This is the seventh in a series of interviews presented by the Cambria Center for the Arts to heighten awareness of artists — and the arts — in our community.
Sam Peck was born in Iowa in 1945, but he didn’t stay there long. His parents, “Navy people,” moved a lot. From Iowa to Oregon, then to California and Hawaii and the Marshall Islands, 20 moves by the end of high school.
Peck didn’t get interested in photography until he packed his first camera when he went to Vietnam as a Navy Seabee. He remembers capturing the team’s amphibious landing in Chu Lai in 1965 on film, an experience that hooked him on the art form as a way of telling a human story and shedding light on landscapes people might never get to see firsthand.
After the war, he worked for Thai Airways in Bangkok as advertising manager and company photographer. He took pictures everywhere Thai Airways flew. Traveling throughout Asia and Europe there was no shortage of subjects to capture on camera, he says — and many of those shots appeared in the airline’s ads. Peck then went to work for Boeing in Seattle, doing branding and advertising, and working with airline customers in Japan, China and Vietnam.
Peck came to Cambria in 2000, lived in San Miguel for a bit, and then moved to Cayucos, where he again took up photography and began capturing the beauty and the light of the Central Coast.
He recently produced a book with Stephanie Burchiel, “Central Coast Farmer’s Market Soups,” which combines Stephanie’s seasonal soup recipes with his landscape and people photography. A second book, “Coastal Zen,” will come out in July.
Q: How did you get started with photography?
A: My mother was a prolific photographer. She took pictures of everything and gave me my first camera. I first started taking pictures in Vietnam. Unfortunately, they confiscated a lot of the film I shot, but I still have some.
Q: Do you seek to simply capture or improve a scene?
A: I want to capture it; I don’t want to change anything. My approach comes out of my early work in Thailand, wanting to convey the culture, asking, “What’s the vibe of this scene?” You want to reach inside and get the essence. Lighting is everything in photography. It allows you to bring emotion and drama into the picture.
Q: Black and white or color? Why and when?
A: Both. Some pictures need to be black and white. They’re more evocative and moody. Some things need to be in color. For the coast, it’s mostly color. The strong early morning or evening light provides strong, saturated colors and long shadows that best capture the wild drama of central coast seascapes.
Q: How would you describe your photographic style?
A: Realism, maybe? I like my work to be authentic. I’m kind of an old school photographer. One of my pet peeves is what’s happened in the digital age. Now, everybody is a photographer, whether they learned the craft or not.
Doing it right takes work: climbing over the rocks to find the right composition, then waiting for the light and everything you envision to happen. The perfect picture is all of that. The light’s dramatic, the scene’s dramatic. Each of my pictures speaks to the place.
Q: What are the downsides of digital photography?
A: You don’t really need to learn photography. The camera and the software do everything. It’s become pretty artificial. You don’t have to learn the skills or the basics anymore.
Q: From where do you get your inspiration?
A: I really get thrilled in certain situations: Yosemite, the Sierras, big weather and big light. In those situations I get very evocative pictures. When I’m photographing people, the idea is to see who’s really in there. Let the dust settle and the big smiles fade, and then see what’s left.
Q: What are your biggest challenges?
A: Composition. Getting my butt down the bluff and into position. The challenge is getting to the rugged wilderness past poison oak and slippery rocks. I’ve been bombed by waves and cameras have had to go in for a complete overhaul.
Q: What gets between you and the camera?
A: Laziness and geography, I guess. It’s a lot of work to do it right. I don’t like repeating myself, so finding fresh landscape subjects requires going further afield, and that brings us back to laziness.
Q: Any advice for aspiring photographers?
A: Shoot a lot. Learn the photography basics and develop a unique point of view.
Q: What does photography do for you emotionally?
A: It’s a way to express myself. People, landscapes, the coast: my photographs are all how I see the subject. That’s the art of it. Being in those wild places is exhilarating, and coming home with some great shots is very satisfying.
Q: What can participation in Cambria’s art organization, Cambria center for the Arts, offer an aspiring or professional artist?
A: Getting together with like-minded and artistic people, and learning from them.
See more of Peck’s works on his website, coastalzen.net. To learn more about Cambria’s art organization, visit artistsofcambria.com., or stop by the gallery at the Cambria Center for the Arts in the Old Grammar School at 1350 Main St.