California is defined, both geographically and psychologically, by the fact that the state sits on the ragged edge of the continent — “an ambiguous portion of the whole state,” as Philip L. Fradkin puts it in “The Left Coast: California on the Edge” (University of California Press: $29.95), a superb work of art and text that seeks to understand what we really mean when we casually refer to “the Coast.”
Philip L. Fradkin is a veteran newspaperman and a distinguished historian. His son, Alex L. Fradkin, is a gifted photographer. Together, they trekked along the eleven-hundred miles of California coast that stretches from the Oregon state line to the Mexican border — “or, to put it in terms more expressive of its great latitudinal reach, from a dense, dripping rain forest to an open, scratchy desert” — and together they describe their journey in words and text in “The Left Coast.” It is, at once, a memoir, a work of investigative journalism, and a portfolio of fine art, all of which is sharply focused on the California shoreline.
The eyes of the father and the son, the historian and the photographer, fall on scenes of raw natural beauty as well as industrial exploitation, and they ponder “the occupations and constructs” of the human beings who live and work within sight of water. Fradkin père provides the narrative, which is mostly reportorial, often nostalgic, and sometimes rhapsodic, and Fradkin fils contributes the images, which are rich in color and detail but also candid and sometimes brutal in their depiction of coastal California.
Thus, for example, an artfully-composed photograph taken at Gaviota State Park shows the diagonal slash of the rock face as it slices into the turbulent waves — a scene of violent beauty — but another kind of violence is also on display: the tattoo-colored graffiti that has been applied to the naked rock in the right-hand corner, a red heart and a single taunting word in blue: “Relax.”
Indeed, the young Fradkin wants to remind us that the coastal experience in California means much more than postcard shots. Thus, for example, the photograph he has chosen to symbolize Venice Beach is an interior shot of a tattoo parlor, where a shirtless young man is adorning his body. He ventured into the netherworld under the Great Highway that crosses Ocean Beach in San Francisco and found a man named Eli who is sheltering underneath the brutal concrete beams. And when he consents to show us the Golden Gate Bridge — surely among the most photographed sights in the world — he chooses a photograph taken on a foggy day when only the steelwork, iron-frame staircases and electrical cables at ground level are visible.
The older Fradkin strikes some of the same notes. He reminds us that Robert Louis Stevenson, who lived briefly in Monterey in 1879, remarked on “the haunting presence of the ocean” but also noticed the diversity of the local populace, including “the straight-laced Methodists in Pacific Grove,” as Fradkin puts it, “the pungent Chinese fishing settlement next door, the ‘mere bankrupt village’ of Monterey just to the east, the predominance of Spanish being spoken in the streets, an economy based on credit advanced by ‘Jew storekeepers,’ ‘greedy [Anglo] land-thieves,’ the ruined Carmel mission, and the forest fires, one of which Steven accidentally set when he ignited the lichen hanging on a street to see if it burned.”
Philip Fradkin’s text is organized and presented according to a series of themes: “The Wild Coast,” “the Tourist Coast,” “The Industrial Coast,” “The Military Coast,” and so on. Alex Fradkin’s photographs complement his father’s topical approach, but he has a distinctive and sometimes idiosyncratic vision of his own. Thus, for example, he chooses to include comely young women in several of the photographs — a bass-player in a punk surf band with Half Moon Bay behind her, a female sailor in fatigues on the flight deck of the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan, a reporter for a celebrity TV news show amid the ruins of a church in fire-ravaged Malibu — but they are always presented with certain dark irony and certainly not as cheesecake.
Alex contributes a short afterword that illuminates his approach to illustrating his father’s text: “I was subject to the capriciousness of the coast and what it intended,” he explains. “And what I found was beauty and tranquility, death and danger, which occur close together on the coastal edge.” Philip acknowledges that each element of the book stands on its own, but the ambition of the father-and-son team was to capture “the shadings and extremes of coastal complexities.”
This ambition has been achieved in the pages of “The Left Coast.” At some moments, and in many ways, the Fradkins’ beautiful book reminds me of a great and enduring masterpiece, “California and the West,” which combines the photographs of Edward Weston and the prose of his young wife, Charis Wilson. Indeed, the two books belong on the same shelf as the alpha and omega of the ongoing effort of writers and artists to capture the California experience. And I can bestow no greater praise than that.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal.