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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Moors Of California

Point Reyes National Seashore is a photographer’s paradise. A local expert on the area shows us the hot spots.

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A northern elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris) pup rests along Drakes Bay below Chimney Rock. Point Reyes is one of the most famous locations for photographing these pinnipeds.

The surf from the Pacific Ocean rushes in and out on McClures Beach at dusk.
As a zealot for places like Yosemite National Park in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, I often find myself photographing in the exact spots where many of the great photographers had focused their cameras, reflecting on how wonderful it is to be standing where many of my photographic heroes spent their lifeblood—Eadweard Muybridge, Ansel Adams and Brett Weston. Most are unaware that these masters also were drawn to other places, however, namely Point Reyes National Seashore, inspired by the amazing coastal landscapes that are part of California’s northern coast, approximately 30 miles north of San Francisco.

The San Andreas Fault runs through Northern California, slicing a gouge through the rolling hills and valleys along the coast. North of the Golden Gate Bridge, the fault line slowly recedes into the ocean. This stretch of protected land, an area California holds onto on the surface, is almost geologically separated from the continental United States by the San Andreas rift zone. Tomales Bay, the coastal estuary created by the infamous fault line, separates Point Reyes peninsula, which lies on the Pacific Plate, from the rolling hills of Marin County, which rests on the North American Plate.

Point Reyes National Seashore is a sanctuary for birds, sea life and wildflowers, as well as historic cattle ranches and oyster farms. Encompassing 100 square miles, including 32,000 acres of coastal wilderness, the area offers visitors more than 150 miles of hiking and horseback riding trails, more than 1,000 species of plants and animals, still waterways to go kayaking, roads for bicycling and sites for camping. Depending on the time of year, you can photograph the gray whale migration, harbor seal breeding, wildflowers blooming, Tule elks rutting and a variety of raptors and shorebirds, as the land is connected to the Pacific flyway zone, the major north-south route of travel for migratory birds in the Americas. Compared to the moors of Scotland or Cape Peninsula National Park in South Africa, Point Reyes was obtained by the National Park Service in 1962, saving it from urban development. Today, more than 2.5 million visitors frequent the park annually.

Mount Vision’s forest, shrouded in coastal fog, along the Inverness Ridge
Sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean to the west and Mount Tamalpais (to many, the birthplace of mountain biking) to the east, and with Drakes Bay on the southern end and Tomales Bay to the northeast, Point Reyes’ landscape is unlike much of the rest of the West Coast, and its weather is unpredictable. On a blue-sky summer day in the San Francisco Bay area, this large peninsula can be wild and windy, foggy and frigid, or calm and sunny. I believe it’s why many of the great photographers were drawn here—for the challenge, as well as the uniqueness in the images they could create.

Muybridge photographed here as early as 1880, capturing an image of the lighthouse the year it was completed. Weston documented a backlit Tomales Bay in 1955, as did his father Edward 18 years earlier in 1937. Adams may have thought of Point Reyes as a “recreational area,” yet he captured a number of images, including a shipwreck on Limantour Beach, a moss-covered fence near Pierce Point Ranch, and an oyster fence in Tomales Bay in 1953, the latter included in his autobiography. Then Philip Hyde arrived at Point Reyes in the 1960s and began his love affair with this coastal region for which his images are depicted in Harold Gilliam’s Island in Time: The Point Reyes Peninsula. Hyde’s images are even said to have played an important role in establishing the park.

In the black-and-white style of the masters, Marty Knapp began producing images of Point Reyes in 1986. Other lesser known, yet equally talented photographers have created quality work here, including Eva Van Valkenburgh between 1910 and 1930, Seth Wood in the ’40s, M. Woodbridge Williams in the ’50s, Art Rogers in the ’70s and Richard Blair in the ’90s and 2000s.

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