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West Words

Capturing Big Sur's Subtle Beauty

Austere photos accompany bits of prose and poetry from off the beaten trail of the famed coast.


The single most photographed scene in Big Sur is the view from the deck of Nepenthe, the landmark restaurant on Highway 1, a view that helps to explain why a hamburger costs $11.50. Still, as we are reminded in "Beneath Words: Images and Poetry of Carmel, Big Sur and Monterey, California" by Roger Moore and William B. Sechrest (Palo Duro Press, $50, 71 pages), plenty of other sights along the Big Sur coast are no less spectacular but far less familiar because it takes more enterprise and imagination to search them out.

That's precisely what photographer Moore has done in "Beneath Words," a brief but exquisite and opulent collection of black-and-white photographs of the coves and caves, redwood groves and lone oaks, wild beaches and quiet meadows that can be found along the route through Big Sur toward Carmel and Monterey. His images are deeply reminiscent of the work of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston--spare and austere, sometimes almost abstract--and they succeed in capturing the subtle beauty of the place.

The title of the book is slightly ironic, as it turns out, because Moore's photographs are accompanied by short bursts of prose and poetry by his co-author, Bill Sechrest, who accompanied Moore on the 1999 expedition that produced the book. "The poetry and prose emerged," the authors explain, "springing out of the images." At moments, however, the words seem almost superfluous, as Sechrest admits in one of his poems about the experience of Big Sur: "I may pick up pencil," he writes, "or I may simply choose to dance."

I, too, have been moved to the writing of poetry while in Big Sur, and the authors seem to acknowledge that their readers may share the same impulse--each page of the book is designed with a generous amount of white space where readers can add their own words if they are so inspired.


Los Angeles is the city of the tear-down, a place where long-lost architectural treasures like the old Atlantic Richfield building or the County Hall of Records can be seen only in musty old photos or classic noir movies. As if to make the case for preservation, however, Gloria Koenig has documented some of the most significant of the structures that have not been bull-dozed in her book "Iconic L.A.: Stories of L.A.'s Most Memorable Buildings" (Chronicle Books/Balcony Press, $29.95, 120 pages).

Koenig has selected 13 sites as "icons" of Los Angeles. The oldest one dates to the late 18th century, when the Mission San Fernando was founded, and the newest one is still on the drawing board--Koenig dubs the Disney Concert Hall "an icon before it is built." Other choices seem almost inevitable--the cast-iron confection of the Bradbury Building, for example, and the glorious self-invention of Watts Towers. But she also pauses to celebrate a neglected masterpiece like Union Station and an object of self-satire like the LAX "theme building," which she aptly describes as "a place that could easily have been a hangout for George and Jane Jetson."

It's telling that many of her choices owe their almost subliminal association with Los Angeles to motion pictures and television. Los Angeles City Hall was burned into the collective unconscious at the opening of every episode of "Dragnet," and Grauman's Chinese Theatre was celebrated in a beloved episode of "I Love Lucy." Natalie Wood and James Dean were "caught forever in adolescent angst against the cosmic background of the Griffith Observatory" in "Rebel Without a Cause," as Koenig points out, and the 19th century interior of the Bradbury Building was projected into the future in "Blade Runner."

"This is a city of instant recognition," writes architect Frank O. Gehry in the foreword, a place that "evolved from an arid pueblo in the middle of nowhere to a major metropolis that has become one of the most famous cities in the world."

What's best about "Iconic L.A." are the little gems of information that Koenig has uncovered in the process of gathering the plans, drawings, models and photographs that decorate her book. She reveals that Father Junipero Serra was the first person to appreciate the dramatic setting and acoustic features of the natural amphitheater where the Hollywood Bowl now sits--and he paused to conduct an impromptu Sunday Mass at the site. Aline Barnsdall, the heiress who commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to design the Hollyhock House, soon complained that "he was sacrificing her fortune to his art," and one of the disgruntled contractors on the job would have put an ax in Wright's skull if he hadn't managed to throw the man into one of the unfinished ponds.

And the LAX theme building was the handiwork of one of America's first African American architects, Paul R. Williams, whose better-loved projects include the Beverly Hills Hotel and Shrine Auditorium.

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