Photographing the Big Sur coast can be daunting. There’s the pesky issue of it being so spectacular. Every turnout looks like a Sierra Club calendar photo. How do I make make something of my own from these environs? What I found out was, to not try very hard at any of it. I found that a sort of creative indirection was the best way to handle the gorgeous scenery.
It is not my first trip to the region. About a decade ago, I got myself a 4×5 camera. The intent was to do a “beginner’s mind” thing with my photography, start over with an unfamiliar technology and see what kind of pictures I would make if I had to compose them upside down and under a dark cloth. I was very intent on what I was doing. I had a plan and a purpose. In the end, I made the expected sort of photographs you get when you trundle around the central California coast with a 4×5. After about three years I figured out that large format was not advancing my photography anywhere I wanted it to go, and I went back to smaller formats.
Another trip I did with stock photography in mind. Those spectacular pullouts on Highway One were the point, as were the forests and the towns and the tourist destinations. I had a plan, and a place for the photographs.
This time, I had no plan. I responded to the whim of my inner compass as Robin and I drove from LA to SF. In southern California I wandered slowly through the brushy canyons, when I wasn’t making photos inside of art museums. Morro Bay was about empty water and sky. At Pfeiffer Beach, I turned my back on the surf and rocks and headed for the blown down mess of cypress trees behind the dunes. It was hard, unrelenting sunlight, the worst sort of conditions for this kind of environment. I messed around without expecting too much from it. At the state parks in Big Sur I birded along the rivers, casually shooting where I was, without a deep fixation on anything in particular. Sometimes I did become fixated; I had great fun on Weston Beach in Pt. Lobos, pretending I was channelling Edward Weston himself making poignant, pregnant abstractions. I even let myself photograph the spectacular views, on a tripod and with a polarizer filter. Hey, might as well do it right.
A great thing about an aimless trip of this sort is that the pressure’s off. Image making is still the compelling activity, but there is a deliberate purposelessness about the effort. It allows me to do that most important work of an artist—to fail a lot. I explored a lot of visual dead ends, I made abundant bad pictures, I responded to what was around me, but most of those responses missed the mark. I joke with my clients that I’m a good photographer because I’m a bad photographer a lot more often. It’s more true for most of us than we might like to admit. On a trip like this, I can afford to indulge these apparently fruitless explorations.
It is important work nonetheless. This is where what’s next happens. Sam Abell, a mentor of mine, puts it as “shooting ahead of ourselves.” The dominant theme in my work now started unrecognized while I was busy with something else. One of my dead ends might become an important part of my work henceforth. Or not. My job is to indulge the aimlessness whenever I have the opportunity. It’s like the basic rule of investing—make sure you have a diversified portfolio. I am adding to the savings account on a trip of this sort. The return will come sometime when I don’t expect it.