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.