Watching the changing fo the light all around us

It’s strange how a quick series of photos, done with no prior thought or consideration, suddenly changes your perception of a particular moment.


I was out along a main farm road in Marana Friday night shooting the sunset and the twilight glow that followed. My camera faced west. Behind me I could hear the swoosh of passing traffic.

Immediately in front of my tripod was a concrete irrigation trough about two feet wide, partially clogged with sticks and small debris. Some scrub brush had taken root along portions of its length parallel to the highway.

Step over the concrete and there was an expanse of dried, cracked mud from where water had pooled a few days before, then dried. It still bore marks of farming equipment that passed over it was it was still capable of holding form.

Beyond it, the fresh sprout of a new crop formed a green carpet like a putting green in bands parallel to the horizon as far as one could see. And beyond that, mountains in silhouette made stark by the glowing color gradient sky above.

I shot through the sunset and well into the twilight, hoping the moon would drop to the horizon quickly enough to put it in frame with the mountains in a bigger way. Unfortunately, I was a day or two late in the lunar cycle and couldn’t get that sky dance the way I’d hoped.

Had I stopped and shot this location when I first saw it, on my way back from shooting a performance by Ballet Folklorico Xochitl at Marana High School earlier in the week, I’d likely have gotten it and more. It was just after sunset then too. The standing water was reflecting the glowing horizon to the west in a curious oblong shape. I slowed slightly and looked at it, taking note of its location and that of the curving section of power lines just to the north of the pooled water. It would guide me back I thought. And it did.

But on the night when I first spotted the vantage point I was leading a friend in a separate vehicle back to the highway from the school, and while loaded for bear with cameras, I didn’t want to cause a delay for them. Besides which I had offered to help unload the heavy dresses from the event. And I was anxious to look at the photos I’d taken prior to the dance event in the nearby Ironwood Forest National Monument.

The following night I was shooting another key element for my film, The Mariachi Miracle. Each year the rehearsals for graduation become a welcoming ritual for the new recruits who will join Pueblo High’s acclaimed Mariachi Aztlán. Not one of hazing but one of nurturing where the new recruits are joined by outgoing seniors and other elements of the group to share a bit of technical information, get to know them better as people and generally welcome them into the fold. Then the following week they join the non-graduating members in playing the all-important Pomp and Circumstance and Las Golondrinas, as well as other tunes, at graduation. The mariachi is a strong symbol of pride and culture at the school. It is a beautiful tradition and one that in no way diminishes Pueblo’s other outstanding music programs.

Bathed in another sunset glow, I grabbed my gear in the parking lot on the night of the Aztlán rehearsal and noticed that the fingernail moon that follows the new moon was close to the horizon at this time of day. And so I determined that the following night I would return to Marana and shoot.

Looking back toward Tucson

Looking back toward Tucson

Flash forwarding to the end of my shoot in Marana I was about to pull the camera from the tripod, pack up and head home when I turned around to see that the glow of lights from Tucson had made a faint silhouette of the northern end of the Tucson Mountains. I thought, “I should get a shot of this.” So I boosted the ISO slightly, adjusted the shutter speed to compensate for the darkness and took a shot.

The first exposure was a little dark so I set the shutter to stay open for a few seconds longer. And thus began a quick dance of lowering the ISO slightly, extending the time the shutter would stay open and setting the stage for light trails of passing vehicles.

I’d somehow forgotten to bring a cable release for the shoot to steady the shot, so I had the camera on its timer which opened the shutter after a ten-second delay from the moment I hit the shutter release. I watch the very sparse traffic approach and estimated roughly how long it might take the vehicle or vehicles to come into frame.

Sometimes the shutter was open through the entire pass, sometimes through only part of it. Sometimes several vehicles passed through while the shutter was open. And sometimes they came through the shot from different directions leaving red and white streaks depending on whether it was the headlights or taillights that were captured. And once a truck with a pale blue light on the cab came through and left a different band of light above the red and white glowing streaks.

I didn’t take a lot of shots. I spun the camera back around to get final shots of both the western sunset horizon and one more of the southeast view that created traffic streaks over Wasson Peak, then put the lens cap back on, removed the camera from the tripod, and started stowing the gear.

I’d shot time-lapse images of passing cars before, so I knew what this might look like. But as I drove that long expanse of dark road that connects Avra Valley with Interstate 10 to head home, I was already thinking of the deeper meaning of that chance capture.

As we pass by in our cars without thought to our surroundings in the dark, perhaps listening to music or talking with friends in the vehicle, we leave behind an aura of our passing – impossibly faint and indistinct –  in the warm night air. We leave a trace of our thoughts and intentions. The brightness of our streaks is determined by our haste to get somewhere. Tangled within are our emotions and the jumble of thoughts that cloud our experience of being in the moment.

Had I not turned around before taking the camera from its mount I likely would have missed it. I am my own cloud of conditions, memories and perceptions. My mind is generating its own narrative of birds and bats over the fields flying through the twilight sky in front of me, an ultralight that buzzed overhead at sundown, the ground and air traffic in the distance, and the glow growing fainter on the horizon.

My shoes sunk into the dirt unpredictably as I descended the slight slope toward my car, the soil in some places turned to a fine powder by local cousins of prairie dogs. My movements were intentional, to keep my balance and to avoid being run down on the dark stretch of highway. But the traffic was pretty sparse, so that worry was a faint one.

I turned the key, steered onto the road, and became another streak in the night.

~ by Daniel Buckley on May 22, 2018.

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