Photographic Magic: Images of Ventura County's Coast Trigger Something Deeper

Sea lions, intertwined. | Photo: Courtesy Steve Munch
Sea lions, intertwined. | Photo: Courtesy Steve Munch

My friends Steve Munch and Stephanie Hogue just published a book of photographs. It's called, "Latitudes: Coastal Photo Explorations." At this very moment, a copy rests on my lap. Its happy heft makes me, well, happy. Slowly turning its pages, my mind drifts.

This is not a shameless shill for Steve and Stephanie's book (though their photos are achingly beautiful). With full disclosure in mind, I wrote a few short paragraphs in their book, but mostly my words just get in the way of what matters. This post really has little to do with Steve and Stephanie's photographs, although it is their photographs that are currently performing the magic that the right picture does. The right picture sings. It reaches directly into your heart and plucks an impossible array of strings. Sometimes -- and these are the best times -- it reaches deep into your memories, and then, who knows? The right photograph takes you back, and whisks you forward and places you firmly in the present. Time travel exists.

Steve and Stephanie's photographs focus on California's incomparable coastline and seas. Many were taken right here at home in Ventura County, which, I feel, is an incomparable gem along California's incomparable coast. There are photographs of sleek dolphins, and fog-shrouded piers, and tiny mustard flowers that somehow thrive in places washed with salt and raked by crazed winds. There is beauty in that alone.

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Steve and Stephanie's book focuses on the ocean, its vast sprawl and its delicate edges. I have spent my life around the ocean. In turn, the ocean has made my life (I first kissed the girl of my dreams by the ocean's edge). Because of this, Steve and Stephanie's photographs throw all manner of curious and surprising switches inside me. Such things are very personal. Your own photographic magic might be triggered by a grainy photograph of a carousel at a summer fair or a woman in a shaded doorway, already half turned away. Goodbye. Possibly forever.

The composition of your photographs may be very different. But the result is the same.

The seagull, backlit by sun. | Photo: Courtesy Stephanie Hogue
The seagull, backlit by sun. | Photo: Courtesy Stephanie Hogue   

And so I look at photograph of a seagull backlit by the sun, and I am sitting in sixth period at Langley High School, reading Richard Bach's "Jonathan Livingston Seagull," tucked behind my physics book. For that reason and more I received a "D" (for "deserved") in physics, but even in those hormone-addled times I knew words mattered more to me than the laws of motion. It has been almost forty years, but sitting here right now looking at Stephanie or Steve 's lovely seagull (to their credit, in their book they eschew photo credits, letting their photos do the singing), I feel Bach's words lifting me, away from a hard plastic seat and dull lecturing drone, to a place of uncompromised promise.

"Jonathan Seagull discovered that boredom and fear and anger are the reasons that a gull's life is so short, and with those gone from his thought, he lived a long fine life indeed," Mr. Bach wrote. Okay, fine: I had to look up the quote again, but really, who remembers anything from high school? I do remember this. I wanted to be Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Right now, remembering this, my heart actually does fly. It is a feeling beyond words. Seventeen. Recall the limitless promise in the world, rolled out at your feet like a carpet? Now captured in Stephanie's photograph.

Also in Steve and Stephanie's book there is a photograph above of two sea lions dozing on a rock. If you look in the back of their book (again, they don't let words get in the way), you'll see the photograph is titled "Afternoon Nap." But my mind is not napping. I married the dream girl I kissed by the ocean's edge, and we spent our first wedding anniversary on Santa Barbara Island. One afternoon we went snorkeling in a small cove brimming with barking, honking sea lions. Discounting dozens of sea lions, we were alone. Finning down beneath the water, we spread our arms wide. Sea lions rushed at us, making for our outstretched palms; once or twice I felt whiskers brush past. Intoxicated, we performed underwater somersaults and upright twirls, and in the blue-green world about us the sea lions, driven to their own happy madness, made their own crazy loops. It remains one of the happiest days of my life. Somehow 27 years have passed. Did I mention that the two sea lions in the photograph are intertwined, and both possess a look of serene contentment?

Steve and Stephanie's book also contains several photographs of piers. In one, the end of the pier disappears into smoky fog. I love its fog-shrouded magic; to me it is both mysterious and an appropriate life metaphor. But you don't have to love the ocean to receive a similar reminder. Your photograph could be a dock pronging out into a lake, or a mountaintop, or, frankly, any place looking out to any horizon. In every case, a visual tapestry of unexplored "What ifs."

The right picture sings. It reaches directly into your heart and plucks an impossible array of strings. Happiness. Sorrow. Moments seized and moments lost.

Because they possess an artist's eye (and an artist's work ethic; it is no easy matter capturing a photograph that matters), Steve and Stephanie's book is filled with frozen moments that transport me, but I won't bore you with any more of them. It's your life, not mine.

Find a moment. Hold your own photographs and drift away.

And then make the most of your present.

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