• ELISABETH BRENTANO

TEXTURES AND LIGHT IN THE ATACAMA DESERT


With the exception of the magically-lit sand dune pictured above, I initially wasn’t happy with anything I photographed in northern Chile last month. While scrolling through my Lightroom catalog post-upload, all I could see was bright daylight, cloudless skies and one infuriatingly blurry Andean fox.

I was in the country for two weeks, yet the only images that I liked were a handful of shots taken over the course of two days in the desert. I ventured on to Easter Island and the cities of Santiago and Valparaiso, and I didn’t feel particularly inspired to shoot much, so I put my camera down and went to museums and craft markets. In some ways I wondered if it was a waste of a trip, but I immediately stopped myself. If the measure of a successful adventure is based on the photos you bring back, you probably missed out on quite a few things. After waiting a few weeks and going back over my shots from the Atacama, I started to fall in love with the way they flowed together. Yes, the sparkling sand was still my favorite shot. But the contrast between the stark salt flats and the ripples on the bronze dunes had grown on me, as had two photos from sunrise at the El Tatio geysers. Only after I saw the complete set could I truly appreciate any of its components, and I honestly can't remember the last time I looked at my photos this way. When placed side by side, these images spoke about texture, tones, temperature and terrain, and looking at them made me remember how dry, cold, hot and high I was on this trip. (And by high, I mean getting knocked on my ass while hiking at 14,000 feet.)

I’m very efficient when it comes to selecting the best shot out of a few hundred, but these days, shooting a collection of images to tell a story isn’t always how we think of photography. And it really needs to be. We’re often chasing crazy light or, for some of us, whatever is trendy in the realm of lifestyle/nature photography. But beyond trying to get a banger post for Instagram, what are we really trying to say? Quite often we assume that one image should be enough to capture a moment, and we don't take the time to see how one image might related to another.

Have we inadvertently trained ourselves to forget about the art of storytelling, all in the name of Insta-gratication? It's a question worth asking, because I very rarely see photos these days that make a statement. Sure, they show pretty scenes and they make me want to see some of these places for myself, but I don't put much thought into the how, why and what behind the visual. Pictures aren't always worth a thousand words anymore. Sometimes they're tantamount to a sentence, and a poorly constructed one at that. And of course, I'm tossing my own photography in this pot, because I'm seldom satisfied with what I shoot and share. Sometimes I'm proud of my work, but I wish I had the power to consistently lure people in and make them stare at my images for more than a few seconds.

After having dabbled more with video this year, I've realized the importance of finding sequences that tell a story and hold the viewer's attention. So why not apply some of that to still photography? Details, textures, movement and light aren’t always directly in front of you, but when you start looking for them, you'll find them.