White Sands in Southern New Mexico is off the beaten path. You have to know the sand dunes exist and then you must make an effort to get there. You’ve seen the sea of white in movies, music videos, and ad campaigns. You may have even seen Brad Pitt’s painful looking photo shoot in GQ Magazine accompanying his redemption article after his split from Angeline Jolie. If you did see the article, I’m sorry this could have been your introduction to a landscape larger than Brad will ever be.
White Sands always fascinated me on the ground. I often found myself amongst the dunes when I needed to clear my head, understand the world or to simply take a deep breath. Someone once told me White Sands touches my soul and I believe this to be true. The landscape is unforgiving and what seems to be endless waves of white sand dunes amongst the brown Chihuahua Desert in the Tularosa Basin. There is a purity to the white gypsum sand accentuated by the Sacramento Mountain range in the background.
If you allow it to be true, White Sands brings balance and understanding to an otherwise nonsensical world. Everything seems to come together and make sense at White Sands. We need this today, don’t we?
As I was preparing for my book, “El Paso 120: Edge of the Southwest,” I visualized a variety of unique perspectives to photograph this beautiful southwestern landscape. I’d also visit the area at various times of the day for different lighting situations. The images I captured were pleasing enough though my mind kept wandering until I decided aerial images of the landscape must be brilliant. I didn’t know for sure since I had only seen White Sands from a long distance when landing at El Paso’s airport.
So, I asked around. I knew a pilot who flew me around West Texas on a number of occasions. Each time we’d fly I’d ask, “Suzie, can you fly me over White Sands?” “Oh, I don’t know Mark,” she’d reply, “White Sands sits under protected airspace. We’ll get shot down if I fly us over there.” Sometimes a gentleman can be persistent, and I am. After about the fifth time I asked, Suzie, told me she thought she knew someone who could help. “I’ll call him,” she said.
I didn’t hear more about the possibility of a flight until a few days later when a strange New Mexico phone number popped up on my phone. It was Kevin who, with a jovial tone, said, “Hey man, I hear you want a ride over White Sands. When do you want to fly?” I’m sure I had the biggest smile possible hearing those words, and it took a bit for me to get my answer out. “How about tomorrow?” Kevin just chuckled. He told me I had to wait as there is a process to go through to be considered for such a flight. He told me to be patient and he would keep me up to date on the progress.
After a year of waiting for security clearance, I had the incredible opportunity to fly over White Sands in Southern New Mexico. The airspace around White Sands is protected due to the nearby military base. The journey included me and Kevin, the pilot. Kevin asked if I was up for a bit of adventure and when I said yes, he took off the door of the plane and put a harness on me then secured me to the inside of the plane. Yes, I not only got to fly over the dunes I love so much, but I also got to hang out of the plane and over the incredible landscape.
Being above and hanging out of a plane with a camera tightly held in my hands offered an entirely new perspective. My awe stepped up into the stratosphere. The experience was more than I ever could have visualized. As the sun rose, the mountains glowed and the sand crystals glistened like I had never seen before. I got to see the desert floor come to life that morning. Quite honestly, I didn’t want to land.
My appreciation for White Sands National Park grew to new heights that morning. My appreciation for my pilot, Kevin, is even greater.
Some of the aerial images are included in my book – “El Paso 120: Edge of the Southwest.” For the first time, you can view more of these images right here on the blog and art photography store.
Destination: White Sands National Park