The allure of the coast played an immense role in the development of my visual style. When I was a boy, we lived in a house on a beach of the Persian Gulf. I remember the watercolors and oil paintings my mother would make of coastal scenery. I’ve photographed models on the beaches and in the waters of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, as well as their tributary waterways. The coastal landscape presents an array of textures and lighting effects. Sand and sea offer not only patterns but also reflect light in distinct ways. A range of moods can be expressed by positioning the body with deliberate angles to the sun and camera.
The beach is one of the more strenuous shoots to produce. There is typically a long hike to find the ideal location that is not only beautiful but inexplicably devoid of other people. It’s not unusual for us to walk a mile or two from the point of public access. This often means visiting these spots on days that are colder, windier, or otherwise inclement enough to deter other beach visitors. The elements can’t be so inhospitable as to disrupt the model’s mood however, or the poses would be ruined by expressions of discomfort. So the images you see are rare moments, usually an unexpected break in a string of thunderstorms or a freakishly warm day in winter. The sound of the beach puts me into a state of concentration where I can block out all thoughts except the composition before me. With limited ability to communicate verbally, model and photographer fall into an unspoken rhythm of shooting and reposing aided only by tacit cues of body language and feedback through hand signals.
On the coast near San Francisco, I worked with Elena Marie overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The flat, hazy horizon line merges with a distant view of the rocky coastline. Trekking up and down cliffs and walking across rocky shorelines, we searched until we found an inspiring view.
The beaches of the Carolinas are sporadically sprinkled with old forests that have succumbed to the ever-changing coastline. Through erosion, the boundary of the salt water shifts, and trees eventually die and fall over. The unearthed roots and crumbling bark expose an array of textures for the lens.
The gnarled and twisted tentacles of wood grain create patterns inside patterns. The sweeping organic curves harmonize with the contours of the body while their deathly grotesqueness contrasts with the models’ vibrant beauty.
Sand provides a vast backdrop. Handprints, scattered grains, and tracks left behind tell a story of visitors, human and otherwise.
The tiny grains of quartz and shells that make up the beach form a seemingly homogeneous shape in the panorama. Upon closer inspection, it is comprised of multiple points of colors and a subtle variety of sizes. It deforms with the model’s presence and imparts its coarseness on the skin. A body covered in sand seems more animal in nature. Depending on the model’s skin tone, sand can contrast or harmonize with the figure.
My favorite scenes for figure photography are those that others find interesting enough to photograph without any human presence. The sky has always compelled me. An approaching or retreating storm poses an irresistible aesthetic appeal despite the hazard to the photographer’s electrified and optical contraptions. Sky can be dramatic, threatening, or soothing; the color range fascinates me more than any other part of the landscape.
Wind is both friend and foe. It can blow hair to create a theatrical mood or just an unpredictable nuisance obscuring the face. When strong, it drowns out conversation, and when absent it allows winged, biting varmints to interrupt the tranquility. A cool breeze is welcome and a sandy one is frightful. In a strong wind, a fabric prop becomes beautifully fluid. The effect of wind on fabric and hair imparts a feeling of movement that is matched in drama by the changing ocean and sky.
Sunlight illuminates the vast majority of my subjects. Sometimes I bring a small photographic light with me to assist, but I’m mostly at the mercy of that glowing orb around which our planet spins. Or rather, at the mercy of all that stands between me and the sun. Direct sunlight is often too harsh for a flattering portrait but the hard shadows make for bold statements. When it’s overcast, the images will be too flat for my taste. The perfect balance happens when the sun is low in the sky. Just before the sun comes up, and as it is going down, are when we can best capture the brilliant colors as a backdrop to the figures. On a calm morning, the predawn light has a chillingly tranquil effect on the water and sky.
Always in motion, iridescent waves produce endless possibilities for reflection and refraction. Water carries immense weight and the model must concentrate to stay upright when there is high surf. This involvement in her surroundings makes for engaged body language and adds to the story of the image. Timing becomes a critical factor in getting the right moments when a wave is crashing around a model; the water is forming interesting shapes, but has yet to knock her off balance. I cannot achieve the effect I want by standing on the high ground with a long lens. I must adopt a low angle of view, near the ground to get the right framing and perspective on a model in the surf. Moments after a model is engulfed in a large wave, the water reaches my position, my equipment high over my head on an extended arm, eyes closed as sand and salt swirl around my head.
The coastline near where I live is laced with rivers and streams that feed into the ocean. Narrow barrier islands and the inlets between them merge salt and fresh waters. The river side of the islands are frequented by fauna such as crabs and dolphins, but neglected by most humans. The tranquil currents are host to deep shadows and dazzling reflections. On a warm day, the gentle tributaries are a relaxing place for a dip. The backgrounds of these images are a gently diminishing pattern of wavelets and the marsh in the background. I like photographing these scenes from a low angle, which usually means lying on my side, with the camera close to the sand of the riverbank.