Julie Shafer – THE WIND OF THE OWENS VALLEY (Inyo County, CA)

There is a smell I can’t get out of my mind. It’s mainly a mixture of developer, fixer, water and plywood. And once you get past that smell you have hints of gorilla tape, metal and plastic sheeting. It is a distinct smell that can’t quite be compared to anything, but I smell it when I pass by the plywood sheets that are the pieces of my camera, and I smell it even when I think hard enough about the smell. Either instance immediately transports me to the back of the U-Haul. It’s kind of like if you stuffed a dozen hardboiled eggs into a bleach-stained towel, and wrapped that in plastic sheeting, and left that in your trunk, in the middle of August for a week. Imagine opening the sheeting and whatever smell you sort of imagine might come out, it’s kind of like that. I have it in my shoes and socks tonight, and it soaked into my hands. No amount of washing takes it away.

JULIE SHAFER, Conquest of Vertical: 600 miles from Eureka!  2012

JULIE SHAFER, Conquest of Vertical: 600 miles from Eureka! 2012

There is a sound I can’t quite get out of my head. There were insanely strong winds today. I am not sure how strong they were, but there were times I thought the container of the U-Haul was going to rip off and my lab and me would go tumbling across the desert. I was able to pick up a radio signal on the drive out to my shooting location in the middle of Owens Dry Lake Bed. The signal ended about 10 miles from where I ended, and just before I traveled beyond that sound wave I heard a voice crackling through the speakers saying strong winds were expected today, with gusts anywhere from 35-50 m.p.h. Then there was nothing but crackling and high-pitched squeaks and squeals coming from the speaker.

For ten hours the wind didn’t let up. It went in ebbs and flows, but it was always present. The whole truck would rattle back and forth, and when a particularly strong gust would come through I could feel the cargo walls, me and my camera brace into the wind, hoping not to buckle. I think since it’s completely dark when I am working the sounds of the desert become amplified. I couldn’t hear anything else, not even my own sounds as I clumsily clanked around in the dark running into tables, and chemistry buckets, and trying to feel my way into my camera, all while the while truck would shake back and forth. I count in my head to know when my developing times are done, and I couldn’t hold my concentration long enough to count to 2 minutes. A strong gust would through, and my attention would switch to waiting out the gust. All I wanted was for the wind to stop, even for 5 minutes, and it never did. All day long I heard howls, and squeals and metal clanging against metal. I couldn’t manufacture a sound to compete.

I noticed I had been holding my breath for long periods of time. I don’t know why other than I was waiting for the wind to die, and it never did. The only way for me to get out of the back of the U-Haul was to yell “O.K.!!!!” and Marya would come running and roll up the cargo door. She’s only on the other side of the wall so it’s never been a problem, except today she had to protect herself from the elements and she sat inside the cab of her truck. My “O.K.s” were swatted away by the wind, and she couldn’t hear me. A few times I was sure she had had enough and left. Each time just before full-blown panic would set in I would scream “O.K.” as loud as I could, and about 10 seconds later I heard the softest crunch, crunch, crunch and didn’t know if I imagined her running to the door, or if it was real. Eventually the door flew up, blinding white light flooded in, and a huge gust came swirling through. I shimmied my camera to the edge of the truck and angled it toward Cerro Gerdo. There were huge dust clouds swirling above Owens Lake. It is still called that even though it is a dried out lake bed. The valley I was shooting in is a man-made dust bowl of toxic dust.

I have become really good at reading light, and I was guessing my exposure was going to be somewhere around 30 minutes. I pushed the camera out as far as I dared, and removed the tape covering the lens to start my exposure. As soon as I did, I saw sand getting sucked into pinhole. Lots, and lots of sand. I heard it pelting the back wall of the camera, which is where my photo paper was pinned. I couldn’t believe it. After all the work I had done setting up the darkroom, and getting the camera loaded I was now going to be outdone by the wind. This print, and any other print I had made were going to be scratched. I wanted to quit. I was barely holding it together as it was, and this just about tipped me over the edge. There was no waiting the wind out. It had been blowing all day, and according to that report was going to be blowing all week. I proceeded, out of principle, but in the back out my mind I envisioned throwing these in the dumpster behind my hotel room.