THIS IS CONTRA COSTA Coffee-table book captures the visual essence of the area

LET THE WORD SPREAD from the rolling Lafayette hills to the valleys below Camino Tassajara, from atop Mount Diablo to the straw-gold grass of Antioch’s Black Diamond Mines:

Contra Costa County finally has a picture book.

It’s about time.

At least that’s what everyone has been telling authors Frank Haegeland and Ilpo Okkonen ever since they came up with idea for their book, “Scenic Contra Costa County, ” which was slipped into shelves this past week. Everyone includes folks stopping by their San Francisco Book Festival booth, publishers and one bookstore manager who, upon hearing their proposal, leapt out of her chair yelling, “Yippee!”

“She was a large woman, too, ” the bearded Okkonen recalled during a interview at the festival last weekend.

While the independent bookstores latched onto the idea, the chains needed to see the finished product before they would allow the book to bypass the standard distribution channels, prohibitive for a small company such as Haegeland’s MBIC.

Haegeland, a Martinez resident who also has lived in Moraga, had considered making a coffee-table book about the area for about 20 years. He had acquired many books, but they mostly focused on stories from the distant although fascinating historical past. None depicted the twisting, flower-lined roads that he walked, or the hills’ velvet sheen that he admired. There was nothing to send to his native Norway to show friends and relatives: This is Contra Costa County, this is home.

So when his longtime friend Okkonen attended his wedding last year, Haegeland decided to make his move. Okkonen, a photographer, had won awards in his native Finland for his stunning books, which were given to visiting dignitaries such as Queen Elizabeth II and Pope John Paul II.

The two had often half-joked about doing one here. This time, Haegeland told him, “We have to do it. Ilpo, I’m real serious.”

“It was like a dream come true to come here, ” said Okkonen, who first visited in the mid-’80s. The project took about four visits of two to four weeks each and about 10,000 frames of film. Haegeland chose the sites, and Okkonen the details.

“Scenic Contra Costa County” is their first professional collaboration, although they’ve been friends for years through a rather convoluted relationship. “My first wife, ” Haegeland explains, “her first boyfriend when she was 14 years old was (Okkonen’s elder) brother. And then she and Ilpo and a bunch of other people became friends.” They eventually shared student housing. Haegeland met them all and hit it off with Okkonen.

“I feel like Frank is my brother, ” Okkonen says, “but better than a brother because I fight with my older brother.” No fights in the professional relationship, either. “We were having so much fun making this book. We were laughing and yelling.”

“He has the fresh eye, ” Haegeland explains about Okkonen. They did have some artistic differences for instance, the Marsh Creek photo. “So what? It’s another lake, ‘” Okkonen told him. Haegeland had to explain: “Water is very important. We don’t have that many creeks around. Finland has thousands of lakes. The whole country is like Minnesota.”

For his part, Haegeland didn’t like the photo capturing the brown-gold sunrise over Highway 4 in Martinez. The Californian thought the sepia haze looked like pollution. “At least make it smaller, ” he pleaded.

“But for me, it’s very important, ” Okkonen explains. “This is the way I see the area.”

“Polluted?” Haegeland interjects.

“Like the Earth. This is the living, and (the moving cars) blood vessels. The new day is coming. The hopes of the people coming to work.”

Choosing the wettest winter in recent memory to do the book didn’t hamper their spirits. Indeed, they laughed uproariously after Okkonen ducked in and out of the car for an El Nino-drenched vista. The 20 seconds were enough to make him look like a “drowned cat.”

The only thing Haegeland regrets is the caption beneath a palatial Martinez home. The text reads, “My home, my castle.” While the caption meant to refer to the adage that a man’s home is his castle, people leafing through ask if that is indeed his residence. “I’m going to get into trouble” with the owner, Haegeland says, shaking his head.

Depending on the success of this book, and since they have about 9,900 photos they didn’t use, the two may collaborate once more for another tome, maybe a calendar or even postcards. It’s a remarkably open market, even with Tom Wolfe’s disparaging commentary of the county in his new novel, “A Man in Full.” “Scenic Contra Costa County” has finally put the area on the map.

Maybe someone should send a copy to Wolfe.

This article originally appeared in the Contra Costa Times

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