Weston Agave, Wildcat Hill, Carmel, CA 2010
Early in 2010 I began making loose plans for an extensive photography trip to areas of the Western landscape that dotted my photography bucket list. More than a dozen trips to the Southwest with my traveling partner, co-workshop instructor and Mentor Jack Holowitz, we would now undertake our most ambitious trip to date. Beginning in Reno, Nevada on the Thursday before Labor Day 2010, we rented a 4WD vehicle, had an early dinner and went to bed before 8 pm. We loaded our equipment back into the car and were gone before 2am with plans to be in Monterey and the coast of California before dawn. We would cross over the northern Sierra Nevada Mountain range into the flatlands between the Sierras and the Santa Cruz mountain ranges through the town of Gilroy, CA. aka “the Garlic Capital of the World”. We hit Gilroy around dawn as driving the high switchback mountain pass roads of the Sierras in the dark of night precluded us from making better time. Still, we would be on the coast highway and into Carmel, California before the galleries were open.
There is little that could surpass the pure euphoria of driving a bit over 3000 miles in 12 days with a singular focus of dawn to dusk photography traversing 10,000 + foot mountains to 200 feet below sea level at the Salton Sea with your closest shooting buddy. If there were to be a singular highlight of the trip it certainly would be our 2-night stay at Wildcat Hill, the homestead of legendary American landscape photographer Edward Weston. Wildcat Hill is now home to Edward’s grandson Kim and wife Gina Weston, a fine photographer in his own right. There is a small wooden structure behind Weston’s home known as the Bodie House, with some lead time and a 2 night minimum stay 2 people can rent the Bodie House as overnight accommodations, and by Carmel’s standards a bargain! The Bodie House was best known for a place where Edward’s model, muse, lover and eventually wife Charis Wilson would retreat to get away from the omnipresent Edward.
The impact of staying at the Bodie House really didn’t take hold until the second night where you see Jack and I sitting looking thorough famous photography books. It felt somewhat surreal to be in a place where photographic royalty came and went about their daily lives never for a moment imagining the impact they each would have on the modern world of photography. This second night was to me, and I’m sure Jack akin to a Civil War history aficionado spending a weekend in Abraham Lincoln’s homestead. Edward’s photographs, particularly those of Charis would shape the world of Creative Black and White photography for centuries to come.
A bit of research for this month’s Story I came across a short video made back when Edward was alive and working, at the 1:49 mark of the video there is what appears to be the very Agave plant in front of Wildcat Hill that I trained my camera on some 75 years later. Edward Weston Video
I knew nothing of this video when deciding to make my own image from the Wildcat Hill visit in 2010. Now seeing this video chills came over me to think that EW had in fact trained his own large format camera on quite possibly the very same Agave plant. Part of the attraction to the Agave plant for me was the fact that it lives on the homestead of the photographer that I most closely align my own work with, smaller vignettes rich in texture with tonal relationships carefully controlled. I like to refer to many of my photographs as “walk bys”, little vignettes that many would simply walk by in the speed of everyday life in the 21st century. A snapshot of my camera setup on the Agave plant early on the 2nd morning at dawn, my exposure as I recall was 4-5 minutes for that negative. I composed an image with left to right direction and used selective focus to blur the background while preserving sharp focus on the morning dew and the spines of the huge White Striped Agave Americana plant.
I’ve attached several snapshots of our visit to Wildcat Hill below and some interesting facts that Edward’s grandson Kim shared with us. With all due respect to Ansel Adams and his passion and fame for the grand landscape of the West, arguably the most important photograph of the 20th century is Pepper # 30 and it’s negative is seen in the contact-printing frame *** in a snapshot of Weston’s modest darkroom. Grandson Kim shared with us that Pepper # 30 happened over 4 days of shooting various different peppers, 37 in total, # 30 was actually an exposure in excess of 4 hours at an f-stop of f 240 to provide maximum depth of field. Kim went onto explain there are many “Project Prints” from Edward’s negatives that were printed by either Brett or Cole, two of Edward’s 4 sons who grew to be important figures in their own right as photography slowly became accepted as an Art Form. A Pepper # 30 printed by Edward himself has sold at auction for over One Million dollars, legend has it that Edward only printed and signed 6 in his lifetime, all others were project prints. The one on display at Wildcat Hill and signed EW, a project print by Brett Weston is the single most luminous Black and White photograph I have ever seen in person, so extraordinary was Pepper # 30 to current Black and White photographs I said to Jack, “why do we even bother printing with the materials that are now available”. The Pepper # 30 photograph that I saw actually looked as though it was illuminated from behind, its luminosity unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
*** For those not familiar with the term “contact print” in the case of Pepper # 30, a very large negative measuring 8″x10″ is exposed in a Large Format camera and then the processed negative is “contact printed” by simply putting the negative on top of light-sensitive photographic paper and exposing to light yielding a One to One rendition of the negative yielding the sharpest most vibrant print possible.
a low resolution facsimile of Weston’s Pepper # 30
1/3 of Weston’s darkroom where he made only “contact prints”
facsimile of Pepper # 30 negative seen in the printing frame
Edward’s grandson Kim and the author.
We eventually travelled farther south to another location made famous by Edward and son Brett who photographed extensively at Oceano Dunes, cell phone shot seen below. Jack and I were fortunate to find access to the “protected” dune field at Oceano where the hike in was less than one mile.
Still 40 pounds of gear in near darkness trudging through loose sand is challenging, once you choose a spot and set the camera up you are committed to that vantage point, you simply wait for the sun to crest. During the 1/2 hour wait for sunrise it is scary quite, a solitude so calming a Large Format photographer can’t help but wonder if EW would approve of our presence, if you embrace large film and the landscape, this dune field is sacred ground. Likely my most memorable shot from this trip is seen below in snapshot form with the sun still below the horizon and followed by the subsequent film image I made as the sun just kissed the horizon spilling light onto the sensuous dunes at dawn.
Oceano Dunes, 5×7 Deardorff camera, 210mm Computar S lens, Ilford FP 4 Minimally Agitated in PyroCat HD developer
Contrast the cell phone image with my final rendering and it offers some insight why there is such reward in being a photographer, as sophisticated as the eye brain relationship is, they operate in real-time and process information in a literal context. The Creative photographer can not only freeze time but can control shapes with light and tonal controls so as to direct the viewer to exactly what the photographer’s emotional response was to the scene in front of the camera at a given moment in time. The snapshot does little to rekindle the memory of being on the dunes, while the Black and White ignites memories of the Weston mystique and my time at Oceano, as clear now as it was 7 years ago !! We continued onto the Southeast and the Salton Sea, some 235 ft. below sea level and on the afternoon we were there, blazingly hot and desolate. We headed East through Yuma, AZ near the Mexican border for a stretch and finally flew home from Tucson, AZ.
I imagine most serious photographers believe their greatest image has yet to happen but to think I’ll have a more inspiring time than the weekend I spent at Wildcat Hill would be unrealistic, it was magic !!
If you’ve gotten this far along in the story, know that I appreciate the opportunity to relive all the minor details of an inspiring trip West and hope those who’ve subscribed to my Blog during 2017 have in some way gained real appreciation for what goes into the making of a fine photograph with a Large Film camera.
Wishing all, Good Health and Great Light in 2018 !!