Geometry Hill

abandoned prison in the Mojave Desert

Geometry Hill

This hilltop is in an abandoned prison complex in the heart of the Mojave Desert. The first time I saw this place, I was struck by the collection of unusually shaped buildings on the hill.  The sphere is a radome (RAdar DOME) once operated by the Air Force, and now an active FAA tracking station.  The other buildings are abandoned relics of the prison, and their purposes are not obvious. Ordinarily, I let these things go with no more thought than “Hey! Good photo op.”  But this time, I was surprised to find myself trying to learn, not about the use of the buildings, but about their shapes.  If it was their geometry that attracted me, then it was their geometry that I would explore. There I was, researching, Googling, Wikipedia-ing, to learn the names of their shapes. I had the cube and the sphere nailed, but had no idea about the others.

Now, I’ve learned that the buildings in the foreground on the hill are (from left to right) rectangular, trapezoidial, and decagonal prisms.  Barely visible in the background, the water tank is a circular cylinder.  And the quonset hut to the left of me in the foreground is a horizontal cylindrical segment.  I learned more in 10 minutes of research for this picture than I did in all of 9th grade geometry.

So, do I appreciate the view more as a result of my research?  No, I don’t think so. It was fun in a useless trivia kind of way. It was a moment of intellectual curiosity sated. But now, I think I’d rather just sit back while the exposure runs and savor the warm Mojave night, listening to the dull hum of the radome, wondering about the inmates who spent time here, and watching the stars spin as the world turns.

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Desert Palace

Desert Palace

Desert Palace

There is a myth that describes the desert as a place where one can stake a claim to a piece of ground and live life on one’s own terms. The myth takes many forms and serves many purposes, from fueling condo sales in Palm Springs to providing a satirical backdrop for the movie Raising Arizona.

We’ll never know the real backstory of this long-abandoned 1950’s Palace travel trailer, but its proximity to the Joshua tree and the surreal lighting invite our imaginations to run wild as we concoct a brand new version of that myth.

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The Morning After

Room 11; Desert Inn Motel; Mojave, CA

Room 11; Desert Inn Motel; Mojave, CA

Doing night photography in the desert includes the experience of waking up in strange motels. More often than not, they’re mom and pop affairs managed by an overly effusive couple who oversee their domain with more time than money. Typically, the 60 year old property hangs in a precarious state of (dis)repair, and the continental breakfast includes something that is orange, but almost certainly not juice. Still, as long as they manage to deliver clean sheets, a hot shower, and at least minimally efficient air conditioning, it’s all part of the adventure.

Tech Notes

1/500 sec at f/11; 20mm; ISO 200; ambient light

 

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Mercury Falling

This was the home of the superintendent of the Beck Mercury Mine, an obscure outpost in the heart of the Mojave.  The picture’s OK, but it seems a little static–not one of my favorites.

Mercury Falling: superintendent's house; Beck Mercury Mine

Mercury Falling

I like this one better:

The Red Window

The Red Window

This one has even more issues photographically than Mercury Falling, but I think the way the wire and plaster seem to float in space lend some visual interest to the image.  But it’s not the window and plaster that I like best.  It’s the vintage beer bottle caps and newspaper that are visible along the edge of the window.

bottle caps and old newspapers

Bottle Caps and Old Newspapers

They were incorporated into the original construction of the wall, and serve as clues about its history.  We know that the builders were partial to Lucky Lager and Burgie beers.  And the newspapers help tell us when our beer-drinking miners were out here.

No dates are visible in the scraps of newsprint, but the illustrations and the prices in the ads for Los Angeles department stores suggest the 1930’s.  The snippets of news stories are almost all about the war in Europe—a war that the US is not yet involved in.  One story in particular lends even more precision.  It tells of the closing of the Franco-Suisse border.  A Google search reveals that happened on September 08, 1939.  From that, it’s pretty reasonable to guess the house was built in the fall of 1939—after the heat of the Mojave summer, and before winter could bring the freezing winds down off the Sierras.

All of this helps give this otherwise hopelessly anonymous structure a history and a personality.  The structure’s not in great shape, but if it can hang on until next fall, it will be 75 years old.  If it’s still standing, I will go back and try to do it some photographic justice.  In the meantime, and just in case it’s gone by then, raise a cold Lucky and join me in wishing an early “Happy Anniversary!” to the ghosts of the Beck Mercury Mine.

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A Room With a View

outhouse at a remote mining camp

A Room With a View

Clean, well-stocked, private.  These are things we appreciate when nature calls.  But step into that unisex facility at the mini-mart, or a porta-potty at a public event, and you realize that “clean” and “well-stocked” are nice-to-haves, not need-to-haves.  You can find yourself grateful for nothing more than the sense of privacy granted by the lock on the door. Sometimes, in these situations, you just have to make do.
But what if you lived an hour’s journey from a paved road, far from the world of running water, and miles from the next human soul?  Would a sense of privacy still be important?  The prospector who built this structure didn’t seem to think so.  That’s a screen door on the front of the outhouse.  Perhaps instead of a sense of privacy, he valued the light, the ventilation, or a room with a view.   Or, maybe when he built this, the only building material he had available was an old screen door.  Sometimes, in the desert, you just have to make do.

Tech Notes

90 sec @ f/8; 18mm; ISO 200; star trails (15 * 90 seconds); lighting: blue-gelled strobe; xenon flashlight

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A Good Sign

A Good Sign

A Good Sign

This is the Henning Motel, on old Route 66 in Newberry Springs, California.  It sits next to the Bagdad Café.  If you’ve seen the movie of the same name, you know that much of the action takes place here in the motel.  One of my favorite scenes has Marianne Sagebrecht’s character on a ladder, dusting the neon sign.

I love that sign.  It’s a classic design, and it’s huge—ridiculously out of proportion to the tiny four room motel it advertises.  Even in the glory days of the 1950’s, at the height of both the Great American Roadtrip in general, and Route 66 in particular, when owning a motel must have been something of a no-brainer business-wise, that sign surely cost more to buy and operate than the nightly rentals could ever have justified.  I imagine a sleazy, cigar-chomping salesman in a loud sport coat pitching the sale in a raspy voice: “You gotta have a good sign.  The bigger the sign, the more revenue.  It only makes sense.  A good sign is your ticket to financial security.”  But I suspect if the motel ever turned a profit, that money was made in spite of the sign, and not because of it.

Today, the motel and sign are both in ruins.  Their role in Bagdad Café (1987) was the last hurrah.  But in case you’re interested, the property is for sale.  The hand-lettered sign out front offers 3.5 acres of Route 66 property with a 3-unit commercial building for $125,000 or best offer.  Sadly, there’s no commercial potential here.  The building is beyond reasonable repair.  This property will never generate revenue, and I’m guessing one could probably do better if looking for a residential parcel in this area.  This will be a purchase born out of affection or nostalgia for what was once here.  In practical terms, the buyer will be taking on a real white elephant.  But it comes with a good sign.

Tech Notes

80 seconds @ f/8; 23 mm; ISO 200; star trails (16 * 80 seconds); xenon flashlight on sign

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The Colors of Home

The Colors of Home

The Colors of Home

If you told me you had a great photo opportunity that included a burned out cinder block structure, lots of ambient sodium vapor light, and some very prominent spray-painted graffiti, my response wouldn’t reflect much enthusiasm for the subject.  I’d be thinking to myself, “Too modern.  Sounds ugly and without charm.  Talk about a list of things I try to avoid in my choice of subjects–especially the graffiti.”
Except for the occasional boxcar mural (which was probably painted elsewhere), graffiti in the desert usually appears to be the work of a monkey with a spray can–random lines, scrawled initials, or adolescent mad-libs in the form <person you know> is a <body part>.  But I felt quite differently when I came across this location on a daylight scouting foray.  I thought the graffiti and more modern structure worked together, and I loved the dry wit of the “Home Sweet Home” as a caption for the scene.  When I came back that night, the ambient light remained a problem, but I tried to turn it into a strength by adding red-gelled light to the pink cinder block, and lime-green to the empty windows.  For me, the lighting combination resulted in a lurid, slightly queasy look for the house that contrasts with the dark blue sky and plays well with the sarcasm of the tagging.
Of course, I know you may not agree.  In that case, feel free to complete this mad lib: <photographer’s name> is a <synonym for person who shows poor artistic judgment>.

 

Tech Notes

133 seconds @ f/8; ISO 200; 18mm; red and lime gelled strobe; lots of xenon flashlight

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Nothing To Declare

abandoned California agricultural inspection station; Yermo, CA

abandoned California agricultural inspection station; Yermo, CA

All of the major highways into California have an agricultural inspection station. “Border Protection Stations” is what the state officially calls them. (Cue the theme to Dragnet.)  Traffic is funneled past uniformed officers who inquire as to whether you have any produce obtained out of state.  The point of these stations is to intercept and prevent insects and other pests (the state’s melodramatic term: “invasive species”) that might damage California crops from entering the state.

When I was a kid and we were returning from our periodic out-of-state camping trips, we passed through these stations.  I didn’t know about agricultural pests then, and had no idea what the point of these stops was.  I only knew that very official-looking uniformed officers were asking my father questions about the contents of our vehicle, and he was expected to answer.  It was easy to imagine we were smugglers moving through customs with our illicit cargo cleverly hidden, never to be detected.  The long road trips were a little more fun with these flights of fancy.

Nowadays, these stops are more of a minor annoyance, breaking my 70+ mph pace down the interstate.  Still, as I inch the truck forward in the line of traffic toward that uniformed officer, I glance down at the Nevada-purchased banana on the seat beside me.  As I eye my bright yellow contraband, a little of that childhood fantasy creeps up on me, and I do what any good smuggler on the verge of detection would do—I eat the evidence.

 

Tech Notes

 76 seconds @ f/8; ISO 200; 21 mm; LOTS of xenon flashlight on structure and foreground

 

 

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Sometimes, It’s Better To Be Lucky Than Good

A BNSF freight train headed east into the Mojave from Yermo, CA.

A BNSF freight train headed east into the Mojave from Yermo, CA.

I didn’t get out of the car expecting to take this picture. My intended subject was a billboard on the other side of the railroad berm. (The Duck in It’s All About Timing on 10/23.) I’d walked perhaps 15 yards from the truck to this spot when I saw the train headlight in the distance. It wasn’t moving fast, but it was obviously coming my way, and what with how much bigger it was than me, it seemed a good idea to wait for it to pass before attempting to scramble up the berm, cross two sets of tracks, and then shimmy down the other side with an armload of camera gear in the dark.

When the locomotive turned a minor bend in the tracks I saw the possibility for this shot. There wasn’t much time to compose, and no time at all for a test shot, so I hastily dialed in my default settings, looked quickly through the eyepiece, and opened the shutter, hoping for the best. As the train rumbled by, I stared transfixed at the scale and the power of the big iron beast. When I heard the shutter close, I previewed the results to see what I got–much like a kid looking in his Halloween bag after leaving the first door of the night. And like that kid, when I saw the unexpectedly generous treat in the bag, I vowed to continue my quest all night long. It was another one of those moments when it was better to be lucky than good.

Tech Notes

93 seconds @ f/8; ISO 200; 35mm; moonlight only

 

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It’s All About Timing

The Duck

 

To take this picture, I set up my tripod on a rutted dirt track that paralleled the railroad berm that rose about 10 yards behind me.  I completed a test shot, studied the result, and paused to consider a change of angle and composition.  My eyes were on the sign, the sky, and the foreground.  My attention was drawn to a mechanical sound approaching from my right.  It seemed out of place.  It wasn’t a train.  Perhaps it was a truck on the rarely used Yermo Road, another 20 yards past the railroad tracks.  As I turned my attention from the visual to the aural, trying to interpret the growing sound, a light suddenly blinded me from the right.  In an instant, a helmeted rider on a quad was racing down on me.

I snatched the tripod and stepped back just as he screamed past.  I gasped involuntarily, and my heart was racing.  He never showed any sign of slowing.  I don’t know if he ever saw me.  I can only hope that beneath that full coverage helmet, his face was pasty white, and his breath was coming in short bursts.  I’d hate to think I was the only one scared out of his wits.  It wasn’t anybody’s fault.  Neither of us had any reason to expect the other to be on that narrow, decrepit track in the dark of night.  Whether the story ended with a hit or a miss came down to split-second timing.  Just like so many things in photography.

Tech Notes

90 seconds @ f/8; ISO 200; 24 mm; xenon flashlight on billboard

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