A very familiar sunset

A beautiful sunset over the Colorado River in Parker, Arizona.
Sunset over the Colorado River in Parker, Arizona.

I wish I could be dancing in the streets right now after a very tense week of election stress. I’ve always found elections to be stressful but this one, of course, nearly pushed me to the edge.

I’m at the Arizona house to de-stress. Yes, that Arizona. And here watching a very familiar sunset again over the River. These sunsets that I’ve been watching since I was a small kid.

Sun setting over a dark and troubled time. Sun rising over a new day where the work is only begin. To heal. To begin anew.

“I have the feeling you just want to be miserable.”

A recent reply to a mildly snarky tweet I sent, a comment on celebrities receiving free clothes all the time and why it always seems to work as a marketing scheme.

“I could explain to you why it works but I have the feeling you just want to be miserable,” a paraphrased tweet in response. I was slightly taken aback, not because I’m such a know-it-all, but because of a stranger’s rather mistaken assumption about me based on a few words.

While I tend to be somewhat quiet and introverted, I don’t think anyone would describe me as seeking to be miserable. Then again, you never know…

It’s an attitude I seem to find over and over again on social media, Twitter in particular. This attitude of schooling someone, or “let me explain it because apparently you don’t know…” I often seek knowledge online out of genuine curiosity, but I find people online either assume I can’t think for myself or that I’m somehow just plain dumb.

Did I waste time clapping back to this dim response? No, I moved on as they continued tweeting at me. I hope they enjoyed their moment of superiority.

Wildfire damage in natural forest land.

Photographing Damage From The El Dorado Fire

A few weeks ago I made my way up to a special place, a place I’ve thought of as home since I was 14. A place where I still return to every summer to work with a small arts non-profit (www.campbravo.org). A place that was nearly burned down by a massive wildfire.

Camp de Benneville Pines is a small UU camp located near Angelus Oaks, CA. The El Dorado Fire started in far away Yucaipa and was allegedly started by careless people setting off an explosion as part of a so-called gender reveal stunt–in a dry grassy field, during a record heat wave.

The wildfire raged into the hillside directly above camp, but the camp itself was spared. Thanks to many hardworking firefighters who skillfully fought the blaze even as it entered camp in some spots. The very thought of this special place burning down due to such carelessness was enough to have me spiraling.

Reading that they were seeking local volunteers, I drove up there to donate some photography hopefully to help illustrate just how bad the damage is, and how badly this tiny camp needs extra support in order to stay afloat during such impossible times. The camp executive director took me up the hillside to the fire damage is. Where once was a beautiful, lush forest hillside now stands an ashen waste land.

Thankfully, there are some trees still standing. But the destruction this fire wreaked spans tens of thousands of acres.

Growing up in SoCal, I knew about earthquakes of course. I knew about fire season. It’s only been in the last 10 or 15 years that fire season has become something else entirely. Months on end of endlessly destructive wildfires, apocalyptic skies, and terrible air quality.

My hope is that a few of the snapshots show just how badly we need to address our current climate crisis and its effects. In the meantime, if you would consider visiting the website for Camp de Benneville Pines and supporting them with a small donation. On top of being a small business having to navigate being shut down all year, they are now having to manage soil erosion and mudslide risk.

A happy cabin and tall trees spared from any fire damage.

All images are Copyrighted by Matt Lara (Matt Lara Photography) and may not be reproduced without permission.

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The Lonely Street Photographer – Bowlium and Bobcat Fire

Bowlium Lanes in Montclair, CA

I realize my posts are pretty heavy on the black and white images, when normally I enjoy vibrancy, bright colors, lots of contrast. The truth is the last few weeks have been a doozy for me personally. Much of where I’m feeling mentally has been marked by a sense of melancholy. The bleak skies of Southern California during fire season. The tilt of the earth as seasons change and shadows lengthen. On a fairly decent day, one that was still blazing hot, I took my camera out near my old hometown of Ontario and snapped this vintage bowling alley, Bowlium. Only to realize of course that the Bobcat Fire had sent up a new plum of smoke and seemed to be heading toward my home.

All is well at the moment. My main objective in a very chaotic time is still a lot of self care.

All about the pause

The calls are coming from inside the house. The weight of anxiety around person problems. Lack of sleep. Worry over lack of direction in a pandemic world.

And the calls have been coming from outside the house, too. Raging wildfires destroying the west coast. Friends, family, and myself out of work. Teacher friends struggling just to do their job. Anything on the news.

Not to mention I can’t be outside doing what normally calms me–exercise, hiking, and gardening. It all makes me realize that you can’t whip yourself out of this space.

Reading this piece on why I’m feeling so awful right now hit all the right points for me. The ambiguous loss, the unproductive feelings, the lack of normal self-care activities.

Today has been all about the pause. Hitting pause to allow myself to re-adjust, and realizing it’s a privilege that I can even do just that. Pause, and lots of rest, and keeping stimulation low.

An image of the book 52 Weeks in the California Garden

Garden Journal: The Year Starts in September

Being from Southern California, I grew up with earthquakes. Yes, I’m one of those people who will stand there calmly as the earth under my feet literally shakes. The occasional fire might have made the news when I was a kid, but back then climate change was real but mentioned rarely and usually in passing. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that fire season became something so all-consuming. Several fires have threatened my home in the hills over the years, and I’ve been evacuated once in the middle of the night. I’m currently sandwiched between two large fires–the Bobcat Fire and the El Dorado Fire–each burning tens of thousands of acres.

Late September. The wildfires continue to wreak devastation up and down the West Coast, and the sky is filled with a toxic atmosphere of smoke. I’m tending to my garden. A piece of land that was a simple, plain lawn when we first moved here. Now it is a constant work in progress, thanks in many ways to an excellent professional gardener, Miguel.

As of yet, I have to limit my time outside, but do I have my own projects in the garden as well. I keep an eye on the big plants and I’ve spent much of the last few months weeding more than I ever have in my life. The garden has become my sanctuary and the thing that tears my eyes away from computer and phone screens.

I’ve started stacking a growing collection of gardening books along with a few seed catalogs. Finding a copy of Martha Stewart’s Gardening Month by Month at a thrift store was, like many things Martha, the start of a great love. Her yearlong paean to her masterpiece garden at her old Turkey Hill home, paired with incredible photography, is something to behold.

From there, I found myself diving into the wonderful A Way to Garden by Margaret Roach, former head gardening editor at Martha Stewart Living. Her anthropomorphic approach the gardening year as six seasons, starting in birth all the way to death and afterlife. Her “how-to and woo-woo” approach illuminates the elemental joys of gardening.

Still, for some reason most gardening books are centered around an East Coast, New England style of gardening, where there are more conventional seasons–pleasant springs, humid summers, crisp falls, and snowy winters. As opposed to here in California where much of that just simply does not apply. Luckily, I happened upon 52 Weeks in the California Garden by Robert Smaus, former gardening editor at the LA Times. His recommendation is to start the gardening year in September as he states in the Introduction:

“My gardening year begins in lat summer, when I fish out some weathered redwood flats and sow seeds of broccoli, calendula, delphiniums and other things I plan to plant in the fall. In the warm weather of August, seeds don’t sit, but sprout like a rocket lifting off, and six weeks later they’re large enough to go out into the garden…In our climate, fall is spring, at least as far as planting is concerned, and autumn, not spring, should be our busiest time in the garden.”

Having published this in 1997, I don’t think Smaus had to account for the apocalyptic wildfires we have happening now. Still his thoroughness in describing just how to truly maintain a thriving garden amidst the dryness, the Santa Ana winds, the heavy raining season, the ever more common droughts, and our notoriously hard clay soils have become fundamental to me. A guide for each week of the year here in SoCal.

So, here it is. The new gardening year begins, fall as spring, as the West Coast burns to an ashen crisp. I don’t know how to fix these terrible fires beyond acknowledging the impending doom of climate change–but I can make this a small sanctuary for the birds, the bugs, and the humans that pass through.

Speaking of fires, my childhood summer camp is currently being threatened by the El Dorado Fire, the one that started as a botched “gender reveal”. If you have a few extra bucks, please consider helping fund them through this emergency: https://www.uucamp.org/contribute/covid-19-emergency-fund-2/

The shortening day

I have a family history of being stuck in travel destinations. I’ve been trying to make my way home from my family home out in the desert of Arizona. A small river house on the Colorado River.

High gusts of wind for two days have made that imposssible. Not that I wanted to drive home to smoked hellscape that is the ever-intensifying Fire season of Southern California.

I’ve had one last decent evening in the desert. The temperature dropped reasonably below 118 degrees, and the winds calmed. I saw the sunset into the smoky West…a few minutes sooner, it seems, than the previous night.

It’s happening now. That short crawl towards standard time. That change in hour that I despise each year. I can’t think of anyone who actually enjoys the shorter days. The only good thing about it is the slanted, surreal light of the Southwest creating shadows that don’t exist anywhere else.

Black and white image of a shadow on the beach in Parker, Arizona.
A Shadow on the Beach in Arizona
Trying my hand at Tri-X 400 film shooting for the first time.

An image of Matt Lara, the photographer, reflected in a window pane.

The Lonely Street Photographer

Most of my photography began with taking street photos. I had just moved to NYC and had a small point and shoot camera, this was long before smart phones.

Copyright Matt Lara Photography

My stepdad, also a photographer, saw some snapshots I’d emailed him and insisted I keep shooting, and eventually gave me a hand-me-down DSLR.

The pandemic hit right as several years of my photography work with clients was starting to pay off. I’d spent a long time building a decent portfolio of work doing corporate events and portraits, and wasn’t doing much street photo work.

Copyright Matt Lara Photography

Like many freelance artists, I struggled with what to do as I faced an entire half of my year of canceled shoots and plans down the drain.

I have a few cameras I shoot with now, some that I’ve inherited. One being a Leica Q, which I’ve been taking out as often as I can during an intense summer of heat and California wildfires.

Copyright Matt Lara Photography

Safety is, of course, my priority. And while pandemic fatigue sets in and people on social media are posting group events forgoing masks or social distancing, I think people are still home and lonely. Loneliness isn’t exactly a bad thing to me. I hope I can convey that in these shots.

The statue seen here is title “ghandiG” by Peter Shelton, on the campus of Pomona College.
All images Copyright Matt Lara Photography 2020