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Dreaming in Death Valley

Dreaming in Death Valley

September 11, 2009
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" Admit it, you're impressed with my thoroughness. "

Death Valley always struck me as a funny name. And when one discovers that this is actually a vacation spot, this dark and foreboding name seems an even stranger choice.

Death Valley isn't exactly the kind of enticing title that you'd think would draw tourists from all over the world. But strangely enough, it does — even with landmarks such as Coffin Canyon and Badwater it still attracts thousands of tourists every year. But I suppose they come for the same reasons I went: the stunning, unparalleled desert landscape.

The only difference is while most people went to shoot nature in its unspoiled beauty, I went there to shoot a naked woman — Aria Giovanni. When I began to consider making the four-hour drive out to an inhospitable terrain to shoot nudes, I knew I would have to make it at least a four-day trip.

And I wanted to make sure I took a model who I knew could handle the conditions, would look good doing it, but most importantly, wouldn't drive me nuts by the end of the shoot. Since Aria has been one of my best friends and roommates for a few years now, I knew she'd be the best choice. Not to mention that she's one of the most beautiful and sexiest models working today.

Ever the overzealous planner, I spent weeks preparing for my trip. I got about six different maps, enough food and water to survive Armageddon, and a shovel. That's right, a shovel. In case our 4x4 truck got stuck in sand in the middle of nowhere. Admit it, you're impressed with my thoroughness.

So four days it was: two for travel, two for shooting. I planned to shoot only at sunrise and sunset; after all, they don't call it Death Valley for nothing. Temperatures can soar above 120 degrees, and I have no desire to get stuck outside in heat like that.

We went in early May, but with global warming, who knows how hot it could get in spring. Luckily, we got the most perfect weather imaginable. The days stayed in the 70s, and the wind didn't pick up too much.

But there were still two reasons I wanted to shoot at sunrise and sunset: primarily because that's when natural light is at it's best, but also because I wanted to avoid tourists. I planned the sunrise shots in areas that I knew were popular, and I prayed that nobody else was crazy enough to be out and about at 6 a.m.

Places like the Devil's Golf Course and the sand dunes could get crowded (well crowded for a desolate place like Death Valley) and I didn't think it was appropriate for Aria to give some unsuspecting schoolchildren their first anatomy lesson.

Sunrise shots meant we had to get up around 4 a.m. Trust me, I was not well loved for that call time. Especially for my husband (the manpower on the trip), who didn't need to be up for an hour-long makeup session, but was still roused by me making sure everyone was awake, and then pacing the room like the bucket of nerves that I was.

But since he is a man and men are brilliantly spatially aware, he always had the truck packed up perfectly before we were ready to go. As long as I continued to keep the multitude of different flavored Pringles coming (did you know they have a pickle flavor now?) he didn't complain. Actually he never complained at all. That man is a saint.

The sand dunes location was the first shoot, at 5:30 a.m. When we arrived, the sun hadn't quite yet risen. We had to hike in for quite a while to get away from the vegetation and the main road. Hiking in deep sand with a two heavy cameras strapped to your back (my still and video cameras) is not fun. Well at least that's what my husband said, who of course was carrying everything.

But once we settled into our spot and the sun finally peeked out from behind the distant mountains, a beautiful golden light washed all over the valley. It was truly a glorious sight, especially with a naked Aria bathed in it.

Afterwards we went back to the motel to sleep for a few more hours. Next was a very long drive out to a ghost town called Leadfield, which was literally in the middle of nowhere. For something to be out in the middle of nowhere in a park that is the middle of nowhere, we're really talking about a remote location.

My husband and I had scouted the place the day before, so we were prepared for the journey — a two-hour drive, most of it through an extremely treacherous road, passable only to sturdy 4x4 vehicles. The road got so narrow in parts, and we went around such hairpin turns at such high elevations, that there were several times I thought we just might die. Luckily my husband was a confident driver as I covered my eyes with my hands and let out frequent panicked shrieks.

But the drive was worth it. We were nestled at the bottom of a mountain in a canyon that was completely deserted and tourist un-friendly. Several collapsed mine shafts dotted the area, as did corrugated tin shacks that had somehow withstood the last hundred years.

I put Aria in a tight red dress, a black hat and veil, and had her carry a parasol. She looked like a woman who had stepped right out of the time this place would have been a thriving community. In fact, it was almost eerie shooting her there. I could see her as a ghost who still haunted the abandoned town leaning out a window, waiting for her husband to come home from the mines.

The next day's sunrise shoot was at the Devil's Golf Course, a dried up lakebed whose salt content formed into large crystals that make it look like a Martian landscape. Of course it was at this perilous location that I wanted Aria to wear latex and towering heels.

Ever the consummate professional, Aria complied — even though to top it off, it was very cold out. The photos I got at that location are probably my favorite — everyone told me not to shoot latex in the desert, but this time I was glad I'm a bad listener. The outfit plus the scenery really made for a beautiful, very alien-looking set.

Again, afterwards we retired to our rooms for more sleep. The next set was the salt flats at sunset, which for some reason we were having a hard time finding. There are many salt flats in Death Valley but we weren't sure which one was the place we'd been recommended to shoot at. The result was driving around frantically looking for the perfect place to shoot, all the while chasing the sun as it began to slip below the horizon.

We found some salt flats, but to be honest I don't think it was the spot we wanted. By that time it had to be good enough, as I'd run out of options. In the end the photos came out amazing, so I wasn't disappointed by my choice.

The drive home the next day was long and quiet; we were all exhausted and anticipating the comforts of home. For me, I was looking forward to a hot bath and sitting down to edit my photos. Nothing makes me happier than leaving the hard work behind me and beautiful photos — the fruits of my labor — before me. Despite its namesake, Death Valley didn't kill me, but instead breathed new life into my work.


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