Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 30, 2009

Picture the Wind

What is it about the ocean, that lures us to photograph it?  There is something compelling about the limitless ocean that simply dares one to capture it. We feel its draw, we see the world-bounding sweep of its reach. It’s a natural reaction to try to capture it with the camera. But in the camera’s eye, the ocean is simply an immense flat space without relief, without reference. The camera has a frame that does not permit the limitless scan of our eyes and mind. To provide a successful photograph, the ocean needs cliffs or waves crashing on rocks or Kate Winslet floating on a piece of wreckage to gain scale and impact.

Or, we can abandon photography and resort to writing: perhaps a Tennysonian description:

Alone, alone, all all alone. Alone on a wide wide sea.

The urge hit me this weekend, with a rare sight of Santa Barbara Island silhouetted against the setting sun. Santa Barbara is rarely there. One could live here for years and never see it. It sits in the Pacific, about 55 miles west of downtown Los Angeles. Like a disappearing castle in a medieval romance, it only appears at times of its own choosing. Only when the wind blows a certain way and the air possesses a rare clarity do we see it. Even then, it helps to have some elevation above the sea-level view most Angelenos have of their ocean.

I lived in LA for nearly a year before I even knew it was there. I saw it from the top of Anita Street, just a few blocks from the edge of the continent, late in the day. There, silhouetted against the sunset sky was an unexpected island where I thought the ocean stretched uninterrupted towards Hawaii. A look at my map told me that it was named Santa Barbara.

This weekend boasted one of those days of rare clarity, the wind just right, the late Fall light angling low to show us the flat-topped profile of the island on the horizon. That’s the photo above that is the header on the blog today. Had it been a few days earlier in the year, I could’ve caught the sun setting directly behind the island, but this is the view I captured from high up on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. Santa Barbara is about 45 miles out in the ocean from this point.

What is it about these impossible-to-capture views that compels us to portray them? We don’t have the tools. Success requires special lenses, a deep knowledge of exposure and contrast that only a professional photographer can command. But the ubiquitous digital camera makes photographers of us all, and the insatiable Web will absorb all our efforts, good, bad and ugly.

Take the moon. Ever try to get a picture of the moon? All the above applies. Darn it, there’s that brilliant silver or orange or misty blue orb, swinging over us. Here in Southern California, we see it a lot, thanks to the many clear nights. But photographs of the moon, like photos of the ocean, require perspective to turn it into more than a bright dot in a black void.

Of course, I had to try. Here is the nearly-full moon, shot the same evening as the photo of Santa Barbara island, poised above a cliff in Palos Verdes (I found a position to make it look as if it were just rising). If I were my friend, Bill Gray (see his photography HERE), I would know more about exposures, telephoto effects and  some ineffable something that photographers know that lets them convey the mystery and power that these scenes have for us. But the eye, the human eye, and our own minds have some ability to take in the immediacy of these powerful images and to appreciate them in ways that the camera cannot capture.

One of the most iconic photographs in history is Ansel Adams’ “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico.” Just read Mr. Adams’ description of his making of that image at this link. This is one of the great moments in all of photography’s 150+ years of history. “The known luminosity of the moon?” Is he kidding? Is that what it takes? No wonder I can’t make those photos that I see right before me! Um, Aunt Ida, would you stand a little more to the right? Cousin Corwin’s beard is blocking you. OK. Everybody, smile!

Bill, I leave it to you to turn this into Art.

© Brad Nixon 2012, 2017

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