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The Climbs that define California

Landscape photographer Michael Blann turns his eye to California's iconic climbs for a forthcoming exhibition at ASSOS dealers.

Although I travel quite a lot with my work as a photographer, strangely I had never really spent much time in the States, and in particular, California. The mountains book I published had taken me across Europe over a period of five years and to some of the greatest cycling climbs in the history of the sport, but never further afield. I had worked with ASSOS on several projects over the past year in Iceland and Tenerife, and when they asked me if I was interested in going on a road trip to capture some of the climbs between LA and San Francisco it was an opportunity not to be missed. 

Blann uses a Phase One medium format digital camera set on a tripod and tethered to a laptop.

It’s fair to say the climbs in California do not have quite the same provenance as the high mountains in Europe’s cycling heartland, but they are really impressive nonetheless and climbs like Baldy, Hamilton and Diablo, which are synonymous with the Tour of California, are equally important to the U.S. cycling culture as their old world counterparts are to Europe’s.

Mt. Diablo (Photo: Michael Blann)

Much of my mountain work has been about documenting the physical landscape with the cycling history it represents. It’s the same process for cyclists who like to ride and experience the famous climbs as it brings them closer to the sport and makes the bridge between all those famous duels that have played out on the roads before them. You can only do this by visiting the scene of the battle! 

My short list of climbs to photograph for the project was very much focused along these lines and the climbs which hold the strongest appeal with the local riding community. However, it doesn’t always follow that these climbs are the easiest to photograph. In fact, many of the climbs in California rarely exceed 1,200 meters, so much of the road is still surrounded by great pine forests making it difficult to get clear views of the road below. Curiously, forest fires which had ravaged climbs such as Mt. Hamilton actually made my task easier by clearing the view to leave black stalks poking out from the charred earth in some parts. This gave a really graphic look to some of the images and a different color palette.

(Photo: Michael Blann)

Probably the most important component when photographing landscapes is the play of light and how it interacts with the contours of the land and physical objects within. Low light at the beginning or end of the day tends to be favored by most photographers, and California certainly has some of the best end of day light I’ve witnessed. It’s also the best time to be on a mountain, when it’s quiet, with minimal tourist traffic. As a result, I found my working day consisted of waking up early and heading out at 5:30 a.m. to capture the good light. 

The process for capturing good landscapes is quite slow and methodical compared to some forms of photography which is why I use a Phase One medium format digital camera set on a tripod and tethered to a laptop. This allows me to see everything I’m capturing on a good screen and straight into the raw processing software where I can make necessary adjustments as I go along. My work tends to involve a lot of hiking off the beaten track to reach the right vantage points to get shots. There were climbs such as Rockstore in Southern California which required some real effort to scramble up the mountainside to reach the best vantage point. This was difficult and quite precarious at times, as the sub soil and rock is very loose and sandy, not ideal when you are trying to get a firm footing while carrying expensive equipment. Add into the mix the dangers from snakes (which I’ve never really had to consider in Europe) and you need your wits about you.

Rockstore (Photo: Michael Blann)

Invariably by 10:00 a.m. the sun would be too high so I would pack up and swap my camera for a bike, taking time to ride and experience the climbs I was photographing. It certainly gives you another perspective and is the ideal way to recon the road and plan future shots. Then it’s back to work for the late afternoon light which is probably my favorite time of day. There’s a critical point when everything comes together, and the light makes everything look fabulous. Invariably the views beyond the climbs hold the real interest and it puts into perspective why cyclists like to climb mountains. Roads such as Glendora Mountain Road near Mt. Baldy offer the perfect view of California where the various layers of mountains create diminishing layers of tinted light as they disappear toward the horizon.   

Glendora Mountain Road (Photo: Michael Blann)

My route took me north up over the climbs of Latigo, Yerba Buena and Rockstore near Santa Monica and on to Santa Barbara and the beautiful climb of Gibraltar which overlooks the city. After a tip-off from local café owner and ex-pro cyclist Aaron Olson I made a detour to visit the underrated Figueroa Mountain, a brutal climb near Los Olivos. It was then back to the PCH with the car now smelling of strawberries (purchased from the roadside) and all the way up the coast along Big Sur, taking in Bixby Bridge, a landmark of the Tour of California. 

Bixby Bridge

Next stop, San Jose and Mt. Hamilton with its iconic observatory pin-pointing the summit, before hitting the other Bay Area climbs of Mt. Diablo and Mt. Tamalpais. Features in the landscape leave lasting impressions. The giant redwoods and the thick sea mist on Mount Tam, as it’s known locally, are two memories that stick in my mind. 

Mt. Tamalpais (Photo: Michael Blann)

Up to this point the weather had been glorious for two weeks, but as I drove back towards LA and one last rendezvous with Angeles Crest Highway the heavens opened, and the rain came down unabated for the whole day. Photography is virtually impossible when it’s like this. Visibility is poor and cameras and laptops really don’t like the rain. With a day sat out in a motel, I woke up early the next morning and headed up into the mountains one last time. Lady luck was on my side and the sun was out again. The precipitation was burning off creating swirling clouds above the mountains, and as I climbed higher a new vista emerged — snow! As a photographer you always want to create a body of work which holds together as one but has differences between the individual shots. The snow gave that point of difference in much the same way the fires on Hamilton had done so. 

Angeles Crest Highway
Angeles Crest Highway

California was a great place to visit and photograph. The light and variation in the landscapes hit home when I started the editing process back in the U.K. and was brought to life when printing the work for my forthcoming exhibition in select ASSOS dealers in California over the coming month. Hopefully this is the start of something bigger, maybe a U.S. Mountains book. 

Michael Blann is a U.K.-based landscape photographer who has been featured in the Peloton Photo Annual.