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Mike Torrey is a nature enthusiast who loves buildings.
To hold both affinities might seem paradoxical. But in Torrey’s work as an architectural photographer, he attempts to showcase the intersection of what is natural and what is manmade, especially when that intersection has been carefully planned and executed.
A distant relative of John Torrey, for whom the Torrey pines are named, Torrey worked for almost 20 years as an energy consultant. He was always climbing around buildings, and melded that with his love for photography. He shadowed another architectural photographer to learn the business and stepped out on his own a little more than a decade ago. Now, Torrey photographs anything from restaurants, hotels and housing developments to research facilities and lecture halls for promotional materials and architects’ portfolios.
But in Torrey’s mind, the ultimate example of that intersection between nature and the built environment is Machu Picchu, the iconic Incan site in Peru.
In two recent trips to Peru, Torrey spent seven days photographing the terraces for a book of more than 100 images titled “Stone Offerings,” which was officially released on May 1. Of the site, Torrey notes in his book that “the builders of this great civilization had peeled back the canopy of a majestic rainforest and framed the implicit harmony between nature and humans.”
He highlighted his sense of that interconnectedness — both here in San Diego and at Machu Picchu — for voiceofsandiego.org on a recent afternoon at Torrey Pines State Preserve.
What in San Diego have you photographed more than anything?
I did a series on the building of Tony Gwynn Stadium, so I was there a couple times a week for five, six months. That’s really what kind of pushed me into really going into architectural photography. I photographed here a lot, Torrey Pines. I think my love of nature photography has always been there, and as it merges with the built environment, that’s becoming more and more of interest to me.
Well, and that’s something that’s so obviously key to your book about Machu Picchu — the natural merging with the built. But with so much mystery around it, too.
Yeah, that’s what really struck me was how they intersected and were so connected in a way that is pretty mind-blowing.
This site is, I think, sometimes considered just a neat historical or archaeological relic, but you’ve called your book “Stone Offerings” — as if to say there might be something relevant or something the site offers today.
I guess when I first saw it, there was obviously something unique about it. When I photographed it, I didn’t want to put it in time. … I think if you put it on a pedestal of perfection, it becomes something out there that is untouchable and in some ways irrelevant, or not particularly relevant. So the book is really about providing more of an experience of Machu Picchu — my experience of Machu Picchu — and not about trying to turn it into an icon.
It seems kind of silly to photograph it to (try to) make it iconic — something it already is. What I found really interesting was that it was accessible. You can touch it, you can walk through it, you can experience it. We can’t really create a Machu Picchu here, but I think it had something to offer us in terms of how the built environment can connect to our own environment, no matter where you are.
It is, like you said, already an icon. And there are a couple thousand people there every day, checking it out. What challenges did that pose as you were attempting to photograph? People walking through the frame, or you think you’ve got the perfect shot and then all of a sudden you see somebody’s head, or —
Yeah, and there are pictures in here … where you see the top of somebody’s head peering around a rock or there’s a shadow from somebody who just walked around a rock. I wish I could’ve experienced it by myself — and obviously, that couldn’t happen. But when I got there, I was like, “I really want to be here by myself.” And I could only do that through my camera. People walk by, and there’s a little moment, just like on this trail. I got lucky a couple of times.
But you had a couple of ground rules, right, as you were framing these?
Yeah, I didn’t ask anybody to get out of the way. I just wanted to shut my mind off — forget everything I read and learned about the place, because it was in the moment that I needed to be open to whatever it was going to show me. The light was changing, the clouds were coming in all the time; it was changing rapidly. So there was a lot to just pay attention to and see what was there. Just to have an experience of place, instead of trying to go, “Well, there’s that rock, and that means something.” That was in the back of my head, but I tried as much as I could to shut that out.
People would stop and I’d just wave them through, actually — do what you need to do. For the most part, I had no idea from the start if I’d be successful in terms of not having people in the images. And obviously there are people in (the book), particularly in the wider vista images, but it had to do with the lighting on the terraces — you focused on that and not as much on the people.
I mean, it’s not unlike photographing a building here and there’s cars driving by and a FedEx truck. I photographed some solar panels this morning up in Poway and you know, the dump truck comes and is right next to the solar panels. So I had to wait. In a way, it was sort of what I do.
You’d mentioned that you had so much with you going into this, that you’d read or that you’d known about. Had you been thinking about Machu Picchu for awhile?
I did a report in the 5th grade on Peru. That’s how I learned about Machu Picchu and I think I kind of said, “Ah, someday.” That’s how it kind of got on my list, and then it sat there. But a trip came up [in 2007] and it was an architectural tour — some NewSchool of Architecture students were going. They were going to have three days in Machu Picchu and we also toured Cuzco and Lima. I said, “This must be the time.” So I jumped on the trip and had three days in June to photograph.
And then, did you go back?
Yeah, there’s a man on the trip who had a foundation in Peru … and he asked me if I would consider using my images to help him raise funds for it. And that sort of set in motion an exploration of how. As a book was coming about … I started thinking, “This thing might really happen” and I needed to go back to fill out the body of work, because I was only there for three days. So I went back at the December solstice. The solstice is a sacred time there at Machu Picchu. The second time I went for four days.
Squeezing a book out of seven days — that’s got to be a lot of pressure, every day, to wake up to photograph. How early were you at the site?
They open at 6, so I was always on the first bus up the hill and usually on the last bus down the hill. And it closes at 5, so you don’t even get to be there at — well, sunset there is behind at the mountains, but when it’s fully dark.
I found a great bit in your author’s note summing up your sense of Machu Picchu: that “these man-made terraces expose an underlying skeleton that signifies our interconnectedness.” Is there anything that you see here locally that reminds you of that when you’re out photographing?
No, I mean, Torrey Pines is a pretty powerful place, I think. Architecturally, the Salk Institute is very powerful. And I think that that really connects with the environment. What I really thought about while I was (in Peru) was that you could distinguish between what was manmade and what was natural. But for some reason, when you were there, you go, “Well, why bother?”
And I think there’s a little bit of that — well, there is that at the Salk Institute. It’s mostly manmade, but you’re still connected to the space and the environment there. They just intersect. And I think what I ended up doing with the book was photographing the connecting points — how they connected — and it was always changing. It was always changing.
Where do you see South American influences showing up here?
I don’t know, I mean, I think every place is unique. And I think that even in Peru, each of the places is unique, as there are very many unique places here. And I think that’s what needs to be paid attention to, in terms of building — doing something remarkable with the built environment.
Is there another book in your future — another place where you’d go and capture your experience like this?
I do not know. I’m open to it, obviously. I have no plans. Just got this baby out of the hospital and I’m not thinking about another one yet. (Laughs)