Carmel Photo Shoot

Tracy Wheeler

It was the time of day photographers call the ‘magic moment’ when the sun is soft and golden and generous. We were shooting an ad campaign at a ranch high on a hill above the Carmel Valley that we had made over to be the pretend home of a pretend family with impeccable pretend taste.

I was in a barn-turned-wardrobe room helping a little boy put on perfectly distressed jeans and a tiny leather jacket when we heard the horses outside scream. The dogs, some sort of hound, joined in, and then everything began to both roll and jump; confused by two distinct rhythms—one sultry and the other furiously impatient like a child kicking the back of a seat.

Fifteen seconds isn’t long except when it is. You know what I mean even if you haven’t been in an earthquake. It’s like falling and watching everything in slow motion with time enough to wonder if you’ll come out okay or end up in the hospital.

I brought the boy outside and to his mother and then made my way over to a model named John. We stood side-by-side and watched seismic waves ripple the top of the range across from us like a shudder moving through the body of an elephant. The trees like hairs as they waved together in one long motion. John put his arm around me and I felt joy, tremendous pulsating, electric, gorgeous joy. There’s a word for moments when what you think about the world and what’s happening are perfectly aligned. When there’s no gap between the idea of what’s happening or should be happening or you want to be happening and what is actually happening. I can’t remember what that word is because it pretty much never happens to me. But during the earthquake it did. I think because I stopped thinking all together and just was.

Then it stopped. Things went really, really quiet. The only sound I remember is the snort horses make when they’re pissed off but I might be making that up.

“Back to work. We’re losing the light!” yelled the producer.

Maybe it’s because we weren’t from California, or maybe we were all just selfish, but it wasn’t until we finished the last shot and realized that there were no lights on in the valley below that we understood something big might have happened.

For some inexplicable reason one of the books in the old house on Long Island where I grew up was a photographic account of the 1906 earthquake. Huge curlicue captions—Disaster! Destruction! Despair!—emblazoned the cover. Those are the images that filled my mind as we listened to the radio. Buildings and horses brought to their knees or toppled completely over, streets torn open, small blurry figures with the crisp panorama of the burning city behind them. Vintage images so removed from the present that once I might have thought they were pretend.

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