Friday, September 04, 2009

Beyond the Snapshot

Point Reyes National Seashore beckoned me a little over a week ago. I would be on a mission there, to take a group of photographers to a realm beyond the snapshot. In the process, I think some of us also made a journey that took us in search of ourselves. That is the power of photography, that's the power of and perhaps the point of art, of creative action.

Above: A male elk stands in the middle of a dreamscape.

It's a long way to Point Reyes from Los Angeles. I started the drive about 3:00 PM and traveled as far as San Francisco, where my friend and fellow photographer Christine Krieg put me up for the night.

Above: Cyclist's Legs in front of the Bovine Bakery, Pt. Reyes Station

The drive into San Francisco that night was exciting, particularly the drive over the Bay Bridge, with The City a gleaming metropolis on my right, and the black expanse of the bay to my left. I made my way to my friend's home; Christine lives in an old neighborhood on the west side of town, in a lovely and comfortable apartment that she's decorated with much art, including her own photographs. I sat up too late talking, working on my opening comments for the workshop, and reviewing the photographs for my slide show. For the next several days I would find myself far short of the sleep I needed; however, there's plenty of time for rest in my grave.

Above: Reflection of a man painting his boat at the Marshall Shipyard along Tomales Bay.

The next morning we walked to a coffee shop, and sat outside, where I watched innumerable cyclists glide by us. The riders were mostly young, on road bikes, mountain bikes and fixed gear bikes. I was sorry I hadn't brought my own bike for even just an hour's ride. San Francisco, hills and all, is a wonderful place to cycle, and I'm sorely tempted to return to the city by the bay, and soon, with my bike.

Above: The eyes have it, at the little park in Point Reyes Station.

By noon we were off, to conduct a photography workshop for the Point Reyes National Seashore Association. We were headquartered in the Clem Miller Education Center, which is tucked away deep in the wooded interior of the Pt. Reyes peninsula. From the front and back porches we watched quail, deer, and a bobcat who put in a morning and evening appearance.

This workshop was conducted on behalf of the Pt. Reyes natural history association. A few days later, in the company of photographer Ken Rockwell, I conducted a second outing, this time staying at the comfortable Abalone Inn, which is in the little community of Inverness Park, alongside Tomales Bay.

Above: Photographers along the Tomales Point trail.

Friday evening, I shared some of my photographs and spoke my thoughts about the nature of photography with our workshop participants. I told them I believe we can transcend ourselves through art, whether it be with a paintbrush and canvas, hammer and hunk of marble, or a camera and lens. This, I suggested, was the weekend to go beyond the snapshot, to search for beauty, for ugly truth, for meaning, and even search for ourselves, with our own photography.

We would do so by photographing the people, the architecture, the landscapes and seascapes at Point Reyes. We would have to develop our our skills with our equipment, and let the subconscious bubble forth to help guide us. We would have to lose ourselves in our photography to find ourselves. Borrowing something Christine had said earlier in the day to me, I suggested we would have to have the courage to understand ourselves.

After my opening remarks, I assumed we'd all head off to our rooms for a good night's sleep. Instead, most of us stayed up talking and looking at photographs until about midnight. Some of us spent time on the back porch making time exposures of the cloudy night sky, illuminated by an almost full moon. Even then I had trouble falling asleep, wondering what the day would bring to us at Point Reyes.

Above: A Turkey Vulture sails by, near the Point Reyes Lighthouse.

While not as well known as Death Valley, Yosemite or Yellowstone, Point Reyes is none-the-less one of the most beautiful places on earth, set aside for in perpetuity for everyone to enjoy. Long before the Europeans came to claim the land as their own, the Miwok people inhabited the area around Point Reyes; in fact, they were there for thousands of years. Spanish explorer Sebastian Vizcaino sailed his ship, the Capitana, anchoring it in Drake's Bay on the Day of the Three Kings (Epiphany, or the end of the 12 Days of Christmas) on January 6, 1603. Vizcaino therefore decided to name Point Reyes, Punto de los Reyes, "Kings' Point." Later, the land was settled by Europeans, and several historic working farms and ranches from the mid-19th century survive today, as well as at least one ranch set aside as a museum.

Now, Point Reyes is usually meant to include the entire Point Reyes Peninsula, which is bounded by Tomales Bay to the northeast and Bolinas Lagoon to the southeast. Most of the headland itself is part of Point Reyes National Seashore.

Above: Sandpiper Curlews?

Our first field session on Saturday morning was at Limantour Beach. We warmed up our photography skills with the help of wildflowers, waves, an elk and a bobcat. After breakfast, we explored the farmers market in the quaint community of Point Reyes Station. It was one thing to try to artfully photograph a bunch of carrots. We had to challenge ourselves, though, to make a connection with the people we encountered that morning.

For myself, the way make those connections is to relax, to let go of fear and shyness. Easy to say, more difficult to perform. Practice, of course, helps.

Beyond the market we found ourselves gravitating toward the wonderful Bovine Bakery and just beyond that, the little park where there were a few artisans with their craft on display. There were also a lot of bicyclists, who are drawn to the Point Reyes area like so many iron filings to a magnet. I managed to photograph Vince, who'd wandered over to the bakery, and whose powerfully muscled legs proved he is no poseur on a bike.

Above: A great blue heron dines on a snake.

Although the day had begun with a hot sun shining down on us, it rapidly began to cool down, and as we headed toward the coast after lunch, we were met with the incoming fog. A serendipitous encounter led us to a free range chicken ranch. At first, our presence frightened the chickens. They scattered at our approach. By remaining quiet, by respecting our colorful subjects - and the were both colorful and beautiful - we gained their trust. In just a few minutes the flock flowed around us.

We spent some time at one of the historic ranches, and then tracked the movements of a couple of herds of tule elk that range across the peninsula.

As we prepared to return to our headquarters for the rest of the evening, one of the herds wandered close to the road, and we made photographs in the misty conditions that resembled a dream world as much as reality.

Above: Fern near the Clem Miller Education Center.

Back at the center we enjoyed a pot-luck dinner and then viewed the images of participants. The next morning a few of us wandered out for a short walk, and after breakfast and cleaning up the education center, we said goodbye to each other, all of us, I think, finding more than the ordinary to photography, and perhaps finding more of ourselves, too.

Above: A wave breaks at Limatour Beach

I met our second group at the lovely Abalone Inn in the little community of Inverness Park. Having said goodbye to Christine, my co-leader this trip out was the inimitable Ken Rockwell, of fame. After introductions we dinned on oysters and other delicacies in Point Reyes Station before calling it a night. The next day, we traveled out to the Point Reyes Lighthouse, which was constructed in 1870. A journey down to the lighthouse from the parking lot above included 308 steps. There was much more to photograph than the iconic lighthouse, from a fawn perched atop a cliff above a crashing surf to cypress trees bent landward from the frequent winds that can howl up from the sea, to a flock of massive turkey vultures that flew right over our heads.

Above: A pastoral scene above Drakes Bay.

After visiting the lighthouse, we found ourselves in the middle of a milking operations at one of the historic farms on the peninsula. A little later, bright sunlight lit two large bull elks who seemed content to pose for our group for a few minutes, before turning away to browse for their dinner on the ample ground cover. These animals are usually so skittish, yet these two seemed to welcome our attention.

Above: Reflection of farm building in a barn window.

The next morning, we picked up a local, John Sundberg, who acted as our excellent guide. We made our way northeast along Tomales Bay, and then in the late afternoon, we headed to Abbot Lagoon, back on the west side of the headland.

Here we found a lone great blue heron, seemingly frozen in place in the freshwater beneath tall green stalks. These birds will usually fly off at the approach of a human. Not this heron. Eventually, it turned and walked two or three steps into the depths of the stalks, then was imperturbably still again. And then, in an eye blink, the bird struck downward with its long beak, and emerged into the soft light of this early evening with its dinner, a most unhappy snake. Although the reptile fought vigorously for its life, it found itself about three minutes later on its way into the massive bird's waiting gullet.

Above: A tunnel of trees leads the eye towards a park service operations building.

There was so much to see and photograph at Abbot Lagoon that we didn't return to our cars until well after 9:00 PM. We had the full moon to light our way back from the sea. We stopped at the first open restaurant we came to, Vladimir's, which specializes in Czech food.

We photographers mellowed out on the tasty meals. A young woman performed on the guitar, the staff was friendly. We returned to the Abalone Inn contented and ready for a good nights' sleep. On our final morning, we photographed an old boat, too perfectly named the Point Reyes, beached on the shore of Tomales Bay.

Home beckoned me.


Tech note: The photographs here were made with a Nikon D300 and a D40, and a variety of optics, but mostly with my 18-200mm zoom. As usual, click the photographs to view larger versions.

Many more of my photographs from my six days in Point Reyes are here, in my online gallery.

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