Last weekend I drove to Death Valley to do some landscape photography. It feels great to get out of LA and reconnect with nature once in awhile, and taking photos is one of my favorite ways to do that. So before sunrise I made my way over to Badwater, which is 280 feet or so below sea level and is known for its distinctive-looking salt flats, which form a kind of endless pattern.
Like El Capitan in Yosemite, Badwater is one of those iconic locations that photographers love to visit and capture with their cameras. Out in the middle of those flats, bundled in coat, hat, and gloves to fend off the cold, I struggled to figure out what my take on this place would be. What would make my photo different than the thousands that have come before? I always strive to be original with whatever art I’m doing and always hoping to say something that no one has said before.
And then I realized that wasn’t the point.
I don’t come out to places like this because I’m likely going to create an image that’s never been seen before. I come out to connect with the timeless and eternal.
These landscape locations, many of which are in national parks, have remained largely unchanged. They exist as they have for the past thousands of years (minus the parking lots, toilets, and other modern amenities). In 2011, I took some photos in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, where there are trees over 3000 years old.
So even though I’m was out in Death Valley in 2013 with a modern digital camera, I was connecting to something ancient and primal.
And this got me thinking about stories. Why do we still read the classics, or why do we still go to movies to see the latest incarnation of a fairy tale or superhero myth? I think by watching and reading stories that have their basis in the past, it connects us to a part of us that is more primeval. It provides some sort of continuity to our modern lives. We may be surrounded and connected by technology, but stories predate all that. They ground us and help us understand who we really are.
In A Short History of Myth, Karen Armstrong writes, “A myth was an event which, in some sense, had happened once, but which also happened all the time… mythology is an art form that points beyond history to what is timeless in human existence, helping us to get beyond the chaotic flux of random events, and glimpse the core of reality.”
Did I “glimpse the core of reality” out there on the salt flats? Maybe a little. I know I felt at peace and connected to something bigger than me. I watched in wonder as the sun rose as it has every day for the past millions of years. Back home, I usually wake up after the sun has already completed its morning ritual.
Maybe it’s a little unrealistic in these days of reality TV and 24-hour news channels, but I think our best stories should provide us with some sense of timeless and help us get in touch with what really matters.