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Introducing... Richard Burniston's haunting photos of Wonder Valley

I came across Richard Burniston's beautiful images of derelict homesteads in the Mojave Desert through the Best Shots exhibition, which is on until next month. Aren't the colours incredible?

And couldn't you just stare at one of these pictures for hours, imagining the people so pointedly missing from it? (And ideally in a frame, on your wall – which is possible: details below.)

All photos:
The images depict an area of around 400 square miles in California's Mojave Desert where hundreds of homes have been abandoned. Richard Burniston's images of the place are fascinating for the way they conjure up stories of abandoned lives: who lived there, where did they go, what can you guess about them from what they left behind?
"It really is called Wonder Valley!" says Burniston when I ask him about the unlikely name for his documentary series. "There are signs at both ends of the Valley saying 'Welcome To Wonder Valley'," he continues. "It seemed a natural title."

Hove-based Burniston became a photographer full-time this year, after leaving a career in film marketing for the big US film studios. In his former life, he often found himself in California for work: "I love the peace, wide-open spaces and weathered colour palette of the Mojave Desert landscape," he says, and he stumbled across the abandoned homesteads – of which there are around 400 – while camping and hiking in the nearby Joshua Tree National Park.

His photographer's eye couldn't resist this "vast and varied collection of abandoned homes and everyday possessions, a kind of urban debris field of found objects scattered across the land". 

Burniston explains why there are so many of these ghost houses: "Homesteading was kick-started there by something called the Small Tract Act in 1938, it was a way to get 'marginal' land settled – you could build a kit home in three days. Vacation or weekend homes were very popular at first, followed later by 'homesteaders', people who felt the lifestyle offered something they wanted, like privacy, low costs, plenty of nature."

The environment – temperatures can range from -18C to 54C across parts of the Mojave – is obviously one reason for the mass departures among homesteaders. Others have woken up surrounded by water, only to discover they'd built their homes across a seasonal watercourse. But, says Burniston, there has also been a spate of abandonments since 2009, suggesting the economic downturn has played a big part.

"I like to think I’m helping form a connection and an understanding of the people who took a shot at living there," says Burniston. "The homes are like enigmatic lines drawn under a period in people’s lives. I am also fascinated by the transformation of this built environment as it’s slowly reclaimed back to nature, with a little help from vandals, and how it shows in the weathering of the homes’ exteriors and the personal items scattered about."

Has he ever met any former residents? "That’s next," he says, "but with a twist. I first want to get closure on this part of the project, documenting the abandoned homes, and then create a companion piece that records the lives of people who still live in the Valley amongst the relics of the departed. Imagine living on a street with 99 abandoned houses, and you live in the 100th. What must that feel like? That’s what I want to discover next."
Finally – what are the logistics? How does he get around and discover these places? "The homesteads are dotted around about 400 square miles of open desert, criss-crossed by hundreds of dirt roads," he explains. "Most are very rough, so I rent a big four-wheel drive truck to get around and live out of it to save money.

"Desert camping is great. I locate the homes I photograph by driving all day down as many of the dirt roads as I can, and keeping meticulous notes of where and when I found them, plus details of what I found, the weather and so on. It's more fun than just a GPS reference – my note-books bring the experience to life for me. My favourite entry is “Chased by dog again. Close shave.”

Does Burniston have a favourite homestead, or a favourite found thing he's discovered during the project? "Each homestead is so unique," he says. "I’m passionate about all of them. At a push I would say it’s the house where I found the blue room with the armchair [top image]. It feels very peaceful in there, nice light. Out of shot, to the right, is a huge old white enamel stove, it’s always there whenever I drop in, like an old friend."

If you would like to buy one of Richard Burniston's Wonder Valley prints (and this is just a small selection) you can contact him via his website. Prices will depend on the size and paper and "turnaround for orders is quick" says Burniston. The image that's part of the exhibition is for sale at £175 via the last leg of the touring exhibition, which features 100 winning images from different photographers, at Michelham Priory, Hailsham, East Sussex. It runs until 11 December, 2013.

For all other print sales, and to see more of Richard's work, go to

Post by Kate


  1. Fabulous shots of Wonder Valley: everyone has a story to tell I am sure.

  2. Beautiful pictures of loneliness!