Words by Sheryl Nonnenberg
Carmel-by-the-Sea has long been a magnet for artists working in a variety of media, from painting to sculpture to prints. A walk around this charming, one-mile-square village reveals an astounding number of art galleries (almost 100). Visiting them all would be overwhelming and certainly implausible in just a one-day outing. But narrow your scope to the medium that has become a signature for this coastal town—photography—and you will be amazed by how much you can learn about the region’s history and the evolution of the West Coast Photography Movement.
Although photographers began capturing Monterey Bay’s white sand beaches and wind-swept cypresses in the late 19th century, the history of contemporary photography from this area really begins with Edward Weston. Weston had an illustrious career that included a Guggenheim Fellowship (he was the first photographer to be given the award) and lived in various places around California. In 1929, he moved to Carmel and began taking black-and-white photographs of the magnificent coastline around Point Lobos. Soon, colleagues like Ansel Adams, Wynn Bullock and Imogene Cunningham joined him, capturing the unique geography of this area in the straight, sharp-focused, framed technique that differentiated them from the “pictorialists” of the past.
Start your historic photography tour with the Weston Gallery, which is located on 6th Avenue, parallel to Ocean Avenue, Carmel’s main street. One of the oldest photography galleries in the world, it focuses on rare fine vintage as well as modern and contemporary photography. Now run by Matthew Weston (Edward’s grandson) and his wife, Davi, the gallery features all of the major names in the medium: Ansel Adams, Eadweard Muybridge, Berenice Abbott, Alfred Stieglitz and numerous members of the Weston family, including Edward, Brett, Cara and Cole. “We have a deep connection to the medium of fine art photography and believe it is of equal importance to that of the traditional fine arts,” Davi explains.
The Weston Gallery has been closed for extensive renovations but reopens in January 2024 with an exhibition highlighting the gallery’s collection of rare, vintage black-and-white works juxtaposed with modern, contemporary color photography.
Edward Weston Dry-Mounting, Wildcat Hill, ca. 1940 by William Holgers. Photo courtesy of the Holgers family
Cross Ocean Avenue and go one block east to Dolores Avenue, where you’ll find the next stop, Photography West. This gallery has a very specific focus and objective: to promote artists who are dedicated to darkroom craftsmanship. In other words, no digital technology or third-party assistance. Explains gallery director Julia Christopher, “It just so happens some of the greatest darkroom masters in the world lived and worked in Carmel.” Like the Weston Gallery, Photography West holds temporary, curated exhibitions but the work of masters like Ansel Adams and Brett Weston are usually on view in the rear of the gallery.
When asked if she thinks digital photography and AI have displaced traditional photographic methods, Julia responds, “People want to know what they see is real—that there is still beauty to be found in real life, light and chemistry.”
Aspen Grove, Colorado, c. 1993, Cibachrome by Christopher Burkett at Photography West. / Photo courtesy of Photography West
By now, a stop for lunch is likely in order. A short walk on Dolores Avenue leads to popular spots like Little Napoli, La Bicyclette, Mulligan’s Public House or the oft-photographed Tuck Box. Or return to Ocean Avenue for a multitude of other restaurant and cafe offerings.
Fortified and ready to continue? Next up is the Center for Photographic Art (CPA), located in the Sunset Center (a performing arts venue) on San Carlos Avenue. Originally established in 1967 as the Friends of Photography, it boasts Ansel Adams, Cole Weston and Wynn Bullock as its founders. “We try to show a variety of work,” explains executive director and curator Ann Jastrab. “Some traditional-based photography that is analog and printed in the darkroom and some that is mixed-media, digital, sculptural and experimental.”
The Center for Photographic Art (CPA) on San Carlos Avenue is a gallery, membership organization & event venue. Photo courtesy of CPA.
The first exhibition in 2024 is the International Juried Exhibition, which includes portraiture, documentary, landscape and other genres.
Hop back in your car to reach the next venue: Wildcat Hill, the historic home of Edward Weston. Located on Highway 1 between Carmel and Big Sur, it’s about a 20-minute drive south. Along the way, take the time to hike the magnificent coastline that inspired so many of the photographers whose work you have seen by taking a detour into Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. There are myriad trails to choose from, and you’ll undoubtedly be moved to capture your own images of this world-famous sanctuary.
Continuing down scenic Highway 1, it’s easy to see why so many photographers came here to work on their own or to study with Edward Weston, who left behind a photography dynasty with children and grandchildren carrying on the tradition. Wildcat Hill (a name inspired by Edward owning up to 40 cats at one time) served as Edward’s home and studio from 1938 to 1958. For the last several decades, Kim (Edward’s grandson) and Gina Weston have welcomed visitors. Gina explains, “We wanted to share what we love, the original home and darkroom of Edward Weston. Being the stewards of the ‘Weston Legacy,’ this was a way we could give back to our community.”
Consider stopping for lunch at Tuck Box.
Kim, who is also a photographer, uses framed prints in the home and studio to illustrate his grandfather’s techniques. Guests are often surprised at the rustic, almost rudimentary, darkroom where Edward produced so many iconic images. “A living museum is what we call it,” notes Gina. “Oftentimes, when visitors go into the darkroom they get an overwhelming sense of awe and it brings tears to their eyes.”
Kim and Gina also offer fine art photographs for sale, along with photography workshops. Tours of Wildcat Hill are by online reservation only.
Given the relative ease of travel and the ubiquitous nature of photography thanks to cell phones is Carmel still a mecca for the professional and amateur photographer? According to Julia Christopher, “Absolutely! Photographers from all over the world will forever be drawn to its unique, dramatic and truly magnetic natural beauty.”
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