Thorn-scapes and Five Lessons

“A ball of daggers” would be a fair description of many agaves, but the natural arrangements are so artful that it’s easy to look past the potential pain and simply admire the abstract design

Job, career, profession.

Hobby, pastime, passion.

Art, science, magic.

Photography can be different things to different people, and its role in a person’s life can certainly change over time.   As I was working on a recent series of images, I asked myself, “What is it to me now?”  The answer wasn’t immediately clear.  I wasn’t planning to sell these images.  The subject matter (thorns) wasn’t wildly popular on 500px. And the main reason I chose it was simply the fact that plants with spikes are plentiful in my environment.  But once I got started, I wanted to keep going.  After a few images it felt like an adventure.  The fun had started.  Now I just needed to figure out what I was supposed to learn from it?

If you can imagine a saguaro cactus as a long neck, then the spines that cover it can be thought of as neck-lace. Intricate patterns woven together to create a delicate, almost jewel-like covering. Although, in the case of saguaros, this dainty lace is actually a formidable defense. Pretty to look at, especially close up, but completely unforgiving of even an accidental touch.

One thing I quickly realized is how this choice of subjects completely separated me from the madness that sometimes engulfs nature photography.  There was no line of photographers three-deep trying to get the same picture of Mesa Arch.  No crowded bridge in Zion National Park.  No dozens of vehicles at White Pocket.  It was just me and usually a single Sonoran Desert succulent.  I could relax and search for pictures with no timeline or deadline.  Exploration isn’t always about traveling significant distances or spending lots of time reaching a destination.  This was still nature photography, but in an easy-to-reach, distraction-free solitude that invited searching for possibilities and finding something new.  Lesson one:  Stop chasing the light and focus on where it might be hiding instead.

A macro lens reveals that each individual saguaro areola is covered with nearly two dozen sharp thorns. The blur inherent with these close-up shots softens the overall appearance to some degree, but don’t get fooled. These spines are sharp and painful even if their abstract presentation seems somewhat benign.

I also soon came to understand that I had failed to fully see the plants I had walked past every day since moving to Tucson.  Their abundance suggested they might be ordinary, I suppose, and who wants to photograph “ordinary,” right?  I had a photographic bias against plants, I think. But that’s changing.  There’s nothing commonplace about common plants anymore, especially here in the deserts of southern Arizona.  There’s beauty in resilience and elegance in adaptation.  The structures that help these plants survive also impart a unique character.  Finding this character with a camera is the challenge.  Discarding previous attitudes helps.   Lesson two:  Don’t ignore ordinary.

The elegance of agaves is undeniable. Symmetry, repetition, and gentle curves. But they’re also pointed, tough, and determined. A true desert survivor that adds grace and style to the landscape.

Possibly one of the more surprising aspects when looking over the images from this thorn-ography project was that, stylistically, they are quite similar to many of my previous sandstone images.  When I lived on the Colorado Plateau, I found it easy to go out to photograph slot canyons, hoodoos, and arches.  These were extraordinary formations and seductively captivating photographic subjects.  However, many times my favorite pictures were just a tiny slice of the larger landscape.  Details and textures probably constitute a majority of my images from that sandstone era.  These thorn-scapes are all about pattern and texture also.  I do love these natural rhythms, and this series of images made me realize that this is maybe my way of visualizing subjects to photograph.  Once I see a pattern, I can start to see a picture.  Lesson three:  It’s easier finding light once you’ve found your style.

Golden Barrel cacti are commonly used in desert landscaping since they’re well-adapted to the dry conditions and don’t require irrigation. Their golden spines provide a colorful focal point. However, this image focuses on the repetitive, abstract nature these spines and not their color. I like the sense that this cactus is able to weave a fabric of thorns across it’s surface.

Processing images is something I enjoy.  I know photographers are supposed to want to be out taking pictures, but crafting an image in Photoshop is also a unique experience for me.  It’s a place where I can have a dialog with the image.  I learn where it wants to go and then find a way to help it get there.  And it teaches me something along the way.  Maybe it’s a new technique in Photoshop.  Maybe a new way to use an old technique.  Or maybe a surprising way of presenting the image that the original capture might not even suggest.  Regardless of what happens, I want to be present for and open to the possibilities.  For this series, all I knew was that I wanted to use monochrome, which accentuates patterns and textures.  As things progressed, I learned a new way to convert to black and white (calculations), new burning and dodging techniques, and received valuable feedback from critiques on  As a result, these images mean more to me now than when I took them.  Lesson four:  Taking the picture is only the beginning.  Developing the image personalizes it.

The color of the saguaro needles changes over time. The newer they are, the whiter they are. Over time, as in years and decades, they change to black. So, the tops of the saguaro trunk and arms are covered in light-colored needles, and bottoms are covered in darker needles. This image, therefore, is of a young saguaro as I was able to photograph white needles along the main trunk while standing next to it. For older saguaros, these spines would have been black, and this would have been a very different picture.

So back to the original question:  What is photography for me now?  While it’s a continuously evolving thing, after this series, I’d say that photography is a meditation.  It’s a way to gain perspective both about the subjects I photograph and my ability to interact with them creatively.  It’s also an opportunity step away from the normal flow of events and focus on a single thing in order to better understand myself and how to be fully present in the moment.  In many ways, I also see this as an experience common to other creative pursuits. I’m not sure there’s a word for it, but photography practiced in this manner seems to provide a way to experience and express a shared humanity.  Lesson five:  We are all photographers, even if we don’t take pictures.