My wife and partner Cledia Lopez and I are owners of our Ron Essex Photography business. I am a member of the Art Guild of the Delta and currently have a one-person photography show that features the area’s agricultural heritage as displayed in the rich fertile landscapes that surround us on all sides and are the source of the fresh, nutritious farm-to-table foods and ingredients that we enjoy in such abundance.
My show is called Nuestro Terruño, which means “Our Terroir.” The term refers to our region’s soil, people, and climate. The 30 pictures on display cover our soil and the land, plus the food that we grow and the hands that grow it. Each image is carefully chosen for artistic quality and emotional impact from among the thousands of pictures in my collection. They include scenes from the grape, cherry, and tomato harvests together with pictures of fields, workers, and farm products. The show includes images of ranches and vineyards in Brentwood, Oakley, and Livermore. Some pictures honor the hard-working Hispanic laborers who play such an important role in the process. I have pictures that show the sun visibly raising steam from the soaking shirts of men and women bending over their labors. Many of my pictures are colorful with memorably beautiful images of red and yellow fruit growing on trees, blue and green grapes hanging from vines, and the sun sinking in flaming orange, red, and purple behind distant hilltops. The agricultural richness of our region has continual appeal for me because it is in dramatic contrast to the Eastern “rust-belt” town of my youth. We too easily become accustomed to the beauty that lies around us in Mt. Diablo’s shadow. My goal is to bring an outsider perspective and through the lens of my camera to help people take a fresh look at the beauty that they’ve too often come to take for granted.
Plan to drop by the Delta Gallery of the Arts at the Streets of Brentwood and see the pictures for yourself.
My hometown of Lima, Ohio had been a thriving industrial town before being struck a near-mortal blow in the economic downturn when Big Steel moved overseas. When I was seven years old, my father and all his fellow-workers at Rawls Tire Factory were laid off. We fell out of middle class in a single day.
However, something fine came out of having to deal with the loss of the good things we had previously experienced. My friends and I lived those days of diminished wealth with a sense of liberty enjoyed by relatively few people on our overly-stressed planet. We were free to move around and, with no supervision, could play games in the street, travel all over town, learning where the interesting places were, and exploring some of those rusting factories. We attended church every weekend, and were never tempted by drugs or alcohol.
Like some kids, I found school to be a drag and was content with passing grades, except for bringing home A’s in my music and art classes. I began playing trumpet in fifth grade and performed with the high school marching band until my senior year when they dropped me because my hair was too long. I traded my trumpet for an electric guitar.
I grew up among art. My mother was a locally renowned artist. She painted religious art and had the knack of painting Jesus so that His eyes would follow you across the room — a little creepy for some people, but absolutely wonderful for the faithful. Mom would do commissioned paintings of Jesus that clients could hang in their homes. Her father, Grandpa Ralph Bone, practiced an esoteric form of art and achieved genuine fame in some circles by engraving elaborate designs on rifles and pistols and became a world-famous knife maker.
My family encouraged my creativity, and I developed sufficient skill with paints and brushes to have an occasional retail business in high school, painting designs and pictures on the backs of my friends’ leather jackets. Classmates would especially commission me to do graphics of feature artists like Led Zeppelin and Ozzy.
Following high school, I continued to pursue a career as an artist. Many of my pieces were from pictures of scenes and objects. I thought the process would be more authentic if I were to use pictures that I had taken myself. I wanted to become a good photographer so I could become a better painter. My first camera was a Canon AE1 that I bought for $50 at a garage sale and began to pick up special lenses at local flea markets.
I took a painting class at the Ohio State University Lima Branch. “Don’t waste your time here,” the instructor told me. She encouraged me to enroll at the School of Art in Chicago. However, I was making $4.25 an hour and art school tuition ran $10,000 a semester. I decided to enlist in the military and take advantage of the GI Bill, so in 1990 I interviewed with an Air
Force recruiter. I told him I wanted to become a military photographer. The recruiter said he couldn’t promise anything, but if I took my portfolio with me to basic training, I would have a good chance of becoming a Photographic Specialist, if a position opened up. Two positions opened up and, with my portfolio, I was able to land one of them. They sent me to Photo School at Lowry AFB in Denver. It was a multi-branch institution and we airmen were learning the fine points of the photographer’s trade alongside guys from the Army, Marines, and Navy. The curriculum was basic and fast. They quickly taught us everything we would need to know to be effective military photographers.
I was stationed at Elmendorf AFB in Alaska, where I became part of a 10-person combat camera unit. I began photographing a wide variety of people and situations including mechanics working on planes, fighter pilots, and parachuting soldiers. I took a lot of officer portraits. I worked with MPs and photographed crime investigations, car accidents, fires, and suicides. I photographed autopsies. This was during the Cold War and we were neighbors to Russia so I photographed joint military exercises with soldiers from the local Army base. Most satisfying, perhaps, was photographing visiting dignitaries including people like General Colon Powell, Secretary James Baker, Vice President Dan Quayle. During my four years at Elmendorf, I learned more about photography than I would have learned in a dozen years studying the subject in college classrooms.
I mustered out in 1994 and moved to the Twin Cities at the urging of a friend who was living there. I got an apartment in South Minneapolis. It was refreshing to be out from under the discipline of the military and to make my own choices and decisions. I got a position as a free-lance photo assistant working with big companies in the area such as Pillsbury, General Mills, and Marshalls. The job elevated my creativity to another level because I was working alongside designers and art directors who were passionately concerned with such things as composition, texture, and lighting.
My free-lance work ended when General Mills gave me a position as food photographer, taking pictures to be used in their cook books. It was awesome, working with food stylists, but sometimes the work was tedious as we stressed over such things as moving peas to the left of the meatloaf or adding a piece of lettuce. I learned a lot about composition. Working with food is interesting and challenging because taking a picture of a plate of food is different than taking a picture of a vase. You can change the background and settings of the vase, but there are a lot of variables involved in making food look appealing and tasty.
Cookbook designs are completely sketched out before the first shot, so the job has no room for out-of-the-box creativity. I was assigned to put the director’s vision into reality and create images to help sell the recipe. It was a great experience but I wanted to be “shooting from the hip” sometimes and creating images of people being creative, so in the evenings and on weekends I developed a reputation for photographing free-wheeling subjects such as hip-hop bands, skateboarders, and BMX riders. I learned how to capture movement by photographing beat-boxers on stage, skateboards in mid-air, and guys flying through the air on their BMX bikes.
I grew professionally during my seven years in Minneapolis. The Twin Cities are famous for their quality of life, but the winters are harsh. Finally, in the winter of 2006, I got sick of the cold, asked myself, “Why should I live here?” and decided to move to California where singers and skateboarders could perform in year-round sunshine.
I found shared housing through Craigslist in Oakland and moved into an apartment that was shared by the members of a punk rock band. The musicians were genuine professionals and turned out to be the nicest people I could have moved in with. They would put on live punk rock performances in the backyard and other bands would join them. I would be out there taking pictures and enjoying some of the best punk rock music I ever heard.
Shortly after arriving in Oakland I landed a position as the inhouse photographer at The Clorox Company and enjoyed the stability and a nice paycheck while working on such brands as Glad Trash, Pine-sol, Fresh Step Kitty Litter, Brita Water Filter Pitcher, etc.
In 2008 I met a fellow worker at Clorox, named Isis Lopez, who worked in the Creative Department. One day I met her sister Cledia, who had come for a visit, and began chatting and flirting with her even though I knew that she and a guy were planning to go on a double-date with Isis and her boyfriend. Three weeks later I called Cledia, apologized for flirting, found out that she had dumped the guy that first night, so started flirting some more.
Cledia lived in Southern California, so we dated long-distance for a year. I would take a SW flight on Friday evening, spend the weekend with Cledia, she would drop me at the airport on Monday morning, and I would be back at work by 9:00 a.m. She moved in with me in 2010, and we got an apartment in Alameda. In 2015 we bought a house in Brentwood.
We grew weary of the commute and in 2017 decided to start Ron Essex Photography, LLC and I began getting gigs with the city, the Livermore Winegrowers, 110° Magazine, and with contracts we made through the Brentwood and Livermore Valley Chambers of Commerce.
Starting out on our own was a risky thing, but Cledia was a project manager in the construction industry, so she was a wonderful partner who uses her project management skills, doing client management, scheduling, marketing, and running our QuickBooks accounting system. We work well together. She worries about the money issues, so I don’t have to. I will describe some blue sky dream and she will figure out how to make the dream into reality.
Cledia is happy with her behind-the-scenes role. She is the Wind Beneath my Wings.
Photos by Ron Essex