Thursday, December 30, 2010

Christmas Road Trip: Part One

Christmas Day dawned with high, thin clouds.  It wasn't too cold, high thirties, so, with family obligations obliged the night before, I pointed the car east for a day on the road.

Christmas, New Year's and Thanksgiving Day seem to be the best time for a drive on Long Island; all the idiots are home.  Except for the one in the Hummer, who came up from behind me in the HOV lane on the Long Island Expressway (I'd had the lane to myself when I got on) and hung twenty feet behind me as we went 75 MPH toward Riverhead.  He wisely left at the first exit lane, which is good.  If he hadn't, I was going to simply take my foot off the gas until I hit 55 and he gave me some space.

The ride was uneventful after that, and I made it to my first destination, The Big Duck, by around eleven in the morning.  The sun was shining off and on through the clouds, but the overall scene was pretty flat.  I hadn't seen the duck done up for the holidays at this, its original location, before.  When it sat at the entrance to Sears-Bellows park I made a nice shot that later became a holiday card.

Since I can't do a road trip without including a cemetery or two, I made sure to have a good one along the way.  Green River Cemetery in Springs is the final stop for a dozen or so prominent names from the twentith century.  I had only one in mind, a painter who lies under a giant rock, who overturned his convertible one drunken night less than half a mile away, killing himself and another passenger.

To judge from the dates on the surrounding stones, Jackson Pollack had this hillock all to himself until the early nineties.

The main point of this trip was to spend some time wandering around Camp Hero State Park, a former Army, then later Air Force base located about a thousand yards west of the lighthouse.

If you've ever driven along Montauk Highway as it rolls through the scrub pine east of Amagansett you've seen the radar tower pictured above off in the distance.  The most prominent feature of the site, the  SAGE (Semi Automatic Ground Environment) AN/FPS-35 antenna was probably the last major structure there, built in 1958 to detect long-range bombers during the Cold War.

The road in the picture leads to the locked gate of a fence surrounding the tower and some other buildings.  This part of the park is closed; the military deactivated the radar in 1980, and all operations here ceased by 1984. 

This sign was curious; usually when I encounter these signs they don't give such specific indications of the danger involved. I followed the fence from here until I reached the expected gaping hole about a hundred feet along.  (There's always a break in the fencing around these places.)

Winter is a good time to explore abandoned sites like this, when the undergrowth has dried up and thinned out, all the better to watch for the inevitable sinkholes and open manholes.  The one here, on the right, looked to be a service box for an underground electrical and communications network, judging from the conduits I could see.  I couldn't see very much, though, since it was filled with water of an indeterminate depth.  Nestled as it was, surrounded by what would be in the summer tall, thick grass, I began to suspect the 'falling objects' that the sign warned visitors of would be the visitors themselves.

I can't find any stats online about the height of the concrete tower, and I wish there were something in the shot above to indicate scale, so all I can do is tell you that this thing is immense.  The dish itself, according to what I found, is 126 feet wide and 38 feet high.  Using that as a guide, I'm figuring the base is at least twelve to fourteen stories tall.  Other than what seem to be vents, there aren't any windows, and only one door, opened, on the north side.  (No, I didn't go in.  I'm curious, but I'm not stupid.)  

Wandering about under this thing was a little humbling in a way: the mass of the concrete, its sheer height, the 40 ton dish atop it all, which, by the way, moves freely in the wind, combine for a very interesting experience.    

Then I saw this.  At the base of the tower.  And I thought back to the 'falling objects' sign.  Now I invite you to look again at the dish in the picture above, or in the earlier one.  Do you see that triangular nick on the upper right corner?

Now that sign makes sense... 


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Cuatro Gato

Twice now I've sat down to write a piece about Jones Beach,  first hesitating for the want of more pictures, then I was waylaid for the second time  when,  after returning from getting more pictures, I was confronted with the sight of all my children sprawled in the sunshine on the living room floor.  This is something I rarely see, all four of them at peace with one and other.  Well, at peace given some distance.

The triplets, seen here, were on the rug, the sun streaming through the double windows, the blinds half-raised and open.  Betsy (on the left) was half in shadow, and Molly, in the background, was just about blending into the distant shadows.  A very high contrast scene, there was no way I could capture this without some serious help from my Speedlite:

Above is the same scene shot with just the existing light, exposed for the highlights:  ISO 100, f11, 1/25 sec.

The challenge with a scene like this is not only to get all three cats in the picture with good expressions, preferably all looking towards the camera, but to light it so that everything can be seen without losing the sense of natural light.

I think the first picture has good light; you can tell sunlight from shadow and still see detail and contrast throughout the image.  Overall it's very warm; very often shooting gray cats with a flash results in a gun-metal colored result with Betsy, yet here she looks fine.

The difference between the two pictures?  Both were shot at f11, but the first one had a shutter speed of 1/200 sec, instead of 1/25, the better to handle the  +2 stop compensation of a direct flash.

This is the best I could do to get all four of them together.  As it was, to get the first two pictures here I had to crouch down in Legs' bed with him, which he was quite tolerant of.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Enjoy Your Visit!

This day before Thanksgiving was bright and sunny, cloudless and chilly, with a steady breeze.  I was down at Jones Beach, on Zach's Bay, taking pictures for an upcoming story.  I began to notice a pattern of negativity, a pattern that began as soon as I arrived:

Three outright prohibitions and one vague one. I mean, define 'loud'.  What if I've got a huge boombox and the volume is only set to three, but it's been painted in garish colors, like some Peter Max nightmare?  No pets?  Okay, dogs I can see, but seriously, my fish isn't going to bother anyone.  Does this bar only pets?  Meaning, I can bring a brown bear to the beach?  No Rollerblading.  Hmmm.  Since "Rollerblade®" is a registered trademark, as long as I wear a different brand of inline skate, no one's going to bother me?

(Sometimes, when you question authority, you can't help but get sarcastic.)


Okay, this one makes sense.  It's a busy road, and there's no shoulder.

But this is the drop-off for the East Bathhouse, you should be able to get  in here.  (Okay, maybe not in November.)

During the season, and on weekends until this one, they nick you ten bucks for parking, but that doesn't get you the choice spots near the boardwalk.  And if you want to read into it, it's not a parking fee, it's a vehicle use fee.  Really, it is. 

Twice-reminded about the ban on pets here (but still no mention about wild animals) and some additional prohibitions against wheeled shoes: now rollerskates, as well as Rollerblades®, are not allowed.  Still no word about other inline skates.

But I just looked at those signs again, and I realized something bizarre.  The one on the left seems to indicate that it's your pets that are prohibited from using skates or skateboards.

Of course, speaking of bizarre, or at least, unusual:

Here's a sport I not only wasn't aware was prohibited, I wasn't aware it even existed.

Okay, no fires in the underbrush and bramble, that makes sense.  Of course, it isn't a very attractive venue for picnics, anyway.  I wonder if maybe they didn't  just have the sign laying around, and they were looking for a place to use it?

It's a long, long, wide boardwalk, made of hard hardwood.  Maybe it's not really hardwood, it's probably pine, but it's hard on the feet nonetheless.  And there aren't really a lot of benches, either.

This sign I really like.  It may disappoint park visitors intent upon these two activities, but just look at the face on that fish.  Such a big smile!  And if you've ever wondered about the expression 'happy as a clam', well...

Less happy are the ones coming to the beach in the hopes of swimming.  But  then...low tide, November...

Finally, the only 'NO' sign that was ultimately welcoming: the museum/gift shop.  Commerce conquers all.


Monday, November 22, 2010

Sunset: The One That Got Away

I've been pretty good with in my current assignment, capturing the daily sunset, only missing the three or four rainy days in the last month.  These sunsets are special to us this time of year, sinking as they do into the ocean.

Unlike my friends on the west coast, I only get to see ocean sunsets during the late fall through the winter.  In other words, when it's cold.  But since moving back to Long Beach after seven years, and being less than five minutes from the water, I committed to creating a series of pictures, partly to see if I could look at a common photographic theme in a different way every day, and partly to have a specific appointment at a regular time.

But finding that new way to see the sunset every night is getting to be a challenge.  The basic  landscape never changes: the ocean is always going to be on the left, a wide shot will have the the apartment towers on the right.  If I'm shooting from Pacific Blvd, then there's always going to be one rock standing above the others on that groin straight ahead..

What makes the pictures what they are is the weather.  That's all.  I just have to get there on time.  The weather is going to determine if there's clouds or not, and what kind of clouds they'll be. The clouds are going to make the color, the winds and the tides affect the surf, and so on. I check the Navel Observatory site for the sunset time, and make sure my batteries are fresh.  If there's been storm activity or the tides are up, I'll bring a telphoto zoom to catch any surfers.

The pictures here are from Saturday, November 20, 2010.  It had been a windy day, with high, thin clouds and bright sunshine.  By mid-afternoon the sky was lightly clouded over. Coming home from the market, I thought I'd have the night off, but when I got upstairs there was some pale color visible through high, broken clouds.  I put the groceries away, grabbed a camera and headed out.

Five minutes later found me on a windswept beach, neutral gray clouds meeting the water, a small open patch of orange a few degrees above the horizon, a patch the sun had already descended below.  The sky above the clouds was a rich blue, which threw its color-cast on the sand, making everything especially dull.  Like I said, this is a challenge.  These two were today's best shots, and I consider them to be among the weakest in the bunch so far.  But they taught me something.

I left the beach a block west of where I came on, and walked home along Shore Road, a narrow street with apartment buildings on both sides.  I got to Pacific, the Broadway, where I passed three more towers before getting to my block.  My point is, I'm walking home through this canyon of sorts, never looking behind me until  I look up to see this beautiful rose-colored cloud high in the eastern sky over my house.  I realize what I'm going to see if I turn around, so I simply went upstairs and went straight out onto the deck.  

November 20, 2010 - Panorama made from 12 frames

Lesson learned.  It's a different show every night, so don't leave till the fat lady sinks.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Waterworks for the Water Works

Without ever realizing it, Brooklyn lost a piece of history last month, a piece of history that wasn't even located within its borders, but that went all the way back to the borough's time as an independent city.  A city that needed basic services to fulfill their needs, the most basic of which was water.  

Pipelines drew this water from the vast wilds to the east on Long Island, pulled west by pumping stations along the way, the grandest of which stood in Freeport. 

November, 2009
Completed in the 1890's, obsolete in less than forty years, the Romanesque building operated until the 1970's as a supplemental source of water for the city.  When New York no longer needed the Long Island aquifers as a water supply, the steam pumps were removed, and the building settled into quiet abandonment.  Redevelopment plans were proposed and discussed: condominiums, recreational centers.  It was bought, sold, foreclosed. Fencing went up, and occasionally a  security patrol was posted.  Somewhere along the line it burned.

October 1995
The fire was the end of it, collapsing the roof of the western section.  The structure was entirely made of timber and masonry, and with the roof gone, water would eventually have its way with the concrete and brick, weakening the walls and supports a little more every day, every month, every year; decades of neglect resulting in piles of rubble surrounding a ruined shell overlooked by a three story facade and tower.

November, 2009
And all the while the nature preserve surrounding it closed in, despite the best annual efforts of the town crews.  They usually came in each October to clear all the brush from around and inside the ruins.  I think it was done less for aesthetic purposes than to prevent the local freelance vandals from having the fuel to set it on fire again.

October 1995

I made my first visits here in the late 1980's, parking at the entrance to the preserve, a block north of the (fenced off) street access to the site.  Getting onto the property was always something of a joke: there was seven-foot high chain link fencing running along the eastern side north from the railroad embankment to where the nature preserve began.  From there the fence ran west along the northern edge of the property until it came to the creek, where it turned south, back to the embankment.

It was here, after a pleasant walk through the woods, that you could enter the property through holes in the fence and wander freely.

In the picture on the right, of the western end of the building, the fence runs through the trees to the left, and around the back.  The breaks in the fencing were located here.  This picture was taken in November of 2009.  I liked to come here at least once a year, if for nothing more than to document the changing graffiti and gradual deterioration of the building, as I noted about a year ago.   

So when I was driving by last month and saw a crane looming alongside the tower, I knew that gradual deterioration had given way to complete elimination.

Well, almost complete: the tower still stood, but that was all.  Everything else was reduced to piles of brick and mortar, and the tower would fall within days. 

It's sad to see it gone, inevitable as it was.  The building was nothing more than a crumbling shell, the owner was never going to be able to rebuild it, and it was too far gone for my pipe-dream project of a stabilized ruin, like the castles of the Irish and British countrysides.

What I wonder about most regarding all this is the beautifully carved frieze pictured at the top of this article. Even covered in paint it would be worth saving.  These two pictures of the main tower were made in November 2009 (intact version) and October 2010 (not intact.  So would that be 'tact'?).  I tried my best to poke around in the rubble, but the chunks were large and unwieldy, and  even though it looked like part of the wall was still standing there, I couldn't find anything but regular bricks. I really hope someone was able to take the time to rescue it.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Surf City - LBNY

Assignment: Sunset, my current three-week-long and continuing project, is getting to be something of a tedious challenge. While we've been blessed with fairly good weather the last few weeks (barring the odd day of freezing rain and snow), and watching a beautiful sunset on the beach almost every night is a pleasure that many people never have a chance to enjoy, finding a new and creative way to present it often vexes me.

I also realized that I was getting to the beach with only just enough time to find a good spot, either on the shore to catch the sun's reflection in the wet sand, or a more precarious position on the boulders of the groins that reach out into the surf. This was okay through October: I was able to work on things at the apartment till late afternoon, put dinner together, then get my pictures and be home in time to watch Jeopardy!.

With daylight saving back on, I had to get my act together earlier in order to get to the beach and figure out a new way to see the same old sunset. So, since Pacific Blvd. is a surfing beach, I decided to start leaving earlier to try and get some good pictures of surfers.

I was never able to get good action shots of surfers during my earlier years in Long Beach, though not for a lack of trying. My gear at the time just wasn't up to the task, and my ability to both manually focus and advance each frame made sequences like the ones here impossible. While I try emphasize talent over equipment in a photographer's work, pictures like these are situations where high-speed autofocusing and frame rate, along with high-quality glass, make all the difference.

I'd been shooting the sunsets with the Canon 5D, mostly with the 24-105 lens, though I'd put the 17-40 on a couple times when there were particularly spectacular clouds. The day before I made these pictures the water was filled with angry waves and happy surfers, but I had only the 24-105 with me. When I got home I checked the tide tables for the next day which looked toward providing the same conditions.

So the following afternoon, as the golden light filled the living room, I took out my sports camera, the 30D, added the battery grip, then attached that combo to the 100-400mm lens. This is more than three times the longest focal length I had ten years ago. This lens has image stabilization as well, which eliminates most of the shake that occurs at those focal lengths. The camera shoots five frames per second and its autofocus is continuous: as long as the shutter button is held down and the main focal point is on the subject, no matter how close or far away the subject moves from the photographer it will remain in focus.

All these pictures were shot at 400mm, f11, 1/200 second exposure, ISO 320, handheld. 

As tedious as those last two paragraphs may have been for some of you to read, shooting surfers is just as bad. Most of the time you sit on the sand and watch them bobbing in the water a hundred meters off, shopping for waves like blue-haired ladies in the butcher shop.

Even though I had this camera with a long lens, I was primarily there for my sunset picture; using the telephoto lens just added to the challenge. I perched on the boulders about seventy-five feet out from the beach, far enough to have roiling water on both sides of me. The sun was still high when I arrived, so I started following a couple of surfers who were going at as many breakers as they could. It took a while for me to get my feel back for tracking a subject, and the camera/lens combo is fairly heavy, but I was able to follow a couple of guys, so I alternated my shots between the sunset in the west, then turning to my left to catch the golden light on the waves and the riders.
Of course, not everyone was as fortunate in their endeavors on this beautiful afternoon as were I and the surfer in the first four pictures in this article.

Now these last three pictures, well, I hear country music in these last three...

 ...I hear lyrics about windshields and about bugs...

...and ragdolls.

Long Beach, NY - November 13, 2010


Monday, November 8, 2010

Wonderful Whiskers

November 8, 2010

Molly has the most wonderful whiskers, a brilliant white contrast to her shiny black coat. What's funny is that originally her whiskers were black: about two and a half years ago she suddenly sprouted a single white one, then another, and another, and within a few weeks they were as white as mine. which I like, especially for pictures like the one in the post below, and this one, where the brightness of the whiskers stand out against the darker background.

Here's what I like about this composition: the way it's split in half, with a lighter side and a darker side, but with an ear, eye, and set of whiskers on either one. I love the way the whiskers are spread out and down, like butterfly wings. This was shot with the Canon 5D, 50mm EF lens, f1.4 - 1/100, ISO 400. My focal point was the eye.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Late-Morning Molly

So here we have Molly, enjoying the late morning sun, fitting perfectly to the size of her bed. (Well, perfectly after I raised the blinds a few inches.) I needed to be almost directly above her in order to get this shot, and she watched intently as I climbed, first to the ottoman, then steadying myself with my left foot on the chair. Just the way I wanted her.

I don't know if my cats take a perverse pleasure in looking away from me whenever I aim a camera in their direction, or if they simply lose interest in looking at me after I cover my face. Whatever the reason, their sudden disinterest makes it difficult for me to physically attain the results I want.

As my stocking feet sank into the soft folds of the chair, she turned away just as I framed the shot. I made an exposure anyway to check the light. This is one of the harshest lighting situations you can encounter: black fur against brilliant white in the sunshine. I shot this in aperture priority at f8, which gave me a shutter speed of 1/30 second. This blew out the highlights too much, so I moved the exposure compensation down 1 and 1/3 stops, for a final speed of 1/80. I still lost a tiny bit of detail in the upper left corner, but it was acceptable.

Not acceptable was Molly's continuing feigned ignorance of me. None of my calls were getting her attention, though she'd look at me if I took the camera away from my face. Of course, as soon as I replaced it she turned away.

I was finally able to get the picture at the top by standing as described earlier while holding the camera in my right hand (quite a heavy combination, too, the 5D with a 24-105 lens) pointed straight down. My left hand held the tempting carcass of the fuzzy yellow mouse dispatched by Legs in another post a few days ago. This got her attention long enough for me to get a few shots off. The single eye and some whiskers lit by the sun was exactly how I envisioned this scene, being what I saw the whole time I was climbing into position.

Unwelcome Advances: Molly and Legs

I'm not sure if Molly envisioned our session ending this way, however. You see, this particular fleece bed and its patch of sunshine has been favored by Legs for some time now. (Last week, in fact, he was wailing in the living room. I came in to see what was wrong and find him pacing. The fleece bed was about two feet from the patch of sun. I moved it over, he climbed in, and we all had a peaceful morning.)

He settled into the empty space and they actually coexisited for about a minute before Molly decided the top of the armchair had a better view, and was closer to the light.

Assignment: Sunset

Four minutes to the sand isn't bad. It's certainly quicker than it's been for too many years, and when the late afternoon light fills the front room of the new apartment I'm torn between reveling in the golden glow and walking the 500 yards to where the Atlantic meets Pacific (Blvd.)

Since the weather's been nice, and the sun has begun making its move to setting in the southwest, over the water, I've been opting for the walk. I figure I'll appreciate the golden glow better in the coming months when I can enjoy it from inside a cable-knit sweater with a glass of warm scotch, and maybe a cat in my lap.

November 6, 2010

I never made many photographs of the sunsets during the ten years I lived here last, though during my first time down here, in 1983, I did once, with my Pentax Auto 110, an SLR camera with interchangeable lenses that used 110 cartridges. It was a freezing day in February, and I think I had a flask of Jack Danial's with me. The camera's exposures were all automatic, but I somehow managed to get some decent prints.

November 6, 2010

Ever have one of those things you always tell yourself you should do, something simple, something stupid, something you could accomplish without ever even going out of your way for, but for some reason you never quite get around to? Well, for me, the last 27 years I've meant to get back to the beach for an ocean sunset.

October 1, 2010

The anvil finally hit me on the head the first of last month, after a day of heavy storms. The rains had ended and the winds finally died down and the clouds to the west opened and the setting sun lit the front room like the beginning of a first act. I got one glimpse of the sky, then I got my camera and coat.

I was only moments too late to include the orb in this picture; I've since bookmarked the US Naval Observatory, but the brilliance of the sky and clouds, not to mention my unwitting model, made for an acceptable shot.


Thursday, November 4, 2010

Legs: Play with Prey

Rodents beware, especially those hairy yellow mice, the ones with red ears and green tails...

My Protector will start by trying to kill you with kindness, at least, that's the way it looks, but he's actually beginning to asphyxiate you with his toxic breath:

Unconsciousness is sweet, though, since it helps you to to survive the battering that ensues... which involves at least one barrel roll and back-and-forth between the paws..

...ending with a surprise uppercut. Who would expect a cat to be left-handed?

My hero.