Covering 275 square miles of the Chihuahuan Desert in southern New Mexico, White Sands is the largest gypsum dune field on the planet. Designated on December 20, 2019, White Sands National Park incorporates about 41 percent of the dune field, with White Sands Missile Range encompassing the remainder. Runoff from the surrounding mountains transported dissolved gypsum into the Tularosa Basin, where gypsum crystals grew in mass quantities. Over time, the crystals weathered into sand-size grains and were deposited by the prevailing southwest winds to form the snow-white dune field.
Perhaps more impressive than its geomorphological history is the park’s archeological history. Human footprints were recently found in White Sands National Park that date back to 23,000 years, suggesting humans lived in the Americas several thousand years earlier than previously thought.
Before I knew about the history of White Sands, I saw a photograph of the unworldly white gypsum sands at White Sands National Monument, and I knew I had to go see it for myself. That time arrived on December 27, 2019, a week after its national park designation. As I drove into southern New Mexico, it was a nice day as I imagined how I’d capture the white dune field with yucca in the foreground, ripples of sand leading deeper into the scene toward the setting sun and cool mountains. But when I arrived, it became clear that I’d have to rethink my intentions, since a strong breeze and storm clouds were rolling in. By the time I got out in search of my composition, the opaque sun was low on the horizon, and the wind was gale force. I was in a sandstorm.
A bit deflated by how my shoot was unfolding, I waited for sunset to see what I could salvage. A stroke of luck happened before sunset as the sun found a hole in the clouds to the southwest and brilliantly highlighted the suspended sand blowing high above the dunes.
I knew a tripod would be futile in the 50-plus-mile-per-hour winds, so I pulled up my telephoto lens and began searching for a composition. I spotted a couple of hikers in the distance pausing at the top of a prominent dune. Normally, I don’t include human subjects in landscapes, but I was delighted to see them silhouetted against the sand-shrouded sunlight and how they portrayed their relative insignificance within the vast, turbulent dunescape. I set my exposure to freeze the blowing sand and clicked once. Happy with the capture after a brief inspection, I pulled up again to view one of the individuals dropping their day pack and pulling out what appeared to be a map. After another click, the sun eclipsed the horizon, and the show was over.
I remember feeling the raw essence of the storm as I tried to stand steady for a shot, the feeling of the sand exfoliating my exposed skin, and observing the vulnerability of the hikers who may have been caught off guard during the storm with the setting sun. I wanted to express the primal vulnerability of the hikers as they were navigating a sandstorm as the paleo humans did in the white sands 23,000 years ago. I achieved this expression with modest adjustments in tones and white balance while retaining my vision and feelings when I viewed the scene through the lens. OP
Sony a7R II, Sony FE 24-240mm F3.5-6.3 OSS at 240mm. Exposure: 1/3200 sec., ƒ/11, ISO 640.
See more of Brent Newman’s work at brentnewman.photography.