It all began seven years ago when I was asked to act as a location scout for a big international production. Armed with my catalogue of about 500 panoramic images at that time (700 now after about 15 years of capturing the African landscape) we set out to scout the most incredible locations.
I fixed it in my mind that somehow, someday I would return to this area and photograph it. An emotional rollercoaster of awe and frustration lay ahead. Awe at seeing endless pristine landscapes and frustration in knowing that I had only 13 days access and there was another 700km of coastline ahead. Today I spend as much time as necessary at any potential site, I will usually allocate about 2 months to a trip with no amount of images in mind, but this was different, I had to abandon image after image in the hope of getting something better the next day. It is now 5 richly rewarding years later and I have no regrets over giving up a 20 year career in commercial photography.
In my formative years as a landscape photographer I had tried to cover as wide an area as possible in a country but experience has taught me to choose a more specific area and to delve deeper into the unfamiliar wilderness, to go beyond the familiar sites seen from the tracks we drive. Spotting a welwitschia 200m from the beaten track is way too far to walk so Mr. Average veers off the track to uncaringly drive a circle around the fossil plant, admiring it fleetingly and then leaving a ruined landscape behind. I will always walk, often several times and for many kilometers, with my extensive equipment to where the landscape is still pristine.
Namibia, with its wide open spaces, graphically stark landscapes, muted colors and vibrant textures is every landscape photographers dream. On this trip my first site was in the Messum crater filled with it’s beautiful welwitschias, I proceeded to scout the area. Upon spotting anything of interest I will leave the car behind and armed with water, a compass and the viewers of the my 3 different lenses, 90mm, 180mm, and 300mm, I set out into the sun. I will have already determined exactly the degrees where the sun rises or sets, and at what time. After finding the right point of interest and an awe inspiring backdrop I determine the atmosphere that I want to create. I spend hours sitting at the site, looking, reaffirming and visualizing the outcome. Without visualizing the end product there is no shot. Later, back at the Cruiser I will set up camp just off the track and there I will stay until I am happy with the outcome of the shoot.
For me it is still very important to be an artist in the bush. The scene will be scrutinized to avoid errors. In many ways I am a director, my task, an elaborate staging of events. If necessary (and possible) I will sometimes add an object to enhance the composition of an image. With my directing done comes the most important ingredient – light, everything is about light. I make use of filters to suppress contrast so that the image will be within the films contrast range and as the eye would have seen it. If necessary I will add reflective boards during a daytime shoot and artificial light during the evening shots. One has to train ones eyes to recognize and see light because the human brain has the capacity to bring different colors back to neutral light so that we might miss the subtle magenta of the evening light or the deep boorish blue of the thunderstorm.
When dealing with available light time is always an issue. With the close-up image of the welwitschia I had a window of 20 minutes to shoot. The setting suns position was determined earlier that day and 12 reflective boards were positioned. The waiting is excruciatingly long and the actual shoot quick and intense. The sunlight plays quickly across the boards as it sets in the west. After every 4 shots I readjust the boards to their optimum position – rehearsed chaos, a dance with the light. Soon the setting sun disappears behind the horizon leaving behind a constant, growing desert wind. I wrap up quickly and return to the sanctuary of the Cruiser to avoid getting disorientated in the total darkness. Sometimes I leave all the equipment on site until the next day.
With Messum crater behind me I moved over to a remote area near the Ugab River. Walking endless kilometers day after day I was humbled by this awesome yet fragile region. Every day erosive sand winds, intense heat and then extreme cold chip away and tear down rocks to thin compacted layers that disintegrate at your touch. Even walking, I had to take care not to destroy a potential photograph. After 5 long days of working this desolate landscape I made a chilling discovery - both the main and backup car batteries were drained. The disparaging clicking sound when turning the ignition was damning evidence of the lack of any power. I decided to leave the problem for the next day after my early morning shoot.
First I cleaned the poles of the batteries and left them in the blistering sun with the hope that they might charge a little but this was of no help. Next I tried to jump start the car by jacking it up, pulling ropes around the wheels and spinning them, but I soon realized that you need another person to put it in gear when the wheels are spinning. In this remote region I was far from any help and fast becoming desperate, my last option was to built a ramp high enough to let the Cruiser run down and try start it that way. Jacking up the car onto the first 2 or 3 rocks was relatively easy but to go high enough for the momentum necessary to start the car was daunting. As much as I needed to raise the wheels, I needed to build a stable platform for the jack too, one incorrectly placed rock and I was sure it would all come toppling down on me. The rocks need to get bigger, flatter and more! By the end of that day I had also finished digging off at least 4 meters of sand in front of the car to extend the run off. My structure was in place, I was physically ready to give this grand plan a try, but mentally, inside I was frozen, terrified. I was afraid my last hope plan would be a failure. I resigned myself, put my trust in the Lord. Funny what we consider important when in distress, I suddenly realized that I needed a wash, desperately, but that could only be done if the Cruiser would start. I couldn’t waste any water.
It was like starting a jet - handbrake secure, ignition on, 3rd gear, foot on the clutch, foot on the brake. A deep breath and a last prayer then release the handbrake, foot off the brake and then she began to ebb forward and gain momentum. The time was right, a quick release on the clutch and … nothing, then foot on the clutch again, please! Release again! And then the sound of freedom rang out in my ears! A car engine never sounded so sweet, it was one of the happiest moments of my life. I thanked the Lord from the depth of my heart and parked on a steep bank for the night. Before dawn I left for Swakopmund, a journey of 225km to buy a new battery. I returned to the site after 2 days and stayed there for another week to complete the shoot.
It’s funny, that has always been the only fixation that would trouble me while on a trip, the car not starting, and truly the Bible says that whatever you fear will come over you. I will never speak out that fear again - and always keep the batteries fully charged!