Saturday, May 30, 2015

Alabama Hills | Serendipity

In planning my drive last winter up the east side of the Sierra Nevada I learned of the Alabama Hills. What a curious name for a place in California! A little internet searching and a call to a Fresno based photo friend, Dan Sniffen, lead me to this place. After learning there was an arch there one could frame the mountain peaks in I asked Dan how to find it? Easy, he said, drive in, park, look for the rock that looks like a breast and hike that direction. You can't miss it!

A few days after receiving Dan's mysterious directions I arrived late in the afternoon. The place is miles of boulders piled on top of boulders. I was thinking to myself I'll never find the arch.

The sky was gray and threatening rain. And I had about two hours to scout the place and come up with a plan for the morning. Luckily, I was able to pick up a map at the Visitor Center.

The size of rock formations are huge- the smaller ones are car sized and the larger formations are hundreds of feet high.

I was becoming increasingly skeptical about finding this "rock with a nipple on it". Surprisingly, it didn't take long to find the land mark Dan referred to.

Having found the arch after a bit of hiking, I carefully drove back to the motel wondering if I would be able to find the arch in the dark the next morning. 4am came all too soon. It had rained hard overnight and it was creepy dark when I drove back to begin the hike in. The rain had caused the sage to bloom overnight. It was the most impressive, overpowering fragrance I have ever encountered. Through the dark, up and down the path wound to the arch. I was too late! Several other photographers had beat me to the spot. I had to wait my turn while they got the shot in the best light before sunrise. One guy had more gear than any photographer I had ever seen. More than any one person could ever carry. Turned out his wife schlepped the gear for him. when I remarked that was a lot to lug around, she said it was so much easier now in the digital era compared to when her husband was shooting 8 x 11 large format film! Having planned two mornings here,  I wasn't too worried about getting my shot. So I turned my attention to other scenes as the morning light raked across the land.

The next morning I set my alarm for 3am, determined to get there first. The alpenglow on the peaks was an intense red.

I did get the arch shot I had focused so much effort to get, but something magical, unplanned, unforeseen was about to happen. I packed up and began to head back out. The good light was gone, the show was over. If I hurried I could still make breakfast at the motel and get a good start toward Mono Lake, my next stop. As I'm hiking back to the car, a bank of low clouds blew in obscuring Mount Whitney (the highest peak in the lower 48 states). As I looked back over my shoulder one last time I saw a diamond shaped hole open up in the clouds. Could this be an opportunity for something special?!? I ran back up the trail frantically searching for a foreground while guessing where the peak in the distance might be. The hole in the cloud was moving fast and I knew I would only have one, maybe two clicks at it, if the hole even managed to blow in front of the peak. I don't recall having time to set up my tripod. I flipped the Optical Stabilization switch on, fired off a test shot, checked the histogram, took a couple of calming breathes and a moment later the hole slid into place revealing the famous peak. Click! I have to chalk my favorite image from the Alabama Hills to serendipity.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Pennhurst | "Suffer the Little Children"

About three weeks ago I, on the spur of the moment due to a last minute cancellation, joined a group of photographers lead by Denise Ippolito at Pennhurst State School and Hospital for four hours of shooting. I had seen Denise's photography from there in the past and was intrigued by the prospect of old buildings, some graffiti and the element of the unknown. A few years ago I learned that my daughter in law, Kristine, grew up near there and that Kyle and Kristine live in the area now. I had the makings of a fun weekend trip; take some pictures and catch up with the kids. So with little sleep I hit the road in the wee hours on a Saturday morning wondering what I would find.

Pennhurst, I discovered, does have many old buildings. I'll share a few photos of those. There was graffiti. But I am not showing those images in this post as I don't feel that has much to do with the story. What was unknown to me was that this was an institution for mentally and physically disabled children, the most vulnerable members of society. Pennhurst opened in 1908 as the Eastern Pennsylvania State Institution for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic. I have no reason to think that the state legislature had none but the best intentions when it funded this facility. In 1968 conditions that often did not live up to those intentions were aired in a five part TV news report by the title of this post. The last patient was transferred out and the facility closed in 1987. In the decades since, the buildings have decayed, inside and out, in a morbid reflection of the thousands who called (if they had the mental ability to do so) this place home. This is the element of unknown prior to visiting that I found: The profoundly sombre and thought provoking topic of society's treatment of those less fortunate members. My style of processing these images is an attempt to reflect that mood.

It is not my intent to here to advocate, one way or another, a solution to the mental health challenge society grapples with. I leave that up to the reader. It is clear to me that in view of recent mass atrocities committed against society by individuals who are clearly disturbed that the problems remain despite medical advances.

The group had access to the inside of two buildings. The owner said that presently only 3 buildings had repaired roofs and plans to do a couple of more were in the works. It is a huge complex of buildings originally spanning several hundred acres. Afterwards, we were given a tour of the grounds. The state sold the facility to a developer who's intentions were to raze it and build a high density community in line with the zoning. The local government didn't want the development and blocked it. So here it sits in further limbo.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

White Sands | After the Storm

I'll share a few more images from my February visit to White Sands, NM in this post. My schedule allowed for an afternoon and a couple of hours the next morning before heading back north to catch my flight.

One of the challenges of landscape photography is the oft conflict between what one visualizes before heading out to make images and the reality of what the conditions offer. In a larger sense, this had already come into play because my original plan was to go to the opposite corner of the state. Due to heavy snow storms after I arrived in New Mexico, I had to change plans and go south where the storms were forecast to be clearing. Once I knew I would drive 4 hours south instead of 4 hours north, I began to form some ideas what kind of photos I might seek to make. I knew afterwards I would be heading to the Mesquite Dunes in Death Valley for some Black and White work so I thought I would practice some of that at White Sands. That kind of image requires strong directional light either early or late in the day. The weather did not clear in time for that, so I changes mental gears to work with what nature gave me.

The lead image was captured just after the Park Ranger opened the gate at 7am. Due to the heavy rain the previous day, there was ample moisture in the desert to form thick fog at sunrise. I don't know, but I guess fog is not a common occurrence there. The golden light demanded I pull over on the way in and take a few quick shots hand held. No time to set up the tripod. I made three quick clicks and the show was over.

The preceding two images are stitched pans from the previous evening as the storm was beginning to move off to the east.

After sunrise, there were just a few clouds left on top of the bordering mountain ranges.White Sands spans many miles and people walk over quite a wide area. In order to get past most of the foot prints, you have to be prepared to walk over the dunes a mile or two at least. I just didn't have as much time to wander as far as I would like. Because the gate opens after sunrise and before sunset, there is not enough time to get into a "clean" track free area as one might like. Ideally for photography, camping in the dunes would be ideal. The last image, below, I took on the hike back to the car on the way out. The storm was gone, leaving blue skies behind.

I have had two very brief visits to White Sands now and I would like to someday return with the luxury of more time to explore this unique place. 

Friday, April 10, 2015

White Sands, New Mexico | Shifting Light

Earlier this past winter I had some business out west. Naturally, if I was going to the trouble to travel I might as well add some photography time. My first stop was visiting friends east of Albuquerque, the McCalls, to see recent additions to their pumpkin farm. Afterwards, I had planned to visit the NW corner of the state for some photography. Alas, it was not to be as one of several storms tracked across the Southwest dumped heavy snow in the region and the sites I had planned to visit were closed. Plan B was to head south where the precipitation was rain and the system was moving out to the east. Gray sky and rain accompanied me the entire drive. When I arrived at noon, it was still raining. I decided to don the rain gear and head out to the Sands and see what happened. The weather improved as sunset drew closer.


There were a fleeting moments when the sun broke through the clouds, as in the leading image. The lower image was taken minutes apart from the first one. After walking and standing in the gypsum dunes for hours the shifting light made for an exciting experience.

I have to relate about the one that got away. Just as the light was looking like it might be a phenomenal sunset, I could hear the Park Ranger in the distance announcing it was time to exit (he had quite the loud speaker on his vehicle). After walking out to the car I began the several mile drive towards the gate. Sure enough, in the rear view mirror the sky exploded in a fantastic sunset. I stopped briefly along the road with only enough time to watch as the sun dropped below the mountains. That is what is called a "neurochrome".  Perhaps someday we'll be able to print those. Until then you'll have to take my word for it.


Wednesday, April 8, 2015

East Broad Top R.R. & Coal Co. | Steam Power

Last Saturday Donna and I hit the road before sunrise to join a DC Urban Exploration Meetup in central Pennsylvania. Our destination was the East Broad Top Rail Road & Coal Company. After only a couple of hours of shooting, the group went across the street for lunch at a B&B operated by a couple with long history with the rail road: The husband had worked his entire career with the RR, retiring as the Conductor when the RR ceased operations in 2011.

Between the Conductor and another RR employee I was able to glean some of the history of the East Broad Top or EBT as they called it. In the 1850's a iron blast furnace planned with a RR planned to haul coal for the iron furnaces. The coal was 22 miles from the site. It wasn't until the 1870's that the RR construction was begun. The iron furnace never came to fruition. However, the coal deposit was of very high quality and enterprise shifted focus to being a coal mining operation. Coal mining continued until 1956. The RR was sold to a scraper who did not scrap it.  From the 1960's until 2011 the EBT RR was a tourist attraction. Since then it has sat idle with the owner hoping to find a buyer. I was told $8 million is the asking price for the lot.

The RR was built to be a self sufficient operation, complete with machine shop, black smith shop and forge facilities to maintain the rolling stock. The owner related that there are very few steam RR's left in the US with these associated facilities still standing. The various buildings cover quite an area.

The EBT is from the era of Steam Power, so naturally, the service and repair facilities (partially shown above) were also steam powered. Note the smoke stacks from the large, twin boilers that powered the machine shop. If the tracks appear narrow, that is because they are: Three feet is the gauge of this RR. Standard today is four feet eight inches.

These boilers, nearly two stories tall, provided the steam to power the maintenance operations.

Babcock & Wilcox Co. had more than a few patents, judging by the fancy name plate. Even the name plates and badges from that era were made to last. Today's stickers that manufacturers slap on pale in comparison.

Even the gauges, one for each boiler, were made with artistic flair. I don't know if they measured pressure or temperature but the information they related to the operator must be vital due to the large, dinner plate size of them.

All of the machine shop machinery- lathes, drill presses, planers, etc. - were powered by this single cylinder steam engine. I believe the apparatus with the two balls are part of the speed control of the engine. The drive belt seen here transmits power to drive lines throughout the buildings in the ceiling. Belts connect the various machines from the drive lines, as was typical from this era. One can readily appreciate the convenience of electric motors we use today. The shops have large windows for natural light to work by. I'd think electricity was a added later. I didn't think to ask as electricity is taken for granted today. To step back in time, a time predating my grandparents,  at a place like this is always fascinating.

Much more to share in subsequent posts.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Capturing the Milky Way

Donna and I spent the weekend on the Outer Banks celebrating our 35th anniversary. Somehow my camera made the trip too.

I spent a couple of days, or more accurately nights, with Mark Buckler Photography chasing the Milky Way over local landmarks. Armed with some tips from Mark and a lot of luck with clearing clouds at critical times it has been a productive photography outing. Having read up on the topic before driving down it turned out to be less complicated than I feared.

I did have to rent a couple of fast, wide lenses as my wide lenses are f4. I used a Nikor 20mm f1.8 and a Tokina 16-28mm f2.8. Both worked very well. I wanted to try Tamron's new 15-30 f2.8 but did not as my RAW converter of choice, DxO Optics Pro, does not have the lens correction module for it yet.

One surprising, counter intuitive thing I discovered was I captured less noise at ISO 6400 than the general rule of thumb ISO 3200 with my D800 body. The extra stop of light gathering offset the noise that lives in the shadows of the darker capture, at least with my camera.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Salt Flat Sunrise

While on a tour/workshop last month in Death Valley with John Barclay and Dan Sniffin (the infamous BS Brothers) along with guest instructor Chuck Kimmerle last month we found ourselves along the edge of one of the salt flats one morning. The tour was Black/White centric as Chuck is an accomplished BW photographer and instructor in his own right. I signed up to focus on (pardon the pun) BW photography as that is not my usual style. Mission accomplished as I did make a number of BW images that I am happy with.

On this particular morning I just could not see BW. The sky went from red, to yellow, to clouds with shafts of light on the mountain range and reflections in standing water from a recent rain on the normally arid flats. It was an exciting morning to say the least. Quite convenient actually: Next month's Club Critique subject is Clouds, Sunrise and Reflections.