Photographer Macduff Everton has just produced a ridiculously beautiful tome about an absurdly beautiful place. Titled The Book of Santa Barbara, Everton does not introduce readers to a new or hidden Santa Barbara. Rather, he reacquaints us—forcefully and irresistibly—with the Santa Barbara in such plain view that many of us have come to take it for granted.
Certainly, it’s tempting to dismiss yet another photo essay on Santa Barbara as the equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel. That’s decidedly not the case with Everton, famous for the epic sweep and sprawl of his landscape photographs taken in dangerously faraway locales, shot with his signature panoramic camera. Instead, Everton’s images of Santa Barbara crackle and smoke with the sort of suffused primal power that calls to mind the book of Genesis when the Yahweh commands, “Let there be light.”
There is nothing still or static about Everton’s arms-wide-open vistas. The geologic grain of the Earth, exposed with startling clarity, conveys tension and flow; oak canopies buzz with dark mystery; and concrete city streets pour out into intersections. Animating it all is an amazing dance of light unique to Santa Barbara. Yes, there are red tile roofs aplenty—and just about every signature landscape Santa Barbara has to offer—but the real star of this book is Santa Barbara’s raw, but elusive, luminescence. In a recent interview, Everton explained he was trying to capture the people and places of the town where he grew up—the son of a well-known minister—and which he comes home to after assignments for publications like National Geographic, Condé Nast Traveler, and Outside magazine. And he certainly did. But what Everton really got—and what clearly gets Everton—are Santa Barbara’s magical skies.
Conspiring to make this book happen was a knee surgery that kept Everton hobbled and homebound for most of the last year. At the same time, he pointed out, Santa Barbara experienced an abnormal number of rains—one storm every 10 days for a while—creating an unusually rich stew of light, clouds, and atmospheric conditions. In part, the book was born out of the beach walks Everton took to rehabilitate his knee. But it was also sparked by a snarky remark he overheard at an exhibition many years ago at the now defunct Ro Snell Gallery. “I heard someone say, ‘Well if I had traveled to as many different places as Macduff, I could take the same pictures, too,’” he recalled. The result, which grew out of a collaboration between Everton and his wife and fellow artist, Mary Heebner, demonstrate there’s much more to it than an ample travel budget.
More than a mythic tone poem exalting light and land, The Book of Santa Barbara offers a happy, if quasi-arbitrary, embrace of the people and events that in Everton and Heebner’s universe makes Santa Barbara Santa Barbara. There are delicious spreads on the I Madonnari chalk festival and Summer Solstice. Old Spanish Days and the Fiesta parade were included, even though Everton was initially disinclined. “It isn’t like a community event like it was when I was a kid,” he said.
In scant evidence are high-profile celebrities, like Oprah Winfrey, who touch down in Santa Barbara but are selective in their community engagement. There is a nice shot of film director Andy Davis—of Fugitive fame—at the wheel of his sailboat. But Davis has gone thoroughly native, becoming almost as ubiquitous around town as comedian Jonathan Winters used to be. “I wanted the people who wash the dishes and change the sheets in there as much as our writers and artists,” Everton said. And they are, along with ranchers, writers, entrepreneurs, architects, bartenders, saddle makers, surfers, fishermen, farmers, priests, sale makers, students, painters, dancers, reporters, gardeners, restaurant owners, philanthropists, wine makers, captains of industry, poets, doctors, and even a few politicians. Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider was happily caught between Solstice shimmies, and Everton raided his vaults to remind us what a handsome stud former county supervisor Brooks Firestone was back in the 1970s.
Most of the portraits were taken over the past year. Some, some like Firestone’s, predate this project. One features a shot of Charles Demangeat, a turban-clad lion tamer shown petting a young lion cub in a cage. Everton first met Demangeat—who he describes in the book as a mentor—in the 1970s when both happened to be performing with a Mexican circus. The portrait was taken in 1978 inside a cage at the Santa Barbara Zoo, Everton explained, with the permission of zoo officials. “Can you imagine that ever happening today?” Everton asked. “It’s almost impossible to imagine.”
Twenty years from now—thanks to the publication of The Book of Santa Barbara—that task won’t be quite so daunting.