Art and Design

Mount Diablo, a Story of Place

January 10, 2020

This is an excerpt from photographer and longtime Bay Nature contributor Stephen Joseph’s new book, Mount Diablo, A Story of Place and Inspiration. The book consists of hundreds of Joseph’s photographs, taken over three years on the mountain, and features essays by local conservation leaders. The text excerpt is from an essay by Save Mount Diablo Land Conservation Director Seth Adams, titled “Creating a Sense of Place.” The book is available online or in person at the Stephen Joseph Gallery in Alamo (open selected Sundays).

Why are Stephen Joseph’s photographs more than pretty pictures? Certain places hold special meaning. They have a strong “sense of place” because they have an identity that is deeply felt. People bond with them and endow them with value. They name them.

Some places inspire awe like Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, dramatic geological features. Some are organic like old growth redwoods, which can be as spiritual as any cathedral. Manmade and ancient like Stonehenge or the Pyramids. Because they were important for long periods of time like the cave art at Lescaux or pictographs at our own Vasco Caves. Some are constructed and more recent, like the Taj Mahal or the Golden Gate Bridge, beloved by millions.

Even ordinary places can be made special by extraordinary artists. Monet’s water lilies made Giverny forever special. Each morning, Georgia O’Keeffe opened the curtains of her Ghost Ranch studio and viewed the small mesa in the distance, the Pedernal. She painted it 28 times. “It’s my private mountain. It belongs to me. God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it.” She made the Pedernal special along with New Mexico and its amazing desert light.

A hundred paintings, a thousand photographs can record the same place, and not do that — until what becomes apparent is unavoidable — it reaches out and grabs us. Craft becomes art when it stirs our emotions, transcends the view, and captures and conveys how the artist felt.

Stephen Joseph’s photographs, often focused on Mount Diablo, are the most important body of work ever created of the East Bay landscape. Ansel Adams is best known for Yosemite — many photographers including Stephen are drawn there. But as O’Keeffe is to New Mexico, as Adams is to Yosemite, Stephen Joseph is the most significant artist of the East Bay landscape.

His photographs and his love, his obsession, for Mount Diablo and the East Bay Hills, — for the Diablo Range, and Castle Rock, and Vasco Caves — will be recognized for having made this place we call home, special.

For us, his photographs convey the emotions we can barely describe but can feel, why we love living here, the wide-open deep breath of walking out of our cities, onto our trails, and into our parks. Nearly everyone takes his or her most familiar places for granted. Stephen Joseph’s photographs demand that we open our eyes, that we treasure and protect these special places.

About the Author

Photographer Stephen Joseph has spent over three decades capturing images of Bay Area landscapes from his home near Mount Diablo. He was the Muir Woods Centennial photographer for the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy and worked on a project to document Juhn Muir's botanic collections. Find out more, including information about visiting his gallery in Alamo, at