Unlike its hard edged, high contrast counterpart in Australia, the Golden State’s sunshine often has a kind of warm, enveloping quality that seems ever so subtly to open up the shadows and soften the highlights. Perhaps it’s something to do with the cold Pacific Ocean which every summer creates dense fogs along the coast for weeks at a time. Or maybe it’s the ever present photochemical haze created by car exhaust and, in some cases, the vegetation on California’s chapparal clad hills. Whatever the particulars of its origins, it is an ideal light for landscape photography.

 

Unlike its hard edged, high contrast counterpart in Australia, the Golden State’s sunshine often has a kind of warm, enveloping quality that seems ever so subtly to open up the shadows and soften the highlights. Perhaps it’s something to do with the cold Pacific Ocean which every summer creates dense fogs along the coast for weeks at a time. Or maybe it’s the ever present photochemical haze created by car exhaust and, in some cases, the vegetation on California’s chapparal clad hills. Whatever the particulars of its origins, it is an ideal light for landscape photography.

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Back Ranch Road, Santa Cruz, California
It was not so much the quality of the light, as its abundance that attracted a fledgling American film industry from the east coast to a sunny little hamlet outside Los Angeles called Hollywood. Early movie film emulsions were so insensitive that it was necessary to do almost all shooting in full daylight. And, since Hollywood has an average of 320 days of the stuff a year, studio productivity could be higher and production costs lower in California. Moreover, within a comparatively short distance from Hollywood there were enough desert landscapes, snow-capped mountains, rural settings and endless miles of beach to satisfy any director.
Well suited as southern California was to the early film industry, it was central California where the great blossoming of naturalistic landscape photography would take place a decade or so later in the 1920s. While southern California offered light and great backdrops for movie making, nature came to the fore in central California. The rugged coastal vistas of Big Sur and Monterey provided an inexhaustible supply of photographic opportunities for a new generation of photographers who were determined to throw off the stultifying conventions and artifice of pictoralism.
In 1932 an exhibition opened in San Francisco that featured the work of half a dozen or so photographers who were devoted to a new way of picture taking. Calling themselves Group f/64, they included Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, Willard Van Dyke, John Paul Edwards, Sonya Noskowiak and Henry Swift. Taking their name from the smallest aperture value of large format camera lenses, the group produced a short manifesto which said in part: ‘The members of Group f/64 believe that photography, as an art form, must develop along lines defined by the actualities and limitations of the photographic medium, and must always remain independent of ideological conventions of art and aesthetics that are reminiscent of a period and culture antedating the growth of the medium itself.’
Although Group f/64 itself only lasted for about three years, its concept of ‘pure photography’ persists to this day – particularly in the fields of landscape and documentary photography. At least four of the founders (Adams, Weston, Cunningham and Van Dyke) are still considered to be giants of the American photographic tradition. All, at one time or another, found significant inspiration in the landscapes and coastline that runs from around Monterey in the north to roughly San Simeon in the south. And, every year since 1937, when the Big Sur section of Highway 1 opened, thousands of photographers have followed in the footsteps of Adams, Weston, et al, and discovered for themselves the same endless variety in the landscape and light of central California’s most beautiful stretch of coast.

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Wave and Rocks, Big Sur
Highway 1 through Big Sur is easily one of the most picturesque road trips in the world. The precipitous nature of the coast, however, means that road often has to cut across steep, very active slopes hundreds of metres above the sea. While this ensures that there are innumerable terrific photographic opportunities, it can also mean that the road is frequently closed by landslides. Usually the closures last only a few hours, but sometimes one of the ferocious winter storms that lash this coast each year causes a really big slip that shuts the road for weeks on end.
A trip along the Big Sur coast can be photographically rewarding any time of year, but the best season in my experience is late summer from around September through to the end of November. Summers themselves are often foggy and it is quite possible during the months from late May to August to travel the entire 140km of Highway 1 without seeing a single vista.
Although it can be driven in two or three hours, photographers with a love for land- and seascape should allow a day – at least – to travel along the Big Sur road. Try also to make time for an hour or two at Point Lobos State Reserve at Carmel if you can. This extraordinarily beautiful little park was a place to which both Ansel Adams and Edward Weston returned again and again over the years for their own work and to lead photography classes.
See Photo Review magazine Issue 39 for the print edition of this feature which includes additional images.
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