When, in January 2020, I photographed Death Valley and started putting together Sonnet, Death Valley, which, for me, was about desire and loss and the impossibility of return, I could not foresee how the series would become emblematic of a year marked by a COVID pandemic that locked down our lives, enforced social distancing, and killed over a million people.
My photographic sonnet consists of fourteen images, as a written sonnet would consist of fourteen lines. Superimposed on each image are lines from one of my favorite sonnet sequences, Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella, written in the 1580s, in which Astrophil (the lover [“phil”] of stars [“aster”]) writes, over the course of 108 sonnets and 11 songs, of his unattainable love for Stella (Latin for “star”) and the anguish of his desire.
For me, Death Valley is an icon that in its sublimity, vast expanse, and deadly heat reflects both the boundless promise and potential danger of the American West, and, by extension, what it symbolizes, the American Dream. In our time, fraught with debates about immigration and paralyzed by an isolating pandemic, we would be well advised to stop and consider the attainability of the American Dream as it hovers between utopia and dystopia.