The desert is the essence of nothing, Courtney-Clarke writes in the introduction to Places in the Sand, her nostalgic photographic tribute to the Namib Desert. Far from embracing the nihilistic meaning that the word "nothing" normally denotes in our every-day language, the "nothing" of Places in the Sand is full of meaning and substance, of memory and life. Anyone who has spent serious time in the Namib Desert will know and recognize in an instant where the symbiosis of the nothingness of sand, wind and sun have forged this essence.
Places in the Sun emerged from Courtney-Clarke's intimate knowledge of Namibia, the land of her birth, as well as her keen eye as a photographer and photojournalist. Places in the Sand is a memoir in form of "a visual journey through my (Courtney-Clarke's) place."
This is also the title of the first photograph of the book and in a sense its dedication. It shows the sand-swept interior of a house in the desert long since abandoned to the ravages of time and place. But it also hints at life once lived here through the sky-blue, ochre and green colours of the fading paint on the crumbling walls and the open door against which the steady motion of the wind has lodged a tiny mountain of desert sand.
It is hard to pick favourites among the 48 colour and 16 black-and-white illustrations. Sensuous dunes unfold, blown into form by the hot desert wind. Dreamlike roads lead nowhere and fragile cracked earth stretches endlessly toward the shimmering horizon. Earth touches sky in the far distance diffusing the point of their contact like in a Fata Morgana; and abandoned shelters engulfed by sand and time give back to the desert their vibrant structure inch by inch. The ghosts of the lives once lived in the Namib Desert, so it seems, are ever present.
Beige, blue and the many shades of ochre are the predominant colours in Courtney-Clarke's desert photographs. Beige for the white bleached sand under the blazing sky which does not invite one to rest for long; blue for the infinite vastness of the Namibian sky which stretches to the end of the horizon and invites one to ruminate; and ochre for the sand's iron oxide pigments which have given the dunes their deeply rich hues.
There are two black-and-white photographs of the famous Dune 45 on the way to Sossuvlei. The first is taken in the morning and the second in the afternoon light. What is brilliantly illuminated early in the day is transformed into a brooding shadow in the afternoon, giving the dune its distinctly architectural shape.
In fact, many of the photographs seem like architectural compositions. Most of the landscapes, taken on the ground, are presented as small, oblong boxes, approx. 11 x 3 cm in size. This gives the photograph and its subject a distinct contour but also adds depth on the square page which measures approx. 22 x 22 cm. For example, Star Dune of the Namib moves the star point of the dune to the far right of the photograph and thereby arranging sharp fields of light and shadow like a tipsy star fruit.
The huge pointed finger of one face of the dune in Seven-year drought almost seems to take off from the parched earth like the slender tail of the Concorde precipitously alighting from an airfield into the sky.
Courtney-Clarke's dunes also reveal distinct patterns if seen from above. Sand in flight shows several dunes in various stages of formation, straining to grow taller and wider and trailing their wispy tails like the dyes in a silk Ikat fabric from Central Asia.
Perhaps inadvertently, Places in the Sand also contains poignant ecological messages. The tracks in Going somewhere are those of a car navigated most likely in an area not under nature conservation protection. In more delicate desert areas these tracks could last for hundreds of years and if carelessly imposed could destroy fragile desert environments for ever. I have driven on the Long Road to Solitaire in the blazing sun, for ever aware that a breakdown of my bakkie could amount to more than just an annoying inconvenience.
There have been more years of drought than of rain in Namibia's recent history, and the cycle in favour of drought seems to be lengthening with every turn.Thus numerous photographs record stumped or fallen skeleton trees, some still desperately straining for life in the barren sand; or of the odd piece of farm equipment that has long ago ceased to be useful.
After such an abundant display of desolation one's eye nearly jumps with relief onto the page with the small photograph entitled After the rain. Almost rendered like a primitive painting, this is one of the most joyful in the book. The blades of green grass behind the wire fence stand upright, the mountains hover serenely in the distance and the brilliant blue sky seems infinitely benign.
Anyone who has been to Kolmanskop or to the ghost towns in Diamond Area 1 south of Luderitz is intrigued by how wind and sand have conspired to transform, for example, the Mine manager's residence and even Courtney-Clarke's childhood home, Liebig House, on the farm Neu-Heusis at the edge of the Namib Desert (Memories of Neu-Heusis) into testimonies of the past.
However stunning the photographs, Places in the Sand is ultimately about Courtney-Clarke's memories of early years spent in Namibia, on its expansive farmlands and in her beloved desert, near the cool shore of the Atlantic and along the desolate Skeleton Coast to the north...