Southern California photo-based artist Fred Brasher Jr. explains the meaning of his print, “In a Mood.” The Irene Carlson Gallery of Photography showcased his exhibition, “While the Stars Look Down,” fall 2023. / photo by Abelina J. Nuñez

Southern California photo-based artist Fred Brasher Jr. explains the meaning of his print, “In a Mood.” The Irene Carlson Gallery of Photography showcased his exhibition, “While the Stars Look Down,” fall 2023. / photo by Abelina J. Nuñez

by Daniel Lopez
photography by Abelina J. Nuñez and Kim Toth

Fred Brashear Jr. stands back and looks at his photograph of a Joshua Tree. The tree is majestic—it dominates the landscape. And it might be gone in just a few short years, driven to extinction by climate change. “The whole idea behind my work is giving a voice for those who don’t have a voice,” he says.

Brashear, photography artist and photography manager at the University of La Verne, says that at a young age he started understanding what it meant to not have a voice when he lived for 15 years near Joshua Tree. “I always have been one who’s been enthralled with nature, and I can thank my mother for that. Mary was always pushing me to be creative. She taught me that art is life.”

Sadly, his mother, whom he calls one of the biggest influences in his life, died when he was 8 1/2 years old. He then came under the influence of his father, who, he says, believed in working with your “hands” and doing everything by the books in an orderly manner. It was after the passing of his father that Brashear found himself leaning back toward the natural aspects of life. He found a merger of both natural environments and working with his hands and thus started his career as a wildlife firefighter. For several years he worked in the helicopter to transport fire fighters to fires in California’s sweltering deserts. Going on those sometimes long aerial travels, Brashear would photograph his personal “adventures and fires.” He calls this a stepping stone into his photography career.

His new career began when he submitted photography to the Daily Press for a photo contest and won first place. Brashear was then offered an internship by the newspaper head photographer. “I was fresh into the photo world,” he says. At the time, all he had was a scanner and camera, and he would photograph wildfires, house fires and car accidents. After the internship concluded, He used this experience to jump start his career in photography Victor Valley College. There, he earned his associate of arts degree and then went to Cal State San Bernardino and gained his bachelor of arts in photography.

Since, Brashear has exhibited nationwide, including the famous Photo LA in 2019. He recently was the artist of residence at the San Bernardino County Museum for the Mexicali Biennial’s Land of Milk and Honey Programming. He continued his education and earned his master of fine arts from Cal State San Bernardino. He now teaches photography at ULV and Cypress College.

With his personal photography knowledge depth, he sought a photographic voice and viewpoint that would serve as a change agent for society. Being an African-American, mixed with Irish and German, he says his culture heavily influenced his future photographic inspiration. His mother’s side came from Ireland, and his father’s side were French Creole. Ancestors from both sides made the trek to the United States. His father was born in Louisiana but left for California. His mother, born in Chicago, did the same and headed for California.

Brashear was born in California during troubled times. He witnessed society and the world treat people of color in a disdainful manner. His reflection of how society treated people of color correlated strongly with what he was witnessing happening to the Joshua Trees. These two areas meshed, and that is what is a driver of his work. “My work is all about giving a voice for those who don’t have a voice.”

Brashear says he loves the desert. He knew from previous firefighting employment that Joshua Trees were a protected species. However, these endangered trees were being cut down and run over by off road vehicles. That totally upset him. This is what put the fire into Brashear to start his photographic project.

He started in 2015 by collecting Joshua Tree logs that were cut down at construction sites. Instead of using traditional photo paper to transfer photographic images, Brashear created his own photo “paper” from the Joshua Tree logs.

Fred Brashear Jr. discusses his work with University of La Verne alumni Natalie Medrano and Armida Carranza at the reception for his exhibit “While the Stars Look Down”  in the Irene Carlson Gallery on campus. / photo by Kim Toth

Fred Brashear Jr. discusses his work with University of La Verne alumni Natalie Medrano and Armida Carranza at the reception for his exhibit “While the Stars Look Down” in the Irene Carlson Gallery on campus. / photo by Kim Toth

His photographic passion merged with advocacy. Brashear submitted his photographic documentation of his high desert work to leading environmental lawyer Brandon Cummins. In turn, Cummins used his work to “teeth and nail fight” with California’s politicians to get Joshua Trees placed on the protected species list. The effort succeeded. For the first time in California, a species was put on that list specifically due to climate change. 

For his Fall 2023 ULV photography exhibit, “While the Stars Look Down,” he approached the Joshua tree portrait like a “person.” Brashear travels during the pitch black of night to photograph the Joshua Trees in “singularly” poses in their landscape using only handheld lights and homemade filters. He shoots at night to illuminate this tree in its environment. Brashear says he wants “the point of focus” to be on the Joshua Tree.

Brashear approaches his subject-based photography passionately. He is fully invested and has photographed the high desert trees for about eight years. He says that focusing his work for nearly a decade on solely Joshua Trees makes him feel different from other photographers. And since the Western Joshua Tree Conservation Act passed in 2023, he is the only person who is using photo paper made from Joshua Trees. He was grandfathered into this law, and the material he owns is legal to use for just his photography.

Brashear says he likes the idea of “being able to collect the Joshua Tree material and turn it into something new to be able to give a voice to those trees.”

Fred Brashear says he wants people to learn about the Joshua Tree and gain inspiration from his art to be part of the environmental community. He says he hopes people will honor the name of his ULV photography exhibition “While the Stars Look Down” and can “be still and grow” and hear the Joshua Tree’s quiet voice asking for a sustainable future.

Cool Kid of the Agave Family

You glance left and right, surrounded by trees that seem to have taken a detour from a twisted fairy tale. These spiky wonders might just make you question if your sense of reality packed its bags and left. Where on Earth are you? Spotting a Western Joshua Tree is like Mother Nature dropping a pin on Google Maps, showing you have landed in the Mojave Desert. However, don’t be too quick to judge; these peculiar trees also play desert fashionista in the Sonoran Desert and mingle with pines in the San Bernardino Mountains.

Fred Brashear Jr.'s photographic work helped lead to the passage of the Western Joshua Tree Conservation Act in 2023. / photo by Abelina J. Nuñez

Fred Brashear Jr.’s photographic work helped lead to the passage of the Western Joshua Tree Conservation Act in 2023. / photo by Abelina J. Nuñez

The star of the show, the Joshua Tree, aka “Yucca Brevifoila,” was once considered the giant cousin of the Lily family. But move over, outdated classifications. Modern DNA studies reveal it’s the cool kid in the Agave family, boasting connections to 40 distinct plant families. It is the plant version of having a diverse social circle.

Back in the day, the local folks were onto something. They saw the Joshua Tree as the Swiss Army knife of nature. Its tough leaves were crafted into baskets and sandals, and the bell-shaped flower buds became a culinary delight, raw or roasted. Talk about a tree with multiple talents.

The Joshua Tree’s life story kicks off with a miracle – germination. The seed’s awakening depends on perfectly timed rains and a winter freeze crisp enough to rival a celebrity chef’s salad. Some trees grow straight, avoiding branches altogether, like botanical rebels. If the tree had a dating profile, it would list “yucca moth” as its preferred pollinator. These moths are Cupids of the desert, ensuring the Joshua Tree’s love life blooms, literally.

Estimating a Joshua Tree’s age is like solving a mystery without clues. No growth rings here. Instead, take a wild guess based on height; they grow at a leisurely pace of half to three inches per year. The average lifespan is a respectable 150 years, but some desert elders might scoff at that, claiming to be much older. The Joshua tree isn’t a loner; it’s the life of the desert party. Birds, mammals, reptiles, and insects all flock to this botanical hotspot.

In the grand theater of the Mojave Desert ecosystem, the Joshua Tree takes center stage, whispering a tale of survival, resilience and beauty – all served with a side of botanical wit.

Daniel Lopez is a senior communications major at the University of La Verne.

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Abelina J. Nuñez is a senior journalism major and photography minor at the University of La Verne and editor-in-chief of the Winter 2024 La Verne Magazine.

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Kim Toth is a junior photography major at the University of La Verne and photography editor of the Winter 2024 La Verne Magazine.