Sunday, May 27, 2012

Blogging à la Black and White

One of the things that drew me to the Northwest when I was looking for a place to move to was the color. I suppose the color of the scenery is as scientific a way of how to decide where to live as blindly poking a finger at a map of the world, right? Now, granted, the dominant color is green but there are so many shades of it and it crops up in the most unusual places, some of which are places you do not want it. A green roof or driveway is not a selling point in the local real estate market; it just means you need to powerwash the moss away.

So with that in mind, I never expected that some of my favorite photos I've taken to be black and white. Not, that is, until a recent picture taking excursion on a recent Friday the 13th (insert creepy music here).

One of my other favorite hobbies, besides photography and hiking, is Scottish Country dancing. Whenever I have the opportunity, I like to leave work early on Friday (who wouldn't?), drive up to Vancouver, Washington, and drive out with some friends to a class taught deep in the Columbia River Gorge. To kill time in between getting to Vancouver and meeting up with the carpool, I entertain myself by taking pictures on the I-5 bridge that crosses the Columbia River. This particular Friday the 13th, there were some terrific clouds looming on the horizon. I didn't realize it at the time, but they were going to provide a perfect atmosphere for some black and white photos.

There's a rather narrow pedestrian walkway on each side of the bridge, and by narrow I mean just wide enough for a bicycle to get by if the pedestrian isn't very big and really hugs the railing. There was a man walking behind me heading back toward the Oregon side of the river and I let him pass me as I took pictures of the boats skimming across the surface of the river. As I turned back to continue on my way, the man had reached the highest point of the bridge and was about to began the gradual descent on his way to the other side. On a whim, I got my camera out and snapped a few quick shots of him as he was framed against the sky. I was apparently also blocking a cyclist because as I came out of my murky thoughts concerning aperture and shutter speeds, I heard an "excuse me" over the roar of the traffic and realized I was standing right in front of a man who was trying to ride his bike across the bridge. I snapped his picture too as he rode on, but it didn't turn out as well as the others.

When I got home, I was mildly pleased with the color version of the photo. But it was a week or so later when it was converted to black and white that it really came into its own.

After that, I was more conscious of what would make a good black and white photo. A few weeks ago, I was at Nisqually Wildlife Refuge outside of Olympia, Washington. It was a Dutch sky kind of day with more clouds than wildlife but that was fine. Clouds are much easier to get pictures of than birds any day. At one point on the trail, there were two barns side by side. Those coupled with the clouds made for some interesting subjects to experiment with (I feel like Dr. Frankenstein or Igor putting the words "experiment" and "subject" in the same sentence). In color, the pictures were either over or underexposed because of the rather harsh light I was shooting into, but in black and white, the direct light was softened and served to add interest to the old buildings and their surroundings.

Once I realized what fun there was to be had with black and white photos, I went through pictures taken in the past and converted a number of them to black and white. Not all of them make the conversion successfully, they're rather like people who are natural brunettes and try to go blonde or vice versa. But there are quite a few that can wear both color and the lack of it equally as well. I was surprised that several sunset shots fit in that category. Typically a sunset is special because of its color, but these that I converted to black and white seem to wear the monochrome mantel quite well. As much as I hate to end this post with a terrible pun, I just can't help myself. After my black and white discovery, I guess Friday the 13th really is my lucky day.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

What a Difference a Season Makes Part II

Since last October I've been biding my time, watching the weather, and waiting to pounce on the opportunity to go back to Dog Mountain while the wildflowers are in bloom.  This isn't as easy as it sounds since shooting in the rain is not recommended for clear pictures and it's not like there's a ranger station next door that I can call for a flower blooming report. After reading various guidebooks and asking people who have hiked the area, I decided that this weekend was my best chance.

As I made my way out to Dog Mountain, across the Bridge of the Gods, and into Washington I was struck anew by the vastness of the Columbia River Gorge and wondered for the thousandth time how anyone could think all this beauty happened by accident.
Before I knew it, I was at the parking lot where only a handful of cars were parked. As before, I took the slightly longer but not quite as steep route up. I figured it was easier to enjoy the views on the way down when I wasn't concentrating so much on just putting one foot in front of the other. The scenery on this part of the trail isn't as stunning, with only a few breaks in the trees towards Wind Mountain, but I knew it would be worth the wait. There were a few wildflowers here and there in amongst the trees and they provided a splash of color against the mostly green backdrop.

After climbing for a bit, I started on the slow series of switchbacks that would eventually lead me to the trail that would skirt around the front of the mountain. This part of the trail has a different feel than other gorge hikes I've been on, almost like you're walking through a postcard.  Soon there were more flowers showing up against the hillside. They were mostly yellow with a few purples and reds thrown in for good measure. Yes it's corny, but it was a big temptation to do my best Julie Andrews impression and burst out with "the hills are alive" but I'm sure any hiker within a mile radius would have thought it sounded more like a lonely moose calling for its mate (we don't have moose up here, but that's beside the point). I did quite a bit of groveling at this point to get the camera positioned just right so as to have flowers in the foreground and the river and sweeping views in the back. Thank goodness for viewing screens that flip up and allow you to see what's in the camera's sites without having to be flat on the ground.  I was struck at how different the surroundings were just seven months ago.  The overall lay of the land and the windswept trees were familiar but other than that, everything was new and different. Mt. St. Helens was behind me and the very tip of Mt. Hood was visible through the clouds that were making their way over the gorge. There was no one on the trail and there was something special about being the only person with all this beauty to enjoy, kind of like it was my own backyard to possess for a few minutes.  The carpet of flowers seemed to literally reach to the sky.

One group of hikers I met as I was on my way down commented that the blooms were actually a little late this year and this weekend was probably the peak of the season. By now, more hikers were coming along the trail and those of us who were at a viewing point were either crouching down low or just waiting for them to move out of the scene. I'm sure I took pictures of people taking pictures. Farther on down the trail a man coming the opposite direction stopped and pointed out what he called a chocolate lily. I'd never noticed or heard of such a flower. I left him to his photo op and figured I'd find my own later on. The picture with the red leaves and yellow flowers has some chocolate lilies in it, they're kind of a bell-shaped, brown streaked flower.

Now the thing about Dog Mountain is there are parts of the trail that are steep and they're no picnic going up or down and there were several instances where my feet slid out from under me. After one such occurrence, a hiker that I had just passed insisted I take one of his hiking sticks. I felt bad because he needed it for the climb up but I was grateful he gave it to me because it definitely helped on the steeper parts of the trail. Besides that, when the trail leveled out I was able to use it to push off the ground and go even faster (I've never been accused of walking too slow). Well, I think that's enough writing; the pictures speak for themselves. If you ever get the chance to do this hike I would highly recommend it, especially in the mid to late spring.

What a Difference a Season Makes Part I.

One of the things I love about the northwest is there are four seasons. Now, some would say there are two or three depending on how you look at things: either rain and more rain or less rain, rain, and more rain. But I digress. When I moved here I was surprised to find that the fall is spectacular and I would daresay rivals the northeast in its range of color.

Last year I discovered the joys of hiking in the Columbia River Gorge. I was able to capture a number of beautiful shots in the summer and wanted to do the same in the fall. After several weeks of watching the weather, I decided my target would be Dog Mountain. It's located in Washington about 12 miles east of the town of Stevenson. When I left that Saturday morning there was a promise of sunshine and no ready appearance of rain. The gorge is a beautiful place to drive through at any time of year. Even though there wasn't the variety of color I was hoping for, it was still lovely with the mix of golds amidst the evergreens. As I pulled into the parking lot I could see that the promise of sun was nothing more than that and it was going to be another cloudy day in the gorge. But as I started hiking and the highway noises fell away it didn't matter that the sky overhead wasn't the clear blue of summer.

After making my way uphill for about an hour the trail broke out and I was again looking over the Columbia. It was about this time that I noticed a suspicious white substance rolling in, and it wasn't long before the fog had covered every bit of the view. However, the fog actually turned out to be a blessing because the trees were shrouded in the mist and what was otherwise a gray morning suddenly had a new atmosphere.

The fog dampened any sounds from the road far below and yet brought with it its own sort of voice, a whistling in the trees as it moved through the branches. There were only a few other hikers out that morning, they probably saw something that looked like a shadow and thought "sun!" much as I had done. It was rather chilly so I didn't linger at the top but snapped a few shots (mostly fog filled) and followed the trail down into the trees. Having never done this hike there was a momentary panic that I was lost because all of a sudden it felt as if I'd stepped into Sleepy Hollow and I was in the role of Ichabod (maybe Ichabodette?) and was almost listening for the sound of hooves coming up behind me. The fog was particularly heavy on this part of the trail and I was soon quite damp and chilled. I started running, not only to warm up but also to get to the end of this section of the trail, but of course the photographer in me won out and I had to pause and capture the trees in their blankets of wispy white.

After maybe a quarter of a mile, the trail broke out again into the open vista of the gorge and wound its way down. Since I was no longer focused on the uphill trudge, it was much easier to appreciate the beauty around me, even if it wasn't exactly what I had hoped for. A quick seven miles later, I was back at my car and eager to go home and see what magic images had been captured by the little black box in my hand. I was also biding my time until spring, which is when Dog Mountain really comes alive. But for that story, you have to go to Part II.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Southwest Serenity

Growing up in New Mexico, Oregon and the Northwest were places where it always rained and everything was green, all the people drank coffee 24/7 and lived in Gore Tex lined homes. After moving here in the fall of 2005 I've learned that, for once, most of my preconceived ideas were not only true but didn't go far enough. Now, I have yet to see a Gore Tex lined home but I think waterproof tents should qualify. Of course, not all of Oregon is like the western half. Central and eastern Oregon are much more like what I grew up around. Central Oregon resembles northern New Mexico and parts of eastern Oregon remind me very much of southern New Mexico. The wide-open spaces and azure blue sky make those areas feel like home.  However, it took a lot longer for this part of Oregon to feel like home. Who knew moss grew on sidewalks and roofs, that dogs would have their own raincoats and that the phrase "the mountain is out" was another way of saying there was a clear sky?  Another thing I didn't expect was that the green surroundings would make me appreciate the desert vastness and the sporadic beauty that instead of being out in the open was more like a hidden treasure to be sought after.

One of the sights that greets you as you drive from El Paso to the town of Carlsbad is El Capitan, Signal Peak, or Guadalupe Peak. It doesn't matter what you call it really because it's all the same. This sudden uprising of rock out of what up to that point is a relatively flat and not too exciting drive is the highest point in Texas and one of my favorite sights. I never get tired of looking at it because each time it's different. Sometimes there are clouds hovering near the top, casting their shadows on the rock face. Other times it's totally clear and there's nothing but blue sky over the craggy outcroppings.

During the last few visits I've made to see family and friends, my dad and I have taken a day to go out exploring and picture taking. Some of the shots here will be his because I, inexplicably, forgot my camera and had to make do with one I bought at a department store. Now, I take full responsibility because somehow I had it set on macro so all my pictures were very fuzzy. We were both clicking at the same things so he got exactly what I was aiming for. But I digress. One of our excursions took us to a large area of white sand between Salt Flats and Dell City. Don't feel bad if you've never heard of either of those places, most of the people in Texas haven't either. But those of us who frequent the road between Carlsbad and El Paso are quite familiar with both of them. Neither of us had ever heard of any white sand dunes except for those in the Alamogordo area so when we discovered these not far from the peak we decided it would be a good excursion.

The following year, we found yet another place to view the peak. This one involved what the park service guidebook described as a "well traveled road." Let's just say that their definition of well traveled means huge ruts and lots of rocks. The picture of my dad's truck at a cock-eyed angle doesn't really do it justice, but you get the idea. Our goal was called the Williams Ranch. It was a ranch house built in the late 1800's by a man named, oddly enough, Williams. He had built it for his wife, complete with Franklin stove and wallpaper. But the isolation and hard desert conditions forced them back to more civilized surroundings after a fairly short time. The house is now owned by the park service and is kept locked. Getting to the ranch requires a little planning because you have to arrange for a key to unlock the gate and then it's quite a drive on that "well traveled road." At one point, the road intersects with the Butterfield Stage route. After much jostling, we finally reached the house. By this point I had built up a lot of sympathy for poor Mrs. Williams. And yet, there was a certain calmness and serenity in the absolute stillness of the place. Literally the only sound was that of the wind as it whistled through the Guadalupes on its way to the wide-open spaces. There was a feeling of isolation and yet absolute peace.

There was an ancient truck of some kind not far from the house. The wooden spokes were still intact and you got the feeling it fell apart from lack of use rather than too much. It most likely gave up when its owners did.

Dad and I headed off on what was not so much a trail as a line of breaks in the scrub and mesquite bushes. He had heard of an abandoned well station in the area and was hoping it was nearby. After about 45 minutes of literally wandering in the wilderness we gave up and headed back for the truck. As we turned around, the line of the Guadalupes ending in the defiant peak was perfectly placed against a flawless blue sky. I probably already had 30 pictures of it, but figured one more couldn't hurt.

We made our way back down the well traveled road and both of us kept looking in the rear view mirror at the ranch as it dropped away behind the hills. It was like being in a time machine and watching the past  fall behind as the sounds of the highway got closer and closer.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Someone's Always Watching

I considered saving a post about this topic until I had more material, but then I decided this is sure to continue happening if I keep taking pictures. It's becoming more common for someone to make the comment "Oh, are you taking pictures?" as I stand with camera in hand and focus on some faraway object. I must admit to wanting to respond with "No, I'm trying to start my car" on those occasions but that hardly seems polite. There are three instances that stand out in my mind where the people  I encountered were either extremely kind, interesting, or just a bit on the over-protective side.

First there is Mr. X. I will probably never see him again and even if I did I probably wouldn't know who he was. I met Mr. X very early one morning as I was standing on a local bridge waiting to see if it was going to be a good sunrise. The skyline of Portland rolls out in front of you with no obstructions between you, the buildings and the sun (well, except maybe the clouds). I awoke very early that morning for some reason and of course the first thing that came to mind was going to take pictures. Isn't that what everyone thinks of at 5:00 on a Saturday morning? Well, never mind. I'm always afraid of missing something so I hurry to get somewhere and then end up waiting for a long, long time.
Such was the case this morning. And it was cold and windy on that bridge. I was focussing on the sky but noticed out of the corner of my eye that a car had driven by and then turned around. Intuition said the driver was coming back to ask me something. Sure enough, the car pulled up and the window rolled down. I remember a rather distinguished looking man with a small, clipped mustache was sitting in the driver's seat. He told me he was going to ask me a stupid question, but was I okay? Then he saw my camera around my neck and was instantly relieved. I sincerely hope he didn't feel foolish asking me if I was about to jump because it was really a kind thing for him to do. He went on his way and I continued to wait. This is a sample of what I waited for, nothing spectacular but not too bad. On the way down to the freeway I got a glimpse of I-5 with the sun behind it and, of course, had to find a place to park and snap a quick picture.

My next encounter was with Bob. It was another early Saturday and this time I wanted to focus on Mt. Hood. There are several places in town where you can get a fairly unobstructed view of the mountain as the sun comes up. Bob walked past me several times as I was standing by my car, staring at the sky. He probably wondered if the whole "Keep Portland Weird" idea was getting a little out of hand. He finally was able to see my camera and that's when the conversation began. He had lived in that neighborhood for many, many years and was able to give me a history of it and of the local area. He is a landscape painter and we spent quit some time discussing our favorite hiking areas and about the beauty of the Northwest.
Finally, the sun made its way over the rooftops and burst onto the scene, like a child on Christmas morning who just can't wait any longer. We both watched in silence as it came into view and then shook hands and promised to stay in touch. I do intend to go back there when the weather warms up a bit and find Bob's house (the green one) and see some of his paintings and meet his two dogs.

Last, but certainly not least, there was the elderly lady in the green Buick. I say elderly but she was certainly sharp, and very observant. I was photographing white camellia blossoms that had fallen on top of a stone wall. They were surrounded by shrubs so the background was very dark and made a wonderful contrast with the creamy white blooms. Very intent on experimenting with the shutter speed and exposure, I still noticed a car pass by and slow down. I figured it was someone who was lost and was going to ask for directions. I waited a moment and then moved on to some pink flowers along the same wall. Sure enough, the car turned and came near to where I was standing. The window rolled down and a very nicely dressed woman said "Do you mind if I ask you what you're doing?". She was actually very pleasant about it but the gist of it was she said I looked like spy trying not to get caught. I offered to show her my pictures but she said no, that was okay and she went on her way. The whole thing struck me as so funny I almost burst into laughter on the side of the street, but then that might attract attention. For one thing, I doubt most spies wear loud green Adidas t-shirts with capris and wander around taking pictures of flowers. But, you never know these days. Standards in every profession seem to be slipping.