“Dad, it’s getting pretty late,” my daughter, Mackenzie, said.
I nodded, but she couldn’t see me. We stood in the darkness of a moonless night, miles from civilization, the only light a dim glow from my camera’s viewfinder. For the last couple of hours we had hiked in the wilderness at the edge of Joshua Tree National Park as we took long-exposure photos of the starry sky. Our conversations had drifted from daily activities to more philosophical leanings, touching on topics ranging from life to love.
“Only a few more shots,” I said.
She didn’t reply.
Star photography is only possible by going into the wilderness and spending hours in darkness, gazing up into the heavens and waiting, being still and noticing a world not accessible or familiar in our normal existence.
The technique for taking star photos is complicated. You place the camera with a special wide-angle, large-aperture lens on a heavy tripod and point it upward but not so far as to miss the foreground that will provide some memory of the place where the photo was taken. In the desert, the foreground is perhaps a cactus, sand dune or weathered stone. There is the horizon to consider — be it mountains, a structure or something else that provides context to the story. Then there are the stars. The brilliant, ancient flecks of light that given the right conditions splatter across the sky like a glitter of jewels, shimmering and pulsing with a collective vibrancy.
To tell the story of an evening like this through a photo you must take your time and be patient. Once you have positioned the camera and tripod, use a flashlight to assess the scene and readjust the camera. When the equipment and composition are ready, turn off all the lights. As eyes readjust to the darkness there is anticipation — will this be the time that a meteor streaks across the night sky? Will the long-exposure photo reveal that a fox or owl was only yards away? Will this be a photograph that reveals what it means to see stars as if for the first time?
After you press the camera shutter, there is another minute of nearly pure darkness and stillness as the camera’s sensor gathers in the dim light from above. During these times I often find myself holding my breath as if even the added movement of my breathing might cause the camera to shift and blur the delicate points of light.
Seconds pass slowly in the dark. Nearby sounds are amplified. A rustle in the bushes at my feet brings with it a primal fear — is that a snake? Coyote? Worse? After taking a few deep breaths I turn my attention to the aromas around me — the musty smells of the earth, perhaps the subtle perfume of a night-blooming flower or pungent smoke from someone’s campfire. By then, my heart rate has slowed and any fear from the sound has subsided.
My daughter remained silent during those moments, too, the sound of her steady breathing barely but distinctly audible.
Then the camera shutter closed and we spent a few moments reviewing the shot.
“I like how this one shows the desert plants,” she said looking through the viewfinder. “And look, you can also see another meteor.”
Mackenzie, or Kenzie, is 23. She has graduated college and is now living and working in the Los Angeles area, which is only a couple of hours west from where we stood.
When she was 13, we hiked down into the Grand Canyon. The trip was to celebrate her becoming a teenager on her path toward adulthood. The hike was a physical challenge and we had dust caked on our arms and legs. Once at the bottom, we explored colorful sandstone canyons and surprisingly verdant valleys, and we camped with a group of other travelers along the turquoise waters of Havasupai Falls.
On our return to civilization, her mother and brother were waiting for us at a hotel in Las Vegas. The lights and activity were jarring to both of us as we re-entered the human world, in distinct contrast to the one from which we’d just come. As we walked to our rooms, my wife made a comment that we both needed to take a shower. Kenzie slowed and then stood still.
“What’s the matter, Kenzie?” I asked, pausing in the hallway.
She turned to me, holding back tears.
“I don’t want to wash the dust off from our trip,” she said.
I gave her a long hug. “Me, either,” I said.
Standing there in the dark, I was reminded of the desert scene a decade earlier. The sky above us, both in the Grand Canyon years earlier and also there that night in Joshua Tree, had a velvety texture that was punctuated with thousands of stars, each star formed from ancient dust.
She had lowered the camera, and the dim glow of the viewfinder briefly illuminated her face before shutting off.
“Do you want to go back now?” I asked.
There was a long silence.
“OK,” she finally said, but she did not move.
“OK,” I answered, standing still.
Neither of us shifted. My feet were anchored to the sandy earth. And as my eyes adjusted, even in the darkness I saw her looking up at the starry night sky, her profile distinct and strong.
Tim Carl is a Napa Valley photojournalist and writer.
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