Photograph by Diane Cook and Len Jenshel
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A crew removes tumbleweeds the size of compact cars from a slope in East Los Angeles. Bone dry and filled with air pockets, dead weeds can be ignited by a discarded cigarette—a hazard worsened by persistent drought.
Photograph by Diane Cook and Len Jenshel

Pictures We Love: Invasion of the Tumbleweeds

National Geographic’s Proof blog invited the photography and design teams of National Geographic magazine to look back through the hundreds of photographs from the over 75 stories published in 2013 and select one photo that spoke to their heart, intrigued them, inspired awe, made them smile—in short, to choose their favorite photo from this past year. Over the next several days we’ll bring you a round-up of the breathtaking, the touching, the extraordinary, the imperfect, and the beautiful.

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The Weed That Won the West, December 2013 Photograph by Diane Cook and Len Jenshel

Todd James, Senior Photo Editor

My love for this photograph by Len and Diane is more layered than a Viennese pastry. The scene is so sunny and yet so ominous. Tumbleweeds have invaded suburbia! Where are the kids? Something has gone terribly wrong at the end of this cul-de-sac. A Russian tumbleweed invasion! If you were writing a chapter for a photography text about implied narrative, including this photograph would be a must.

But my layer cake of appreciation for this photograph goes much deeper. I first saw Len and Diane’s photographs of the American West more than 20 years ago. They were my introduction to a new generation of color landscape photographers that included Joel Sternfeld, Stephen Shore, Joel Meyerowitz, and Richard Misrach. These photographers were using big cameras to capture big landscapes and reshaping how we think about photography today. Len and Diane’s work shared that sensibility but also offered a subtle wink, wink at times.

Their sensibility seemed perfectly suited to this science story with a twist. The tumbleweed, a symbol of the American West, turns out to be an invasive species from the Russian steppes.

Of course I knew Len and Diane loved the western landscape but I had no idea about their tumbleweed obsession, which they trace to a 1964 episode of The Outer Limits. In the show, a couple is stranded in the desert and stalked by a bunch of tumbleweeds.

Len and Diane’s photograph of the lonely red wagon surrounded by tumbleweeds sets the scene for this story perfectly. It is also perfect expression of their lifetime body of work with a wink and a nod to their favorite episode of The Outer Limits.

I waited 20 years for this photograph, and it is well worth it.

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The Weed That Won the West, December 2013 Photograph by Diane Cook and Len Jenshel

Mary McPeak, Photography Research Editor

Having worked with Diane and Len on several stories, the tumbleweeds story is a favorite of mine. The photograph of the two masked workers in California holding a compact car-size tumbleweed above their heads catches your eye and makes you smile. The men seem to be surrounded by dangerous tumbleweeds almost inching toward them. It also illustrates what an invasive problem the weeds have become.

View these photographs and more in our interactive Year in Review.