Postcards-Austin, Texas

Today’s postcard comes from August 2006. I was in Austin, Texas visiting family and we went over to the University of Texas. It was late August it was hot and compared to California, a bit muggy. We visited the university library (of course I’m a history teacher) and the LBJ Presidential Library (did I mention I teach history?) In ’06 the university was in full swing moving online and we saw old card catalogs sitting on the floor with nothing to do. Every drawer was empty. We also saw a couple of interesting monuments which left little doubt what the university thought about the Civil War and the Lost Cause with statues of Jefferson Davis (President of CSA), Albert Sidney Johnston (Confederate general) and Robert E. Lee on display.  These were in stark contrast to the display of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and The Great Society information in LBJ’s library. But on this hot and muggy afternoon I was interested in other things.

Armed with a new Nikon D50 and two lenses, I was on my own little photo safari and my hunt required prey that was not a typical touristy spot. I found these willing subjects in a pond on campus. The dragonfly seemed to fly over to me and smile so I took his portrait. A science education colleague of mine said I should submit it for a biology textbook cover.

These turtles had more choice about being in the water or out than we did, and their presence seemed to mock us poor humans who were hot, sticky, hungry, and generally a bit miserable. As though laughing at our predicament, they crawled out of the pond, climbed on each other and played a little game (not really right to call it leap-frog is it?) and  then slid back into the water. For our part we went across the street and had a burrito.

In 2006 I had no idea photography would become such an important part of my life. I purchased a DSLR on purpose because I knew I wanted interchangeable lenses and I wanted to look through the lens before pressing the shutter. Both of those wants led me to a digital single lens reflex camera. These two photos were taken with the kit 55-200mm lens. Seeing them fourteen years later reminds me that the stock equipment is frequently very good and my desire to spend much more money on professional glass is not always justified by the outcome.

I hope you enjoyed these two postcards from the University of Texas, Austin. Maybe you’ve been to Austin. Did it make an impression? Don’t forget it’s always better to give than receive postcards.

Postcards from Central California

McWay Falls-Big Sur, California

I want to go somewhere: this COVID thing is driving me insane. Like Jimmy Buffett (he shot six holes in his freezer) I think I have cabin fever. Four of the past five years my summer vacation has taken me to Washington state and the Puget Sound. This year I’d be happy to go down the coast to one of the places the world comes to enjoy the scenery, bask in the ocean breeze, and take a few amazing photos

One of those amazing photo opportunities, formerly called a Kodak moment, is McWay Falls in Big Sur. I’m going way back to April 2012 for this shot. The stream falling off the cliff runs year-round and is so steady it seems like someone has a hose just behind the crest feeding the stream. A combination of the shallow beach and the fresh water give the cove a turquoise look which is contrasted by the Pacific Ocean at the top of the photo. Even though the beach calls out to everyone on the overlook especially during low tide, it is inaccessible.

In addition to the beautiful view, two other things make this photo. First, there is a short walk to see the fall from the highway which has limited parking. Second, and perhaps most important, access to this photo was impossible before the Great Depression. The world-famous US Highway 1 in this remote section of California was only possible because of the WPA. Using federal funds to build infrastructure, President Roosevelt proposed, and Congress funded both the highway and the bridges that turn the Santa Inez mountains from a geographical barrier into a magnificent coastal drive between San Simeon and Carmel.

If things break loose and we get to travel this summer, I’ll send new postcards. For now, I’ll have to dream. One thing always holds true, it is better to give than to receive postcards. Wish you were here!

Back to the basics

Just a few old box cameraa
Anso Shur-Flash

In its simplest form a camera is elementary. A box, an opening, and light sensitive paper or film. Lens, selectable shutter speeds, aperture control, even focus are not necessary. You can make a simple pinhole camera yourself or buy a kit or even a completed version from many online shops. They are frequently made of wood and as much a piece of art as they are a working camera. If you don’t want to go to that much trouble you can buy a used box camera like the Kodak Brownie 2 or 2A for about $10-20. You might even have one in a box from a relative.

I happen to have 20-30 of those old box cameras (want to buy one?) Today we’re going to look at three examples of the box camera from the era 1900-1935: an Ansco Shur-flash, an Agfa B-2 Cadet, and a Kodak Six-20 Brownie. I’d like to say the photos below replicate the pictures you would have taken with these cameras back in the 1920’s but I can’t. Wait a minute, you say. Isn’t this the same camera without any controls? Did you use black and white film like in the 20’s you ask? You didn’t put a sensor inside to trick us, did you? It’s none of that but I did sneak in some new technology. The film. For starters it’s ISO 100 and back in the day it was most likely ASA 25 or 50. Our modern film has more contrast, is less finicky regarding handling in extreme heat, and it is formulated to handle contrast better.  These photos were taken with Kodak T-Max.

There is a certain freedom when using these old point and shoot cameras beyond their simplicity and light weight. The complete lack of camera controls mean composition becomes the only thing that is important. Is the person or subject in the right position in the frame? Are the shadows and light in the right places and in the right contrast? (I would argue all point and shoot cameras are the same, even your phone camera.)

Despite these being essentially identical cameras, there is the issue of style to consider when choosing an old box camera from this era. Perhaps my favorite style of the three is the Kodak. As you will see in the photo, the art deco style of the front is superb. Designed in an era when efficiency wasn’t enough for industrial products, this camera has a face. They give me visions of Packards and Duesenburgs, stiff collars and bowler hats, and the Empire State and Chrysler buildings in NYC. Does the Six-20 work better because it looks better? Who cares! Other differences include the view finders. The Ansco has a tube that acts as the sight or viewfinder. The other two have a prism on either side of the camera, one for portrait and one for landscape orientation. Using the prism takes a little getting used to but when you zero in on it, the image is nice and bright.

Built in the day before enlargers, these old cameras produce a large negative at 2 ¼ x 3 ¼ also known as 6×9. The large negative, about eight times larger than 35mm, allowed the printer to print directly on photo paper, a process now known as a contact sheet.

I took these cameras out over a period of three days. Everything was shot in the middle of the day (between 11am and 3 pm) to take advantage of the bright separation and play to the strength of black and white composition. I took the pictures during the reopening of the economy know as Phase 2 of the COVID lock down. This explains the city streets without people. I developed using a generic D76 developer at home in the sink. After the film was developed, I scanned everything using an Epson V700 and then brought it right here. You will see the direct out of the scanner version and then the final print using Adobe Lightroom to create more contrast and make exposure adjustments. Noting has been sharpened in post-production.

Surprised? Sometimes we make photography about equipment. Many of us have GAS, Gear Acquisition Syndrome. We get fooled into thinking the equipment makes the photograph. If only I had the newest gizmo my pictures would improve, we think. Going back to a box with film reminds us that the equipment can get in the way of taking a picture and that it is the vision of the photographer and not the newest gadget that makes the difference.

If you’re even the slightest bit intrigued by my little comparison I encourage you to pick up an old wooden sided box camera and put a roll of film through it. I bet you won’t be disappointed.

The Other Silicon Valley-Grant Ranch Pond

Joseph Grant was a legislator and person of importance in the 1920’s. He purchased a ranch just outside of San Jose over the hill. The ranch has a pond to irrigate the property and keep the cattle well-watered. For today’s trip I decided to stay off the ranch house and grounds and go to the pond. We’re at the end of Spring here and I wanted to get out in the morning to take advantage of the shadows and coolness of the morning.

The first thing I noticed was the music among the quietness of the pond. The birds were singing and calling for mates: in a few cases they were screaming at me to leave. I counted about a dozen species during my time hunting for photos. Along the way I surprised a night heron while walking up to the reeds. He called out to me as he quickly flew away, I think it included some colorful metaphors. I also saw a Great Blue Heron, it is nearly impossible to go anywhere in California and not see one of these magnificent birds. Common loons, a few species of ducks and this little finch or similar bird walking around looking for breakfast.

The reeds along the banks of this little pond (maybe a ½ mile long) hide many critters and hearing them as a walked or stood on the shore made for pleasant morning. Rooted at the bank and near large oak trees, they provide both coolness and some shade. Of course, as the sun rises the sideways shade disappears completely.

A walking path that connects to larger day hikes on the surrounding hills goes around about one half of the lake gave me something to do and a direction to turn. Only a couple of weeks ago the grasses on the hills were green. With summer almost here the golden part of the golden state coming is quickly coming to the surrounding hills as the grasses die and turn brown. Soon Grant Ranch will look like much of California, grassy hills peppered with tall oak trees and large birds soaring in the afternoon thermals and breezes.

Three Cameras-So Close and Yet So Far

It was the best of machines; it was the worst of machines. With apologies to Charles Dickens, this week I’m looking at three cameras that look nearly identical. It seems there may be an ideal size camera.

There are two distinct parts of the camera market. The first is the professional and serious amateur. Those who either make their living from taking photos or enrich their lives by throwing themselves deeply into a hobby or selling/distributing photos to friends and at street fairs. The broader market is the entry level photographer. The camera that best meets his or her needs is a point and shoot camera. The point and shoot camera has little or no learning curve and is high enough quality that on occasion it allows the owner to get a wall-worthy photograph. The target market for this consumer crosses gender and age lines. It makes sense that this magic camera must be a certain size and have certain features.

We’ll start with one of my favorites-the Voightlander Vito BII. I’ve written about this camera in the past. I think it might be one of the best street photography cameras ever produced. It takes 35mm film and the photographer gets shutter and aperture control, both directly on the lens. It fits in the hand comfortably and is made of metal. With a metal body it feels substantial enough to take seriously and is sturdy enough to be dropped and still work. The major off-putting aspect of this camera is the focus. It is a viewfinder camera. This can be concerning for many shutterbugs today because we are so used to being able to focus precisely. Regardless of whether you are used to auto focus or have experience with an old SLR with the split prism, we like being able to see our focus is spot on.

A viewfinder camera only has a sight glass. Good focus relies on your being in the right range, say 6-8 feet away and the depth of field allowed by the aperture (f number) of the lens. The Vito BII helps the photographer in this regard by having two nearly automatic marks on the lens. One in medium range, about that 8-foot away distance, and an infinity. This works so well that I frequently use one of the two settings and forget about the rest. In fact, I usually use the Sunny 16 rule with this camera, put the focus at one of the two spots on the lens and just shoot. This camera makes prints so crisp and sharp I don’t think most people would be able to distinguish them from a digital photograph.

The second camera is the Yahsica EZ-Matic 4. It uses 35m film also but this one has a twist. In the late 1960’s and into the early 70’s camera companies moved to a cartridge-based film loading system. Called 126 film, it was the same size as 35mm but instead of having the canister the film is preloaded into a cassette. Drop in the film cassette, advance the film to number 1 in the window and shoot away. You may know this group of cameras by the name Kodak gave them, Instamatic cameras. The Yahsica EZ-Matic 4 is perhaps the top of the heap in this category.

It has a metal body, a focus ring, aperture control, including an auto feature. The lens is surrounded by a light meter eliminating the Sunny 16 guess from the past. The Yahsica 38mm 1/9 glass lens is very sharp. As you can see in the photo, it is about the same size as the Voightlander. Drop in the cassette, advance the film, focus (it is also a viewfinder) and click the shutter. To help in your focusing the viewfinder has four images on the right side, a head only silhouette, a half body silhouette, a group silhouette, and a mountain to help you focus. A needle moves through the images to help as you turn the focus ring.  It is, as its name implies, EZ. The 4 references the old four-sided cube flash that was popular in its day.

Lastly, we come to the new Olympus OMD-E-M10. A new digital camera designed for the same market. It can operate in fully automatic mode or in shutter, aperture, or manual mode. There are a couple of things that separate this camera from the other two besides it being a digital and not film camera. First, it takes interchangeable lenses like an SLR. The lens in the kit is a 14-42mm zoom lens, but the family of lenses is broad enough for most people.

Second, it has auto focus. There is no guessing about how to get a sharp photo with this camera. Your only challenge will be to make sure it focuses on the part of the frame your eye is focusing on. It also has a big touch screen LED color display for those who are used to using a phone as their primary camera Lastly, this camera will shoot video. If I don’t want to specifically shoot film and I’m heading anyplace where a big DSLR is too obvious or takes up too much space, this is my go-to camera. It probably gets more use than any other single camera in my collection.

So, what’s the bottom line? Each of these cameras are about the same size, 5” x 3” x 2-3” wide.  I’m not so crazy about the Yashica. It looks fabulous. For display purposes sitting on the shelf it looks like a good quality 35mm camera from back in the day. Of course, it is. But I don’t like the 126 cartridge. I’ve rerolled 35mm film into the cartridge but with different sprocket holes and limited to only 12 frames, it just doesn’t’ speak to me.

The Voightlander is a wonderful camera. I enjoy using it and consequently it almost always has a roll of film waiting for me. The lens is coated so the color photos are as good as black and white. I have a Canon AE-1 Program, but the Vito B gets more use.

The Olympus OM-D gets more use every week. I bought it for the activities and hobbies I do. I wanted a smaller camera that I could easily pack in the motorcycle and toss in a dry bag in my kayak. For the same reasons, small and light weight, it works for the day hikes and camping I do throughout the year also. I’ve added two additional lenses, a 25mm prime and 150-300mm telephoto. I can’t imagine I will expand it beyond these three. Lately I’ve also begun using it for some video. The combination of size, weight, and flexibility make it easy to grab. That is not to say it replaces my Nikon D7100, a truly professional camera that I use in the studio and for professional gigs.

So, what’s the payoff here? One of the biggest disadvantages of a digital camera is that you pay for all the film, developing and service of the camera right up front. If you are an occasional shooter you may be throwing too much money at nearly any digital camera, especially in the digital phone-camera age. With the price of film cameras being so low, you have to shoot and develop a lot of film to match the cost of a quality point and shoot camera. Developing easily incudes digital images today, and film doesn’t change the OS it needs to be seen and it doesn’t get hacked, stolen, or dropped in the water. On the other hand, you will never immediately post to any social media platform with a film camera, and video isn’t possible.

For my part, I prefer to have several cameras to choose from and I enjoy developing and scanning film at home.

What do you think? Is there a perfect size camera?

Cowboys in the Other Silicon Valley

In the Silicon Valley right now the IT guys are busy. They’re busy helping us communicate without being in the same room. They’re busy working in teams from home to provide something of value as we are all sequestered in our houses practicing social distancing. Some of the Silicon Valley is working at a feverish pace to find a cure or a vaccine for COVID 19. In the meantime, other people in the Valley are trying to stay sane.

The other Silicon Valley is agrarian. The people in the IT group and the agrarian group aren’t necessarily different. I have no way of knowing if this cowboy was in one or both of those groups. I saw him as I was walking along a paved path next to Coyote Creek. In a small island where the creek splits this cowboy was putting his horse through the paces. From his actions I think he intended to either work this horse or possibly preparing him for a show, I think the former. He was working the horse to turn left and right circles, back up and who knows what else (since I’m not an equestrian I’m clueless.)

There continues to be ranch lands in Santa Clara County, some of it near by and some in the valley below Mr. Hamilton’s telescope near Grant Ranch on old Mines road. Perhaps in some parts of the country an ATV works on the ranch but here in South San Jose, the ‘ol horse is just fine. You might not know an urban landscape is a mere 10 miles away.

Not Powell’s Colorado River

John Wesley Powell defied the myth of the Colorado River’s invincibility and led the first expedition through the Grand Canyon, according to His bravery and heroism, some might say foolishness and bravado, put him in the middle of Americas exploration of the west. Along with the great migration to the Oregon territory, the Gold Rush into California, and the voyages of exploration by John C. Fremont, Powell sought to map the Southwest and pave the way to tame America’s wild west.

By the 1920’s the Colorado River was seen as the answer for farmers and residences from the dry climates of seven different states. Negotiations between seven states, Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming centered on distribution of water and the prevention of another break in the canals like the one in 1905 that created the Salton Sea in California. The states didn’t want another disaster. A dam to capture the water and distribute it would serve two purposes: to tame the river from seasonal flooding and provide irrigation to the Southwest. The best place to dam the Colorado was in Black Canyon between Nevada and Arizona about 39 miles outside of Las Vegas. By 1922 Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover was able to broker a deal for the distribution of water opening the way for the construction of the dam.

Today, the Boulder Dam, now renamed Hoover Dam for the president who authorized it construction, creates Lake Mead and tames the wild Colorado River. Far from being the wild torrent John Wesley Powell navigated, today anyone can rent a canoe or kayak and paddle the rivers gentle waters. My twelve-mile day started just below the 800’ cement Hoover Dam. My guides, Antonio and Danelle from Kayak Las Vegas, were great throughout our paddle. We stopped to look at streams flowing into the river from the canyon, took some time to sit in hot springs and were awed by the sheer faces of the canyon walls. We even saw a bald eagle.

Las Vegas Kayaks took care of all the details. We rented quality rotomolded plastic sit-inside kayaks. They provided paddles, PFDs and lunch. All we had to add was a good attitude and a camera.  I added two cameras during the day; a Nikon AW100 mounted to a tripod and strapped to the deck and an Olympus OM-D10 MII in a dry bag.

I used the Nikon for video and the Olympus for some quality stills.  Good company with my new for-a-day friends and beautiful scenery made for a great day on the Colorado River on a pleasant spring day.

What about you? Have you been on the Colorado River downstream from Hoover Dam? What was it like?

Coyote Valley: The Other Silicon Valley

Before it was known as the Silicon Valley, Santa Clara county grew crops and raised livestock for the entire country and exported products throughout the world. The springtime beauty of the flowering orchards and the variety of crops grown here from the 1880’s through the 1960s made the area a lush paradise.

Beautiful and profitable, the ranches and farms gave way in the 60’s to IT firms like IBM and were followed by Google, Cisco, Adobe, and Apple. With the new firms came suburbs to house all those workers and places like Cupertino and Los Altos, Campbell and Milpitas became extensions of old towns like San Jose and Palo Alto. While the houses seemed to sprout like the crops used to, the valley is not completely lost to asphalt and cement. To the South and east of San Jose the land continues to be farmland and woodland. Open space purchases have preserved the natural habitat of the area.

Today I’m headed about 15 miles south of downtown San Jose to the Coyote Creek Open Space Preserve. The wooded area is adjacent to land that has been farmed for over120 years. The farm with the biggest signage is Spina Farms at the corner of Santa Teresa and Bailey. Many locals know if for its fall pumpkins. Down here between San Jose and Morgan Hill we run into old agricultural Santa Clara county.

I ran into some recently disked (turned over) farmland on my way the preserve. The spring always brings wild mustard that not only brightens up the area it provides needed ground cover for later in the summer when the months of heat without rain  would result in the topsoil being swept away by the daily breeze coming in from the San Francisco Bay. Passing the orchard and the mustard, visitors are greeted by a venerable oak tree. As in most of California we have both live oak and black oak. Anytime you leave the cities in California you are going to run into an oak tree. The oaks are long lived and provide needed shade during the hot summers in most of the state. They feed the squirrels and provide perches for a variety of birds. Perhaps the oak, not the poppy, should be the state symbol.

Moving beyond the parking lot out 4+ mile walk takes us above the valley on a path that is adjacent to some private property and grazing land for the ongoing cattle industry in the south county.

I’ll be back with some more photos. If you like the little ditty and photos let me know.

A quick note about the cameras for the photos, color photos were taken with a Yashica 124 MatG with the new Kodak Ectachrome (slide or positive film). Black and white photos came from either an 80’s era Canon AE-1 Program 35mm camera or my 50’s era Voightlander Vito B shooting Ultrafine black and white negative film. It was all scanned using an Epson v700 using the holders from a v800, which are vastly superior to the stock holders.

Horsetail Falls-Yosemite National Park

It’s February and that means people from around the world go to Yosemite National Park to capture a photo of Horsetail Falls. In a previous post I mentioned the years it took me to capture this photo. This week I wanted to revisit the experience.

Park staff has made it more difficult to capture this phenomenon in 2020. After the 2019 season resulted in partial destruction of the southern beach along the Merced River and a trash heap from photographers, NPS has closed the southern location. They have limited photographers to the Northern viewing location (Rowell’s View) and limited the area to walk in only.

If you plan on going check with the Yosemite NP web page. The photo above was taken before the fall turned the bright orange it is so famous for. I post the yellow version of the fall to encourage you to take several shots as the waterfall changes color from silver to yellow and then orange. If you’re lucky you might see it flicker pink just before the light is gone.

Don’t limit yourself to the fall only. This photo was taken at the North site (Rowell’s view) in the afternoon at about 3pm. The streaks of the clouds and the contrails of airplanes add to the beauty of Yosemite Valley. Look around for other views while you’re there.

I want to leave you with a humorous story about the 2016 photo. We had arrived early to set up, enjoying getting to know the other photographers and talking about gear in the late afternoon. As if to mock the photographers and all the expensive equipment on the beach, this bald eagle came by to see what all the ruckus was about.

Someone in the crowd shouted “Eagle” and no one had a camera trained on this magnificent bird. He perched in the tree, did a parade lap, and flew away. This poor photo is the only one taken by the people around me. It was all I could do to get the camera off the tripod and focus it on the beautiful bald eagle.

Do you have stories about Yosemite photo trips? I’d love to read them.

The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation-a book review

The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation by Brenda Wineapple Random House, New York, December, 2019

Books that examine a big historical incident are frequently about current events as much as they are about the past. The title of this book couldn’t be more contemporary. As the news is daily filled with the impeachment of Donald Trump, a look back at the first impeachment is certainly topical for our times. Does the impeachment of Andrew Johnson hold clues for the current actions of the House and Senate?

Brenda Wineapple doesn’t waste any time getting into the either the meat of the issue or the concerns Congress needed to address. Starting out with the actions of President Johnson after the assassination of President Lincoln, Wineapple really shines as she lays out the actions of Johnson to redirect Reconstruction away from Congress and into the Executive branch. The reader is left with no doubt why Congress felt they had to exercise their impeachment rights. It wasn’t only his actions that had to be contended with, however.

As Congress waded into the first impeachment and trial to remove a sitting president they struggled with the meaning of high crimes and misdemeanors and how the House would face the investigation, presentation, and referral of the articles of impeachment to the Senate. No actions taken by previous presidents had risen to the level Congress chose to examine as high crimes and misdemeanors. Wineapple is in her element in this portion of the book. She handles the specific actions of President Johnson and the counteractions of Congress to check his power with the clarity of a lawyer in court. Readers will emerge from this first section of the book with a clear understanding of both the actions of each party and how Congress attempted to use their coequal power to direct the readmission of rebellious states back into full participation in the government. She is also very clear that without a concrete and specific plan for readmission, the battles and lives of soldiers were in vain after the surrender at Appomattox. Congress’ insisted that adherence to the 13th Amendment and acceptance of the 14th Amendment were among the top conditions for readmission. The President’s contrary views and actions on the subject are also clearly laid out.

Actions in Memphis and New Orleans that resulted from the Presidents executive orders while Congress was on recess take center stage as part of this book. Wineapple’s skills as a writer are on display as the tension build and the two sides careen toward a showdown. Who will control reconstruction and the readmission of the states back into the Union?

The next section of the book involves the way the House managed the trial and the reception in the Senate. Focusing on brief biographies of the main players in the House and Senate, she attempts to drive the narrative by explaining what may have happened and the reveal the outcome. Of course, we already know the results of the Senate trial. Perhaps this is why the second section is a little flat.

The last section of the book addresses the aftermath of the impeachment and trial. I don’t think I’m giving anything away to say Andrew Johnson briefly returns to the government as a Senator. Wineapple also uses this section to wrap everything up. This is where I expected to read her insights about impeachment: the nature of the proceedings and the lessons learned about this extreme step allowed by the Constitution but fraught with peril. I had also expected her to act as judge and make a decision or at least give some insight about the incident. Did the President overstep his authority or was this just politics? What do we know as a result of these proceedings that we didn’t know before hand?

It seemed to me the deeper into the book I waded I was less engaged in the text. While I was very curious about the first impeachment of a sitting president, I was also hopeful I would emerge with a better understanding. But alas, it was not to be.

Anyone who would like additional background about impeachment and the actions that might cause Congress to challenge a sitting president in this manner will gain some insight from The Impeachers. However, if you’re looking for insight into the line between politics and high crimes and misdemeanors, you may be disappointed. Almost like it was three different books, the first section is well written, well laid out, and very engaging. The second section loses steam but many readers will enjoy the mini biographies and layout of the trial. I found the conclusion disappointing.