Posted by: Brad Nixon | March 8, 2017

Joshua Tree NP. Pictures Are Not the World

I have two things to say about a recent visit to Joshua Tree National Park. First, some photographs I shot there.

I made images so wide that all detail is lost in the vast expanse …

Joshua Tree pano Brad Nixon (640x181)

… and so close-up that I have to explain what it is.

Joshua Tree Brad Nixon 6219 (640x480)

(the texture of a granite boulder)

I stopped the car and shot out the window …

Joshua Tree Brad Nixon 6220 (640x480)

… I hiked trails …

Joshua Tree Brad Nixon 6226 (640x471)

… I walked up one of the highest peaks in the park, Ryan Mountain, and photographed the desert below.

Joshua Tree Brad Nixon 6188 (640x473)

One afternoon we hurried across the miles to catch the Cholla Cactus Garden backlit by the setting sun.

Joshua Tree Brad Nixon 6272 (640x480)

The next day at sunset we watched a climber (circled) race the advancing shadow of a mountain up a cliff …

Joshua Tree Brad Nixon 6316 (640x480)

Then we drove to Keys View to catch the sun setting beyond the peak of San Jacinto Peak (10,834′, left) and Mt. San Gorgonio (11,503′), the Coachella Valley in shadow a few thousand feet below.

Joshua Tree Brad Nixon 6339 (640x480)

Later, in nearly full darkness, The Counselor and I walked a trail as the temperature dropped into the low 40s, hoping we’d encounter some nocturnal wildlife: jackrabbits, cottontails, maybe a bobcat (preferably not a mountain lion). There was one bright planet, but also stars innumerable, winking in the violet sky, beyond the ability of my camera or skill to capture them.

Joshua Tree Brad Nixon 1 (640x478)

Those photographs represent the things I want to say.

First, Joshua Tree National Park is an extremely large and diverse landscape, spanning elevations from near sea level to 6,000 feet. The largest portion lies in the Mojave Desert, while another is in the Colorado Desert, part of the Sonoran Desert. It is beautiful, as all wild places are. Much of it, in fact, is genuine wilderness, but you can spend many days exploring it without the need for backcountry hiking. Further, the landscape, vegetation and wildlife you’ll find vary greatly depending on the time of day or season of the year. It’s impossible to imagine exhausting the marvels of the place. Go if you can.

Joshua Tree Brad Nixon 6089 (640x480)

Second, trying to convey the richness of the world in any number of photographs — however well-planned, expertly composed and adroitly shot — is an impossible task. When we point our cameras, we are — inevitably — selecting, framing and limiting what we see, without the full range of vision, the scope of all our senses, the ineluctable ability of the human mind to synthesize it into the experience of being there.

Joshua Tree Brad Nixon 6127 (480x640)

A photograph is a two-dimensional mechanical representation of a portion of something I see. However careful, skilled and flat-out lucky I am, I don’t truly capture the world. I can’t put you in the scene, standing on the gravelly, eroded granite of a stream bed, making the hour-long walk up a mountain, standing still to hear the wind blow and feel the temperature drop as evening falls. I show only a slice, not the landscape spreading in all directions as the sky deepens to azure, viridian, purple and, finally, blackness full of stars.

We can only go to see the desert light, feel the warmth of a stone heated by the sun, hear the wind and walk there, whenever we can. If someone decides that money for preserving wilderness lands or green space or a neighborhood park needs to be spent on mining or logging or development or waging war, tell them what you think of that idea. Do not let them take the world, because it doesn’t belong to them. We belong to it. If they take it, there will be only pictures of extinct animals and lost landscapes. Pictures are not the world. It — and we — would be lost.

Full resolution versions of some photographs in this post and select images from Under Western Skies are available on CLICK HERE to view the Underawesternsky image portfolio.

© Brad Nixon 2017, 2018


  1. Another great post and beautiful pictures! I also think we should preserve our earthly heritage.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I’m going to rain on your parade and your beautiful pictures.

    In the altruistic sense, what you say is quite true. Now, let’s talk reality. How’s that Dakota Access Pipeline, trespassing across Native American sovereign land, working out for the preservationists and the native property owners?

    My advice: see natural beauty while you can. It won’t be here for your grandchildren. Our political leaders are more interested in getting reelected than in noble or just causes. And to that end, they will be guided by the powerful monied interests that contribute to their campaigns. Need another example? Try the climate change deniers who represent over 60% of the U.S. Congress, not to mention the overwhelming majority of state legislatures. Good luck, citizens. You will need all you can get.


    • Those are facts. We don’t have to accept points of view, and I’ll push back.


  3. Definitely a place I am going to revisit when I come back to Cali. No doubt about it. Seeing these awesome images of yours even makes my feet itch even more. That’s how I feel with my pictures. No matter how much others say how good my pictures are, I sometimes just wanna reply back that the pictures don’t even measure to the actual views and even more the actual feeling than what is being shown digitally. It’s good that I’ve been there so I know how immeasurable those rocks really are, literally and figuratively. 😉


  4. Nevertheless, your photographs are very expressive. My favorite ones are the shots of cliffs. Similar to the cliffs of Cappadocia in Turkey.


    • Thank you. Humbling and appreciated.


      • Pictures may not be the same as being there. BUT, if you HAVE been there, pictures can take your mind back to where you once were. And that is very close to being there. Oui, Marcel?


      • If I answer as “Marcel,” this is going to be a LONG reply. Mais oui.


  5. Beautiful photos ✨✨✨


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