Paul Gill: The Desert Adorned
Writer Amanda Christmann
Photography by Paul Gill
Springtime in the desert is unlike anywhere else on Earth. Landscapes that appear brown and barren one day seem to explode overnight into bursts of yellow, fuschia, magenta and white.
These desert blooms—or desert “booms,” as photographer Paul Gill likes to call them—signal songbirds, hummingbirds, hawks and owls to stop and nest as the pass through along their migratory paths, and butterflies to begin their annual dance across the desert floor.
Saguaro Blooams (picture above)
When it comes to showing off, our Sonoran Desert cacti know how to do it right. Cactus flowers tend to be big and bold, only appropriate since many of them have waited 30 years or more to display their first blooms. The mighty saguaro doesn’t flower until it is 40 to 55 years old and generally waits until last to begin blooming its large milky white flowers.
One of the first bloomers of the spring is the Engelmann’s hedgehog cactus. These easily identifiable succulents, also called strawberry cactus, saints’ cactus or purple torch, most commonly form rich magenta flowers, but can also have blooms of purple, pink or lavender. Hedgehog cactus flowers only bloom for about five days, but they are stunning while they last.
Another common sight in the foothills are the magnificent cholla blooms. There are 20 species of cholla found in and around Arizona, and though they are wicked pricklers, their red, yellow and green flowers are beautiful.
Fishhook Barrel Cactus (picture above)
The fishhook pincushion cactus grows to a height of only 6 inches and protects its tiny self with long, hooked spines. Their large red, pink and orange flowers make for a dazzling display along the dusty desert floor.
Peralta Cactus Bloom (picture above)
The pincushion cactus’ bigger cousin, the fishhook barrel cactus, one of Gill’s favorite studies, also defends itself with hooked spines. Each spring, it bursts forth with neon blooms of pink and yellow.
A Moment with Paul Gill
What is your hometown, and where do you live now? I was born in the Valley of the Sun and grew up in Scottsdale in the 60s and 70s. Back then, my brother and I would ride our bikes down Pima Drive, which ended just after Shea Boulevard. It was this area of natural desert where I was first inspired by light and local nature—the prime subjects of most of my work now. Scottsdale is a great place to grow up, and with McDowell Mountain Park close by, nature was at my doorstep.
How did you get started in photography, and who helped you along the way? I attended Scottsdale High School. I bought my first camera and started developing and printing black and white film in Scottsdale Vocational Tech’s graphic design dark room. After graduating high school, I attended Scottsdale Community College then transferred to Arizona State University, where I received a degree in fine art.
You have a penchant for capturing the beautiful details of colorful subjects. What draws you to your work?My 17 years working in the graphic design world. I first try to simplify by taking things out that don’t add to the story of the subject. Then I always try and take a closer look for the unseen details of form and light. I also use the same method when shooting wide-angle landscapes, using patterns to form shapes or details for foregrounds.
What is your favorite piece of work? My favorite photograph is Fishhook Barrel Cactus Rain Drop. It was a challenge getting close enough to the image of the cactus blooms and catching the raindrop dripping off of the thorn. After hours of landscapes and close-up wildflowers its nice to pull out a macro lens and take a closer look.
Ironwood Forest, New Mexico (picture above)
Nature will eventually give the nod to every one of our cactus neighbors to burst forth into bloom. To find out when, where and how to photograph Arizona blooms and Arizona wildlife, check out Gill’s duo edition books, Wild in Arizona. His beautiful photographs serve as a gentle but compelling reminder to appreciate, and protect, the magnificent beauty of our desert.
Learn Desert Photography
Wild about Wildflowers and
Hands-on photography workshop by dynamic
duo Paul Gill and Colleen Miniuk-Sperry
March 24, 25
8 a.m.–4 p.m.
Boyce Thompson Arboretum
37615 U.S. 60, Superior
$315 per person