During most of 2013, Cal Poly associate professor Brian P. Lawler could be found at the top of one of the scenic peaks surrounding San Luis Obispo with a digital camera in front of him and a sandwich at his side.
Climbing those hills "gives you a sense of how wonderfully the city fathers managed growth in San Luis Obispo in the 83 years that have passed," Lawler said, describing the site as "inspiring." "In L.A., San Francisco, Oakland ... no hill is off limits. Was there ever any sense of protecting the hills and keeping them open? No. They were just in hellbent-for-leather development mode."
"Somehow San Luis Obispo has avoided that," the photographer added.
Lawler's appreciation for unsullied landscapes is at the heart of his exhibition "SLO Pano," which runs Feb. 14 through March 30 at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art. A celebration of panoramic photography, it includes a wall-sized landscape, circular stereographic projections and bell-shaped fabric "Panodomes" that fully immerse the viewer, as well as modern-day replicas of photos shot on the Central Coast during the early 20th century.
Although Lawler acknowledged that "Panoramic photography has always been a novelty," he noted that it offers viewers "more perspective. It gives people a different sense of things."
Lawler first discovered photography as an enterprising Oakland high school student, setting up a dark room in his parents' basement and running a printing company to cover costs.
After graduating in 1968, Lawler was stationed with the U.S. Coast Guard in Yerba Buena Island, where he soon became known to his commanding officers as "that kid with the camera," he recalled. He spent weekends flying around the San Francisco Bay with a Coast Guard helicopter crew, snapping aerial photos of shoreside facilities as part of a campaign to map out potential fire hazards.
During the week, Lawler attended Cal Poly, where he enrolled in 1969. "I vowed from the age of 14 that I was going to Cal Poly and study printing. That was my lifetime goal," explained the photographer, who graduated with a bachelor's degree in graphic communication in 1975.
During that time, he worked as a cameraman for local television station KSBY and a graphic artist for stereo system supplier Warehouse Sound Company. Then, in July 1973, Lawler launched Tintype Graphic Arts, a San Luis Obispo typography, graphic design and photography company that he ran for nearly two decades.
"It was like the silent hand of Keynesian economics reached out of the sky and flipped the switch that was my livelihood. It stopped," Lawler recalled.
Lawler, who started working at Cal Poly as a part-time lecturer in 1999, next devoted himself to his academic career. He currently teaches color management, digital photography and advanced typography at the university, serving as advisor to University Graphic Systems and the Shakespeare Press Museum.
According to Lawler, his interest in panoramic photography developed apace with his career.
After covering hot air ballooning in Cambria for KSBY, the photographer became "smitten" with the sport. In 1979, he became the editor of the Ballooning Federation of America's in-house magazine, which offered plenty of chances for creative photo coverage.
One unique opportunity arose in 1980, Lawler attended the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in New Mexico with two photographer friends. Using a Hulcherama panoramic film camera attached to the bottom of the balloon Lawler was piloting, they snapped 360-degree views of the event mid-flight.
In 1982, Lawler set out to photograph an entire bike race on a single strip of film, using an electric motor and rubber rollers to transform his Nikon into a photo-finish camera.
More recently, Lawler has documented local landscapes with a Canon Mark III digital camera, aided by a Gigapan robotic camera mount that allows him "to take photographs with absolute stunning levels of detail and resolution," he said. (He also uses homemade wooden mounts.)
The centerpiece of Lawler's "SLO Pano" show is a landscape of massive dimensions. Shot in April 2013 at Daniel's Point about a third of the way up Cerro San Luis Obispo, the panoramic view of San Luis Obispo - stitched together from more than 1,500 coordinating frames - measures 58 feet, 7 inches long and nearly 10 feet high.
Also featured in the exhibition are a handful of historical panoramic landscape photos, displayed side-by-side with Lawler's modern-day photos of the same sites. All but one were shot by Frank C. Aston, a photographer active in San Luis Obispo from 1905 until 1947.
The Aston photos belong the Bennett-Loomis Archives, founded by cousins Gordon Bennett and John Loomis of Arroyo Grande in the mid-1970s. Although Bennett's daughter, Shirley Gibson, declined to share how many items are in the "very vast" archives, which include antique books, stamps and fire engines, she said most date from between the 1890s and the 1920s.
"It's really fascinating to know ... how things changed over time," Gibson said. "You have to know where you came from to know where you're going."
In 1983, Bennett handed Lawler a box containing "this moldy brick of photographic film that had been underwater for a month" due to a flood a decade earlier. (Bennett acquired the 150 negatives from Young Jung Yeong Louis, son of San Luis Obispo banker, labor contractor and shopkeeper Ah Louis, who got them from Aston himself.) "They were lost. They were basically 'Throw it out in the trash and be done with it,' " Lawler recalled.
Still, Lawler agreed to try to restore them. After consulting with the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., he soaked the negatives in a mixture of distilled water and preservative chemicals for months until he was able to pull them apart.
"I had completely forgotten about them," Lawler admitted, until September 2013. That's when he went digging through his garage.
"I thought, 'There really has to be some paydirt here somewhere,'" Lawler said. "I started looking at them and I realized, this is the most important photography in San Luis Obispo in the 20th century. It's astonishing stuff."
He selected 25 photos, scanned them into his Macbook Air and spent hours painstakingly retouching the images. Not content to merely restore the photos, Lawler decided to replicate them -- traveling to Avila Beach to document the place where Pacific Ocean meets San Luis Obispo Creek, and climbing to the top of Terrace Hill to record the San Luis Obispo Railroad District.
In the case of the Chevron Tank Farm property in San Luis Obispo, he tracked down the exact spot where Aston documented dozens of men laboring to build a massive crude oil storage tank in January 1910. (The spot, which now resembles a dirt berm, was also the site of a lightning-sparked fire in 1926 that sent flaming oil down San Luis Obispo Creek.)
"This is important to document now because pretty soon it's going to be a field. The concrete all has to go. All the rebar has to go," Lawler said, noting that Chevron plans to clear and develop the property adjacent to the San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport.
"If nothing else, I ... shot a new photo that documents, basically for the last time ever, something that is going to go away," he said. "I feel pretty good about that."
Lawler had a similar motive for photographing the local chapter of the International Order of Odd Fellows in front of the San Luis Obispo County Courthouse. Although Aston's photo, taken in 1914, featured 194 members, Lawler rounded up 21 men for his November 2013 photo.
While setting up the shot, "I was laughing, thinking of who's going to be looking at my photo 100 years from now ... (wondering) 'Can't we get the Oddfellows to come out and take their picture taken?'" said Lawler, who hopes one day to travel the country snapping panoramic photos of fraternal organizations in the manner of Texas photographer E.O. Goldbeck. "I love that idea."
Lawler also restored and replicated a photo of Camp San Luis Obispo taken around 1940 by a photographer identified only as "Lenny," part of a collection belonging to the History Center of San Luis Obispo County.
History Center curator Eva Ulz said the panoramic photographs in the collection "represent not only a visual record of San Luis Obispo's growth, but also technological developments ... that enabled local photographers to capture these compelling images."
"Brian Lawler's work ... goes beyond restoration, using monumental expansion of old images and their replication in new ones to challenge the way we see the world around us and the world of the past," Ulz added.
In connection to "SLO Pano," the History Center will display historic photos from its archives, as well as the Bennett-Loomis Archives and Cal Poly's Special Collections, on March 7.
Lawler said his goal for "SLO Pano" is to "recognize what a special place this is." "(In) almost every California city, the city fathers thought growth at any cost was a good idea," he said, adding that San Luis Obispo's decision to limit expansion "has made a difference in this community." I love hiking those mountains and so do hundreds of thousands of other people."
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