Photo Improv: Lovers Beach

Each time you take your camera to a spot, you look at that place with certain conscious (or unconscious) goals. You want to show what a place looks like, show the folks back home where you visited, or maybe trying to collect a few artful images. For this visit to Pacific Grove, my goal was to photograph the life of this place in an almost stream of consciousness mode, a kind of improv on one spot from multiple points of view.

During the previous days I had been doing a photo tour of the Monterey Peninsula with a bunch of other photo enthusiasts. At those locations, we had been fairly rigorous: bringing tripod, cable release and a range of lenses, weighing what worked and what didn’t. Mark Common, our leader, encouraged the group to look for unique image possibilities and follow composition best practices.

So with the class over, I wanted to keep that kind of rigor but work more on-the-fly without the tripod to slow things down. So for the next hour or so, I tried to keep one eye on good composition and the other on capturing the spontaneous moments of this popular beach in Pacific Grove.

The mistiness of the beach got me thinking of how the rocks and sea worked as abstraction, like a Zen garden in water.

Seagull, Lovers Beach

Capturing a seagull at just the right moment is pure chance. But taking a lot of shots helps to even the odds.

Juxtaposing two design elements creates abstraction. The curvature of this wall gets emphasized when I went wide angle.

Going abstract

The wall creates two design planes.

Improv with People

Adding people to the mix still requires an awareness of abstract composition. But people also have a habit of engaging with each other in ways that are telling. So I try to use layout to tell the story.

Lovers Beach

Being girls and boys

Swimmers, Lovers Beach

Something about this woman looking out at the swimmers appealed to me.

Two Friends, Lovers Beach

Mother and child, two friends on a wall, smiling for the camera, composition as relationship.

Photo Opp

Meta photography

After over an hour I had 300+ shots, an improv on the life of a beach. It was a fun exercise, part landscape, part street photography. Kinda like real life.

Lovers Beach, a different angle

Photographing Monument Valley

Monument Valley has been the embodiment of the American Southwest in the popular culture since John Ford began making his Westerns there (starting with Stagecoach).  And the visual impact of the place has been drawing photographers even since. To fully access these unique shoot locations, a tour is a necessity.

The landscape photographer Josef Muench photographed the area in the early days and throughout his career with Arizona Highways magazine. Muench’s images of the place were what Harry Goulding used in the 1930s to convince John Ford to shoot his next film there. Ansel Adams photographed there. David Muench (Josef’s son) just put out a nice Monument Valley photo book that’s a useful overview for anyone who wants location ideas.

There are several unique shooting spots to Monument Valley: 1. the “View” location is on the hilltop where the hotel of that name is located. 2. The dirt road that goes into the tribal park takes general visitors to several other classic spots including John Ford Point (below). 3. Monument Valley tours go to places like Big Hogan and Ear of the Wind not on that main tourist road. 4. Locations like Mystery Valley, Tear Drop Arch and Agathlan are not in the main valley but are equally representative of this sacred place. For more images of Monument Valley.

Key Park Areas

The View

The View, Left Mitten, Right Mitten and Merrick Butte

John Ford Point

The dirt road into Monument Valley as seen from John Ford Point.

Big Hogun

Big Hogun, a location that’s covered on many of the tours.

Mystery Valley locations (above) are just south of Monument Valley in a separate section of the park. This area includes that has some of the best ruins, ones originally built by the ancient Puebloans. This area also requires a tour to access.

Creative Approach

Creatively, the sweet spot for Monument Valley is to break the shot down to its simplest visual components, earth, monolith, sand, sky. Then remove every extraneous element.

Monument Valley, Navaho Nation

Essentials of Monument Valley, monolith and sand.

Monument Valley, Navaho Nation

Totem Pole Silhouetted by Sunrise

Three Sisters, Looking West

Three Sisters, Monument Valley, Sunset. Shot out the back of the tour jeep.

None of these compositions is too complex. But hopefully, the visual journey is clear. The huge stone columns and buttes carry much of the visual interest simply by being so iconic. That’s one reason so many of the structures seem recognizable, the Sisters, Totem Pole, Mittens, etc. Because each is so definitive, even archetypal, when strewn across this ancient valley.

Of course, the photographer has to bring their own vision to the Valley, put elements into relationship, throw the monoliths into relief as light works its magic. Part of this skill is just showing up when the light is more distinctive, part is weighing the compositional elements thoughtfully.

Framing the Chess Pieces

To me, Monument Valley is like a chess board populated by monolith, butte, mesa. As you cover the park, different elements come to the fore or retreat into the middle distance. Your work is to put these archetypal monuments into the context of a composition.

Cedar and Sunset

The sand dune section, just west of Totem Pole, has the softest textures in the Valley, especially at sunrise or set.

With photograph above, I found a spot where the mesa anchored a line of buttes receding into the sunset.  To balance that relationship off, I shifted my location to include a twisted cedar, rooting the foreground into the composition.

Agathan, After. Breaking down the image not components, clouds, mountain, road and fence, field. But using differing LR tools for the differing sections, the structural elements take on their own unique dynamism.

Agathlan. To emphasize the compositional elements (clouds, mountain, fence, field), I used differing LR tools for the differing sections.

Agathlan, a volcanic plug on 163 between the Valley and Kayenta, has its own quiet power. I used the fence line and a simple Rule of Thirds structure to provide context.

Monument Valley, Navaho Nation

Monument Valley, Navaho Nation

Here the foreground is a flat sand dune juxtaposed with receding monoliths. The sunset  side-lighting adds depth.


The Valley is high desert and if you go in the spring or fall, you’ll often find one “weather event” after another bearing down on you in the course of a day. That can make for less comfortable photo experience, maybe even damp clothing (oh, no). But harsh weather makes for a far more powerful image than the typical summer day — the image emerges out of wind, snow, light.


Snow blows off Merrick Butte

This shot of the Valley “View” and the image of Ear of the Wind (below) take on some mystery because of the stormy conditions.


Bare tree branches tear into a foreboding sky at Ear of the Wind.

The image below is a solid composition but the dark clouds focus the eye towards the direction of the sunset, as does the play of light on the sand dunes and buttes.

Bending towards Sunset

The storm blew over just soon enough to get a few images with attitude.


The latest

Lots happening right now. In October, I did a research trip for a new book idea that would cover the classic Navajo Nation parks, Monarch Valley and Canyon de Chelly, and several Pueblo reservations in New Mexico. Going in the October/November time frame allowed me to get shots you can’t get at any other time of the year:

But in the middle of that work,  I had a conversation with one of the self-pub/epub vendors., ExLibris. Their sales rep caught up to me when I was on my way to Arizona. I’ll get to that later….

Print On Demand & eBook Publishing

Some of these self-pub companies take a fairly aggressive approach. And I have no issue with them for being sales-driven. There are probably a hundred competent publishers in the US self-pub/ebook marketplace now. The biggest publishers are subsidiaries of Amazon and Ingram, the print distribution giant. The rest of the publishers do what they can to survive.

For a narrow-cast writer like me, working with a big-five publisher can be a bad match (and yes, an improbability). So I need these independent publishers. I like the variety of business models they use. Some publishers who’ll do it all for you (except the writing). They do copy edit, layout, cover art — the stuff that gets the book in print, in eBook format, on Amazon, iBooks, Barnes and Nobles ebook site, etc.

And the full serve folks don’t stop there. They will do the press release and distribution. They do marketing, special events. And if you pay them enough, you can get the royal treatment — and never cover your initial costs.

Or you can work with Amazon’s or Ingram’s folks. And they want you to do almost all the heavy lifting. Though they are slowly expanding into the more full-service approach now.

I do have years of background in business marketing and have no trouble calling and emailing media outlets for book PR. But I also want to off-load much of the grunt work to focus on the fun stuff, writing, travel and foto shoots.

So I’ve ended up talking to the more full service folks and leveraging specific services if they offer a good price.

Talking to Antonio  

Anyway, Antonio’s company had my number from before my first book was published (eBook only) by Bookbaby.

And Antonio got me talking about my experience with Bookbaby. I didn’t go into all the ways Bookbaby screwed up. Not a pretty story.  But I wanted the ExLibris guy to suggest how I could do a print version on my Sacred Southwest book project that would be cheaper than the $50 Bookbaby had wanted for my Utah book — the reason I never did a print on demand version of my book.

Antonio listened to my crankiness and suggested we start by fixing the problem with the first book — since it never got a print edition. “The first book on the Utah National Parks was too long (180 pages) to do on photo-grade paper. But if you had split it into two, maybe 80 pages each, well that’s the sweet spot.”

That got my attention. The writing and photography were already done. Covering the 5 Utah parks in two books gets the price down to $20-$25 each. Two books means double the total possible sales. (I’m still in the hole, kids.) And a glossy photo-paper version is way more likely to get newspaper and Internet exposure.

So I’m stoked to be able to finally get my book out in a print version. The challenge is now I need to do more copy editing and get the content into the correct format.

How the Sausage Gets Made

Now the question comes up, how to get the two Utah photo/guide books ready for a full print treatment. The basic cut and paste thing is what ExLibris and Antonio prefer. They just want to get it out and move on to the next project. And with a basic approach, the obvious choice is Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks in book one:

Then, Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef (and Moab locations like Fisher Towers) end up in book two. That approach fits geographically, the two in Southern Utah and the three in central-east Utah. Plus that breakdown gives me books about the same length.

Both books will have a pile of iconic locations. And even splitting the content in two, I have tons of details on the best shoot locations, trails, composition, lighting.

The plan is to keep the wording of the Intro section almost the same for both books. That’s mostly general info on landscape photography and the book format. The content for each park is totally different, so that part’s easy. The Lightroom section can be repeated in both but the example used will be appropriate for that specific park.

But I don’t want these new print versions to be just like the old book. Doing a quick cut and paste for book one and two wold be way easier. But I’ve been moving more and more into a more personal blogging style in the last six months (especially with my Sacred Southwest writing) and I want some of that thinking to inform my Utah book edits.

So in the last month, I’ve done a full copy edit on the text of both new books, an adjustment that is making the writing cleaner and more personal. And instead of that “explainy” guidebook style, the writing is getting more descriptive and personal — even in the photo captions.

I’ve also been doing a re-edit on some of the Utah photos. Very minor touches in terms of Lightroom, a few little tweaks that give the shots more of a 3-D feel. And I’m thinking how these shots will need to display in a print book that’s landscape mode.

I should be able to keep both books in the $20 range even with 80-90 pages to the book. And if you’ve got great photos, why not sprinkle in as many as you can. I’ll probably add a few more trail shots as illustrations.

And in the end, these first two books could become my first steps into a new style of blog post. Kinda exciting.

Walkabout in Paris

My earlier post was about photo “walkabouts” — an approach to photo shoots where you allow inner instinct to take over. Here’s a walkabout in action.

In Paris this last summer, I played around with the walkabout process I’ve been trying for the last year. And at that point, my latest trick was to book a hotel or AirBNB in a few (photographically) fun neighborhoods– specifically Montmartre. That way I can do an evening and an early morning walkabout in the Montmartre area without worrying about logistics. More important, staying in an area is the only way to get that neighborhood vibe.

An evening walkabout gives you a lot to work with. First off, the evening light elements are scrumptious, especially in Paris. The business/display lighting that’s used in Paris tends to reflect the more traditional side of the city’s style sensibility. And Montmartre street/restaurant lights are totally 1890s Belle Epoque…. To give us tourists the Paris buzz we crave. The Montmartre lighting is a visual can-can, so why not use it.

Downside of an evening walkabout in Paris? Easy. People. Hoards. Masses. And the only Parisienne to be seen is the one waiting your table. They (we) tourists are all out on the street on this hot July evening. The celebrating tourists make for a fun scene but a lousy picture (until you learn how to trick around it). And trick one is to step as far from the crowds as possible and go wide angle:


The waiter takes a break, Montmartre

Set the Correct Angle and Let Go

Once you’re on location, the first step for your walkabout is to make sure your camera settings are in the ballpark. Shutter speed should at least be 60, people are walking everywhere.

If you’re doing big landscapes, set aperture for as much DOF as you can get. That means pushing ISO up there. But don’t push the ISO to the point you get excessive noise. It’s a different spot depending on your particular CCD. So figure that in.

If you’re doing people shots instead of street /landscape shots, narrow DOF so the image will just have your intended subject(s) in focus. Another obvious trick for dealing with the crowds. And, of course, no flash.


In fact, I had a fun moment at the end of the walkabout when I noticed an enthusiast shooting a charming little shop/apartment. I could see what she liked about it, the warm cream-colored stone and the glow in the upstairs windows. She had already taken four or five flash shots of this painfully quaint Montmartre apartment house.  And she was telling her husband something wasn’t working.

No Flash

My shot

I suggested she try it without the flash — just pump ISO a bit. She gave that a thought. Then I shared my quick snap of the scene. And the penny dropped in place.  Yes, another convert to the gospel of flash as Evil Incarnate. And if you let the light speak for itself, each light source plays against the other.


Anyway, once I know my settings are in place, I just wander. Walk around. Enjoy the energy of the place. Chat with people. And considering how many of them are Americans, it’s easy. And you get plenty of Aussies and Brits. (Not as many Europeans, natch.) So, breath in the energy of this primal European sport.

And watch how the business entity that is Montmartre interacts with the flowing river of tourists. No section of town except the Latin Quarter gets this many tourist bodies. And all the restaurants and bars and shops are enormously skilled at pulling in the fish.

Whatever this particular walkabout is about, that emerges as you use your camera to play. So enjoy the flow. I eventually zoned in on two elements, the deeper compositional issues and what the residents were doing.

For the shot above, I knew that the warm colors of the Gascogne cafe were a great foreground element. And I shifted position to get the red canopies to act as leading lines taking the eye back towards my far-ground element, the dome of Sacre Coeur.

The other issue I played with for the Gascogne shot was this waiter. He was chatting up the young hostess at the cafe across the road. And he had just the attitude I wanted.


The owner and waiter kick back

For this shot (above) the focus is just on folks from Montmartre. The tourists are starting to disappear. But it’s too early to head home.

It’s not a complicated composition but the mood, the human element, is key. And that means zooming in enough (or cropping) to see what each person is feeling and their personal dynamics. And isn’t that part of why we love Paris?

The lighting allowed me to isolate the cook and waiter from a background that was particularly cluttered. In fact that is a key in many urban shots, to eliminate busyness from the shot. And if you use the night lights to focus attention, you’re halfway home.



Another people shot, obviously personal. I took this one from outside the restaurant looking in. Again, just playing off available lighting — and once I got the composition that worked, focusing on capturing the person’s inner experience.


Listening to the waiter

Here the guy is talking to a waitress who is a couple of yards away. I instantly loved this guy. He has the look of a Henry Miller for today. In fact it wouldn’t surprise me if this lad is a Bodhisattva reincarnation of old henry.

I’m half way across the street. Shooting the two together would have shown lots of clutter and street activity. You can’t fix that. It’s just an ugly pic. Doing a close crop like this one was the way to go.

The menu beside him does steal a bit of focus (I darkened the menu a bit in post), but it also gives us the Parisienne context. And in my crop, I gave the guy lots of space to the left. That way, we signal to the viewer that he is focused on someone out of frame. But coming in close was the trick here, just the essentials. So many people believe their photos need to explain it all. No.


Montmartre Stairway

The one eternal secret of photography is, follow the light. The street lights are my leading line that points the eye to the warm glow at the bottom of the hill. And in the distance, the dark blue sky is pure gold. Often I will crop sky a bit if it’s not too interesting. Here it was lovely… Paris night, writ large.

Montmartre, Sacre Coeur

Sacre Coeur Cathedral

There are tons of folks hanging around Sacre Coeur at night, all over the steps, partying at that next level of steps, looking out at the City of Light. A multicultural touch point. And that’s an equally valid way to go. But I was in more of a Classic neo-belle-epoque-eternal look. And for that, I did a traditional look and allowed the floods and deep blue Evening Sky capture a mood. The people are still there. I didn’t eliminate them (OK, a few to the side). They’re living life. But I kept them as shot, shadowed into a mute still life.


View of Paris from Montmartre Hill. This shot from the front of Sacre Coeur church required me to adjust exposure so the lights in the foreground didn’t get blown out and the rest of Paris wasn’t too dark.

Light is the conductor at night. But it takes a while to see that. This shot isn’t an obvious composition…. It looks obvious here. But the actual scene was less than obvious.

The camera collapses dynamic range, far more so than eyes. So to my eyes, the light in front wasn’t about to go blown out. To my eye, the dark sections in the pic weren’t that dark at all. But I noodled it and took a few test shots.

Finally I had Exposure Compensation dialed back a full notch. And you see how the shot has to be. Dark enough that the Camera’s crappy dynamic range turns an OK shot into a landscape tinkered with by Klimpt.

The compositional issue was that I wanted to get that foreground element aligned with the glow of Notre Dame in the distance. Notre Dame is a bit far to balance the foreground properly. But the eye compensates. Everything else in the shot is Paris wrapping up into blue.

My Montmartre walkabout allowed my lots of exploration. I got to spend more time exploring the dynamic range you have at night. Plus, I’m getting better at letting Night and Color tell the story. Negative Space and Brightness, Unmanifest and Manifest.

I got a sense of how this village within Paris lives. And I found lots of stories being told.


A Visit to Taos

Driving to Taos, you get a wonderful sense of why the town attracts artists. This part of New Mexico is 7,000 feet high, part of the Colorado Plateau.  It’s high desert and mostly flat.


Sunset, High Desert

But out of the plains, the Sangre do Cristo mountain range rises up, to over 13,000 feet at Wheeler Peak. And the landscape, the backbone of mountain, shapes the town and the people who have lived here for centuries.


Taos, Snow Coming In

Taos isn’t as rustic as it seems at first. It has nice restaurants, lots of art galleries,  several museums, distinctive B & Bs, and upscale shops. There’s even a bit of an art colony and a  world-class ski resort is 15 miles north of town. For a small town, Taos is enormously appealing.

As a photographer and writer, I couldn’t help notice the stuff that’s made the town an artist destination. Go to the Taos and Santa Fe museums and you see that the Taos landscape and the Taos Pueblo inspired some of the great artists of the time. Georgia O’Keefe, photographers Ansel Adams and Alfred Steiglitz,  the writer and painter D. H. Lawrence, the list goes on.

Ansel Church

Ansel Adams, San Francisco de Asis

Adams Church

Ansel Adams, Pueblo Church

Ansel Adams made the Pueblo a central focus of one of his early portfolios.  Unlike his famous Yosemite photographs, Adams immerses himself in the almost Cubist nature of that architecture — the 700 year old town (and San Francisco de Asis Church south of Taos) are an essential part of Adams’ oeuvre.


Alfred Stieglitz, San Francisco de Asis Church

The Taos Pueblo was also a huge inspiration for these artists. The reservation is just a few miles out of town and it’s distinctive pueblo structures are a visual and architectural marvel. The pueblo town and its people are the perfect embodiment of America’s ancient roots.


Ansel Adams, Character Study


Georgia O’Keefe, San Francisco de Asis Church

You can see why the pueblo and town architecture inspired some of O’Keefe’s best work. She loved the primal colors of the area and the flowing, almost feminine shapes of the adobe houses.

A Broken Wagon


The Broken Wagon

Sometimes the river of history takes a serious right turn. And for Taos, one such moment happened in 1898 when Bert Phillips and Ernest Blumenshein’s wagon broke down a few miles outside. The two New York-based artists were on a painting tour of the Southwest. By the time their wagon was fixed, the coin had dropped, and they knew they’d found a life-long inspiration.

New York was The Art Scene for America. A new breed of painters and photographers were looking to move beyond their European influences. And at that moment in time, Phillips and Blumenshein began to tell their friends about New Mexico. For some of these New York artists, Taos was just what they needed. After all, the right subject is as important for a painter or photographer as it is for an actor.

A few years later, the wealthy heiress, Mabel Dodge Luhan moved out to Taos with her painter husband. Mabel had entertained notable artists at her New York salon for years, her Florence home was popular with Gertrude Stein and Andre Gide.


Mabel Dodge Luhan

Before long, she discovered Tony Lujan, a leader of the Taos Pueblo. He set up outside her house, playing on a native drum, inviting her to come out and frolic. And she came out.

The two became very public lovers, shocking the traditional folks of the pueblo. Her husband bought a shotgun but wasn’t able to use it. Mabel continued with her wicked artsy ways, her husband continued to go crazy. And for months, the quiet Taos nights were anything but quiet.

Finally, Mabel dumped art-hubby and married Tony. The two built an elegant house and she invited O’Keefe, Steiglitz, Adams, etc., out. Her place at Taos became like a San Simeon for the art community. Soon high desert New Mexico and the Pueblo community became popular subjects in the art world. Taos was a creative destination.


Mabel Dodge Luhan House





Walkabout: A Photographer’s Creative Path

The more I explore Photo Universe, the more I know that often my best work happens when I leave the structured trip mindset behind and Go Walkabout.

Walkabout. The word really entered the collective consciousness in 1997 when Nic Roeg’s film of that name was released. With my interest in meditation and spirituality, I totally got the message: be in Nature, listen to your own instincts and find your place in the universe.

This shift in gears can happen at any time, it’s built into human experience. — Sunday morning chillout, isn’t that the time we allow ourselves to stop and ask, “What do I feel like doing on this lazy morning?” Walkabout.


Walkabout Poster

The Australian film, Walkabout, plays the theme out by following to contemporary kids who’s father self-destructs, leaving them to fend for themselves in the Outback. They meet an Aboriginal kid who is doing the traditional walkabout in the desert. Roger Ebert describes it this way:

During the transition to young manhood, an adolescent aborigine went on a “walkabout” of six months in the outback, surviving (or not) depending on his skills at hunting, trapping and finding water in the wilderness. [Ebert Review, April 1997]


Walkabout still

The young Aboriginal guy saves their lives by showing them how to live off the harsh Australian desert. The two teens seem like they might grow closer through the experience. But in the end, they end up returning to their respective cultures unchanged:

…all of us are the captives of environment and programming: That there is a wide range of experiment and experience that remains forever invisible to us, because it falls in a spectrum we simply cannot see.

So the film doesn’t show this walkabout being of particular spiritual value. But that’s the director/writer Nic Roeg. The real thing should offer the walker some new awareness of our environment and programming (to use Ebert’s words). That’s the point, to start seeing new possibilities in our surroundings.

Photography Walkabout

And that’s exactly what should happen if you do a photo walkabout. Here’s the idea. Instead of going to Paris and saying, “I need to get shots of the Eiffel Tower, Montmartre, Notre Dame, the Seine, etc.,” we think, “Today I’m going to start at this spot and wander around based on what tugs at my inner energies.” It’s kinda like being Cain in the old Kung Fu TV show — except for the martial arts part.

I first noticed how much a structured travel agenda can stifle creativity when I did a 2 week tour of the Scottish islands a few years back. Rabbies does small van tours for general tourists. They’re quite accommodating when someone sees a cool photo opp. And for a general tour, they’re one of the best companies out there. But a fifteen minute stop isn’t always enough, as I found out on the Isle of Skye.

Skye has some of the best landscape photography in the world. And while on the tour, the bus stopped at the northern end of the island, the area called Quiraing.

Quirking, Isle of Skye

Quiraing, Isle of Skye

This spot is the one place on Skye that I have to go back to. The weird moodiness of the landscape is so unusual. I could spend a day at this one location trying to bottle the otherworldliness of it all. And we were given exactly 10 minutes to get photos. Painful.

A good photo tour with the master photographer is totally the opposite. They cart a bunch of photo enthusiasts to various locations, like a general tour. They know the perfect locations and when the light will be best. But there’s far more time spent at each spot. And the experience is structured to encouraging you to stretch your craft. Of course, a tour for photo enthusiasts will cost 3-4 times as much per day as the average general tour.

The difference between these two types of tours is the difference between a goal orientation (“…We’ll also visit 7 magical locations on the Isle of Skye as …”) and allowing yourself to flow with your creative instincts.

A Walkabout Version

My ‘walkabout” idea makes photography the focus, like the photo tour, but you are guided by your immersion in the environment — and your own inner instincts. And that makes a huge difference.

When you’re immersed in this free-fall type of photography, you’ll find that outside influences, a person or situation, is always enhancing your creativity. Maybe a waiter gives you a guided tour of an old style French kitchen or some lady starts telling you about the famous person who used to live in this mansion. That stuff just happens.

You allow yourself to be totally open to people — seeing how they live and work, seeing stuff the tourists all miss. And you’ll be surprises how many locals will respond to you.

You start connecting to people more intimately. You notice the street cleaners at dawn or the patisserie owner sharing a moment with customers. You’ve turned that annoying tourist brain off. You’re sitting at the cafe watching the world go by. Now you’re in the flow.

The walkaround paradigm helps you pull back the curtain. And that sustained awareness on the pulse of a place is just as much a boost for your craft as taking a photo class.

Go walkabout some time — even if it’s just to a local mall. You’ll be surprised.

Doing the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Museums

Ask a friend heading off to Rome what they’re going to see and the Sistine Chapel will be on the short list. When they come home, they’ll tell you that the Sistine Chapel was so magnificent. And that they got a sore neck just looking up so very long. True. But no one tells you how much bother can be involved with the Sistine experience — or how to make it hassle free.

Because if you decide to do the Sistine the old style way, you’ll be in the ticket line for an hour or more. And once you’re in that famous little Chapel, you’ll find there’s way too many people pushing against you to be completely charming.

Many smart travelers avoid the line by doing a Sistine Chapel tour. Sign up for it online, show up at the meeting spot, the ticket line is avoided. Plus there are some excellent Vatican tour guides out there.

But… But regardless of whether you take that tour or go solo, once you get in, it’s still gonna be crowded in the little chapel.

So on this trip, I tried a different tactic, the early (8 am) tour. Several tour companies provide this early entrance tour. It costs $10 or $15 more but you eliminate the crowds for that entire first hour — and see stuff you might not find otherwise. You’re not alone, several tour groups offer the early morning variation. But you avoid the real crowds.

I signed up for one the tours, “Pristine Sistine.” And it was great. Our guide has been doing that tour for years. He gave just the right amount of detail going from one sight to the next. Artistic, historical, biographical info that an academic would know — shared in a way that was fun and observant.

But my favorite part was him showing us to the Raphael Rooms before anyone else arrived. Sweet.

Getting Attention

The Raphael Rooms began life in the early 1500s as a private waiting area, the place the Pope put his important visitors before the formal meeting:

The four Raphael Rooms (Stanze di Raffaello) form a suite of reception rooms in the place, the public part of the papal apartments in the Palace of the Vatican. They are famous for their frescoes, painted by Raphael and his workshop. Together with Michelangelo’s ceiling frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, they are the grand fresco sequences that mark the High Renaissance in Rome. [Wikipedia, Raphael Rooms]

But let’s step back and put Raphael into his time. Rafael Sanzio, 8 years younger than Michelangelo, had taken a far different route than from the older painter. (Michelangelo had phenomenal luck in getting in with the Medici so young.) Raphael’s father had been a court painter, so painting was his cultural DNA. He apprenticed to Pietro Perugino, one of the best painters of the time. The young teen apprentice would have started off as studio boy who handled basic art prep and every other chore he was given.

According to Vasari, the great biographer of that age, Perugino instantly saw Raphael’s talent and soon the young man was intimately involved with the master’s painting projects:

… while Raphael studied Pietro’s style, he imitated it so exactly and in all its details that his portraits could not be distinguished from his master’s originals. [Vasari, Giorgio, The Lives of the Artists].

Raphael was a fast learner and by the time he had finished his stint as apprentice he was on the road to Florence, the town in Italy where the art form was being reinvented. Florence was like the way San Francisco was to the Counter Culture; like how New York still is to many dancers and artists. Florence was the Renaissance.

Raphael wanders into this scene at its height. Leonardo hadn’t gone up to France yet and he enjoyed the young kid with the flowing talent. Michelangelo is already down in Rome hard at work on the Sistine. Florence in 1500 wasn’t much larger than Santa Fe is. But the entire city state was aware that something new was in the air. The Renaissance explosion was something shared by artists, writers, thinkers, architects, and the Medici themselves.

Raphael spent the next 4 years on and off in Florence, connecting with some of the best artists and thinkers of the age, mastering the fine points of Renaissance painting:

[When] This exceptional painter … saw the works of Leonardo and Michelangelo, they made him apply himself with great intensity to his studies, and, as a result, make extraordinary improvements in his art and style. [Vasari]

Then, like Michelangelo, Raphael realized that Rome was the source of the best commissions — and that he wouldn’t have trouble getting commissions. Raphael’s friend Bramante (also from Urbino) had been working for Pope Julius II and convinced the pope to give Raphael a commission. So at 25, Raphael made the journey. That commission was the first of the  Raphael Rooms.

Note: By 1500, The Catholic Church was supporting the arts at a level we can’t imagine — because in an age when congregations can’t read, art becomes the tool for communication. A painting could suggest the devotion of Mary, the journey up to Calvary or the sacrifice of the saints. That’s why the church fathers were hiring. And that’s why we have all these amazing works of art. Then as now, money drives the arts.

Ceiling Fresco

Ceiling Fresco

Raphael arrived in Rome  in 1508 and was hired almost immediately to paint the first of what would become the Raphael Rooms. But in that universe, artists weren’t the free agents they are now. Painters relied almost exclusively on paid commissions and were expected to please the patron. So when Pope Julius II hired the 25 year old, he made it clear what he expected.

The first room Raphael worked on, called Stanza della Segnatura, tells us what the Pope was after. It has a fresco on each of the four walls and the ceiling. But two particular wall-sized frescos tell the story — once you deconstruct the visuals. The “School of Athens” and “Disputation of the Holy Sacrament” are both important paintings. And both tell us why art was such a major part of the Church’s budget.

The first of these paintings shows the great philosopher/scientists of ancient Athens. This wise and harmonious group of men have Plato and his student, Aristotle, at the center. The painting is a good example of how educated Italians viewed their intellectual predecessors. And clearly, these scientists and philosophers were held in great regard.  [Click on the image to give a closer look.]

 Raphael Rooms, Decision Making in Ancient Greece

Raphael Rooms, School of Athens

But why did the pope choose to have this painting in his main reception area? As we’ll see, the pope was merely using this painting as an example of the old (i.e. pre-Catholic) approach to knowledge. So for this picture, Pope Julius just needed Raphael to invoke the idea of a gathering of Greek wise men.

Raphael wanted this fresco to be something far more. He was going to show off his chops to the money guys. So Raphael handled the pope’s requirements in a way that’s uniquely his own.

Remember, Raphael has been hanging with the top folks in Florence for the last 4 years. And to the Florence thinkers, the ancients are the cornerstone of the Renaissance. All the old philosophers were being rediscovered in Florence — and giving the Renaissance thinkers a confirmation that they were on the right track. So a painting like this was sending the thought leaders of Florence a message:

The picture has long been seen as “Raphael’s masterpiece and the perfect embodiment of the classical spirit of the Renaissance.” [Wikipedia, Raphael Rooms]

This painting, one of Raphael’s most thoughtful, evokes the inner harmony of those ancient thinkers. This formal composition, set in some idealized temple of thought, is what the Renaissance means to Raphael.

The two central figures gesture along different dimensions: Plato vertically, upward … into the beautiful vault above; Aristotle on the horizontal plane … initiating a powerful flow of space toward viewers. It is popularly thought that their gestures indicate central aspects of their philosophies, for Plato, his Theory of Forms, and for Aristotle, his empiricist views. [Wikipedia, School of Athens]

Renaissance though includes both those philosophical impulses. And notice that for each major figure, the subject’s psyche is expressed through their physicality — a key Renaissance art principle.

Raphael also shows his personal feelings by using friends and associates as models for many of the famous Greeks. Raphael seems to have had Leonardo in mind when he painted Plato. The philosopher Heraclitus, leaning on the stone block, is a likeness of Michelangelo. And the young guy looking into the camera on the far right, that’s Raphael.

Raphael Self Portrait

Raphael Self Portrait

Disputation of the Holy Sacrament

On the opposite wall, the painter gives us the real vision of truth that his boss, Pope Julius II, was trying to promote:

Decision Making in the Holy Roman Church

Disputation of the Sacrament

Here we have an idealized landscape with two main structural elements, a golden Heavenly Realm and below a gathering of Church elders. If you look at this picture with the eyes of a Renaissance Catholic, you can start to decode it’s deep meaning. Each of the subjects in this scene was based on a character in the Roman Catholic universe:

In the painting, Raphael has created a scene spanning both heaven and earth. Above, Christ is surrounded by the Blessed Virgin MaryJohn the Baptist and various biblical figures such as AdamJacob and MosesGod the Father sits above Jesus, depicted reigning over the golden light of heaven, and below Christ’s feet is the Holy Spirit . [Wikipedia, Raphael Rooms]

Below this heavenly realm,  we see the great thinkers of the Church from the past and present — including the pope that hired Raphael. Putting one’s patron into a Jesus or Mary painting was fairly common. But here Raphael is telling us more, that yes, our own living, breathing Pope Julius is part of the sacred grace and wisdom that flows down from on high.

Each painting stands on its own. But remember, in this room, two frescos with the same basic theme are facing each other. And that implied comparison signifies that the two visions of wisdom and greatness are a kind of before and after. This is how the wise Greeks did it. And they were the greatest thinkers of the ancient world. But, with “Disputation,” the pope is telling us that the Christian model of Truth goes even beyond the reality of Plato and Aristotle. Because our church’s understanding of truth stretches from priest to church elders and the pope all the way up to the Holy Trinity. That’s the not-so-secret message of this room.

But of course, Raphael isn’t a painter of platitudes. The kid took a basic commission and turned it into one of the masterpieces of the High Renaissance. And he was able to give both paintings a level of thoughtful grace that transcends technique and message:

The compositions, though very carefully conceived in drawings, achieve “sprezzatura”, a term invented by his [Raphael’s] friend Castiglione, who defined it as “a certain nonchalance which conceals all artistry and makes whatever one says or does seem uncontrived and effortless …” [Wikipedia, Raphael]

Each painting evokes a specific aspect of human thought, each character manifests their humanity in their physicality and character. And together the paintings give us an intriguing insight into the Italian thought of the time.

Other Paintings – Deliverance of St. Peter

“Disputation of the Sacrament” and the “School of Athens” give Pope Julius’ basic paradigm. But the other paintings in these private chambers expand on that basic paradigm.

Angel Frees Peter from Prison

Deliverance of St. Peter

The Deliverance of St. Peter, painted around a window bay in the Stanza di Eliodoro, shows the story of Saint Peter being liberated by an angel for Herod‘s prison. The painting is in three parts — kinda like a comic that’s been drawn to scale. In the left panel, the guards (in Renaissance armor) are awakened to see a strange light emanating from Peter’s cell. Top center shows us the angel freeing Peter from chains. And the right panel shows them walking past the slumbering guards.

The whole thing is a wonderfully dramatic retelling of an incident in Acts 12. The painting reminds the viewer that the Church has harnessed a higher power works in ways beyond our human understanding. Peter was the foundation on which the Church was built and this image brings the power of that relationship home.

Peter and the Angel, detail

Peter and the Angel, detail

The painting is also infused with Rafael’s special magic. The angel is managing the prison guards like a Jedi knight. The escape is handled with the simplicity of parable and the transcendent elegance that Raphael embodies.

Expulsion of Heliodorus

Expulsion of Heliodorus

Expulsion of Heliodorus

The other major work in this room is called, “The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple”:

It illustrates the biblical episode from 2 Maccabees (3:21-28). Heliodorus is ordered by Seleucus IV Philopator, the king of Syria, to seize the treasure preserved in the Temple in Jerusalem…. But the money had been reserved for widows and orphans and God sent down a horseman to drive him [Heliodorus] from the temple.  [Wikipedia]

Notice that among the poor widows and orphans is a bearded man on a raised litter — who looks just like Pope Julius II. But the more important part of the message from our sponsors is don’t steal from the church or else.


Heliodorus Detail

There’s also an interesting stylistic issue associated with this fresco. Notice the intense physical dynamism in this painting, especially on the right side. Angels flying through the air, a horse rears up, Heliodorus is punished. This is not the overly balanced composition we’ve seen in Raphael’s earlier work. At this point in his  life, Raphael’s starting to stretch his craft in new directions.

The fresco was painted between 1511 and 1512. And we know that Raphael studied Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel even before it was completed in 1512. Raphael’s friend, Bramante, gave him access to the Sistine Chapel without Michelangelo’s approval. And, according to Vasari, Michelangelo was fiercely angry about that.

The Sistine Chapel paintings were a watershed moment in the Renaissance, a formal effort by Michelangelo to inject physical dynamism and immediacy into what was then a fairly static medium. The Expulsion of Heliodorus shows Raphael’s experimentation. But Raphael’s women don’t have the broad-shouldered muscularity you see in the Sistine Chapel women. And his color palette has it’s usual subtlety. As always, Raphael integrated new ideas in a way that was uniquely his own.


After The Expulsion of Heliodorus, Raphael continued his explorations far beyond the Raphael Rooms — especially in terms of his ability to explore human experience through the medium. Earlier, when he studied Leonardo’s work in Florence, Raphael didn’t have the life experience. He couldn’t touch the level of portraiture we see in Mona Lisa. But Raphael’s later work is moving in that direction.

The Sistine Madonna, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden

The Sistine Madonna, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden

 By 1520, Raphael was dead; dead at 37. Renaissance painters mostly followed the lead of Michelangelo towards Mannerism. The balance and harmony of Raphael wasn’t punchy and it was just too hard for most painters to pull off. Eventually Mannerism got more over-the-top and ornate and… Baroque.

But Raphael continued to be studied by leading painters well into the 19th Century. The great Joshua Reynolds summed up the importance of Raphael from the  mid-1700s perspective:

The excellency of this extraordinary man lay in the propriety, beauty, and majesty of his characters, his judicious contrivance of his composition, correctness of drawing, purity of taste, and the skilful accommodation of other men’s conceptions to his own purpose. Nobody excelled him in that judgment, with which he united to his own observations on nature, the energy of Michael Angelo, and the beauty and simplicity of the antique. [Wikipedia, Raphael]

Venice: Photographing Key Landmarks So Tourists Aren’t A Factor

I talk to lots of folks that visited Venice and don’t think it was worth it. And the reason is mostly due to the fact that the city is awash with tourists. No question. General tourists, cruise boat passengers, lots of bodies. Go to St. Mark’s Square between 10 am and 7 pm and it’s like Grand Central Station. Add in the guys trying to sell you selfie sticks and knockoff handbags and you can see why people get turned off.

Here’s what I mean:

Mid-afternoon in St. Mark's Square

Mid-afternoon in St. Mark’s Square

But there are a few tricks that you can use to make a visit to Venice rewarding. First, most tourists focus on the area from St Mark’s to the Rialto Bridge. These two locations and the connecting streets are the magnet. Many of the marquee tourist locations, St. Mark’s Basilica, Doge’s Palace, Clock Tower, Campanile, and cafes, they’re all on the Square. And the streets leading to the Rialto are where you’ll find most of the popular shops and restaurants.

So if you stay away from the 20-30 blocks in that area, you won’t have the crush of tourists. And guess what, the same canals run through the quiet parts of town. Some of the more charming sights and churches are off the beaten track.

So what I tend to do is wander around the 80% of Venice that isn’t a crush of tourists. And when I want to visit the busy parts, I do it at selected times. And this brings us to the trick of this post, timing your visit to St Mark’s.

Come Early or Stay Late

For a photographer, the crush of people makes getting a good shot difficult unless you’re just doing closeups. There’s nothing wrong with having people in your shot. On the contrary, often having a few people in a picture can tell a great story and gives the human dimension to a place.

But the key to visiting St. Mark’s Square if you want good shots (and not to tour the Doge’s Palace) is get there early. For example:


Isn’t that nice. Early morning light, the shadow of the Campanile bell tower and a solitary figure breathing it all in. St. Mark’s Basilica is in the distance. Here’s another example from the same part of the square:


Both of these images were taken between 7:30 and 8 am. And in both these photographs, I’ve consciously chosen to include a person or two to establish the mood. Click on the two images to see the shot blown up and the relationship between person and place becomes even more obvious.

Now, you might point out how lucky I am to have found these two nuns wandering by and placed so nicely into my composition. That’s true. And I didn’t even pay them!  But I also took a pile of St. Mark’s Square shots: with these folks, other folks and no folks. And these two shots were the only ones I really liked.

Here’s another early morning shot, this time of the section of the square that is close to the Grand Canal and the two Venice columns:


Same time of day, no people. That’s not by chance. I took about 30 shots of this corridor. And having early morning workers in the corridor would have detracted from the formality.

But most of the shots happened because it took a while to get the shot to work. I started taking pics of this corridor about 40 yards farther back. And from back there, the columns and shafts of light worked best. But from there, the column with the Venetian lion was tiny. Once I realized that element would add something, I moved closer and closer till I got to this.

Every photographer knows that the light is better from dawn until mid-morning. But this rule is also worth remembering if you want to capture the beauty of a popular tourist spot. And of course, none of these shots was taken at dawn. Even a lazy photographer should be able to roll out of bed by 7:30. The rewards are worth it.

And if you want to get up just a bit earlier, there are other good shots as well.

Doge's Palace just before dawn

Doge’s Palace just before dawn

Now that I’m Home

Here we are, the end of July. Summer days here in SoCal still going till 8 PM with temperatures in the low 80s. And I’m starting to plant myself more deeply into the work now that I’m back from a month and a half of travel.

By now, most friends have heard the elevator speech I give when they ask, What did you do in 1 ½ months of travel: We started with the idea of a Greek islands cruise. The ship was leaving from Venice so we spent a week there in the city. The cruise took us to most of the usual Greek cruise stops: Santorini, Mykonos, Athens (Acropolis), Kusadasi, Turkey (ancient Ephasus), Nafplion, Naples (Herculaneum), and then Rome where we disembarked. We stay there for a week. Marina, out of vacation time, had to head back to work and I spent a week up in Florence and one in Paris.

It was a great trip. I took several thousand pictures all in Raw format. In fact, my laptop ran out of disk space a couple of times. The idea was to spend longer in Europe but save money by staying in AirBnB places. It takes a while to do photos and research at a place if you’re doing a book. You have to achieve a higher level of understanding than someone who jets in and only hits the marquee locations. So the 1 1/2 months was barely enough time to start work on a travel/photo book for each of these spots.

And now it’s time to plant myself and get serious about the new career. The first book, on photographing the Utah parks (now on Amazon), was done while I was still working at and finished when we were planning the Euro trip. But now the transition seems fairly complete, now I’m really ready to settle in.

And in the two weeks since I’ve been home, I’ve been defining the shape of my days and the approach to each book — the fact of being a full time writer, photographer and traveler. (It’s a tough job but someone has to do it.)

For those who don’t know my history, my professional career has been on the writing side of things — business writing, marketing and product management for high-tech companies like IBM, Lexus,, etc. The travel and photography have been long term passions (with pro photo projects mixed in). And now I’m getting back to my creative roots with writing and photography focused on travel and culture.

Luckily I know much of Europe, the literature, arts, culture. I’m not an expert on any of these places, far from it. But I’ve explored these issues more deeply than any of the travel guidebooks. And I know that no travel or photography books get to the core of a place in the way I’d like to see.

So after all the months of getting ready and then traveling, I’m trying to put it all together. And that’s with this blog is all about, a scratch sheet for the full length books.

Hopefully I can continue to share pieces of my travel notes and experiences into these pages and get feedback from people. And of course, just posting new blog pages, there for all to see, gives me a fuller understanding of what will work in a book, what will grab people, what tiger I’ve got by the tail. Because I’m trying to do something different with my work and that takes a bit of exploration.

So in the next weeks and months I’ll be adding more photographs and notes about travel to these pages starting with my shots and notes on Venice, our first stop.

Experiencing Venice: Taking a Mask Making Class

You can’t go to Venice without noticing the abundance of mask shops. A lot are touristy and feature knockoffs from China, several shops do elegant work. But regardless, the mask is an intriguing part of the Venice experience and a tradition that goes back centuries. In fact one of Venice’s not-so-favorite sons, Casanova, is known to have used masks in his seductions.

Masks are part of the Carnevale tradition, celebrated in the spring. Masks were also part of the Commedia del Arte theatre tradition practiced by the Venetian writer/director, Goldoni.

In all these traditions, the mask is a representation of identity, personality. It’s a false identity in Carnevale, one that evokes mystery. And in theatre, the mask becomes a trigger to the character’s personality. The actor puts on the Doctor or Harlequin mask and takes on the character and physicality embodied in that mask.

The best way to appreciate the power of masks is to take a class.

Mask making workshops are most popular with families, especially with kids in the 7-14 age range. And often the parents support the kid from the sideline rather than get in there and risk looking like an idiot.

That’s too bad because this kind of workshop can be an intriguing experience for couples. Adults know more than a little about the social masks we all wear and some of that aspect of personality emerges while creating one.


Marina and I decided to work with Ca’ Macana, one of the most respected mask making companies in Venice. The company made several of the masks used in the Kubrick film, Eyes Wide Shut, and the masks become a powerful metaphor for illusion and personality.

We went to the Ca’ Macana workshop location, just a couple of blocks from one of their main stores in the Dorsodoro section of town. This is also where their factory is so you get to see them working on their standard masks as you do your own thing.



The Class Process

They start off by giving you a choice of blank mask form. They have a pile of white paper mache masks: Commedia del Arte character masks, animals, and what the theatre world would call “neutral masks,” those with a blank persona.


I’ve always had a fascination with the neutral mask because it allows the actor to show more of a range of characters than the more exaggerated choices. So that’s what I chose. Marina chose a female neutral mask.

Then they have you choose two (generally) base colors. They have some visual guides to help with this selection. Marina chose a deep/light blue combo. I wanted to stay with my more neutral approach so I went with a cream colored mask base and then used black and gold for my accent colors.


You lay down your base colors first and if, like Marina, you are doing a two-tone, they show you how to stipple and blend the two color choices.


I started looking at their choices of design elements, masks with diamonds, tear drops, delicate filigree work, they have everything. I started off thinking I would have some cool curves in the top of the mask that would migrate to the other side of the face about half way down.

After about 5 minutes tracing out the shape I realized that my drawing ability hasn’t grown past the stick figure level and no amount of design and photo work has changed that. I simply cannot sustain a steady brush stroke.

So I radically simplified my design. I had laid down a black forehead shape that looked vaguely like a widows peak hairline. That wasn’t too hard to make work.

Then I remembered the Vision character from the latest Marvel Avengers movie. So I extended the black down towards the bridge of the nose like the Vision. That part shouldn’t be hard but I almost lost control a couple of times.

I saw that the designs all had some coloring around the eyes and lips and figured that wasn’t too hard, hey, the mask form gives you those facial shapes already. Again, it looked a bit like a disaster but I pulled it together.

There was still something missing. And my drafting chops were no match for the spirals and shapes that seem so cool and so easy on the sample drawing they give you.

Our instructors weren’t going to clean up my work. They want you to do it all. Luckily my wife has done makeup work at Macys and she realized early on that painting a mask is really just a step away from putting on makeup. She had no trouble at all with doing all the advance stuff.


So she took pity on me and added some dark mysterioso lines and a teardrop to what I had already. I know it’s cheating, but I didn’t care. And after her touch up,  my mask looked like it was all done on purpose. AN8A2681

Then we used an industrial blow dryer to set the colors. Once the colors were fast, they give you some brownish varnish to spread on the mask. It’s a bit like laying on shoe polish and then buffing it off. But it gives the mask a finished look and keeps the paper mache from getting damaged.

Then you get a ribbon for each side of the mask for wearing it or hanging on your wall. And you’re done. Ta Da.


The Mask in Performance

I remembered the instructions I got when I worked with masks in an acting class in grad school. Before you put the mask on, you’re supposed to study it, take its features in. Then you put the mask on with the realization that this façade is shaping how your audience sees you. So the more you explore with the mask on, the more you pick up the character you’re wearing.

Certain character choices even seem to get magnified. But do something that isn’t in that character’s personality and the mask doesn’t work for you as well. It’s kinda like a more controlled version of what happened with the Jim Carrey character in The Mask.

So with my finished mask, I began to explore how I would walk, look around, interact with others. Just a bit of physical movement seems to make the mask’s persona come alive. I tried that in the store for a while and the kids there were totally glued to what I was doing, maybe even a bit scared. They hadn’t expected to see some guy in a class turn into a strange character. But that’s the magic of it.

And that’s the power that gets harnessed in Carnevale or with Goldoni’s actors. So when you create your own mask, you are recreating that mystery but with a totally new character.

There’s lot of possibilities in a mask making class.


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