Take a Winding Trip Up and Down the California Coast Through 7 Iconic Photographs

Seagrave gallery director Nolan Beck tells us about his favorite black-and-white images of the state's stunning coastline.

Henry Gilpin, Highway 1 (1967). Courtesy of Seagrave Gallery.
Henry Gilpin, Highway 1 (1967). Courtesy of Seagrave Gallery.

“The two girls grew up at the edge of the ocean and knew it was paradise, and better than Eden, which was only a garden.” So wrote Eve Babitz, describing the sublime beauty of her native Californian coast. This magical terrain of jutting mountains and crashing waves has, perhaps unsurprisingly, captured the imagination (and lenses) of generations of photographers— Ansel Adams and Brett Weston being just two among many.

Earlier this month, Seagrave, a online photography gallery specializing in West Coast masters of the medium, unveiled its new online viewing rooms with “On the Tideline” and “Masterworks of West Coast Photography,” two exhibitions that flaunt more than a few of images snapped along Highway 1.

We caught up with Nolan Beck, Seagrave’s gallery director and a consummate Californian, who talked to us about a few of his favorite photographs of the Golden Coast, and what makes each of them special.


1. Ansel Adams, Golden Gate Before the Bridge (1932)

Ansel Adams, Golden Gate Before the Bridge, 1932. Courtesy of Seagrave Gallery.

Ansel Adams, Golden Gate Before the Bridge (1932). Courtesy of Seagrave Gallery.

“Adams grew up in the San Francisco Headlands and made this now-iconic image of the Golden Gate a year before the bridge was built. Adams said of this very image, ‘This photograph of the Golden Gate has always been popular… For me, it remains a very positive experience and a memory of an impressive day.’

Some of Adams’s greatest images are of clearing storms, this one included, and, to me, it seems to communicate some universally relevant meaning. The capricious coastline is known for its many moods, and in this example Adams has recorded it in a glorious moment of integration.”


2. Bob Kolbrener, Rock Covers Paper #9, Big Sur (1999)

Bob Kolbrener, Rock Covers Paper no. 9, Big Sur, 1999. Courtesy of Seagrave Gallery.

Bob Kolbrener, Rock Covers Paper #9, Big Sur (1999). Courtesy of Seagrave Gallery.

“Just down the coast from Carmel is a cove of eroded granite cliffs and monoliths of truly unparalleled size. Bob Kolbrener, a disciple of Ansel Adams, came to know this granite canyon intimately, making a number of his best-known works there. Among these, Rock Covers Paper #9, Big Sur stands above and beyond, capturing the battleground where land meets sea in epic proportions. This scene harbors the dynamic power of the Pacific as the winter surf erodes the rocky outcrop.”


3. Brett Weston, Big Sur Coast (1967)

Brett Weston Big Sur Coast (1967). Courtesy of Seagrave Gallery.

Brett Weston, Big Sur Coast (1967). Courtesy of Seagrave Gallery.

“Brett Weston made this seascape just south of his home in the Carmel Highlands. This vintage silver gelatin Azo print is signed and dated in pencil mount recto, with annotations in pencil mount verso.

The prodigious son of famed modernist Edward Weston, Brett Weston is known for his highly distilled, formal photography. With little concern for subject, he captured abstract forms of the surrounding world, ones which he enhanced through careful development and printing.

In this case, Brett uses intense afternoon sunlight to isolate the Big Sur coastline from the gleaming Pacific. The orderly waves march in like the scrawls in a Cy Twombly chalk painting, implying some sublime order borne out by the otherwise tumultuous sea.”


4. Henry Gilpin, Highway 1 (1967)

Henry Gilpin, Highway 1, 1967. Courtesy of Seagrave Gallery.

Henry Gilpin, Highway 1 (1967). Courtesy of Seagrave Gallery.

“The Pacific Coast Highway sweeps along the continent’s edge, abutted by mountains and sea. No other image defines this emblem of California like Henry Gilpin’s magnum opus Highway 1. The afternoon sun silhouettes the Santa Lucia range of Big Sur, highlighting the sea spray between each rocky outcrop. While this image is a distillation of reality, it contains the essential feeling one gets from sailing down Highway 1 on a bright day, above the ocean’s booming surf.”


5. Minor White, Twisted Tree, Point Lobos, CA (1950)

Minor White, Twisted Tree, Point Lobos, CA, 1950.

Minor White, Twisted Tree, Point Lobos, CA (1950). Courtesy of Seagrave Gallery.

“Edward Weston made his last photograph of Point Lobos—and his last photograph ever—in 1948. Two years later, Minor White, one of Weston’s disciples, would visit Lobos and initiate a new era of West Coast photography: one that would revel in mystery, maintaining the precepts of straight photography, but taking this image fidelity to its extreme limits in the darkroom.

At its best, photography is a sort of alchemy. The profanity of matter is transformed into an essence transcending time and particularity. This process is epitomized in White’s Twisted Tree. The vestiges of the dead cypress reach like a double-helix into the dissolving heavens. The image is closer to a dream than to waking life, as fog enshrouds the outcrop of bleached granite and cypress. This particular print is one of the earliest White made, bearing deep, brooding tones that suspend the tree between a barely discernible sea and sky on the continent’s edge.”


6. Wynn Bullock, The Shore (1966)

Wynn Bullock The Shore 1966

Wynn Bullock, The Shore (1966). Courtesy of Seagrave Gallery.

“Sunset photographs and long exposures can both feel like photography clichés today. That said, Wynn Bullock’s The Shore is guilty of both of these, but is anything but superficial. Bullock pioneered the deliberate use of long-exposures for seascapes in the 1950s as an extension of his explorations in theoretical physics.

Here, the light from the setting sun reemerges from the wave-lapped sand, dissolving into the whirl of waves. If the world knows California by its sunsets and beaches, there isn’t a more tasteful image with which to indulge such representations.”


7. Ansel Adams, Stream, Sea, Clouds, Rodeo Lagoon, CA (1962)

Ansel Adams Stream, Sea, Clouds, Rodeo Lagoon, CA, 1962

Ansel Adams, Stream, Sea, Clouds, Rodeo Lagoon, CA (1962). Courtesy of Seagrave Gallery.

“Printed in the 1970s, this very rare print possesses luminous, delicate tones. While Ansel Adams is widely known for his grand views of Yosemite and the American West, the majority of his life was spent along the coast—between his childhood home on the San Francisco Headlands and his later home in the Carmel Highlands.

This particular seascape stands out among the many others he made on the California Coast: it is a study of light and the specular qualities of stream, sea, and clouds. While Adams moved into his Carmel home in 1962, this photograph was made the same year just north of San Francisco in the Marin Headlands, during one of his trips up the coast—this time to Timber Cove, where he would make several more well-known images.”

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