Changing Rural Landscape

Professor Laura Watt's Photography Highlights Point Reyes Through Time
September 23, 2015
drakes bay

Polaroid photo of Drake's Bay Oyster Company by Laura Watt

When Polaroid decided to stop making its trademark instant-developing film in 2008, the company destroyed nearly all of its factories. Sonoma State University environmental history professor Laura A. Watt has latched on to the iconic Polaroid style to express another side of her art. Her work is featured in a solo exhibition, "The Evolving Landscape of Point Reyes," at Prince Gallery in Petaluma Oct. 7-Nov. 8.

"It's about how the process of preservation is changing the landscape itself," says Watt, chair of SSU's Environmental Studies and Planning department, whose book about the land management history of Point Reyes is due out next year. "These photographs depict the ways in which humans have worked with the geography of the landscape that are gradually being replaced with an impression of timeless wildness."

Her work depicts aspects of Point Reyes, both the natural landscape and the built environment, that are changing under the ethos of "preservation" by the National Park Service. The change is, in part, due to less grazing by livestock, which came largely after the Federal designation of the Point Reyes National Seashore. Highlighting this point, the exhibition also features photos of the controversial Drakes Bay Oyster Company.

The photos are taken on Polaroid's no-longer-produced "chocolate" peel-apart film, then scanned and enlarged via digital inkjet printing and archival inks. "This makes the resulting prints an amalgam of old and new, rather like the landscape itself," says Watt.

"It's kind of a sad parallel," she adds. "They destroyed these working machines unnecessarily and switched their company over to digital photography, which they thought the public wanted more."

Though Watt uses her iPhone for snapping pictures regularly, she has an affinity for older film cameras. She likens it to the idea of preserved wilderness versus pastoral landscapes. "You don't have to have just one or the other," she says. "They can coexist."

One Polaroid factory was not destroyed in 2008, but was leased by a group called the Impossible Project, looking to reinvent the instant-film concept for the Instagram generation. "You don't have to get rid of the old in order to make room for the new," says Watt.

An artist's reception takes place at Prince Gallery in Petaluma on Oct. 10, 6-9 p.m. Visit for details.

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Nicolas Grizzle