It finally happened in 1989. I listened to the message my soul was trying to send me, like a drum beat heard from a distance in a jungle. First it was faint and gradually it got louder until the drummer was standing right in front of my nose with his message:
“IT’S TIME TO GO TO THE DUNES AGAIN” (Excuse me, do we know each other?)
In the years since my first visit to the Dunes I had shown my black and white print portfolio many times. When I got to my dune pictures I would lie. I would tell people: “Oh yeah. I’m definitely going back there to shoot again”. I did that for 8 years and started to feel so dishonest I couldn’t stand it any more. I had to finally keep my promise just so I could live with myself.
I made inquiries and fashioned an itinerary. I would fly to Denver, get a flight to Pueblo and rent a van. I’d have them take the back seats out so I would have a place to sleep and then I’d drive the 6 hours it would take to go west to the Dunes. I was going to spend a week taking pictures using the van as my base camp and my “tent”.
The trip was going to cost around $1000 and the thought of it made me squirm. I didn’t want to spend so much money on a trip to take pictures, but the drummer and my inner voice wouldn’t relent. They kept telling me to go.
It was the Dunes, after all, not just any place. They were special and I felt a bond with them from the first time I saw them. Yes, love at first sight.
As Fate would have it, the person sitting next to me on the plane worked at Consumer Reports. We had a nice conversation and I told him where I was going. He then handed me his card and told me to call him when I got back. He had a job for me. It paid $2,000.
The Main Event
The six hour drive across mountain passes was the beginning of what turned out to be an endurance run of sorts. I waited the whole first morning for the sun to move so the places I was looking at would finally have some shadows, some drama. Then it dawned on me that it almost didn’t matter where the sun was. I was the one who had to do the moving. When I figured that out I started to shoot more. I also had to be patient. It took some effort to walk across the sand with my heavy view camera gear, so if the light wasn’t right I just had to wait for the sun.
I wore a cotton jacket with lots of large pockets, put sun tan lotion on my face and was out shooting from dawn until dusk. By the third day my face started to swell and it got pretty bad. Evidently my SPF 8 suntan lotion wasn’t doing its job! I went to the hospital in town where they did what they could for me. Then it was back to shooting more. I would have to deal with my sunburn when I got home (Jonathan Zizmor, board certified dermatologist, whose ads were all over the subway: “wash your face with milk”. It worked).
I got to know the Park Ranger pretty well, because I’d see him every day, and he was kind enough to let me use the Park’s darkroom so I could reload my 4×5 film holders. It was so dry at the Dunes and there was so much static electricity in the darkroom that touching anything in there created a blaze of sparks. I worried that my film would be ruined, so I was forced to do everything in slow motion so as not to generate any static.
There was a fair amount of wind out on the dunes and I was sometimes forced to put all my weight on my tripod while I also tried to keep my camera’s bellows from moving. Every evening before it got dark my first job was to empty all the sand that had collected in my camera bags during the day. There was a lot of it. It made all the fuss of using delicate anti-static brushes and high pressure dust guns at home seem silly.
One morning, as I was heading out, the ranger told me his wife was away and would I like to come over for dinner with him and his young sons that evening. I told him I would love to and spent the day thinking about how nice it would be to sit down to a real dinner for a change.
When I got over to the ranger’s house my food fantasies had reached extreme proportions. I was psyched. I knocked on the front door and was greeted by the Ranger while his kids were kind of bouncing off the ceiling. He finally got them to sit at the dinner table and plates were passed around. We were going to have pancakes.
Was It Worth It?
When I got home I developed and proofed my film. Kodak had put out a new silver rich paper, with a wonderful tonality, and I decided to make an 11×14 portfolio of the dunes using it. The Dune Series was some of the best work I had ever done. Unlike most of my landscapes up to that point the photographs were abstract from edge to edge.
I began showing the new portfolio around. I took it to ICP, or The International Center of Photography, which was then still on the Upper East Side. Initially I got some resistance from the receptionist, but when I showed the prints to her she told me to wait. She wanted to show the portfolio to the chief curator. I was happy to wait, but she didn’t appear happy when she returned. She told me what had happened:
”You should see this guy’s dune prints”.
Curator: “We already have Weston’s dunes”.
”But, he’s gone way past Weston”.
”Ah, we already have dunes”. I’m guessing he never saw the work.
Another time I contacted Barbara Millstein, the curator of prints and drawings at The Brooklyn Museum. She took a car service to visit my studio and looked at my prints with a care and concentration I had never witnessed before. “You have a European eye,” she told me. She loved the work. I asked if the Brooklyn Museum would purchase some prints. She said they had no money.
Eventually I gave the museum three prints, but my biggest regret is that I waited too long. By the time it dawned on me to donate the prints my mother had died. It would have been great for her to know my work was in a museum. Prints of the Dunes are now in corporate environments, like Pfizer and Bloomingdales, and in many other places.