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Pictures Perfect: A Pair From Heyday Books

Tuesday December 09, 2003

As a photographer with modest skills—I’ve shot for several newspapers, a magazine or two, and one book—I’m always awed by the truly gifted artists who capture so deftly the images that elude all my skills and hardware. 

Watching an inspired shooter in a darkroom is an awe-inspiring experience, as I discovered when watching the incomparable Bill Beebe, who shot for the L.A. Mirror, Life, a host of nature mags, and the late, lamented Santa Monica Evening Outlook. 

As a reporter—a writer—I’m acutely aware that words can never convey all the subtleties, hues, and shadows that bounce off my retinas. 

I’ve always had a weakness for black and white. Though color photography is glitzier, the infinite palette of grays between the absolute presence and the total absence of light can convey something of the essential nature of things far more clearly that the peacock hues of Agfa, Fuji or Kodak. 

Trees have always been a favorite subject for the lens of the succession of Mamiyas, Rolleis, Nikons, and Minoltas I’ve shot over the years because there’s something remarkable and mysterious in the way they seek the sun, bending and twisting into myriad labyrinthine forms to spread their green thieves of light. 

Once, many years ago, when I ran a photo of a eucalyptus in the late Oceanside Blade-Tribune, a reporter insisted I pull the photo because the picture struck her as obscene. It wasn’t, of course, but it was sensual. 

In Two-Hearted Oak, Heyday Books, a Berkeley publisher devoted to quality works of Californiana, has given us a work that would, undoubtedly, have provoked the Mrs. Grundy in my former colleague. 

The core of the book is a stunning collection of black-and-white landscape shots captured by Roman Loranc, a Polish emigre who settled in California’s Central Valley. 

The book isn’t all trees by any means. There’re vast plowed fields, marshes, rivers, grasslands. Humans are present only through their works: in the neatly planted ranks of vineyards and almond orchards, in achingly lonely windmills, in weathered barns, in a lamplight fog-shrouded path, and in a partially submerged abandoned shopping cart. 

The photographs in this coffee table volume are reproduced in exquisite detail—sometimes in sepia—on heavy coated stock, and the accompanying text and poetry by Lilian Vallee, Loranc’s spouse, plays off and illuminates the imagery. 

Evoking a sense of haunting alone-ness, Loranc’s images offer up a visual koan, contrasting the irresistible human impulse to dominate the landscape with life’s own uncompromising and passionate thirst for light, for water, and for air. 

And of all Loranc’s depictions, it’s the trees I find most moving. 

The Druids worshiped trees, and the Hindu likened consciousness to a tree. Trees capture light, building living explosions of wood to deploy their light- and carbon-dioxide-capturing green, and arraying an equal exuberant network of underground branches—roots—to inhale liquid and mineral nutrient. Mirror images, one visible, the other invisible. As above/so below. As within/as without. 

Even to the skeptic—a group to which this reviewer professes allegiance—at the very least, a tree is a living metaphor. In the intricate array of branches and roots are reflected the countless twists and turns of our lives in pursuit of desire and necessity. 

The presence of the hand of Homo sapiens, evident in Loranc’s canals, fences, buildings, and other artifacts, reminds the reader/viewer of the increasingly miserable way we’re treating the world around us, categorizing life and the earth itself as ‘resources,’ provided for our exploitation. 

Valle’s afterword informed me that my response was exactly what they’d intended: “This book is not meant just to register the heartrending beauty and mystery of what is still here in the Central Valley; it is also to honor the people who will not let it die, who will not leave, who are putting it back—grass plug by grass plug. May these images and words rouse the imagination of Central Valley residents to a greater appreciation of the Central Valley and to impassioned advocacy on its behalf.” 

California is a marvelous state, my home for the last 35 years, and my heart aches to see what we’ve done to our wild places. Books like Two-Hearted Oak remind me of what we’ve lost and what’s left. As a father and grandfather, I hope we leave something of what’s left to those who come after, a sobering but necessary thought.  

Two-Hearted Oak, The Photography of Roman Loranc, Great Valley Books/Heyday Books, Berkeley, 94 pages, $39.95. 


Where Loranc’s photos provoke, those in another Heyday offering—Hidden Treasures of San Francisco Bay—entertain. Dennis E. Anderson, a Marin County photographer, shoots in richly saturated color. From aerial shots of the colorful fractal landscapes that are salt evaporation ponds of the South Bay to a rare vermillion sunset, Anderson gives us scenes that reminder us that part of the Bay Area scene hasn’t been paved over, concreted, I-beamed, and bricked-up. 

The images are thematically organized, bridged with brief essays from biologist and nature writer Jerry George. While George spends part of the year aboard a boat in the Bay, Anderson lives year-round on a refurbished 76-year-old fishing boat moored in the same waters. 

Anderson’s images are journalistic, specific—they feature this delightfully painted wreck on the Albany Bulb, those Grizzly Island Tule Elk, the North Tower of the Golden Gate, that delighted, gray-haired woman grinning, resting the paddle of her kayak, her dog sitting before her, eager and alert. 

The photographs are all well exposed and neatly composed, and a celebration of what is, rather than a haunting reminder of what was or might yet be. 

Anderson’s underwater sea life shots provide some of the more provocative images, colorful proof that there’s another strikingly hued world, both close at hand and unimaginably remote. 

Available either in hardcover or as an oversize trade paperback, Hidden Treasures is an excellent gift to remind friends and family that there’s more to the Bay than bridges and the TransAmerica tower. It’s also a pleasant book to keep around the house, reminding us there’s more out there than we encounter on our daily rounds and commutes. 

Hidden Treasures of San Francisco Bay, photography by Dennis E. Anderson, text by Jerry George, jointly published by Blue Water Pictures, San Rafael, and Heyday Books, Berkeley, 176 pages, hardbound $49.95, trade paper $29.95.