Blinded by the Bolivian light.

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Posted on July 27, 2015

The extinct volcano Tunupa The extinct volcano Tunupa

The land climbs abruptly away from the flat east, up, up, up from the myriad greens via intensely folded valleys to an average height of 4000 breathless metres. And then rapidly returns to being flat again. Up here where the parched earth is peppered with snow-covered volcanoes, thousands of lamas roam unfettered across a vast open space.

I strolled on outcrops shaded by thousand-year-old cacti, ten-metres high, and walked cautiously on lagoon edges to stalk flamingos. The place is a photographers’ dream come true. Rub your eyes, look again, it truly is wondrous.

If Bolivia isn't already on your 'must-see' list then add it, and then shuffle it up to a ‘top five’ position. It is a land of variety and harsh contrasts, split between two wildly different environments. Two thirds of the land-locked country is covered by dense jungle and open savannah. The rest is the Altiplano, or high plain, famed for one huge natural feature, the Salar de Uyuni, a bright-white salt desert covering 10,500 square kilometres (just over 4000 square miles). Going by the usual yardstick, it is half the size of Wales.

The salt hexagons on the Salar de Uyuni The salt hexagons on the Salar de Uyuni

A colossal 19 billion tons of salt are estimated to be locked up in this dry reservoir, stacked to 125 metres at its deepest point. Apparently NASA astronauts use it as one of their global way-markers as they hurtle leisurely around the planet. A bit more exotic perhaps than the Easyjet pilots using the M6 to find their way into Manchester.

A huge area of salt and nothing lives on it. Not a thing.

Impressive though the salt plains undoubtedly are it was a more nebulous aspect of this landscape that captured my thoughts: the quality of the light.

Looking across the salt desert at sunset Looking across the salt desert at sunset

I have been a photographer for longer than I care to remember. I think I was 13 when I clicked the shutter on my first plastic Halina camera and have been hooked ever since. Throughout the years I've gone through countless cameras; worked in a wide variety of fields, from press to advertising, corporate to architectural, settling now with a focus on using it as an art form. I have embraced digital but never lost my passion for film, or my ongoing experimentation with styles, film types and chemical combinations. And one factor has always been constant: I can do zip, zero, without light.

One of the instructors during my learning days as an aspirant photographer with the RAF thirty years ago described trying to work in ultra-low light as, 'shooting a black cat in a coal hole at midnight'. No light: no image. Light is the oxygen of my work, it allows my photographs to live and breathe and to be.

Twin volcanoes in the Sajama National Park Twin volcanoes in the Sajama National Park

Working with light is second nature to a photographer and is one of several crucial elements to consider in making an image. Sometimes I work with it but don’t give it too much thought. But occasionally the light is so extraordinary, so unusual, so pure, that it stops me in my tracks. Such is the case high up on the Altiplano. The spectral quality of the light here stretches way beyond normal boundaries. All cluttering particles that mess with the far away horizon seem to have been sifted through an unseen filter, giving the air a pristine quality.

As I stood gazing across the flat white salt-land, my guide Juan pointed to the silhouette of a distant peak and asked me how far away I thought it was. I took in the featureless void and took a stab at 15 miles. It's closer to 50 said Juan. Out here perspectives are shifted and the normal rules of light seem to be bent. Bent by a long way. Standing, surrounded by salt, with only a distant rim of brown volcanoes tentatively gripping its edges, I was aware of an arc of blue extending further than the 180 degrees that I knew to be possible. The play on light creates more than just sky, this is sky-plus.

Lama tracks across the salt desert. Lama tracks across the salt desert.

At the very edge of the salt plains I crossed from the lifeless, white desert onto the barely survivable arid 'island' of Incawasi, in the transitional zone where earth meets salt. Sat in the rear of the 4WD I was mesmerised, almost hypnotised, by the changing colours of the fading light, perhaps more easily because of my tiredness. It had been a long day. In the chilled dark of early morning I had set off to climb to 5000 metres and peer into the  lunar-like caldera of the extinct volcano Tunupa. Now, many hours later, my body and mind were drained. Beyond the dust-streaked windows the sinking sun left a graded horizon of violets, purples, oranges. Suddenly a huge bird, possibly an eagle, broke from the gloom and rose into the evening light. For one single second it held a perfect silhouette against the warm spectrum. My camera was nowhere near me.

Sometimes the best photographs are the ones that we don't or cannot take, the ones that are forever held within the blink of our minds.

We cannot see light, we notice it only by its absence. And it is during the sunless and moonless dark that another of the wonders of the Altiplano becomes evident: the best night skies I have ever witnessed anywhere in the world. Another good reason to go see Bolivia for yourself.

The night sky from the salt desert with the Milky Way very prominent The night sky from the salt desert with the Milky Way very prominent

Rob has just returned from a three week trip to Bolivia where he has been leading a group of 17-18 year olds. Despite having been to Bolivia twice before, this trip exceeded all his expectations. Rob shot well over a thousand digital images and – in between leader duties - managed to make 19 monochrome plates on his large format camera, images that will only reveal themselves when he develops them in the darkroom.


I was in Bolivia leading this trek for KE Adventure Travel - Salt Plains and Volcanoes of Bolivia trek
Brilliant advice on using your camera to shoot the night sky by photographer friend Stuart Holmes can be found by following the link to his Fotovue website here

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