Photographing & Exploring the Atacama Desert

desert landscapes landscape photography thoughts Jun 08, 2022

Atacama Desert – Chile May 2022

Arriving at the driest place on earth was as one might imagine.  Dry.  The humidity was 5% and it felt like everywhere you went the landscape was looking to extract from you something very precious to you.  Moisture.  As a photographer I look to extract experiences from the landscape through my camera and my perspectives, so I was willing to selectively leave behind a little of my precious H2o as my body absorbed the dust, sand, and salt that was in the air. 



The normal process of life and the rhythm of the seasons often times means the moisture is extracted from all materials to begin again.  From the mud which begins again as sand only to rework the process again once moisture returns. 

In the words of our Guest Experiences manager at the hotel we were staying.  “Some places refuse to be explained by maps, words or images showing themselves only through experience.” I write extensively about experience.  Believing that life is best appreciated as we lean into and discover first-hand what it not only looks like, but what it feels like by walking the land, discovering scents that are unique to this area, what does the land want to tell you, are you willing to listen?


The Echo Chamber

Often times we find that the acoustics of our lives we tend to reverberate back if we quiet ourselves long enough to listen to the answers to the questions we seek.  For me the rhythm of this scene felt very flowing and like it would echo back what was put in.

One of the limitations I personally have for extended desert exploration is the heat.  I will admit readily that I do not love, tolerate, or seek heat and will go to great lengths to escape.  What did not exist at this altitude was hot temperatures.  We were rarely below 9,000 feet for our entire time in Chile and got as high as 18,500 when we climbed to the top of Mount Toco.  I came to appreciate the remoteness of this landscape even as I admired the beauty.  

The landscape in the Altiplano region of South America is the most extensive high plateau outside of Tibet.   What makes the Altiplano so unique is not just the high altitude, remoteness, or sparse population.  It is also the volcanoes.  Bringing unique colors, remarkable vertical relief, and kaleidoscopes of colors making up a who’s who of the Periodic Table of the Elements. 



Yellows from Sulphur, red from Iron, green from Copper.  The periodic table of the elements is on display in front of your eyes among the high mountains in the Altiplano.

 In a “prior life” I was incredibly obsessed with peak bagging.  To bag a peak was to climb to its tallest point but those that are peak baggers often differ themselves from hikers or even mountain climbers as the obsession runs strong to go bag the next peak, and then the next one.   This obsession for me at one time was fixated on the ultimate goal of climbing Everest.   What I have discovered now is rather than be singularly focused on a one ideal outcome (Reaching the top) I would much rather immerse into the landscape in a more relaxed manner and to find the smaller gifts along the way that I would have dismissed before as I frantically moved towards an obscure goal.


The Mountain of The People

Licancabur literally means the mountain of the people.  A striking view that dominated the skyline from most anywhere within the Atacama.  At 19,404 feet it is a worthy climb and one I would like to do sometime, but not to possess the mountain.  To climb and appreciate what it means to the people, which include me. 

The reasons we choose to travel are as diverse as the people that we are.  Novelty, adventure, excitement are all ones that are typically at the top of peoples lists.   We can find this in the people we meet, the ways in which we explore our surroundings, and most often the attitude we bring into this environment.  Every time I go into the landscape I question “What can I represent in this area that is unique in the way I see this part of the world?”  This doesn’t always mean I need to find a way to create revolutionary images, things that have never been seen before, and can often just simply mean that I document more than create. 



There are 6 species of Flamingos in the world.  3 of which call the Altiplano home.  To see something that has been trivialized as lawn ornaments or Hawaiian shirts in their native and natural place felt like one of those privileges of travel and an honor as a photographer. 

I didn’t need to produce a revolutionary image or manufacture some elaborate story to simply enjoy a creature that looks like it belongs in a Doctor Suess book with its long tail, strange whiskers, and rabbit and squirrel appearance.   The Viscacha


But while the novelty of a Flamingo or whimsical nature of the Viscacha can be a found reminder of the experience, I continue to find I see the most personal connection to the place when I am producing and seeing the landscape in my own ways.  For 2022 it has been interesting as I have wrestled with what side of my photography to embrace.  The grand landscapes or the more intimate scenes?   For the time being I will continue to focus on both as they are both an expression of who I am and what I want my work to represent.


Form Vs Function

How do we see form as part of our images?  How does your brain interact with the different textures within this image? 

What did I find upon closer inspection?  Much like the rest of out lives we look for things that are like experiences we have already had.  So while things could be foreign I could still find things that felt familiar and helped me to establish some relativity or in some cases to help fill in the statement “This reminds me of _____ “  which helps to give us context as photographers of how we might want to capture the scene and as humas to reground us into the realities of still being part of this planet. Many places felt vaguely like places in the desert southwest of the United States and in particular Death Valley in California. 

While other parts of the landscape conjured up feelings from the geyser basins of Yellowstone as we wandered the Tatio Geysers close to the border with Chile. 


Sinew of Blanco

The extremely colorful volcanically charged micro organisms in the Tatio Geyser evokes feelings of tendons and sinew holding the fabric together.

As I travel through the landscape I found those shreds of things that felt familiar but different.  The giant cactus of Chile is not what we are used to calling a Saguro cactus like you would find in the desert landscapes of Arizona but this is Echinopsis atacamensis (cardón)  are related to the Saguro but instead of having as many as 10 arms the Cardon can have almost 100  and grow to even larger sizes. 



The warm waters that flow through this amazing canyon filled with life.

In the end of my time.  It was about finding the unique interplays.   How things worked together in cohesive manners.  


The interplay of the coolness of the water and the warmness of the grass intermixed with the unique lines and textures from the grasses themselves.

 So as I wrapped up my time in Chile, I did not find any magical answers to where and how to focus within my work, a mystical clearing of the skies that showed a clear path.  Rather, I found yet again the ability to be present with the beauty that this world has to offer.  For me, I don’t want to go into the landscape and limit myself to a particular experience.  Rather to remain open to how and what is presented to me and how I can best respond. 


Ligera Oscuro

Light and Dark.  It is impossible for me to ignore the beauty of scenes like this where the drama of the landscape and how it is shaped by the interplay of the light and the dark continues to humble and inspire.


The High Life

Looking into Bolivia from the wetlands of Chile at an altitude of over 14,000 feet you see a surprising variety of life and colors that defy what we have been taught should be expected.

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