“Gallery” is a rather subjective word—a space where art is shown. Ideally, of course, it’s a space where your mind gets blown.
Sometimes you seek out this effect at a museum, or a gallery that specializes in a genre that has blown your mind in the past; other times, you just so happen upon this effect. Maybe a song comes on the radio and your car becomes the gallery. Maybe you stumble out of South Coast Plaza and into . Or maybe you run into on your way to work, only to find yourself standing at the counter, head turned to the entryway, eyes fixated on the illuminating landscapes by master photographer Cheyne Walls … to the point where you can’t even hear the barista asking for your order.
So, what is it about Walls’ photographs that can transform your daily grind into something with a little more awe, something beyond routines, schedules, and machines?
To put it as simply as possible: a lot of things at once. Cheyne Walls’ art expands on the traditions of Ansel Adams, while incorporating contemporary influences like Peter Lik, giving light, shadow, flowing water, blooming flowers—nature in its purest sense—a voice through the camera’s lens. Each of the photos on display, from First Light to Surf Hut, have a back story that seems to suggest a kind of invisible collusion between the biosphere and Cheyne’s adventurous fortitude, his placement of the camera, his instinctive snapping of the shutter … the timing of it all.
First Light, for starters, was taken at Canyonlands National Park in Utah. At certain times of the year, the sunrise hits the underneath of Mesa Arch in such a way that it turns the red rock orange. During the summer months you can find the location packed with photographers trying to get the rare shot, but Cheyne took a different approach. Working in service to those moments when nature reveals a majestic, hidden harmony about itself, he went there in the dead of winter, when it was only four or five degrees outside, the morning after a snowfall.
“I show up, and it’s totally cloudy,” Cheyne recalls. “It’s four degrees out, I’m shaking, I just need a sunrise. It’s going to snow for the next three days, just give me something. And I’m about ready to pack up, when sure enough, the clouds started to break. So I stay, and it broke just in time. I had maybe five seconds. The sun just slammed through, the whole under-arch just went totally orange.” And that was the shot.
Some of Walls’ best work derives from his exploration into the unknown. Such is the case with Locals Revelation. Cheyne was sitting in a shabby little restaurant on Maui, when he asked a local guy, “What hasn’t been seen on Maui?” Considering Maui’s been photographed a billion times over during all months of the year, it was a loaded question in no uncertain terms. And it paid off in spades. The local told Cheyne about an unmarked beach hidden between two hotels just south of Napili Bay. His directions were to park by some dumpsters and follow a practically non-existent path 30 feet to the shore. When Cheyne stepped foot on the pristine white sand, he couldn’t believe his eyes.
“No one knew about it. The trail was minute. And all there was were two locals surfing. It was almost like I planned this for a year.” In the photograph, the sun is setting right between the clouds, bringing out the pinks, purples, and oranges in the sky, the white sand glistening beneath the receding tide, the pockets of salt water on the rocks reflecting the light, and the backlit palm trees made into sharp-edged silhouettes. And unlike his jittery experience at Mesa Arch, Locals Revelation “was one of those shots where you sit there for six hours and it’s just sheer enjoyment. Only saw two locals the whole day.”
Maui provided Walls with yet another surprise: Hawaiian Discovery. Driving about 15 minutes past Hana, Cheyne noticed these local guys who pulled over in a non-parking area and just started running down a hill. “What is this?” he thought. “This is crazy.” He stopped his car and blindly followed them into the jungle. He looked down, and there was this beautiful hidden beach. Rather than shooting it at sea level, however, Discovery places you in that jungle, so that the coast remains a kind of mystery, and captured is that moment of discovery when you first peer down through the dense layers of lively flora.
Valhalla’s Steps is probably the best tale of Cheyne letting his instincts lead the way—a photograph that takes the phrase “capturing the moment” to a level all his own. He was exploring the mountainous region between Mammoth and June Lake—a good four hours of hiking and rock-hopping. This was his fourth day of aimless exploration. He still hadn’t gotten a decent shot, and he was starting to get frustrated.
“I’d been walking around since sunrise and hadn’t found anything. The clouds were coming in. I had to get in before it started raining. I was a little frustrated. So I sat down and had some water. I was all by myself. Then I hear something kind of eerie. I couldn’t put my finger on what the sound was. And I started following it. Sure enough, it is a little waterfall that’s only there in the springtime from the snowmelt. I got up to it and I couldn’t believe how red the rocks were. They just had that copper in it that bounced from being wet.”
He waited there for a half-hour, for the light to become diffused, part overcast, part crepuscular rays. And that was it—the moment presented itself. A couple weeks later, Cheyne returned to the exact same spot, and the photograph he had taken was no longer possible. “The waterfall was half the size. Those rocks that were so red, you couldn’t even tell because they weren’t wet anymore.”
That moment when Cheyne followed the eerie sound of the waterfall confirmed something he had always known since he started his career as a photographer in high school: trust your instincts.
“If you just relax and sit back, you’ll find the beauty in nature waiting for you. You don’t have to force anything. It’s there.”
Before photography, Cheyne was on track to play college baseball. That was, until junior year at Dana Hills High School, when he was going for a pop fly and his cleat caught in the grass. He turned to throw the ball and felt a pop in his knees. Rendered temporarily wheelchair bound, baseball was now out of the question. Recuperating at home, Cheyne came across his father’s camera and started taking pictures in the backyard. By the time he returned to school, he had discovered a new direction in the arts.
“Sports were done for me,” he recalls. “And so I thought, ‘Okay, what am I going to do now?’ I took photography just kind of as a joke class for zero period, so I could get out after lunch. But then I started getting into it.”
He got so into it, in fact, he just kept taking art class after art class, ultimately graduating with honors in art, along with a scholarship to the Brooks Institute of Photography. Four years later, Cheyne graduated from Brooks and immediately started interning for Motor Trend magazine, which led to a job with Victor Huber, an advertising photographer. Cheyne worked at a breakneck pace, 30 days a month, for three years, photographing cars and trucks in remote locations all around the world.
Yet his instincts as an artist were far from being fulfilled. Cheyne was growing increasingly inspired by the diverse landscapes of every continent he stepped foot in, the uniquely enchanting colors, textures, contrasts of the environments—deserts, forests, jungles, seas. But he remained tied to his job, perpetually in-transit, without the time needed to shoot all the stunning views for the rest of the world to see.
“I had accomplished everything I wanted to do in the car industry,” Cheyne explains. “I’d gone over 200 miles an hour on a race track in a Ferrari. We shot all the Indy car stuff, did a bunch of NASCAR stuff, met Tony Stewart, all those guys. And then I thought, ‘You know, it’s time to move on.’”
That’s when Cheyne quit his job, took the money he saved, packed up his gear, left Los Angeles and backpacked through Europe with no definitive plans. He traveled all around Europe, developing his craft. Ultimately, he found himself in a tiny village in Germany, where he stayed with the same family that his father had stayed with while stationed in the Army. And there in that tiny village, Cheyne fell in love with the family’s granddaughter, got married, and moved back home with his wife.
Living back here after all these years, Walls has been rediscovering Southern California. Enter: Laguna Beach Lighthouse and Surf Hut.
The latter of the two shows a dramatic winter sunset in San Diego, at a beach he grew up surfing but had never before looked at it with a photographer’s eye. Yellow fades into orange into pink-violet wisped clouds. A blue sky lingers as the sun sinks beneath the horizon. A surfboard rests against a wooden hut. Native wildflowers are beginning to bloom, while a stream of water appears to float over the rocks.
Similarly, Laguna Beach Lighthouse, which portrays the (built as a beach access spiral staircase in 1926), highlights Cheyne’s return home as a world traveler and master photographer.
“Growing up here, I just kind of took that beach for granted, ‘cause I saw it once a week at least. But finally seeing it from a real photographer’s eye, after studying and being in this for a little bit, I saw it in a totally different light. I should have been here years ago taking this photo.”
Although, the photo was not quite ready to be taken: a not uncommon occurrence.
“It’s amazing what two weeks will do with the sun. We’re talking a few degrees, and it makes all the difference in the world in some shots. Sometimes I find a spot, but it’s not going to be perfect until the sun’s azimuth is at the perfect angle.”
Cheyne has a long list of places he plans on returning to at the perfect time of year. He calls it his Bucket List.
As for Laguna Beach Lighthouse, two weeks did the trick. Then the sun hit the lighthouse at just the right angle, just out of the photograph’s frame, so as to accentuate the curvature of the structure, the shadows between the bricks at its base, the character of the cliff, the slope of the sand. And let’s not forget about the whitewash. You can sense the rising tide-created stream as it powers over the rocks and pools in the sand before sinking into the sea: out of view.
In this respect, Walls’ photographs capture more than a snapshot; more like a meshing of 2-5 seconds of snapshots, which is done by holding open the shutter for a desired period of time, a skill Cheyne has clearly mastered. The drifting waters in Surf Hut, Locals Revelation, and especially Valhalla’s Steps, take on a dream-like quality, as if brushed over in Photoshop, or literally painted. But to Cheyne’s credit, he only uses on-location filters. He uses digital programs to remove dust and white balance for the printers, but that’s it. In other words, the colors you see are the colors of nature. And any brushstrokes you think you see are really just the captured whirls of the biosphere—2-5 seconds of it.
Cheyne hopes his photography inspires people to spend more time in nature, support the national parks, and in general reconnect with the lost themes of the human experience, which the fast-paced modern age has by and large glossed over, if not forgotten about completely. Mostly, he hopes his work reminds people to just slow down and appreciate those moments when our planet’s own art reveals itself—even if all you have time for is a trip to your local coffee shop.
“I just get a kick out of being outside and being able to capture these beautiful landscapes, bring them back and show them to people. As if to say: ‘This is what’s out there. You just have to go see it.’”
Cheyne Walls will be doing a meet-the-artist get-together on Thursday, August 4 from 6-9pm at the . Show ends August 12.