Sunday, December 23, 2007

In search of the perfect shot

Hell, I might as well go look for Bigfoot or something ... because frankly, the perfect shot only occurs when you DON'T have a camera!

Case in point ... back in 2004, my then-girlfriend (now wife) and I drove out to the little rural community of Mesopotamia, Ohio, which is about 45 minutes due east of Cleveland, in a heavily-Amish area. Out there is a delightful little general store, called the End of the Commons General Store, because it's at the end of a long rectangular town commons area (hence the name). The store's really neat, selling all sorts of bulk foods, snacks, etc. My wife likes to stock up on baking supplies there for her Christmas baking. So we always go in the beginning of December. It's a nice little trip, and I enjoy going to the store.

The first time we were there, I stepped outside the store, and looked over at the Commons area. There was a neat little gazebo, lit up with Christmas lights, and it had a Christmas tree on it, also lit up with lights. Tied up nearby were several Amish buggies. It had snowed, and evening was beginning to fall, but it was still clear outside, so the sky still had a little blue in it. And it was the most PERFECT image I had seen ... it would have made Norman Rockwell cry out in envy, it was so perfect!!

And I had no camera. Naturally.

So every year, we go back, because we enjoy the trip, stopping at a variety of local attractions (cheese shops, Amish craft places, etc.), and now I bring a camera each trip.

And it's never been perfect. Ever.

In 2005, there was snow, there was Amish buggies, but the gazebo wasn't lit up.

In 2006, there wasn't much snow, we were there too early, it was a little too sunny, and the gazebo wasn't lit up.

And this year ... no snow, no Amish buggies. No lights on the gazebo.

So I'm not entirely ready to give up. Because ONE of these years, everything's gotta align for me, right?? And the thing is I'm not one of those ultra-anal photographers, who go back to the same spot day after day, at all different times, in all weather and different lighting, trying to get that perfect shot. But I'm just trying to recapture some magic. Though I wonder if I'll be able to do so at all. Maybe not. But there is some fun in trying, I think.

Friday, December 07, 2007

A little more Plowden

Sorry, haven't taken many photos lately, but hopefully soon ...

In the meantime, here's another article about David Plowden's new book from

Capturing lost Americana (with slide show)

Jacob Stockinger
December 5, 2007

To hear photographer David Plowden tell it, the 75-year-old author of more than 20 books stopped taking pictures not because he left the subject matter, but because the subject matter left him.

Over the past 50 years, Plowden has traveled hundreds of thousands of miles, probably more like millions, by car around the United States as he took some 15 miles of film, 2 1/2 inches at a time, that document the exterior landscape and the interiors of homes and businesses and other dwellings, often framed by textured skies. An impressive retrospective sampling, with some new images, of his work, "Vanishing Point: 50 Years of Photography," has just been published by W.W. Norton.

Plowden, who has received Guggenheim grants and whose works sit in many prestigious museums and collections, will be in Madison to promote his new book. His appearances will start Thursday with an appearance at 5 p.m. on "Live at Five" on WISC-TV, Channel 3. Then he will talk and sign books at the University Book Store at Hilldale on Friday from 7 to 8:30 p.m. On Friday afternoon and Saturday morning, he will teach a workshop at the Center for Photography at Madison.

Plowden's work, which will go to Yale University's rare book library on his death, reminds one of Walker Evans. His exquisitely crafted and beautifully composed images exude the same kind of understated elegance and documentary lyricism. The land and its infrastructure, from houses and farms, roads and bridges, speak of something much larger than themselves.

Plowden works simply, always in black-and-white, never using flash and always using the same medium-format Hasselblad camera with a tripod and just a few lenses.

An articulate and ebullient Plowden recently spoke via telephone from his home in Winnetka, Ill., to The Capital Times about his work:

How has the American landscape changed over the past 50 years you've been photographing it?

It has changed drastically, unbelievably. All you need to do is drive down an interstate highway and take an exit until you come to an interchange for a town. You drive downtown now and there's nothing there. In almost every case, Main Street has dried up.

I came from a little town in Vermont, and there's nothing from back then that you would find there today. It's totally changed.

The reason I started all this goes back to when I was young and how much I loved steam locomotives and knew that they were going to be replaced by diesels. But train engines are not the only thing that was replaced. Everything has been replaced.

And how did you react to that?

It started me on a lifelong mission on photographing things that were going to disappear.

Yale says the reason it's taking my collection is that they want people to know what America was like 50 or 100 or 150 years ago. It has changed, and not for the better, I think. We have lost a tremendous amount.

As I traveled around the prairie and the countryside and looked at small family farms and small towns, I realized that all the traditional tenets of American culture were going to disappear. And they have. You go to a country church and you see they've been replaced by giant churches the same way that general stores have been replaced by Costcos and Wal-Marts.

All of the small neighborly things have been replaced. It's all becoming unraveled. I can't find a tremendous number of things I photographed even just 20 or 30 years ago.

How do those physical changes translate into human terms?

I also find a loss of skills. Steel mill workers and train engineers and ferry boat captains had tremendous pride in their work. They knew what they were doing. You don't have that kind of pride today. Today, we push money around. You go to town after town after town, and you see these abandoned places.

Why have you stopped taking photographs?

The things I loved and that captured my attention are gone.

It's not just being tired from 50 years of working and traveling and then saying I want to retire, because I have no intention of doing nothing. But on my last trip to North Dakota and Minnesota, I could only find one or two things to photograph in two weeks. That's slim pickin's. I traveled 300 miles to take my last picture of two grain elevators that were empty and abandoned.

I thought to myself I just can't continue to roam the countryside looking for things that were already photographed when they were still in use.

What first attracted you and still keeps you attracted to still photography, which can seem old-fashioned given today's video cams and camera phones?

I used to travel by train and would look through the window, which acted like a viewfinder, especially when we pulled into a station. It taught me to slow down and look closely.

I prefer to talk with pictures. I've chosen to be a photographer so my voice is through the camera. My still photographs are meant to be looked at very carefully, as carefully as when I made them.

In this busy world today, we tend not to stop and look. But a still photograph makes you look at every single detail. It trains the eyes to look carefully, and I think we've lost that skill.

Are you familiar with Madison?

Madison is a wonderful town. I can't imagine a more beautiful town. I live near Chicago, and I wouldn't live anywhere else except Madison. It's a wonderful city. It's a really beautiful town with all those lakes. I've had some really wonderful experiences there. Madison has treated me very nicely.

My first girlfriend in high school came from Madison. I first visited the city in 1946 by train. Madison has always been close to my heart.

It's a thinking town, what with the university, and a good town for photography.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Real photography by the master

I can't wait for Christmas ... not because I'm going to get all sorts of fancy new photography equipment (though to be honest, I am asking for a tripod ... I was going to ask for a lens, too, but that's a bit pricey), but because I did ask for a major new photography book, David Plowden's career retrospective, "David Plowden: Vanishing Point: Fifty Years of Photography"

Plowden's one of the best photographers in the business today, in my opinion. I've always loved the 1930s photographers who were part of the Farm Security Administration under Roy Stryker as part of the New Deal, and the photojournalists of the day like Margaret Bourke-White. Eugene Smith is another great photographer I admire. These people weren't out photographing beautiful scenary like Ansel Adams (though I do like his work too, just not to the same degree), but were photographing everyday people and places. Instead of finding the beautiful in nature, they found the beautiful in everyday life ... and while their photos do not initially appear to BE beautiful things or beautiful places, they really force you into seeing something beyond what your first glance and first opinion saw.

David Plowden is the same way. He so often takes a photo of something seemingly mundane, of a person or a subject that you would NOT have noticed, or would have noticed and quickly dismissed. But by capturing that image in time, he forces you to stop and LOOK at it. And you do. There's something still and tranquil in his images that really force you to stop and really look. Not just look at the photo and say, "hmm, that's an interesting photo." But something that causes you to STOP and LOOK. And then you realize something about that image ... it's beautiful, or it's ironic, or it's nostalgic, or it's impressive, or it angers you. You can't just look at one of his photos impassively. You stop, you look, and you become invested in whatever that picture is about.

He's an old-fashioned photographer ... he works with film, with an old camera, and then does all his own developing and printing, even down to the point where he's stockpiled up his favorite film and favorite photographic paper, because they're just not being made anymore in this digital era. And it appears that he's finishing up his career taking photographs, at age 75. He'll still be working in his darkroom, because he's endlessly in search of the perfect negative and print, but I don't know if he'll take any more photographs. It is a pity, because his work is so powerful ... even today, his 1970s book "The Hand of Man on America" really causes you to think, because he is speaking out, through his photographs, about pollution, about suburban sprawl, about blight. His books about industry are beautiful in that you can tell that big heavy industry like steel mills fascinate him endlessly, but also frighten him a bit. His books about small towns are haunting, because the Grant Wood/Norman Rockwell concept we have of rural small towns is true, and untrue, and also dying out, as seen in his photographs. And the best part of all his books is the lengthy narrative that he inserts in the beginning of them. Because he just doesn't go and take pictures, he inserts himself into that town, into that place, that mill, that ship. He meets people, gets to know them, and gets so that they don't notice or care when he takes his photos. But his stories about these people and places affect you just as deeply as his photographs of them. He's an amazing historian ... with the added threat of being able to take pictures and illustrate what he sees and experiences.

I first heard of him by reading a portrait of him by David McCullough, in McCullough's collection of essays called "Brave Companions." After reading it, I HAD to go find a book by Plowden. And I've been acquiring them ever since. While McCullough is a masterful storyteller and historian ... Plowden is every bit his match, but he does it all in the single frame of a photograph, while McCullough does it with his narrative skills.

I've linked to Plowden's website in this blog ... go to it, and go look at his photos on the blog (click on "archive"). But go out and buy one of his books, so you can really LOOK at his photos, again and again, and really feel what good photography is all about. There's none better.

P.S., the book's $100, but it's way cheaper on Amazon!


From the Buffalo News (10/22/07),

A retrospective of David Plowden’s poignant photography forever preserves the fabric of America

Picturing the past: The eye of David Plowden

Updated: 10/22/07 8:56 AM

“I’m always there when they take the last run of a steam engine or they’re trying to close a store or abandon the ferry or scrap the boat, or if they’re going to close the steel mills … I’m always one step ahead of the wrecking ball." -- David Plowden

David Plowden was in a deep personal and professional crisis. You don’t find out about it – quite literally – until the final pages of the beautiful career retrospective “David Plowden: Vanishing Point – Fifty Years of Photographs” (Norton, 339 pages, $100).

The book is a magnificent record of a vanishing America – steam engines, bridges, grain elevators, barns, lake boats, steel mills, country stores, all the things once so visible and prominent on the skin of America. Their dedicated and singular photographer, too, may now be in the act of disappearing.

From the field anyway.

And that was the crisis he was in.

“There’s no way I will repeat anything like this,” Plowden says on the phone about the work in the magnificent book. “I’m not going to go out in the field again and photograph the same things that are in the book. In the first place, most of them are gone. Being 75, my days are limited. I can’t climb around the steel mills anymore. I can’t climb up and down the ladder on board ships.”

He was, in fact, going to stop photographing altogether not all that long ago. That’s where his wife, the former Sandra Schoellkopf (of the Buffalo Schoellkopfs) stepped in.

“I thought to myself, ‘I don’t know what else there is for me to photograph.’ I can’t do the same thing overand over again. Sandra suggested doing the book, ‘A Handful of Dust’ – looking at things which essentially are now gone.

“I said, ‘I don’t want to be taking these expeditions anymore.’ And she said, ‘If I go in the field with you, will you go?’ ‘Of course,’ I said. … For about three years we went out and covered a lot of the country that I realized was on its last legs.”

Plowden will show and talk about his work at 5 p.m. Saturday in the Auditorium of the Central Library at 1 Lafayette Square.

Rural vs. industrial

Putting this selection of his lifework together while living and teaching in Chicago “was a very bittersweet experience. A lot of these things I photographed 50, 40, 30 years ago, when you look at these photographs you remember everything. You remember the people, everything about the places.”

But at the same time, Plowden, the anthologist of Plowden the photographer’s lifework, was also struck by a question about his former self: “How could the same guy photograph the drama and the intensity and the mayhem of the steel mills and still go out and photograph the inside of a country church? I can’t believe that I was actually able to do this. .… As I looked at my work, I realized there were two major things. There was the rural, which included the small towns, and then there’s the industrial world. I have spent my life photographing these things with equal fervor.”

His explanation for the polaric opposite Americas in the work that has absorbed him for half a century is simple: “I would go to the steel mills and photograph the fire and brimstone of the mills and, then, as Sandra says, I’d have to come up for air and I’d go out and photograph Iowa. As a relief, then, I’d go out and photograph the [lake] boats.”

Without subjecting that duality of subject matter to too much pop psychology, it may relate directly to his parental upbringing, and Plowden admits as much.

“My father was a scene designer. He’d studied architecture. He became an actor. I’ve always thought many of these photographs of mine are stage sets. If you look at these interiors, some of them have been used that way – as examples of ‘what this room should look like’. … I can walk into these spaces and I can put the players into the room.

“In many cases, I don’t have people occupying these spaces. I want people [looking at the photographs] to be there themselves. I’m trying not to tell them everything.

“Music has always been a central part of my life. My mother studied very seriously in Paris. She wanted to be a concert pianist. She played all her life until her fingers gave out. Music was always in my life, always there. When I’m printing, I always listen to music. When I’m putting a book together, I’m thinking in terms of ballet, of choreography. I’m trying to keep the action going.”

He has always seemed to know, then, either intuitively or explicitly since he first started photographing steam locomotives, that a unique kind of American beauty would eventually be gone – from the nation’s landscapes and cityscapes, perhaps, but not Plowden’s photographs, those fragments shorn up against our ruins.

An ‘outsider artist’

Plowden, it must be understood, is not a journalist taking pictures on the fly for a deadline, while keeping on the move. He will only photograph what he’s taken the time to know and what he’s been given permission to photograph. And that, almost always, requires getting to know the people who gave him that permission.

Sometimes they decline. He remembers – dramatically – an old woman who had a country store “in the hollows of West Virginia. I asked her, ‘Would you mind if I photograph your store?’ And she said, ‘Listen, I know what you’re trying to do. You want to take it back to New York to show everyone how desperately poor we are here and your sympathy for us.’ ‘But,’ she said, ‘it’s my face and my store and it’s all I have.’ ”

Her face and store went unphotographed.

Plowden’s lifelong connection to his specific subject matter has resulted in his becoming a truly singular and privileged kind of “outsider artist” in the world of photography – one who is always published in book form and always admired but not very often in the inner sanctum of his art.

For illustration, picture a soigne photography exhibit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Imagine Plowden approaching a chummy huddle of photographers and curators who are chatting. “One of them turned to him and said, ‘Oh, here’s David Plowden, our topical photographer. What’s your next book going to be? Telephone poles? Fire hydrants? What a wonderful thing you could do with fire hydrants.”

Plowden laughs about it now over the phone. But it was painful. His peculiar high-profile unfashionability isn’t entirely funny, even now. There’s an issue involved. And if it makes him one of the most strangely privileged and successful “outsider artists” in American art, so be it.

“I felt very hurt,” Plowden says now. “I felt very much the outsider in the art world. [I felt] that I was not an artist but a person who deals with a subject. To me, the composition and the light and the form and all those things are just as important as the subject. But it’s the subject that has always drawn me to make the photograph. I’d much rather be swimming in [railroad] engine grease than sitting on the floor eating rice out of two bowls.”

That latter is a reference to Plowden’s studies in Rochester with legendary American photographer Minor White, a giant of more conspicuously aesthetic bent whose reputation is on par with Ansel Adams and Walker Evans. White, says Plowden, “lived a very Bohemian life. He had a lot of the trappings. We’d sit on a rattan rug and eat rice out of chopsticks. And I thought that was going a little too far.”

“He also got into hypnosis. He would try to hypnotize us so we could see deeper into our photographs. That didn’t work for me. (Big laugh.) He finally said to me, ‘Go do your steam engines!’ I always felt with Minor that you had to be a clone in order to get his approval. Of course I was the rebel. I was the philistine. Minor and I were about as dramatically opposite as any two people could be.”

As it was

Steve Edwards tells the story of Plowden’s Museum of Modern Art humiliation in his introduction to “Vanishing Point.”

Plowden still insists on the power of the still photographer, even as his retirement from the field looms.

“I think the still photograph is one of the strongest statements. You, the photographer, have to be aware of every single thing in the frame and therefore the viewer has to look very carefully. In this frenetic world we live in, where everything is in motion all the time, suddenly to be confronted with a still image requires a great deal of the viewer. I think I ask a lot of my viewers. I ask them to look as carefully as I did. I think by doing this you see the way the world really is.” Or, more importantly, was.

Which makes, in its entirety, something singular about David Plowden’s America.

“I photographed these things at their height – the railroads, the steam engines, places where they would build the boats – Buffalo, oh my God, all the lake boats … ” His voice, on the phone trails off. The photos remain. And will continue to.


From New Chicago (, 11/13/07

Endangered Species
The vanishing art of photographer David Plowden
Michael Weinstein

"I suppose I am a heretic," David Plowden says with more than a touch of jovial irony. He is also a man who has achieved wisdom through his lifelong romance with the world through his camera.

Plowden's heresy is to be a master of the fine black-and-white photographic print of a straight shot that captures a subject—be it the densest landscape under the most dappled sky, or the sparest streamlined artifact—in all its complexity and individuality. In an age of digital shutterbugs, who is willing, as Plowden does, to spend a day driving through North Dakota solely in search of the perfect subject, framing it—if he is lucky enough to find one—"in the field" with single-minded concentration, and then taking the negative through a painstaking process of darkroom development that results in a print that makes a moment of the fleeting world exquisitely permanent?

In our graphic disposable age, the fine print is becoming passé and Plowden knows that. We want flash, not subtlety; we want to sense and emote, not to perceive and contemplate. Plowden's injunction to all who will listen is: "Stop and look at things!"

It is no exaggeration to say that "looking carefully" is the key to Plowden's entire life—his passion and his mission. Conversation with him quickly reveals that the camera is not an end in itself, but simply the best instrument for "seeing the world the way it is," and that the fine print is the best medium for preserving the subject against the tooth of time.

Indeed, the photograph conveys reality more authentically than perception of the world through our naked eyes, in Plowden's view. The fine straight print "separates things so that we can look carefully at them." With a certain optimism, Plowden adds that "you have to look at a still."

With self-irony, Plowden acknowledges that he is "asking too much" of his viewers. They must follow him back to the experience that he had when he took the shot, attentive to "every detail." Then they must "use their imagination "to inhabit the scene and respond to it with personal associations. All of this takes time, which is presently in short social supply.

Time is of the essence to Plowden. Not only does he want to memorialize the subject of a moment of experience and thereby recreate that moment in the viewer's response, but he chooses subjects that are vanishing from the humanly constructed landscape, committing a second heretical sin. What does an age obsessed with novelty—albeit superficial—want with the abandoned silos, steam locomotives, mom-and-pop stores, steel mills and Great Lakes freighters that Plowden serves up as subjects worthy of a careful look? Plowden wants to remind us of what we are losing or have already lost, much to his regret at 75 years old after a half-century devoted to preservation through photography.

Plowden's mission might seem to be tinged with nostalgia, which is the bĂȘte noir of the postmodern hipoisie. If culture is simply a construct to be altered at whim and will, the cardinal sin is to look back with longing to a past that never really was what we think it was now as we contemplate a two-dimensional colorless representation on a piece of paper.

Plowden is unmoved, remaining steadfastly the pure opposite of today's conventional sophisticated wisdom. He is troubled by the tendency of younger photographers to say "look at me" and to "strive to be different." As a professor of photography, he would take students into the field and, when they complained that everything around them had been shot straight before, he would answer: "But you haven't done it. Get over your self-consciousness about being derivative. Enjoy what you're looking at. Forget if anyone has been here before."

That is not nostalgia, but a decided preference for reality over novelty. Plowden explains that he photographs the vanishing landscape of factories, farms and small towns because "without these icons we will lose our identity. We are doing our best to obliterate our sense of identity. I feel very strongly about that." In an age of identity-experimentation, marketed identities and cyber-personae, Plowden is fighting a losing battle. In an increasingly virtual culture, images of the past are fragments of an archive to be sliced and diced, and mixed and melded into instant traditions for the moment.

Plowden was called to his mission early in life, before he learned to see through the camera. The life-changing experience that set him on his journey occurred in his boyhood spending summers in Vermont, where he fell in love with the steam locomotives that still plied the tracks there. One day, he realized that those magnificent machines would soon vanish from the scene, and he was seized with the wish to remember them and somehow to preserve them. At that moment, he had found his center and his life's work.

Already at his core, the impulse to attentive preservation flowered when Plowden took up photography in his youth and, from then on, he continually perfected his ability to see and record. Plowden's first great break came in 1958 when he was 26 years old and became the assistant to O. Winston Link, the famous photographer of steam engines. He counts his time with Link as more important than his private study with Minor White—the photographer's photographer and master of the fine print—in 1959, and his years at Chicago's Institute of Design from 1978 through 1986, where he encountered other versions of precision photography.

By the time he met Link, Plowden was already set on his course. An unabashed lover of railroads and a precise recorder of them, Link honed Plowden's technical skills but, more importantly, gave him added confidence in his mission. His later encounters as he matured gave Plowden further capabilities along the path he had chosen, but did not turn him from his root commitment.

As his visual intelligence became keener, Plowden's vistas broadened beyond steam engines to include all the vanishing vestiges of modern agricultural-industrial society. He is best known for his series of esteemed books, such as "The American Barn," "Bridges: The Spans of North America" and "A Handful of Dust: Photographs of Disappearing America." Plowden's new book, "David Plowden: Vanishing Point—Fifty Years of Photography," is a rich retrospective of 352 pages covering his entire output and capping a career that he says is now over, at least in the field; there is much work still to be done in the darkroom.

Plowden's books allow the viewer to get a sense of his detailed aesthetic surface but, as he puts it, "the gallery is the best place to look closely at photographs," because we see them there as they were meant to be seen, and in a space designed to encourage visual appreciation.

Is there any life left in the fine print? Is there any time left for careful looking at something that our culture has passed by and is obliterating? Those questions can be answered affirmatively by taking in Plowden's impeccably curated retrospective exhibit at Catherine Edelman Gallery the way that Plowden suggests we do.

Plowden says that he offers the viewer a subject seen through his practiced eyes with the purely objective intent of bringing it to presence in its full detail. He is not administering a playful Rorschach test, but is engineering a confrontation in which the viewer is drawn into the subject and then meditates on it, associating with it only after taking the image in with single-pointed attention.

Viewers relaxed and receptive enough to follow Plowden's directive will find themselves in a zone of communion with the subject that produces a sense of the subject's independent power at the same time that it stimulates a contemplative mood that most often settles into wistfulness—a melancholy, yet strangely tranquil longing canceled by the affirmative resignation at the core of Plowden's wisdom.

It is up to viewers to let the subject fill their individual experience and make its imprint, and then to identify with it personally, so that it will become part of living memory, even if it is not consciously recalled.

David Plowden is a philosopher with a camera—a visual sage. His current assistant, Josh Law, says: "I have never seen anyone as dedicated to what they believe in."

Like his subjects, Plowden is of a vanishing breed and he is acutely aware of that. He requires our careful look because he teaches us to dwell with "wonderful things" that deserve to fuse with our lives.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

when I think of fall, I think of cemetaries ...

Okay, that sounds morbid, doesn't it?? But in a way, there's the whole symbolic thing, as nature shuts down for winter, the whole "lion in winter" thing about aging, etc. But actually, it's because in Cleveland we have the Lakeview Cemetary, one of the best in the nation ... and it's MORE than a cemetary, it's a gorgeous park, with immensely beautiful statuary, carved by Italian master craftsmen imported from Italy to do just that. They settled in a small area around the cemetary that has since become "Little Italy," which is home to countless great little Italian restaurants.

But the cemetary they worked at is a beautiful place, and I love to wander it in the Fall and Spring, photographing the place. It's filled with significant Clevelanders, ranging from President James A. Garfield, to John D. Rockefeller, to Elliot Ness, and Ray Chapman, the only pro baseball player killed during a game (took a nasty fastball to the head). And of course, plenty of everyday Clevelanders (such as my great-grandparents, Benjamin and Elizabeth, who emigrated to Cleveland from England in the 1910s).

Naturally it's a wonder too ... the place is filled with huge Japanese Threadleaf Maple trees, amazingly overgrown for decades, and just literally a cascade of color in the fall ... it's almost like a natural waterfall of red hues ... just stunning to see.

I need to get back there, but now I spend too much time on the weekends working on or around the house, but I WILL get back there one of these days, just because it's such a beautiful place. Yes, there are dead people there ... but it's such a wonderful place, you almost envy them for spending eternity in a gorgeous museum of natural beauty and the stonecarver's art.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Drunken Bee???

I was walking by my wife's flower garden the other day when I spotted this big bee in one of her flowers. I ran to get my camera, hoping that the bee wouldn't fly away, but when I got back, I found out it wasn't going anywhere in a hurry. For some reason, it was completely moving in slow motion. Covered almost entirely in pollen, the little guy was acting like he was stone drunk! So it didn't take much effort to get a good closeup of him, as he staggered around the flower like a college freshman with a fake ID.

Of course, I don't know squat about bees ... I'm not an insect fan, I'm just a former historian-turned-amateurish photographer. But that's what it looked like to me!

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Yet some more Cape Cod photos

Hell, I took 640 photos ... so I have plenty to spare. Though to be honest, I only like about 160 of the ones I took, which isn't bad ... and of those, there's probably only a couple of dozen that others would say are good. But those aren't bad photographers. I watched the documentary about master photographer David Plowden, and he'd be shooting pictures all day; if ONE came out good, he thought it was a very good day. So if I only have a few really good shots out of those 640, then I'd say it was a good trip!

And actually, it was a good trip, even if none of the photos would have come out. But here's a few that I like from the stack:

Okay, I like sunset pictures ... and I take a lot of them, hoping that I'll get one that I like. This one was actually kind of accidental. I was looking around at this beach (Corporation Street Beach in Dennis), trying to get a good angle, when my wife pointed out the seagull sitting on top of the streetlight. Duh. Neat picture. I completely would have missed it without my wife. This is why it's always good to have a spare pair of eyes on your photo excursions!

What, ANOTHER sunset? Yep ... this one is from Rock Harbor, in Orleans. If anything, it's a jealousy picture, because I'd rather be the guy sitting in the beach chair, enjoying the sunset, than the photographer wandering around fretting that my exposures were correct. I'm still not entirely sure they were, but this came out enough to suit me.

Same location, same evening, Rock Harbor. The "trees" in the picture really are trees ... the locals jokingly call them "Clam Trees," but what they really are ... are dead trees, planted in the channel to Rock Harbor, so that boats coming and going from the harbor know where the channel is ... and since Cape Cod Bay has some amazing tides (at low tide you can walk out onto the tidal flats almost a mile), it's important to know where the channel is!

Same location, a few days earlier at low tide ... See, I told you that the tides are amazing! And now you can see the channel, which gets dredged to keep it from completely filling in. And why the "clam trees" are important (besides providing a tale to dupe gullible tourists).

Tuesday, September 25, 2007


While on our trip to Cape Cod a few weeks ago, we took a day trip across Nantucket Sound to the island of Nantucket ... which was pretty neat. Pretty damn expensive, too ... houses on average sell for $2 million apiece there. There is some SERIOUS cash playing on Nantucket, but yet the place still keeps a small-town feel. That is, if your small town has a Polo Ralph Lauren shop, and restaurants where the entrees start at $60.

But the island manages to conserve a great deal of land, and even new houses have to follow a strict architectural code, so there are few if any McMansion Monstrosities, but rather many houses with strong New England touches. I love the faded cedar shingles used as siding on so many of the houses ... the elements age the cedar to a gray, and when people plant flowers around the houses, or use flowerboxes, the color just jumps out.

We had a great day out there ... the ocean was as smooth as glass, so the ferry ride over was flawless and uneventful. We wandered around Nantucket Town (usually referred to as just "town"), and then caught a cab over to Siasconsset, which is usually referred to as "'Sconset". There we found a great little collection of New England cottages, all terribly cute and intimate, and undoubtedly quite pricey (cute has a price on Nantucket). We caught the bus back, and continued our wandering until it was time to take the late afternoon ferry back. My memory of us leaving is a grandmother, who trudged to Brant Point (the lighthouse in the above pictures), to wave at her grandchildren on the ferry, waving goodbye at them from the wonderful island ... and at that moment I decided I wanted a grandmother who lived on a magical island like Nantucket, because that was really cool.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Pardon this interruption ...

okay, I've finally sorted out all the Cape Cod pics, now I need to start posting some of them. Which I was working on, but this past weekend I had to put all that away temporarily, because it was my niece's first birthday in Chicago. This of course, is a Command Performance, so we headed out to the Windy City, which is always a joy to visit. A bit hot and humid on friday, and too hazy to suit me for photos, but the party itself was on saturday, and everything went wonderfully. My niece (and goddaughter) is absolutely wonderful, with a VERY mischevious look in her eye constantly. She's going to be trouble!

So, no artsy pics from the weekend, other than this ironic shot I took when wandering the lakefront parks in Chicago on friday. I didn't do too many artsy shots on the weekend, just some city shots on Friday, which I may post if they come out okay. But this weekend was all about taking snapshots of family, and making sure I got just the right shots of my niece and nephew!

But when I was out walking around on friday ... I spotted this scene. I decided after looking at it, that it worked better in black and white than in color ...

Next up will be some Cape Cod pics, I promise. Not too many, just some good ones.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Back from Cape Cod

So I'm back.

And I've got 640 pictures of my week in Cape Cod ... yes, it's a bit much, but the thing is with Cape Cod, that EVERYWHERE you look are great photo subjects. I've never been in any place like that where you just want to shoot everything! Okay, maybe Moscow was that way, but that was just because it was new and exotic, and I knew I'd never go back ... but I've been to Cape Cod multiple times, I've seen a great deal there. But still, I never fail to find something worth taking. A lot of it is the light, which is just amazing. Every photographer loves that "Golden Hour" in the early morning or the late afternoon, when the light takes on a golden hue, but in Cape Cod, that period lasts for HOURS. It's also the neat insertion of color ... on a beach, you'll see a spray of roses or beach plums ... on cottage after cottage, with cedar shingles bleached gray by the sun and elements, you'll find window boxes with intensely colorful flowers, and in front, some of the most beautiful hydrangeas you'll ever find.

In short, Cape Cod is a visual delight. And frankly, I could have taken thousands of more photos. I just didn't have the time, my wife would have killed me, and frankly, I didn't want to spend every minute looking through my lens ... I wanted to have VACATION.

The weather was flawless ... blue skies, great clouds, sunshine, temperatures in the low to mid 70s, low humidity. It could NOT have been any better. And we just went around, sightseeing, going to art galleries and antique shops, eating a lot of seafood, taking in a lot of sunsets like the one above, shot at Corporation Street Beach in Dennis, with the sun setting over Cape Cod Bay), walking on a lot of beaches, and eating a lot of ice cream. That's pretty much all there is to do there ... and it's more than enough.

So now I'm sorting through the pictures (and many of the 640 are actually multiple exposures, as I was expermenting with my camera's settings), and trying to pick out the good ones, which I'll start posting here. Sorry if you want intense variety on this website, but for the next week or weeks, I'll be posting mostly Cape Cod landscape pictures, because that's what I've taken, and that's what I enjoy, and it's my friggin' blog!

Friday, August 31, 2007

Welcome to the Beach!

Just being ironic ... actually, this photo isn't a good indication of how welcoming Rocky River Park actually is. It's a lovely little beach park, with a great new playground for kids, a picnic shelter, plenty of benches and swings for people to sit on and enjoy the water view, and of course a great view of the sunset every evening ... which is truly a bonus of living along the southern shore of a body of water. Every night a sunset over water. It's easy to take it for granted, but I view each one as special.

I'm also fond of the park because they allow you to bring your dog there, as long as you keep it on a leash, unlike the nearby Lakewood Park. But at least Lakewood has a city dog park, which makes up for it.

One thing I have noticed here in Northeast Ohio ... there aren't a lot of undeveloped little parks like this on the water. It seems that most of the waterfront is taken up with homes, apartments, factories, ports ... anything but public recreation. That's why a park like this is such a gem!

However, the next beach pics I post will be a lot more scenic ... as they should be from Cape Cod. We leave tomorrow for a week of rest and relaxation ... and hopefully lots of picture-taking!!!

Monday, August 27, 2007

Required photograph

I'm sorry, but I had to do this. Just like every photographer who has kids is obligated to take endless photographs of said kids (usually the first one ... later ones get less and less photos taken of them, so that the youngest invariably wonder if they were actually adopted ... I know I did, a feeling my brother encouraged greatly). However, I have no children at this time. This is probably WHY I was able to afford my new Canon Digital Rebel XT and Sigma 17-70mm lens AND the fancy new iMac to play with my pictures on (actually, the iMac was a necessity ... my 6-year old iMac had a completely filled harddrive, a dead CD burner, a greatly dimmed monitor, and it was going really really really slow).

However, I have a dog. So therefore, I must take endless photos of my dog. And I have.

But still, I think he's cute, and I liked this photo, so now I'm subjecting anyone and everyone on the internet to see yet another photo of Brewster, The Wonder Dog, facing a setting sun, while I'm fooling around with the depth of field. Photo taken at Rocky River Park, in Rocky River, Ohio (hence the name of the park, which is down the road from my house in nearby Lakewood).

Awww, ain't he cute???? As usual, double-click on the photo to see it a tad larger.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Beachfront action

Well, last week saturday dawned beautifully ... cool, low humidity, sunshine, and blue skies. So we headed to one of our favorite parks in the region, Mentor Lagoons Park, located in the Cleveland suburb of Mentor (hence the name), and on the lakefront. It's probably one of the only undeveloped beachfront parks in Ohio, at least on this side of Ohio, so it's pretty special. There's only some trails there, a nearby marina, and probably a good mile or so of beach, usually deserted. When we go walking and beachcombing along the beach, we're often the ONLY people out there. It's amazing.

However, the weather didn't hold, and the clouds rolled in. No rain, but the sun and blue skies went away, so our beautiful August saturday ended up looking like a bleak day in Autumn.

So while I wanted some lovely scenic shots, instead I took the opportunity to experiment with the camera, play with the settings, mess with the depth of field, and just generally see what my camera could do. The results weren't all pretty, but I did get some interesting shots.

It was also a case to experiment in composition, not just go for the "pretty" shot of scenary, but just play around with whatever I had to work with.

Ultimately, it turned out to be a pretty good day. The shots weren't bad ... nothing terribly special, but I feel a lot more comfortable with my camera, and I've been pleased by some of the shots. A little tweaking is going to be necessary in Photoshop Elements, but I still gotta read the manual for that!

As usual with all the photos on this blog, double-click to see a bigger version of each picture.

Next up, we leave for vacation to Cape Cod. I plan on taking a helluva lot of photos, so hopefully I'll get some good results. The scenary there is perfect, the lighting is out of this world ... now all I gotta do is feel confident in my camera's features and my eye for composition. Hopefully I won't screw it all up too badly, and I'll have some good results.

Which of course, I'll post here. That's the idea behind this blog, after all!

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Good Eatin'

One of Cleveland's great treasures is the West Side Market, which has been around since 1912. Unlike some other cities, it's not a "festive marketplace" or some sort of touristy place. No, it's a food market, owned by the city, but populated mostly by ethnic grocers, some of whom have had their stands in the family since the day the market opened! The outdoor market is for produce, and was mainly Italian greengrocers, but in more recent years, the produce merchants have been Middle Eastern. Inside are the butcher shops, bakeries, fishmongers, and a variety of stands selling everything from killer fresh pasta to Cambodian cuisine.

It's a great place to go for lunch; I love getting a bratwurst at Frank's ... for $2.50 I can get an amazing bratwurst, with sauerkraut, on a soft roll. Add some fresh pasta salad from Ohio City Pasta, and it's perfection, all in just a scant few minutes. New vendors add to the Market's flavor, as there's now a stand selling Middle Eastern delicacies, the aforementioned Cambodian stand (great pad thai there), and now even a stand that sells crepes! It's a wonderful cross section of Cleveland, too ... and English is NOT the dominant language you hear there!

Anyone who wants to see the West Side Market (if you're unfortunate enough to not live in Cleveland) could see it on the PBS special on markets that's currently running, and also probably Anthony Bourdain's "No Reservations" episode set in Cleveland, which should air on Monday, August 27 at 10pm on the Travel Channel.

It's even a good reason to come and visit Cleveland for!

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Rain, rain, go away!

Okay, it's been raining here nonstop for the past few days, including some deluges that are absolutely biblical! I've had enough, thank you!

However, I did run out during a break in the storms when the sun peaked out, and shot a few pictures of my wife's flowers. Still using my Digital Rebel XT with the Sigma 17-70mm lens, though I'm really zooming in and using the macro feature on these. But I liked the way they came out!

Wednesday, August 15, 2007


I'm always amazed when I read my photography books (not how-to books, which I have several, but collections by noted photographers, of which I have dozens) when they describe the endless time they took to get certain shots. The results certainly speak of their determination, because the results are absolutely wonderful.

But I wonder if I could do that. In a book of photos of Cape Cod by Jon Vaughn, he describes going back to the same spot, day after day, for months ... until was there at the exact right time with the perfect lighting. The picture he took was wonderful. I doubt I could ever get a picture that beautiful!

Maybe it's patience ... maybe my standards aren't as high, or my sense of perfection not that honed.

This picture I took eons ago (2001, I think ... maybe even 2000) with a very early model digital camera (Sony Cybershot, I believe ... it kept the images on a 3.5 inch floppy disc, which shows you how old it was), and it was mostly an accidental image. I was touring the LTV Steel plant in Cleveland, and allowed to bring a camera (I actually brought two, the Cybershot, and my ancient Mamiya/Sekor 35mm loaded with slide film). So I took advantage and was taking all sorts of shots. We were listening to the tour guide, and while he was talking, I was looking around. For some reason, not even thinking, I grabbed the Cybershot and took this photo. There was no lengthy set up, I didn't have a tripod, I didn't wait for the scene to unfold, I just quickly saw something, and unthinking, just grabbed a quick snapshot.

And yet it's one of my favorite pictures. I love the lighting and color (color is rare in a steel mill, where everything is black, or rusty), and it's just one of those "perfect moment" photos. I don't know if I could have gotten this if I had tried to set something up and waited for the moment.

I don't know if I even have the patience to do that. It'll probably limit me immensely in being a good photographer. But we'll see. I'm going to try to overcome it, and try to work to be pretty decent.

Funny thing is, I think I did better shots with the digital camera ... my old Mamiya just couldn't handle the mill. It only went up to 1/500th of a second on shutter speed, which just is NOT fast enough when you're taking photos anywhere near hot metal, which can be as bright as the sun! A number of times, I just couldn't get a shot with the 35mm camera, because I could not close my aperature enough or crank up the shutter speed high enough. Other spots in the mill, away from the glowing hot metal, there wasn't enough light to take my shots without a tripod!

But somehow, the old and limited digital camera actually managed quite well in that environment. Go figure.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

A little sunset, Cleveland-style

Yes, the sun does occasionally shine in Cleveland ... and one of the great bonuses living on the Great Lakes is that we get sunsets over water ... which much of the world does not get! Their loss.

Taken at the foot of Webb Avenue in Lakewood (down the road from my house), August 2007. f11 @ 1/320, ISO 100, 70mm.

Some more Cape Cod

These photos were taken in Dennisport, on the bay side of Cape Cod. I'm not sure of the beach's name, I think it's Sea Street Beach ... whatever it is, we can walk to it from the cottage we stay at, which is right over the line in Brewster. One thing I love about this, and other Cape beaches is the tide coming in and out ... when it's low tide, the water line can recede upwards of a mile from where it's at during high tide! The ripples it leaves behind are amazing, as well as various large rocks and things that otherwise disappear at high tide.

Both images were shot with my Canon PowerShot A75 in September 2005. Top photo was f4.8 @ 1/60th, 16.2mm, bottom photo was f2.8 @1/400, 5.4mm.

Best of all, I'll be back there in three weeks. Woo-hoo!!!

And this photo below was from Skaket Beach, in neighboring Orleans. A favorite of my wife's family, it's a wonderful beach for families, and is a great place to check out the sunset. f8 @ 1/200, 16.2mm, also shot in September 2005. You know, for a little point-and-shoot, the damn thing takes pretty good pictures!!

More flower fun

Taken with my cheapo Canon 50mm lens ... it only cost about $75, but it's got some great qualities to it!

Photo taken in my wife's flower garden ... f1.8 @ 1/800, ISO 100, 50mm.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Cape Cod, part 1

One reason I decided to take up photography (after putting it down repeatedly, but that's another story) is Cape Cod. My wife is a New Englander, and started dragging me to the Cape every year for a vacation ... and I found that I loved the place. It's gorgeous, it's relaxing, and it has the most amazing light. Now I see why artists and photographers have flocked there for years ... it is the perfect place to make art, take photos, relax, write, shop, eat, swim, sunbathe, do whatever ...

So I started by just taking photos of things that caught my eye, using a Canon Powershot A75. Yep, just a point-and-shoot. But I liked the results I was getting. Inspired, I broke down and bought an SLR, figuring it was time to start taking it a bit more seriously, and really work on getting good photos. Cape Cod is my muse, so why not pursue it as fully as I can (within the limitations of having no money for fancy equipment, and only a week or two a year on the Cape).

If you've not been there ... you must go. There's no other place quite like it. And when it's good weather, you'll be amazed by the light. That magic "golden light" that you get first thing in the morning and at the end of the day? You get that for hours upon hours at the Cape. It's bright, it's intense, it's golden. It begs for a camera to be taken out and used, it screams out to take some pictures, and share the beauty of this small elbow of land on the far east coast.

And of course, I'm an amateur schmuck, so I can't do it justice. But regardless, I love taking photos of the Cape, so I'll periodically post some of them here!

This is the harbor at Vineyard Haven, on Martha's Vineyard. Taken 9/06 with my Canon PowerShot A75. 13.4mm, F4.5 @ 1/800

Friday, August 10, 2007

Playing around with a new lens

Since the Canon 18-55mm kit lens pretty much sucks (sharpness is a BIG issue with me), I've invested in a new lens. Since I want a basic walkaround lens, I did some research (which I'll talk about later), and ultimately decided to go with a Sigma 17-70mm f2.8. It's the range I want, and the reviews were favorable.

I just haven't had time to experiment with it much. Since I've gotten it, the Cleveland weather has turned HORRIBLE, with a lot of rain, high humidity, and gray days. So I need to take it out and play with it a bit.

Here's a start; I ran out to our backyard and snapped a picture of one of my wife's sunflowers. Canon Digital Rebel XT, Sigma 17-70mm f2.8 lens, shot at 1/160th of a second exposure at f7, ISO 100, 70mm. Photo taken a few days ago (August, 2007)

It's mostly a macro shot, and I'm actually pleased with the sharpness so far. However, what I really love to do are landscape photographs, so until I can get out somewhere with the lens, I don't honestly know how well it's going to do. Which is important, because I want to take it to Cape Cod next month for my annual vacation, where I love taking tons of photographs (it's certainly quite photogenic!).

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

This is a test

This is just a test ... I wanted to test out posting a picture to the blog ... and why not post a picture of Brewster, the Wonder Dog?

We thought he was afraid of the water, but when we took him to Rocky River Park, he walked right into the lake! Big surprise for us, but a delightful one!

Photo taken with my new Canon Digital XL ... with the lame-o kit lens (18-55mm), pretty small f-stop to give me less depth of field.

More to come!