Friday, April 30, 2010

Photo of the Day: Copper Slough

Here's a nice black and white study of the the Copper Slough, a creek that originates in Champaign and joins the Kaskaskia river southwest of town. The picture was taken on October 20, 2007, and rendered in black and white in Photoshop.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Photo Roots II: Israel, 1973-74

In my previous "photo roots" post I told how, as a child living in Paris, I became obsessed with photography, and how the profligate picture taking that resulted led to film rationing by my parents. In 1966 we moved back to Iowa. I continued to be interested in photography, and took pictures when I could, but limited access to film, combined with the relative lack of grandeur in my surroundings, prevented much in the way of experimentation for the next seven years or so. But then, in 1973 when I was 15, we moved to Israel. There we lived in an academic institute located between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and I attended a British international school. Once again photography became imperative. My parents bought me an Instamatic camera for the occasion, and solved the film rationing problem by simply telling me to buy what film I wanted out of my allowance, which was meager at best. Still I did what I could.

There was another constraint at work, although I didn't fully realize it at the time. The box camera I'd had in Paris as a seven-year-old had a decent glass lens, and shot fairly large negatives on roll film. As we saw in my post on that experience, the result was images I can still work with today. The  Kodak Instamatic camera I brought to Israel in 1973 had the convenience of using film cartridges instead of roll film, but the combination of all-automatic operation with a smaller negative and the cheap and primitive plastic lens on the camera resulted in noticeably lower quality negatives.

I was also making the transition to color, in spite of its relative expense, but the best pictures I have from that year are in black and white. The picture at the top of this post is of the harbor at the old city of Acco, near Haifa. I took the picture of a mosque at Acco, below, on the same trip.

One of my most fruitful photographic ventures during that year, and one of my best memories, was the trip we took into the Sinai Desert to climb Mount Sinai. The Sinai was still under the control of Israel at the time, and the trip involved using off-road vehicles to climb from the coast of the Red Sea into the road-less desert.

The famous St. Catherine's Monastery sits at the base of Mount Sinai, and like countless visitors, we spent the night there.  The picture above is of the cemetery at St. Catherine's, taken from inside the monastery walls. I have deliberately posted an un-retouched scan to show the poor quality of negatives I have from that time.

With some work, some of the shots can be made acceptable. Above is a picture of a Bedouin girl who lived near the Monastery.

The ritual, for those who visit Mount Sinai, is to get up at 3:00 a.m., get on a camel, and ride two thirds of the way up the mountain, at which point you get off and walk to the top, in order to see the sunrise. This we did. Below is what I believe is my first attempt at a panorama, taken from the top of Mount Sinai at sunrise. At the time, I simply cut and pasted together the prints I received to make the panorama. Nowadays I have better options.
Many of the pictures I have from that year are of friends and school activities. I was a teenager, and that was what had my attention. There are lots of other pictures though, that I would love to work with, if I could get better results from the under-exposed and fuzzy negatives. Still, that year kept my love of photography alive, and set me up for the next stage of the evolution of my hobby: The next year I would take a high school photography course in which I would start to work with 35mm SLRs, and learn how to use the darkroom. From there, it was full speed ahead.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Travel Spot: The Porotokotan

If you have an interest in the indigenous peoples of Japan, and you happen to be in Sapporo, on the northern island of Hokkaido, you will want to visit the Shiraoi Ainu Museum, also called Porotokotan, just an hour away by train in the sleepy seaside village of Shiraoi-cho.

The Ainu are an ethnically distinct people who occupied Hokkaido and the northern part of the main island of Honshu from at least the 13th century, if not earlier, until they were driven back and then conquered by the Japanese in the 17th to 19th centuries. The relationship between the Ainu and the Japanese has been complex, and in many way parallels that between the United States and Native Americans. Starting around 1900 the Ainu were subjugated, forced to assimilate as Japanese, and their language and culture was oppressed. They were widely discriminated against. Gradually things improved, but official recognition of their identity and rights didn't occur until 2008.

The Porotokotan is a museum in the form of a mock Ainu village, or kotan. There is a museum building with historical exhibits, and then a series of Ainu style huts arranged along the shore of Lake Poroto. In each of the huts native Ainu demonstrate crafts, culture such as singing and dancing, and basic ways of Ainu life. Getting into and out of the the museum village itself involves walking through a gauntlet of shops selling Ainu related souvenir items.
The museum is informative, and generally considered one of the best Ainu museums available. The rural setting is quite lovely, and makes it possible to see the sort natural habitat the Ainu enjoyed. It is worth a visit if you are in the area, but in many ways has the politically incorrect feel of some of the faux Native American tourist traps I remember visiting on trips out west as a kid in the 1960s.

Information on the Porotokotan can be found here.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Photo of the Day

The quiet end of a beautiful day at the beach, Cavalaire-Sur-Mer, Provence, France, July 2006.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Photo Roots I: France, 1965-66

My love of photography got its start in Paris, France, when I was seven years old.  My family had just moved from the small city in Iowa where we had lived until then, to Paris, where my father took the position of Theologian in Residence at the American Church in Paris, my mother attended cooking school at the Cordon Bleu, and my brother and I were enrolled in French public schools. We were fortunate to live in a building attached to the church, in the very heart of Paris, on the Quai d' Orsay. The front door of our building looked out at the Seine, and we could see the Eiffel Tower through our kitchen window, as the photo above shows.

In honor of this adventure my parents bought my brother and me each a box camera that shot roll film similar to today's 120 film. I had never had a camera before, and it changed my life. I had good experiences and bad experiences during our time in France, but I developed a deep and abiding passion for photography.

In giving me a camera, I think my parents assumed that I would do what most tourists do with a camera, and when sightseeing just take a picture here and there to remember things by. That's what my brother did. But instead of coming home with two pictures, I started coming home with 20. And not just straight shots either, but pictures taken from all angles, and of all kinds of things. I loved the camera and what it could do; I wanted to experiment, and find new ways to look at things.

The problem was that film and processing cost money, and my parents saw pictures like the one of the Eiffel tower, above, as a waste of film and money. I didn't. I was very excited by that picture at the time because it came out exactly as I envisioned it, and it said what I wanted to say about the Eiffel Tower. And I have to say, looking at it 45 years later, I still like it.

My profligate "wasting" of film soon led to rationing, and I was forced to be more careful and discerning about the pictures I took. I'm not trying to put myself forward as any kind of child prodigy or anything, but when I scanned all these old negatives and prints from that time I found that there were a fair number that I could still make into a halfway decent print today. The picture above is one example, taken in the spring of 1966, standing on the deck of a Bateau Mouche, one of the tourist excursion boats that ply the Seine. I like its composition, right down to the deck umbrellas in the bottom of the frame.

Along these lines, here is a picture of the courtyard of the Palace of Fontainebleu, outside Paris. It was taken just before we returned to the states, and after I had accumulated some experience with the camera. I remember carefully composing this shot, and being pleased with the results. I still burned through film when given the chance, but I was getting better results.

The film rationing problem continued throughout my youth, until I was finally old enough to earn my own money and pay for my own film and processing. But the love of photography stayed constant, and if anything grew with the years. I am sometimes surprised how much I remember about our time in Paris, given how long ago it is and how young I was, but I have to think that I remember it so well because photography was teaching me to really see.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Travel Spot: St. Tropez

St. Tropez is known as a playground for the rich and famous, but when I was last there in 2006 it was just this side of being an out-and-out tourist trap. It's still worth a visit, but be warned that its reputation is a bit overblown.

There are two main sites to visit in St. Tropez: The marina with its massive yachts, which everyone goes to see, and the wonderful restored Citadel up on the hill, that almost no one goes to see.

The marina is small, and always crammed to the gills with the huge yachts of the rich, the famous, and those who pretend to be rich and famous. The yachts are backed in side by side, so that their occupants can sit on the rear deck, dining and drinking, and ostentatiously ignore the hoi polloi surging along the quay. Many of these parked yachts promote commercial ventures such as cruises and artwork. The entire scene is about as authentic as the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disney World.

The rest of the town is quaint, but a bit worn. The town itself has less than 6000 residents, but there are some good hotels and restaurants. The Citadel is a treat for anyone who bothers to climb the hill and visit it. It offers stunning views of the bay and the town (the picture at the top of this entry was taken there), and also has nice scenes like this cottage on the grounds.

If you are going to visit St. Tropez, you might want to plan to do it on a Tuesday or Saturday, when one of the main squares is turned into an open market. All of the towns in the area do this at least one day a week, but the market in St. Tropez is large and entertaining. You can buy all kinds of foods and groceries, like the olives pictured above, as well as clothing, antiques and art. It's great fun, and the people watching is unmatched.

Information on visiting St. Tropez is available here and here.

Friday, April 16, 2010

ECIL: Working with what you've got

In my last post I made a comment about the challenges of landscape photography in the flat, featureless farmlands of East-Central Illinois. When I moved here ten years ago, I truly thought there was nothing worth pursuing here, and that I would have to go elsewhere to take pictures. Of course, I was wrong. The lesson, and it's a good one, is that there are photographic possibilities everywhere. We just have to look. Ultimately, that is the main gift that photography gives us: It teaches us to look, and ultimately to see.

After being here a while, I began to see patterns and juxtapositions that were intriguing, until I finally could take advantage scenes like the one above: a volunteer corn stalk in a soybean field on a rainy day.

One of the biggest changes to my photography since moving here has been to intentionally include the sky as a subject in my photos, and not just when it was providing a dramatic sunset or some such thing. The sky and clouds combine well with agriculture, as above, but can also be a colorful subject in and of itself, as in the photo below:

Once again, the lesson here is basic, and well worth learning. Photography is about seeing what is around us and using it to tell a story or claim a mood. There are good pictures everywhere; we just have to look for them:

A subject as simple as a line of trees, or the sky itself, is all we need.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Photo of the Day

Living in East-Central Illinois, there isn't much that most people would call scenery. It's very flat, and mostly farmland. Apart from some great views of the sky, which will have to be the subject of another post, one photographic possibility that does present itself is a profusion of great old agricultural structures.

 The old elevator above is in Rising, Illinois, and is still in use. This part of the country was a crossroads for railroads, and the countryside is laced with current and former rail beds. Elevators of various sizes stand a regular intervals along the rial lines, some in towns, some out in the country.  They are photographically interesting, and fun to search out. This one rendered well in black and white.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Travel Spot: Creede, Colorado

While we're on the subject of southwest Colorado, I'd like to suggest a visit to Creede, if you happen to be in the area. Creede was Colorado's last silver mining boom town, situated just west of the San Louis Valley, up in the hills near the headwaters of the Rio Grande. Creede has a population of less than 400 now, down from over 10,000 in the 1890's, but it has a thriving arts scene and a repertory theater, along with shops and other attractions.

The town itself is picturesque, and there is a well signed road up through the hills that will take you past the old Bachelor town site, and by many of the old mines. Along the way you will pass the old church and cemetery, pictured above.

My mother's parents were raised in Creede. My grandfather, along with his father and brothers, worked in the silver mines before World War I, and my grandmother's family ran a millinery store. Because of this, I was lucky to hear some of the great stories about Creede's boom days first hand, and to have visited it several times over the years.

Creede makes a good day trip from other places in the San Louis Valley, such as Monte Vista and Alamosa. Staying in one of those towns would also provide easy access to other area attractions such as the Great Sand Dunes National Park.

Information on visiting Creede can be found here, and information on the San Louis Valley is here.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Photo of the Day

Here's a shot of Wolf Creek Pass in southwest Colorado from July of 1985. The light had a wonderful quality that day, and that, combined with being shot on film, gave the final image a wonderful painterly quality. The image here is scanned but otherwise untouched.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010


I consider this picture to be the best picture I've ever taken. You might not agree, or might only agree in the limited sense that you think this one is just as bad as all of my other pictures, but for me, this one is the tops. The lone trees along the vanishing road, the gray sky, and the dampness of the barren ground all carry an emotional wallop for me, and I get excited every time I look at it. It captures an effect I had been striving for for years. To get it I had to stop looking for new effects from Photoshop or my digital cameras and lenses, and move back to an earlier technology: Polaroid.

A few years back I bought and old Polaroid Spectra camera on E-bay for a couple of bucks, and immediately found an effect that I wanted to work with. I find Polaroid film to be especially evocative for taking pictures that look intentionally old. My very first experiments with it were exciting. One of the first, of the old grainery above, I was able to process into the ancient looking image below with very little effort.

Similar atmospherics are possible for countryside and sky scenes, as here:

Once the image is made, it can be scanned into Photoshop and enhanced at will. The pictures below show the original Polaroid on the left, a color scan of it in the middle, and a black and white treatment on the right (click on it for a larger view).

It could be that a real Photoshop master could get these effects from a regular digital image, but I certainly can't. Besides, shooting with the Polaroid camera is fun.

Polaroid instant films officially died last year, but there is apparently a serious effort to revive them. In the meantime old stocks of Polaroid film are still available on E-bay, and Fuji makes instant films that fit some Polaroid cameras. Hopefully, shooting with Polaroid will be an option well into the future.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Travel Spot: Nagoya, Japan

Visitors to Japan often overlook Nagoya, a large industrial city southwest of Tokyo and just east of Kyoto. That's a shame, because Nagoya offers a number of interesting attractions. There is a striking and historically important castle, and also the Atsuda Shrine, pictured above, said to be the repository of Kusanagi, the sword of the imperial regalia.

The shrine has lovely wooded grounds, and houses a school for Shinto priests. Students can be seen caring for the grounds garbed in white.

The city itself is bustling and crowded, but clean and safe, and has the attractions and curiosities of many Japanese cities, like this multi-level parking structure. The central train station is a massive, modern structure with a hotel and department store, and its front plaza is a major gathering place and crossroads.

The station area is a great place for people watching.

Information on Nagoya tourism can be found here and here.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Night Photography, Part II

Night photography of city scenes can be especially challenging, because the brightness of the lights create a very broad range of light values in the scene. HDR can be used to fix this, but even without it, good exposures can be achieved. The scene above, of the Minneapolis skyline, was taken on film in 1999. The exposure was greatly helped by the fact the sun had just gone down, and the sky still had quite a bit of light in it. This helped narrow the exposure range in the scene. Some photographers refer to the half hour or so immediately after the sun goes down as the "golden hour" because of this effect from a still-bright sky.

Another favorite subject is moving cars, which appear as streaks of white or red light. Above is 104th Avenue in Denver, Colorado, looking west just after sunset. This is also a single exposure on film, from August of 1986.

The major tourist attraction in Hakodate, Japan, is to take the cable car to the top of Hakodate Mountain in the evening, to see the view of the city below arrayed along its narrow isthmus. Yet again, taking the picture before the sky was completely dark helped the exposure.