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Seasets VI: Loss

The text below is adapted from something I wrote last Thursday. The photos themselves are from two different days at Corona Del Mar: the first is from a session the day my friend died, while the second was done in a “make up” session this evening.

My long time friend, Bobby Villanueva, passed away today, leaving behind a wife and two young daughters. In recent years Bobby had taken an interest in photography, and we spent a number of long conversations discussing lenses, cameras, and techniques. Like photography did for me, it opened up a new way of looking at life for him.

The quest to become an artist is not for everyone. A lot of people are content to take a simple photo, file it away, and call it a day. They’ve captured the moment, and now it’s on to the next photo. For those that paint, draw, sculpt, or photograph, I think there’s a sense that you could potentially create one image or piece in your lifetime that’s so perfect, it wouldn’t matter if you ever made another.

The issue though, is that you know you’ll never get there because real life is too beautiful, and memories too ephemeral to be corralled by a human’s coarse hands. It’s like trying to grasp at smoke. We critique ourselves, think about what we could do better, and go buy more paint, pencils, or film. What we’re trying to accomplish is impossible, but the pursuit is an extension of ourselves, and so we continue.


In a conversation with my friend Susan today, I explained why I don’t shoot a particular subject very often: “It feels too much like work.”

I was not being very productive at the office this afternoon, and decided that I needed to be somewhere else. My conversation with Susan in mind, I headed to the beach. The ocean has always calmed me, so it seemed like the right place to be. I photographed it for a while, failing miserably to capture everything I saw and felt at that moment. This was not work though, to be sure.

A few months back Bobby asked if I would donate some of my photos to a charity event he was doing for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. As with photography, he felt passionately about helping this organization and his daughter, who suffers from the disease. I’ve always felt like my photos just missed the mark, but for someone else to think them good enough to auction meant a lot to me. My passion was able to assist in his passion.

I felt bad for Bobby’s family, for his friends, for myself: all people who lost something in his passing. I thought about Bobby trying to create his own art, to capture the love he felt for his daughters. Passion to passion. How do you do it though? How do you possibly capture the magic of life and love with any real success?

The waves swept in and the water ran out, and I understood that you can’t. Life is in the chaos, in the brush strokes. The manifestation of love is the chase, the yearning to understand the world and the people around us. We’ll never create that single, unifying piece, because life is too big and us too small.

I tripped my shutter and froze the earth for an imperfect moment, trying to squeeze my emotions into some container that I could hold onto. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. I trudged up the beach cold and sad, knowing my memories will never do him justice.

And so, I hope we all have something in life that we can feel passionate about, something that doesn’t “feel like work.” More importanly though, I hope everyone has someone else to hold onto; someone to make each of these fleeting moments as permanent as possible.

Farewell my friend; you’ll be missed.

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An Uncut Weekend

My weekend started off with an early trip to photograph the US Uncut protest in LA. Unfortunately, the group never got very large while I was there, so I opted to take off and didn’t take any photos.  On the way home I stopped off in Long Beach to take photos of my friend’s puppy Gnocchi, and then met my cousin towards sunset to capture OC from on high.

My associate and friend Bruce arrived from the frozen lands of Scranton, PA Sunday morning. Whilst in the LAX area we drove to the Getty museum followed by the Huntington Beach pier so that he could tell his friends that he’s been to Huntington Beach. Also, to take photographs at sunset. Without clouds the pier sunset was sort of boring, but it was nice to be outside and not in the office.

This first shot is from Lemon Heights.

A view from the Getty.

Shooting puppies is more difficult than shooting hyper children. About the only time you can get a still portrait is when they’re too exhausted to continue. Here’s Gnocchi, dreaming of baby tennis balls.

Without much variety in the sky, I made my own. This shot has a slight shutter drag.

A resident at the Getty.

“Buildings on Mars.” An attempt at the unusual, looking inland from the shoreline in HB.

Lemon Heights again.

You got seashells in my pier photo. No, you got a pier in my seashell photo! (Sigh, I know I’m not funny.) My favorite of the weekend.

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San Francisco, [A]Bridged

I turned 33 today and decided that I should be out of town for my birthday weekend. My day job is still too hectic at the moment to go anywhere too far away, so I took advantage of my cousin’s generosity and that of his wonderful wife Laura and crashed at their San Francisco condo.

Before heading up I made a list of subjects I’d like to cover, much of which consisted of urban exploration. That is, abandoned buildings, train stations, etc. Unfortunately, with limited mobility and time this was not to be in the cards. So, with the help of websites like this one by Thomas Hawk I reduced my list to a manageable size and prepared to be selective and patient, neither of which I particularly care to engage in very often.

Previous trips to San Francisco had resulted in tough shooting conditions, or basically “every day” in San Francisco: cold weather, fog, rain. As luck would have it, this past weekend was the nicest one San Francisco has seen in the history of always. This meant very little in the way of clouds (sort of boring for photography), and a rare heat. It may have been in the 80s on Sunday.

The reason I mention this is because San Francisco is a city that can be done on foot to a certain degree, and I probably put in about 10 miles in two days. “But Jake,” you’re saying, “that’s barely anything. Even my wheelchair bound grandmother runs 15 miles a day, surely you can handle a paltry 10.”  Ordinarily this would be true save for two facts: first, I was lugging around my gear, which weighs in at about 30 pounds. Second, if you’ve never been to San Francisco it’s hard to imagine how hilly it is, but trust me, it is. If this applies to you, imagine a perfectly straight line that goes up and down for like 20,000 feet. That’s every street in San Francisco. Add a 30-pound pack and hot weather to that, and now you can understand why your grandmother wouldn’t stand a chance.  Also, she told me that she doesn’t love you. So there.

In any event, my plans didn’t call for shooting the Golden Gate Bridge as much as I did, but I really couldn’t avoid focusing on it. In the end, this trip became a study on the bridge and less a study on the city itself.

Before I get to the bridge, let’s meet Wally and Ziggy, my cousin’s two dogs. Wally (pictured here) is small and full of energy, but knows how to chill. Ziggy is small and full of energy, but is like a nuclear explosion who’s energy just keeps on growing.

Saturday morning we started near the Presidio at the Sutro Baths. Not much is left of them, but being a sucker for ruins I was delighted to walk amongst them. Here’s a misty overlook.

Low shot of debris in a standing pool.

Although it bugs me that people tag historical sites, I can’t help but be impressed by talent.

Next, we headed to Baker Beach so that I could scout a place to shoot the Golden Gate at sunset. The northern end of the beach is nude, so it was funny to have shot the bridge and then look at the photos afterwards, only to see the occasional very pink San Franscisan hanging out in the bottom corner. I figured it was safest to post a photo of flowers. :)

Another shot of the bridge, this time from the National Cemetery at the Presidio. The cemetery was peaceful and quite pretty in its way, and has some of the oldest burials I’ve personally ever seen in the States.

Another shot of the bridge, this time near the “Warming Hut” on Fort Point. In the distance is the yacht club where I got the shots at the bottom of this post.

I decided that I picked the wrong place to shoot sunset, so I decided to try my luck at the Palace of Fine Arts. I hoofed it over there and had time to kill before the light show, so spent time figuring out my best angles. At one point I was sitting on a bench waiting for the sun to go down when this eccentric woman rode by on her pink bike with music blaring, lights on her spokes, and bubbles flowing.  As she circled across the pond and into the palace proper, I got my telephoto lens out and waited to see if anything interesting would happen. This little girl was with her family and as the lady rode past, just darted happily after her in dancing, bubbily bliss. You could tell by the way her dad was frantically chasing her that it wasn’t a sanctioned event. :)

I took a lot of the photos as the sun set, but this one is my favorite. I like the sort of mystery in the building not being fully illuminated. 

A Sunday morning view of the city (and in the distance, the Bay Bridge) from atop one of the ungodly tall hills. That tall pointy building is the TransAmerica building, which stands at over 800 feet tall. Note how relatively close I am to the top.  This was supposed to be an “easy” walk to breakfast. ;)

I opted to skip out on the Superbowl and instead get to another spot across the bay to catch the Golden Gate as the sun went down. With a car at my disposal I ended up at the yacht club on Fort Baker with plenty of time to spare.   At the top of the hill lie the abandoned remnants of Battery Yates, a former gun emplacement that stood watch over the bay.  Here’s a detail of one of the buildings that the guns once stood on top of. 

A warning from a time when the buildings held deadly artillery.

As the sun started to get low I cursed the beautiful, empty skies, and pondered how to make my photos more interesting. I decided to try two things.

First, work on a meaningful foreground. As any student of photography will have heard, the best photos tend to have a fore-, middle-, and background.  While this seems obvious, foregrounds are not my strongest suit (although I think I nailed it in the cemetery photo). As a result, I spent considerable time trying to find a spot that would give me something of interest in the foreground and line up with the more important middleground.

The second thing I worked on was color cast. Very few photographers know this, but most dSLR cameras have the ability to change color cast in the camera, including color bracketing. I don’t normally like to do it in camera, preferring instead to do it in post-processing. However, with time to spare, I played around a bit. Each of these below was touched, but actually very little. The changing light as the sun set made the biggest difference.

For those of you wanting to try this, the fastest way to do it is via the color balance settings, which can usually be changed via a button or dial. Otherwise, look for color bracketing in your camera menu.

Here’s a shot of a rowing crew coming home.

The gentleman in this photo is called Michael Feldman. I chatted with him for a bit after capturing his silhouette against the bridge.  Here’s the scene he was painting. Earlier in the day, I had sat in the same place as his subject. Perched atop the bluff with nothing but the bridge, bay and strong wind on my face, I felt very small in such a large space. I live for experiences like that, which is why I love travel photography so much.

Although this photo has the least obvious foreground of any I took that night, it’s probably my favorite of the bunch. With the bridge lights on and the gradual transition to night in the sky, this photo captures the peace I earnestly felt at that moment. If you’ve never been to this site, I would strongly encourage you to make the drive.

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Seasets V

As frequent visitors will already know, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time photographing a particular part of the coast in Corona Del Mar. I use this place not simply because it’s pretty or because it has special personal meaning, but because it represents something that I can use to measure my progress as a photographer against.

The aim of being a good photographer is taking photos that appeal not only to you or the subjects in the photo (like a snapshot), but in capturing moments that appeal to a broader audience.  Sunsets (and sunrises) are an easy way to meet this requirement, as it doesn’t take much to appeal to other people. After all, who doesn’t appreciate a sunset? They’re almost a cliche.

What better subject then, to use as a measure of progress. I won’t go into the details of the techniques I tried here but I will say that I’m happy with my progress, even if I’m light years away from where I want to be. To see what I aspire to, check out Jim Patterson’s streams on Flickr.  Someday….

For now, I’ll just be glad that I was there to witness this incredible light show.

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2010: Year in Review

2010 was probably the most challenging year of my life, with a number of personal and work events that pushed me to the brink a number of times. But, it was also the most productive year of my life in a number of areas, certainly with respect to photography. By the time the year was over I felt that I had reached a new level in my ability to capture the world around me. Additionally, I found a new calling in life on a political and social level, traveled and “adventured” like never before, and most importantly, spent an incredible amount of time with a diverse group of amazing people. To all of you, even those who aren’t represented here, thank you for letting me into your lives during the best (and worst) year of my existence.

Even though this is a pretty darn big post, the photos below are only a small selection of some of my favorites from the year. Click on a shot to go to the full post it was originally found in.

Ireland and Italy

I traveled to Europe with my sister and cousin, stopping first in Ireland to visit my brother before heading off to Italy.

Robin and Laurie

Two incredible women who are a true pleasure to be around.

Section 8 at the House of Blues

I got to shoot my cousin’s band from the stage at the House of Blues in Anaheim. That was definitely a cool experience.

Corona Del Mar

I’ve spent a lot of time doing photography along Corona Del Mar. This photo seems to be the one people like best.

Los Angeles Arboretum

I made a number of trips to the arboretum this year. I started the year barely knowing what an orchid was, but thanks to the arboretum and Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania, I’m pretty much an expert now. :)

These are from two different trips.

New York City

One of the most amazing places I’ve ever been to, and I barely scratched the surface.

Studio Chaos

2010 was the year that I finally got a handle on studio lighting. I’m certainly not an expert, but this once mysterious discipline has let me in on some of its secrets. The first two photos are from some of my first sessions at my new studio. The self-portrait of me isn’t published elsewhere on the site, but since it’s the most obnoxious photo I took all year, I figured I’d include it.

San Diego Ruins

I spent a long time scouring the desert near San Diego this year looking for ruins and pictographs. I didn’t find either; instead, I found this ghost train amid some adventures too crazy to share.

St. Louis

The weather in St. Louis was hot and miserable during my trip, but the stay was one of my best photo experiences to date.

Khmer New Year

Thanks to a connection through my friend Nita, a temple in Riverside asked me to capture their Khmer New Year celebrations.

Huntington Beach Pier

The third most viewed photo I took all year. Having grown up in HB and spent considerable time there, I actually find shooting the pier pretty boring. This one afternoon with my cousin and brother, however, made me feel like a first time visitor.

Scranton, PA

Pennsylvania is awesome. If it didn’t get to negative one million degrees in the winter, I might consider living there. Thanks to Aislinn and Bruce for joining me on some fairly crazy adventures.

Lake Shrine

An unusual retreat in the chaos of LA. Take a blanket and spend time reclining near Gandhi’s ashes.

Team Chaos: Action + Danger

I’ve been single forever, so taking photos of my own kids isn’t possible, given that I have none. Luckily, my good friends have two adorable children that I’ve been fortunate to photograph on a number of occasions. The first photo shows “Danger” Declan in James Bond mode, smooth talking the ladies already. The photo of “Action” Abby in her tiger costume is one of my top 5 favorites of the year.

Christmas with the Moores

In pursuit of a Christmas card, I spent a day with my cousin Dan and his lovely bride Kim, as well as their two very big dogs. After we were done for the day and driving home, we lucked into an amazing sunset and a great place to capture it.

Trenton, my favorite photo of the year

As part of a photojournalism project, parents Wendy and John let me into their family for a few weeks as I documented life with an autistic son. I haven’t published the full set yet, as I’m still working with some other families to get a larger body of work together. For various reasons, this photo of their son Trenton, a dynamic and incredible little guy, is my personal favorite  of the year.

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Seasets III

Location: Corona Del Mar. Subject: Ocean sunsets, long exposure.

Just another series of sunset on the Pacific. These were shot at Corona Del Mar, in a location I photographed a few months ago. I like the location, although in general SoCal sunsets bug me: we don’t seem to have the humidity necessary to get good cloud cover very often once winter has passed. *sigh*

I like this next photo a lot, but it suffers from a few problems. It was shot with a 0.6 neutral density filter (to get a long exposure), and a 0.6 graduated neutral density filter. The circle at the bottom is a heavy vignette from shooting a really wide angle with the filters on.  Additionally, the sky had a lot of dust spotting, although interestingly enough, the dust didn’t appear on later photos. I need to test my filters and see what’s up.

My cousin Juan, waiting for his sailor(ette) to come home.

If do right, no can defense… ;)

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