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Grass Against the Sea – Mine to Experience but not to Make

I have no doubt the Sierra Club exhibit format books of the 1960’s, all of them published in my teenage years, were instrumental in shaping my environmental and outdoors ethos. They held revelations of the worlds available to me so much bigger than those I’d become personally attached to on backpacking trips near Big Sur. I vividly recall one photograph in particular, Grass Against Sea, by Edward Weston. I even think I can still visualize it on the page. I imagined the view he saw as one I could easily have seen along the Coast Ridge Road a little south of Big Sur. I had seen that view but I had not seen THAT. Weston might have taken it nearly anywhere, facing west, of course, but this is one image that stuck with me from those books and I don’t even recall in which one it was.  So simple…just a few lines, only one of them straight…this was art and it was profound. I still love it.

Recently, over a half-century later, that image came to mind as I read the book Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. One of the authors talks about how he remembers to within one heartbeat the moment he first saw an Edward Weston print walking in a dim hallway at the UCLA Library. He wrote, “It was unlike anything else I had seen. It was something more…something….than other photographs, particularly my photographs. It was different in kind.  …That photograph was mine to experience. but neither it, nor anything like it, was mine to make.”

Which Weston image was it? We aren’t told. Knowing which would constrain the message. I know what my lightbulb image was and today I learned its name, Grass Against the Sea. Looking for it I Googled “grass pacific weston” and of course, up it came. Finding things is so much simpler. It is now easy without much scholarship to learn the history of photography and photographers…but good questions not so easily Googled are answered only for ourselves, if at all. Bayles or Orland ask one of those questions that flowed from the first Weston print experience. “…[It was] more years still before I thought to question where the power of such art resided: In the maker? In the artwork? In the viewer?”


Why I don’t much care for location captions

Is less sometimes more in the age of GPS?

Aerial photo of the Laguna de Santa Rosa

38° 23.652’N 122° 47.727’W (c) 2018 Google

I’ve not been inclined to name the exact photo locations on this website although in the beginning I could not say exactly why. Then, the more I learned about today’s landscape photography movement the more it seemed like a good choice. A friend recently asked how I felt about how my photographs might have an unintended consequence of encouraging more people to visit, thereby threatening the values that attracted me to make the photograph in the first place. She is the only person that’s ever asked me about it and I welcomed it because it’s something I’ve thought a lot about. 

They are not secret but there are two reasons my locations are more general than specific. First, specific locations drive the photography I do toward a documentary mindset. I’m more interested in the beauty of natural places, presented as an ideal. Second, much of the damage to natural places is caused by photographers competitively seeking “the shot” that will increase social media ratings and justify the trampling of the place.

Returning from a trip last week I made a side excursion to check out a lesser-known redwood park I’d not visited before. I was blown away, at one point moved to tears actually, by the sense of being in a silent and awe-inspiring primeval forest, an ancient place.  This forest has escaped the trampling of so many visitor feet that can turn a natural place into something more akin to a museum. Armstrong Redwoods State Park near my home is like that. It is beautiful, but it’s not the real deal. We surely need museums to inform, educate, and preserve our history and we need accessible natural places like Armstrong Redwoods for the same purpose with our natural history. But, it is comforting to know there are still places of wild-ness in California, even if they are scattered remnants.

I was not the only visitor to my new forest that day last week and two of the trampling feet were mine. I acknowledge I’m part of the problem. On the other hand, I hope that my images are suggestive of the value of our public lands in our society, especially to those who may never visit but nevertheless feel a sense of the place, their place as Americans with a precious public land heritage. I hope all viewers can maybe find a little comfort in the knowledge that places like these are still out there. The dichotomy though, between the need for natural places for public access and the effects of that access on the naturalness of the places is unresolved for me.

I hope my website visitors will try and see, as I do, the images as my artistic suggestions of place rather than documentary tourist postcards. In this respect the places themselves are not so significant and frankly, it feels good to, when I can, draw deeper into the presence, and into the mystery, of what is underfoot and overhead and all around” wherever the experience can be found…even in just a photograph.