It's not even noon and already I'm closing the blinds on the south-facing windows of my home office. That pesky natural light is overrunning the glow of the lamp by which I work. Too much of a bright thing. Most mornings, in the cliché of coastal overnight and morning low clouds, the daylight coming into my room takes its time. Like age or awareness. But now, at 11:44, the light's pouring in. If I don't mute it, my eyes'll hurt. I'll disappear in the glare. I might be struck impotent, literarily speaking. Shades inside and sunglasses outside attest to my contending with the slow-unfolding, then Wham! Southern California light. How did it get so damn bright when it's not even that hot?
Cursing the light doesn't make much sense either. But because I came of age in the Midwest, the light feels harsher here, at times punishing. It's not that I don't like it; it's that I'm not used to the intensity. Which is frustrating. I thought after 22 years I would be more at home, especially when San Diego's climate is, compared to Ohio's, so consistent and so consistently uneventful. No thunderstorm, tornado, blizzard, flood ever bedevils the place. Sure, it gets hot for several weeks, maybe a month or two, each year, but it's a forgiving, unsteamy hot. And yet to my eye and my dark-glasses brethren the light remains a force, so much so that I wonder if what San Diego lacks in weather it makes up for in light.
Is our light special? Is it different than the light in other climes? Does the amount and the intensity of light characterize, in some way, where we live?
There's nothing really different about our light, says Dr. Edward Aguado, climatologist and chair of the Department of Geography at San Diego State University. Light is the same everywhere; "it all originates from the same place." Sunlight enters the atmosphere with a mix of wavelengths. The wavelengths range from the shortest, the violets and the blues, to the longest, the oranges and the reds. Coming through the atmosphere, wavelengths are scattered by the air molecules and dust particles they encounter. The shortest wavelengths scatter more easily; thus, the sky is blue. The sky is bluest when the sun is at its apex; the light then is traveling through the least amount of atmosphere. During evening and morning hours, light travels through the most amount of atmosphere. The shortest wavelengths are blocked while the longer ones penetrate. Thus, sunrise and sunset are orange and red. Pollution, Aguado says, creates more particles and more scattered light. In the desert, dawns and day-ends are redder than on the coast because more soil particles, unkept by the sparse vegetation, fill the air.
Is there any difference between San Diego's light and, say, the light in Wisconsin?
"There's not really a difference," Aguado says. But then again, he offers, the humidity may affect our perception of light. How? "In a drier environment, the sky is going to appear brighter. When you have a higher humidity, you might get haze droplets -- not enough to form fog or clouds, but enough to affect the intensity of the sunlight that comes in." More humidity and haze mean a more muted sun. In places without high humidity, the sun casts "more of a brilliant light."
So at least I'm perceptually right — the sun is more brilliant here. But despite my anxiousness about the light, I imagine a few San Diegans are drawn to it because of its intensity. The first thing you learn when you listen to their experiences is that San Diego light is not uniform: it might be muted at the beach, harsh in the mountains, and blazing in the desert, depending on the day and the season. The light's effects upon land and home and mood attract photographers and artists and architects and the occasional psychologist in ways I hadn't imagined. By going to the light you begin to see things you've never seen before because you've been in your room with the blinds shut.
Artist and photographer Becky Cohen can characterize the light here as well as anyone; she's been discovering its moods with brush and lens since 1972. Cohen is perhaps best known for her photographs of Robert Irwin's garden at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, published in Robert Irwin Getty Garden (2002). Irwin's garden at the Getty may be the finest of his many outdoor installations, among them the tennis-court nets in the eucalyptus groves at UCSD. In the book, Cohen's light-infused color photos, rich with orgiastic detail, resemble paintings. The photos marry Irwin's garden with Cohen's Southern California eye — a work of art about a work of art.
Cohen's eye is redolent of the near-coastal blur, where the fog evaporates and the brighter light begins. "Light joins me to the world," she says over coffee in La Jolla; the café's view of blocky buildings also possesses a glimpse of two mighty blues, ocean and sky. "It joins anybody to the world, but for me, a photographer, that's the essence of what I do."
She tells me, "I'm a completely coastal person." She's lived along the Pacific shore since her family relocated here from Chicago in the mid-1950s. What she loves about San Diego light is that it "always makes the world available." There's something about it, something with the "clarity of ancient Greek sculpture, the light that caused those sculptures to be." It may be the light, Cohen thinks, far more than the weather — which everyone admits to — that lured people to San Diego and keeps them here.
For the Getty project, Cohen was present on the grounds twice a month for four years. She made 10,000 images of the garden. "I got there at first light and left when the light was useless." As a result, she became so "keen and aware of the sun crossing" that she could "feel it moving." Cohen recalls predicting clock time by the sun, not unlike a farmer or a sundial. What happened to her sense of time while charting the sun's movements? She says she was more alive in the moment. "It was like running a race all day. I was able to predict what I wanted to catch."