During Brian P. Lawler’s daily commute, one San Luis Obispo landmark looms larger than most — Bishop Peak.
“On my way to school ... I look at that mountain and I’m just dazzled by it,” said Lawler, a photographer and graphic communication professor who regularly bikes from his San Luis Obispo home to the Cal Poly campus. “It never ceases to amaze me how much personality Bishop Peak has.”
Lawler set out to capture the mountain’s many moods through his Bishop Peak Portrait Project, snapping about 70,000 photos of the craggy volcanic plug over the course of a year. The result is a calendar-style display featuring 365 images of Bishop Peak — one for each day — printed on aluminum panes.
The display, which measures 22 feet wide and 6 feet tall, was permanently installed in Cal Poly’s Baker Center for Science and Mathematics during the summer of 2017. It will be officially unveiled to the public on Jan. 23.
The Bishop Peak Portrait Project isn’t Lawler’s first large-scale photography project.
In 2014, the photographer showed off several of his panoramic photos in the solo exhibition “SLO Pano” at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art — including a 33-foot-long panorama of San Luis Obispo taken from Cerro San Luis Obispo that’s now on permanent display in Cal Poly’s University Union.
The following year, Lawler created a 32-foot-long panoramic photo of the Trona Pinnacles near Death Valley and helped transform images of the surface of Mars taken by one of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover vehicles into a 22-foot-long photo mural. Both works were installed in the Baker Center.
Next, Lawler set his sights on a subject closer to home.
Standing 1,544 feet tall, Bishop Peak is the highest peak in the Morros range, also known as the Nine Sisters. The mountain shares a namesake with Mission San Luis Obispo, medieval French bishop Louis of Toulouse; the top is said to resemble a bishop’s miter.
It’s the peak’s ever-changing nature that fascinates Lawler the most.
“Sometimes you’ll have a pink sunrise with variegated blue running through it. Sometimes you’ll have a little puff of cloud at the top like a halo ... (or) a belt of fog around the middle with the mountain sticking out the top,” the photographer said. “Every day is a new adventure for that mountain.”
With the support of Phil Bailey, the now-retired dean of Cal Poly’s College of Science and Mathematics, and Associate Dean Derek Gragson, Lawler launched the Bishop Peak Portrait Project in December 2015.
He began by building a weather-proof box to house a Canon digital camera, plus the electronics needed to keep the camera snapping photos independently for an entire year.
The photographer then mounted the camera box on the roof of Cal Poly’s Kennedy Library on a surplus satellite dish stand, securing it with plywood plates and concrete bricks.
Powered by three solar panels and two motorcycle batteries, Lawler’s camera went to work starting March 1, 2016, shooting photos of Bishop Peak every five minutes between 5 a.m. and 9 p.m. each day. (That’s a total of 192 photos a day.) Between then and Feb. 28, 2017, Lawler said the camera only malfunctioned a couple times.
Lawler later sifted through some 70,000 photos to determine which ones to feature in the Baker Center display, discarding about 30,000 that were too dark. He chose a variety of shots taken at different times of day, ranging from rosy dawns to stunning sunsets.
According to Lawler, the 365 photos that made the final cut — each labeled with a day and time — represent “a portrait not just of a mountain, but of a weather pattern.”
“As you look through these images, you see this incredible diversity of light and weather and sun and fog,” he said.
For instance, a series of photos shot in August 2016 during the Chimney Fire reveal smoky skies tinged with gold. (The wildfire, which broke out near Lake Nacimiento, eventually burned 46,235 acres and destroyed 49 homes.)
“Our sunsets were orange, pink, gold, bronze for nearly the whole month of August,” Lawler said.
Lawler hopes the Bishop Peak Portrait Project encourages viewers to take another look at a landmark they may take for granted.
“We all get so complacent” about the landscape, he said. “You drive your car. You ride your bike. You walk. You see that beautiful thing every day, and you don’t give it a moment of thought.”
“I hope people see the differences,” Lawler added, that make Bishop Peak so special.
Bishop Peak Portrait Project
A reception for the Bishop Peak Portrait Project will be held at 6 p.m. Tuesday on the third floor of the Baker Center for Science and Mathematics at Cal Poly, near Room 370.
Parking is available in the Cal Poly parking structure on Grand Avenue in San Luis Obispo.
For more information, call 805-550-4736.