The coast near Sea Ranch, a community in Sonoma County, California, has a kind of primordial majesty to it: a verdant shoreline where cliffs high and low drop into a rushing surf. For the past couple of years, photographer Kerry Mansfield has been fastidiously documenting this place, revisiting different points along a ten-mile path and capturing its topographical variations over time. It began simply enough: a long walk, an iPhone, irresistible vistas, moments of the Pacific smacking the ragged outcroppings of the continent—the grandiosity of nature.
“I fell madly—I mean crazily—in love with it. I went up there for about two and a half months and lived in an empty house we were renovating. I had made this one long map—a string map with just iPhone photos, just to have a visual reference—because I was hell-bent on getting back to certain spots I wanted to shoot with a real camera.”
The map was a sort of snapshot lexicon, with crude locators, of the scenes that moved her. There were so many, along such a baffling topography, that she needed something detailed to find her way back. “The geography is beyond varied, so it was hard to be like, ‘Well where was that spot? Where was that spot?’”
Part of the problem was the tide, which radically altered the landscape (and, thereby, one’s memory of it), concealing and revealing the rock formations beneath. Mansfield became obsessed, she says, with this natural sleight of hand. Her idea—what evolved into a mission—was to venture out freehand, without a tripod or any formal setup, onto the natural jetties and outcroppings, to photograph the myriad adjustments made by the water’s natural rhythms: shooting a wave cycle for, say, five minutes at a time, some three hundred shots per cycle.
Two years and one hundred fifty thousand images later, that map has become the foundation of a project that documents not just a place, but time and, more important, transformation over time.
Mansfield’s background includes formal studies in drawing and architecture; in a way, she says, photography was a fluke that stuck. Twenty years into her career, she now finds herself having to reenlist those set-aside skills in order to tame this current work, animated by questions both lofty and excruciatingly technical: How do you juxtapose the processes of nature? How do you shoot time?
For a guide, Mansfield has relied on a sentimental urtext of sorts: Process of Wood-block Printing, based on the iconic work The Sea at Satta by Utagawa Hiroshige. “I had grown up with this book,” Mansfield says. “It belonged to my grandparents—this beautiful foldout that literally shows you, page by page by page, how they do a woodblock print, where you start with an outline and then one color goes in, and then another color goes in, and then another color goes in, and slowly you layer it into the final picture.”
Her strategy is much the same, with low tide providing the outline, the stages filling it in “depending on which parts of the wave cycle you choose or don’t choose.” To get that layering right, she worked for months on a single image, combing through thousands of frames. “I put up tons of iterations on the wall, taping them up, and I just kept working on it over and over and over again, trying to get it into something. I spent one week on a rock—one rock!—trying to find where it was most exposed in the wave cycle.”
At this point, Mansfield has three distinct working maps that she brings with her on a shoot, just in case, though she also says she knows the path well enough to “walk most of it in my mind.” One way in which her methods have become more efficient is through the use of her camera’s GPS, which allows her to locate with greater precision the spot and angle she seeks to replicate. Before setting out again, she enters the GPS coordinates stored in the image file into Google Maps, saves the location, then renames the location using the file name of the image. When she gets close, she takes out her phone and moves to align the blue dot with the flag. Still, for all the astonishing convenience of technology, there’s a necessity for precision that only instinct can provide.
“It’s extremely complicated to try and repeat the exact composition,” she says. “I can get to the location, but am I standing two feet to the left or two feet to the right? Or, it just so happens that the part of the bluff I was standing on before has crumbled to the ground. I’m realizing that it’s way trickier than I thought. I mean, the whole point of the project is that it’s futile. But dedicating yourself to proving something futile is exhausting, apparently.”
The volume and meticulousness of the project speak to the tension of the artistic process itself, one of narrowing and winnowing—of coordinates, of images—that resembles the slow erosion of the landscape she seeks to capture.
As painstaking as the process has been, Mans-field says it’s also thrilling to be in the presence of an overwhelming power. “I’m careful. I have rules,” she says. “I check to see if there’s water on the ground. I use an app so that I always know when the tide is rising or receding. That’s the trickiest part, getting out to spots where I was before and looking at the GPS and thinking, Jesus, where the hell was I when I took that?” On each excursion, she shares GPS coordinates and a quick image to friends and her husband: “That way, if no one can find me they have information from the last time I checked in. It’s not a joke. People get taken by waves all the time. But that danger is also part of the rush.”
It’s worth it, she insists, this work for which she has no timeline to finish, a slow opus that may never actually end but which provides her the excuse to trek the shore, to “get outside and stalk the canvas.”
— Paul Reyes