The Magic Hour
How an app changed my world.
by Emily Wick
It’s seven o’clock on a weekday morning, and I am crouched in the middle of the street eight blocks from my home in the Temescal district of Oakland, California. My iphone camera hovers just above the surface of a water-filled pothole. To any neighbors who happen to notice, I look like I’m documenting a blemish in the road. But through the camera, I see something otherworldly. Mirrored in the pothole is a dramatic pink-and-orange sunrise sky. Its scale tricks the eye, turning the chunky gravel at the edge of the pothole into large boulders at the edge of a lake, or a hole in the roof of a cave.
For months now, my boyfriend Brian and I have been getting out of bed and out of the house before sunrise to take walks. Our ritual is simple and it’s always the same. We get dressed. We put on sunscreen. We make coffee and leave it on the counter in a thermos where it awaits our return. We don’t take our wallets, and we don’t say a word until we’re out the door.
Stepping out into the morning, the first thing we do is assess the sky. It might be a glassy blue, or grey-and-yellow wool, or hot-pink spun sugar, or blank white as if it’s been deleted. We’ve never been early risers, so it’s a novelty just to be out, without the tunnel vision of work or travel, before the neighborhood wakes up. Opening the front door to discover that the sky is exceptional or the weather unusual is like jumping over the threshold into a land of enchantment.
Just across Telegraph Avenue, our neighborhood’s main road, dense single-family craftsman houses and wooden apartment buildings line quiet residential streets. The prevailing trend is to fill any unpaved area of one’s front “lawn” with an edge-to-edge garden so choked with flowers or succulents or rows of vegetables that any grass that dared to grow would be classified as a weed. Intoxicating scents of jasmine and roses blow across the sidewalk. It’s not unusual to come eye-to-eye with a half-dozen giant artichokes still anchored to their six-foot stalks, or to be lightly brushed on the forehead by a canopy of giant sherbet-colored trumpet flowers. On numerous occasions, I’ve seen plastic reptiles, in varying sizes and styles, lining the edge of a garden or receding into its depths.
On our first few early-morning walks, I was in a bit of a haze, getting used to not having a destination. It had been well over a year since I finished my second documentary film. I couldn’t picture what was next, but I could feel a pleasurable emptiness at last, like hunger feels after being stuffed so full you swear you’ll never eat again. I walked aimlessly in the early mornings like an ant walks in big loops when looking for a trail.
Brian and I have lived in Oakland’s Temescal neighborhood for over a decade, and it has become predictably trendy and expensive. We’ve gone through years where we couldn’t wait to get out due to stagnancy or the specter of crime, and years where we’ve invested huge amounts of energy into the community as if we were staying for generations. Ever-increasing housing prices combined with the golden handcuffs of rent control mean that the longer we stay, the harder it will be to leave. Do we leave now and start a new life somewhere else before the decision is made for us? Do we stay as long as we can, knowing we must eventually leave? Either way, the future isn’t secure. The daily adventure of the morning splashed our faces like cold water, embodying the opposite of the “someday” when we’d always planned to really start our lives.
It started a few months ago, while I was shooting a roll of Super 8 movie film for a short project. I installed an app on my phone called “Magic Hour” that notifies you of the shifting time period — roughly an hour — surrounding sunrise and sunset when the sun is within eight degrees of the horizon. Its purpose is to help photographers and cinematographers plan their shoots around the optimal lighting conditions that come with the low angle of the sun. I’d always aimed for this myself in film and photo work, but it had always been a vague notion. Never did I have an actual start time.
Suddenly conscious of each sunrise and sunset, we began to celebrate the magic hour every chance we got. Though we had no affiliation with the app, we became zealous promoters to friends and family, promising them a twice-daily holiday that they could observe with walks, photo sessions, cocktails, or a shared glimpse out the window. But it has been our regular morning walks, with their fog, glow, silence, and routine rhythms, that have truly transformed us.
Though the effects of the morning walks — waking up excited, valuing each day, seeing things in a new way — sound spiritual, the experience of it is the opposite. It’s more like being addicted to something. We’re hunters out for the kill, and what we’re hunting are photo-ops. If we wake up to highly picturesque weather conditions, it’s serious business, as if we’re firefighters on our way to a fire. If it’s cloudy, we might head first behind the nearby junk shop’s loading dock to see what was dumped there during the night, like four-foot-tall dollar signs covered in gold glitter, or a row of jars containing animal fetuses suspended in liquid.
The magic hour’s light has two distinct colors. It’s blue at dawn and twilight, when the sun is just below the horizon. This light is faint, cool, and pearlescent. When the sun is low but still visible — just after sunrise or just before sunset — it’s golden, illuminating the halos of people’s hair with liquid light, and stretching blue and purple shadows comically across the ground. It didn’t take long for us to distinguish between the golden and blue periods. “It’s still blue!” we’ll exclaim on days when we get out before the sunrise. We watch each other’s faces transform from ice to fire.
A rhythm emerges where we set out walking together until one of us sees a photo that takes some time to capture. If one is crouched on the ground by a glittering pile of shattered windshield glass, the other waits and guards the distracted iPhone user from potential theft. Or, if this seems unnecessary, there’s usually a bird on a wire somewhere nearby. When the glass photographer is finished, the bird photographer will be frozen with camera glued to the left eyepiece of a pair of binoculars, waiting for the bird to fly, because a bird on a wire is no longer satisfying enough. By the time the bird flies, and you can lower your aching arms, you almost need the binoculars to spot your partner, who is now a few blocks away.
As often as we’re on alert for theft, we are conscious of looking suspicious ourselves. In the beginning, we’d go out in partial pajamas, sleepily layering on hoodies and knit hats as we stumbled out the door. But watching each other crouch behind cars or stand too long at the edge of someone’s front yard made us feel creepy. Brian was once nearly detained by the cops in San Francisco’s Marina district for photographing one of my film events through a bookstore window. We started to dress up a little, though — strangely — it is carrying the binoculars that seems to take the edge off. “They’re just birdwatchers, honey!!” I can almost hear it through the walls of the neighborhood’s more upscale houses.
Our collection of images piles higher and higher. A snail on white concrete. Reflections of buildings in puddles where white flecks make the gravel look like a starry sky. On high school grounds, a handwritten note lying in the grass reads “You and Tyler are probably going to miss the best game day by missing out on today!!!.” In front of a 7–11 convenience store, a scattered handful of “happy birthday” sequin confetti shines in metallic colors. With camera in hand, we notice things for the first time. Like how the just-risen sun projects detailed shadows of trees on east-facing walls, and how astonishingly often the squeaky chirp of a hummingbird rings out on block after block.
Though the typical day is more of a slow dance, sometimes it’s a race. One day the light was so unusual that every direction offered a new show: to the west, orange sunlight on trees in front of a dark grey sky; to the south, a tall pile of thunderheads; in the east, gold-rimmed clouds eclipsing the sun; and in the north, fog evaporating off distant hillsides. We sprinted in different directions, hopping across blocks with effortless energy, searching for hills and open vistas as the sky shifted all around us, all while firing off periodic texts to tell each other where we were. “Meet me at the top of the hill, 40th east of Broadway,” I finally texted. I’d found a secret garden in the median of a side street, and when Brian arrived, I led him onto a path through a thick, landscaped little forest whose canopy blocked out the city almost completely.
If you would have asked me six months ago if I thought I could get even one good photo every day on a ten- to forty-minute walk around my own neighborhood, I would’ve been doubtful despite, or perhaps because of, many years of photography experience. Indeed, after the first week of magic hour walks, we wondered if we would run out of things to take pictures of. Eventually we realized we would no sooner run out of photo-ops than run out of things to talk about with a best friend.
As the days and weeks turn into months, we discover new ways to take pictures. Brian finds colored pieces of broken glass and holds them in front of the rising sun. I grow partial to pendulous blossoms against a faint blue sky, and shoot them from underneath so that power lines run parallel to the edge of the frame as if drawn with a black pen and a ruler. When we spot a baby hummingbird in its nest, we take its photo through a pair of binoculars, and, after weeks of trying, Brian finally gets a shot of the parent visiting the baby. Soon the round black vignette of the binoculars is encircling crows, squirrels, ducks, fish, and foggy faraway skyline fragments.
Early in the walk, a stale boredom sometimes descends. One of us is in a bad mood, and it’s tempting to pick a fight. But there’s a good chance something truly special will happen in the next ten minutes, and we want to be ready to notice it. As long as we can get ourselves out there, the chances for a minor miracle are as good as any. We’ll see the rising sun appear in an unexpected crack in what we thought was a completely clouded-over day, or a songbird hopping up a staircase to the welcome mat of someone’s front door. A mud pie in a red plastic pie plate. An entire head of cabbage looking up at us through a hole in the sidewalk. A pile of vandalized valentines. A double rainbow arcing all the way across the sky, followed by sunlit raindrops and a real dollar on the ground where the end of the rainbow had been.
When we get home, we begin our ritual of editing. I sit in a big yellow armchair and Brian sits in a rocking chair by the window. We drink coffee and swipe through our photos, helping each other edit from fifty or even 500 to five or ten to post online. Since we’ve started to share them, we’ve noticed that a few of our friends have started photographing their own morning walks, and I now see others’ photos differently. Simple images of sunrises — once enough of a cliche that it had the power to ruin a real sunrise — now seem strangely important when recorded and shared by a friend.
Over breakfast, we wonder how long this enchanted phase of life will last. Though the future still seems foggy, we’re somehow no longer adrift. We’re hot on the trail of something. “It’s not that we’re finding anything,” Brian says. “It’s that we’re searching.”
I think of the time I’ve spent wishing I was somewhere else, and of everything we’ve suddenly discovered in a ten-square-block area we thought we knew. Wherever you are, there is more to it than you think, and it’s so easy to overlook. There are deeper places, richer details, animals springing around the corner or buzzing over a fence, glitter filling up cracks in the sidewalk.
This story was originally published in the anthology Subject to Change: True Stories from the Temescal Memoir Writers. The anthology was edited by Frances Lefkowitz as part of her Community Memoir Project, which aims to document diverse voices from the San Francisco Bay Area’s rapidly changing neighborhoods.