Greer Rochford, Contact Sheet of Death Valley CA, 2014.
In August 2012 I left Sydney for Death Valley National Park in California. Death Valley has always been considered ‘a land of extremes’.1 It has been the subject of films and the site of struggle; people have died there. You are warned upon entering Death Valley to ‘stock up’ on fuel, water, and food. It is extremely hot. It has one of the hottest ever-recorded temperatures on earth at almost 57 degrees Celsius and is 86 metres below sea level. To enter, you leave the safety of the everyday, the gas stations and the truck stops, and enter into a place of perceived terror. I entered Death Valley early one morning before the sun came up. The plan was to get to Zabriskie Point for sunrise and then to Badwater Basin before the temperature rose above 45. My sister was driving and I was gazing out of the car window, watching, as the sky gradually grew brighter, rays peeking through the tops of the Funeral Mountains. Suddenly I felt the car slowing down and faced my attention on the road ahead. We were approaching a t-intersection with a road sign with two arrows, one pointing left and one pointing right. I was in the middle of nowhere, in the desert, disconnected, and here was this marker telling me there was no way forward. It was left or right. Past or future, and I was in the middle. There was a sense of foreboding, as though this was the point of no return. I got out of the car and stood in the middle of the road. I was grounded again. I was both conquering this space and losing myself.
To be the one who leaves was a performance in conquering and loss. My partner Grace and I created an impossible map by sticking together old ones collected from the National Geographic magazines. The map was placed on the gallery floor, the audience gathered around as Grace and I traced paths from one end to the other, meeting somewhere close to the middle, not quite crossing, through the arctic, North America, India, Mongolia. We made an impossible journey and replaced a desire, a longing to leave, with mapping.
There is something to be said of the kind of desire one has to leave. To leave can be to lose, to gain, to become lost, to walk blindly or to see something in hindsight. As a photographer my desire to leave comes from seeking a particular time-experience. To borrow from Walter Benjamin it is a desire for Jetzeit, literally translated, now-time. Photography is my medium. It is as much a medium to me as traveling. When I travel, the opportunity for arrival is constant and I revel in the unknown. When I take away familiarity, I am left with, or rather I am faced with, a new set of circumstances and the sudden ability to notice incongruous details that perhaps before always ‘haunted the common aspect of my existence’.2 What becomes grounding in these moments of flight, are those things that ‘tend towards the eternal’.3 Perhaps though, it is more about the heightened sense of departure that I get before I leave. That is the golden element, the heart of the system. The before is the conscious part of leaving. If I leave my everyday surroundings, if I leave my home, my friends, my family or my lover, I am lifted and propelled forward. This is synonymous to the act of taking a photograph, especially one from which I cannot immediately gain reflection, is in every sense, a departure, a death, and a loss. To see the world through a lens to point and focus, step this way and that way, bend down, and sigh. Click. When one clicks the shutter of the camera, though sometimes this may be as short as two thousandths of a second, there is simultaneous acknowledgement of the present and of its passing. Click when I leave, release when I come home. The one who leaves purposefully seeks glimpses of the present in this manner. It is not just the act of taking the photograph, which includes the leaving, arrival, departure and arrival again, but the images produced, that speak of loss, of catalogued points in time. It is a mapping of ones own narrative that becomes more complex whilst remaining, always already, everyday.
To understand the everyday, I must change the physicality of the everyday. I must become lost and proceed to find what comes next without really trying, relying on my subconscious. No agenda, no time, no map. Nights alone in constant anticipation, of tomorrow, of today, of yesterday. Yesterdays thoughts of tomorrow and today, until time becomes the constant and everything blurs into an eternal experience. Continuous moments of arrival upon vistas, thoughts of seeing something for the first time, so swiftly replaced by ones of seeing something for the last time. This is melancholia, this is nostalgia. I remember as a child, I would sometimes observe objects, or perhaps a gesture. A red traffic light, a leaf on the ground, a man hailing a taxi. These images I recall with such ease, and though they may be deemed as ordinary and mundane, they stick in the fabric of my mind as points of departure and appear to me with greater ease than moments that would seem now to outweigh their significance.
I was in the process of going through my Gran’s house a few weeks after she had died, tracing my fingers down the spines of National Geographic magazines; July 1982, January 1984, Alaska, acid rain. I took one volume off the shelf and held it by the spine, I shook the pages to see if a map would fall out. I watched as a map of Islands in the pacific fell to the floor, and imagined a leaving, that was as swift and gentle as this.
1. Polazzo, Robert. Death Valley. Arcadia Publishing, Chicago 2008. pg 7
2. Auge, Marc. Oblivion. University of Minnesota Press, 2004. pg21
3. Cesare Pavese- “Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.”
Greer Rochford was born in Sydney, Australia in 1984. She studied photography, communications and journalism before undertaking a Bachelor of Visual Arts majoring in photography....