IN FOCUS: Josh Patterson

Bermudez Projects
Mar 16, 2023 10:26PM

Director's Note: Our new IN FOCUS series connects you with our gallery artists on a more personal level through one-on-one conversations. In this debut, Josh Patterson talks about his art practice, passion for the natural world, and tips for allowing for the unexpected.

Josh Patterson
The Expanse, 2022
Bermudez Projects

Bermudez Projects: I’ve always maintained that what sets your work apart from other photographers is the amount of work you put into getting to unique places to photograph. With that in mind, tell us about your process for taking the photos in “Joshua.”

Josh Patterson: Oh, thank you! Short answer would be: Don't go to the easy places. Everyone has seen roadside shots of Joshua Trees. Because the trees themselves are so charismatic, it's simple to get a "nice" shot just by pulling your car over. But season, the quality of light, and the overall context of the tree in its environment are essential to creating an image that isn't just a pretty picture but tells a story. For this to happen, you must be familiar with these places, so that when interesting conditions occur, you're able to make the most of them. Which is a longwinded way to say it requires foreknowledge.

Where did you take these photos and how hard was it to get to?

The majority of my work takes place in the high country in the western Mojave Desert. The elevations range from 5,000 – 8,000 feet above sea level. It's all backcountry. There is no cell service, no human infrastructure, and typically many miles from any paved road. The roads that do exist are unmaintained dirt roads that historically were used for mining interests. Some can be driven with 2WD but to get to the remote and - to me - interesting locations, 4WD is essential. I tend to base camp and radiate out from that location so, after the driving, my days are spent on foot, which means I'm lugging everything I need to survive … in addition to my camera equipment.

What is the best time to take photographs of Joshua trees?

"Best time" is relative, for sure. I'm looking for dramatic light, inclement weather, and generally trying to avoid full sun - which can be a challenge in the desert, as anyone who's spent time there will know. What that means in terms of convenience is I'm out there when most other people are hunkered down in their houses. The winter images in “Joshua” were shot in January and I was tent camping. Temperatures bottomed out at 15-degrees Fahrenheit during that trip. Preparation and planning are essential on such outings.

Joshua trees look like humans, which is not a unique observation. Did they ever freak you out?

Good question! I've been freaked out many times while out, but I don't think I've ever been unnerved by the trees themselves. I've been stabbed by them numerous times, however. The sound of the wind in them can be a bit eerie at times but just like you get used to all the little noises your house makes over time, the same applies to the desert. The longer you're out there, the more those sounds provide comfort and a sense of belonging. I don't get freaked out very often these days - in fact, I sleep better in the wild than in a house and in close proximity to many other humans.

Josh Patterson
Sentinel, 2022
Bermudez Projects

Explain more about the Joshua trees’ place in nature? What purpose do they serve, and what is lost when they go away? Speaking of, tell me more about which trees will disappear by the end of the next century. And which ones will survive? (Specifically where? Like the ones we see when we drive to Palm Springs or whatever?)

Besides being an iconic emblem of the American Southwest, Joshua Trees (yucca brevifolia) provide food and shelter for many birds, animals, and insects. The trees co-evolved with the yucca moth in one of those marvelous examples of symbiosis we see sometimes in nature. Joshua Trees depend on the moth for fertilization and the moth relies on the subsequent flowering to perpetuate its species, laying their eggs within the flowers. I've also observed loggerhead shrikes using Joshua Tree spines to impale their prey. The shrikes then tear the impaled creature into manageable pieces in gruesome fashion.

Like many desert species, Joshua Trees rely on ideal conditions to flourish. In their case, it's spring rains but equally important, a good winter freeze (which seems incongruous when most think of the desert). As climate change advances and global temperatures creep up, those essential freezes are becoming less common, imperiling trees growing in lowland regions. Joshua Tree National Park is at the southern extent of the species and therefore is most immediately affected by these climatic changes. This is why some scientists predict that if temperatures continue to rise, the park most associated with this tree may lose them entirely by 2100. The colder, high desert locations I frequent could become some of the last holdout populations if climate trends continue unabated.

What do local Native Americans think of Joshua trees? What place, if any, do they have in their beliefs, legends, and stories?

Joshua Trees have played an important role in indigenous life. Their leaves were used for making footwear and baskets, their blossoms and seeds part of a seasonal hunter/gatherer diet. As far as legends and stories, the people who made these regions home had vanished before or shortly after European incursions into California. Unfortunately very little ethnographic information was formally recorded. The archaeological record however does give some indication of the priorities of prehistoric groups in the region. Their art deals mainly with hunting, rain and shamanic traditions, but metates (grinding slicks) and mortars are very common, and were used for processing seeds.

What is your gear? Not just the camera you shoot with, but what kind of truck you use to get to these locations? What kind of tent do you sleep in? How much food and water do you bring? What kind of shoes do you wear, and what kind of coat? What sort of emergency gear do you bring?

I'm a Canon guy. At the moment I'm shooting with a Canon 5D MkIV but I have used multiple iterations of the 5D over the years. Currently I have a 4WD Nissan Frontier; prior to that it was a 2WD which I pushed to its limits at times. As far as sleeping accommodations, when I first started out I slept mainly in the bed of my truck under the stars. When it would get too cold, I'd crawl into the cab for a few hours to get out of the weather. These days, I have a rooftop tent by Tepui which is a night and day upgrade from my early desert days, and is far more comfortable than the driver's seat in bad weather.

With regard to water, the answer would be way more than you estimate you'll go through in a given trip. There are very few sources of water out there and what is there often is fouled by horses and burros. Depending on the length of the trip, I'll take between 14 and 21 gallons of water in addition to miscellaneous bottles and the hydration reservoir in my pack. Food I'll calculate based on the minimum number of meals and roughly double it. I enjoy cooking fresh while I'm out - tastes better than packaged food after a long day. On most trips, I'll prep fresh ingredients and cook stew in a cast iron Dutch oven over an open fire. In cooler seasons, I simply slide the oven under the truck to keep the food cool and reheat the leftovers when I return to camp in the evening. It's all about using the conditions out there to your advantage. Under a vehicle is a decent refrigerator at times!

My gear varies quite a bit. I enjoy experimenting and seeing what works best. The only article I'm picky about is footwear. There aren't many trails out there and the desert is rough on boots. I blew through a pair of Keen’s in a year. I've had Merrell’s, too, but my current go-to boot is the Lowa Renegade. They're a bit more expensive, but really rugged, and the higher boot provides added protection in rough country. As far as outerwear is concerned, I've used the typical puffy insulated jackets but I'm actually partial to wool clothes. Wool is far more durable than synthetic stuff and will keep you warm even it’s wet. The only drawback is the weight, but since I'm base camping, that's rarely an issue for me.

My emergency gear runs the gamut: the most important bit of kit would be my Garmin InReach with satellite capability. With a clear view of the sky, I can summon help if needed, But, depending on the crisis, there's no guarantee Search & Rescue will get there in time. It's not a get-out-jail-free card (as he tells us below). Other equipment revolves around the concept of self-recovery: shovel, air compressor, full-size spare tire, a Fix-a-Flat kit, and a lot more. I also bring a tow strap and the usual jumper cables, etc. Roughly every second trip I end up helping someone else out of a bad time. I dug out two German tourists who'd run off the road and high centered their vehicle, rescued a man with a meth problem who'd panicked and gotten his car stuck, jumped a battery for a guy who'd been waiting two days for someone to come along. Lots of stories of misfortune and bad judgment out there.

Josh Patterson
Desert Idyll, 2022
Bermudez Projects

With that in mind, how risky is the work you do? What sort of precautions do you take? And how worried is your wife every time you go out?

I might sound like a broken record, but risk is relative. Honestly, you're the biggest threat to your safety out there. You will live and die by your own decisions. As I mentioned above, water is the most essential component if things go sideways and you need to wait for help to arrive, so I build that into planning any outing no matter how brief it might seem at the time.

You're your own worst enemy in the desert. If you get stubborn or overestimate your abilities it is very easy to get yourself in existential trouble. If you make it out, you'd better damn well learn from the experience. People who don't learn, die.

A few years ago I ran out of water on a cross country hike and I could feel heat stroke beginning to come on. I was miles from my truck and all that extra water I've talked about - too far to help me. I realized then, too, that Search & Rescue would likely not find me before dehydration did me in. Hard to describe the feelings you have in moments like that. We don't often feel that level of helplessness in this age of convenience and instant gratification.

The most important thing to do is not panic, then assess the situation as rationally as possible. I'd had enough experience in the desert to look for certain things and that experience saved me. It was spring and there had been rains, which meant water closer to the surface than other times of year. I knew coyotes could smell it and would dig for it. So instead of making a panicked and likely doomed attempt for the truck, I searched the wash I was in for holes and got lucky. I extracted enough from the coyote hole and high-tailed it back to my starting point … where I also had beer. And, by that point, I really wanted a beer. One old-timer who prospected in Death Valley for decades wrote that it isn't the greenhorns who die in the desert; it's the experienced hands who take it for granted and make fatal mistakes. Get too comfortable and the desert will remind you of its dangers, sometimes permanently.

That said, my wife was a nervous wreck the first few times I was out, but has - over time - seen me demonstrate on more than one occasion that I can problem solve and keep level-headed despite potentially dire circumstances. I also check in via satellite when I reach locations so she has precise coordinates of my base camps, which helps reassure her.

Other dangers include rattlesnake bites, however remote the possibility, falls from heights, and even wild animals. I've had one encounter with a mountain lion and even gotten into an argument with a young stallion who was determined to defend his band. I honestly never know what I'm going to encounter.

Lastly, you say this exhibit is in part about calling attention to the eventual disappearance of Joshua trees. Do you hope that won’t happen? Or have you accepted that they will disappear, and you just want to make sure we remember them?

I'd desperately like to think of these trees as an immutable part of the desert I love. But I know that's a uniquely human and shortsighted perspective. Yucca moths' adult lives span 5 days - we humans have even briefer existences from the perspective of geologic time. There have been ice ages and volcanism and planetwide climatic changes before, and we are on the cusp of another turning of the age. The bigger question is how much we as a species have accelerated that process and what we can do to retard it.

It's an equally relevant question whether applied to yucca brevifolia or homo sapiens, and I'd like to see the issues taken more seriously. I guess you could say I exist in a state of ambivalence - a braid made of joy and love and grief, hopelessly intertwined, and the Joshua Tree is a symbol of how enduring and how fragile our natural world is. But I do think if we can manage to preserve the Joshua Tree, we've taken concrete steps to possibly saving ourselves as well.

Josh Patterson
Aftermath, 2022
Bermudez Projects

Bermudez Projects conducted this interview with Josh Patterson via email in January 2023. It has been lightly edited for clarity. View the artist's latest exhibit, Joshua on Artsy.

Bermudez Projects