sheldon bachus
imagery from the edge

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Sheldon Bachus -- A California Photographer

Jazz musicians and photographers share a belief that the music they play, or the images they capture, should tell a story. That story may be about the world around them, or perhaps more subtly the people they are.

My story is that I am a California photographer. That is, I consider myself both a Californian and at least reasonably skilled with a camera. Four generations ago my great-great grandfather, Henry Hargraves Sheldon, came to California in 1863 where he worked at the Copperopolis copper mine in the Sierra foothills northeast of current-day Stockton. Upon his retirement, Henry's family moved to rural western Sonoma County, then at the turn of the 19th century back to San Francisco, which became my mother's birthplace. In the early 1920s she and my grandparents moved to San Rafael, where I was born five months to the day before Pearl Harbor was bombed. It was this line of Sheldons that gave me my name and what I believe is my essential identity as a Californian.

With the occurrence of my eighth birthday, my grandfather presented me with a little Kodak Brownie camera. One of my first photos was of Toby, our family dog. For some reason, maybe he just wanted to flatter his customers, but the owner of the photo shop in San Anselmo that developed and printed the image felt the negative was worth an enlargement. This small act, whether warranted or not, nourished my confidence in both valuing and working with a camera.

As I grew up in San Rafael in the years following World War II, I carried my camera with me as I hiked the hills above the Freitas ranch, what is now called Terra Linda. Through the camera's lens, I tried to capture the beauty of the rolling, sunburned Coast Range of California. These summer-softened hills were Steinbeck's "tawny manes of lions" before they were cut down by the bulldozer's blade and turned into sprawling suburban tracts. Later, backpacking with my father into the Sierra, although my little Brownie had evolved into a Minolta, the subject of my photographs remained the infinitely variegated landscape of California.

After completing my Masters at UC Berkeley, and throughout my career in information technology, I tried to find some time for photography. My subjects continued to be focused on the environment -- a quiet riffle that had yielded some cagey trout, or maybe an aggressive buck unwilling to give way on a narrow mountain trail. Although it has been said that we can never step into the same river twice, in my younger years I struggled to see and photograph the land as I thought our Pomo or Miwok predecessors might have seen it. With an increasing sense of hopelessness I find myself still doing this.

In contrast to the natural world of the California countryside, nearly a decade working for the United Nations resulted in a collection of photographs with a broad gamut of subjects ranging from Arakanese fishing villages and Mauritanian desert dunes to Ghana's Aburi hill country and the black sand beaches of the Samoan islands. Much as Walker Evans' early career in Cuba influenced his photographic style, I believe my experience abroad helped form my vision, and ultimately images, of how I view the world and the cultures it encompasses.

Returning to the Bay Area I devoted my photographic efforts to narrating the story of an environment under siege, a fragile and fast diminishing natural world assaulted by a burgeoning population and its handmaiden, climate change. For the past thirty or more years, I have made California and San Francisco my home, as it has been for the four generations of my family who have preceded me. With my camera I have tried to capture images of what the Golden State once was, and somewhat painfully as I see it today.

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