Jeffrey Conley describes his crisp black-and-white photographs of natural phenomena as “meditative” experiences. In the meditation world, one of the most common metaphors used to characterize a human being’s relationship to consciousness is that of waves on the ocean: Consciousness itself is the ocean, and every thought, sensation, emotion and even the idea of a stand-alone self is a wave, still part of the vast body of water yet minuscule in comparison to it.
Conley’s contemplative 2001 photograph Figure and Tide is, indeed, an image of a sparkling, wide-open Pacific Ocean as well as gently undulating waves. But something even smaller grabs the viewer’s attention here: a tiny female figure standing where the water meets the shore. It is reminiscent of Chinese Taoist and Chan Buddhist ink paintings, in which lone monks or sages are dwarfed by the surrounding landscape to show that humankind is a part of nature, not separate from it.
To get the shot, the Oregon-based photographer perched on one of Big Sur, California’s famous cliffs on a sunny afternoon, aiming his Hasselblad 500C down at the sea below. “I was captivated with the play of light on water and the rhythmic patterns of the wave sets,” he has recalled. “As I was looking through the camera, I noticed a beach walker come into the scene. At first, I was not happy to have a person in there. Then, it all happened very quickly. Just as the white surf encircled her, she turned in perfect profile to gaze out at the ocean.”
Now, 22 years after Conley captured this perfect moment, a platinum-palladium print of Figure and Tide is on view in “A Beautiful World: The Power of Nature,” up through April 1 at Peter Fetterman Gallery, in Santa Monica. The exhibition brings together striking, monochromatic landscape photos by such pioneers of the form as Ansel Adams, Charles Scowen, Isaiah West Taber and John Edward Sache, alongside contemporary masters like Sebastião Salgado, Pentti Sammallahti, Cig Harvey and Conley.
“Luck favors the prepared. Certainly all the dedication and hard work that Jeffrey has put in over many years paid off for him on this day,” Fetterman says of Figure and Tide. “The result is one of his most sought-after images. It has a beauty and a magic that are so hard to articulate. It certainly worked its magic on me when I first saw it and, it can truthfully be said, on all the many people I have shown it to over the years.”