“Geodescent” by Erin Babnik, Death Valley National Park (2019). CLICK PHOTO TO ENLARGE.

Creating a high-quality photograph of sand dunes in Death Valley was no small accomplishment in 1932, the year that Willard Van Dyke produced his dunes image that now  has a place in the permanent collections of numerous American museums. In order to pursue his idea, Van Dyke had to travel to a remote area of the California desert that did not yet have any official government designation or much infrastructure. He reached the Mesquite Dunes via a toll road that had seen more traffic from miners than from any tourists at that point, and he had only scant sources of information about the area to guide him. Transporting his large-format view camera and a cumbersome wooden tripod out onto the dune field would have required quite some determination, and all for a subject that was not yet canonical in any genre or medium. Sand dunes have since become classic destinations for photographers, and a rich diversity of dune imagery exists today as testament to a chain reaction of inspiration that has been evolving for the better part of a century.

Van Dyke’s photo from Death Valley was one of the earliest studies of a dune field as a subject rather than as a setting, but the real watershed moment for dunes as a photographic theme probably came when Edward Weston released his series of photographs of the dunes at Oceano, California in 1936. Both men were friends and were members of Group f/64 (the photography collective that inspired the formation of Photo Cascadia), and Weston’s studies of the Oceano Dunes began when the two made a trip there together following Van Dyke’s initial work in Death Valley. The rest, as they say, is history. Each spark of inspiration led to another, and ever since, photographers interested in sand dunes have carried on one of the most productive ongoing visual ‘conversations’ in the history of art.

To say that the most compelling or original of these photographs owe nothing to those that came before them would be audacious to say the least. No photographer can claim to be ignorant of any visual idea that already exists in the world, especially since modern humans are bombarded with imagery soon after birth. On the other hand, it is absurd to say that any sand dune image exists because the photographer was “influenced” by the work of Van Dyke or by Weston or by any other photographer for that matter. Artistic direction is a matter of choice, a pursuit of preference, and is what happens when a photographer exercises a desire to engage with a stimulating idea. In the spirit of encouragement, I would like to acknowledge the many photographers who came before us and to free those who will follow us from the shackles of “being different”. Just be yourself, via whatever interests that you have to guide you, and the rest will take care of itself.

I offer these thoughts as a footnote to the article on the same topic that I published more than three years ago. As we celebrate our tenth anniversary in 2019, the team members of Photo Cascadia are revisiting favorites from our massive archive of articles every other week. To read the original article, just click the button below. And as always, your questions and comments are very welcome. Thanks for reading!

To Look or Not to Look: Can You Find Yourself Through the Work of Other Photographers?

The article that this one references was published to the Photo Cascadia blog on April 14, 2016.

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