covid-sunset-project
Sunset photo of a mostly dry river bed with a small stream of water flowing through it and reflecting the colors in the sky. There are trees in the distance and colorful clouds overhead. Early spring snow leads to, yes,  flowing water in the desert! © David Lovitt
Early spring snow leads to, yes, flowing water in the desert! © David Lovitt

By Frank Gallagher, NANPA Blog Coordinator

During the coronavirus pandemic, when travel was discouraged and most places closed, many photographers turned to personal projects to feed their creative needs. Some photographed backyard birds. Others paid a lot more attention to their own neighborhoods. For Arizona photographer and NANPA member David Lovitt, a friend’s suggestion led to a ten-month project making photos from the same spot at sunset.

Lovitt lives on the far east side of Tucson, Arizona, near Tanque Verde Wash, a normally-dry stream bed. He is a native Tucsonan whose grandparents homesteaded near the city in 1920. After a successful career in insurance, he sold his agency and retired at the end of 2020. Like many photographers, Lovitt got started shooting family stuff. During the year that he served in Vietnam, he took a lot of photos and became more interested in the craft but it wasn’t until the 1990s that he got really serious about it.

In 1996, a friend from Phoenix, Arizona, showed Lovitt some underwater photos he had taken that really impressed Lovitt. He went with his friend to the Galapagos Islands later that year and started doing a lot of underwater photography himself. Quite a change from the arid Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona!

Lovitt’s photographic interests gradually expanded to include landscape photography and he started going on photo workshops with outfits like Arizona Highways. A friend suggested that Lovitt do a year of photos from the same spot and maybe make a calendar from the resulting images. When the pandemic hit in March, 2020, the timing seemed right to start that project.

Photo of a brilliant sunset sky, with clouds red, orange and pink. In the foreground is a flat, sandy ground with two small bushes. In the distance is a row of trees. Fire in the Sky © David Lovitt
Fire in the Sky © David Lovitt

A project is born

The first question was what location to choose. It had to be close, so he could get there easily, and it had to have a lot of possible compositions. Located only 400 yards or so from his house, Tanque Verde Wash fit the bill. Walking distance, a variety of vegetation that changed through the seasons, and a different look in each direction. He’d taken photos in the wash several times before, especially when there was water running (runoff from the Rincon Mountains), so he knew there was potential in that area.

The next question was when. Well, Arizona is famous for its fiery sunsets, so that seemed a no brainer. The location was close enough that, if Lovitt felt there was a possibility of a good sunset, he could grab his gear and walk over to his spot on the wash. And still be home for dinner.

“It was kind of a random location. I picked it because it was convenient and I’d been there before.  It’s not an especially scenic location, so there was a real challenge to be creative and find a pleasing composition, month after month,” Lovitt said. From March through December, 2020, he would go out to the wash several times each month.

For each shot, he stayed within a few yards of the same spot. The wash at that point is only about 10 to 15 yards wide. He’d start at his spot and walk around, up and down wash, looking for things to include in a composition, seeing what sun and sky were doing.

Lovitt used his Nikon D750 with a 24-70 lens for most of the shots. Choosing the 24-70 wasn’t part of the project—it just worked out that way.

“The early stuff had water in the wash from spring rains and that was a motivator. Then, when it dried out, I went looking around for what I could use for a foreground—a bush, weed, cactus, or rock.” He often laid down on ground to get a different perspective or shoot through a flower or plant towards the sun.

Photograph of a backlit stem of a weed on which a yellow flower sits. The sun is positioned directly behind the flower and lights the petals from behind. A Flowering Weed © David Lovitt
A Flowering Weed © David Lovitt

Challenges

“The biggest challenge was to find something different in a pretty sparse area that would make an interesting shot” he said. “A spider web, dead leaf, etc. I’d take a variety of shots each time.” He made the challenge into a kind of a game that he played during COVID. It was a safe activity, away from crowds. He didn’t see other people there, except every once in a while someone on horseback would ride by. “I was lucky to get the one shot with a woman riding and leading horses. She surprised me and I had to quickly recompose and change all my camera settings to get the shot.”

A lady on horseback rides into the sunset. © David Lovitt
A lady on horseback rides into the sunset. © David Lovitt

Although Arizona is known for sunsets with clouds brilliantly lit up in fiery tones of red and orange, whole months go by without even a cloud in the sky. Lovitt would still go out, even with clear skies. In one case, he photographed a backlit flower (actually a weed) against a clear, blue sky. Where the stream took on an S-shape, he was able to catch the post-sunset afterglow.

He finished ten months of photographing from the same spot with more than 1,500 shots, from which he selected 22 for a web album.

Takeaways

Looking back on those months, what did he learn? Was it a success? What can others learn from it all?

Lovitt had six pretty universal takeaways:

  • I learned that I have to search all around an area and really be open to whatever is around me.
  • I learned that I have to really pay attention to the small things.
  • I learned to look beyond what I first see
  • I learned that going back, again and again, to the same area can still be fruitful.
  • I learned that having plenty of time helped me see more of the possibilities.
  • I learned not to leave too early. Sometimes the best colors happen long after you thought the sunset show was over.
  • I learned that the colors during different stages of a sunset are really different, even just a few minutes apart. I’d be getting pastel colors, then a sunburst, then much deeper colors in the afterglow or projected up onto clouds.

He also learned a lot about how the changing seasons play out in a small area. “Water, or the lack thereof, was the biggest change from season to season.” Parts of the year are very dry. During the summer “monsoon season,” late afternoon thunderstorms provide dramatic clouds, sunset color, and occasional flowing water in the wash. After the ground has been moistened, weeds and other vegetation shoot up. Then, lacking continuing water, they dry up. Those weeds and grasses figure prominently in several of Lovitt’s photos.

Photo of a row of cottonwood trees, with yellow leaves, at sunset. The foreground is sand with a couple of small bushes. Behind the trees is a mountain range and the sky has soft, pink clouds. Fall colors enliven the desert. © David Lovitt
Fall colors enliven the desert. © David Lovitt

“I saw how cottonwood trees reflect the seasons. They go from bare sticks in the winter, to green shoots in the spring, green leaves all summer, and turn a vibrant yellow in the fall.”

This project really stretched Lovitt’s photography skills, from finding new compositions in familiar areas to observing more of the details and subtle changes around him. But the biggest thing was that “I hadn’t thought of myself as an especially creative person, but this project really helped me work on the aspect of seeing the same area in different ways, being more creative”

So, yeah, it was a success!

What did you do during the COVID-19 pandemic? Did you start a photo project or come away with interesting observations or discoveries? What do you want to keep with you as life moves back towards normal? This article is part of a series on how the coronavirus pandemic has changed our photography and how we see the world. What practices did you develop, what stories did you tell during COVID lockdowns? Share your thoughts and we might use them in a future blog article.

See more of David Lovitt’s photography at his website, dmlovitt.smugmug.com/

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