited when I find a viable photograph that celebrates, no matter how small a fragment, the relatively impoverished, less fortunate and subtle desert in between.
In this country where plant communities seem to change every hundred metres in response to soil profiles, moisture, gradient and fire, the pulse of the Tanami can be read from the roadside.
West of the Granites I decide to stop and explore a sand plain. Naturally I park beneath the shade of a vigorous looking Eucalypt so already I’m seeking out the oases that distract from the bigger picture.
In the winter I’d likely eschew the shade and pause for lunch amongst the termite mounds, a spectacular feature of this desert wilderness.
I began my search in a post-fire landscape, and after an hour or two I settled on the best clump of weeping mulla mulla, Ptilotus calostachyus, framed amongst burnt Sennas, the latter providing unflinching vertical lines in contrast to the delicate abandon of the wildflowers.
A light layer of midday clouds combined with a gusty wind was perfect, animating the vegetation and causing the top heavy Ptilotus flowers to dart and lunge in every direction. It was a matter of employing a high shutter speed and waiting for the right moment when the sinewy stems lunged like snakes at my camera.
I clearly remember the swarm of Ptilotus flowers seemingly flying unsupported, on slender stems (necks) that vanished in the play of light and wind. Now as I study the photograph, the stems seem pretty obvious.
I worry that the resulting photograph, chosen from hundreds for its dynamism and posture, possibly means much more to me because I was there and is too subtle to communicate to a wider audience. A perfect subject for cine but my server will not take the strain, nor I, anymore editing.
For the record I also photographed the pools of deep shade beneath isolated Eucalyptus aspera, a rich micro environment, crowded with plants and animals. Here, snake vines scaffold up the tessellated bark of cool trunks adding their impossibly green heart shaped leaves to the dusty blue grey of the Eucalypt canopy.
The deep leaf litter has been turned over thoroughly by goannas digging their burrows among the roots and a variety of birds resting in the shade above keep a watchful eye on me. In stark contrast to the beautifully bleak sand plain I had many visitors; insects, birds and lizards as I sat quietly in the shade to rehydrate.
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