Landscape photographers across San Luis Obispo agree: from rolling green hills to deserts and dunes, the Central Coast provides a unique and diverse terrain for their craft.
This is why renowned landscape and surf photographer Chris Burkard, a Pismo Beach native, has kept the Central Coast his home base in the midst of global photo assignments.
“I was born and raised in this area,” Burkard said. “It was a small town and, like anybody, when I grew up I wanted to get out of here and see more of the world. I think what ended up happening was I realized some point along my early years of traveling that this was an amazing place to come back to.”
Although traveling and discovering new terrain was essential to his development as a photographer, Burkard, who boasts an Instagram following of 2.9 million, often found himself yearning for landscapes that reminded him of home.
“I really missed the open space and the open landscape,” Burkard said. “I think it was the rolling hills of Big Sur and the open dirt roads of San Luis Obispo — those were the places I missed and those were the places that inspired me the most. So when I was out on the road, I was constantly searching for places similar to home because that’s what inspired me. It made sense to stay here.”
Industrial technology and packaging junior Jesse Morrison started taking photos for that very reason: he was inspired by the diverse landscapes the Central Coast had to offer.
“I started taking photos right around when I came to Cal Poly and that’s definitely not a coincidence,” Morrison said.
Coming from San Clemente, California, Morrison was inspired by San Luis Obispo’s proximity to open stretches of vast land and wilderness.
“All of Orange County is one giant suburb basically,” Morrison said. “But here, you can go like a mile [out] of town and feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere. You can drive up into the hills and be the only person around for miles.”
Morrison started to explore his new home and one day, he brought a camera with him. The occasional hobby cascaded into an obsession. He spent hours on end exploring and capturing images. In Fall 2017, he created Poly Photo Association, Cal Poly’s only active photography club.
But his love for photos did not start with shooting.
“Editing [photos] came a lot before actually taking photos for me,” Morrison said. “I never even considered picking up a camera before coming here, because I really liked doing the editing and digital art.”
Morrison likes to combine two photos taken at different times or locations, a technique called compositing. He spends hours at a time in one location, capturing the difference in time and blending them together.
Post-production editing is standard among landscape photographers, but there is a growing debate over its purpose in the photography world. Some photographers keep editing to a minimum, while others utilize the tool to create a new image unlike the original.
“It’s a pretty big thing that’s going on in the photography industry right now,” Morrison said. “It’s kind of a battle between traditional and modern technology.”
Graphic communication professor Brian Lawler, who has been taking photos for more than 50 years, insisted that photo manipulation has been used for generations. Others just used different techniques.
Before Photoshop, photographers would manipulate photos in dark rooms to enhance their images. Many of these techniques have been replicated as tools found on today’s digital photo editing programs.
“There’s nothing wrong with it, ethically or otherwise,” Lawler said. “Landscape photography is art. You may do anything you want.”
“With any kind of art, I think you only move the medium forward by breaking the rules,” Morrison said. “It’s making art in a way that wasn’t possible before.”
For biological sciences sophomore Nico Aguilar, photography is about capturing the details of his surroundings as they exist.
“I’m not very good at many other forms of art,” Aguilar said. “So when I got a camera for the first time, I thought, ‘Woah, it’s exactly the way I like it.’ Because I like things the way they are. And photography allowed me to just share the perfection that is already out there.”
Aguilar found ample opportunities for new and diverse landscapes when he came to San Luis Obispo his freshman year.
“It combines that feeling of the Pacific Northwest, but also those sunny California beaches,” Aguilar said.
Some of these photographers’ favorite shooting locations in the area are the Oceano Dunes, Montaña de Oro State Park and Serenity Swing. These locations exemplify the natural beauty that has inspired so many landscape photographers.
“It’s somewhere everyone wants to be, but not everyone can be,” Aguilar said. “So I think sharing that with people who don’t have the privilege to come here is something really special that people enjoy
Burkard loves to bring that same joy from his travels back to his hometown. With every location he has been, from the vast waters of Iceland to the beaches of India, Burkard has brought pieces of the world home to San Luis Obispo.
“There’s something about being able to empower your own community and the people you love and care about — being able to realize that this place is what inspired me to want to get out and go see the world, but also bringing the things I learned from the world back here,” Burkard said.