Carmel

There's looking at a seascape. And there's really looking at a seascape, so engrossed in the beach and the rocks and the light and the textures that you find yourself in the back of a sea cave gazing through a camera lens, nobody else on the beach for a mile or more, a rogue wave exploding at the cave entrance.

Your footprints vanish under the foam and then your feet, but all you're thinking is Have I seen this view before? How to frame it? Then the sloshing water tickles your ankles and your knees, and you notice that much of the entrance is under a rising froth. You lurch out at last and fetch up on dry sand.

You are not very bright, it seems, but you are very happy.

This was me a couple of weeks ago on Garrapata Beach, seven miles south of Carmel. I blame euphoria photographia and several guys named Weston. And I thank them.

Amid all the painters and poets and golfers and movie gunslingers who have dominated Carmel's public life in the last century, this rugged coastline is also a key territory in the history of American photography.

Photography pioneer Edward Weston, who haunted Point Lobos for much of the 1930s and '40s, won worldwide respect for the cause of fine-art photography with his meticulous, unsentimental, often nearly abstract images of nature. Then came sons Brett, a prodigy who shot black and white, and Cole, a late bloomer who shot mostly color, and a host of others with other last names.

Taken together, the Westons' work has made this area of Monterey County not only a destination but also a sort of geo-character in American visual culture, like Georgia O'Keeffe's New Mexico, David Hockney's Los Angeles or Ansel Adams' Yosemite. (By the way, it was here, not Yosemite, that Adams spent the last 22 years of his life.)

Thinking about Greater Carmel this way can make all the difference for a visitor weary of cute cottages and high-end retail. While your loved ones browse boutiques or plot tee times, you dip into one of the town's four photography galleries.

You head out to Point Lobos State Reserve when it opens at 9 a.m. — partly because the rangers go to a "one-in, one-out" policy once the 250 or so parking spaces fill up, partly because the light is better.

"I can't even describe the color the water was this morning," said reserve docent Patty Oglietti. "There is no name for that shade of blue."

Instead of settling for a stroll on predictable Carmel Beach at the foot of Ocean Avenue, you turn left on Scenic Road and follow it out to the fluttering shorebirds and shifting sands of Carmel River State Beach.

You give yourself time to head south to Garrapata State Park, where rocks and water do astounding things on two miles of often-empty beach, or you head to Big Sur beyond that.

You can even bunk down in a guest cabin on Wildcat Hill, where Weston and his family built their home. I did that and wound up walking the trails of Point Lobos with my landlord: Kim Weston, 53-year-old grandson of Edward, son of Cole and, yes, a photographer. He leads workshops and shoots mostly nudes, rarely landscapes. His reasoning is understandable.

"See that dead cypress tree branch there?" he said as we reached an overlook near Pinnacle Cove. "Edward shot that in 1929. Everywhere I look, there's one of Edward's photos. Or one of Brett's. Or one of my dad's."

Early burst of creativity

By the time Edward Weston moved to Carmel in 1929, it was already known as an artists' colony and a playground for the wealthy. He was 42, the son of a Midwestern doctor, a photographer with little money but a growing reputation, a father of four who had been through several lovers since separating from their mother. He planned to make some money shooting portraits of Carmel's high society.

That didn't happen, probably because the trees and rocks intrigued him more than the people.

He made some of his most admired pictures during his first six years here, including his most famous image, a 1930 still life of a pepper that half-resembled a well-muscled torso. (As his grandson tells the story, the photographer placed the pepper in a funnel and used an eight-hour exposure to get the desired depth of field.) His fingernails were always black from using amidol, a developer, in the darkroom.