Where the sidewalk ends

The Sutro Highlands.

I hosted a small workshop last month on the western edge of San Francisco - along the cypress trees and paths that lead visitors above and among the Sutro Baths. The baths were built by the eponymous mayor of San Franciso, who owned the nearby Cliff House (visible in the last photograph of this post). The baths eventually closed and the buildings burnt during demolition, their ruins now part of the Golden Gate Recreation Area managed by the U.S. Park Service.

The three of us spent about two to three hours walking from the hills, through groves of Cypress, down to the ruins, taking photographs and chatting. Some part of us was shocked that such a monumental structure would be allowed to simply rot here on what seems like valuable property. Perhaps another entrepreneur would have put something here had not the area been taken over by the NPS. In the end, the tranquility of the area overwhelmed us all and we stopped wondering why and focused on using these ruins to frame some beautiful photographs. Contrasting anthropic and natural textures within the frame is a simple and effective recipe for a good photograph and Sutro provides no shortage of opportunities.

This simple frame makes it look as though this image were taken at the end of the world, the last frayed finger of civilization turning to sand before the drumbeat of the waves. It's a quick study in how to compose to alter perception. Turn the camera a few degrees and you see the light pollution from and the buildings of a massive urban center, but, framed correctly, the illusion of isolation and desolation is complete, the end of the sidewalk crumbling in the foreground and the vast, empty and cold, blue sea beyond.

Where the sidewalk ends, the Sutro Baths

A few minutes earlier and the light was equally beautiful, but much more dramatic. There is a simplicity to making photographs after blue hour has set in, a simplicity I love. It lacks the thrill and pace of trying to immortalize a stunning but fragile sunset, but has all the serenity one can handle. The trick is to wait for the "right" part of blue hour, to wait when the Earth's shadow is deep enough to let through only the foreward scattered, shorter wavelengths of deep blue and violet. Here is an image from the same staircase before the sun had set.

Sunset over the Sutro Bath ruins

A topic we discussed at length was filling the frame and using our surroundings to build frames. Here I took advantage of the cypress bows to make a frame for a massive cargo ship, steaming westward.

Monterey Cypress frame a cargo ship headed west

We all learned (and I continue to learn) how quickly sea spray accumulates on the front element. I wished I had brought some glass cleaner and a few wipes with me, as my T-shirt was beginning to prove inadequate towards the end of the night. The wind was whipping chill and water and salt from the tips of the waves onto the glass of my 14mm faster than I could clean it off. Making these images became an exercise in compose, clean, cover and wait. I would get things set, clean the lens quickly, cover it with the lens cap and wait until the waves looked to be just right before quickly removing the cap and exposing before big drops of sea spray had ruined the frame. Here you can see the iconic bows of the Monterey Cypress along the highlands above the baths. The edges of the cliffs are bramble, radiant with small, yellow flowers and the sky in the background is shrouded in fog whipped like cream from California-current-cooled winds.

The cypress on the western edge of San Francisco

A few steps down the path and you get a wonderful view of the Marin headlands on the horizon and the setting sun. The two figures on the right, enjoying a peaceful moment together at the western edge of America, make this photograph for me.

The sun sets over Sutro and two hikers watch

An image of the Seal Rocks in the very last moments of twilight, a 3+ minute exposure. One of the things we spoke about during the workshop was how to remove everything you can that distracts from the frame. When you can't remove anything at all, you're done.

Violet seal rocks
The Seal Rocks at sunset

Finally, a view from the north of the Sutro Bath ruins - you can see Cliff House above. There is a fisherman down there on the edge of the baths and another photographer walking around somewhere in the frame.

Sutro baths from above