Eye on Image-Making: East Meets West

If you are seeking inspiration for your image-making, there is perhaps no better place to visit than the Monterey Peninsula on the central California coast, which includes the towns of Monterey, Pacific Grove, and Carmel.

Even before moving to San Francisco in 1987, I visited the area and became entranced by the hidden beaches and surf-splashed promontories of Point Lobos State Park, a few miles south of Carmel on U.S. 1. Observing the ebb and flow of the Pacific Ocean and the swirling strands of kelp from the same vantage point used by Edward Weston bound me strongly to the area.

Later, as a photographer and writer based in San Francisco, I made countless trips to this image-making mecca, first for pleasure and then to work on my book about hiking in Monterey, Santa Cruz, and San Benito counties, Monterey Bay Trails.

During that time, from the late 1980s until 2003, when I moved to South Carolina, I met and interviewed for Photo District News a number of photographers from the Monterey–Santa Cruz area, including Jeff Becom, Frans Lanting, and Norbert Wu. I also enjoyed strolling through the streets of Carmel and seeing the work of artists, including photographers, who were obviously responding to the landscape and the environment in which they worked.

Jeff Becom’s Painted Shadows

I am writing this column after having returned from a quick trip to the Monterey area as part of a longer California visit during winter break. While in Carmel, I had the pleasure of visiting two photographic galleries featuring the work of West Coast photographers — the Weston Gallery and the Center for Photographic Art.

The exhibition at the Weston Gallery, through January 10, 2010, is “Painted Shadows,” images of India by Jeffrey Becom. “Painted Shadows” continues the exploration of color begun by Becom in his book Mediterranean Color and further elaborated in its sequel, Maya Color.

For Becom — whose “Painted Shadows” contains images from several Indian regions, including Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh — color goes beyond luminosity and enters the realm of meaning, because different cultures around the world have assigned specific meanings to various colors. Becom’s photography over the years has been an exploration of those meanings, while still preserving the pure aesthetic enjoyment for the viewer of seeing bold, saturated colors juxtaposed with local architecture and sometimes the fleeting human figure.

With an eye that reflects his architectural training, Becom layers his images with shapes and patterns that often frame the dominant color of the image with a contrasting splash of a related hue — orange and yellow, or blue and turquoise. I am reminded when I see Becom’s work of other masters of color, including Ernst Haas and Jay Maisel, who embraced color not as a decorative element but as something that conveyed meaning to the viewer.

Beyond the obvious warm–cool dichotomy, color often has cultural, spiritual, and ceremonial significance tied to specific geographic areas, ethnic groups, and religious communities.

Luminosity — The Art of ImageMaking

The Center for Photographic Art is located in the Sunset Center in Carmel, the site where Ansel Adams and Cole Weston founded the Friends of Photography in 1967. Adams became the first chair of the Friends of Photography, and other local luminaries — including Morley Baer, Brett Weston, and Wynn Bullock — became board members.

Although the board members and the gallery name have changed over the years, it is fair to say that today’s Center for Photographic Art is a direct descendent of the original Friends of Photography. The exhibition at the Center for Photographic Art, through February 20, 2010, is “Luminosity — The Art of ImageMaking,” which seemed particularly appropriate for this column, which is called “Eye on Image-Making.”

The exhibition, curated by Julie Brown Smith, showcases the work of some 35 photographers who are members of The Image Makers of Monterey, a group founded in 1996 to “exchange ideas about the rapidly evolving world of contemporary photography” and to foster dialog between members about their work. According to a statement written by Richard Garrod, a member of The ImageMakers of Monterey whose work is represented in the “Luminosity” exhibition, the gallery space in the Sunset Center is “one of the longest-lived, independent, non-profit photographic galleries of its kind.”

The center’s executive director, Nancy A. Budd, said she is particularly pleased to offer an exhibition that both upholds the fine-art traditions of Adams and the Westons but also presents a wide range of personal visions, from expansive landscapes to intimate details of the natural world. The statement accompanying the “Luminosity” exhibition makes clear the fundamental association between the quality of light — so important to many of the California photographers — and the artist’s vision:

In art, luminosity is often thought of as the quality of light the artwork emanates. Painters use intelligently crafted color and tonal variations to recreate this light. A photographer captures a scene using film or digital sensor. Luminosity is reestablished through the art of the photographic craft; the knowledge of the tools and techniques.

Photography and the American West

The American West has always had a unique relationship with photography — in part because the early years of photography coincided with the accelerated pace of Westward expansion during the mid-1800s, and in part because photography has been used to promote the idea of the West as both a socially constructed historical myth and the locus of America’s future as a land of unbounded opportunity.

The Western landscape played an active role in this relationship, mostly by being grander, more awesome, and more dramatic than the rest of the county. The plains were vaster, the deserts more foreboding, the rivers more rambunctious, and the mountains taller than anything found east of the Mississippi.

The new America, including the expansive territory wrested from Mexico in the late 1840s, had a new visual medium to tell its story, a medium that gained in stature once the transcontinental railroad made the West accessible to more than just a hardy minority of the population.

After the frontier closed in the 1890s, the rapacious forces of unchecked capitalism and rugged individualism clicked into high gear and mounted a large-scale attack on some of the very resources that made the West unique, specifically its towering forests and its mighty rivers. It is no accident that the protectionist Sierra Club was founded during this time in the San Francisco Bay Area; that its founder, John Muir, reportedly died of a broken heart after failing to stop the Hetch Hetchy dam in Yosemite National Park; and that a young Sierra Club member named Ansel Adams used his photographic prowess to help convince Congress to set aside land for national parks in the West.

East Meets West

While viewing both of these exhibitions, I was reminded of an idea I had for an article shortly after moving to South Carolina. At the Gibbs Museum in Charleston, I saw an exhibition of Southern landscape photography by Tom Blagden, who is based in Charleston, and Michael Johnson, who is from the Midwest.

I later had the good fortune to spend an afternoon kayaking with Blagden in the salt marshes north of Charleston. After seeing the landscape photographs at the Gibbs, I was struck by the difference between East Coast and West Coast landscape photography. I mentioned this to Blagden during our kayak outing, and we both agreed this might make a provocative topic for a magazine article.

After not finding an appropriate venue, I filed the topic away for future reference. From time to time I chew on it a while — musing on the difference, say, between Blagden’s low-country landscapes of sea, salt marsh and sky, and John Sexton’s luminous Western visions, or between Joel Meyerowitz’s Cape light and the late Galen Rowell’s mountain light.

I still think it is a topic worth pursuing, especially because for many years I considered myself bicoastal, photographing and producing guidebooks in both the San Francisco Bay Area and Cape Cod, where I’ve spent summers since the early 1950s. And after seeing the work of West Coast photographers in Carmel, I am further intrigued by the topic.

At the risk of gross oversimplification, Western landscape photography seems to me to be about perspective and scale — a snowy Denali towering over shimmering Wonder Lake — whereas Eastern landscape photography is more concerned with intimate details set in a flatter, more two-dimensional environment.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about East meets West in photography. For a complete rundown of photography events in the Monterey Peninsula area, check out Monterey Peninsula Photo Events. Happy New Year!

One Response to “Eye on Image-Making: East Meets West”

  1. Hello David: That's a wonderful article.I'm forwarding it to the Weston Gallery and the ImageMakers, in addition to our Board of Directors. I hope it will still be up for a few more days. It was a pleasure meeting you, and I hope you can make to our area in the not too distant future.

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