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Friday, August 19, 2011

Q&A: Photographer Alex Fradkin Captures the Left Coast

Posted By on Fri, Aug 19, 2011 at 12:51 PM

Dad napping on beach, and passing aircraft. Dockweiler State Beach, 2007 - ALEX FRADKIN
  • Alex Fradkin
  • Dad napping on beach, and passing aircraft. Dockweiler State Beach, 2007

Photographer Alex Fradkin has spent the last five years traveling up and down the coast of California taking photos. Working with his father, environmental historian Philip Fradkin, he has created The Left Coast, a beautiful and thoughtful portrait of our diverse coast.

Alex Fradkin's photographs are at times surreal and at times gritty. In his lens, a truck tire buried in sand looks like a magical talisman, and a dead bird, picked so clean that only its spine is left, becomes more art than animal. His portraits bring us face to face with navy soldiers, surf punk guitarists, Taiwanese tourists and farmers, while Philip Fradkin's narrative weaves in and out, breaking down the coast into manageable chunks.

Fradkin, who will be speaking with his father at Book Passage this Saturday (August 20), tells SF Weekly what it's like to see the left coast through his camera's lens.

What was the inspiration for this book?

My dad has now written 12 books on the American West, and the first book he ever wrote in 1974 was entitled California: The Golden Coast. I was about five or six at the time. He took me with him, and we traveled from pretty much all the way up and down the coast and a lot of my first memories of the coast were really formed then. My dad's coming to the end of his career, and he wanted to do a collaboration as I'm a full time photographer. He wanted to revisit a lot of places he had visited before.

Why is it called The Left Coast?

The flip answer is that California is very much on the left of the map. More seriously, I'm native here, but my Dad came out here from the East in the 1960s, and he always heard of it as the wild lands of cowboys and Indians and crashing surf. California was considered "out there". California is always this political football, and the book engages aspects of politics and the environment. It's not just a pretty picture book. It's far more interesting than just scenery.

  • Alex Fradkin

How did you plan what photos you were going to take? It seems like an overwhelming task.

It was extraordinarily daunting. The idea was to try and take digestible parts of different areas of the coast and not trying to photograph every aspect of the coast - that's just physically not possible. I wanted to go to areas with particular memories and a sense of history and concentrate on those specific localities. This is not a book about how the California coast is, but how I perceive it.

What camera did you use and how many photos did you take?

I took thousands of images for this project and everything is shot on 4x5 Horseman Field Camera using color negative sheet film. And it's an expensive process. Every time you hit the shutter you have to really think it through, so there's a great deal of intention and design to it. It's a totally different experience than shooting with a digital camera - it's not a spontaneous thing.

One image I planned at great length was the shadow of the plane on the beach. It took almost two years to get that. The first time I saw that in my mind was when I was passing LAX. It was really difficult to get someone to cooperate, and it was the wrong time of year, so we came back. So I had a couple years to plan the image in my mind, with a person there to give a sense of scale.

I stuck Dad in the sun and told him to sit there for an hour and half, two hours. He was very patient. This time the sun was perfect with the cobalt blue skies and I just had to wait for the right sized jet to pass overhead at the right time. You have a split second with the Field Camera; you have to hit it exactly right. There's no viewfinder to look at. I didn't know whether I had that image or not until I got it back to the lab... and I had nailed it.

But many other photos were previsualized and when I got out there there would be something completley different, so accident often drove the best image and planning would go out the window. At other times I would make many visits. I'm obsessed like that, I'll drive a day and a half because I have an image in my mind that may or may not pan out.

Next: Working with Dad, and peeling back the layers of California

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Caroline Chen


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