Thursday, 28 September 2023

Once a photographer, always a photographer

Suzette's photo from Hearst Castle.


It is not often that this photographer sets down the old camera gear and declares "I need a break from photography!" Once in a while, I'll attend a baseball game without my 30 pounds of Nikon stuff just to remember what it is like to be a spectator. You know, there for the game and community of the sport, not on my toes running around ready for every play and reaction from umps and parents.

This time it was an escape and an excuse to go thrift shopping in San Luis Obispo, then swing up scenic Coastal Highway One and make a stop at Hearst Castle for a tour, then pick up Buffalo style chicken wings at my favorite stop in San Francisco, then head home. All of this without thoughts of shutter speeds, apertures, lenses or angles.

Just before I took off, I had some repair work done on my car. I was in the waiting room with two other women and we started chatting about our careers and why we all ended up in Ken Fowler's service center. It seems we all had just finished huge projects and were in escape mode.

I went first and explained what my trip plans were. Then artist Genine Coleman of Potter Valley shared that she had just finished painting a 7 foot tall by 85 foot wide mural for Whole Foods Store in Sonoma. The mural depicts California grown wild foods. She said she spent many hours researching and finding photographs of the foods that were represented in her mural. She then referred to those images for details as she painted.

The last contributor was a therapist from Cobb Mountain who responded to my travel plans by revealing that her grandfather had lived on the grounds of Hearst Castle while it was being built in San Simeon in the 1940's. Recently, she had discovered a set of black and white photographs showing her grandfather at work as a marble installer. She took these photographs to a docent at the castle who studied them and thanked her for sharing such an important part of the castle's historical construction.

I hit the road shortly after we shared our tales and headed straight for San Luis. I counted, on my journey, at least five rented RVs. Sometimes I was behind them admiring the 8 foot by 10 foot photos of Yosemite that decorated the back panels of the vehicles and sometimes I saw them coming toward me showing off the photo of the "Open Road" stripped across a panel over the cab. I finally arrived at my destination at 11 p.m. and grabbed a cheap hotel room. The next morning, I toured the hotel lobby and found historic images of the coast and Hearst Castle displayed on most walls and saw postcards and photo books about driving the scenic coast highway.

I went for an early morning walk in downtown historic San Luis where I came across a store called Photography 101. It wasn't open yet, but I peaked in the window and saw enlargers and other darkroom equipment and used cameras and lenses. In the window was a curious camera display unlike anything I had ever seen. A 35mm film camera had been dismantled and dissected. Each spring, lever, nut and bolt was glued to the white background in an assemblage style presentation. I knelt down to meet it at eye level and studied it for almost 15 minutes. I was amazed at the variety of mechanisms and how many parts it took to create a photo.

I continued my walk and came across the old Mission building where two ladies were in a quandary about how to get a photo of them together. Guess who they recruited? Me, the timely passerby. I informed them that I usually charge $100 an hour when I take or make photographs and they assumed I was kidding and giggled. I took three frames in horizontal and vertical formats and a zoom, then went on my way.

After some thrifting, I headed to the castle. As a journalist I couldn't wait to see publishing mogul William Randolph Hearst's home. I headed to the landmark and parked near a set of sight seeing telescopes. I went out to see the view and noticed the plaques on each telescope noted that they were "camera friendly" meaning you could actually hold your camera up to the eyepiece and take a photo. The scope boasted a 1750 mm telephoto ability which is six times stronger than my largest telephoto lens.

At the visitor's center, I got my ticket, stood in line and then was sent to a young photog named Carlos who politely directed me to stand in front of a green screen backdrop. (green screens allow you to easily drop out the background, usually in Photoshop, then put a new background behind the subject. They are used in most Hollywood flicks for special effects. If you go seen Evan Almighty you'll see some green screen footage at the end of the movie.) He counted 3, 2, 1 and shot a frame with his Nikon digital setup. According to this photog, there was a trailer out back set up with digital imaging stations and two editors working to create a fabulous combination of visitors and a Hearst Castle backdrop.

I took the basic "Experience" tour upon which the tour guide asked random guests where they were from and what they did. I was one of those guests questioned. I revealed that I am a digital photographer and teacher from Mendocino County. From then on, I became the resident photo go to. They announced that no flash could be used because it might deteriorate the 3000 year old artwork and all of the guests complied.

Cameras were everywhere. And so were the questions. I helped a few folks figure out how to turn off their flashes. But mostly it was the tour guide who had inquiries. We were in the main dining room and he had asked us sightseers which chair we thought Hearst himself sat in at the 60 foot long convent table.

Then out of the corner of his mouth, while waiting for an answer from the crowd, the guide asked me if it was possible to get a digital back for a medium format camera. I asked if it was Hassleblad or Mamiya and he said Hasselblad. Yes, I answered, you can buy a digital back to match those lenses as I have the same set up with my Nikon gear.

Then a newly engaged couple from L.A. wanted to know if I shoot weddings, etc. and the questions just kept on coming. And that was fine. I hopped on the bus and road down the twisted road. Got back to the visitor's center where I viewed a National Geographic film called "Hearst Castle, Building the Dream."

And of the course the photography was top-notch. This narrated flick was amazing and splashed with historical still images that made me wonder if someday, in the distant future, my photos of the Skunk Train coming around the bend or images I captured at the Fort Bragg Saw Mill before it closed down might end up on museum walls or on the big screen as documentation of history.

I left the movie theater and came across a rack of photos of tourists superimposed in front of the castle. I spotted mine and snatched it up. Good pose, I thought. I paid the lady twenty bucks for the 5x7 and four wallet sized photos of myself. When I got home, I put the photo on display on my camera shelf. Forget all the designer clothes, Nine West and Prada shoes and those Lucky Jeans I got for a dollar at the Achievement House Thrift Store. The photo of me at Hearst Castle is the souvenir I'll cherish most.





Suzette Cook-Mankins is a 20 year veteran of photojournalism. Send comments, questions and requests to or 272-4714.


Upcoming Calendar

09.28.2023 7:30 am - 8:30 am
Rotary Club of Middletown
Middletown Art Center
09.30.2023 9:00 am - 5:00 pm
Kelseyville Pear Festival
09.30.2023 10:00 am - 1:00 pm
Farmers' Market at the Mercantile
10.01.2023 1:00 pm - 5:00 pm
Ron Green Memorial Benefit Concert
10.05.2023 7:30 am - 8:30 am
Rotary Club of Middletown
Middletown Art Center
10.06.2023 7:00 pm - 9:30 pm
David Arkenstone & Friends in concert
10.07.2023 9:00 am - 11:00 am
Sponsoring Survivorship Breast Cancer Run & Walk
10.07.2023 10:00 am - 1:00 pm
Farmers' Market at the Mercantile
Columbus Day

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