DEATH VALLEY

 

 

SHAWN’S DEATH VALLEY JOURNAL – DAY 1

 

As we all know, through the difficult process of editing, some things that happen during the production of an episode sometimes have to get left on the cutting room floor. This can happen for many different reasons but this journal is a great way for me to talk about some of the fun and interesting things that happened that were not seen in the show.

 

After "escaping" the parking garage at the hotel and receiving a summons for a future court date from a very nice officer of the Nevada State Police, we were back on the road. We had a GoPro camera suction-mounted to the windshield of the car. At the time that the camera was attached, the skies were fairly clear. Eventually I forgot about the camera and it started to rain. So I turned on the windshield wipers and watched the GoPro camera and suction mount go flying off the windshield and come crashing down onto the highway at 120 km/hr. The camera, housing and mount were in pieces. By this time, I had had enough. The delay from the floods, the speeding ticket, the smashed camera...it was all very frustrating! However, as a result of all of the delays, we just happened to come across a stunning sunset in a very beautiful part of the desert.

SPECS  f/6.3, 1/160 second exposure, ISO 100, 200mm lens        LOCATION  36.636266, -116.373862

After about 30 minutes of shooting various sunset images we continued our journey south along highway 373. The skies began to darken and the clouds became angry. They erupted in a furious lightning storm that was absolutely spectacular to witness against the endless desert horizon. I hopped out of the car and setup the tripod to capture some long exposure photographs. I simply set the shutter speed to 30 seconds and continually fired it over and over. There were only a couple of visible bolts of lightning but this was my favorite image from that experience:

SPECS  f/11, 30 second exposure, ISO 125, 16mm lens        LOCATION  36.446359, -116.421696

As we continued our drive along the dark desert highway, up ahead in the distance we saw a shimmering light. It was the Amargosa Opera House Hotel and we had to stop for the night.
Upon arriving at this little old run-down hotel in the middle of nowhere, we quickly discovered that it has a fascinating history. As I entered the colorfully ornate and spooky main corridor, I felt as though perhaps The Eagles had secretly written their song "Hotel California" about this place.
 
In 1967 a woman by the name of Marta Becket took over the property, which had once been owned by a borax mining company. Marta was a dancer and a performer.  But way out in the middle of Death Valley in the 1960s, nobody was coming to watch her nightly dance performances. So Marta began painting murals depicting an audience on to the walls of her opera house and performed in front of them every night. By the early 70s she had completed all of her murals and, thanks to some press from National Geographic and Life Magazine, Marta began to get a real audience. Marta stills lives on the property today but she is currently in a wheelchair. Her last public performance was on February 12, 2012.
 
We were warned by the person at the front desk that the hotel was haunted. In an effort to create some creepy pictures, Jan, our cinematographer on this episode and myself explored the hotel grounds in the middle of the night. Surrounding the main hotel complex were a series of run-down structures. Upon entering one particularly creepy building we discovered an old chair sitting in the middle of the room. With Jan's assistance, I used one of my favorite lighting techniques - painting with light - to partially illuminate the scene. While the camera's shutter was activated for a 30 second-long exposure, Jan and I walked around the room with flashlights and "painted" various parts of the scene with light. We wrapped up our little impromptu photoshoot once we were sufficiently creeped out by our results.

SPECS  f/8, 30 second exposure, ISO 100, 16mm lens        LOCATION  36.302729, -116.415514

SHAWN’S DEATH VALLEY JOURNAL – DAY 2

The crew and I got up in total darkness, around 4am, to depart on our journey into the Badwater basin. Very quickly we realized that the road leading into Badwater had been completely washed out by a flash flood the night before. The road was covered in mud and debris. Upon our late arrival in Badwater we packed all of our camera gear way out into the middle of the Badwater Salt Flats.
 
Due to the soil becoming saturated with water, many of the ridges of the salt flats had lifted and buckled. It was not the look that I was intending to capture but it certainly provided for an interesting subject.
 

SPECS  f/8, 1/3 second exposure, ISO 50, 16mm lens        LOCATION  36.235076, -116.797039

The next part of our journey was removed from the final edit of the show. As we were driving north we got pulled over by a park ranger. He approached our vehicle and yelled "what the hell are you doing in here?!" We were completely surprised by his question and replied, "uh...what do you mean?" He said that the entire area had been closed the night before due to the flash flooding. Supposedly, because we had come in in total darkness, we had not seen the road closed signs that had been blown over by the wind. The park ranger gave us a private escort out of the area and to our amazement, we had driven right past dozens of cars that had been completely buried in mud and rock from the flash floods. It looked like a warzone. There were bulldozers all over the place working to clear a path for vehicles to make it through.
 
After a pleasant "goodbye" from our new park ranger friend, we headed north to the Mojave Desert. 
My goal, whille shooting at the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes in the Mojave Desert, was to capture fine art abstract images of the dunes at sunset. I wanted the chiaroscuro look of extreme contrast caused by the curved shadows that the dunes cast.

SPECS  f/11, 1/160 second exposure, ISO 50, 135mm lens        LOCATION  36.620853, -117.108650

After finishing up our shoot in the Mojave Desert we also travelled to two other really interesting places in the desert that were both cut from the final episode. The first was a little ghost town called Rhyolite. This town was a bustling mining community in the early 1900s. It was also the filming location for several scenes from the movie The Island. One of the iconic buildings still partially intact on the site is the Cook bank (below).

SPECS  f/11, 1/200 second exposure, ISO 50, 35mm lens        LOCATION  36.901090, -116.829298

Finally, before leaving Death Valley, we made one final stop at a beautiful place called Zabriskie Point. This is a fantastic lookout for photographers hoping to capture interesting images of a unique and highly textured landscape.

SPECS  f/6.3, 1/125 second exposure, ISO 100, 185mm lens        LOCATION  36.419978, -116.812248