Driving her images of the Getty Garden was "the sexiness, the color" of the plants. This reflects where we are because "we're all so sexy and colorful in Southern California." In four years at the Getty, Cohen realized that "though our light is not the harshest in the world, one can see deeply into its detail." Looking through the book, we pause at a photograph of a just-bloomed Corsican hellebore. Light is both on and transmitted through the large, oval, cupped leaves; "the very tissue of the flesh" of the leaf lights up the shadowy inside of the flower. What we're seeing, Cohen says, in a moment of enthusiasm, is "description in the shadows and in the highlights. The thing about light, softened by some water in the atmosphere -- our coastal light -- is that the highlights aren't too hot and the shadows aren't too dark. The light we get here comes through a moist air that may reduce the tonal range but, on the other hand, makes everything visible."
Scott Davis, a differently called photographer, likes to shoot the desert at dusk, the beach at daybreak, and San Diego's coast at night. At 32, he treasures "how every day begins and ends in San Diego, the very soft light." One "eases into the day here: it's soft, subtle, quiet; it's approachable. If you're not a morning person, it's okay. It's not waking you up and blinding you as it would in Phoenix."
One telling photo of San Diego light is Davis's Surf Trail Near the Break, taken at 6:00 a.m. one July near Sunset Cliffs. The dust and dryness of the shot are palpable even in the very early diffused light. The photo lingers on a final rise and fall of a footpath to the beach, glimpsed between an eroded sandstone formation on the right and a robust patch of wormwood on the left. The path itself is "alive" with footprints from sneakers, bare feet, and bicycle tracks. A bit of rubbish indicates passage, not occupation. In fact, Davis says, "You choose the path that nature has laid out for you." This easy accessibility to the coast, Davis says, reminds him that San Diego is special because it is unlike Los Angeles. Though we're a "big city," he says, the way "we interact with the [natural] world is gentle." Such gentleness is evident by the community's general avoidance of "developing in canyons." During late afternoon, Davis is fascinated by how the light on canyon slopes illuminates the bright green ice plant and creates shadows among the gray-green sagebrush. This spectacle, he believes, has spurred many over time to value these canyons as one of our most distinctive environments, that is, after the beaches and the bays. Davis's sunrise photo documents how much can be seen even in a muted 6:00 a.m. light. This flips the notion that more light makes things more visible. On the contrary, the subtleties and varieties of light contribute to showing the subtleties and varieties of place.
Such subtlety also lingers in the ideas of Martin Poirier, San Diego's noted landscape designer. As half of Spurlock Poirier Landscape Architects, Poirier's big-ticket credits, where he and Spurlock are part of a "core design team," include urban housing in Little Italy, the Children's Museum Park, and Petco Park. For Petco, Poirier says in an e-mail, he wanted the "superstructure" of the ballpark white so that "it picks up the color of sunlight...especially with game time spanning bright daylight to sunset and darkness." As for our light, he says that since "we are a coastal desert, where most of our open space is low chaparral versus forest cover," we see "more horizon. We see more sky -- so there is a bigness to our perception of sunlight. This ability to see into the distance helps dramatize the light and shadow play on land forms (canyon walls, hillsides) as well as buildings. You see this in our east-west canyons, where the intense sunlight burns and dries out the vegetation into golden tans on the south-facing slopes, while the north-facing slopes are deep, dark green."
Poirier finds the "most engaging light...around San Diego Bay. The reflectivity off the water back into the atmosphere really charges the environment with an active buzz. Being surrounded by water brightens and clarifies the ambient light. The reflectivity off the ocean into our downtown sky bathes the atmosphere with a softer, indirect light. The effect is heightened by the expanse of the flat, planar surface of the bay contrasted by all the busy clutter of the surrounding land and buildings. This geography creates a theaterlike setting to watch the light show."
Like Poirier, cinematographer Richard Crow knows how active and how temperamental the local light can be. For 15 years, working mainly on feature films, commercials, and episodic television shows, he's operated the Steadicam, a 70-pound camera that is saddle-mounted on his chest. He shoots actors who themselves are moving from outdoors to indoors and back out. He's "always watching the direction of the source of light in conjunction with the angle of my camera." Over coffee in Point Loma, Crow tells me he loves San Diego's natural light; in fact, getting lively lit-up shots outdoors is two-thirds of his work. He rarely uses direct sun, because it's too hard. He holds up a fist to cast a shadow in a bright afternoon sun to show me that hardness, its edge almost a "pencil line." He filters the light with a napkin; the shadow now "is very soft but also still dense." The ensuing light, he says, is silky.
In San Diego, this silky light occurs best, Crow notes, between November and January, "when the sun is setting far to the south. It has this side-directional light on us all the time. So if you're at one of our south-facing beaches and you're looking north, you have this beautiful soft light coming. The air quality, when it's colder, has more blue in the air, less pollution." The prime times are from sunrise to 10:00 a.m., then 3:30 to dusk. Shooting a TV pilot, Veronica Mars, for UPN, Crow filmed a scene at Ocean Beach, at a spot and a time that the producers had specifically chosen for the sun. "We didn't need to bring in generators or artificial lights. But you can't always depend on the weather. You [may get] a marine layer coming in. And that happened. All of a sudden, we were shooting and this big cloud came over and dumped on us and we had to stop. The sun was behind the cloud. The producers were saying, 'Okay, let's go, quick-quick-quick, before the rain comes back.' I said, 'Listen, guys' -- and they're from Los Angeles -- 'in about 15 minutes you're going to have this gorgeous sun coming out from underneath that cloud, and it'll be between the cloud and the horizon and it'll be stunningly beautiful.' Well, they were going to go into overtime if we did that, tens of thousands of dollars: it really wasn't economically feasible. But. It is beautiful." Crow says the sun did break through, he went, "ha, ha, ha," and the producers missed the shot.