Richard Laugharn’s wild, haunting photographs document his decades bearing witness to the flora of the Sonoran Desert.
March 27, 2020

“I have always loved the desert. One sits down on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing. Yet through the silence something throbs, and gleams ... ”

Author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s evocative observation in The Little Prince conjures the popular conception many people have of the desert: a quiet, constant landscape of endless dunes, an eerily empty setting that tugs at our psyches with a mystic power. In truth, deserts are also home to a rich variety of flora and fauna, shifting seasons, and wild colors, patterns and textures. And while the desert evokes the eternal unlike any other vista — the majestic saguaro cactus can live for centuries, for example — it is far from unchanging.

No one knows this better than Richard Laugharn, a landscape photographer who was born in New York City, grew up in California and later studied at the University of Arizona (some of his work is on view in the UA Center for Creative Photography’s collection). An artist who is drawn to the wilderness in general and the desert in particular, Laugharn has lived in the Sonoran Desert for the past 30 years and has been photographing its arid beauty ever since. 


Passion Project

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Two decades ago, Laugharn embarked on a long-term project to capture the same desert plants over time. Intended to span about 30 years, Following Desert Plants is his ongoing series of photographs documenting desert flora, including 93 specimens of cacti and other desert perennials. The planned three-decade time frame is no accident. It mirrors projects started by two of Laugharn’s creative heroes: the Western adventurer and Native American photographer Edward Curtis and Eugène Atget, the pioneering documentarian of 19th-century French architecture and street life.

“In Curtis’ case it was Native American culture, while in Atget’s case it was old Paris that was under siege,” Laugharn says. “While both men’s works are elegiac in tone, it is interesting to note that Native American culture, while certainly challenged, has in no sense vanished. Likewise, at this moment, planes full of tourists are heading to Paris to celebrate what Atget felt was rapidly disappearing in his time.”

This historical context lends a sense of optimism to Laugharn’s approach, which in his own words is that of someone “who celebrates rather than one who sounds an alarm.” From towering saguaros and spiny agave to gangly ocotillo and flowering creosote, the plants in these images bear witness to the inherent connection between humans and the natural world, between photographer and subject. Some of the plants Laugharn has photographed have died since he began the project; others are likely to outlive him.


A Celebration of Nature


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Laugharn says he doesn’t intend for his work to function as the historic record of a lost world for future generations to consult. “As I started this project on the flora of the desert, I was not motivated by a sense of crisis or flux,” he says. “I wanted to celebrate a connection to nature, and to do it in a new way.” Evoking the work of naturalists Henry David Thoreau, John Muir and Aldo Leopold, Laugharn says he aims to similarly model “a certain kind of attention to the natural world.”

And yet it is impossible to forget that the delicate balance of the Sonoran Desert faces disruption from a number of factors, including habitat loss, drought and human-caused climate change. The plant species in Laugharn’s work are inextricably connected to one another within the desert ecosystem, and their individual responses to environmental changes may have unpredictable consequences for them and for us. But what Laugharn presents with this hauntingly beautiful and painstakingly documented series is a sense of love, concern, connection and homage. “Landscape and memory have always been intertwined for me,” he says. “One of the satisfactions of my life is the way in which memory, the desert and my own artwork are linked.”


Richard Laugharn’s work is represented by Etherton Gallery in Tucson;