The morning after the storms passed in late November, I took my camera to the hills near my Inner Sunset home to capture views to the north, east, and west. I was feeling grateful, for many reasons. First, the storm’s tail-end spawned fantastic cloudscapes; this photo-ready drama, common elsewhere, is relatively rare in San Francisco. Second, the storm stirred hope for a good rainy season, which we still need after years of drought. Third, the clear sharp air was the first after nearly two weeks of smoke — breath-stealing, eye-stinging, school-closing smoke — that had drifted to the Bay Area from the tragic Camp Fire hundreds of miles to the north and east.

As my camera shoot progressed, this last bit of gratitude slowly opened itself to question. Yes, the skies dazzled, and my lungs sucked in cool fresh air, and I was grateful, even exhilarated, that the smoke was vanquished. But to our north and east, the dead were still being sought and counted, and beneath these same brilliant skies the people of Paradise were slowly returning to … nothing.

So I felt a mix of sorrow and gratitude. I can’t call it survivor guilt, because I was not in the midst of the fire, and what we survived here was by comparison a mere nuisance. I don’t know how to label it, and grammar-themed websites aren’t coming up with answers. “Cognitive dissonance” feels too removed. “Ambivalence” may fit the bill, but in some ways even it seems too weak a term. All I know for certain is that, for me, the images from that morning will always carry a weight beyond their blue skies, sun-struck buildings, and billowy clouds.


Presidio Partials

These four images (click for slideshow) may be different in subject matter and treatment, but have two things in common. First, they all arose from one morning’s shoot in the Presidio of San Francisco. And second, they are crops — in a couple of cases, significant crops — from the capture that came home on my camera’s memory card.

This second happenstance is not unusual for me. In some cases, the crop is planned. Maybe I see a square composition, and my camera’s proportions are not square. Or maybe the lens I’ve chosen can zoom in only so far, and I know that the final “zoom” — the crop — is available later. In other cases, though, I discover my final composition only after the fact. I may try a number of angles at the moment of capture, but it isn’t until I’m in front of my computer that some essential combination hits me. Often I go through a multi-stage process, whittling and stripping away non-essentials.

Now, this discovery process has the obvious disadvantage of limiting the size at which the piece can be printed. Since my current camera is not one of those 50 megapixel monsters, it can be an important “error” in my practice. Occasionally I will return to the subject and, if possible, do a retake to maximize megapixels. More often, I just live with it. Life and light inevitably limit the time I have to work a scene, so there’s no reason to beat myself up over not getting it perfect on the spot — especially when my goal is usually a creative rather than a documentary piece.

With every editing session I learn a bit more that informs future shoots in the field. But I suspect that the artistic play of “whittling” will always be part of my process.