Posted on March 6, 2014
The wisdom of Jerry Garcia resonates with me as the wrathful fingers of winter turn into the chilly, wet hands of spring. I search for my path. A place to watch and dream from afar; to quietly witness the darkness of winter transform into the dawn of spring.
Standing against an ancient wall, spread across the plains of Bagan is my first Myanmar sunrise. With the break of dawn, my slate is washed clean and ready to be filled up again with dreams that come my way.
There is a saying, “Dreams die at dawn…” which I never cared for, as I believe dreams begin at dawn. Then I saw a quote by Oscar Wilde, “A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world”
Perfect. Dawn, a dialectical point in time where dreams may wither and die yet at the same time be realized; the dreamer is there to witness both the inspiration and sadness. For me, this is the definition of dawn.
As a kid, I never gave much thought about the beauty of early morning. I stayed in bed as long as possible…even though many of my dreams originated in books and folklore that romanticized this part of the day.
Mornings were written beautifully, where cowboys, explorers, Native American heroes and adventurers always touched upon the magic of dawn and daybreak.
Daybreak would be accompanied by the glow of an early morning fire, whether to bring warmth to the beginning of the day or to brew a cup of coffee.
While reading, I would dream of sitting alongside the men and women as they drank their coffee…quietly pondering the day of uncertainty that lay ahead. To this day, I believe this is one reason I savor my morning cup of coffee.
Watching the early morning sky, I think of dreams drifting aimlessly like a balloon, its path relying on the wind. The land below contradictorily familiar, yet exotic.
The pre-dawn moment where dreams either move forward to live another day, or silently drift into death…
I once wrote: She poetically said: “Dawn is the time where the air is freshest and the electricity of our dreams we had during the night are out there for us to see…and it is at dawn when our dreams sparkle in hope that today will be the day when the dreamer claims them…instead of once again being tossed aside.”
Dawn allows us a moment to see and grasp at these dreams before they disappear.
It is funny how vivid the mind can become in the quietness of dawn. We can sense ourselves doing something extraordinary, just as we did when we were kids. It seems when we were younger, dreams were more intense and crazy, and as an adult they become more serene, perhaps even mystical.
I suppose there is no comparison. On one hand we have the younger mind of a rabid idealist versus an older mind of cynic: a cynic who realizes how much unclaimed potential we all leave out there.
It is this strange contradictory nature of dawn and maturity that makes life interesting. In our youth, we revel in the late night/early morning hours. Intrigued by the peace of a post-midnight sky and the eerily quietness of the streets and the wilderness.
Breathtaking to feel so alive with energy in the dead of night, as if this moment was created for the young: the world waiting to be explored. All the action and chaos of the previous day and night comes to a crescendo and slowly unwinds in the peaceful stillness of darkness.
Come adulthood, for me this youthful fervor of post-midnight revelry has been replaced by an aching love for the early morning.
Being in a place like Myanmar, I feel the same wonderful spirit of daybreak that I have whether looking over wheat fields of Pendleton, pink rays breaking over Mt. Rainier in Seattle or the incredible Hong Kong harbor coming to life bathed in gold from the morning sun.
Dawn creates this state of bliss, a start of every beautiful day.
James Douglas wrote: “it is a good idea to be alone at dawn, so that all its shy presence may haunt you, possess you in a reverie of suspended thought.”
There is much truth to this saying, which is why I enjoy this time of peace and solitude alone. However, it can be special sharing such moments with others; to occasionally open up this time to share dreams and thoughts…
The two weeks I spent traveling in Myanmar had endless moments of amazement, and I was so happy to be able to share it all with my sister, Sandi. While we enjoyed our photography, the endless talks and creating adventures is what made the trip so eventful.
What good is the happiness of early morning dawn, the moment to wander among dreams, if you can never share it with others?
Best wishes to Ajaytao 2010, for bringing inspiration to many…
Posted on January 17, 2014
There are those who wake up each morning bathed in a glorious sunrise…steam rising off the hot springs outside their door as they gaze across the sky, admiring a rising sun and the beauty of nature. A beauty whose only rival is the one they have laying across their chest as they rest in bed.
If this is you, then this post will likely not be of interest…
Instead, as the holiday season winds down and the bleak side of winter seeps in, this post is for those who feel the dark, deep cold of the season beginning to weigh on their spirit.
This post is for the person jogging down a mountain in twilight, hoping to make it to the car before the sky really opens up with snow and freezing rain…
While luck is on their side, as they make it to the car right before the sky opens, it is a short-lived moment of elation as they find out that once again “someone” left the dome light on in the car prior to the hike… and the only thing colder than the car battery is their sinking heart looking forward to a cold night before help arrives.
These are the moments that tend to define the depths of winter. Early winter has the excitement of a change of seasons: the feeling of the first crisp chill in the air, the beauty of the first snowfall and perhaps a dark-haired girl in a sweater with eyes twinkling as she takes a sip of her coffee.
But then through the rush of the holiday season, reality begins to set in: the first snowfall is accompanied with closed roads and slush. The crisp chill in the air is soon accompanied by a weekend cold, and the girl with the twinkling eyes…well, she keeps things fresh enough to make the winter blues worthwhile.
To most, the dead of winter is defined by crappy weather and long periods of time stuck indoors. And while we remain trapped inside our hellish cells of purgatory, just outside our doors the Whooper Swans are living it up. Frolicking and almost taunting us as they swim, soar and romance as we lay tucked up inside our homes.
Winter brings a strange mix.
While the winter landscape is incredible, the weather does not make it easy to jump out of bed and run around outside and enjoy the great scenes of sunshine and smiles. Instead, we are faced with the joyless scene of the grey & blues of winter.
However, when inspiration strikes and we brave the wind and cold, we can shed the blues and get a spark of summer in the dead of winter.
This spark of summer in the dead of winter is what we need to search for as February looms ahead. As after the initial thrill of a new winter season wears off, we are tested. The abundance of patience in which we start the season with vanishes quickly during the holiday season, leaving us with a sense of dread.
As we slowly drive each other crazy with our pacing and longing for warm, sunny days…ahead is the worst month of the year.
We can either hide our heads and suffer, succumbing to the cold and curse it in our misery, or simply shake off the chills and celebrate winter. A cup of Irish coffee, compatible friends and a great view from a frosted window looking out into the bleak, frozen glory of wintertime is a good start.
Somewhere there will be an opportunity to get out and enjoy what winter can offer. With Chinese New Year just ahead and signaling a close to the holiday season, I look forward to venturing out and making a watery splash to the great Year of the Horse.
Cheers to all!
NOTE: These photos were taken in Hokkaido, Japan between Lake Mashuko and Rausu. As luck would have it, we had every type of weather making for a great shooting environment. One of the best days was getting out to shoot in blizzard conditions as we were stranded with road closures (below photo is of John Shaw, one of the world’s best wildlife photographers).
Posted on October 7, 2013
Mother Nature is proof that women rule the world. Us men are mere toys: something to humor them when they are bored and someone to torment, yet love. Every time I think I will be clever and try to outsmart the fairer sex…in the end I am humbled.
Understanding this is what made my late-summer plans ridiculous.
I thought I would spend the time romancing the daughters of Mother Nature. The plan was pretty simple: visit my steady girl Ellinor (of Olympic National Park fame), have a wonderful time together, and then later sneak off to Wyoming to visit her sisters Teton and Yellowstone, to see if their rumored natural beauty was true.
A quick trip, a simple glance and then I would head back to Seattle to be closer to my girl.
Now, I like to think that I am a one-woman man and Ellinor is the girl for me. I have the approval of Mother Nature, who after some initial concerns, seems to have approved of this relationship.
Despite this good fortune of having such a great lady, it is also impossible to ignore the wisps of allure from across the “room” that can spark a man’s interest: beautiful eyes and generous peaks inviting a lucky soul to walk on the wild side.
Perhaps I mistook the twinkle of the stars in the night’s sky, for a twinkle in her eye, but before I could think, I was in my car speeding towards Wyoming, with a Johnny Cash CD blaring out the song “Jackson” and the infamous lyrics “I’m going to Jackson, I’m gonna mess around…”
Somewhere I’m sure I was thinking…“you’ve got it all with Ellinor and the Olympic National Park, can’t you be content?” but Johnny pushed those thoughts into the back recesses of my mind.
The description of Jackson, Wyoming has been simply stated as “an oasis nestled between the Tetons and heaven.” While I’ve question the idea of love at first sight, I think I have been proven wrong. Let’s just say, after my arrival in Jackson, my mind was swimming as I began looking at houses in the area, preparing for a life-changing move. Teton was that beautiful.
My flirtation with Teton was something I will never forget. Sigh… I could tell you story after story, but I know you would think it was something I stole out of “Penthouse Letters” so I will forego such details.
Perhaps the photographs of sunlight & reflections can paint a more accurate picture than my words ever could…
Little did I know while hiking trails in Teton, riding on the winds out of the north, came a waft of perfume…no mistaking it came from the home of Yellowstone. The scent of another woman, and it broke the spell that Teton had cast on me.
It was with a heavy heart, yet with a spring in my step, I snuck back to my car as dusk settled on the day and barreled out-of-town, heading into Yellowstone to camp on her doorstep for the night.
Yellowstone. Wow. How could a man walk away from such a beauty without surrendering his soul? As I heard thunder off in the distance…I realized that I had just been struck by a thunderbolt of beauty and passion.
Yellowstone, this could be a long and complicated relationship.
As I dozed off to sleep, for a moment I felt as if I was floating in bliss with wet kisses of Yellowstone falling upon me. With a shock, I woke within my sieve of a tent now acting as a small lake and the beating rain of Mother Nature’s fury ensuring me that my nightmare was just beginning.
Lusting after three beautiful daughters of Mother Nature, not a situation I had expected. Each enchanting me like no other…putting on their best face, and waking me each morning with a kiss of sunshine. They have shown me things I had never before thought possible…and feeling a high I never thought achievable.
It is often said you yearn more for what is unattainable, and this yearning clouds the mind. I guess while I was singing along to “Jackson” on the way down, I missed the chorus of June Carter-Cash, “Yeah, go to Jackson, you big-talkin’ man…And I’ll be waiting in Jackson…”
With Mother Nature adding: “to hunt you down…”
My quick escape to Jackson was made with clothing for temperatures in the 70s, so with unexpected wind and rain, I guess you could say I was caught with my pants down when Mother Nature turned the table on me.
Rain coming on quicker than I could retreat to shelter, and on one hike when I found the ‘magical’ shot I had been waiting for, down came the hail, hard and swift. Stinging me with a vengeance as I missed the shot, and made a long run back to the shelter of my car.
As the trip ended, I was heading home with my head down and tail between my legs. Fooled and humbled, yet again.
My best lines and suave charm were powerless against these beauties (and for those who don’t know me, that is not saying too much). I was nothing more than another disillusioned soul, captivated and toyed with the hope of eternal bliss with nature.
All the same, this dash of misery with cold and wet days was quickly forgotten, as my heart still pounded with blood warmed by my encounters. I couldn’t help but smile.
Sure, I may be walking away with something close to pneumonia, but it was worth it. Mother Nature seemed satisfied with my discomfort, believing I had learned my lesson.
The ride home through Montana, Idaho and Washington was beautiful…and I already had a story concocted for Ellinor and the Olympics, and I think Mother Nature is cool with it.
These beauties of nature, some may call them Sirens, mystical women who defeat and bring men to their knees. Myself, I prefer to think of them as Muses providing inspiration to see what is possible and create bigger dreams to chase: reflecting what is hidden in our hearts, so we can recognize our good nature and bring the dreams to life.
As for Mother Nature, she may feel a bit put off with the title of this post, but how could a woman not feel proud of the beauty of her daughters?
The only thing that concerns me, is that while in Jackson, I heard she has three other daughters: Bryce Canyon, Arches and the Grand Canyon in the neighborhood who are said to have beauty rarely seen. Just my type…
Couldn’t hurt if I took the time one day to stroll down there for a look…could it?!?
Posted on September 30, 2013
There have been countless moments in life where it feels as if I have just been through a 7.9 second thrashing of a Brahma bull ride: long enough to feel the thrill & pain of every jolt, yet failing at the end with a ‘no-score.’ That last 0.1 seconds an eternity away.
While I have never been on a bull (and never, ever plan too…), the idea of surviving those 8-seconds necessary to score an official ride works well as an analogy in business and life.
“8.0 seconds of fury” is not a way many would like to spend life, but eventually, we will face such a ride. As noted in an earlier post “Let’er Buck” there are courageous souls who tackle this role with wild abandon on the rodeo circuit, and how they handle those 8-seconds can teach us mortal folks about dealing with life.
It takes an artistic skill not only to survive for those 8-seconds, but to create a thing of beauty from such a violent ride. To score the highest possible with the cards we are dealt.
To score the highest, the cowboy must make the ride look effortless. So amid the fury of the ride, arrives the concept of becoming one with the animal…to be one with nature, to allow a certain peace and quiet confidence to envelope the scene.
Synchronicity, where everything around you works together. A moment where it feels like you can achieve anything. Your actions appear and feel effortless as if you are doing nothing, yet your focus and results prove otherwise.
It is taking the bull by the horns, becoming so focused and primed that you flow with the jolts and gyrations that may come your way.
Whether riding a Brahma bull, bronc, or pouring over spreadsheets and business deals: when you are in a zone, life becomes effortless. Answers arrive before questions are asked, work is completed as if it were play. These are the moments to live for, when nothing seems to go wrong.
Years ago, while at the Pendleton Round-Up, I was talking with a group of bareback bronc riders who were describing how they felt during competition. Each one agreed that ‘there are days you feel as if you are one with the animal, and it is a beautiful effortless ride…” and behind that success are years of hard work, experience, and humility.
The one thought I took away from that great conversation in the arena, was advice I still try to follow today: “The minute you start becoming cocky and disrespecting either the animals or those around you, it is lost…the focus is gone, and you are flying through air with a hard, hard ground below…”
Humility is to understand that you can always learn something, often from people and places you least expect. From what I have experienced and seen from cowboys over the years is that there is a consistent trait of confidence and a brazen sense of fearlessness with they way they live…yet even with this confidence, they are respectful and humble.
Respectful of those that came before them, and towards those who work the land making the USA and West they way it is today: a slice of heaven on Earth.
Life throws a lot our way, and as the immortal cowboys teach us every rodeo season with their actions, tough days are inevitable and there will be strings of rides that result in eating dirt & grass.
Such times make us who we are, as we find the focus and passion that allows us to dust ourselves off and prepare for that next ride. For it may be the next ride, that perfect ride, to put us back on top again.
When the time comes where we have to face the ‘agony & ecstasy’ of that 8-second ride in life, keep focus on what is ahead and when problems arise: take the bull by the horns…
Posted on August 19, 2013
Never do I feel more alive, than when I am with you. You take me from the mundane and offer me a simple taste of glory. Our affair spans more than a decade, but each time with you feels like we have just met.
Knowing that I am one of many does not change my feeling, for what we have is special.
Every time I come back to the Olympic National Forest, my mind goes back to the first time we met: I stood breathless, in awe of your beauty. When I tackled your slopes, you offered me views that I could never imagine.
While you belong to Mother Earth, I will always consider you mine.
It is with my hat in hand, that I come again to share time with you…to find peace in the solace of nature.
It is with this same hat I give a tip to the men and women who make you accessible. Building up the trails, making what would be an extremely difficult climb into something less strenuous, giving me more time to rest in your brilliance.
The workers of the US National Forest Service (and Mt. Rose Volunteer Trail Crew), give their working life to you, so you can give yourself to me.
You give yourself to all, but forever you will remain free.
A dash of folklore has it that Chief Seattle wrote a letter to the President of the USA, in reply to the government’s offer to purchase the remaining Salish lands. Within the letter are some of the wisest words ever written:
“The President in Washington sends word that
He wishes to buy our land.
But how can you buy or sell the sky? The land?
The idea is strange to us.
If we do not own the freshness of the air and the
Sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?…”
Respect the wilderness and Mother Nature will in turn respect us.
Ellinor, looking back on our time together, whether under the heat of the sun or huddled in the icy & snowy depths of winter, every time we part I leave a better man.
When the chaos of this international zoo begins to spin out of control, no matter how long we’ve been apart, inevitably I come crawling back and you always take me in.
I am grateful for your unconditional support of this restless wanderer. Your gift of courage to take that extra step into the unknown. To achieve greater heights.
Above: Mt. Rainier in the distance. Below: Descending in the Dark
My knees ache more today than they did when we first met decades ago, and there will inevitably come a day when all I can do is stare up at your grand magnificence.
Jealousy may arouse in my heart while I watch younger generations march proudly up your slopes, but it will be in the guise of pride. While impossible, I will always consider you mine.
I will shed a tear when this day comes, not in sadness or envy of those you welcome to your peaks, but a tear of grace for the time we spent together. I love you and your brothers and sisters who surround you.
I simply love the life we have shared together.
You share. You support. You inspire. But you do not love.
Unrequited love. Such love holds no significance to me, for if I love you, I am happy. With this I am secure.
It is true that you are difficult, cold, and as moody as the unpredictable weather, but when you shine you are the essence of life. Mt. Ellinor, there are so many incredible places in the world but only in your house do I feel I am home.
On the topic of ‘unrequited love’ the philosopher Nietzsche had this to say: “indispensable…to the lover is his unrequited love, which he would at no price relinquish for a state of indifference.”
Posted on July 3, 2013
Standing beside a small garden, a simple scene transforms into a moment that will never be forgotten. A heart-warming conversation between a mother and her child as they laugh and happily correct the very rudimentary Korean they heard (a simple ‘hello’). Their smiles and eyes communicate more than words ever could as they look towards this ‘big nose’ foreigner, giggling again as they helpfully pronounce 안녕하십니가 “annyeong-hashipnikka.” As their smiles broaden, slowly the camera moves upwards hoping to capture a bit of this magic, then “pow” just like that the scene changes. All is “Lost in Translation.”
The giggles stop. The child runs and the mother turns away in shock from the camera. And I am left standing wishing I could speak a bit more Korean than a poor “hello.” Putting the camera down, the conversation slowly picks up again and this time I leave the camera alone and they once again become engaged in correcting my Korean.
When traveling in foreign countries, there always seems to be a limiting factor when shooting and I have always referred to this as “shooting on a leash.” Generally, the term leash is metaphorical, primarily due to the lack of language skills that can limit the quality of photography, however it also can be literal in meaning where there are physical barriers that prohibit the chasing of a photo opportunity as well.
Shooting in the DPRK, I am experiencing a frustratingly large mixture of both.
This is not abject criticism, as every time I travel and shoot there are barriers. It is what makes capturing a good photo rewarding, and usually a good photographer can break through some of the basic communication issues with the locals and, if only for a few minutes (or if lucky, a few hours), become a small part of their day.
Language constraints are usually a common barrier when traveling, so I cannot make any real complaint of not being able to reach out to the locals…except that here, it is not easy. There is an undercurrent of tension, with both the locals and foreigners not quite sure what is allowable and what is not. One thing that does seem clear, foreigners and locals should not mix, and it is best to remain at arm’s length.
Of course, I had to be reminded of this a few times after straying a bit too close to the opposite “side” below…
The reason for the ‘physical leash’ appears to be pretty straightforward: distrust. The DPRK government is well aware of idiots who have used benign footage to twist and create sensationalist reports (e.g., John Sweeney and the Panorama team at the BBC…which I hope to address later), and therefore there is a greater tendency to restrict photographers.
Unfortunately, “they” restrict without really knowing the implication of such restrictions…more criticism from the west. It would seem that if the DPRK government would allow greater access and freedom with the local population, both sides would benefit. Granted, it would be a scary first step for the Kim regime, but I would guess that it would win favors domestically and internationally.
Unfortunately, no such changes are on the immediate horizon and the last thing our guide needs, already with a difficult job, is pressure from above that they allowed unfettered access when it is not allowed. I understand and do accept these terms…as there is still much to be seen, and focusing on the positive results in happiness (and better photos).
Given what I have just written, what is most frustrating, though, are the moments where it does not take much imagination to see a local ‘Pyongyang-ian’ accepting an invite to sit down over a coffee, tea or smoke and discuss life; to understand what lies within their realm, as well as to understand what lies beyond.
That is what I want. That is what I miss.
These political walls of distrust between “us” and “them” are getting smaller, and the access to understanding life in the DPRK is not as difficult as I had imagined. It is inspirational when such moments do arrive, even if it is just for a flicker of an instance.
Most photographers enjoy capturing emotions, to explore the lighting and natural setting that together helps to answer the question “why?” Finding great people by following the flow of the day is wonderful. While somewhat of a futile battle to expect this much in the DPRK, I am not giving up hope as there were true flashes of brilliance in the eyes of many today.
Almost any internet search of photos taken in the DPRK will result in many monuments, statues and propaganda, all of which are fine and interesting, yet it starkly reveals a shortage in shots of the Korean people. I believe an unintended result of this is that it de-humanizes the DPRK population.
Why? Perhaps because the western media refuses to focus on the human aspect of the DPRK, but mainly because the DPRK makes this easy as they keep their population hidden from the world. The largest shock I have experienced in my few days in the DPRK is the wonderful, albeit somewhat stoic, Korean people.
Above: The Arch of Triumph and Below: Film Studio
Crap, I am starting to get political again…and I do not want to. Back to photography.
One of the great joys of ‘street photography’ is the intimate surrounding what a photographer can create. The additional back-story within shooting a scene helps create more interesting and unique photos. While the lack of language skills (and the political scene) makes this effort more difficult, there are still many bright moments.
When the leash is off, and a moment arrives where we can get close to locals…it is impossible not to get a little excited.
The first moment that we had some unfettered time with locals, was at one of the arts and crafts studios. As one of my friends joked, “I think they were as surprised as I was, when we both learned from each other that we did not have claws or maniacal stares as we were led to believe!” Both sides were getting a better taste of each other, and it was pleasant.
My first couple days, all I could think about were the locals and their very stoic faces. I wondered if they had been indoctrinated not to talk to foreigners (as we are the source of their troubles via sanctions and restricted trade).
It was at this art studio where the softer side began to come through. Artists tend to have more of an affinity for human connection, so perhaps that played into the scene and the connections started to click.
As our group worked their way through the studio, I pretty much trailed as doing so made it a bit easier to capture the personality of the artist and work. After the initial unease faded away of a group of foreigners stomping in, I hoped the artist would be more relaxed and open for a connection.
An example is with this painter. As I was carefully shooting, and mentioning a few things to the guide, he surprised both myself and the guide by shyly looking up occasionally and smiling, and finally said something that was translated as: “I hope you like my work, although this is just a simple work, if coming from the soul it can be beautiful.”
This made me feel great, although my poor American wit almost had me reply, “Did you mean coming from Seoul?” but thought better of it and instead I asked him about the colors and if such a beautiful landscape exists in the DPRK. Captain Hindsight agrees that this was the right tack to take.
The painter, and his comment and reactions, reminded me of an artist I knew in China. A great gentleman, and as such, it made this moment much more real. Very sincere.
There were three workshops visited: painting, pottery and embroidery. Each was very impressive, although it was impossible not wonder where the market was for these beautiful items. The answer I received when I asked the question was logical and concise: “they are sold or given as gifts.” It was a natural instinct to try to dig deeper into this reply, but realized the answer was perfect as it was.
The embroidery was amazing…and earlier, when visiting the National Gift Exhibition (gifts given to the Dear Leaders from provinces around the DPRK), on display were some of the most remarkable pieces of embroidery I have ever seen.
The outside of the National Gift Exhibition was very dreary, but it hid some great wonders of work created by Koreans around the country.
On the above photo, one thing that I never really got use to was the pins that everyone wore on the right hand side of their shirts, depicting their ‘Dear Leaders.’ One discussion one night with my traveling companions, we wondered if they truly felt such a genuine emotions for their Great Leaders (a cultish feeling) that wearing the pins were extremely important, or if they were just part of a habit of everyday life and not too much thought went into pinning them on.
I will try to find out as this trip moves forward.
One of the more interesting part of the art studio, was the ceramics and pottery section. My great grandfather on my mother’s side was a potter (ended up working for Gladding, McBean in California on Franciscan ware), and while I wish I had a creative pottery gene in me, I have tried & tried again, but I’m all thumbs.
As the workers practiced their craft, it seemed as it they were in a zone. Very deep in thought, which is why their work was impressive. Yet, it made asking any questions risky, as the last thing you’d want to do is break into their work rhythm.
Later, our guide was disappointed that I hadn’t ask more about pottery, as she too really enjoyed pottery but laughed and said all she could make was a warped plate. I told her all I could make an ashtray…take a ball of clay, slam my fist into it and, voilà, an ashtray.
The other area that shined was the visit to the Pyongyang subway. Granted, it was clear that all foreigners taken to the subway would be herded to the best stations and would ride the best cars (part of the leash again), but still an experience.
On the subway platforms, there was one item that impressed the most and it was the ‘reading stations’ that were set up: a simple newsstand that held eight pages of news that could be read by the local population.
It was an iconic sight, as almost every Communist fueled government that existed at some point had such reading stations, so seeing it here was somehow reassuring. In the 1990s, during my first travel to China, such stations were common everywhere on the streets, and even today they play an important part of everyday use.
Very simple yet majestic.
One reason many Chinese come to the DPRK is to experience a culture that has very similar ties to China’s history under Mao. Throughout the visit to the DPRK, many Chinese were amazed at how similar the society of the DPRK of today resembled “China from 30 years ago…”.
Such thought can give people hope, because tied to these descriptions of the current DPRK society is the idea that the DPRK will evolve sooner rather than later. It is a good bet that China will give Kim Jong Un some very good advice how to transition his totalitarian government into something more transparent with ‘capitalistic’ tendencies.
As for these specific photographs of the reading posts, one man stood out among the rest, as he appeared well read and also appeared, pun intended, as well “Red”, the perfect communist intellectual. As to why he emitted such a feeling, I do not know. Later in discussions with others about Red, they did not see anything special with this person. That is part of mystery and power of photography. It can tell a story from the shooters point-of-view which may makes zero sense from the viewers point-of-view (and vice-versa).
Similar to the way “we” view a certain aspect of the world versus the way “they” view a certain aspect of the world. The ‘correct view’ may be very relative.
As for this man, now named Red, under any other circumstance a street photographer/journalist would be tempted to say hello and ask “what’s in the news today?” and have the conversation carry on from there.
Instead, due to a lack of language and a difficult environment, I took a different route and stepped back and began snapping photographs. It would have been possible to engage the man, and it could have been a wonderful conversation – or a disappointing rebuff. I will never know, as I took the most convenient way out.
Sometimes it is good to push the envelope a bit, and sometimes it is not. Similar, I suppose, to how politics works, when an uncomfortable situation arises…what is the easiest way out? Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
One aspect of photography, and any profession I would guess, is that those who keep their emotions in check and move deftly within new environments tend to get the best results.
Regrettably, this was not me on this trip, as I was wondering around with my eyes gleaming and jaw dropped, trying to take in all that was around. There was electricity in the air every day, and it was difficult for me not to just bounce around freely and enjoy the surroundings. This led me to wonder how the population in Pyongyang thought of us foreigners walking around with intrigue permeating from our every breath as we took in the sights of the DPRK culture?
Perhaps sharing similar thoughts as…
No matter where in the world, I am finding out that the hearts of genuine people are everywhere, and long to be touched.
As for Pyongyang, there is a feeling of strangeness just about everywhere (it is the Hermit Kingdom after all), but it also has many great similarities of cities in Asia. It is a city with a beat and culture all its own (the strangeness), but also a city with infrastructure, rush hour, cars and buses that give it the same feel as other cities. It is these very aspects of similarities that also accentuate the largest difference that sets Pyongyang apart: there are fewer people involved.
This attracts me. There are no large crowds, no great hustle and bustle…just life. Just a population waiting for a great spring day when they can all come out in full bloom. And hopefully I will be there, sitting at a coffee shop with a local “Pyongyangian” discussing life and what lies within and outside our realms of understanding.
Posted on June 5, 2013
In my previous post on the ‘Blue Hour’, I insinuated shooting the blue hour provided more of a challenge to achieve a great exposure than one could get in the golden hour. Quite a few people disagreed with me, with the complaint that shooting into the sun (and handling the glare of the sun) was much more difficult to manage.
Granted, these two aspects of shooting a sunset can be difficult, but my point was that if you are shooting the sun, it is your only subject. There are no other distractions to worry about, and if you are not incorporating the sun into your shot, you have the greatest light in the world to work with. Conversely, with a lack of light and quickly changing shadows on your subject during the blue hour, the photographer needs to juggle more variables and therefore an inherently more difficult task.
However, I do agree with the difficulty of shooting into the sun, as I love the flare of her rays; a testament to the original beauty and variability of every singe sunrise/sunset. Some examples:
The great thing I love about the disappointment of seeing lens flares is that while I know most stock agencies and companies would refuse such a photo…I still find the photos themselves pretty awesome to view. Not to say flares are bad, because if you can get it right in a photo – nirvana. And while I may be disappointed in the result of the flare, I do learn from my mistakes and slowly these errors become fewer (or, I am just blocking them out…).
But for me, the Golden Hour is a time of pure adrenaline because weather permitting, it produces a precious light handed down from the Gods, and that makes it hard not to take a good shot. Therefore, I do stand beside my belief that the Golden Hour sunrise and sunset is the easier environment of the two “magic hours” to photograph. As for a choice between sunrise and sunset, as there is nothing more difficult for me that the pre-dawn battle of crawling out of bed: sunset wins.
One thing I have not yet mentioned in either my Blue Hour post or this Golden Hour post is inspiration. The bewitching hours of photography are perhaps the most inspirational time any artist will always have at their disposal.
Whether you are a writer, musician, poet, painter, photographer or simply enjoy the skills of other artists (which is where I fit in), the golden hour is the time of the day that excites the soul. The lighting is special: slightly cool in the morning but with a glow that you can carry into the day…and in the evening, you can wrap yourself up in the warm light and its creativity. Inspiration.
Speaking of inspiration, to all the bloggers out there that share your great ideas. You all spark the creative fire in others. From a post back in February from Yinyin in Vietnam (http://yinyin2412.wordpress.com/), I caught sight of a nice photo on her site of the sun breaking the horizon…with a great caption of “the scent of sunshine” which I loved.
“Scent of the Sun” is a perfect description, especially for a sunrise. I think every artist has a feel for the sun, besides just making the body feel good (and giving us vitamin D), the sun can open a corridor between our soul and the outside world.
So, to loop back to the beginning of this post: Blue Hour is the most difficult to photograph and is part of the reason why I like it so much: if you get it right – it can be amazing. However, when I was looking at what photos to add to this blog…I could not believe the number of Golden Hour shots I had to choose from in my collection. Viewing photos on the internet or in magazines and you will find that sunset shots not only dominate – but almost all of them are terrific shots.
My feeling is therefore, the Golden Hour is like the golden child…everyone loves her, for she is beautiful, intelligent and can do no wrong. The Blue Hour is the less appealing little brother who pales in comparison to the more famous golden child. Personally, for me growing up the only brother in a sea of three sisters, I think I can rationalize my admiration for the Blue Hour as I relate to its “unfair situation.” 🙂
Photography, and to a certain extent my writing, has been my artistic release, but perhaps my calling is more towards admiring the work of others.
A couple of weeks ago over lunch, a friend was planning to go to Lamma Island to shoot the sunset, and asked for advice. While I told him I am not the right one to be asking, there are three general pieces of advice I can give (or rather pass on from what I have learned):
And then the best advice I gave him was to go and checkout the work of others on the Internet. Check out what the professionals do, and then try to dissect how they achieved their shot.
For me, the big three: John Shaw, Darrell Gulin and Adam Jones. And then, from my time in San Miguel de Allende (https://dalocollis.com/2013/05/25/a-holy-time-in-san-miguel-de-allende/), Raul Touzon is one of the more creative users of light in photography that I have seen.
One thing that I have picked up from Shaw and Jones, is that the details in landscape and the nuances with how light works in those compact areas require a zoom or longer lens. In the past, rarely did I ever pull out my zoom lens (200mm), instead I shot with my wide-angle or mid-zoom lens. It was through looking at their work where I really learned the value in pulling out my longer lens for landscape and sunset shots.
I figure we will all continue to evolve, as photographers. New equipment and ideas will ensure this happens, but also every time we go out we see & learn something new.
The idea to capture as much of the beauty I saw in front of me, often led me to pull out my wide-angle, to bring it all in…but instead at times I would miss out on the wonderful nuances of her beauty that are even more stunning. Be flexible and creative in these hours, and go for the original shot.
FYI: For the next 3+ weeks, I will be in Northern China and the DPRK and will not have access to the Internet. So see you at the end of June.
Posted on June 3, 2013
Through ‘bending of light’, an artist is able to create unique, emotional and stunning photographs. Unfortunately, light also is the most destructive force as well, as I have an endless supply of photographs with blown-out highlights or underexposed noise (aways sad news after a shoot, but good to learn from those mistakes). I have learned that while the scene may look beautiful, if the lighting is flat and harsh, it is more difficult (if not impossible) for the camera to capture all the beauty we see.
Light is the piece of magic that fuels photography, and there is no better time to ‘bend the light’ to your imagination than the bewitching hours of photography:
During these hours, the creativity of the artist is allowed to flourish as the lighting provides a window of opportunities…the artist is allowed to dream, and if everything flows together the results can be spectacular.
The blue hour is the topic today, mainly because I found out that historically the ‘blue hour’ meant the time between 3:00pm and 6:00pm where the pubs in England, Wales and Scotland by law had to close their doors. Very sad for photographers, as in the summer those are the hours when light is often at its worst (harsh and flat), and to enjoy some spirits during that time would help the creative process prior to the magical shooting hours…
Why I am attracted to ‘dawn and dusk’ is simple: great blue hour lighting is rarer than great golden hour lighting. The photographer needs to pay more attention to both exposure and the subject at this time, more than at any other time during the day. A great sunset alone is worth a photo without regard for any specific subject other than the light. However, once you get into the blue hour, having a nice subject to help accentuate the wonderful light is needed.
The above shot at MaWan is perhaps 15 minutes after the official ‘Blue Hour’ but the glow of dusk to the right made this an interesting shot, so sometimes it is worth while shooting deeper into twilight.
Another reason I enjoy the blue hour so much, is from an explanation I received about the electricity of dawn from a photographer in Hokkaido, Japan. She poetically said: “Dawn is the time where the air is freshest and the electricity of all our dreams we had during the night are there for us to see, like frost resting on the trees along the Setsari River (Tsurui, Hokkaido). And it is at dawn when our dreams sparkle in hope that today will be the day when the dreamer claims them…instead of once again being tossed aside. This makes the moment before dawn so special.”
As a photographer, we have the opportunity to shoot and record such scenes…to keep the dreams alive. I also really liked her description, kind of a reminder that each day is a time to start anew, to look beyond at what the day can and will be. The above shot was taken in the fleeting moments of dawn with the sun ready to breakout in the bitterly cold, grey morning on the Setsari River with red-crowned cranes.
The blue “hour” is a bit of a myth, as the length of time varies greatly, but on average there is about 30+ minutes of great shooting. The website: http://www.bluehoursite.com is an excellent tool to use for planning your shoot. Once you have your time worked out, then choose an area that has interesting subjects: landscapes and cityscapes work well and also think creatively with some soft light for portraits shots; a bit more difficult due to slower shutter speeds but results can be interesting.
The fisherman shot above was f/4, and hand-held. Jacked up the ISO a bit and shot wide-open, but overall the results turned out OK.
Probably a good idea to also think ahead about “How to Shoot Blue Hour”, a worthwhile topic and I have been fortunate to shoot with other photographers who like to pass their wisdom on to others. The piece of advice I have always received: checkout the landscape, the time of year and weather because each day the available light will be different and so your exposures and shooting plans may change.
With limited lighting, it is important to determine how the slower shutter speed is going to affect the shot. Camera shake is the first issue, so a tripod is needed. If there is any motion in the scene, then take into account that there will be blurring and then try to make that an interesting part of the shot.
For the Blue Hour, generally I shoot at f/11 or higher as I want that great depth of field and detail, and by stopping down I am better able to achieve that ‘starburst’ quality with distant lights that can create just a little more intrigue within the shot. However, it can also be fun to shoot wide open, especially with great foreground activity, and being wide-open gives greater stability and allows you better opportunities to hand-hold your shots.
Getting the exposure correct during Blue Hour is a bit more complicated as well, so fire some quick shots and check your histogram. For Blue Hour, I use both spot and center-weight metering, depending on the shot, and will meter off the darkest point of my composition that I want to bring out. Checking the histogram (even if you bracket, which I often do), should result in technically better photos.
If I am shooting any landscape, I bracketed my shots (3-7 depending on lighting conditions), so I have the option of layering my photos in Adobe or run my files through the HDR program Photomatix, which captures the details of the shadows without blowing out those bright points of lights that make the scene so attractive.
For choice of lens, it is a personal preference but a fast wide-angle lens is one I use predominately, both to capture the “total essence and ambiance” of the scene…and when the camera is off my tripod, a quicker lens allows me to shoot crisper shots during the light-deprived Blue Hour, such as the above shot of a ferry, on a ferry heading to Hood Canal.
Blue Hour shooting is fantastic, as it also serves as a good warm up to shooting a sunrise and a warm down from shooting a sunset. Either way, you are going to learn a lot more about both photography and the area around you. Creative lighting situation always can be little challenging (I have walked away from many shoots with nothing to show), but there is always something new and interesting to gain.
Posted on May 29, 2013
The sweat of migrant workers is essential to bring the famous West Lake Dragon-Well Tea (西湖龙井茶) to tea mugs around the world. It is in the village of Meijiawu, the heart of Longjing tea production, where the workers proudly offer us these roasted green tea leaves, and do so with smiles on their faces and laughter in their hearts.
Today, as I sit back and watch the dancing tea leaves swirl in rhythm with the spring water in my mug, my mind drifts back to the hills surrounding a village outside of Hangzhou city, the origin of the green tea I am enjoying. This tea is commonly known as Longjing tea, the most famous green tea in China and therefore, I believe, the most famous in the world: a true delicacy among tea connoisseurs.
The West Lake Longjing green tea I am now enjoying is special: one of the first lots of Longjing tea picked in the West Lake area this year, and with only 168 square kilometers making up the West Lake Longjing tea area there is a limited supply. Through a farmer (Mr. Yang) in the village of Meijiawu (梅家坞), I was able to explore and experience this region for a few days and accompany a group of migrant workers into the hills. Every morning, after a breakfast of steamed buns and pickled vegetables, we would make our way into the hills and pick the highest quality tea leaves available (or in my case, just photographing the picking…a much easier task!).
For me, this trip was completion of a decade long dream and one I almost failed to make as both exhaustion of travel and travel delays left me stranded elsewhere. The small harvest window for these special tea leaves (perhaps a week or so depending on the weather), made getting to Meijiawu a priority and I ended up putting together a 48-hour trek to arrive in time.
Arrival at my room at Mr. Yang’s guesthouse was pleasant enough, a place to lay down and hot water is all I need, but one surprise my first night was that Mrs. Yang was also hosting a small group of Shanghainese women for the night… and there was only a paper-thin wall separating me from a very energetic mahjong game that went strong until 3am. The ladies were very polite and hoped that I would play, but I have had many expensive mahjong lessons in China, so while it is a beautiful game, it is best to stay away from the pros!
The long night did make the 5 a.m. start a bit difficult, but the hilarious and upbeat group of peasant ladies that took me in during my time there made the mornings wonderful. One of the women, Ms. Li, provided many of the details: they were all from the same town in Anhui and have an annual contract with Mr. Yang. Every year they return to work his fields for they admire his tea (they describe it as more beautiful than the rest) and since his tea is known to be one of the best, it gives them face as well as better pay. Laughter did erupt after this explanation, as the other ladies joked “she put pay last, but actually it is our first reason!”
I have found that the migrant tea leaf pickers come to Meijiawu and the surrounding area for about one month for the tea harvest season, generally Mid-March thru Mid-April. And as in the States, when harvest season arrives all available sunlight means time in the fields. The premium tea is picked the first week, followed by later picks (and lesser quality tea leaves).
The first evening I arrived, I took a long walk up through the hills to check out the area so I could have an idea of what to shoot, with some apprehension on how open the workers would be with me photographing them. As some of the workers were preparing to return home I politely asked them if I could take a few photos of them, expecting a shake of the head or wave of the hand…but was met with laughter and teasing among the women about their future stardom. Every group I talked with enjoyed discussing their work, explaining their ideas about tea and their history in harvesting the famous Longjing. Seamlessly, photography would work into our discussions and, without a pause, the words would continue to flow as the shutter started clicking. Extreme pride in their work and their role in the industry.
The group of ladies from Anhui on my first morning were no different. After our morning introduction at breakfast there was endless joking and laughter with not too many hints of shyness or discomfort that many migrant workers have. It surprised me. Perhaps this is linked to the knowledge that:
1. They are here for only a month, and while the work is hard, they are all here with a family member or friend from their home town.
2. They know their contribution to this fascinating niche of the 龙井茶 tea industry is invaluable… A billion RMB industry annually, and without experienced migrant workers – the local plantation owners could not efficiently harvest more than a fraction of what they do now.
The spirit of these women is absolutely inspiring. The commitment to their work and the harvest reminds me of the farmers in Eastern Oregon, breaking their backs to make a living and provide for the rest of the country (and world). Being reflective and considering my work and salary (quite a bit higher than these great ladies), and I am not just humbled, but a little embarrassed… especially when after a couple hours of shooting the first small plot of land, I excused myself to go back to the guesthouse to get a few more zzzzzz’s.
Above photo: preparing the leaves prior to roasting (Longjing tea does not “ferment” as other types of teas such as Oolong, Black Tea and Pu’er).
Above photo: roasting of the tea leaves is done after picking, and while there are electronic roasters most of the high quality tea leaves are done by hand.
Above photo: sorting after roasting is an important step, making sure that only the top quality leaves are kept especially since the tea culture in China is so advanced that buyers (large tea companies or individuals) will look at the leaves presented in front of them and immediately be able to tell the quality. This makes presentation of the tea outside individual stores important as well (below photo).
There is always something special about drinking or eating a product fresh from the source, at the source. A Guinness at St. James Gate outside of Dublin, fresh oysters or salmon while sitting along side the shore on Hood Canal in the Puget Sound, or sitting in the fresh air with a glass of fresh 龙井茶 (LongJing tea) brewed with local spring water…nothing, it seems, could ever taste better.
One of the first lessons anyone will ever learn about drinking tea: water quality can be just as important as the tea itself. This is why, as it was explained to me, that almost 400 years ago, Longjing tea was declared an Imperial Tea for its exquisite flavor and appearance, and because it was brewed with the sweet Meijiawu spring water, it became historic. It is great to see how much pride there is with the locals and their tea.
Over my first cup of this year’s harvest, Mr. Yang made clear that from the tea pickers to the roasting and sorting (which him and his wife control), there is a pride knowing they are contributing to a very ancient and important craft that remains vibrant both culturally and economically in China. Along with this cultural significance, he added, the long friendships and camaraderie that is created and shared every season makes this a wonderful life. Pretty cool.
The final day ended on a fun note. As we were returning to the house, we ran into a good friend of the ladies who for the past three days was too shy to have her photo taken…but finally through the determination of the team we got the shot. I told them I would e-mail them a copy of the photo, and Ms. Li said “no, we have decided that you must also come next year and you give us all a copy of your photos…and this time, you will actually pick your own tea leaves” which ended up in laughter as we learned earlier in the day that my tea leaf picking skills are atrocious.
The immediate impact this trip has had on me is pretty obvious, and that is I have a huge affair going on with my Longjing tea right now. Granted, nothing will replace that first cup of coffee in the morning (the influence of Seattle and the Pacific Northwest), but recently putting a couple healthy pinches of those roasted tea leaves into my mug after lunch has been invigorating. Endlessly refilling my tea mug throughout the afternoon, as Longjing tea holds its flavor for a very long time, I not only get to enjoy the dancing tea leaves but I also get to reminisce about the wonderful journey of my tea from the hills of Meijiawu to my glass.
Posted on May 25, 2013
There are angels who walk on Earth, and they can be found in the sleepy town of San Miguel de Allende of the central Mexican state of Guanajuato…which I suppose is not so sleepy any more, as it has become an art & culture center for much of Central Mexico. The people of San Miguel de Allende have become well-known for their great artistic skill as well as their incredible hospitality. From my experience of Holy Week, the city and festival is a perfect testament to the brilliance of the people, creating not just a fascinating city, but a home. Perhaps not a physical home for those just visiting, but definitely a home for the heart.
In early spring, to celebrate and honor the Holy Week of Easter, the town comes alive with pageants and processions that express the passion of the local people and their religion. There is not a better time to understand the local culture and gain new experiences and memories of new friends sharing a day. Throughout the week, I had often been told “this is a city where at dawn the city is full of strangers yet at sunset full of friends.”
While the city and area has much to offer, being there during the Holy Week festivities created an atmosphere perfect for photography and contemplation. Of the many different processions of Holy Week, the San Juan Dios Procession was my favorite as I was there with a group of photographers and it was a great opportunity to lose myself in shooting…to focus on the scene, people and the lighting so I could extract the emotions of the day. It was made easier by the continual warm reception we received by the local population and the participants of the day’s procession.
When it comes to shooting a moment like the SJD Procession, there is always a fear that the presence of a camera could create some tension and take away from the day, the reason being is pretty simple: photographers, at times, can generally be viewed as a disruptive bunch when they do not take into account their surroundings and only shoot for themselves. Fortunately, such fears vanished quickly as I was stunned at the opportunities to shoot people in a relaxed, natural state…there are not too many places in the world where that is possible. It seemed all photographers were keenly aware that this event was for the community, and took a back seat to the events.
One of the main reasons of the relaxed nature of SJD Procession was the number of children with their parents and friends, all smiling and accepting the day for what is was: a celebration. Even as I started the day with the intention of focusing fully on my photography, I could not help but become removed from my role as a photographer and instead dive into my role as a participant. The reception, as is often the case with warm cultures, astounded me as all of my subjects had a smile to share and a helpfulness that creates a mood where we are all one big family.
As I sat down to watch the procession with my camera in hand, protecting my prime shooting position I had claimed, a group of young children from across the street with whom I had joked around with earlier in the morning, motioned me over to come sit with them. I do admit that my immediate concern of photography and leaving this prime location almost caused me to shake them off, but it was only for an instant and I quickly jumped over to the other side of the street instead and sat on the curb with my new friends.
A big thanks to Araceli Moreno Bustamente and Josefina A. Hernandez, whose children and friends sat me down and immersed me into the festivities, culture and their celebration…even if just for a brief period of time. It was such a great time laughing with them, trying to translate words/expressions with my poor Spanish (which was the endless cause of laughter with the kids), and the beauty was simply watching this large family interact so effortlessly and take in all the day offered.
The SJD Procession was definitely the highlight of the trip, perhaps not so much for the photography as it was for just ‘being there’. Culturally, I felt very much a part of the procession, which I did not think was possible. If there was another moment where similar feelings were created, it had to be the evening of Good Friday when the ceremony of Via Dolorosa and the Procession of the Holy Burial took place. While this procession was much more solemn, it also contained more intense emotions. The timing of this procession was perfect, just getting underway as dusk began to darken the town, setting the scene perfectly. Starting at dusk, as photographers, we have the great challenge of shooting with limited light even though by now I had learned that photography definitely takes a back seat to all the emotions and pageantry that the participants bring and share. This procession did not disappoint as the participants engulfed us all to become part of the somber celebration.
To have such waves of emotions around you with a camera in your hand, is the golden time to create ambiance within your photographs, such that you can be transported back into the scene again and again. I suppose that is the beauty of photography, it allows you to contemplate life while previewing the current scene and selecting the piece of life you wish to “immortalize” in your shot. As you later go back and review the shot, be it days or years later, you again contemplate your mood and the scene… an experience we have all had with photography. The ambiance within the photo you created also gives the opportunity for others to view the scene, contemplate and perhaps create their own story and mood. Ideally the photo sparks a thought that blooms within the mind of others and the creativity of the shot continues. For photographers do not shoot photos just to shoot, they shoot photos to be experienced…
For this incredible ride that Holy Week and San Miguel de Allende provided, I have to give a big thanks to go to my sister who made it possible. The early morning coffees, discussions of photography and most important enjoying the food and margaritas after a day of a long shooting made it a great week. A cerveza or two during our breaks in shooting with the locals didn’t hurt much either! At the end of October every year, there is also the annual “Day of the Dead” festival in San Miguel de Allende, and I hope to travel back to this wonderful land a create another week or so of magic.
An important note to add: the experiences of Holy Week were made possible by an incredible number of people, and specifically through Raul Touzon, an absolute master of light and thus a master of photography. His work can be found on http://touzonphoto.com/ . My photography improved greatly through watching him work and perhaps more by viewing his work. Even today, when I receive his newsletter and see his latest work, I notice how he “bends light” to suit his needs…and I learn a little more. Inspirational.
The internet has been a blessing for all photographers, as there is such a great mountain of superb photographic work out there, it can do nothing but inspire me to push the envelope even more and improve.