Etched in the sand

Jack Baber has chosen an ephemeral subject for his photography exhibit, designs etched on the damp beach when waves recede.

“When you look at the sand, you can see the patterns, but it's not very apparent,” he said. “They're easy to miss if you're not looking for them.”As a lifelong photographer, Baber often observes what isn't obvious to others. And with the right equipment and technical skill he's able to share his discoveries with others.

Baber first became aware of the phenomena not far from his Cambria home, while walking along San Simeon Beach. This was a few years ago, when he was still using a view camera and carried some high-contrast film. Regular film would not bring out the details of the images, he said.Even with the high-contrast film, the patterns don't stand out, said Baber. “It's not something you see in the photograph. It's something that's transformed in the process.”

Through processing the prints in the darkroom or Photo Shop, Baber achieves the desired contrast and the patterns become distinct, and unique. “They're there once, and that's it,” Baber said. “You can't go back and shoot.”

His black-and-white prints are like sandpaintings, fingerpaints or whirled graphite powder; some glisten like silver. “A lot of it is in the particles of sand,” said Baber of the metallic quality. “Some of it is more granular than others,” and raising the contrast enhances that aspect.

The shapes and images he's captured resemble alien life forms, diamond facets, ethereal beings, fan kelp, aerial views of wastelands, and more. “People see different things in each one of them,” said Baber, who simply titled them “Transformations,” with numbers, not wanting to influence the viewers' imagination.

As Baber has been using film and has had his own darkroom since childhood in the 1940s, he resisted digital cameras until five years ago.

“I went into it kicking and screaming,” he said, but he's grown to appreciate the ease of the modern technology. “I don't have to lug around a big tripod and camera.” Baber claims the simplicity of it has added 10 years to his photographic life. “There's a lot of conveniences in this, and the older I get, the more conveniences I'm looking for.”

But he still extends his capabilities and seeks challenges.

He and a couple of fellow photographers often explore other areas for new subject matter. His colleagues help in other ways: “They're also very good critics.”

Baber said that after admiring some of his work, a friend told him recently, “You need to start making mistakes again.”

“I was in a comfort zone,” Baber acknowledged. “I needed to expand my vision. It's what keeps us young.”

Baber has also found an unexpected critic in his dog Gus. He's learned not to take the yellow lab mix on beach walks when he's planning to shoot some sand patterns.

“I tried taking him when I'm making these sand images, and he knows what I'm doing and walks right over it and wags his tail, looks right up at me, as if to say, 'This isn't a good one.'”