Tag Archives: Landscape Photography

Black + White Magazine (UK) – American Connection



I’m very honored to have been profiled in Susan Burnstine’s column, American Connection, in the April 2016 issue of Black + White Photography Magazine (UK).  Black + White Photography is a high-quality international magazine published in the UK, focused, as it name implies, exclusively on black and white photography. It is available in the United States at Barnes and Noble, international magazine stands, and online.

I met Susan Burnstine last Fall at the Medium Festival of Photography in San Diego. Susan’s own black and white photography is hauntingly beautiful, and created with hand-crafted film cameras and lenses made out of “plastic, vintage camera parts, and random household objects, with single-element lenses molded from plastic and rubber.” While quite different from my own work, I find it beautiful and intriguing, and presumably she saw something in my work interesting enough to write about as well.

The article can be seen here: Black + White Magazine – American Connection

(Courtesy of Black + White Photography Magazine (UK), April Issue, #188)


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Oceano’s Photographic History

As described in a previous post, I visited the dunes at Oceano for the first time earlier this year.  I have returned several times since then, and intend to continue.  The dunes have a storied photographic history, which makes the area even more interesting.

The photographer credited with first “discovering” the Oceano dunes was a Weston, though perhaps not one you would expect. Chandler Weston, son of Edward and brother of Brett, found the dunes in the early 1930s.  He and Brett owned a photo studio in nearby Santa Maria at the time.  Brett soon followed his brother to the dunes.

Edward Weston found his way to Oceano in 1934.  In the April 20, 1934 entry to his Daybooks, he describes traveling to Oceano from his home in Carmel with fellow photographer Willard Van Dyke:

“One weekend Willard came down after just quitting his job with the Shell Oil Co.: we took his car, I paying the expenses, and drove to Oceano.  There I made several dune negatives that mark a new epoch in my work.  I must go back there, — the material made for me!”

Dune Forum was a short-lived literary magazine published by Gavin Arthur (grandson of Chester A. Arthur, the 21st President of the United States).  The magazine was headquartered in Arthur’s cabin in the middle of the dunes, which was part of a small cluster of cabins known as Moy Mell.  Of the seven issues published, three had cover photographs of the Oceano Dunes: one each by Chandler Weston, Edward Weston, and Willard Van Dyke.  Brett Weston and Ansel Adams each had cover photos as well, though they were not of the dunes.  The remaining two covers were sketches.

The Oceano Dunes became iconic subject matter for both Edward and Brett Weston.  Edward, who made well-known images of the dunes themselves, and of Charis Wilson in the dunes, did most of his significant work there prior to 1940.  Brett Weston continued to visit the area for the rest of his life.

Ansel Adams made a well-known photo of the Oceano dunes around 1950 (Sand Dune, Oceano, California, c. 1950).  Interestingly, in Examples, the Making of 40 Photographs, he noted, “I have visited the dunes many times, but only on a few occasions have wanted to photograph.”

In the early 1960s, Adams, who was on the Board of Directors of the Sierra Club at the time, played a major role in the battle against the proposed construction of a nuclear power plant in the dunes.  As a result of pressure from Adams, the Sierra Club and others, the proposed power plant was moved further up the coast to Diablo Canyon, north of San Luis Obispo.

There is no shortage of photos of the Oceano Dunes, both by the early Masters and the many others who have followed.  However, the area continues to call to photographers and is well worth exploring further.

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Wandering Around

Copyright © Jim Banks

Quite a few years ago, I was showing a portfolio of commercially-oriented work around in an effort to drum up more business. I met with an art director who looked through my portfolio carefully, and then remarked, “you just wander around and take photos of interesting things.”

I don’t think he meant it as a compliment, but I later concluded that he was right.  That’s what I liked to do, and that’s what I thought was one of photography’s major strengths: finding interesting subjects, compositions, patterns or drama, and capturing them through the magic of photography.

“Wandering around” has always been my approach to landscape photography as well.  I’ll have a general idea of where I want to look, but that’s about as far as my planning takes me.  I much prefer to wander around and let the photographs find me.

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Twelve Significant Photographs

Ansel Adams wrote, “twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.”  In today’s age of cell phone cameras, Facebook and Instagram, is this a hopelessly outdated notion?

It’s estimated that there are currently about 90 billion photos on Facebook, with 6 billion more added each month.  Granted, most are posted as a means of personal communication rather than as any kind of artistic expression, but that’s a lot of photos!  Flickr, a photo-sharing site where the photos presumably have more creative intent, already hosts about 5 billion images.

The technological sea change that photography has seen in the last decade has exponentially increased the quantity of photographs, but not necessarily the quality.  While it’s generally easier, faster and cheaper to make photographs than ever before, that doesn’t necessarily translate into better photographs.

Oceano #1, Oceano, California © Jim Banks

The key word in Ansel’s quote is “significant”.  Of course that means different things to different people, but in this case I think he meant portfolio- and exhibition-worthy prints that would stand the test of time.

I feel that this seemingly modest goal is still valid in fine art landscape photography.  Although it’s very easy now to make hundreds (or thousands) of images in a day, the best still come from deliberate observation, selectivity, timing, and circumstance, with a little bit of luck thrown in.  They then have to survive a ruthless edit and pass the most important test of all, the test of time.

All in all, twelve significant photographs in a year is quite an accomplishment.

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Oceano is a special place. The tiny town of Oceano lies near Pismo Beach in Central California.  However to most people, Oceano means sand dunes.

Oceano #2, Oceano, California © Jim Banks

In the early1900s there were grand plans to develop the area as the “Atlantic City of the Pacific.”  The dunes were subdivided and sold.  A boardwalk, Grand Pavilion, and pier were constructed, all of which have been reclaimed by the shifting sands.  In the 1920s and 30s, the dunes were inhabited by the “Dunites”, a loosely formed group of artists, mystics, and misfits who claimed the dunes as their home.  In the 1960s, the area was discovered by dune buggy enthusiasts, who used it without restriction.  That development, along with the passage of time, moved the remaining Dunites out of the dunes, with the last one leaving in 1974.

The State of California has since stepped in, creating an official State Vehicular Recreation Area along the beach and in part of the dunes.  However, a good portion of the dunes, known by the Dunites as the “High Dunes,” has been preserved.

The dunes were photographed extensively by Edward and Brett Weston. A well-known Ansel Adams photograph was made there, and many other photographers have followed.

In February of this year, I decided I’d like to see Oceano for myself.  The area is still a bit quirky, with beautiful dunes surrounded by farms, RVs, a small airport, housing tracts, and the Off-Road Vehicle Recreation Area.  Wilderness it’s not

However, when you get into the high dunes themselves, it is still a beautiful area.  You can see what attracted so many to Oceano.

Even though so many have already photographed the Oceano dunes, it’s a place I’d like to explore more myself.

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Roots in the Landscape

People sometimes ask how I got interested in landscape photography.  I think the answer lies first in my interest in the landscape.

When I was growing up, family outings and vacations usually involved lots of time in out-of-the-way places. My parents were “rock hounds”, and my grandfather, H.H. Nininger, was a pioneer in the study of meteorites.  We would spend days (or weeks) in remote areas, camping and exploring. As a kid, I didn’t have a lot of patience for actually looking for rocks, but I really loved the requisite traveling, camping and being outdoors.  I always enjoyed looking at and being in the landscape. I clearly remember struggling to stay awake on long car rides so as not to miss anything interesting along the way (which I still do today).

Like many photographers, I developed an interest in photography at an early age, although it was initially fairly casual and secondary to the experience of actually being in the landscape.  I have vague memories of having an old Kodak Brownie camera when I was very young, and clear memories of receiving a Kodak Instamatic camera for my 12th birthday.  These piqued my interest in photography, and I eventually got a hand-me-down Argus “Brick” camera from my mother, and finally my own 35mm SLR.

Initially, as with most photographers, my photos were primarily records of places and things.  Photography was a way to enjoy and remember the experience of being someplace.  While the technical aspects of photography came to me easily, and I think strong compositions were fairly natural for me, photography really didn’t get much deeper than that for me until I was in my 20s.

Throughout my formative years, I think I was most interested in the landscape itself, with photography being a strong, but secondary, interest.

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Scattering Leaves

I picked up a photography magazine the other day while I was waiting for an appointment.  As I was flipping through the pages, I saw an article that struck a chord.  In it, the author talked about how Autumn was a favorite time of year for landscape photography.  While I don’t have any quarrel with the conclusion, the reasoning seemed a bit odd to me.  The author stated that unlike in other seasons, where a photographer had to work with the hand they were dealt, in the Fall, a photographer could scatter leaves throughout the scene to improve his photographs.

While there are no general ethical principles in landscape photography, as there are in journalism for instance, in my mind there is an implication that landscape photographs are rooted in fact. Yes, photographs are abstractions of reality, and yes, they can be selective in what they show and manipulated in printing, but one usually assumes they are based on what was actually present in the scene as it was found.  At least I make that assumption.  To think otherwise removes a bit of their allure, in my opinion.

While there are many valid approaches to photography, the images I make are true to the scene as I found it.  I much prefer to discover and explore the subjects of my photographs as they exist in reality. Besides, who am I to try to improve upon what is naturally present?

(Tip from the article: if you do scatter leaves in your photographs, make sure they don’t all end up right side up, as that’s a sure giveaway that you did.)

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