Refining The Art Of Preservation
by Mark Chamberlain
Journal of Aesthetics & Protest
The Threat of Countrycide
In the spring of 1980, my partner in bc space gallery, Jerry Burchfield, and I agreed to undertake a long-term project, documenting the gateway to our hometown of Laguna Beach, California. Laguna Canyon, with its gently winding two-lane country road was one of the last pristine passages to the Pacific Ocean in Southern California, but it was also clearly the target of numerous long-range development projects by some very powerful forces.
With the seemingly inexorable exurbanization of Orange County pressing in on all sides, our canyon was slated to be consumed by the accepted concept of progress. Leading the pack was the privately owned Irvine Company, which controlled the bulk of the land in this region. Under the new ownership of Donald Bren, who had wrestled control from the more benign Irvine Family with its dedication to farming, the new direction called for intense development, including building another “Master Planned City” in the canyon, under the grand name of Laguna Laurel.
Major new urban centers, such as the burgeoning City of Irvine, were consuming the surrounding farmland, while the bedroom communities of Mission Viejo, Laguna Niguel, and Leisure World (now Laguna Woods) were rapidly expanding. The older adjacent communities of Tustin, Newport Beach, Dana Point, and Santa Ana were also seeing their formerly pastoral hills sprout homes, business centers, commercial strip malls, and numerous gated communities. was quietly working with county, state, and federal highway agencies to promote several major new roads to facilitate development. Included in these plans were California’s first toll way, the San Joaquin Hills Tollroad, and two additional toll roads, which would link the region from north to south, and east to west. As developers saw the gold in our hills and valleys, this sleepy part of Southern California was rapidly becoming identified as one of the fastest growing regions of the nation.
Like many refugees from urbanity, we had chosen to settle in this small seaside community because of its relative isolation, as well as the unique topography that distinguished it from the monotonous homogeneity that was spreading across the inland flatlands. Laguna Canyon Road was our link to that larger world, but it was also the filter that protected our identity. This umbilical cord was about to become another Freeway and there was a redtiled tsunami following in its path – unless something was done.
Extending Documentary Photography
Our original intention was primarily to document this still bucolic canyon as a way to preserve it in the established tradition of documentary photography. But more importantly, we hoped to find a means to awaken the public to the dangers of losing that landscape, while challenging their will to save it. We titled this grand ambition The Laguna Canyon Project: The Continuous Document and began the first phase, The Daylight Document on April 18, 1980. The continuous aspect refers to the fact that once we took our first shot, we were committed to the journey on a very tight timeline just to physically complete it, plus it expressed our commitment to pursuing this project in various phases over a very long time.
To physically accomplish Phase I, we assembled a small crew of six people to sequentially photograph both sides of the entire nine-mile length of the road from the off ramp at the Santa Ana Freeway all the way into the Pacific Ocean. The resulting six hundred and forty-six frames per side were subsequently printed into twin color prints, each three and one half inches wide by two hundred and sixty-seven feet long. The pair of prints depicted our passage down the “last nine miles of the westward migration” in classic photographic detail. With this metaphor, we hoped to link the potential development of this still beautiful canyon with the concept of “progress in the West” and the danger of unchecked urban sprawl.
We did not publicize our plans for this phase until we were already into the actual shooting and then only alerted a few reporters we felt we could trust, since we were concerned that the highway authorities might shut us down. This fear that was realized in subsequent phases (when we were actually threatened with arrest and ushered off the road), but we managed to successfully complete this first nine hour marathon without detection.
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