Monthly Archives: July 2017

Walking the Streets of Buenos Aires

I spent a recent Saturday afternoon walking the streets of Buenos Aires with my friend Steve and our guide Amelia, a locally-based photographer whom we had hired for the day to show us around the city and help us find places worth photographing.

In this my first visit to Buenos Aires, I have to say I really liked the city. It reminded me of Paris when I first visited there as a young man in the mid-1970s, when Paris was still beautiful.

Buenos Aires is a European city stuck way down at the bottom of the South Atlantic Ocean. So many aspects of the city reminded me of old Europe. The architecture is French, the cafe society Italian.  The people are stylish and well-dressed and spend their time seeing and being seen.

Just like the French.

And the Italians.

Life in the city is chaotic, helter-skelter and not always elegant. The sideways are covered in dog shit – just like Paris! – because the Argentinians are too haughty to stoop to pick up their own dogs’ mess.

Street markets are a common facet of city life. People selling clothes, kitchen utensils and roasted peanuts, the warm, reddish smell of which seemed to envelope my head and induce olfactory orgasms on every street corner.

While I excluded people from the photos I took, as is my preference, there are lots of traces of human activity in all these photos.

Like seemingly all South Americans, the Argentinians love their cars and they are everywhere. While most are sleek and stylish, I found a few quirkier ones that said a lot about their owners: an old black Peugeot, parked on its own under an awning on a vacant lot, and a bright green Citroen 2CV, which looked incongruous parked beneath the imposing columns of the Faculty of Engineering of the University of Buenos Aires.

I even found a pickup truck, parked in front of what looked like a disused cinema.

Buenos Aires is a very walkable city. We were out and about from 8:00 in the morning until gone 3:00 in the afternoon and, other than talking a taxi from the port area to downtown, walked everywhere.

Most of the time, I felt perfectly safe. There was only only one unpleasant incident when a group of guys sprayed some foul-smelling liquid on us, after we had walked past them on the street. At first, I thought we had been hit by pigeons overhead but it seems that was not the case. As we stopped to clean off our clothes and backpacks, the guys hovered around us, apparently hoping that we would put a bag down for a moment, at which point they planned to grab it and run off. Happily, we didn’t fall for their scheme but the incident did leave an unpleasant aftertaste, not to mention that we stank for the remainder of the day from whatever they sprayed on us.

As you may have read on the “About” page of this website, I like to try to show the familiar in an unfamiliar way in my photos and that was certainly what I was doing while walking the streets of Buenos Aires. I’d like to think I achieved it with the lead image of a dog sitting in front of a metal statue, with the shadow of bare, winter tree falling over both figures. This is just the kind of quirky vignette of daily life that I love to find. But, while I don’t usually do touristy photos, I broke my own rule just to be able to show you what a pretty city Buenos Aires really is.

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“Wings of Fancy”

A week ago, my photography friend Linda kindly invited me to go with her to the “Wings of Fancy” butterfly exhibit at Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, Maryland.

For two hours from 8:00am until 10:00am, when the public was admitted, about a dozen photographers were left alone inside a large, flower-filled conservatory with hundreds, maybe thousands, of butterflies: a rare privilege.

While the butterflies were undoubtedly beautiful and enchanting to watch, as they flitted from flower to bush, they were maddeningly difficult to photograph because of their constant, erratic motion.

As a slow-working, methodical landscape photographer, I simply don’t have the speed of reaction to make the many decisions and adjustments to my camera controls that are necessary to capture great photographs of fast-moving butterflies.

Unsure of what to do, I first hit upon the strategy of stalking individual butterflies around the conservatory from one plant to another, hoping to catch one in a perfect pose on a pretty flower. At first, I stalked an orange one, hoping it might land on a blue flower, willing it to enter the perfect colour theory composition that I envisaged in my head. That didn’t work.

Next, I decided to kneel by an individual flower, focus my camera on it and wait for an unsuspecting creature to land on it. I must have wasted a good 15 minutes on this ill-judged approach.

Finally, Linda took pity on me and pointed out that the best approach, and the one being employed by all the other photographers in the room, was to prowl around the various flowers and bushes, carefully examining them for a butterfly that had come to rest. This approach worked better than the others.

The next set of decisions I was faced with had to do with lens choice and whether to shoot on a tripod or hand-held. My camera is always on a tripod. I hate hand-holding my camera because it makes precise control over composition nearly impossible. So, I started off shooting with a 70-200mm lens on tripod-mounted camera but it quickly because apparent that this approach slowed me down so much I was unable to keep up with such fast-moving subjects. I then switched to a 105mm macro lens and hand-holding the camera, which at least enabled me to keep up with and get closer to a few subjects, though it did, predictably, lead to a whole host of other technical challenges.

Despite the newness of this photographic challenge, I stuck resolutely to my established method of using my camera in Manual mode, selecting aperture, shutter speed and ISO settings myself and adjusting them for each shot, as I judged necessary. The hardest choice in every case was that of the aperture. What little I know about butterfly photography tells me that a successful image demands perfect sharpness in the head and throughout the wings. To achieve this, I was working mostly in the f8 to f11 range but, with the subject’s wings in constant motion, even that wasn’t enough to guarantee sharpness in many cases because of motion blur.

Over the course of two hours, I shot about 150 images, of which fewer than 10 are usable.

I can’t wait to get back to landscape photography.

Location

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Longwood Lilies

Last weekend, I was so enthused by seeing a magnificent image of a water lily taken by John Barclay at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, that I jumped in my car at 6:30 on Monday morning and made the two-hour, 120-mile drive to Longwood to photograph the lilies myself.

Of course, I should have realized that, when an amateur photographer tries to emulate the work of a top professional, it is bound to end in disappointment.

As John lives close to Longwood Gardens, he was able to pick an overcast day with light drizzle to create his images, so that the lilies were covered in a light coating of tiny raindrops and their colours were saturated and luscious: perfect flower photography weather.

By contrast, when I rolled up a Longwood, despite a “partly cloudy” weather forecast, I was met by bright sunshine with not a cloud in the sky and a blustery wind that constantly shook the delicate blossoms: possibly the worst conditions for flower photography.

It is often said that local photographers, those who live closest to a given location, always capture the best images of a given subject because they can pick when to shoot it: the time of day, time of year, weather conditions. I suppose my two-hour drive up to Pennsylvania illustrated that truth.

From when the Gardens opened at 9:00am, I spent most of the first two hours sitting indoors hoping that some clouds might roll in. Eventually, at around 11:00am, some scattered clouds crossed over the gardens and, with a lot of patience and by carefully picking my moment when to trip the shutter, I was able to capture a few images when the lilies were still and in shade.

After spending three hours at Longwood and arriving home at four in the afternoon, these five images were the only ones I managed to salvage from a long, tiring day.

Next time, I’ll think twice before thinking that I can easily replicate the work of a professional photographer who lives on Longwood’s doorstep.

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Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens 2017

This morning, I made my annual summer visit to Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in northeast Washington, D.C.

The gardens are an extraordinary place, a haven of unmatched beauty in the middle of one the roughest neighbourhoods in Washington. Outside the gardens, the low, redbrick houses are dilapidated, the streets strewn with discarded beer cans and plastic bags. It’s not the sort of place where most of the DC area photographers I know would normally venture but, each July, we make the trek up to the northeast corner of the city to photograph the thousands of lotuses that briefly bloom in Kenilworth’s extensive lotus ponds.

Flower photography was my first love when I took up digital photography seriously about seven years ago. Although I have been doing mostly travel photography lately, it is always a pleasurable feeling to return to my first love.

Every time I try my hand at flower photography, I contemplate the words of two of the greatest exponents of the art: Joshua Taylor Jr. and Mike Moats. Josh always says that there are only two times to photograph a flower: when it’s at its pristine best or when it’s withered and atrophied. And, if you’re attempting the former, you have to look for the most perfect specimen in the garden, the one flower that seems to jump out at you and shout, “Hey! Photograph me!”

Mike’s advice is to look for what he calls the “Lady Gaga flower”, the one that’s weird and flamboyant and doesn’t look like any of the others. I didn’t find any Lady Gaga flowers this morning but I did spot a few lotuses that were at their peak, so I followed Josh’s advice.

The principal challenge of photographing the lotuses at Kenilworth is finding order in the midst of chaos. It takes patience to spot pleasing compositions when the lotus beds are teaming with flowers in different stages of bud, bloom or decay; plus, of course, the green foliage that supports the flowers is massive and often impedes clean compositions. In the above image, I noticed that the way the light was reflecting off the outer rim of the pad was creating a circle of light, so I positioned the lotus bulb in the centre of the light circle as a way of framing the subject. This is the classic “frame within a frame” compositional device, so beloved by photographers.

Other than that, the compositions I found this morning were mostly simple portraits of the flowers. I’m fine with that. In flower photography, it takes a while a re-train the eye, once you’ve been away from it for a while, to seek out more complex compositions. I may go back to Kenilworth next weekend and challenge myself to do so.

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La Recoleta Cemetery

On a recent trip to Buenos Aires, I had the good fortune to spend two afternoons in the imposing La Recoleta Cemetery, the final resting place of Argentina’s great and good for the past two centuries, since it opened in 1822.

Interred here are almost all of the legendary figures of Argentina’s past, most notably Eva Peron. Her tomb, in the Duarte family mausoleum, is surprisingly modest. While many of the tombs have open panels or glass panes, allowing one to look inside and see the coffins, Eva’s tomb is sealed. Indeed, she is buried two floors below ground level, fifteen feet down, under two heavy slabs of marble, in order to forestall the possibility that some unreformed Peronist might exhume her remains and, with them, her still-powerful political legacy.

Far more than a cemetery, La Recoleta is an architectural marvel, containing some 6,400 elaborate mausoleums, monuments and statues. Some of the mausoleums are as large as churches, while others resemble Gothic chapels or Roman statuary. It is no surprise, therefore, that CNN lists La Recoleta as one of the ten most beautiful cemeteries in the world.

Resting here are the remains of several Presidents, high-ranking military officers, sportsmen, artists, musicians, poets, scientists, two Nobel laureates and an illegitimate granddaughter of Napoleon Bonaparte, Isabel Walewski Colonna. There is even an Irishman: William “Guillermo” Brown, born in Foxford, County Mayo in 1777, founded the Argentine Navy and was its first Admiral. He fought in the Argentine War of Independence in 1810-1818 and is still revered as a national hero. His mausoleum is made of the melted-down bronze of canons from ships he once commanded and painted green in honour of his country of birth.

Another notable occupant is Luis Angel Firpo (1894 – 1960), nicknamed The Wild Bull of the Pampas, a professional boxer who became the first South American ever to fight for the world heavyweight title. He fought the great American world champion Jack Dempsey in New York in 1923. Firpo was knocked down seven times in the first round alone but, in the second, he trapped Dempsey on the ropes and hit him with a punch so powerful that it knocked the champion clean out of the ring. While millions of South Americans, huddled around their radios, had already begun celebrating their first world heavyweight champion, Dempsey climbed back into the ring and knocked Firpo out in the same round. Boxing historians have described Dempsey versus Firpo as the greatest fight in the sport’s history. Today, Firpo stands tall, handsome and unbowed in La Recoleta, his boxer’s boots neatly laced up, his open dressing gown exposing his muscular chest; the sporting hero of an entire continent.

Each grave in La Recoleta is adorned by plaques, made of bronze, stone or slate, inscribed with the homage of loved ones, former colleagues, employees or simply devotees of the heroes buried within. One of the most touching, written by a wife to her late husband who died in 1914, read, “Luis, my love. Thank you for having loved me so. May Almighty God put light and peace in your repose.” (I have translated the inscription from the Spanish.) She joined her husband in his tomb in 1923.

The intricacy of the decoration of many of the mausoleums is evidence to the extraordinary level of craftsmanship that went into their construction. Now that decades or, in some cases, centuries have passed since they were completed, many of the fixtures have rusted. To a photographer, this just adds to their charm, of course.

Although I spent a total of about six hours in La Recoleta over the course of two visits, I felt that I had only scratched the surface of what it offers the photographer. Indeed, I took relatively few photos, as I spent most of my time in awe-filled study of the inscriptions on the plaques, so intrigued was I by the life stories of the cemetery’s many accomplished inhabitants: men who led armies into victorious battles, conquering huge swathes of territory and building a nation in the process; a woman who, without ever holding political office, inspired a powerful nation by sheer force of her charisma.

It was a humbling experience to stand there surrounded by the remains of people who achieved so much in their lives, by so many heroes, by people whose achievements in their lifetimes live on centuries after their passing. While my first impression of the mausoleums was that they were excessive, upon reflection and having researched the lives of several of their inhabitants, I concluded that they are entirely appropriate to memorialize people who achieved so much in their brief time on earth.

 

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