Artist Interviews 2021
Christopher Petro, “the Californist”
By Laura Siebold
Christopher Petro, better known as “the Californist”, is a landscape, cityscape, people, and product photographer based on the Central Coast of California. His images are bright, positive, and embody a deep passion for nature and life. The viewer gets exposed to colorful skies, breathtaking sunsets and ocean views, cars with character, and portrayals of the open roads and vistas of America’s national parks. Being a cancer survivor, Christopher’s awareness of natural beauty and his appreciation for life can be felt in his photography.
In his interview for Art Squat Magazine, the photographer tells us about his unique photographic “Californist” approach, the importance of research, and the role of the photographer as an artist. With raw honesty, Christopher offers intimate glimpses into his life and his mission to capture fleeting moments, hidden to the spectator that passes by unaware of their existence, and his inspiration and dedication of telling a story through his photography.
Your photographic approach is mostly centered on landscape, sometimes with a single person appearing in the picture. How do you plan for your shoots? Are the subjects that appear in your photography strangers or friends?
Planning for shoots runs a spectrum. At times it’s a detailed process where I know what composition I want, I’m expecting certain conditions and I’ll need a human subject. For these, I usually ask another photographer or a friend to tag along.
Other times, I’m expecting a scene to deliver a moment—one of the things I’ve found unique to photography is that it’s ultimately a meditation on patience. Often, photographers shoot scenes and neglect “a moment.” And that’s fine for some, but for me a composition needs a moment: a person, some wildlife, or some kind of event going on telling a broader story. I don’t like making photographs of just beautiful conditions.
I’ll use strangers who happen to wander into the scene, and other times I set my camera to a timer-mode and run out into the frame myself. That said, I never go to a new scene without doing research to uncover known or famous compositions that exist at a location. It’s important to have these “canned scenes” as a jumping off point and fallback in the event scouting for a unique moment delivers an empty hand. There’s nothing wrong with shooting Tunnel View or Glacier Point at Yosemite, or Angels Landing in Zion, or Marin Headlands in San Francisco, but for the most part these are canned compositions—shot’s which are known to be visually pleasing, low hanging fruit, where if you stand in the right spot with good exposure settings, you’re probably coming away with a decent photograph. Most of the time, getting a unique and unusual photograph at these locations relies heavily on weather and lighting conditions.
There are also found moments, completely unique compositions one stumbles upon while scouting or wandering a scene—these are my favorite. I want the canned composition, almost like a visa stamp in my passport,
but I feel most connected to the art when it’s a moment that either most people walk by unaware or a fleeting instant where the scene comes together for just a moment.
Pismo Beach Sea Cave, Pismo Beach, California.
In your opinion – is nature art or does nature become art through photographic expression? Is the photographer an artist?
Certainly nature can be art. Though “nature” is a fairly nebulous term in the first place, one person’s nature is another person’s local, state or national park. But where the “nature becomes art” dimension enters the conversation is when the artist is articulating and conveying the subject through a specific vision. For me, it’s akin to when I go to a contemporary art gallery and wander the halls of abstract expressionism and impressionism. Here, you’ll find not just a beautiful landscape, but a landscape deliberately distorted beyond recognition, sometimes embellished upon with great saturation, stroke intensity, color variation and form manipulation. These nuances tell you about the artist’s soul. It’s not just, “Here’s a beautiful landscape,” it becomes “Here’s how I see this landscape.” In that vein, the artist is the lens for which nature transcends into art. Personally, I don’t want to see a landscape exclusively reflecting some arbitrary feeling of “this is how it really looks,” I want to see a landscape how the artist sees it.
Pismo Preserve, Pismo Beach, California
How did you find your unique artistic approach and what mostly fascinates you about landscapes?
Finding my approach is similar to asking how a writer finds their voice. It comes over time and mostly develops out of one’s control. You have to try things, lots of techniques and see find what excites you, what works, what fails. In artistic creation, most of the personal progress we make is informed by our mistakes. My aim is when someone sees one of my images, I want them to immediately identify it’s a Californist image. I’m fascinated with interpreting landscapes in personal contexts. Sometimes folks say a photograph I’ve made feels more like a painting. To some extent, this result is intentional. I aim to have my work present a surreal and impressionistic view. Sure, I want the image to accurately represent a place, but there’s a large margin for interpretation beyond just framing a subject. Slight adjustments in color, light, exposure, angle of the camera, lens filtering, shutter speed, time of day or year, the presence of individuals, and many other facets create a large range of interpretation for a photographer to personalize a moment. There’s a misconception that especially lay-people have, which assumes a photograph is made when the images are pulled off the memory card, or when the film is exposed, be the case. The reality for many of us is that holding a camera is only half of photography. The other half is in the photographer’s hands to personalize and further interpret the scene in post.
Are you willing to share a story of a special, intimate moment you had when shooting with us?
Here’s a story about making my version of Ansel Adams iconic and career making photograph of “The Monolyth,” a scene from the Diving Board on the side of Yosemite’s Half Dome.
It's not that I'm in bad shape. I'm relatively lean, I could hit the gym more, but I hike a ton and keep the cardio strong. So when @luketyreephotography told me he wanted to go after this famous Ansel Adams shot, I immediately agreed. "This hike is no joke. I can't believe I'm doing it again to be honest," he warned. I used to rock climb, I spent nearly every summer of my life in the Sierras, "How bad can bad be," I thought.
We wanted to shoot this for sunset, and it's such a long 7.5 miles in, literally averaging 1 mile an hour including breaks & water stops, the hike only gets worse – only harder. You start on the Mist trail, which everyone knows who has done it is not a joke, you ascend to Nevada falls, a merciless climb up the stairs leading you from one false summit to the next. By the time you get to the top you feel relieved & tired, but by far the hardest part is yet to come. Now comes class 3 into class 4 scrambling up a loose granite boulder-field. Traversing terrain that hugs a cliffside, fully geared with our camera and camping equipment, tired as hell, following a non-existent trail, maneuvering from cairn to cairn. You don't look down, you try not to think about it.
The hardest part is carrying the gear, being so worked from the prior ascents earlier in the day, yet still having to trudge through rock fields, thick and spiny manzanitas and shrubs, traversing along at times a 12-inch edge on the neckline on the back of Half Dome. Once you get to a treeline at the shoulder, you still have several hundred meters of pulverized granite, basically climbing beach sand to get to the composition.
No one should hike this. I don't recommend any casual outdoorsman to go after this spot, you get dangerously close to safety margins here. It’s inconceivable to imagine Adams hauling his medium format camera up here, obviously he took a different route (that doesn't exist anymore).
One of the best accomplishments I've had in recent memory though. And though I can't say I'd do this again, a far remote possibility, or recommend others to do this "hike," I made the trek and have my version of Adams famous and career making Monolith, in Yosemite.
Monolith, Yosemite National Park, California.
Tell us a bit about your background and upbringing. How did you get to where you are now?
I was raised on the Central Coast of California and have lived here all my life. Today the Central Coast is my base, and although I still shoot locally, I take a lot of road trips, especially to my neighboring Big Sur backyard. I come from a long line of engineers and folks who worked in construction. Being a creative from a young age, music was my first passion. I was a jazz musician, played in bands and started writing for music magazines and doing radio broadcasting. I did this throughout my twenties. During this time, my parent’s health declined, they were in and out of hospitals for about a decade. It was a messy and dark time, honestly. I was in college, working full time and had two side jobs, and zero creativity in me at the end of the day. It was an insane time where creativity took a back seat to everything else. I stopped playing music, I had to quit doing radio, and I slumped into a creative deficit for a few years as I grinded away in the rat race.
One morning I woke up and my girlfriend at the time said, “Hey, what’s that lump on your neck?” This was the genesis of a six month journey in oncology, and being diagnosed with lymphoma. Getting diagnosed with cancer was unquestionably one of the greatest turning points in my life. When you greet a cancer diagnosis, all the fake problems of daily living fall aside. You see what truly matters most in life: relationships, creativity, giving back and helping others. You realize that a dogged pursuit for money often robs you of your best years. Cancer, in that regard, gave me my life back. After chemo and radiation, I took the first of many big Midwest road trips. When my father died, he left behind his Panasonic DSLR camera, which I brought on this first road trip. I took photos prior to this trip, but this is when something in me changed. I haven’t put down the camera since and the passion has only deepened. Turning out the internal stress, anxiety and worry became vehicles for self-expression in my photography.
Morro Bay, California.
Who or what influenced you the most in your artistic career so far? Who or what inspires you to keep going?
Being engaged with the photography community is the most unexpected and one of the greatest aspects of photography. Working alongside folks who inspire you and cultivate a creative ecosystem helps one break new ground and explore new ideas – if your peers are discovering new techniques, it spurs you to do the same. Fundamentally, I believe we all start off similarly. We find folks creating things that sparks us to say, “I want to do that.” Maybe it’s a Karl Shakur epic landscape in a foreign land, some grand adventure, maybe it’s a street photographer like Evan Ranft who shows you beautiful compositions among the din of daily urban living, or @Bejamin whose composite photography is so atmospheric and radically personalized, that you see the artist soul radiating in his work. But inspiration comes from every angle; I find inspiration in movies, art galleries, stories, and music, all are generous creative wells to tap into. When you start connecting to the artist through what they produce, it’s almost like you are able to see their soul, when you see their work, not just photography—all art forms. You realize the only path one ought to take in creation is to dump your soul in it. There’s a therapeutic benefit here as well, but the ultimate payoff is creating something that in some way consciously or unconsciously reflects a state of mind.
Neowise at Madonna Mountain, San Luis Obispo, California.
Is there a country on your list you absolutely want to go to once the pandemic is under control?
I’m dying to go back to New Zealand. I went in 2007 and wasn’t as into photography back then. Hunting for compositions on the South and North Island is just shouting for my attention.
Christopher Petro is based on the Central Coast of California. Photography prints are available on his website. For more information on Christopher and his work, check out the following resources:
Official Artist Website: https://www.californist.com/
Additional resources consulted for this interview: https://www.californist.com/about.
Copyright for photographs: Christopher Petro.