First Sight by Jin Zhu

This is a guest post by Jin Zhu. She’s a San Francisco based artist and the author of Shooting Wide Open. If you’d like to contribute an essay where you write about the photographic process, please send your submission to I will review them to see if there’s a good fit!

Photographs and Text by Jin Zhu

Ever since returning from Nevada I’ve been in a state – at first a restless jittery need to keep busy and pack the schedule, and then a dragging, bone-sapping listlessness that I don’t understand. I took photos! I had ideas! It was constructive! Why aren’t I satisfied?

Then it hit me. It’s grief. It’s actual grief for the loss of that lake. Maybe more for the peace of that lake. The place where I was already imagining camping, working, returning in the spring, sneaking back before the pass closes for the winter.

I wondered there if there was such a thing as a home that you’d never seen before, and even if it is half idealization and fantasy, it does seem to exist. I tried a small cure by driving out to the sea, that other salt water, and I realized also that I had forgotten. I had forgotten what the fog was like out there, and how surreal it is. I have no memory of it because I have no good photographs of it. I drove it so much when I was not a photographer (or rather, a camera-less photographer).

I ended up at San Gregorio, of all places, but the place was completely changed from when I tromped out there with a camera club and a couple of models. The greyest of grey days, shrouded in fog so thick that the ocean appeared a tiny thing, compensating for its small size with purposeful clamor. The world seemed so small, that it made sense that everything would’ve arisen out of the sea – life and the world, Venus and our god figures. Where else could it have come from? I sat on the crumbly cliff and so there was only cliff, fog and ocean in sight. What else could exist?

Yet there was a hint of light at the horizon – a warmer grey that turned into a disembodied, alocational orange glow as I drove back north. It was the strangest thing, as if daylight had turned to tunsten. Not dramatic at all, but a little disorienting. Then the sky broke through and though it was the expected blue, turquoise, orange, pink, I still could see no sun for the line of fog. And the other side of the sky was reddish, as if a second sun had set east. When whichever sun had set all the way, there was left a mush of white fog on the horizon, and a vagueness to the coastal landscape that somehow implied the closeness of adjacent lands, of the the possibility of change.

And I think: what a terrible place the coast is. To tempt you out with such color and then leave you so cold and damp from sheer love of the thing. Is it the fog spray or the condensation on the heat of your body? And what a terrible thing to forget something like that, which in the moment you think you would never forget. We forget people’s faces this way.

Yet to take a photo would be a cop out. To stand there awed and then to snap a picture is the path of least resistence. If I had a notebook, but no camera, as I did yesterday, I would translate the scene into some other medium that is not visual – that is emotional, or conceptual or encoded in some other sense. If I have that camera, it stays a scene, a visual, no more. Maybe it’s lazy.

But there is something pleasing about the anticipation of going to a place and coming back with the pictures in your camera, the recorded light. I don’t exactly anticipate going somewhere to scribble, though I certainly like to. All those legions of photographers are just like dirt-collectors – we go to a place, feel the specific texture of that dirt between our fingers and take a little pinch it home in a jar.

Does anyone imagine falling in love and think of a place, not a person?

I stayed a day longer in Nevada, and for an evening I felt like just driving home. I thought I was creating a situation where I would miss my home, I thought it would be instructive in light of the experience of migrants and immigrants which I went out there chasing in the first place. But it turned out that I came home and missed the place where I had been. This was not the homesickness I thought I would feel. Yet it’s so acute I don’t know what to do – what do you do but go back? Are there certain places that you are programmed to love? Or is place just an unknowing metaphor for the state of mind you associate with it? For the work you would do there?

I don’t know how to say it to anyone. How silly, foolish… how childish it is to miss a place like a limb when you’ve only seen it once and have no roots there. To imagine perfection because you did not stay long enough to figure out the pitfalls. When you arrived in fair weather and left in fairer weather.

First sight. Maybe I am only homesick for first sights. Those valleys and those hills and that lake in the midst of all those thistles and mirages. It could be an addictive thing – to go through the world, searching for the high of that first sight. And the only way to have it again in place is to forget. And so to forget may not be such a bad thing after all. After all, the curse of memory is knowing your mistakes.

Would you ever stand in a place so stunning that you will decide not to take a photograph? That you will pull a Memento and willfully forget so that you could do it all over again, as smashingly as it happened the first time?

  • Jin Zhu


  • Ellen Jantzen

    Just Wonderful!!!

  • Luke Levinson

    I’ve been living in Nevada for 2 years now and I wish I shared your inspiration for this place. Visit in July or August before you make a decision to move is my advice :)