It was late afternoon and a ferocious wind blew. Whirlwinds swirled and danced before dispersing their sand and alkali debris over the dry lakebed. The bellows on my camera twitched in rhythm with the wind, and minute particles of dust seeped into every crack and crevice. On the horizon, large columns of dust obscured the volcanic rock outcropping. An ephemeral rain shower drizzled onto the playa, each drop exploding in a minute cloud of alkali dust.
The process of making these photographs has become for me a journey of rediscovery. Having spent more than fifteen years traveling into the Black Rock, I have come to realize that this arid, often inhospitable, and unforgiving landscape possesses a character both spiritual and sublime. As visitors heading for the annual Burning Man soon discover, it is a land of contradictions that often defy description. The sound of quiet can be deafening. When the winds blow and the dust storms grow, even the most experienced traveler can become disoriented. Distances are deceiving as human scale becomes obscured and unpredictable. The smell of sage and hot-springs sulfur are woven together. The dirt roads are laden with silken dust; combined with water, they turn into quagmires of grease-like mud. The rocks are sharp and rough, yet in the soft evening light the distant hills appear covered with velvet. At any moment, there may not be one person within ten square miles, yet every step reveals human history. Mirages are common, and nothing really is what it seems. This is a landscape defined by the image and absence of water.
Black Rock is a collaborative book by the celebrated geographer Paul F. Starrs and Peter Goin. It is also a major exhibit: more than twenty years of exploring, photographing, experiencing.
The eight literary essays of this project are elemental. Four are rooted in air, fire, earth, and water. But four more are also the children of a quartet of decidedly different perspectives. One looks from directly overhead, in an orthogonal view. Another is oblique -- from thirty degrees of incline, sighting down, at an angle. Third is a profile view -- at ground level and looking horizontally. But the last look is taken from below the surface of the playa, that great plane of clay and saliniferous deposits, abraded and graded by scouring sand, that makes it such a popular site for rocketeers, four-wheelers, or the children of the Burning Man. As for the elements, in the desert they are everything, especially in this one. Air is the shaper of ventifacts and playa lakes, forming dunes and drifts, chiseling and abrading. Fire -- subterranean, in mantle-based heat that moves mountains, cracks faults, and shapes springs, is all about. Water and earth interact everywhere; true, when water prevails desert disappears; but as much, when earth, or soil, dries, the land is bared.