San Diego Pier Project

I began thinking about the pier project around Christmas 2003. Piers have a certain power that I find fascinating. Certain childhood memories are of rusty nails, oil soaked planks and dried bait stuck to the railings. Yes, these are “romantic Steinbeck” images to me. Piers are also huge graphic structures that I wanted to capture in a certain photographic mood. It was not possible to have the environmental conditions I needed in the winter. I needed very low tides and long exposures. I wanted to see the piers reflected in the wet sand, the waves in motion and the sky nonexistent and white.

A quick search of the tide calendar told me I had to wait until the beginning of August when the lowest tide would be an hour before sunrise. There were only about 5 days when the condition would be at the optimum and there were only five piers in San Diego from Oceanside to Imperial Beach. I set my alarm for 4:00am.

The timing was perfect. The Pacific Ocean cooperated with calm waves less than 2 feet. The low tides left huge reflection pools for the piers to be seen upside down. The overcast low coastal clouds provided the white sky and long exposures I wanted

Some of the exposures were 2 minutes or more. As the water moved, the piers stood motionless. There were no disruptive foot tracks in the virgin sand, just a few birds and seaweed.

I set up the camera around 4:30am under the pier and could continue photographing until 6:45am. The lights on some of the piers remained on until 6am.
I used a digital camera as an exposure meter with its histogram feature. Then I would expose the scene with a Hasselblad SWC 903 loaded with black and white film to complete the job.

Each pier had its own personality and design. They stretched out into the vast sea balanced on their sturdy life covered pilings with the starfish, crabs, and mussels clinging and waiting for the returning tide. Ground water drained outward into the sea and tiny waves tried to reclaim the shoreline while being pulled backward by the full moon’s power. A few sea birds wandered about looking for an early breakfast in the wet sand.
When I finally folded up my tripod and walked off the beach a few eager surfers were wading into to water looking for something to ride. A variety of joggers trotted along the shoreline and shell collectors bent over sifting the sand for treasures.

I really cherished the few hours exploring the image possibilities and mental exchange with nature. The images captured on film will bring back those feelings while I work in the dark room making prints for my walls and to share with friends who also have their own pier memories. It was well worth waiting the eight months to begin the pier project.

Lee Peterson, August 2004