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As a community, Santa Cruz County residents found healing and solace in nature throughout 2020, but always with the stark reminder that natural phenomena can completely alter our ways of life. These images, and their stories, explore how our community has captured and reflected upon this unique year.

All of the images in this exhibit were taken in Santa Cruz County in the year 2020 by local residents. Click on images for expanded views and stories from the photographers.


The Beforetimes

Many entered 2020 with a sense of hope for a new decade, unaware that great challenges and changes were ahead. These images showcase winter phenomena common in Santa Cruz County, but in retrospect some hold new meaning for the photographers in the wake of all that has happened since.

Sheltering in Place — and Outdoors

In March, the COVID-19 pandemic emptied streets as businesses shut down and residents sheltered in place. Rare outings outside shifted perspectives, and highlighted the importance of access to nature.

Life (and Death) Went On

Though life as humans knew it was increasingly altered under COVID-19, life in the animal kingdom continued its regular cycles of life and death, and the seasons marched on as they always do.

Solace in Nature

After the March shutdown, many people found solace in the outdoors, whether in their own backyard or a local park.

When There Was No Place to Go, We Went Outside

Nature provided a space to exercise, recharge, and rest our minds in the midst of the pandemic.

Life’s a Beach

From waves to tide pools, the ocean provides a constantly changing venue for viewing natural phenomena.

Looking Up

In the rare moments without fog or smoke, Santa Cruz residents turned their gazes to the skies, observing astronomical phenomena. These distant views provide perspective and place this earth within a much larger universe.

Bioluminescent Displays

In the weeks leading up to another glowing phenomenon, a bloom of bioluminescent plankton put on a show.

The Night Before the Fires

Lightning is a rare sight along the Central Coast, and residents were shocked at the sights and sounds of the lightning storm that filled our skies in the early hours of August 16. Little did anyone know that these storms would set off a historic natural disaster.

BEST PROFESSIONAL | FAMILY OF BOLTS OVER BIOLUMINESCENCE BY JOHNNY CHIEN

While out taking pictures of bioluminescence at Manresa, a storm system blew in and I noticed some lightning way out in bay. It was so far out that I could see the lightning but not hear any thunder. The wind was calm, there was no rain, so I didn’t fear for my safety and stayed out to see if I could capture some lightning with the bioluminescent waves. Lightning is extremely rare in the Monterey Bay. I have never seen bioluminescence here either in all the years that I have lived in Santa Cruz County.

For the next hour, as the lightning got closer, I enjoyed Mother Nature’s two amazingly rare phenomenon together. I was in awe to see it in person, and I could not believe that I was witnessing these two events and being able to capture them both in photos and video. This might be the only time in my life that I will ever witness this together.

Little did I know that this lightning storm would be responsible for 11,000 lightning strikes and would set off the CZU Lightning Complex fires later in the day. This is a single shot taken at f1.8 for 30 seconds.


JOHNNY CHIEN

The CZU Lightning Complex

The CZU Lightning Complex fires swept through the Santa Cruz Mountains in late August, forcing the evacuation of thousands as they burned. While the fires left behind 1,490 destroyed structures and yet untold impacts to flora and fauna, new life was already visible by the year’s end.

BEST AMATEUR | FIRE START BY PAUL BABB

During the intense lighting storm, I went to Shark Fin Beach and was taking pictures of the lightning over the water. I turned around and saw the glow and smoke from the start of the Warrenella Fire. I took one picture in that direction and caught an additional lightning strike. This was the only picture I took in that direction. The Warrenella Fire later combined with other lightning caused fires to become the CZU Complex. Little did I know how this night would change so many lives.

PAUL BABB

Foreboding Skies

Smoke from the wildfires throughout the Western states caused alien skies in shades of orange, red, and brown during the late summer months. The color of the sky reflected the fear and anxiety many locals felt as they wondered how destructive the fires would become.

In Spite of it All, Hope

Despite the unprecedented challenges of 2020, and the uncertainty of what the future could hold, many Santa Cruz locals found hope in nature’s resilience.

BEST STORYTELLING | SANTA CRUZ CYPRESS BY AMY PATTEN

The Santa Cruz Cypress (Hesperocyparis abramsiana var. abramsiana) is a very special tree that is endemic to the Santa Cruz Mountains. They depend on fire and other major disturbances to reproduce. The heat from the CZU Lightning Complex Fire has opened these cones so they can disperse widely following the burn. Even though the parent trees may die, the bare soil and open canopy left behind by the fire will allow the seeds to germinate in large numbers to regenerate the stand. Without regularly occurring fires, the adult trees senesce over time, seeds lose viability, and other plants will fill in the bare soil and crowd out the cypresses.

-AMY PATTEN

Through the Eyes of Our Youth

The youth of our community will be significantly impacted by the challenges of this year, but through their eyes and their images we can see the power, the beauty, and the comfort they have found in nature.

BEST YOUTH | WAVE AT ITS BEACH BY CONNOR GARDE

So this shot was taken a few days ago. It was a cold, clear, day in Santa Cruz, CA. I was taking water shots with my canon camera and got this beautiful shot I was quite proud of. The water was super cold but overall, it was definitely worth it.

CONNOR GARDE

Where will you direct your attention in 2021?


To commemorate this exhibit and the unprecedented year it documents, we have created a book version. Proceeds benefit the Museum and the Community Foundation’s Fire Response Fund. Purchase book.

Thank You to Our Sponsors

Harry and Mary Blanchard | The Hyatt Family | Dr. Elizabeth Quinn | Windy Oaks Estate


Best of Show Awards

BEST PROFESSIONAL
FAMILY OF BOLTS OVER BIOLUMINESCENCE BY JOHNNY CHIEN

BEST STORYTELLING
SANTA CRUZ CYPRESS BY AMY PATTEN

BEST AMATEUR
FIRE START BY PAUL BABB

BEST YOUTH
WAVE AT ITS BEACH BY CONNOR GARDE


Exhibit Jurors

Shmuel Thaler

The 2016 Santa Cruz County Artist of the Year, Shmuel Thaler has been a staff photographer at the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 1987. His photographs have been published in every major newspaper in the United States. His photograph of Santa Cruz Police Chief Andy Mills and Mayor Justin Cummings taking a knee together at a Black Lives Matter protest has been seen by millions and shared thousands of times.

Seraphina Landgrebe

Seraphina Landgrebe holds numerous photography degrees including an MA from SFSU. A painter, poet, philosopher, and lecturer, she promotes experimentation, expansion and education for photographers, and is dedicated to the advancement of photography. Her work has been exhibited worldwide and featured in Professional Photographer magazine. Locally, she was awarded “Photographer of the Year” 9 consecutive years by the Professional Photographers of the Monterey Bay Area. Seraphina offers photography classes on the art of Photography, Composition as well as bird and astrolandscape photography: www.seraphina.com

Staff jurors: Liz Broughton, Marisa Gomez, and Felicia Van Stolk