Photography by Scott Dickensheets

Enthusiasms: Head in the Clouds

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Desert Companion

Look, up in the sky! It’s a cumulonimbus — click! Why I can’t stop taking photos of clouds

I could probably fill the sky with photos I’ve taken of the sky. I’ve saved dozens, deleted maybe three times that. Sunsets and sunrises, sure, a few, but mostly I shoot clouds and contrails. Wisps of cirrus, bulwarks of cumulus, threads of jet vapor trails, and lots of formations that defy easy categorization — is that, uh, cumulo-cheese-grater? It’s not just me, either; it’s a whole thing, complete with trite nickname — cloud porn — and 24 million posts on the associated hashtag (though many have nothing to do with clouds). I prefer skyroglyphics, because constantly craning my eyes toward the heavens has imparted to me a loopy grandiosity.

My cloud snaps began as an offshoot of a fascination with landscapes, and are entirely enabled by the cheapness, disposability, and low expectations of cell-cam photos. Back when I lugged around an old-school film camera, I never thought to burn frames on airborne water vapor. A silly waste of resources, that. Somewhere around here I have a digital SLR, but its zoom-lensed weight and implication of serious photographic equipment somehow, in my mind, forestall its use for something as mundane as shooting clouds. But when I noticed that the landscapes I clicked most often with my phone usually featured some serious cloud action, I didn’t think twice about firing off extra shots of the sky.

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Sometimes I just document weird-looking formations. More often I’m drawn to clouds compositionally, thanks to their endless, shapeshifting varieties of form, texture, density — an abstract minimalism of the sky, one-time-only arrangements of blue, white, and the occasional hint of gray. It’s rarely a matter of pareidolia — the perceptual trick of seeing familiar features in random visual information (“That cloud looks like Danny DeVito!”) — and more about unusual presentations, compelling cloud fields, contrasting forms (mounds vs. wisps), and the antics of slanting light. Now, throw in the piercing line of a jet contrail, or, better yet, four or five of them crossing in hieroglyphic patterns, and suddenly the neighbors are wondering why I’m arching backward in the street, aiming my phone at the sky.

But I also enjoy clouds as fluffy philosophical prompts — especially at a time when their effortless free-sailing contrasts so pointedly with the fungal stasis of my not-yet-post pandemic life. Deceptively weightless, they bring together a lot of heavy stuff: a critical role in the mechanics of climate change; implausible politics and danger, whether you’re legitimate downwinder or a chemtrail zealot (now and then I post photos of contrails with mocking captions about chemtrails: They’re spraying aerosolized gun control!). All of which makes clouds fun and useful to snap and think about.

Humans only register change at certain speeds and scales; anything too micro or macro requires the work of a scientist or social-media mansplainer to understand. But, as any hillside daydreamer knows, passing clouds are real-time thesis statements about the ongoingness of change. So each cloud photo captured and stored in my Google Photos — on the cloud, heh heh — reminds me of that obvious and complex truth: I’ll never see anything exactly like that again. I wish I’d shot that Danny DeVito cloud when I had the chance.

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