Vermilioned Nothingness

A vermilioned nothingness, any stick of the mass
Of which we are too distantly a part.”
                                     (Wallace Stevens)

 

Arriving in San Francisco, the plane intently lowers down. Redwood City’s white salt pile appears. Pink and rose triangles, salt flats.

 

A few years ago, these sights disappeared as levees created in the 1850s were breached and wetlands revived. Before being driven out, the Ohlones gathered the salt at the water’s edge here, and one of the explorers from that time wrote down that story. The Ohlones prospered on this land, with a diet so various as to allow no need for cultivation, revolving around the fall acorn harvest. Their collecting area . . . bears plentiful seeds . . . [they] have already harvested abundant stores of tansy-mustard seeds, sage or chia seeds, evening primrose seeds, clarkia seeds, and most recently malia seeds.

 

According to the director of the restoration project, the marsh then returns on its own:

Once you let the tides in, the sediment comes in, bringing the seeds, and the whole process will be set in motion. He goes on to say that a few salt ponds are being kept in a freshened state for threatened snowy plovers, who have grown to like having a place here.

 

It does happen, I see it, a congress of birds assembles near Oracle, settling in the mud, water, disputing territory from the tops of multiplying hotels.

 

Plovers will use almost anything they can find on the beach to make their nests, including kelp, driftwood, shells, rocks, and even human footprints.

Bird photographs throughout photographed by Barbara Einzig with iPhone 5 in Redwood City, CA.

Bird photographs throughout photographed by Barbara Einzig with iPhone 5 in Redwood City, CA.

Stories from the past — that sometimes changed into itself from the present bit by bit, and sometimes turned from the present into the past without warning — are here with the landscape, with the medium of photography, with what everyone was looking at at the time each photograph was made, and with the phenomenon of recurrence, location and relocation — as the pieces of a mobile move.

 

Flying in episodically to come home to the Peninsula, the frames surround what was seen in the past and what is seen now.

Dorothea Lange, The Road West, U.S. 54 in Southern New Mexico, 1938

Dorothea Lange, The Road West, U.S. 54 in Southern New Mexico, 1938

Three years earlier, working with Paul Taylor, Lange had seen a wave of people lined up to cross over from Arizona into California, after that intent curving down:

No one noticed what was happening, no one recognized it.  A month later they were trying to close the border.

 

Ansel Adams, Surf Sequence, 1940; promised gift of Launny and Weezie Steffens; © The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust; photo: Don Ross

Ansel Adams, Surf Sequence, 1940; promised gift of Launny and Weezie Steffens; © The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust; photo: Don Ross

Ansel Adams captures in a series of five a wave or waves taken from Highway One returning to Carmel from Yosemite.

 

The subject is moving, and he describes averaging the time to arrive at the exposure, as well as an intricate process of dodging and burning. This is not to blur the image but to resolve it to its essentials.

 

Adams is a member of the Group f/64, named after a small lens opening that produces very high definition.

 

The bitter acorns, before cooking and eating, were leached. The shell was cracked and removed, the dried kernels pounded into meal on a flat granite boulder, which eventually produced cup-shaped depressions in the rock that deepened with use. In the Valley there are many such large, flat rocks with from six to twenty mortar holes of varying depth.

 

Aunts and uncles visiting us from Detroit were terrified driving to the beach.

Janet Delaney, Howard Street toward Fourth, from the series South of Market, 1978-1986, 1981, printed 1998

Janet Delaney, Howard Street toward Fourth, from the series South of Market, 1978-1986, 1981, printed 1998

And as the Ohlones walked by the water to gather the seeds, the mother walked in front of her daughter in a path defined by its depression in the reeds, lowered down over time the depth of a hand or more.

 

The images of Adams possess an exceedingly pointed awareness of the light that he reports first experiencing in the high country, pushing up the ridge west of Mount Clark.

 

The photograph is composed directly from the physical state he achieves climbing, hauling glass plates.

 

About his earlier image of Half Dome in Yosemite, he reports: that was the first time I realized how the print was going to look — what I now call visualization — and was actually thinking about the emotional effect of the image . . . I used the last plate I had with a No.29-F red filter.

Ansel Adams, Half Dome, Thunder Cloud, from Portfolio Three: Yosemite Valley, ca. 1956

Ansel Adams, Half Dome, Thunder Cloud, from Portfolio Three: Yosemite Valley, ca. 1956

Ansel Adams is four years old when the 1906 earthquake throws him to the ground, breaking his nose.

 

As a small child I had played in the crisp winter snow at Carson City, and seen the stately oaks at Atherton on the hot, brittle fields rising towards the San Mateo Hills and beyond to the madrone-lush folds of the Santa Cruz Mountains . . . Such early images are often as clear and compelling in memory as the actual vistas of today.

 

When thirteen, he is reported to have assembled his photographs, taken with a Brownie box camera, into photo-diaries.

 

He describes his first impressions of Yosemite as

a culmination of experience so intense as to be almost painful.

Lee Friedlander, Tetons, 1999

Lee Friedlander, Tetons, 1999

I gravitate to this image, one of a number taken by Lee Friedlander in the Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.

 

The tangle of branches arresting,

patterns of light and shadow in foreground,

background of mountain and sky also patterned and advancing

forward as it does when one is walking for a long time up the trail.

 

We moved from Michigan to California when I was one, too early for me to remember, but the story was told of crossing the Rockies and running out of gas just shy of the downhill, so that with some pushing we coasted to the next fuel stop.

 

I thought this trip could recur as I drove back to California from a year of graduate school in Milwaukee at twenty-three, but a July blizzard sent Karina and I heading south, camping out near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.

 

I left California in the early eighties for South America and then the East Coast. Everyone would ask me do you miss California and I would think for a moment and realize I did not think of that and would say no.

 

Then without warning I begin to miss the West, which Webster’s identifies (twelfth century) as the general direction of sunset.

 

You have as a person writing . . . to denude yourself of time so that writing time does not exist . . . There should not be a sense of time, but an existence suspended in time.

 

For the Ohlones there was only present time, the immediate past which they could remember, and a sense of lineage that might have gone back four or five generations.  Beyond that — somewhere in the distance — was Sacred Time, the time of creation . . .

Eadweard Muybridge, Daisy with Rider, 1887

Eadweard Muybridge, Daisy with Rider, 1887

I had seen Friedlander’s photographs in the home of another photographer when I was staying there as a guest, south of Market at the time Janet Delaney records.

Janet Delaney, Mercantile Building, c. 1903, with a view toward the Moscone Center construction site, from the series South of Market, 1978-1986, 1980, printed 1998

Janet Delaney, Mercantile Building, c. 1903, with a view toward the Moscone Center construction site, from the series South of Market, 1978-1986, 1980, printed 1998

I remember viewing the photographs as correlates to poetry I was then immersed in, particularly Jack Spicer planes of meaning, of intelligible surfaces suddenly parting to an alternate reading.

 

Self-presentations are muted, or we are reflected in a dense rich swarm of tonalities and fragments.

 

In the early eighties Friedlander begins to photograph Central Park and the work of Frederick Law Olmsted, and continues to photograph parks and wilderness, in the original sense of a fenced-off garden in a park. The photographs contain all of the elements of what may be known to be foreground and background but existing as a shifting, just as the high country does as the air thins and the eyes take in the pointed awareness.

Alfred Stieglitz, Old and New New York, 1910

Alfred Stieglitz, Old and New New York, 1910

The building’s continual life as the mark of the era in which it was planned, the building materials assembled, pieces pulled into place, structure of the towers of floors rising before the walls turn it to inside and outdoors.

 

When a person died, no matter how prominent, [the Ohlones] built no lasting monuments.  Everything — a person’s possessions, deeds, name, and within a few generations even a person’s memory — was totally obliterated.

Eadweard Muybridge, Mahomet, from The Horse in Motion, 1878

Eadweard Muybridge, Mahomet, from The Horse in Motion, 1878. Mahomet was owned by Leland Stanford and photographed on the Palo Alto track.

So rapid motion imitates stillness.

 

Upheavals, displacements, going up and down, danger of falling rock.

Eadweard Muybridge, Bouquet with Rider, ca. 1887

Eadweard Muybridge, Bouquet with Rider, ca. 1887

Violence of fortunes, geology, 1849 Gold Rush, and seven years later 30,000 people, descriptions of a city of tents, soon changing to brick and stone.

 

In the 1850s the indigenous people of Yosemite were driven onto reservations.

 

Mark Twain tells the story of how in 1865 he “enjoyed” his first earthquake just after noon on a bright October day. I was coming down Third Street . . . the ground seemed to roll under me in waves.

 

Eadweard Muybridge takes a pack team into Yosemite, using outdoor collodion wet-plate photography, pitching a tent, and spends six months of 1867 hazarding himself and heavy equipment to make 260 images.

 

As gold becomes harder to find, the Chinese are driven from the mines, settling in San Francisco. Although the first westbound train arrived here in 1869 in part through Chinese labor, in 1882 the Chinese Exclusion Act is passed and is not repealed until 1943.

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Leaves of  roses          tight red fists

stop time         extending in wind

still bothering              with winter

where                          I did not

dare to                         cut them

back                             before in

fall.

 

Shaking, crying, the flowers advance.

 

Crows, hawks calculate and disappear,

flying off to the

north

west,

a season ends.

 

 

I was scattering wildflower seeds when Maureen called

to say it is snowing in Denver, further confusing the lilacs.

 

 

And I found these pieces along the shore,

some the remains of abalone shells I pried just under

water from the cliffs edging Pebble Beach,

rock a tactile architecture where the edge between animal and plant was

ragged, in which beings would crawl into shells and borrow them for a

time.

Lee Friedlander, Baltimore, 1968

Lee Friedlander, Baltimore, 1968

Janet Delaney’s works capture scenes I remember.

 

The neighborhood was so undistinguished that there wasn’t anything that identified it as a place . . .

 

It appeared that no one noticed what was happening.

 

She is using a view camera on a tripod, and the photographs are printed twenty years after they are taken.

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I am driving my daughter and our friend to Yosemite to show them the place that is a lodestone to me. We have with us a spiral guide to Yosemite that I find at my mother’s house, more than fifty years old, with maps on coated paper that unfolds.

 

We leave in darkness so that they awake as we are entering the canyon, but fires hide the spectacular walls and it appears as I had described it only the next morning when the smoke has cleared. We return setting out in darkness as well, and our friend changes in the back seat into her gray wool shift for Sand Hill Road, where we arrive in time for the business day.

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The seventh rule of Ansel and Virginia Adams’s Illustrated Guide to Yosemite Valley is

If lost, sit down and think, and the guidebook states that the danger is panic.

Try to recall how you arrived at this point,

the direction of flow of the last stream crossed,

the aspect of the last prominent landmark you saw.

Reconstruct your route backward in your mind until you mentally

arrive at a point you can define on your map. 

 

If this fails, do some more thinking.

 

 


SOURCES/ITALICS

OHLONES: Malcolm Margolin, The Ohlone Way: Indian Life in the San Francisco-Monterey Bay Area, Heyday Books, Berkeley, CA, 1978 [Kindle Edition, 2013]

REDWOOD CITY SALT FLATS: http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Oldest-Bay-Area-salt-flat-turned -into-wetland-2310252.php

SNOWY PLOVER: http://www.westernsnowyplover.org/about_plovers.html

LANGE: The Making of a Documentary Photographer: Oral History Transcript and Related Materials 1960-1968, interviews of 1960 and 1961 by Suzanne Riess of the Regional Oral History Office, University of California at Berkeley, published 1968.  Retrieved April 15, 2016 from https://archive.org/stream/documentryphoto00langrich/documentryphoto00langrich_djvu.txt

ADAMS: Robert Turnage (March 1980). “Ansel Adams: The role of the artist in the environmental movement.” Retrieved April 2, 2016 from The Ansel Adams Gallery: http://www.anseladams.com/ansel-adams-the-role-of-the-artist-in-the-environmental-movement

ACORN TECHNOLOGY: Virginia and Ansel Adams, Illustrated Guide to Yosemite Valley, H.S. Crocker Co., Inc., 1940.

STEIN: Gertrude Stein, “A Transatlantic Interview—1946,” in Robert Bartlett Haas, Ed., A Primer for the Gradual Understanding of Gertrude Stein, Black Sparrow Press, Los Angeles, CA, 1974.

TWAIN: Mark Twain, Roughing It, Harper and Brothers Publishers, New York and London, 1871, 1899, 1913, Vol. 2, p. 164 [E-book version].

DELANEY: Sam Whiting, “Photographer Janet Delaney documented changing face of SoMa” in SF Gate, April 11, 2014. Retrieved April 3, 2016 from http://www.sfgate.com/art/article/Photographer-Janet-Delaney-documented-changing-5396437.php.

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