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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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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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