Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.
I have come to believe that Steve was making several points in this observation. We certainly live in a world where technology has become an essential part of life and conversation. And tech isn’t just about money and new products. Truly great innovation must make our lives better. It has to work.
Certainly, seeking beauty is part of any creative endeavor. But if the maker aspires to Art, then the thing created should also inspire and take us to new ways of seeing and being. It should also move us emotionally. Steve wanted it all.
This issue of Alta seeks to live up to that standard. We wanted to celebrate some extraordinary photographers, using our big pages to showcase the images of our regular contributors, who selected their best work to document what was a complicated year. In this same issue, books editor David L. Ulin highlights the past year’s exceptional literary stars.
Some decades ago, when I was a junior reporter at the San Francisco Examiner, I worked on a story about power and water in California. I had the opportunity to interview the economist Paul S. Taylor, who was already in his 80s but still active as a teacher and mentor of younger scholars at UC Berkeley. Taylor was an expert on a federal law that tried “to distribute the benefits of the public domain widely, by favoring actual settlers against monopolists and speculators of that day. In 1902, when Congress was persuaded that [it] ought to help develop western irrigation, it limited water rights for private landholding…to an amount adequate for no more than 160 acres,” according to a 1950 article he published in the Western Political Quarterly. Taylor was also an expert on how large landowners had managed to circumvent both the spirit and the letter of that law. That was our story.
But Taylor told me an even more interesting story. As a young man, working for the California state government and later the Farm Security Administration, he had been dispatched to investigate the so-called Dust Bowl. It was a tragedy of the 1930s. Farms, livestock, and crops failed across an entire region, intensifying the Great Depression. The conditions drove many families off their land on a migration westward in search of better living conditions. Taylor saw firsthand the devastation, but his bosses in Washington wanted statistics to document the situation.
At that time, Taylor was married to the photographer Dorothea Lange. He soon realized that his wife’s images of the people who’d been dislocated by the Dust Bowl were far more powerful than his dispatches. By the time department heads read his reports, much more damage would be done. Taylor’s conclusion awakened me to the idea that photographic imagery was a forceful and immediate way to move audiences—and shape policy.
Author Rob Schultheis used to joke about an imaginary book he wanted to write: 1001 Zen Koans and Their Answers. One of the entries in the collection featured a storm blowing over temple grounds, and a prayer flag snapping and flapping in the shifting wind. The master asked the acolyte: What is moving? Is it the flag, or is it the air? The correct answer was neither: It is your mind that is moving. That’s what Alta seeks. To move minds just a little.
LIGHTNING IN A BOTTLE
Craig Lee had long dreamed of photographing lightning over San Francisco, given what a rare occurrence it is in the city. Early one Sunday morning in August, Lee—a former staff photojournalist for the San Francisco Examiner and the San Francisco Chronicle—was awakened by flashing lights outside his bedroom window. “I was groggy and forced myself to get out of bed,” he says. “I was not going to miss this opportunity.” Knowing that time was fleeting, he grabbed his camera and tripod and headed out to find a prime viewing location. He landed on Kite Hill, above the Castro district, where he could frame the city skyline in his viewfinder. “Lightning was continuing to happen around me to the left and to the right,” Lee says, “but I was waiting for it to happen with the San Francisco city view to give it context.” His game plan? Just keep hitting the shutter button, with long exposures, and hope for the best. The magic happened around 6 a.m. “I was excited, because I saw the lightning after I clicked the shutter button,” Lee says. “I took a quick look to confirm I got it. I was so happy.”