For Ferry Building Assistant Manager Andrew Curry, a well made spoon is a special thing. The spoon is an allegory, but perhaps the most useful symbol he has to distill the mission of his art: using simple means to access vast and striking beauty.
“I could have a gilded spoon. But if I try to eat soup with that spoon, the spoon is what I’ll think about. If all I’ve got is a good, simple wooden spoon, it’s just me and the soup,” he says.
What he means is this: beauty and functionality are deeply intertwined, and opulence is a danger to our direct experience of the world — a pollutant to the singular, stoic beauty of a thing as it exists in nature. It’s a philosophy that has carried forward from Curry’s days as a skate fanatic, when he spent his afternoons looking for ledges and rails and urban angles to repurpose as terrain for his addictive joyrides. For him, a skateboard is much like a camera: a simple way of negotiating a landscape, of interacting with a space that never counted on him being there. Since 12th grade, he’s been dipping in and out of a deep love for skateboarding, for the anarchic freedom that comes from reclaiming a landscape as one’s own and seeing it in a way it was never meant to be seen, seeking the authentic and surprising from a structure that never counted on him finding it. It is precisely this freedom that drew him to photography in the first place.
“When I was young, I was always scanning landscapes through the car window when we drove different places. I was always looking for a new place and what I could make of it,” he says.
When Curry started dabbling in the medium a handful of years ago, he was coming off a stretch of working in commercial postproduction—a soul-dampening gig that he eventually ditched to wander East LA and Venice Beach, exploring scenes through the lens of a rather crappy point and shoot. He’d come from years working with moving mediums, editing skating videos by jogging film between two VCRs. Still photos offered something different: emptiness. Vastness. Room and time to contemplate.
Now, it’s an old hobby. As a habit, his eye is drawn to clean geometric lines and empty, majestic landscapes, shot with a sensibility conditioned by two things: wabi-sabi and his father.
Wabi-sabi is a word to approximate a certain Japanese aesthetic that embraces transience and imperfection, a worldview derived from the Buddhism’s “Three Marks of Existence”—impermanence, suffering, and emptiness. The way Curry describes it, wabi-sabi is what attracts us to rustic, weathered look of objects in use, of the clean organic lines that we find in nature. When he talks about wabi-sabi, he also talks about things like cherry blossoms—things that remind us we’re not here for very long, and neither is anything else. But how to use that thought in a way that evokes not sadness but intense appreciation for beauty while it lasts? Photos, of course.
The idea brings Curry to the rugged corners of the coast where he takes long, serene shots of bluffs, lakes, mountains, and the Bay he crosses every day to get to work. The photos he takes from the ferry or a Bart car have a dwarfing effect, which is mostly the point—to remind us just how vast the world is, and how small we are.
“By leaving out a lot of things, I’m providing space to think about what is there. The void and the form need each other to exist, and negative space leaves room to think,” says Curry.
When he’s not scanning a verdant coastline, Curry sets his eye on interesting architecture. This too was bred into him early on when he worked for his father, an architect, drafting floor plans and sharpening his eye for geometry and symmetry. But still, it’s the Japanese influence that colors him most.
“The Japanese way of life is not intent on disrupting or conquering nature. There is a wonderful symbiosis to it,” he says. Curry’s attraction to Japanese culture drove him to pick up and relocate just south of Tokyo when he finished school, spending time teaching English and generally “soaking things up,” as he describes it. It was the same kind of appeal that eventually led him to Blue Bottle last summer.
“I could sense subtlety here,” he says. “The design, the siphons, the clean lines and pure simplicity of everything. In some ways, it’s very Japanese.”
When Curry talks about beauty, he also talks about melancholy. Negative space is a protagonist in his photos, and it’s hard not to feel the nothingness that lurks beyond every horizon he captures.The melancholic streak is sometimes a byproduct of the way he captures solitude, by which he does not mean loneliness, just aloneness.
Working as a barista is a mode of direct engagement, a means of connecting honestly with a cross section of humanity, and he gets to use a few well made tools to do it. For Curry, making good coffee is a vehicle, a catalyst to a direct experience of something beautiful and delicious. A bit like a wooden spoon, you might say.