Hiking at the Presidio and Physiognomy

Last week I went on a hike with a few friends at The Presidio in San Francisco to take some pictures and to chat about photography, life, etc.  Looking around this site, it's easy to see that I'm not a landscape photographer, and making pictures of places vs people has always been a challenge for me.  It's not like I'm uninterested in landscape photography.  I very much enjoy nature, and appreciate its beauty.  In some cases, I will visit a place and be in complete awe of its spirit.  I'll be so in awe that I want to preserve that feeling, so I put a wide lens on a camera, point it at the vastness of what I'm experiencing, and snap.

And that's where my troubles begin.

Rarely do my landscape images capture what I was experiencing or feeling as I allow myself to be in a place or absorb a landscape.  Sometimes I'll get it right.  I have a large print of a huge, downed banyon tree on an isolated beach in Maui hanging on a wall in my office at work that absolutely takes me back to La Perouse Bay every time I look at it.  

But those successes are few and far between.  More often than not, I completely fail.  My images look like postcards or cliches.  In the case of popular places, the pictures I take, more often than not, are not even as good as the thousands of nearly identical images that more skilled landscape photographers have taken of the same place.

Which is why I'm not a landscape photographer.  :-)

That said, I've had a couple of recent experiences that gave me hope that I perhaps could do better.  The first was the Ralph Gibson workshop that I attended in which he encouraged all of us to have a point of departure before embarking on a photo shoot.  The second was a conversation that I recently had with my friend Michael Shanks.  Michael is one of the world's preeminent archaeologists and classicists, but also an avid and supremely talented photographer.  Michael is big on the notion of physiognomy of place which asks the question: how does a place express itself through its various features?

With these two things in mind I went about trying to capture the spirit of The Presidio on our hike from Immigrant Point Overlook about halfway down the hill to Marshall Beach.  It was an overcast December day in San Francisco, not bitterly cold, but foggy and threatening to rain, with the world that interesting mix of green and brown and gray that Northern California gets when the winter rains bring some, but not all, of the vegetation back to life.  I was trying to capture the essence of the park in this season through photographs of its small and large features, and deliberately trying to avoid images of big sweeping views.  In the set, I tried to get just enough of the large-scale features of the park to help identify the place (although I'm not sure that even that is really necessary.)

Here's what I managed.  Still not great, but more satisfying personally than my usual attempts at photographing a place.

And just for good measure, here's a portrait of Om.  :-)

Kevin Scott