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Shadows and Shapess of Sand - Portfolio Published in Lenswork  

LW145 - Duane Birkey.jpg

The Great Sand Dunes National Park in southern Colorado encompasses nearly 170 square miles, with 30 square miles alone covered in dunes. Located high in the Rocky Mountains, this cluster of dunes rises as much as 750 feet above the valley floor. The dunes are set in front of a spectacular backdrop of the rugged Sangre de Cristo Mountains, which are especially striking when capped with snow.


One might think of the desert as a place of solitude, however, the Great Sand Dunes National Park is anything but — since it hosted nearly half a million visitors in 2018. Outdoor enthusiasts come to camp, play in the stream and the sand, hike up the dunes, and surf or sled down. So if one wants solitude, to think, or be alone (or take pictures without footprints), one needs to hike in a bit. No small task!


I first photographed the Great Sand Dunes National Park in 2014. I hadn’t actually intended to go there that day, and was not planning to climb to the top of the dunes — especially since the valley itself was filled with smoke from brush fires. But since I was already there, I figured, why not? The hike up the dunes was agonizing. The sand was particularly soft and I was carrying 12 pounds of camera gear. I’m certain this is where the saying, “Two steps forward, one step back” originated.


Not anticipating this little foray, I also did not bring water — not a wise decision in the desert.  A single can of Coke Zero would be my reward at the top. After climbing for about an hour, I “summited.” While the view was indeed splendid, I was discouraged that clouds had come in and the light was absolutely flat — especially when looking east towards the Sangre de Cristos. Then I turned around. Looking toward the west, the landscape had been completely transformed. Shafts of sunlight were coming through the clouds and I began seeing all of the shapes and forms of the dunes. What had been flat sand now had shape, depth, and dimension. I went from seeing drab landscapes to the abstract forms that I love to photograph. I knew this was the beginning of a wonderful relationship.


For me, these dunes are a place of spiritual experience; a place where I can be alone and reflect on life — past, present, and future. In the dunes, one can focus on the inhospitably of the place, or one can see how plant and animal life manages to thrive in a difficult environment. One can see the darkness of the shadows, or the light that brings life. One can look at the bigger forms of dunes, or the incredible diversity of grains of sand. No two grains alike. And that’s why I love it here. I can contemplate and photograph: two of my favorite experiences in life.  Although now I carry lots of water.

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