Taking Cactus Portraits In the Summer In Arizona

Just about nobody goes to Phoenix in August if they can help it. When I arrived, the temperature had fallen to 110 degrees Fahrenheit from close to 120 several days prior, and it was all the locals were talking about:

“You’re lucky you weren’t here last week.”

I enjoy the heat, and one of my favorite sensations is stepping out of air conditioning into unreasonably hot weather. Visiting Hong Kong in the summer, emerging from the airport at night into the tropical humidity, is like entering the body of an animal. The air is so viscous and saturated, so full of flavor, it hangs on you. You’re immediately damp. Breathing the air requires a brief, conscious period of adjustment. I know plenty of people who loathe humidity. I thrive on it.

I love Arizona heat, too, but it is an altogether different species. It’s heat as a force, without character — just hot, everywhere.

In the summer in Hong Kong you get very sweaty. In Arizona you are always dry. If you’re from a temperate climate like me, you might think, as I did, that you aren’t sweating. You would be mistaken. You’re sweating plenty, but it steams right off of your skin. It’s dangerous.

I was in Arizona on assignment, photographing several hotels in Phoenix and Tucson. It was my first time in Arizona, and between shoots I took every opportunity I could to wander in the desert. I’ve had a fair amount of desert experiences in the American West and Southwest: the Mojave Desert in southern California, the flat scrub of eastern Washington state, the red rocks of Utah, the high desert in northern Arizona.

But the Sonoran Desert is a special place. It’s the American-desert archetype. Type the word “desert” on an iPhone, and the first emoji suggestion that pops up is not a camel or a lizard or the sun. It’s a saguaro cactus.

Saguaros (Carnegiea gigantea) are only found here, their natural range consisting of the southwest quarter of Arizona and a slice of the western State of Sonora in Mexico. The very southeastern end of California gets a few as well, but that’s it. Yet this charismatic plant is a staple of Tex-Mex food labels and cowboy films, no matter the origin or setting. They don’t grow in Texas or New Mexico but it just feels like they should. Or at least it did to a generation of Hollywood set designers.

In flat Phoenix, saguaros dot freeway dividers and occupy prime spots in landscaped yards. They adorn golf courses. People put them in pots. They’re scattered willy nilly in undeveloped areas. But in mountainous Tucson, they cover the hills and valleys, vast armies of green, pleated soldiers.

The younger plants are small stubs, while the oldest ones tower 40 feet in the air. Some have the postcard-ideal two arms protruding from the center, and others have a half dozen or more, but lots of saguaros are just single trunks. (These long-lived plants don’t grow an appendage until they’re 75 to 100 years old, if at all.) A great many are roughly human in proportion.

I quickly realized that my saguaro photographs were portraits. These lonely figures stand on the dry countryside, waiting for rain, for centuries. They’re fascinating, and highly relatable. I felt like talking to them.

Saguaros make perfect subjects. They are highly cooperative, full of character, and no two are the same. They always seem to be standing exactly where they should be.

It was a bit surreal. I’d photograph my subjects until the heat began to get to me, and then retreat to whatever resort I was shooting that day. As soon as I reached the air conditioned lobby, I would suddenly be drenched in perspiration. I’d sit drinking strawberry-infused water while my Nikons cooled down. Then I’d venture back out again.

After four marathon days in Arizona, I headed back to San Francisco. With some reluctance I left the heat, and my new friends, behind.

All photographs by A. D. McCormick.

A. D. McCormick is the director of the Art Island Center on Naoshima.