By Chuck Kimmerle
Editor’s note: In our humble opinion, Chuck Kimmerle is one of today’s truly outstanding black & white photography artists. Our thanks for this reflection on the residency he just completed in Joshua Tree National Park, along with some of the extraordinary images he created during that time, with a little help from his Singh-Ray Vari-ND, Galen Rowell grads and LB neutral polarizer.
I was getting a bit apprehensive. It was my second day of a four-week artist residency in Joshua Tree National Park and I was coming up empty. Sure, I made some photos, but they were astonishingly mundane. Some were downright horrible. I was told repeatedly that the park could be a tough place to photograph—I wanted such a challenge—but things were starting off much worse than I had thought and my confidence was getting a bit shaky.
I’ve felt that before, though. I’ve done three previous national park artist residencies —Zion, Glacier and North Cascades—and, for me, they all start out the same way. Slow and unproductive. Those experiences taught me that the feelings of uncertainty and frustration would soon pass, however, and that things would start to (pardon the pun) click. It wasn’t until the third day that I shot an image I was really happy with. After that, with the ice finally broken, I worked with complete (well, mostly anyway) confidence.
The landscape within Joshua Tree National Park appears, at first glance, monotonous. Almost bland. It is a place that hides its identity behind a thin and deceptive veil of dusty greens and browns. Only when one gets outside the car, well off the road, away from the sterile trails, and becomes surrounded by and stands too close to lyrical trees and yuccas, stoic cacti and boulders, that the true identity of the park can be comprehended and appreciated. Unlike most other places I have photographed, to be truly understood and appreciated, this park must be experienced at a personal level. Full immersion.
As I don’t have a lot of experience with southwest deserts other than some trips to Death Valley, I came prepared for anything. It didn’t take me long to realize that the ever-present dust made frequent lens changes problematic, to say the least. So, I ditched my three primary lens (the 24, 45, and 85mm tilt-shifts) and went with a simple two-zoom outfit: the ubiquitous 24-70 and an 80-200. As I only work with one camera, that meant fewer lens changes and a lot less dust spotting when I got home. Still, even then I had to clean the sensor every couple of nights.
As part of the residency, the park provided me with a fully-furnished cabin within the park, which is completely off the grid. Water is trucked in, and electricity comes from an array of solar panels and cabinet-sized batteries. I had to limit my use of both. As with most other residency accommodations, there was no cell service, no cable, no TV reception, limited radio and (hold onto your hats) no Internet. Part of the reason for this lack of external stimuli is logistical, part is that residencies are opportunities to completely immerse oneself in their work with as few distractions as possible. Even visitors are discouraged.
I was given complete freedom to create. There were no guidelines or expectations on the part of the park personnel, other than that I follow all park rules. There is also no pay. The accommodations are our compensation. Fair enough. In return for this opportunity, I am required to donate one photograph of my choosing to the park, complete with all rights to that image. Apparently, it’s law that all artwork which goes into the art collection of the federal government must be accompanied by all rights. It’s a small price to pay for such a priceless opportunity.
I approached my time in Joshua Tree NP with as few expectations and goals as possible. I wanted to allow myself the freedom to simply react to my new surroundings. Because of that freedom, I came away with photographs which, while still retaining my personal style, were different than much of my usual work—more intimate, more personal—and that’s a good thing.
While I don’t, as a general rule, take new gear on lengthy outings, this time I made an exception. Packed along in my camera bag, along with my normal gear, were a pair of 4”x6” Singh-Ray graduated neutral density filters: a 2-stop hard edge and a 2-stop soft edge. I made the exception as the southwest skies can be a bit bland and bright, and I wanted to be able to bring their tonality closer to that of the ground. It was my first experience using graduated ND filters, and I have to admit that I like them. While it is possible, and perfectly acceptable, to instead shoot a second, darker exposure and blend during post-processing, there are times I found when that method simply will not work. Late evening, for instance, sees the light changing so fast that there is often only light enough for a single exposure.
It’s difficult to assess how my residency in Joshua Tree National Park will affect or influence my work in the future. These types of experiences are absorbed into the creative process slowly and subconsciously. They work behind the scenes. I do know that I was deeply inspired and am proud of the work I did. Such an experience cannot help but make me a stronger, more insightful, photographer in the future.
Interested in applying?
National Park artist residencies are amazing opportunities and I strongly encourage anyone interested to apply. Bear in mind that these are competitive appointments where many dozens of artists—photographers, painters, sculptors, writers, musicians, actors, etc.—compete against each other for very few spots each year in select national parks and monuments. Depending on the park, there could be anywhere from a couple dozen to hundreds of applicants.
While this is not an exhaustive list, the bulk of artist residencies in national parks can be found here.