Italy: The Street Artist


I love coming across street artists when I travel. They are often working close to one of the big art museums. This guy, doing his version of the famous Vermeer, was just outside the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Right next to him was an artist doing da Vinci.AN8A5020

The guy doing the Mona Lisa seems to be a bit out of his league here. But hey, his canvas is a sidewalk. And at least he’s imitating one of Florence’s famous progeny. Vermeer was from Delft and never set foot in Italy.

Walking in the Master’s Footsteps

As a photographer, I like these kinds of art for two reasons. First, this on-the-ground art work reminds me of the training an artist gets from imitating one of the great masters. During the time of Michelangelo and da Vinci, that’s how artists learned their craft–and it was considered a craft back then, a job similar to a woodworker or silversmith.

The young boy went to live with a master painter or sculptor and his family. And he started by doing the grunt work, housework, prepping the canvas. Then, he would do sketches and have lessons from the master during down time.

After a few years, the apprentice would do the less important parts of a master’s painting, the folds of a dress, the sky; maybe paint a lesser character in the painting. The master would do the work that required subtlety — the face of Christ or Mary. And you can sometimes see a painting by Titian or Bellini and spot sections that are not at the level of the master, sometimes not even getting their style.

So when I see a painter copying one of the master works in an art class or on the street, it reminds me of the value of following in the footsteps, of making the same brushstrokes an old master must have chosen to create a work of art. That’s part of the learning process.

Capturing the Levels of Reality

Looking at sidewalk art also gives me of the sense of several layers of reality coexisting: the art work has it’s own internal space, it’s on a sidewalk that is in use, and the artist is there — as ferryman between these two different realms. So capturing the sense of these various realities is an interesting challenge.

Capturing the layers of artistic reality can be done in a photo is lots of different ways.

Sculpture and family in Boboli Garden, Florence

Sculpture and family in Boboli Garden, Florence

Here, the two realities, a happy family and a dark vision of the human persona, coexist in an uneasy way (made more so by my intensifying the sculpture in Lightroom).

Here we get the layers of reality by looking over the painter’s shoulder.

Venice Painter

Venice Painter

I was able to shoot this late at night. And that intensifies the focus in the photograph on the three layers: painter, subject, art work. If I had shot the same location at mid-day, the tourists and visual noise would have been too in-your-face, the magic would have been lost.

Here’s a variation on the theme:


Same painter but with an observer looking over his shoulder; the street flow a dark blur in the background.

And finally, exhausted tourists sitting in front of the Florence sculpture garden at Piazza della Signoria.


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.


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.

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.


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


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


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 ( 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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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

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.


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.


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:


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


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.


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.


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.



Roller Derby Photos


Marina and I headed to Torrance last night to watch the Beach Cities team, a roller derby group my buddy Mindy is associated with. My perceptions of the sport are dominated by what I saw on TV growing up: super-theatrical roller skating on a banked track, girl-on-girl fights, whipping a sleek jammer around (or under) the opposing team, and gals being flipped over the track railing by hip-blocks. It was like Professional Wrestling for tough gals.

And it was a bit subversive back then. The old Roller Derby had all the camp and theatrics. But look deeper and you saw women getting aggressively physical with each other. Pushing, jamming, showing 70s Middle America in-your-face aggression. By women. You didn’t see that kind of thing back then except in tough neighborhoods. It wasn’t appropriate. And this stuff was getting broadcast nationally on a Saturday afternoon. Talk about changing social perceptions.

The current sport isn’t that. It’s still got campy elements — the names, the makeup choices. And there’s still aggression. But it’s not over the top act-out like the old 70s stuff. Now it’s women in costumes competing in a tough sport. A bit less entertaining but refreshing, honest female competition.

We had a great time. Sloppy and hard to follow and real. Plus it’s a community level sport — just one where women , big or small, engage in a level of physical contact that is still rare for women in our society.


I’d hate to skate against this member of the San Diego team (even if I could skate).


The Beach Cities bench


Not sure of her job but I love the style sense.

Real officials:


The jammers wear stars on their helmets. They’re the only ones who can score and they do that by lapping the rest of the players on the field.AN8A1488

Some of the action reminded me of a rugby scrum — but with a nice difference.AN8A1568

At other times, you wondered if things might be getting a little too personal.AN8A1503

All in all, an evening of good clean fun. And the home team kicked butt — Go Beach Cities!

Photographing Action: Telling a Story

Action photography isn’t a huge focus for me. The folks who do it for a living have highly specialized gear so they can work in low light and get a razor sharp focus on the core moment. They spend hours standing around in arenas with bad sound systems trying to find some order into the chaos of a fast moving sport. But doing sports photography right is a superb skill and last night I got to try my hand at one of the toughest sports challenges there is, roller derby.

From a photographer’s standpoint, there are a few key challenges: seeing and getting the key moment in focus and using technique to tell the story. Action photography is all about story; capturing the moments of human experience. But how do you get the story into a shot? Here are a few Photography 101 ideas.

1. Shoot a LOT. The pros put the camera on continuous shoot mode and then get wall to wall coverage of each key moment. A sport like roller derby is just too fluid to see it all in real time. Plus whoever you’re focused on in that moment will have about 15 facial expressions in that 2 second time frame, from brain dead to blinking to distracted to fully engaged.

Shooting a lot also allows you to look at the group dynamics in each shot and pinpoint which shot is central to the story. For example here’s a sequence that shows one of the San Diego jammers trying to get past the Beach Cities defender.


Here the scene is just starting to unfold. The ref is moving into place. But the jammer (teil green helmet with a star) is hidden by her defenders.


Now in shot 2, our intrepid jammer comes out looking for the opening. But Pigeon won’t be easy to get past.


Now it’s jammer vs. defender, mano a mano (as it were). And, of course, this shot has been cropped to point the action around the defender in blue.

2. Crop. The idea is always to crop by zooming, right? To give the best level of resolution. But that’s not always possible. And lots of folks don’t realize that the crop is the easiest tool to get rid of distractions, define the compositional elements and capture the human moment.

Initial shot


Not a bad image. I like the dynamic between jammer and ref. But I was half way around the rink so notice how much clutter there is. I’ve set the F-stop to 3.5 to pull my subject away from that busyness. But that big sign is still stealing focus and so are some of the audience members.


Just this basic crop pulls the composition together. Our heroine is squarely in the Rule of Thirds sweet spot. And the crop allows us to see what she’s feeling so much more clearly. I also cheated just a bit. I darkened the background in Lightroom. Now there’s a story here. The Beach Cities jammer has just scored a point and she’s looking over at the pack to size up the situation.

3. Make a choice. One issue many photographers don’t do is make the hard choice. People toss all kinds of crap onto their Flickr sites and if the audience doesn’t see any difference between shot 1, 2, 3 and 4 they will get bored. For example here are two moments when the two teams are in a densely packed scrum.


Here the Beach Cities gals are trying to keep the San Diego jammer (behind on the far left) from breaking through. The shot  shows the physical dynamics fairly well and it’s good enough to post.

Here’s shot 2:


With this shot the stakes are higher and I cropped in closer. The jammer, umpires and half the team have been cropped out. That means a simpler shot that’s more focused. And the chaos of roller derby is stripped away to show a personal moment for each woman.

Shooting Zion: The trail up to Subway

The Subway slot canyon is one of the iconic locations for American landscape photographers and I made it one of my core Zion recommendations in the Utah parks book. But there are lots of great shots on the trail up to Subway that give a sense of the area — and that I couldn’t fit in the book.


“If you want to shoot Subway, be prepared for some serious hiking. The park literature says, “This strenuous 9-mile round-trip hike requires route finding, stream crossing, and scrambling over boulders.” That description doesn’t begin to cover it. Essentially, you’re following a stream up the canyon to Subway. But this is a wilderness area, the trail isn’t marked….”                      from the book

At the beginning of the hike, you head several hundred feet down a steep trail till you get to the stream at the bottom of the hill. This bottom area is a canyon with bit of a trail on one side of the stream or the other leading up-valley to the Subway slot. And as the park literature tells you, there is “route finding” involved in figuring out the easiest was up this canyon. Classic understatement.

The bottom section of the hike wasn’t as interesting for me as a photographer. But in the last third of the hike, the canyon narrows and the only way up trail is over one or another of the numerous waterfalls — like the one above. I’m using the word “trail” here but by now, there is no trail. You’re walking up the stream bed for most of this section.

So the bottom line is, expect your shoes to be wet a lot. But also expect some excellent photo locations. The quiet spot below was a bit of a dead end– there’s no easy way over the boulders. But it was a nice detour.


This spot is closer to Subway:


By now the valley walls are too steep to hike so you have to make your way carefully over the algae-covered rock layers of the stream.

When you get to the spot below, you’re at the “cave” entrance.


Notice the way the walls curve at the bottom. That’s the reason Subway gets its name — because the erosion has carved a Subway-like groove in the rock.

It may not be obvious from the picture but the valley floor is all stream bed. At this time of year (mid-October), the water’s only an inch or two deep. In spring, water flow cranks up and can be an issue for hiking.

On the right side of this section of stream bed there’s a long fissure in the rock bottom that is a popular landscape photography subject. I chose a shutter speed of 1/10 sec at F-4 in order to enhance the sense of flow:


Now you’re ready to enter the slot canyon and start the shoot:


The guy with the tripod is standing in the general area where most Subway shots are taken from.

Here’s one of my alternative Subway shots:


The image I use in the book is a more abstract rendering of this unique slot canyon. But this version gives a better sense of the environment within the cave and the way the slot curves into the light.

My book version is here:

You can see David Muench’s shot of Subway as at the bottom of this page in his portfolio:

My new book goes into far more detail about the Subway trail, best time of day to shoot and the various composition issues. And I do similar treatments for 6-8 shooting locations in each of the Utah parks — Zion, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Arches, and Capitol Reef. But that’s all you get in this shameless teaser.

Expect the book in May

Zion NP: The Road Less Traveled

The new travel/landscape photo book I’m doing is focused on getting 6 or 8 of the classic shots in each of the Utah National Parks: Zion, Bryce, Arches, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef. That meant that many of the lovely photo locations couldn’t be included. Zion in particular has a number of locations that are a bit off the beaten path. Here are a few.

Big Bend Area


Just west of the Big Bend bus stop is a grassy field between the river and the road. This shot (above) looks south towards the Weeping Rock area. The trail up to Observation Point and Hidden Canyon starts off up that mountain just left of center.

Same area (below) but looking south west towards the Angels Landing  area.


Heading down pass this grassland towards the read rocks gets you to the Virgin River. Looking south and down river:


Looking upriver towards the Temple of Sinawava:AN8A0336

Hidden Canyon

There’s also a fun hike that starts off at the Weeping Rock bus stop. You start off on the trail towards Observation Point but part way up that first set of zig-zags, take a right and follow signs for Hidden Canyon. It has a bit of vertical elevation but is far easier than doing Observation Point.

Shot from Hidden Canyon trail. Parts of this trail have an iron chain you can hold onto. But its never a nose-bleed hike like the one to Angels Landing.


Book Cover_Blog

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