Lana Z Caplan's "Oceano (for Seven Generations)" featured in SLO Tribune

New Oceano Dunes book aims to ‘bring people together,’ Cal Poly professor says

Original story by Lucy Peterson, Slo Tribune

A picture of the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area from the forthcoming book “Oceano (for seven generations)” by Lana Z Caplan.

This fall, Cal Poly professor and filmmaker Lana Z Caplan plans to publish a book on the highly controversial Oceano Dunes that she hopes will “bring people together.”

The book will feature 65 color and black-and-white photos by Caplan, as well as essays by Northern Chumash Tribal Chair Mona Olivas Tucker and her son, Matthew Goldman, and Hanna Rose Shell, associate professor of Critical and Curatorial Studies and director of the Stan Brakhage Center for Media Arts in Boulder, Colorado.

The photographic monograph, “Oceano (for seven generations),” will explore the relationship between various communities and the land they have utilized — many for several decades, Caplan said.

Caplan spent the last seven years documenting the Oceano Dunes and the communities that lay claim to the region, ranging from the yak titʸu titʸu yak tiłhini Northern Chumash Tribe to the off-road riding community.

The book comes at a critical time as several groups grapple with conflicting visions of the future of the Dunes.

In 2021, the California Coastal Commission voted to prohibit off-road riding at Oceano Dunes State Vehicle Recreation Area by 2024.

Friends of Oceano Dunes, an off-road riding advocacy group filed several lawsuits in response to the decision to ban off-highway vehicle use at the 3,500-acre park in Southern San Luis Obispo County, arguing that the California Coastal Commission did not obtain proper permission from the county before installing 130 acres of dust pollution control measures at the park — increasing tensions between the two parties.

However, a San Luis Obispo Superior Court judge ruled that the California Coastal Commission acted properly and the new dust measures were lawful.

Yak tityu tityu yak tilhini Northern Chumash grandfather S. Shane Goldman teaching his granddaughter to make a sundial in the Oceano Dunes, from the forthcoming book, “Oceano (for seven generations)” by Lana Z Caplan. Lana Z Caplan

While the popular state park brings in scores of visitors each year, making it an important economic driver for the region, local residents and environmental groups say decades of OHV use have resulted in dust emissions linked to serious health problems.

A new study by Resonance — paid for by Visit SLO CAL, Pismo Beach, Grover Beach, Arroyo Grande and SLO County — makes suggestions on how California State Parks and other entities could make better use of the Ocean Dunes cultural and environmental features when the off-road riding ban occurs.

In her book, Caplan hopes to present the complexities of the disputed region and encourage open dialogue between the various environmental and cultural groups in conflict over the future of Oceano Dunes, she said.

“The issues are greater than one individual,” Caplan said. “There’s not one person causing a public health issue. One person is not causing the disruption of Northern Chumash cultural sites. One person is not the problem.”

Oceano Dunes have complex history of land use

After moving to San Luis Obispo from Brooklyn in 2016 to teach photography and video classes at Cal Poly, Caplan recognized the Oceano Dunes in the caption of Edward Weston’s famous landscape photographs while preparing a photo history lecture.

She was eager to explore the region she’d seen so many times before through photographs.

While Caplan had imagined the Dunes as an expansive natural refuge, she discovered that the area was much more than that.

“It was a very inhabited and populated space — not what I had imagined,” she said.

Caplan was immediately drawn to the area and sought to capture the land’s rich history. She began taking photographs in 2016 that are now part of her new book.

Her book is an exploration into five distinct ways the land has been used throughout history including the Dunites, the ATV riding community, the buried “The Ten Commandments” film set, the yak titʸu titʸu yak tiłhini Northern Chumash Tribe and the legacy of Modernist photographs.

The Dunites, a group of hermits, artists, mystics and poets, inhabited the Oceano Dunes from the 1920s to ‘40s — drawing high-profile visitors such as authors John Steinbeck and Upton Sinclair. They lived in wood shacks and created letters, stories, poetry and art.

Another piece of art history buried within the Oceano Dunes includes Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 “The Ten Commandments” film set which includes plaster sphinxes and pharaohs — some as tall as 35 feet. DeMille had the set buried after production of the film, where it remained for nearly 100 years until recently, when groups such as The Dune Center — a local non-profit — began excavation.

A sphinx head from the 1923 film, “The Ten Commandments” at the Dune Center in Guadalupe. The photo is from a forthcoming book, “Oceano (for seven generations)” by Lana Z Caplan. Lana Z Caplan

Famous Modernist photographers such as Weston, his son Brett Weston and Ansel Adams were also known for documenting the Oceano Dunes.

The title for the book, “Oceano (for seven generations),“ comes from a phone call Caplan had with Lorie Lathrop Laguna, ytt Northern Chumash Tribal Council board secretary. The phrase “for seven generations” points to the fact that the tribe makes decisions about the land, their people and traditions while thinking seven generations into the future.

“I’ve tried to be really open minded and kind to everyone who’s using this land or has an opinion,” Caplan said. “It was important for me not to have a strong voice advocating for one thing or another because it would do a disservice to the complexities of the issue.”

A 2020 image of the Oceano Dunes, from the forthcoming book, “Oceano (for seven generations)” by Lana Z Caplan. Lana Z Caplan

The future of the Dunes

As Caplan points out, the Oceano Dunes is not the only region that faces complex issues of the historical relationship between communities and the future of land.

“One of my goals for the book is to think about the impacts that we have on each other and on the land, environmentally and culturally,” Caplan said.

The completed book is ready for press and will be published by Kehrer Verlag, an award-winning publisher of photography and art books.

Caplan raised funds for the publishing via a Kickstarter campaign, which as of Friday had raised all of its $10,000 goal.

Read the the full feature, "New Oceano Dunes book aims to ‘bring people together,’ Cal Poly professor says," at SLO Tribune






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