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An Emerging Sea-Change to an Oceanic Way of Being

A Consideration of Philip and Alex Fradkin’s The Left Coast:  California on the Edge


Originally published 1 June 2014

“Men go abroad to wonder at the heights of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motions of the stars, and they pass by themselves without wondering.”  Saint Augustine

“Roll on, deep and dark blue ocean, roll.  Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain.  Man marks the earth with ruin, but his control stops with the shore.”  Lord Byron

Philip L. Fradkin’s The Left Coast:  California on the Edge, (2011, University of California Press, 126 pages, index, color photographs, paperback, $36.95) with photography by his son, Alex L. Fradkin, does something of utmost importance that the subtleties of the book may not readily make apparent to the undiscerning eye.   It is as if the book waits in the background, but it doesn’t.  It has been created in a certain manner and that is what matters.  It has been created and exists, and like soft waves lapping in, there is a calm, unsuspected, building tide within its pages that has much in common with its chosen subject--the ocean--and the immense and telling meeting of the Pacific with the shoreline, and specifically the people, of California.   In this way and important others, the book is powerful like the coming tides.  By examining the process of the creation of the book and looking at what this pattern of creation will bring forth can show California to be at a new threshold of awareness and therefore, a new way of operating and of being.

 “ . . . what testimony could there be more impressive than this, that in the face of what the Odyssey clearly says about Penelope’s web--that it is completed before the poem even begins--we are so compelled to believe otherwise.”    Barbara Clayton 

More promising than a simple human statement about the people or about the ocean, the book is a quietly building force giving expression through the co-creating voices of the author and photographer who are not merely recording their respective creations, but weaving with the ocean itself and with the humans, so to speak.  The power of this kind of creation can be seen in classical literature.  One important example can be seen in Penelope’s weaving of a tale in The Odyssey, which, as author Barbara Clayton describes in her book A Penelopean Poetics: Reweaving the Feminine in Homer’s Odyssey, shows the importance of this kind of intuitive and natural creative process over outcome and product.  Penelope’s weaving, taking apart, and reweaving is an example of working with the tides.  Her weaving is metaphorical for the poetic process.  Penelope seems to have no control or influence on the outcome of the text--she is up against harsh circumstances, much like humans against an ocean, but indeed her patience, endurance, care and dedication--and act of creation--are pivotal to the grand overture.  The outcome or product is secondary to process.  Human will cannot control outcome.  What humans can do is process, approach, and working with the ocean of being and this gives a work soul.   Within it, the truths of loss and beauty are naturally compelling and take on a life of their own with which other humans can connect.   It is a proven process as one of the extremely rare things that humans do that endures across time--very much unlike land ownership.  The outcome for Penelope was not an outcome but a being true throughout; it is about character being fate and about the relationships during.  That is where her heart and dedication steadfastly remained.   To put the outcome into perspective and allow the process of creation to be the focus, we know these many centuries later what the brilliant, enduring outcome of the Odyssey is.  We hold it in our hands twenty-eight centuries later, its truths still shining in the sunlight.  Barbara Clayton puts it succinctly: “ . . . what testimony could there be more impressive than this, that in the face of what the Odyssey clearly says about Penelope’s web--that it is completed before the poem even begins--we are so compelled to believe otherwise” (Introduction).  Control is not the issue for Penelope, as it is not here with Philip or Alex Fradkin.  Upon examination and carrying the implications of this into our time, as we will see, it is the most powerful way to create and to be.  It is how to give life and soul to a work.  This is the power of The Left Coast:  California on the Edge.  It is fitting, then, that this moment and pivotal occurrence happens on America’s golden coast.

On the surface the book begins with soft aquatic, sea-foam colors and is carried by personally expressive photography that goes deeper than mere documentation and continues through with an observant text that is a clear and thoughtful examination of differing, often times turbulent and destructive, aspects of human contact with the over 1000-mile stretch of California coastline.  A first hint of something more building in its pages is in the title:  The Left Coast:  California on the Edge, a key description.  This takes some consideration to realize what more is accomplished with this book than a subtle environmental statement.  It seems one could hardly go further ideologically than “left” and “on the edge.”  The calm expressions of the book don’t feel like a push of force further, although it takes you there.  This tone is one reason why some would think this book might not necessarily make a large wave.  What could Philip Fradkin himself have said or done to take an environmental cause further than what has already been said and done, even with his very own life and career?   This book is, in fact, one of his last works.  Fradkin’s low-key observant style appears to be of less strength than a bombastic environmental charge, for example, or even a jubilant celebration of the life on the shores of the Pacific ocean.  As a dedicated and receptive observer, Fradkin might seem even reserved in these understated pages.  He gives the impression of remaining in the background as a witness.   However, there is a definite personal touch of a life lived on these shores, he having written and cared deeply about it for over 51 years.  His relationship with this shore line is a definitive point.   Beyond this there is the meaningful dimension of a father-son relationship followed through time.  As he was writing California:  The Golden Coast (1974), he opens this relationship with the coast for his young son, and when the child becomes a man, returns here again to write and create these continued pages together.  While these dynamics deepen the layers of meaning, Fradkin lets the human and oceanic currents meet full-force, head-on and carefully witnesses and writes in a process of caring, observing and recording.  This love and discipline is passed on to his son as is evidenced in the photography.  Philip Fradkin clearly loves the coast and ocean and his witnessing it in this manner unveils both the loss and the value.  He is not seeking to gain but to come to know, understand and form it into an expressive work about what humans have done here.  It is as if he is stepping back and stating, “Look at this, at this point in time--the edge of human existence and aspiration to which we have come.”  The picture is haunting.  Endless bloodshed, poisonous waters with sewage pouring in, and smog-filled air is juxtaposed with supreme, life-giving moments and soul-nourishing, crashing waves with heart-wrenching sunsets.

The traditionally “feminine” qualities are the unseen vitality.

Foremost in this creative process is this relationship that the author and photographer have with this coast.  Understanding and being in awe of beauty, experiencing the loss, but also caring, building bonds and having deep connections are commonly considered to be feminine (and artistic), weaker, and less valuable qualities--even passive, and so hardly make it into board room meetings where decisions and laws about the shoreline are made with steel-hard-willed calculation in favor of profit. Even as Philip Fradkin has spent his career and lifetime writing about this coast and participating in its evolving, a long and lasting relationship with the shoreline might not seem to carry much impact (for those who seek impact as a means of progress or being).     One powerful aspect of the text, however, is in this fact of the life-long relationships and bonds the author and photographer have with the place and in the approach they must take--not just to the coast itself, but also to the process of coming to give it voice in these pages.  Both father and son note their wills and approaches were altered and this discovery and adherence to this mode of observing and in many ways listening,add to, not diminish, its accumulating strength.  The traditionally “feminine” qualities are the unseen vitality.  The book is quietly powerful in this way, that both the author’s and photographer’s process of coming to know the subject matter builds into a collectively compelling and impressive statement mirroring the subject matter it seeks to render because of their relationship, and therefore approach, with it.   They become attune--the book, the writers, and the ocean together in loss, devastation and infinite beauty.  While the ocean can restore the soul, the artists here return the gift and give it voice.

As Hemingway wrote, “Do not ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee,” so Fradkin shows this moment of connected human experience here on America’s shore.  What he gives is awareness amidst the current state of affairs.   One reason this is important outside these pages is that it demonstrates the approach that must be taken when facing this or any awesome and natural force (life itself), and also in the process of creating something that then has and gives life.  For the book clearly shows, too, what happens with other blind human approaches--pollution, destruction, lives and irreplaceable, extreme beauty defiled and lost.  The intense sense of loss and the task of altering the path of the human damage done along this shoreline does seem insurmountable and bleak.  However, there is also a human story told here and beauty found in the peoples on the shore, even under piers and in tattoo parlors that show that all are a part of this immense loss and also the beauty together.  There is no separating the two--humans and shore, loss and beauty.  On this point the art of the photography in these pages is most expressive.  In these photographs, the people are not posed or set-dressed for staged grandeur.  They show the moment and the personalities of the people of California who are the life and expression of this coast.  Some of the frames speak quietly to the industrial presence, like the shadow of a plane from LAX reflecting across the sands.  One of the most expressive is the cover photograph of a man giving flight to a winged kite into the gorgeous, dramatic, turbulent atmosphere.  Perhaps it is metaphorical for the human spirit that can be released here in so many ways.

Along side this in the text, Philip Fradkin shows the volatile history of humanity on these shores and what humans will and continually have done--“murder, rape, and enslavement” for control and ownership, no matter how transitory these are against nature--and, importantly here, against the land.  Face-to-face are human thought--the dominating world view--and nature.  In the author’s calm, observant voice, the shores of California show that in full knowledge, experience, immense wealth, intense, overwhelming beauty and freedom never before experienced in human history, humans have looked in the face of the ocean and instead of being in tune with it, have seen themselves as separate, both the ocean and shore as something to own, order, control and use.  By giving voice in the manner in which he does, Fradkin collaborates with the ocean patterns themselves--marking the truth and clearing the path for a new awareness.

What Fradkin seeks to show, is in fact and theory, vast.  In order to look at the immense subject, he chooses to observe the different human contacts with the ocean and organizes the text into categories to clearly show what is being considered:  “The Wild Coast,” “The Agricultural Coast,” “The Residential Coast,” “The Tourist Coast,” “The Recreational Coast,” “The Military Coast,” and “The Political Coast.”  Both father and son, with the subject matter large, complex, and thus naturally out of easy human comprehensive grasp, are aware they are forced to be observers of this prime place and its significant occurrences, and thus had to allow the work to become what it is.  In his photographer’s afterward, Alex Fradkin speaks to this process and approach that had not been planned.  He writes, “Until I set out with my camera to photograph my home in its entirety, I never recognized how complex this coastal region is.  The prospect of photographing its disparate parts and creating a cohesive body of images was daunting.”   He goes on to describe the changing approach he would take:  “Increasingly I moved away from . . . as I continued to be drawn to a more nuanced, ambiguous, and reflective depiction” (93).  Looking to possibly use the approach of past venerable photographers of this area such as Edward Weston, Ansel Adams and Minor White did not work either, as “that coast no longer existed.”  His approach as an artist, then, begins to take shape.  “I noticed while looking through my images that I had begun to develop an emotional response to this landscape rather than a strict representational view.”  His description of this artistic process is also a description of coming into awareness and changing with it and this is one of the brilliant pearls the book subtly offers up.  This relationship of coming-to-know is one of the beautiful things that arises from these sea-foam covers.  He writes:

I learned to relax this stylistic rigidity and let ambiguity and curiosity guide me, even if doing so put me in opposition to the original program.  The coast, my subconscious, and my intuition conspired to challenge the idea that a single photographic narrative with a categorical view of the coast’s various parts could represent the landscape in its entirety.  Simply put, the project became more personal.  I was no longer a dispassionate observer but a participant in this landscape--a place where I was a native and in which I had formed my first perceptions of the natural environment, a place I was still seeking to belong to (Photographer’s Afterword).

What stands out here is the beauty of his openness to discovery.  In this freedom he is intuiting, connecting and coming to know instead of imposing a view.  Without connecting in a personal way, and this becoming his approach, he and the landscape could not become greater than the sum of its parts, so to speak.  He would stay at odds with trying to get it to submit to categorization and definition, i.e. control and order.  The photographs could not be what they are in this approach.  They could, under the circumstances, have been rigidly didactic or judgmental.  Instead, they show life.  In this process, the shoreline had something else, deeper and more meaningful to offer.  Without him participating with and surrendering to it in some ways, depths, truths and wonders portrayed in the photography would go unrealized.  It is his genius, though, that too is important in the process of recognizing and bringing his imagination and skills to it.  He has to meet it on a highly skilled and intuitive level.  The union and collaboration then is perfect and balanced.

In his book Cosmos and Psyche:  Intimations of a New World View, author Richard Tarnas describes “two suitors” in his explanation of what wonders get offered by the approach taken by the co-participant, in this case, Alex Fradkin and his camera.  A suitor who is “ready for the moment of surrender” and who seeks to find “the deepest intellectual fulfillment” can come to “a sublime result” (Tarnas, Preface) as opposed to one who thinks he already knows what he will find or create.  That would be a closing down to what world renown mythologist Joseph Campbell describes as “what can be known”--symbolized by the feminine in mythology.  The goal, then, is being open to finding a “deep-souled, subtly mysterious cosmos of great spiritual beauty and creative intelligence.”  Tarnas describes what this kind of suitor can then render:

 . . . thereby bring forth something new, a creative synthesis emerging from both of your depths.  He desires to liberate that which has been hidden by the separation between knower and known.  His ultimate goal of knowledge is not increased mastery, prediction, and control but rather a more richly responsive and empowered participation in a co-creating unfolding of new realities.  He seeks an intellectual fulfillment that is intimately linked with imaginative vision, moral transformation, empathic understanding, aesthetic delight.  His act of knowledge is essentially an act of love and intelligence combined, of wonder as well as discernment, of opening to a process of mutual discovery (Tarnas 39).

It is this awareness and approach that allows what emerges from this book to bring about a new understanding.  While the photographs begin revealing deep nuances, Philip Fradkin’s text reviews the embattled history of humankind of these shores and the “compacted human mass clings precariously to the earthquake-, storm-, and wildfire-riddled coast where the climate is equitable, the living gracious, and the scenery spectacular” (7).  This new face-to-face meeting of writer, artist and ocean is the prime opportunity for humanity to look at itself and at the ocean in a new way and instead of seeing molecular data (what is expected and what we already think we know), and see something else happening, something truly groundbreaking and phenomenal:  a breaking apart of an old world view, damaged and lacking, now altered by the waves, and a new consciousness emerging from the ocean.   In the vast arena of what can be known, the ancient Greeks can offer insight into the wonder of this coast and this moment, for they, too, knew the wonder of a golden coast.  For the ancient Greeks, it was Aphrodite who emerged from the sea foam.  Following this classical thought, Aphrodite, the feminine formidable force, comes from consciousness itself.   What this image can give us is the emerging sea-change--the feminine and the artistic stepping forth and an opening of consciousness and therefore a new oceanic way of being.  Like powerful and sublime Aphrodite born of the waves, deep in our psyches, what comes forth out of the sea is a more feminine indomitable spirit--one that generates life (and, when humanity is disjunct, can also be destructive).    Fully realized and expressed, this new way of being is a far cry from massive, greedy, controlling, and ego-driven.  It becomes balanced from the scale-tipped power of patriarchy.  Philip and Alex Fradkin, the intelligent, knowledgable and dedicated “co-participants” in these pages give their lives and voices to the ocean and to the feminine and artistic spirit necessary in re-imagining our vision of the ocean and shore and brings forth through this relationship a force of nature to strike us with wonder and awe.   It is of utmost importance then, that our expressions reflect this change in consciousness.  It is in the feminine energy that arises from it that must and can be embodied and realized in our culture.

What emerges for California can be a new reckoning.  It is the artists’ imaginings, longings and renderings that brings about this opportune moment.  As is commonly known in Jungian theory, “Images move us. They help bring a pattern that is working in our minds at an unconscious level to our consciousness” (Leonard 21).  World renowned mythologist, Joseph Campbell (who adored being at Big Sur) speaks of this culturally transformative process and the immense and leading role of art in it in his lecture “The Way of Art.”  Speaking about a broken culture and the path that must be taken, he states:

For during the course of the nineteenth century, the separation of these two opposed orders of human experience, concern, and fulfillment became in the West exaggerated to such a degree by the radical materialism of the increasingly industrialized megalopolitan centers of mass intelligence and democratization, that anything like the functional grounding of a social order in mythology (so that individuals of whatever social class, participating in the metaphorical festivals, should become joined with all in a profoundly shared experience of the ground and sense of their lives) simply disappeared into irrelevance.  And with that, the proper artist lost his public function.  Today’s pitiful contracts to invent monuments commemorating local-historical events and personages are hardly comparable to the earlier challenges of art, to break windows through the walls of culture to eternity.  Thus, the only true service of a proper artist today will have to be individuals:  reattuning them to forgotten archetypes, les grandes lignes de la nature, which have been lost to view behind a cloud of contending Jeremy Benthamoid philosophies of the ‘greatest economic good of the greatest number’ (Campbell 114).

Novelist, art theorist, and French Minister for Cultural Affairs Andre′ Malraux spoke of the brilliance of the artist leading the way, too, that is reminiscent of the Winged Victory of Samothrace standing over the glorious, expressive art kept inside the walls of the Louvre: “Each of the masterpieces is a purification of the world, but their common message is that of their existence and victory of each individual artist over his servitude, spreading like ripples on the sea of time, implementing art’s eternal victory over the human situation” (Lamm 1).

The approach in creation shows the approach that must be taken with the shore and the ocean in order to experience the sublime for which humans so desperately long.  The California coast, like the shores of ancient Greece, offers this spectacular experience and altered way of interacting with the ocean and also the ocean of being.  The ocean is not something to be controlled, as humans living on it are able to attest.  Odysseus, too, had to come to understand and align with Poseidon, and in the course of the epic poem his ego is transformed.  The laws and actions for the California coast have been ruled by a different power--money and control--a symptom of a patriarchal culture not only sadly immensely lacking in feminine qualities, but abusive and denigrating of them.  In a radically different approach, it is the artist here who comes very close to lighting a new way.  Alex Fradkin continues describing how this happens:

Guided by my curiosity, my memories, and chance, I surrendered myself and my camera to whatever was both unexpected and compelling.  Often when I returned to a particular location with a specific image in mind, the unpredictable coast would yield something else, something different, better--or sometimes something completely unworkable.  I was subject to the capriciousness of the coast and what it intended.

His openness to this is key.  The dominating approach has been to do what humans will:  take, ruin, and use.  Like Penelope’s crisis and the threats against her, in essence, this has been a rape and pillage of the land and of the water and of the lives here.  There is no respect or relationship in a rape; it is a crime of domination.  There are no bonds, emotions, or concerns about repercussions.  In this way, a commercially-driven, competitive patriarchal system is an openly continuing perpetrator against nature validated and condoned by our world view.  In stark difference is the relationships evident in this text.  Both Philip and Alex have given their lives to this shore and want its beauty to thrive and exist.  In their coming to know, in creating these pages and giving it voice, they give life and soul back to the sublime nature.  Odysseus himself was allowed by the gods to return when he had this transformed world view--less of himself and more of the ocean of being.  He is transformed by the ocean.  He does have to fight to get home to a relationship which is a balance with the feminine.  Endless shipping into ports, polluted military zones, borders with Mexico are not the central cause of the devastation, but an on-going battle.  They are symptoms of a dominating patriarchal world view.  The answers, then, cannot come from a patriarchal government or religion.  It must come from artists who are not dominated and who are able to visualize and articulate an emergence of the feminine.

On one side is the innate human longing to be near the life-force of the ocean, complicated by a more human-willed drive to profit, and profit hugely, and to control for transitory human designs.  Fradkin traces the human footsteps on this coast back its diversified and bloody history and shows precisely these drives at work, at any cost--monetary or human life.  Showing the history of Point Reyes Peninsula, he demonstrates the long-sought after land through “dizzying regime changes . . . first Native Americans . . . followed by Miwoks, English, Spanish, Russians, Mexicans, and Americans” (20).  He quotes a naval lieutenant visiting there in 1846:

The Punta Reyes is a favorite hunting-ground, the elk being attracted by the superior quality of the pasture--the land lying so near the sea, that the dews are heavy and constant, adding great luxuriance to the wild oats and other grains and grasses.  The elk are very abundant at this season, and more easily killed than cattle.  We passed many place, on our way back, where moldering horns and bones attested to the wholesale slaughter which had been made in previous years by the rancheros of the neighborhood” (20).

He points out not only the “transitory nature of the proprietorship of land, whether by individuals or tribes or nations who laid claim to West Marin” but also the human cost--many stories of Native Americans taken as slaves, murdered, or gang raped.  It has been a never-ending slaughter and defilement of life.

In another aspect of his examination, in his look at the modern “The Industrial Coast,” Frandkin demonstrates how the ocean has not been forgiving of human aims.  In this history, it was often and expensively believed that human ingenuity could overcome, and depending on the method of calculation, some might say it has been.  He describes the Industrial City below Los Angeles International Airport as doing “8.3 million containers with cargo valued at $240.4 billion generating an annual operating revenue of $417.2 million . . . also a major cruise ship terminal for the West Coast, handling 1.2 million passengers a year.”   This port and with that of Long Beach, according to studies, “are the greatest contributors to . . . toxic mess, thus making them the single largest source of air pollution in the region of greatest air quality degradation in the country” (68).  One interesting and important point about this book (and its commonalities with the ocean) is that it does not issue judgement.  It seeks to show how things have been and how they are.

It is a world view that has determined the approach and actions on this shore.   Consequently, it is those who assume power propagating that limited world view that continues the battle for human will.  It seems impossible for a different tide, as activists have long had to continue to fight for restrictions and a return to natural wetlands and to have at least relatively small wildlife preserves.  In an imbalanced culture, however, it is the artists and writers who are able to come to know and express those visions to create new frontiers the only place it can be now--into human consciousness.  That is the ocean coming to the coast of California.  That is the powerful, unsuspected tide within these pages.  Joseph Campbell quotes Cezanne in saying “Art is a harmony parallel to nature.”  He wrote himself that “the artist is the justifier of life . . . a revolutionary far more fundamental in his penetration of the social mask of his day than any fanatic idealist spilling blood over the pavement in the name simply of another unnatural mask” (101).  Like Odysseus and his rightful home, Philip Fradkin writes, “I hope readers will be able to determine from this book what attracts them to the western littoral and then do something to protect its essential nature.”  The ocean of being comes to shore and stretches along the length of California and beyond.  In these pages it is given place and voice through slow, careful and caring perception in writing and photographs.  It is a poetic process wherein Penelope’s weaving becomes Aphrodite’s arrival.

Works Cited

Campbell, Joseph. The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Metaphor as Myth and as Religion. New York: Harper & Row, 1988. Print.

Clayton, Barbara; Clayton, Barbara (2004-01-29).  A Penelopean Poetics: Reweaving the Feminine in Homer's Odyssey (Greek Studies: Interdisciplinary Approaches) (p. 44). Lexington Books. Kindle Edition.

Tarnas, Richard. Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations of a New World View. New York, NY: Viking, 2006. Print.