Seastacks and Smoke: A Photographer’s Journey in a Time of Plague

The Idea for this journey began during the (almost) endless lockdown the South Bay. And not just beaches. I couldn’t even hike the Peninsula or photograph the tidal pools that are just down the hill. The planned photo trip to Scotland, a distant memory.  I decided that once I could, I needed to get myself out into nature. Someplace different, away from crowds and rules. I was thinking photo road trip, further away than the Southwest or Big Sur, closer than Scotland.

I settled on the Pacific Northwest. Not hard to get to, a minimum of logistical hassle. Just fly up to SeaTac, rent a car, go west on the Olympic Peninsula till I hit the Pacific — then drive south 1,300 miles. Taking a few days in each area to shoot whatever interested me, then head south another 50-100 miles and plant myself in the next cool spot … Rialto Beach,  Cannon Beach, Cape Kiwanda, Heceta Head, … , for 3 1/2 weeks.

One rule on the journey was to stay safe — follow the guidelines, take the same care I would in LA County, even thought this section of coastline was one of the safest in the country. I knew there would be some enormous hassles, lots of restaurants closed, state parks closed, masks everywhere — till you’re out in nature. Then you can breath in ocean air and remember what it’s like to compose an image.

The Northwestern Coast, it turns out is even more than I imagined. Quiet dunes, sea stacks, ancient lava, waves painting pastel beaches, all surrounded by old growth forest. It was just what the soul required. There were other tourists, mostly folks from Oregon or Washington. And everyone seemed to enjoy the cliffs and hidden beaches without too much worry about Covid.  The entire journey was a rediscovering one’s center in nature, color and the pursuit of good light.

A Shared Communion, Rialto Beach
Just below the tippy-top corner of the continental US and you’ll find Rialto Beach. The area up here is all Native reservations, Olympic National Park, thick forest, sea stacks. The beach is rimmed by massive tree trunks bleached white by sea and sun. At it’s northern end, you’ll see a couple of massive monoliths. And if you’re there at twilight, you’ll glimpse a universe lit in amber gold.

My work treats the camera as a starting point. The file provides a high def blueprint, classically composed, of shot locations I’m intrigued by. And in post, I explore the deeper layers and nuances that exist beyond the muddy shadows and flatness the camera gives. My post production acknowledges the way the camera captures light, color and movement in time but also remembers the mythic power of the Hudson River School and ancient Chinese landscape painting. Ultimately, I want to immerse the viewer in a feeling, a immersion in Nature that’s purely my own — my own sense of texture, design … harmony.

Sisters of Stone, Rialto Beach
For eons, the seascapes on the Olympic Peninsula have shared the flow of time and tide. Hard, volcanic sea stacks standing witness each day. And the two monoliths do seem to have personalities, they’ve been near neighbors for millions of years.

Each artist makes post production choices. Even the guy who gets the file out of camera and goes straight to PRINT is making a choice. If you shoot Raw, you make plenty of choices since the file starts off bland and murky. We landscape shooters (mostly) shoot Raw anyway because the format stores three times the amount of light/color info. So the algorithmic software tools are part of the process.

As a landscape photo artist, I use post as part of a personal path. That camera has one eye, not two. Canon’s one eye sees half what I can in the dark shadows, half as much nuance in the sky. So I put that file on the Photoshop table and shape it like a director might in turning script into play.

I don’t add stuff that isn’t there at pixel level, no composites. But I touch each image as a painter would, adding layers, creating an interior world using brushes Ansel never imagined.

Pastel in Blue and Green, Olympic NP
Brambles and wildflowers crowd beyond the forest and into light.

In ancient India, a good work of art should capture the flavor breath of human experience, the rasa, in its parts and whole. So a pieced of landscape art created by the artist’s hand would evoke the essential nature of that place. The sound of waves on the beach, the dampness of earth, the texture of brambles and of wildflowers … the pleasure of a morning on the Olympic Peninsula.

That’s the challenge. To capture the flavors of that pastel beach using a photog’s crude tools.

Light along the Sol Duc

Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means, And green and golden
I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
And the sabbath rang slowly
In the pebbles of the holy streams. Dylan Thomas
Sunlight in a mountain stream, Sol Duc

Water flowing through time, over wet stones and soft moss on a sunny morning.

Walking into Light, Cannon Beach
Each of us comes to the beach for her or his own reasons and with their own perceptions.

At moments we become fused with light, as we walk through panes of wet color, towards that golden chamber.

Morning, Silver Point Overlook
A pale beaches along the Oregon coast provides a necessary solitude.
Cape Kiwanda Sunset
To the north, whispers of clouds get pushed on a rising wind.

One of my watercolorist friends wondered how a pastel could be so … amazingly detailed. I guess what I do is bend the visual notes in the direction of a different genre. Like how a blues harpist might bend a note. But it’s not so people will say, “Oh, it looks like a painting.” No, I want to evoke painting’s depth, texture, techniques, in order to capture the inner dimension of a place and time. Inner experience in a 50 MP file. Somehow, when I mix the two genres, the viewer enters a more imaginative realm. A tone poem, a visual haiku.

Cape Kiwanda Sunset
The wind-blown seas sculpt the limestone cliffs. Just above, visitors perch and chat as the sun slips into evening.
Seagulls and Haystack Rock
The birds at Cape Kiwanda circle in the evening light. They’ll settle quickly — and then fly back up with some new reason to complain.
The rocks are used to it all by now.
Hecate Head, A Light on the Oregon Coast

Another lighthouse picture. How trite. At sunset. But there’s something real going on. A raw-edged coastline, waves driven by the wind. The glow of a fresnel light, a beacon for those in peril on the sea.

Hemlock Road Overlook

This place wasn’t in the travel books or covered on Instagram. It was a road pull-off for the Hemlock Road Overlook a five second shot. Till your mind says, “Excuse me while I kiss the sky.”

Evening, Bandon Beach Overlook
A place like Bandon is a landscape photographer’s playground. The sea stacks, the tides, the changing light.
They’re all in motion. You take it all in then go down off the cliffs and start to play.
Seagull Study #3, Bandon Beach
Rock, wave, orange foam … light
Blue Hour, Bandon
I don’t know what he was thinking, the young guy standing out on the ridge. The sun long down, most folks on their way to home or hotel. But there’s something to be said for floating in somber tones of yellow, ochre, deep blue … and a sprinkling of flowers.

Meyers Creek Beach, Sunset
Meyers Creek Beach, Sunset
A curve of flowing water, a gathering of sea stacks,
The reflection of pink clouds. What more do you need?
Secret Beach, Samuel Broadman SP
The smell of cedar at a spot overlooking Secret Beach.
Arch Rock, Samuel Broadman SP
Goat Rock Beach, Evening
Every kind of migrating bird comes by the estuary at Goat Rock Beach.
And at evening, settles in for the night.
And it’s safe enough, even with fires along the Sonoma Coast.
Sunlight and Fire, Sonoma Coast
Fires in the east and south, sunset to the west.
Picnic at Goat Rock Overlook
Sunset and Fire, Sonoma Coast at Jenner
A fire, growing all afternoon, begins the capture the sky.
And the locals are there to capture it.
Last truck out of Jenner
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