Photo Pilgrimage in Rome: Santa Maria della Vittoria

One of the more interesting churches in Rome is Santa Maria della Vittoria. This small church is about 8 blocks north of the Termini train station. The church is open until noon and then from 3:30 to 6 or so (time is of casual interest when it comes to church visiting hours).

Vittoria is the church that has the Bernini sculpture, Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. And the place is a classic example of  a little church with a world-class art work. The church itself was built in the early 1600s and the interior came together later in that century. It’s not much to see from the outside:

Santa Maria della Vittoria

This is the Baroque era and the church has some of the overbuilt feel from that era. But it’s nowhere near as over the top as the Gesu or as ornate as St Peter’s Basilica.

Santa Maria della Vittoria

Typical of Baroque, almost every inch of surface area is covered with decoration or highly detailed marble. The alter features a Bernini starburst and a fresco.

The ceiling is a bit of a trompe l’oeil that looks like it’s about the fall of Icarus. But the actual content celebrates a battle between the Church and some pesky Protestants that’s called “The Virgin Mary Triumphing over Heresy and Fall of the Rebel Angels.

Santa Maria della Vittoria

But we came for the Bernini sculpture and that’s off to the left in an alcove. Bernini was a devout Catholic, one who understood the deeper teachings better than most. And the writings of St. Teresa of Avila seem to have inspired him, this is one of his greatest works.

Teresa was a true Christian “mystic” — not the type who was weird and incomprehensible. No, Teresa was the real deal. Her autobiography and other writings give a cogent and detailed analysis of her spiritual practices and her experiences.

One of my buddies, Evie Toft, did her dissertation comparing Teresa’s experiences with enlightened folks from other traditions. It turns out that there are lots of similarities in these Unity experiences once you strip away the differences in vocabulary.

And Bernini clearly knows Teresa’s writings. His sculpture shows us the key moment in her autobiography when she feels an angel penetrate her heart. The shafts of gold suggest her experience of union with the Divine.

Santa Maria della Vittoria

You can see the almost fiendish glee of the angel. But the real drama lies in Teresa’s body and face. Somehow Bernini manages to get it just right, that mixture of pure bliss, pure openness, floating in the cloud of Unknowing. It’s a feeling that clearly overwhelms her with joy beyond her rational brain and her ego. Teresa’s connection with this experience is almost sexual in its totality.

Santa Maria della Vittoria

Close Up

The rest of the church is nice. Bernini’s sunburst alter piece seems to me to be an extension of the Teresa experience but seen as an abstract explosion of grace. But maybe he just had some extra gold leaf to get rid of.

Santa Maria della Vittoria

Photo Pilgrimage in Rome: Santa Maria sopra Minerva

I’ve been traveling recently. Taking lots of photos. But not having much time to post. Hopefully I can free up a block of time now. We’ve been doing a cruise of the Greek Islands (with a stop in Athens) and I will post some of those shots soon. But let’s start with where I am right now, Rome.

I’ve been to Italy before but wasn’t as prepared for the experience then and didn’t have much time. Now I have a week in Rome and my best discovery has been the churches. Obviously Rome has more than it’s share of churches. Most travelers will hit the Vatican and swing by the Sistine Chapel and St Peters. But to me, that’s just scratching the surface.

Savvy travelers know that some of the best travel experiences come when you wander into a church you’ve never heard of and discover impressive works of art and a place for reflection.

But on this trip to Italy I’ve decided to go one step further, researching holy sites that would appeal to my artistic and spiritual interests. I did some reading and looked online for images of churches that seemed special in some way. Here’s the first of my favorites.

Santa Maria sopra Minerva

Santa Maria sopra Minerva (let’s just call it Minerva) is one short block south of the Pantheon and just a few blocks east of Piazza Navona. It got it’s name because the site was the site of a temple to Minerva in Roman times.

The first church was built on the site in the 8th Century. It was totally rebuilt in the 1200s. You can see that in the general layout of the place, a long central area and not much in the way of side chapels — special alcoves are an architectural element that gets more developed in later churches.

The interior got a major renovation in the Baroque era. So like lots of other Roman churches, Minerva is a living history. And if you look closely you can see how these ancient sites are reimagined every few hundred years.

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The exterior of the church is fairly simple. It’s a cream-white that has a Bernini sculpture you can’t miss, an elephant with an Egyptian obelisk on its back. Quite cool. The entrance faces west.

Step inside and once you get used to the light, you notice how long the church is. The ceiling isn’t like many Baroque churches, no dome, no trompe  l’oeil ceiling painting. Instead you have this deep blue firmament trimmed in gold.

Santa Maria sopra Minerva

Santa Maria sopra Minerva in later afternoon

The alter area is fairly simple as well. But behind it are some tasteful stained glass windows and the blue ceiling gets more elaborate frescos here.

I shot this using the candles as foreground elements against the stained glass and blue ceiling.

I shot this using the candles as foreground elements against the stained glass and blue ceiling.

To the left of the alter area is a statue of Christ, thoughtful as he stands there holding a small cross. The statue is by Michelangelo. Not one of his major works but beautiful.

I generally avoid shooting art works on their own as you’d do in an art catalogue. That’s a popular approach with first time photographers. But I find that just capturing a photo of a sculpture or painting can lead to a static approach that tends to bore the viewer. So I shot this one from the side and pulled in the southern section of the church as my background element.

Minerva, Michaelangelo Christ

Minerva, Michaelangelo Christ

From this vantage, you can see an alcove. It holds a painting by the great Medieval artist, Fra’ Filippo Lippi.

Lippi alter painting

Lippi alter painting

In closeup

Minerva, Lippi Painting Close Up

Lippi is pre-Rennasaince so you don’t get a true perspective. But his work has a purity and sense of wonder that transcends the era.

The alcove on the other side has no art by anyone particularly famous. But I liked the way the entrance sculpture and the painting played off each other.

Minerva Alcove

Minerva Alcove

Minerva is worth a stop if you’re visiting Rome.

Publication of Photographing the American Southwest (for Zion, Bryce, Canyonlands, Arches, etc.)

So after spending weeks and months photographing the Utah parks, months and months fine tuning each paragraph, the eBook is out. I feel like most of it is good, sometimes very good. But each time you reach high, you take a risk.  And there are always folks who will point out the mistakes and miss the good stuff. That’s part of the deal. But let me go over what the book’s about before getting into the comic details.

The book pulls together what I feel are the best photo locations at the Utah parks. It’s written for photo enthusiasts and amateurs — these parks are considered premiere landscape photography parks after all. And I think this book will be a fun and useful read for anyone who’s making the trek.

http://www.amazon.com/Photographing-American-Southwest-Impressive-Canyonlands-ebook/dp/B00XLV8ZEI/

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Quoting What’s In the Book

  • The best photo locations in each park
  • 60+ representative images
  • Details on each trail
  • Specifics on settings, lenses, lighting, composition
  • Landscape photography tips
  • Lightroom post-production chapter
  • In-depth writing on related issues

The Writing

The photos will speak for themselves. But the thing that surprised me most about this project was the writing, the creative exploration. I’ve been a professional writer in the high tech world for years — and I got paid nicely for it. That’s your deal with the devil when you do corporate work.

I’m not saying working on corporate projects is “evil” in any way. Adding Lexus GX specs to a web site or creating a software brochure isn’t deceptive. It doesn’t screw anyone, at least at the companies I was with. It’s just boring. And for the longest time, I did my creative work when I had an hour or two on weekends.

But nothing is wasted. And  the ad copy, brochures, corporate interviews I did over the years allowed me to master a range of writing styles. That came in handy when I was interviewing Seth Hamel about Zion or describing the scene at Mesa Arch — photographers nursing their coffee as they wait for the dawn.

Good writing should be about human experience and software functionality isn’t that. So my goal has been to take all the elements of a photo/travel book and make it personal.

Now, people will see my Utah book and think, guidebook for photographers. And it is — one of the few that’s out there. But guidebooks tend to be kinda boring too. And if I were satisfied with that kind of writing, I’d still be working for The Man.

My choice was to make this book personal, something I would enjoy writing and reading. And my hope is that people realize the value of that. These days artisanal beers (and cheeses and even butters) are the rage. And there is something cool about a flavor that’s more personal. So maybe this  is an artisanal guidebook.

Writing, of course, is a far more flexible tool for communicating human experience than the brewing of beer. (I know, but it’s true.) At its best, writing communicates thought and feeling. And I’m starting to see that a more personal, travel writing style of photo guidebook can deliver insights that the typical Fodor’s can’t come close to. We’ll see if that can get communicated.

eBook Conversion: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

The challenge of writing is you want it seen. So I hired Bookbaby, a print-on-demand and eBook conversion publisher. Their approach is to take all the grunt work off your hands so you can focus on the good stuff. And sometimes it actually worked that way with Bookbaby.

Getting the cover art worked as you’d expect. I’ve worked many good designers. If you can communicate well, these folks can be miracle workers. So I gave Bookbaby some specifics in terms of color choices — this is a book about Southwestern parks, after all. And I asked them to include my shot of Mesa Arch in the design as an example of the kind of landscapes we’d be photographing.

Their first cover design had about 60% of what I wanted. And I spoke with a designer there on ways to tweak things. We ended up with a look (see above) that reflects the thrust of the book beautifully.

The biggest challenge was in the conversion process. I sent them the manuscript with all images embedded. When they sent me their first proof, the doc had about 30 spelling errors that hadn’t been in the manuscript. OK. Well, I had stuff I’d written that needed to be tweaked as well. So I put it all into the list of fixes and they started work on proof #2.

A week later, proof #2 comes back. A bunch of links were suddenly broken. And there were 20+ spelling errors that weren’t in my manuscript. Six of these mistakes had been on Fix List 1. I guess no one checked the fix list before sending it back to me. So, does Bookbaby not have spell check?

I called and asked to speak with the conversion team. Can’t do that. Bookbaby doesn’t want you to speak with the folks who do the actual work. So Plan B, I explain that I keep getting new mistakes in the document. I mentioned that every mistake means that my manuscript goes to the back of the line, an approach that will add an additional 6-8 business days to my launch date. And I pointed out that many of these were mistakes that were on the Fix List I sent. She promises that they’ll look at my fix list more closely this time.

A week and a half later, proof #3 comes back. Same number of spelling errors, the links that had been broken were still broken. I sent them back Fix List #3. No point in calling.

A week and a half later, proof #4 comes back. Now there are only 3 errors, the links are finally fixed. The process has taken a month longer than expected but there are only 3 mistakes. BUT these are obvious mistakes that a picky reader like myself will notice. That’s why writers sweat those details.

I figured, “Hey, three mistakes. They can do those in 10 minutes and then we have a pristine document ready for Amazon.”

So I called the nice customer service folks. “Sorry,” they said, “you can’t talk to the conversion team, they don’t have phones.” (Wow, no phones. That’s harsh.)

But I persevered. “It’s just three little mistakes. Should take them 10 minutes to make the tweaks, we can do it right now, over the phone.”

Nope, nope, nope. No-can-do. The project goes to the back of the que, that’s corporate policy. “But we promise to get it back to you within 6-8 business days.”

“But, hey, these are all mistakes your team added. Why push my launch date into June for mistakes your team made?”

Their customer service person explained nicely how much they cared about my book and that they would be sure to get the fixes done within 8 business days.

At that point I realized, this is as good as it’s gonna get. With these folks it seems that another proof is another chance for errors. It’s mid May now. And by June 2nd I’m on a plane and starting to work on another book. There is no time. So I pulled the trigger, approved the proof and filed the whole experience under lessons learned.

And now the book is out there. Not perfect, but then nothing ever is. You do what you can and let go of the rest.

Here’s the Amazon link. The book is also on all the other epub sites.

A Trip to the Woodpile

Archeological Reminiscence of Millet's Angelus

In the last few months I’ve spent more time going back to the basics — how I see myself, how I connect. Some of the “inside” work involves dealing with unresolved issues. And I’m finding situations where I act without fully attending to what I’m doing.

All this stuff reminded me of one of my favorite spiritual metaphors, “chop wood, carry water.” The phrase is a core Zen teaching for mindfulness. The wood and water phrasing harkens back to life at Zen monasteries hundreds of years ago, back when daily chores involved actual manual labor. What’s that all about, anyway?

The core element of the aphorism (for me at least) is to attend to one’s daily chores in a mindful way. Kinda like someone in front of you who can’t see the stop light is green because he’s on his cell or the edgy guy at work who thinks he’s a “brilliant” multi-tasker and sends out unreadable emails.

For me, the problem is, I do the chore as a chore, as something to be gotten through quickly because it’s not much fun. Doing the dishes. Taking out the garbage. Driving the 405. Of course the Zen chore, chopping wood, seems kinda cool in a Mysteries of the East kinda way. But then, the only wood I ever chopped was for 20 minutes on a visit to Aunt Barb and Uncle Ben’s farm. That was enough.

Now, I’m sure some of my Internet minions are thinking, “Zen, Mindfulness, The Now, why make a big deal out of chores anyway?” And it’s a response that deserves to be gone into.

Actually, the fact that a chore is so minor a part of our day-to-day life is what makes it important. The hassle factor is the key. Because during these little moments of hassle or anxiety, we turn off parts of the brain. It’s like the computer switches off the main CPU and goes into backup mode. And the thing is, it’s easier to turn off parts of the inner computer than getting it back to full capacity.

I think maybe we have these psychological screens we put up when something comes along that’s boring: “BORING ALERT… Screens Up.” That feeling of “I’ll do this as quick as possible, just to get it over with.” And instead of doing the task at hand and doing it well, we put part of the brain, the part that’s capable of being Present, into suspension. The deeper mind is thinking, get it over, get it over, get it over.

Over time, the part of the brain that handles avoidance starts to grow. I let that Boredom Avoider kick in whenever a cloud of boredom floats into my life. After a while, it becomes a regular member of the team — Process Improvement Meeting, I’m checked out; Bug Review, checked out; required writing project, do I have to? In the end, this attitude can taint even stuff I would otherwise enjoy.

I’ve noticed this Boredom Avoider in the past. At Cars.com, tech roadblocks were a fact of life, part of any new business idea.  Typically, my response would be to talk to a programmer rather than try to figure it out on my own.

I realized that my techie friends didn’t always know the answer themselves. They had to go into research mode just as I could have done. Often I had a decent grasp on the issue once I noodled around for a bit. But first I had to turn off my Tech Issue Avoidance System.

The techie chores that I’ve tried to avoid are another example of me not being Present. And since I’ve tried to avoid that chore for most of my adult life, well, that can be a tough one to break out of.

I’m fairly sure I’m not the only one who’s made avoidance a go-to strategy.  I know a lot of guys have a similar avoidance approach when it comes to talking about relationships. Their brains just don’t grasp the subtleties of being emotionally open and caring — at least not at the level a wife or girlfriend expects. So when she says the dreaded words, “Let’s talk,” a part of his soul goes screaming into the night.

With some folks, the avoidance trigger isn’t boredom — it’s about anxiety or maybe conflict avoidance. Oops, that person is getting frustrated, I better shut up. And the issue gets swept under the table again and again.

In a way, this Chop Wood metaphor also relates to all these deeper avoidance issues. Because my lifelong avoidance of tech issues means I haven’t been going out to that woodpile for a long time. And guess what, the pile gets larger and your baggage regarding that issue grows.

On the other hand, whenever I make the choice and tackle a Problem, I can usually kick my game up a notch and make a breakthrough. As soon as the mind drops the Avoidance Screen, solutions start to become apparent. I can take a class or talk to an expert or ask Siri the answer (maybe not that).

Not all issues are equally easy to tackle, of course. It takes time for someone to improve their ability to share feelings or decode the cues that the opposite sex gives. But the brain has an uncanny ability to make up for lost time — as long as the person stays in the moment.

That’s the real test, to acknowledge where we are at that moment. I have to stop treating something like a chore. I have to accept whatever baggage I’ve gathered regarding that issue.

But the very act of choosing to be Present, to be Mindful, changes everything. It allows me to do that simple task well, allows me to work on a skill I’ve avoided, allows me to enjoy the subtleties that underly every aspect of life. Chop Wood.

Most of us have a woodshed of stuff we’ve avoided. And from the outside, that pile of wood can seem impossibly hard to start work on. OK. I accept that. But that’s what’s at hand.

A Photo Master Class with David Muench

I just finished a 4 day desert landscape photo class with the great David Muench. He was doing his workshop as part of the Palm Beach Photo Festival, a large venue for folks to take master classes from some of the better known pros in the business.

David is a big name if you follow landscape photography in the West and his stuff is a feast for those of us into landscapes. Here’s one of his shots taken in the Coachella Valley.

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The Festival had plenty of other respected photographers: Mark Seliger did a lot of the famous musician and actor images:

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Mary Ellen Mark did important reportage photos for Life and Look and now is doing more personal projects.

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There are about 12 long workshops and a bunch of hour long sessions. But I’m focused on landscape stuff now after spending most of the last year photographing and writing a book on the Utah Parks. (Coming soon to an on-line publisher near you.) So this session with David was perfect.

Working with David

I didn’t expect David to revolutionize my style. I’ve been doing this work for years and in the last few years I’ve done more and more stuff that feels right. I did expect him to help me dive deeper into my craft. And I think I’m walking away with that. I also picked David’s brain for shooting locations to use for my next landscape photo/travel book. I’m targeting Arizona for that book and he knows the area like it’s his backyard.

An added benefit, I spent 4 days with 15 creative photographers. And that’s made me realize how much of the value of these advanced classes is the creative interactions with the other participants. Ray, Sandy, Barb, the Beths, Steve, Chris, they were all great. All doing their own unique exploration.

But the core of the sessions was David and in a week or so I’ll add an in-depth piece on what it’s like working with him.

We Begin Our Journey

The first Sunday late afternoon was our first group meeting. Now, this is Palm Springs at the tail end of April which means high 90s. So that first afternoon each of the groups had their first meeting outside. So we were all trying to find some shade. Our two coordinators, Darlene and Taya were there with the paperwork.

And at 79, David instantly reminded me of everyone’s favorite granddad. White beard, a weathered look, soft-spoken but with an intimate knowledge of every photo location from Texas to Alaska and an amazing portfolio (www.davidmuenchphotography.com). Kinda like Ansel Adams meets Mr Chips. Later I realized that my perception of the man was only scratching the surface.

The next morning David took us though a pile of his slides. I’d studied a bunch of his shots already from his web site. But David walked us through them from his personal POV, explored some of his techniques, using examples from spots we’d be shooting on this trip. Turns out that David has shot the parks on the area (Joshua Tree, Anza Borrega, 1000 Palms Oasis, etc) tons of times. That afternoon we all piled into a couple of vans and headed to our first location.

Indian Canyons

Indian Canyons is on tribal lands owned by the Agua Caliente indians. The park is just a few miles south of the Hilton and we headed up to the Andreas Canyon trailhead. The small stream is fed by an aquifer and the water supports a grove of palms. The contrast of lush grove and bleak desert, palm fronds and water are what make the shoot interesting.

David loves playing with form and color. Juxtaposing patterns, creating different visual elements that generate a visual dynamic. And we used the palms for that.

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For this shot, I wanted to play off of the color and form of the three distinct palm frond areas.

The spring that feeds the grove was hard to get unique shots of. But I liked this blend of the dark light in the stream pool and the sun entering from the side.

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Further up the trail I noticed a high cliff just north of the trail with some Cholla cactus catching the sunset light. It was a pain in the butt to get up the canyon wall, there was no trail and and the heat was stifling. But it was worth it.

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Shooting With David Muench: Thousand Palms Oasis

On our second day of shooting we headed up to Thousand Palms Oasis, a spring fed oasis surrounded by, yes, lots of palms. In the hundred degree heat of the Coachella Valley this oasis is a wonderful contrast. The oasis is on  Thousand Palms Canyon Road just off Ramon Road in Thousand Palms, less than an hour’s drive from Palm Springs.

The oasis is also one of the only spots in California where native palms grow. Quoting their web site:

The palm encountered in the oases within the Preserve is the California fan palm, or Washingtonia filifera.  It is the only indigenous palm in California.  There is anoother palm used widely in the southern California area, the Mexican fan palm, or Washingtonia robusta.  It is a native of Baja California.

This native palm is only half as tall and thicker in the trunk. The tall ones you see all over LA are the import.

We got there just before sunrise to catch the sun as it hits the oasis in first light. This pano was stitched out of 6 shots, click on it to see it in its full glory.

AN8A1689-PanoThe palms are a great abstract pattern and one that David uses to get photographers thinking in terms of abstract form and color. Here’s one from the swampy area of the oasis.

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Shot of some driftwood-like roots in the area (below). The trick here and in the shot above is to eliminate all elements that detract from the formal patterns you’re trying to capture. Allow distractions or bad light to pull the eye and the dynamics of the shot are weakened.

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McCallum Grove

Just up McCallum Trail from the main oasis is the McCallum Grove and a perfect little pond. I lucked out and got a dragonfly sitting on a reed. Shot at 300mm, F-5.6.

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Anyone who’s in the Palm Springs area and wants a break from the golf should check out the oasis:

http://www.coachellavalleypreserve.org/Home.php

Shooting Joshua Tree with David Muench

We did Joshua Tree on our final location day. JT is the national park in the Coachella Valley and is about an hour away from Palm Springs, either up 62 through Yucca Valley for the north park entrance or down the 10 Freeway to get to the south entrance at Cottonwood Springs entrance. On the first day we did the Cottonwood entrance.

Cholla Cactus Garden

Our first main stop was the Cholla Cactus Garden. Chollas are fairly large bushes and there’s an area in the park where they spread for half a mile or more. We showed up there at about 5:30 and the evening light had a nice glow.

David likes to work with backlit scenes and it was a nice shot from that direction.

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But I saw some chollas in the other direction that took the eye in and that shot worked at least as well. Both were shot at F-14 since I had close foreground elements to keep sharp.

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We headed up the park road for several more miles and stopped for another shot location. This one wasn’t on the itinerary so we didn’t have much time. But I found a boulder field that had a Georgia O’Keefe style rock I used for my foreground element. Shot at 16mm to capture the whole scene:

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I also got some nice caucus blooms in the evening light:

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Sunset Shot

The final stop of the day was further northwest, in the Hidden Valley area. From here there’s a great view of the western mountains and some of the best Joshua Trees in the park. It’s a spot you can get truly iconic images at. And pretty much everyone got a great shot or two.

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Joshua Tree: Day Two

On our second day at Joshua we couldn’t do early morning or sunset shots because we needed time to edit our work for the Thursday presentations. So we went up to Joshua by the northwest entrance. The light was flat but we managed to get some nice images anyway.  David was particularly interested in getting some flower shots. The juxtaposition of lush flowers in a desert location is enticing.

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Compare the light on this one with the sunset-lit blooms from the day before. I actually prefer this one. But there’s a trick to it. This shot was taken at 11:30, the worst light in the day. But the group had set up a studio situation — putting the cactus in shade then blasting it from the right with light from collapsible reflectors someone brought.

We also discovered a service road just before the Hidden Valley campground with yucca trees in bloom and a boulder-strewn canyon.

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