Photographer and filmmaker Gary Yost writes about his project to document the history of the lost West Peak of Mt. Tamalpais.
I am a Mill Valley-based photographer and filmmaker who likes to tell stories, big and small. Over the years I’ve been fortunate to be a part of some very interesting local community activities.
One of my 2012 projects was to document what a day in the life of a fire lookout on the East Peak of Mt. Tamalpais is like. I created it primarily as a recruitment piece for the Marin County Fire Department, but it saw much wider distribution as a testimony to the beauty of our mountain. There are a number of reasons for its popularity but I think the two biggest are that it shows an aspect of the mountain that nobody has seen before and it uses time-lapse techniques to illustrate how time passes in a way that we can’t see with our naked eyes.
While contemplating my personal projects for 2013 I thought long and hard about what moves me as a photographer and how I want to spend my limited time for making images. Two things came up: I want to continue working within walking distance of where I live, and I want to continue making time-lapse photography. For me, the prospect of working within walking distance connects me to the imagery in a way that’s impossible if I must travel to a place. My landscape photography is much more about the weather and light than anything else, and when I have the opportunity to shoot in all kinds of weather I feel I can capture something more intrinsic to the place than just the topology. And time-lapse photography is a way to meld my interest in animation (which is how I made my career) with photography because although there are thousands of frames in a few minutes of video, each frame has to be crafted exactly the same way as if it was a still photograph. (In fact, each frame is actually a RAW image that has to be processed in Lightroom just like a still.)
So, what came up for me was “Is there a story here that’s important to tell?” I’d been hiking on the mountain for over a decade and there was one spot that had been speaking to me for years—the abandoned Air Force Station on West Peak. I’d heard that the Army Corps of Engineers removed 41 feet of the mountaintop 1950 to build the station. West Peak was previously the highest peak in Marin County and it just seemed odd that the mountain that most of us consider sacred had been damaged in such a profound way. And now, outside of the two acres occupied by the FAA/Air Force radome (that most of us know as the Golf Ball) the other 104 acres of land is still desecrated by reinforced concrete foundations, asphalt roads, cyclone fences, power poles, power lines, transformers, and toxic asbestos. It became obvious to me as I finished the Fire Lookout video in late August 2012 that raising awareness about the mess on West Peak would be my next project.
Coincidentally, the managers of the Tamalpais watershed at the Marin Municipal Water Department had the same idea in mind—that it’s essential to clear up the West Peak mess—but unfortunately there was no money available to do it. The federal government had renegotiated their lease in the mid 1950s to remove their responsibility to restore the area after they left. Some funds had appeared over the last two decades to get rid of the wooden structures, but the bulk of the debris remained. When Mike Swezy (watershed manager at MMWD) found out about my interest he suggested that we work together to create a fund-raising campaign that would be kicked off with a video that I’d make about the history of West Peak and the current ecological situation there. You can imagine how excited I was to hear that he would issue me a permit to have photographic access to the site for 6 months along with a key that would get me into the station so I wouldn’t have to carry my 100lbs of gear up the long entry road for each shooting session.
Stuart and Matt at The Image Flow have been my primary source of photographic support over the past three years and they suggested that I write a blog about my experiences in the process of creating this new piece. This is a challenging project for me because the story has so many important historical pieces along with the lofty goal of raising the necessary $6 to $8 million. My best shot is to connect with the love that the people of Marin County (and beyond) have for Mt. Tamalpais in a deep emotional way. It’s going to take more than just some pretty time-lapse sequences of the mountain to do that, and this blog will take you through my creative process between now and September, when I hope to be finished.
I’ll end this first blog entry with a quote from one of my favorite authors, Wendell Berry. I have this quote printed on a sign that hangs in my studio and I read it every day because it reminds me that if a creative task isn’t difficult, it’s probably not worth doing:
“There are, it seems, two muses: the Muse of Inspiration, who gives us inarticulate visions and desires, and the Muse of Realization, who returns again and again to say “It is yet more difficult than you thought.” This is the muse of form.
It may be then that form serves us best when it works as an obstruction, to baffle us and deflect our intended course. It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”
Those last two sentences sum it up better than anything I could say. Over the course of the project this year I’ll share more than just information about how I technically create the piece. I’ll try to take you inside of my thought processes about how to make the video have maximum impact. Thanks for reading.