back west: 2011 – 2017
“We have to stumble through so much dirt and humbug before we reach home. And we have no one to guide us. Our only guide is our homesickness.”
– H. Hesse ‘Steppenwolf’
By 2011, I’d made it back from the east but just barely. In Amarillo, I stopped to fill up my tank and found that someone had hacked my debit card and drained my checking account. Fortunately, I had some cash left from my last side job but I rolled into Morro Bay on an empty tank, an empty belly, one cigarette and zero dollars. Needless to say, it was not a glorious homecoming.
But I got on the best I could and rented a small studio and went about the business of pulling my life back together. I found work when needed, processed piles of pictures from the road and did my best to avoid the synthetic necessities I’d woefully come to depend upon. It was not an easy time.
But one day, just sitting in my ratty chair, mindlessly staring towards the kitchenette; I noticed window light streaming in and cooking a blue glass bottle I’d gotten as a gift from my Aunt. It stood there like a bright, proud beacon spreading crisp blue light across cabinets and countertops in scattered, prism-like streaks and I thought – Well okay, there’s that.”
It reminded me of a motif I explored briefly just as I was preparing to leave for West Virginia in 2008: Glass bottles, in blue. Before leaving, I stayed at my parent’s house for a bit to settle up and finalize things and while doing some laundry, I noticed a couple of blue bottles sitting on a window sill. Outside, the sunlight bounced between a white stucco wall and a side-yard fence, highlighting some pretty vine flowers before streaming in and illuminating the bottles with a deep, radiant blue that just couldn’t be ignored. I took a few shots and decided it had potential and made a mental note to explore it in the future.
Well, the future was now. After my years back east, focused as I was on landscape work, I welcomed this new material. The fact that it was available in my studio was also a huge plus and it took me back to the interiors of my Morro Bay home by the beach. At this point, I had the one bottle I’d gotten from my Aunt but I purchased a few more off Craigslist, and then one after another, blue bottles started showing up everywhere; A Sky Vodka bottle, a Nordic Naturals Fish Oil bottle, a Budweiser Platinum bottle… On a lunch break at a job site, a co-worker pulled out a green bottle of tabasco, emptied it on a burrito and then placed it in the middle of a slim shaft of light coming across our table. I was so taken by the color that I almost choked on my food. The light coming through from behind and the bright intensity of the green made more so by the contrast of the shadowed areas straddling the bottle – It just really grabbed my attention and got me thinking beyond the blue. On my way home that day I bought my own bottle and threw it into the mix because as far as color combinations go, you can’t go wrong with blue and green.
I also took to shooting around Black Hill, a prominent high point that sits on state park property above Morro Bay. Several hiking trails exist up and around the town mountain and I spent a lot of time there. On the eastern flank, a small grove of trees stands near a trail, a spot I noticed on my hikes and it reminded me of the grove of trees I photographed next to Heart Lake while in the Adirondacks. On my next hike, I brought my camera and set up shop. Funny thing was: I didn’t bring all that much intensity to the sessions. I think it was because I’d just got back from the east and the landscapes there, the area, the history, and my personal situation; all of it had a weight, a heaviness that made those days and that place seem so serious. But here, on Black Hill, I was home. I wouldn’t say I was safe, things were financially tenuous and many of the reasons for my leaving California once again began to assert themselves and that was concerning. So I wouldn’t say ‘comfortable’, but at least on familiar ground, and so I approached these Black Hill sessions way more relaxed and certain of my skills and technique. As it happened when I first started working with motion blur, something in a picture or part of a picture; which could be a particular density of color or texture, something caught my eye and I honed in on it. This was a place I returned to again and again for almost eight years. I’ve taken tens of thousands of shots here.
As usual, I hung out inside all day. The only time I ventured out the front door was to retrieve a week’s worth of mail.
It was glorious though. The sun was up and the sky deep blue with that tinge of cold that always makes breathing seem so real.
But even this beautiful day could not drag me past the mailbox to face the world, and so I happily consented to day drinking and football.– Beauty and Debris
But work was an issue, money was hard to come by and the fact that I was back home in a somewhat diminished and exhausted state didn’t help. This was around 2011 and the country was still reeling from the recession and finding work was tough. I went back to the family construction business, the business I once was part owner of, the company I once co-managed; I went back and worked as a laborer. This was incredibly humbling but they were feeling the consequences of the recession too and the fact was, I was lucky to have the job. It took everything in me to show up every day and work in that capacity but I needed the money and that was that. Eventually, I got on a large solar project which paid well and that kept me working on and off through the various construction phases for the next two years.
The Sierra Nevada, California 2014
The concentration on making money kept my photo efforts to Black Hill and the blue bottles. The accessibility of both these subjects made it easy to pop in and grab a few sessions but I was mainly focused on making money and settling debts. My main concern was that I had no real skills I could profit from and every job I’d done in the past, from grip work to real estate and so on, was something I couldn’t go back to or just wasn’t particularly good at. Also, I was just beginning to feel my age and the kind of work I’d always been able to fall back on, any kind of physical labor work, was going to become unsustainable at some point because I was just plain getting too old and all the hard living didn’t help. So I started thinking about driving, commercial driving. It had its advantages; I could get a job anywhere, I could work seasonally and there were local or over-the-road options. It seemed to offer the kind of flexibility that a flexible life like mine needed but thanks to a few problematic entries on my driving record, I couldn’t get a commercial driver’s license at that time so I moved out of my studio and back into the van and headed for the eastern Sierras.
For the next three years, between 2014 to late 2017, I moved back and forth between the central coast and the Sierras. I’d work when I was back home and shoot and rock climb when I was in the mountains. Mostly I lived out of the van, but I rented a room in Bishop for a time and briefly stayed in the historic Wineman Hotel in downtown San Luis Obispo where I experimented with new bottles and colors. In 2017, on my way back from Bend Oregon after climbing and watching the total solar eclipse, my van broke down. Fortunately, I managed to get it going and limped it back to Bishop and that was the beginning of the end. I was broke, tired, and ready for a change. I tried to get back into the pictures, back into the climbing but it was over and I knew it. It was time to go home for good.