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Digital Desert Gallery - by Jeff Alu

NOTE: this exhibit appeared in October 2000. Click here to visit the current showcase.

All other exhibits: Click here to access

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El Mirage Dry Lake, CA
I've always been very proud of this picture, not so much for the photo itself, but for the find.  I was driving my jeep around this dry lake, hoping for a decent photo op.   Then I noticed what I thought were ATC riders in the distance.  As I got closer, I noticed they were pylons, and closer still pylons that were hiding huge cracks (actually small "rivers") in the dry lake bed.  Obviously the pylons were to keep riders from colliding with the cracks, which could be disastrous.  I was amazed at the simplicity of these scenes, and the combination of nature and man in a very unique way.  I took about 50 shots, and returned sometime later to take 50 more.   On my third trip, a very stormy day, I was shocked to find that the scene had changed somewhat, which can be seen here.  I Guess the pylons weren't doing the trick!


Mormon Rocks, CA

Every so often the elements of nature seem to come together and present themselves in a way which says, "You don't want to miss this one". For me, this was one of those times.  The clouds are what caught my eye, and if it wasn't for them, I would not have taken the shot.  The way that they seemed to be converging with the shape of the rock, was too inviting.   I thought it might be interesting to add a bird to the picture, so I tried on a few different trips to catch a bird flying through this scene, with no luck.  I did catch one about 1000 feet to the south, but when I combined it into the image, I felt the bird detracted from it.  I've taken this picture a few times without the clouds, at different times of the day, but none of them come close to the impact level of this one.


Dark Fantasy
Obsidian Butte, Southern Salton Sea, CA

This was taken on a very stormy day, and the original raw pic turned out hideous: dark and underexposed.  I decided to try to resurrect it via dodging and burning in Photoshop.   I totally burned out the hills Silhouette style, the bottoms of the clouds, most of the water, then added the bright reflection in the water in front of the hill.  I liked the idea of taking a real place and transforming it into something else.  It also reminds me of a black and white version of "Pirates of the Caribbean", so I thought "Dark Fantasy" was an appropriate name.


Giant Rocks
Giant Rock, Spy Mountain, CA

Giant Rock is supposedly the largest free-standing boulder in the world.  Ayes Rock is not free standing, it is partially (or mostly) buried.  I had just completed a hike/climb of Spy Mountain, which is just to the right of these rocks.  It was a surreal hike, with the sounds of explosions and delayed mushroom clouds in the distance from nearby Naval Weapons Test Center.  It was extremely hot, and after my hike, as I approached Giant Rock from the other side, I noticed something strange.  Was I dazed from the heat?  Was that huge chunk of broken off rock lying underneath Giant Rock there on my last trip to this place?  No, it wasn't.  Since my last trip, a large piece had broken off, which you can see and read about
here. Can't imagine what the sound of this thing falling off must have been like.  Wish I could have been there...



Near Apple Valley, CA
Every so often, only color will do.  I was driving around looking for new photo "stuff" and came across a large field of dead and abandoned trees.   They looked incredibly sad, and diseased.   This particular area of the field reminded me of a few pictures I've seen of Africa, and this in combination with the suffering and bareness of the trees themselves suggested the name.  I think color works here because it emphasizes the fact that suffering is relative, and also that your outlook on life can increase or decrease your level of suffering as well.


Near Apple Valley, CA

This was taken in the same field as the photo above, and I was amazed to see these trees actually leaning on each other.  It reminded me of a battle taking place, and I emphasized this in photoshop by very heavily dodging and burning.  I also burned the horizon line, to emphasize that this is just one small fight taking place on a huge battlefield.  I purposely gave it a little too much contrast, to make it sharp and emphasize the pain.  The final image reminded me of battles I've seen in certain Kurosawa movies.


Fork in the Mud
Near Trona, CA

This is another one of those "find" shots.  I had just spent the day taking pictures in the Landmark, and on my way out, along the road, I stopped to wander around some mud flats.  After about an hour of hiking around and taking a few shots, I came across this "fork in the mud" which made me stop in my tracks.  I think the first impression that I got was that it reminded me of the image when the space shuttle blew up in 1986, after which each solid rocket booster took off in its own direction.   I hope to get a whole series of this shot over time, to see how this fork holds up to mother nature.


Pinnacles National Natural Landmark, CA

This shot was fairly heavily dodged and burned.  There is a great contrast in this area between the darkness of the pinnacles, and the brightness of the surrounding areas.   The roads are often a bright shade of white, and I usually like to bring this out when I can.  This area has never-ending possibilities for interesting camera angles, and lighting effects.  Even near mid-day, when this picture was taken, offers potential for creating a surreal, barren feel.


Pinnacles National Natural Landmark, CA

Another shot taken at Pinnacles, with another one of those great white roads.  This one was taken before dodging and burning was a part of my process, so it's a little more "pure". 


Ocean Waves
Mormon Rocks, CA

I've done lots of photography at Mormon Rocks, and out cropping of rocks caused by movements in the San Andreas Fault.  The rocks are almost right on top of the fault, and are great to hike around.  In this shot, I had just hiked up the side of a large slanted rock (most of the rocks here are VERY slanted) and my legs were just a little unsteady due to the height.  There was a 400 foot vertical drop just to the right, and the left, a small drop which entered into a plain of bush and grass, on top of another huge rock.  The scene in front of my reminded me of a storm at sea, with huge waves rolling by.  Also seems that it could be huge waves in the land, caused by a huge earthquake.



Imperial State Wildlife Refuge, Wister Unit Salton Sea, CA

After touring through this area, on a hot, humid, stormy day, I came across this bird at the side of the road.  I'm not sure how it died, but it was in perfect condition, and in this fossilized position.  I dodged and burned it fairly heavily in photohop, to bring out certain details.


Southern Salton Sea, CA

I was really not that surprised to find these cars stranded in this lake.  The Salton Sea area is one of the strangest mixes of elements I've ever found, farmland bordering on a salty sea, with tons of abandoned buildings, some still occupied, wildlife preserves, dead fish, grassland, salt flats, boiling mud pots, flocks of birds, half buried tires everywhere, dried mud flats, oily mud pits, dust devils, intense humidity, merciless files and insects, and the smells of sulfur, dead fish, wet grass, rotting tree stumps, Del Taco, fresh rain, moisture everywhere.  The heat can be relentless, and this is often one of the hottest areas in the desert.  It is a photographer's paradise.  So, finding these abandoned cars was really pretty routine. 


Step Down
Near Niland, Salton Sea, CA

Drive two miles west of the town of Niland, CA, and come to one of the coolest locations for a photo shoot I've ever found.  I never seen the potential for such a wide variety of shots in one small area.
Here is a Terraserver link to the location.  Doesn't look like much from the aerial, but wait until you get there.  I call the area "Ground Zero" after one of the shots I took there.  This and the next four shots were all taken within 400 feet of each other. 


Mud Pot
Near Niland, Salton Sea, CA

The Salton Sea area is volcanic.  There are a few obsidian hills, Cinder cones in the mountains not too far away, and tons of these Mud Pots.  The mud is not hot, but boils up with a sulfury smell. In this shot, the small white object on the horizon is Mullet Island, a volcanic uprising in the salton sea. 


Near Niland, Salton Sea, CA

This shot was very influenced by one of my favorite photographers,
David Fokos.  This image also sums up the Salton Sea area: strange opposing combinations of elements which somehow merge together to create a coherent whole.



Near Niland, Salton Se, CA

This heavily dodged and burned shot has certain religious implications, so I brought those out further by dodging and burning the sky. 


Long Dune
Algodones Dunes, CA

Dunes have quickly become one of my favorite subjects, not just for the final picture, but for the act of taking them.  Wandering within dunes is a surreal experience, and just about the closest I've ever felt to being completely lost in another world.  It seems there are always clouds in the Algodones area, and it's a challenge to try to isolate them in creative ways with the dunes. 



Snowcapped Mountain
Fish Creek, Anza Borrego Desert State Park, CA

I've always been into fractals, and the idea of repetitive detail at different scales.   So, I felt right at home when I came across this outcropping of sandstone, about six feet across in this shot, which resembled an entire mountain with snow.   


El Mirage Dry Lake, CA

In this heavily dodged and burned shot, I zoomed in on the central area of my first shot above,  "Trimetro". 


Note: For best viewing, set your monitor to High Color or True Color (Thousands or Millions of Colors on MacOS) and 1024x768 pixels. These images have been carefully prepared with a Gamma of 2.2 using the BruceRGB color space. This should work well with high-quality Windows monitors. If you are a MacOS user, set your Adobe Gamma control panel to "Windows Default" or, at the last resort, choose the sRGB calibrated profile in the Color section of your Monitors control panel.

Please note:  All images featured in this showcase are Copyright Jeff Alu, all rights reserved. These images are protected by U.S. and international copyright laws and may not be used or reproduced without permission. For licensing information, or to order prints, please contact Jeff Alu at

About the Exhibit:

This month's PhotoTripUSA Showcase features Guest Photographer Jeff Alu, presenting a collection of  images taken with a digital camera, mostly from the deserts of Southern California.

I would love to hear from you! Please send all comments to my e-mail at:


About the Photographer:

I'm a 3D Artist/Animator who has begun taking black and white photography in an attempt to get back to the basics of light and shadow.  Many of my clients demand high-impact, colorful graphics, which have their place to be sure.   But it can often become overwhelming, and the act of doing black and white photography clears my mind a little. 

My photos tend to be graphic in nature, and I try to look for strong leading lines.  Some have described by photos as "3D", which I suppose comes from doing so much 3D work.  I do allow myself to alter the images in Photoshop, using dodging and burning.  I've found this to be such a great technique for isolating subjects or bringing out emotions.  I didn't dodge and burn at first, but now I do it on every image.

I had my fill of dark room work when I was working at JPL/Palomar Observatory.  We would venture up to Palomar each month for six nights and take pictures of the sky using the 18" Schmidt camera.  We used hypered 4415 film, usually processed about 100 films a night.  We took pairs of films of different areas of the sky with a 40 minute separation.  We would then take a pair of films and look at them under a stereo microscope, trying to detect near-earth asteroids and comets.   It was fun work, but also hard work, and I learned to really hate dark rooms in the process.

My actual shooting technique is for the most part point and click.   The act of photography for me has come out of my love for hiking through the deserts on very hot days.  I drive out to locations in my jeep, and then usually hike in the rest of the way.  I'm not one to wait in one spot for very long, I'm much happier taking pictures while I'm on the move.  Since I've started doing photography, I'm seeing the desert in a new way, and this in turn gives me new ideas about photography.  

I'm usually more interested in finding new areas to photograph, rather than taking pictures in more popular areas.  I think this state of mind dates back to the Palomar days, searching for comets, the thrill of the hunt.  But in this case I'm hunting for new areas, new meanings, new questions.  I feel very satisfied when I find a subject such as "Fork in the Mud", because I know that I had to work for it.  I was searching for "something", and I found something.  Three hours from home, in the middle of nowhere, I found something. It always reminds me how much more there is to see, and how little I've seen.

I want to thank Laurent for giving me the opportunity to show my work in this gallery, I feel very honored to be here!


Equipment Info: I'm using a Kodak DC-280 Digital Camera, and circular polarizing filter.  At this time I don't use a tripod.  I take all of my pictures in color, and convert them to black and white in Photoshop.  I generally convert to black and white via the channel mixer, because it helps to cut down on the graininess of the sky.   Next, I dodge and burn, playing with different contrasts and levels.  After dodging and burning, I always add some unsharp mask, usually with a large radius, and a small amount.  This helps to accentuate certain features in the image and increases the overall impact.  Next, I add another layer of unsharp mask, this time with a very small radius and a larger amount.  This adds a more traditional sharpening to the image.

To see more of my photographs and also my 3D work, please visit my website at AnimAlu Productions.

Find photos of the Colorado Plateau in Land of the Canyons, the Photo Trip USA landscape photography guide book.


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