Santa Barbara Gallery Showing • Greg Christman Photography
Blue Lotus • 135 East De La Guerra Street
April 7-30, 2011 • First Thursday reception April 7th 5:00 – 8:00 pm
For much of 2010 architect and environmental photographer Greg Christman prowled the Gaviota Coast, up early to catch the rising sun and the early light, on what he called “dawn patrol” — looking for just the right moment to capture through his camera’s lens.
This particular morning the waves are big and there are already surfers in the water at the point break at El Capitan Sate Park. But the clouds are awesome and in the distance an approaching storms seems to be building. Adjusting his camera for a long exposure shot in the middle of a large field of boulders Greg steadies his tripod and an incoming wave washes over his boots.
The water recedes slowly and as it does Christman presses the shutter on his timer and his Nikon digital camera soaks up the light over the next few seconds. “The light was just incredible, he adds, “the clouds had a touch of pink on the undersides and the water flowing through the boulders provided the perfect sense of depth to the image.”
A moment later, however, the sun is behind a cloud and the light flattens. The moment is gone and so is Christman, home to his day job working on architectural designs.
“Approaching storms, clearing storms, early light, late light, big swells create those moments of incredible beauty,” Greg tells me later, “but it is more than just taking the perfect picture. It’s the story the pictures tell that is important to me.”
The Gaviota Coast has always been a special place to Christman. Growing up in the Goleta Valley and attending Dos Pueblos High School, he surfed many of the places whose access is only by trespassing across private property like Driftwood and Naples. Not too long after high school Greg took up scuba diving to explore even more hidden places along the coast. “Sneaking in was fun,” Christman remembers, “but then I had no clue we might lose some of these places to the high rollers who want to build mansions across those old trails we used.”
An Architectural Bent
Ironically, rather than choosing a more environmentally-friendly vocation, Christman eventually graduated from college with a degree in architecture. In 1999 he joined B3 Architects, founded by well-known local architect Barry Berkus. “I was flying all over the country designing golf clubhouses, athletic clubs, restaurants and custom homes for executives and those well off enough to afford second homes in resort communities. “I was the ‘golf amenities’ go-to guy at B3 Architects for many years,” he adds with a chagrined smile.
By the turn of the century, Christman not only was beginning to weary of the grind but starting to have philosophical issues with the kind of work that he was doing. “I was becoming more and more concerned about the impacts of the design work we were doing on urban sprawl, especially in how it was beginning to impact the eastern Gavota Coast,” Christman remembers. “One project on Farren Road concerned me a lot,” Christman added. “It was one of the first of what are now called a mega mansions at the edge of the Gaviota Coast and it didn’t sit well with me.”
Not too long after that he was hired to do design work for Matt Osgood for the Naples project. “That really started me to think about what might happen to the Gaviota Coast if Osgood was to be successful at Naples,” he said.
Focusing on Photography
In 2004, Christman had the opportunity to shift his focus a bit when Berkus asked him to spend part of his time photographing the firm’s architectural work. By 2005 he was earning almost as much money at the film shoots as he was designing houses or commercial projects. However satisfying the photography was, architectural work still paid most of the bills. Not too long after Christman was delegated the job of designing Chapala One, a highly controversial commercial project that opponents charged would lead to the “canyonization” of downtown Santa Barbara. “I was the poster child that environmentalists were throwing darts at,” Christman remembers. “It wasn’t a pleasant experience.”
Dissatisfied with projects such as this, Christman left B3 Architects in September 2007 and quickly joined another local firm owned by Andy Neumann. “I thought the work would be a step up philosophically,” he explained of the move, “because Neumann was focusing on beach homes and I liked the idea of working on projects with an ocean-based focus.” Unfortunately much of the work included pitched environmental battles similar to what Christman had experienced at B3.
Film Festival Turning Point
“About the same time I was thinking of leaving B3 Architects,” Christman told me, “I’d gone to one of the 2007 Santa Barbara Film Festival’s more intriguing entries by Edward Burtynsky titled Manufactured Landscapes. “The film was extraordinary,” he explained. “With a focus on man’s impacts on the environment through stunningly horrific images of factories, mines, recycling yards and the like. The film started me thinking about capturing local landscapes and bringing attention to them before they were lost to us.
“Not that we were designing homes in Santa Barbara that had the kind of impact Burtynsky was showing, but that over time the work I was doing was contributing to a loss of the open spaces that I loved so much when I was growing up.”
Shortly after this several complications arose in Christman’s personal life. For the first time, he was laid off. “Neumann let me go at the start of 2009,” he said. “ I was the last in, highest paid and first to go.” But an even more important, and tragic event occurred when his daughter, Amanda, was diagnosed with kidney disease. “We took her to Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles to get in line for a kidney transplant,” he added. “Thankfully my wife had health insurance that would cover the costs, but this was a terribly difficult time in our lives.”
In March 2009 Christman opened his own architectural practice and also began doing design work for his uncle in the Santa Ynez Valley. Work on a Tea Fire home helped get him through the worst of this period but he still had way too much time on his hands. “I started thinking then about how to use the skills I developed over the past forty years for natural landscape photography,” he explained. Driving the coast and looking for an image he wanted to capture became a means of finding solace for Christman.
In April 2009, during surgery at Cottage Hospital, doctors discovered that Amanda had cancer, another terrible blow for the family. Six months later Amanda died. After several months of grieving, Christman returned to his photography.
“A lot of what motivated me to get out was the comfort I felt on those trips up the Gaviota Coast, visiting many of my boyhood haunts,” he said. “There was something this part of the coast offered me and something I felt I needed to share about it.”
A Clear Mission
One day in early 2010 Christman woke up knowing that his mission was clear. “I said to myself that day,” he remembers, “that this is what I need to do, to photograph this part of the coast, to share its incredible beauty and if possible to help save it before it is lost.”
For much of 2010 Christman traveled the Gaviota Coast, photographing moments like those at El Capitan State Park that early cloud-filled morning. The fruits of that work will be on display at Blue Lotus, a small store owned by the clients whose Tea Fire home Christman helped to rebuild. The exhibit will last from April 7-30 with proceeds from the sale going to the Gaviota Coast Conservancy and Santa Barbara Trails Council.