The East Building, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

This is one of the most interesting architectural landmarks in a city full of architectural landmarks.  The East Building of the National Gallery of Art was designed by I.M. Pei and first opened to the public in 1978.  In the second decade of the twenty first century, the museum underwent renovations and reopened to the public in 2016.  The museum is home to the larges Calder mobile in the world.  It a building awash in light and open spaces.  Walk up and down staircases of marble.  Take a seat by the trees in the sun  atrium.  Go to the roof, where you can take in a beautiful view of Pennsylvania Avenue and the Capitol and take a selfie with a giant blue rooster.  And did I mention the Picassos, the Rothkos, the Dali by the elevator?   A truly magnificent place to visit and explore.  And photograph.

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Lose Yourself at the NGA in Washington, D.C.

Art museums.  Many cities have art museums.  In art, we see the best of humanity expressed through the mind and vision of artists from all over the world.  They move us, teach us, inspire us.  We see love, sorrow, joy, curiosity, madness, genius.  The art filled rooms allow us to travel to places we have never been and we leave hoping to see, in our own way, the places that somehow have gained a little familiarity.  History comes alive, in the faces of people who have receded into memory but forever remembered in transcendent images of artists who captured a moment in the lives of the people that they knew, even fleetingly, in their lifetimes.  Sometimes, we see a character from a book, holy or secular, come to life through the imaginative brilliance of a Rubens or the transcendent luminance of Raphael.  We see saints, politicians, kings and queens, emperors, men and women, boys and girls in portraits painted by Rembrandt, El Greco, Cassatt,  Picasso, Vermeer.  We see the landscapes of Turner and Van Gogh,  the flowers of Monet ,  the dancers of Degas.  We see life depicted by Renoir and Cezanne.   Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci, one of the crown jewels of the gallery’s permanent collection, is the only Leonardo portrait in North America.  A list of names, known and sometimes unknown, mounted next  to countless works of art, to be studied, admired, seen.  To be in an art museum is to lose yourself in an ocean of color and creativity.

When I was younger, I went to art museums as part of my elementary or high school class.  We were supposed to learn something about a time in history, learn about a particular type of artwork, or perhaps learn something about a particular artist.  Like many people dragged to the museum, I didn’t really pay attention to the greatness around me.  I came with pad and pencil in hand, made notes (sometimes), tried to remember something that I could write about when that homework assignment inevitably came.  I was there in body, but the spirit remained unmoved.  I remember shortly after finishing my undergraduate studies going to the National Gallery of Art to look at some paintings by Mark Rothko.  My cousin was visiting from out of town and she wanted to see Rothko.  Well, she knew what she was looking at.  She appreciated the colors and the palettes that she excitedly gazed at.  What did I do?  I asked the guard, sarcastically, if a painting on a nearby wall was “Orange and Yellow.”  A sly smile greeted me as he told me to take a look.  Sure enough, it was “Orange and Yellow.”  I didn’t get it then.  I’m not sure I get it now.  They say that art appeals to the soul, but that not everyone is drawn to the same thing or place.  Someday, maybe.  I keep an open mind.

Rubens, on the other hand, with the great painting “Daniel in the Lion’s Den”, is an artist many art lovers truly appreciate.  This painting, which is part of the collection at the National Gallery of Art (West Building) is a true masterpiece.  From the standpoint of the lighting, the composition, the drama imbued in the painting, this work of art speaks to me.  A photographer can learn a lot from this picture.  From the adherence to the basic rule of thirds, to the use of light to accentuate the already dramatic pose of Daniel, to the use of colors and contrast to create depth, to the way the lions are “posed” to create shapes in the canvas, this painting is a brilliant inspiration to layman, artist, agnostic, or believer alike.

Then there is the set of four paintings by Thomas Cole.  Collectively known as “The Voyage of Life”, you see a child on a boat, an angel beside him, moving in calm water.  As a youth, the boy is alone in the boat, the angel hovering some distance away, as if to say that each of us is given control of our own destiny.  In Manhood, the boat is beset by rough waters, the man facing challenges that we all must face, even as the angel watches from heaven above.  Finally, in old age, the waters are calm again, and the angel once again is beside the man, accompanying him in the last part of his journey.  In four paintings, Cole is able to encapsulate the adventures, joys, challenges that we all go through in our own lives.  The use of light, color palette, dimensionality, to tell a story as grand and magnificent as anything that a Tolkien or George R.R. Martin has ever written, shows us that at our best,  in spite of the difficulties we encounter in our lives, we are indeed the fit custodian of the rock that we live in.

Such is the power of art that when it truly moves you, you will find meaning in the artwork even without realizing what technique or what material the artist is using to create that piece of art.  The hope, of course, is that these great works of art will not only bring a sense of wonder and awe to the viewer, but that some will be so moved as to want to study art and begin their own journey as an artist.  I didn’t know much about art and my limited knowledge may have remained even more limited if not for a visit of some friends and their father to the D.C. area.  He wanted to take his daughters to the museum.  While we were there, we happened upon an exhibit of sketches by Leonardo da Vinci.  He started to explain to me about perspective, depth, composition, the rule of thirds by first looking at the drawings of Leonardo.  And then through the paintings of various artists of different eras.  He explained why the pre Renaissance paintings seemed rather flat and lifeless (in reality, they are not).  His enjoyment and knowledge of art was infectious.  I am forever in his depth for kindling, within me, a deeper appreciation of art.

We in the Washington D.C. area are fortunate to have one of the great art museums and art collections in the world within easy reach.  Unlike other museums in other parts of the world, the Smithsonian museums and the National Art Gallery do not charge admission fees.  The collection is amazing; the curators have made the collection even more accessible by making an auditory guided tour to the more notable works in the museum available at no cost.  For the curious, there is simply no excuse not to visit the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

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Early Autumn in Northern Virginia

With birds continuing to migrate southward in search of warmer climes, the number of birds in local birding hotspots have increased dramatically from their summer lulls.  The larger birds, such as the osprey, egrets and herons, many of whom made the mid Atlantic their home in the warmth of summer, have left or will soon be leaving.  Gone are the ospreys, the green herons, the little blue herons.  There are egrets and Great Blue herons milling about, but they too are diminishing in numbers.  The hummingbirds have fueled up for their trip south as well.  In a few days, these fleet flyers will be but a summer memory.

The warblers are back, at least for a few weeks.  The fall foliage makes finding these birds even more difficult for novice (or inexperienced) birders such as myself.  You will hear the rustling of leaves, a chirp or some other sound that betrays their presence, but even with such clues, fall colors meld with the faded colors of these birds.  Still, the challenge and enjoyment of finding these birds are undiminished.  The number of birding groups in the local nature preserves increase dramatically in the spring and fall migration season.  There is something calming about birds – a perfect tonic to the busy life we live in urban and suburban America.

I visited Huntley Meadows three times in the last four days.  The last vestiges of summer, in the form of an upsurge of warmer temperatures, have drawn out a bevy of revelers in the outdoor venues.  Children with their parents, their classmates on field trips – the happy noise brings a different life to the naturally quiet places that are in diminishing numbers in an urbanized America.  To hear a child exclaim their surprise in seeing a frog, a bird, a flower, a fallen leaf is to understand that within us all, it is this sense of wonder that must survive and thrive if we are to remain vibrant in mind and spirit.

Winter will soon be here.  The kingfishers will remain, as long as the waters do not freeze over.  The bald eagles roam the riverside.  The shovelers, the mallards, mergansers will be sharing the preserves with those of us walking the boardwalks in the frozen winds that will soon come.  Autumn leaves are falling.  In the changing season, the endurance of life is in full display.

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Fall Migration

Early fall, it turns out, is one of the best times to go birding in the Washington D.C. area.  Birds are migrating to the more temperate climes of the south.  The number of birds in the area increases temporarily and birders have a field day trying to find all these birds.  Many of the experience birders are enthusiastic about teaching what they know about birds (and photography).  Yellow Rumped Warbler?  Supposedly, they’re at Huntley Meadows Park at the moment.  Can I find them?  Umm, not with a lot of help.  I need to learn how to recognize them first, without relying on the Merlin App from Cornell.

That aside, it is a lot of fun watching the birds fly around Huntley.  There are several variety of woodpeckers hammering away in the woods.  Warblers are frittering about.  While the ospreys are gone, various hawks are salivating to take advantage of the migration time.  Bluebirds abound.  I am still working on getting a good picture of a Belted Kingfisher, but with all these birds around, the hours are not nearly enough to enjoy the company of these fantastic creatures.

Most birds maintain their distance from the photographer.

Every one in a while, a bird or two gets close enough to be able to take a detailed photograph.

Eastern Bluebird

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Eastern Phoebe

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House Wren

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Time to look for that kingfisher.  On the other hand, I hear a warbler, maybe.

I came for the birds, but I kind of mist!

A beautiful, sunny, cool October morning was the catalyst for taking a short walk at Huntley Meadows Park in suburban Alexandria, Virginia.  Huntley is one of those hidden gems.  It has winding trails, woods, and wetlands, in a compact location in the middle of suburban Alexandria (the Fairfax County part), Virginia.  Fall migration is still in full swing, so this may be a good opportunity to get some decent pictures of our avian friends.

I made it to the open area, the marshy area that presaged the wetlands.  The birds were certainly singing.  I wanted to go further down the boardwalk, to the place where the belted kingfishers dwelt, but I stopped.  For forty five minutes or so I only walked an additional twenty five yards or so.  The culprit?

A heavy, morning mist, with the sun streaming down, on a small part of Huntley Meadows.  You can literally see the sunbeams, white mist, and a hint of color.   It looked interesting and bland at the same time.  If only there was a little bit more color on that scene.  Well, there was!  A little bit.  The dehaze feature of Adobe Camera Raw can do some interesting things.  And though the dehazed image was initially dull, one could see a hint of color in the image.  A delicate restoration of color information may result in an interesting picture.  After working with the contrast, sharpness, saturation and vibrance sliders, the following pictures came out.

 

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And as a bonus, a stalk blowing in the wind.

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The pictures came out with an “impressionistic” look.  Restating the title of this post, I came for the birds, but the light was right.

August 21, 2017 Anno Domini

My wife likes the beach.  Every year, around her birthday, we plan a trip to the beach.  This year, the beach trip was almost certainly (and did not) happen.  For the first time in decades, a total solar eclipse was going to be visible over large swats of the continental United States.  When I first looked at the map for viewing totality, the closest town in which the totality will be visible was hours away from the Washington D.C. area.  What is an astronomy geek supposed to do?

Drive to South Carolina.  So everyone agreed to go to South Carolina for this year’s “beach trip.”  The problem was, we didn’t book lodgings early enough, so we ended up staying near Charlotte, North Carolina.  An even better idea.  Several cities that are going to experience totality are within two hours of Charlotte.  Columbia,  Greenville.  Charleston.  Now, Charleston was more than two hours away, but choice is always good.

Unfortunately, we didn’t head south early enough.  Once the window for driving down Interstate 95 essentially closed (on the Saturday before the eclipse) –  the probability of encountering heavy traffic on Interstate 95 driving southward becoming a near certainty – it was time for another spur of the moment plan.  We ended up driving westward and then south (going south via Interstate 81).  Unfortunately, my idea of a rather easy commute was shattered by numerous accidents on Interstate 81.  The roughly six hour or so drive took almost three hours more to complete.

Still, we got to Charlotte on Saturday evening and had a great dinner.  We forgot, however, that things don’t quite work the same way in the South as it does in Northern Virginia (and points northward).  It’s been decades since a majority of places (to eat) were closed on Sundays.  We were looking forward to eating good Southern style barbecue.  Fortunately, we found a Greek deli and had the most southern of all cuisines (Greece is actually south of Northern Virginia).

We left Charlotte early Monday morning and headed down to South Carolina.  As there were predictions of cloud cover in the eclipse area, we ended up heading towards Greenville to minimize the chances of clouds blocking our view of the eclipse.  Then a new idea popped up.  Why go to a city when you can go to the South Carolina high country to watch the eclipse.  We headed towards Nine Times Preserve (owned by the Nature Conservancy) to watch the eclipse.  Surprisingly, the traffic to this part of South Carolina was fairly light.  Traveling the highways on the North Carolina/South Carolina high country was immensely pleasurable and relaxing.  Traffic, what traffic?

Unfortunately, there  are no “facilities” at Nine Times Preserve so we decided to stop by Table Rock State Park for a quick refresher.  Even at 8AM, all the parking spaces near the park visitor center were in use  The state troopers were directing people to other parts of the park to park and set up for the eclipse.  We were able to head down to Nine Times Preserve suitably refreshed.

Well, Nine Times Preserve was a nice, isolated, quiet area.  Very few people were in the preserve.  There’s an eclipse in a few hours, why so few people?  Well, for one thing, the parking spaces in the preserve were either tree line or there were power lines hanging between towers nearby that could block the view of the event.  Intent on photographing the eclipse, I decided to head towards the Jocassee Gorges Land Management area.  To our surprise, the was a big lot on the side of the road (Cherokee Hills Scenic Highway) where people set up their telescopes and cameras.  And there was enough space for us to park.  And the view was going to be relatively unobstructed.

It was a warm summer day in South Carolina.  There were clouds in the sky, but the eclipse was a few hours away.  Still, those weather apps on the mobile phone proved invaluable in monitoring the weather around our little spot of South Carolina.  A half hour before the eclipse, there was a chance that some clouds would ruin our best laid plans.

The eclipse started with everyone staring at the sun (with their official eclipse glasses that were made in China), waiting patiently for the occlusion to start.  It was a slow process and people went about their other tasks – conversations started, snacks consumed.  Soon enough, some clouds threatened to cover the rapidly diminishing solar disc.  Somehow, the clouds, like the Red Sea, parted and we eclipse seekers were able to go to the Promised Land (okay, we got to see totality).

What a sight it was.  I wanted to capture, on my camera, the moment when the totality phase first began.  The diamond ring effect is the first indicator of this phase of the eclipse, as the last part of the sun is covered by the new moon.  A few seconds later, Baily’s Beads became visible, which marked the beginning of totality.  We had traveled far enough south that totality lasted two and a half minutes.  I would glance up in the sun in total amazement, then get back to the camera to take more pictures.

Two and a half minutes seemed like an eternity.  It also seemed like it only lasted a millisecond.  Totality was over sooner than we really wanted.  Baily’s Beads reappeared.  Then the diamond ring was back.  A few seconds after that, totality was over.  Two and a half minutes of utter amazement.  It was dark (not pitch black).  We could see the corona illuminating the darkened sky.  It was eerily quiet.  The creatures of the earth, in unison, reveled in the fact that in the middle of a nearly cloudless day, we could not see our own shadows.  For a moment, people from all parts of the East Coast (we, in this spot in South Carolina came from points north, west and south) were joined in watching one of nature’s true wonders.  A shared, almost supernal experience that we will remember for the rest of our lives.  For two and a half minutes, we were not Virginians, North Carolinians, South Carolinians, Pennsylvanians, Georgians.  We were men and women looking up, staring intently on a disc that we have known for all our lives and that now, for a few brief seconds, was transformed to a mesmerizing display of the sun’s hitherto invisible chromosphere.  A shared experience.  A shared humanity.

The traffic driving back to Charlotte was significantly heavier than the traffic going down to this little spot somewhere between the towns of Sunset and Salem South Carolina.  It mattered not.  The traffic will be forgotten.  The inconveniences will be forgotten.  The excitement of the moment, the memory of the experience, the pictures of the eclipsed sun will remain for the rest of our lives.

And, there is going to be another total solar eclipse that will be visible in the United States in seven years.  Road Trip!

A fantastic birthday present.  For my wife.  And for everyone who saw it.  A grand revelation of our place in this planet, in this solar system, in this galaxy, in this universe.  That we can gaze upon the stars, marvel at the sights, and have the knowledge to know of what is about to happen, and yet still be in awe of what we are seeing, can be an epiphany.  A rebirth, of sorts.  Though we are mere creatures privileged enough to see a total eclipse of the sun, we are left with the knowledge that this world we all live in must be cared for to the outmost of our abilities.  I hope that my children and their children and the generations yet to come will have the same sense of wonder that we, a small cadre of humans on a small spot in South Carolina, experienced.   And that they will be able to stand on the same collection of interstellar dust, a planet called earth, breathe clean mountain air, and gaze upward towards the heavens.

 

Ah, Wilderness!

Living in the suburbs of a major city has a lot of advantages.  There are almost too many things that you can do.  Museums in the city offer new opportunities for discovery.  There are restaurants to go to, with a sampling of cuisine from all corners of the earth.  Traveling bands of musicians fill indoor and outdoor venues with music.  The local sports teams give the city an identity.  A wide variety of neighborhoods to explore and live in.  Places stay open late into the night.  The health care system is fairly robust.

The urban landscape, with its wide and narrow streets, with the movement of people going about their daily lives, the buildings tall and short, old and new.  Sounds and smell that give each city its individual flavor.  Photographic subjects galore.  Cityscapes, abstractions, street photography – images created by the boundless imaginations of denizens and visitors alike.

And here in the Washington D.C. area, a scant few miles from Washington itself, on the road that leads to Washington’s Mount Vernon, lies a small wildlife preserve that gives pause to the routine of suburban living.  Parking near the marina, a short walk on the sidewalk leads to a dirt trail marked with a solitary sign.  Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve.

The trail runs close to the banks of the Potomac River.  The trail is an incomplete semi circle that leads to a boardwalk and then it ends with a view of a small island, separated from the abutment of land by a channel in the river.  In the early morning, walking the trail towards this island, you pass by several glades where the sandy shores meet the waters of the great river.  Can the city be only a few miles away?

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Blue sky, clear water, trees and river grasses.  An oasis that seems so far away until you hear the airplanes overhead, getting ready to land in nearby Reagan National Airport.   A turn to another direction and you almost run into a swamp.

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You can see a solitary heron in the water nearby.  Further down the river, you see a tree laden with egrets.  The percussive sound of woodpeckers hammering away in the woods, the eagles and ospreys soaring overhead in search of prey, the terns and gulls in majestic glides.  Ah, Wilderness!

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Relaunch!

Three or so years ago, I started this blog with the intention of regularly posting my musings about photography and other random things that interests me.  Even with the best intentions, that never happened.  I had fifteen posts, a short burst, a brief follow-up, and then nothing.  Silence.

Since the time of my last posts, I have become an even more avid photographer.  I’ve become a “birder” – which means I like taking pictures of birds.  And other wildlife.  Now, if you ask me to identify a bird that’s sitting on a tree or wading in the water, you will be sorely disappointed in my scope of knowledge.  I can probably identify less than two dozen birds without having to consult a book or a web site.  And this includes chickens, geese, turkeys.  And some variety of raptors (bald eagles, ospreys), water fowl (wood ducks, mergansers, mallards), waders (egrets, herons) and some warblers.  There are a lot of birds out there.  I’ll take pictures of them, especially if I can spot them (just because I can hear them does not mean I can find them).

I also love macro photography.  The small world around us is utterly fascinating.  You can take pictures of bees without being stung.  Hornets and wasps?  Well, take your chances.  I know I am weary.

I love landscape photography.  I enjoy going to national parks, taking pictures from the various viewpoints, hiking to other spots to around the parks and refuges that allow one to fully bask in the beauty that surrounds me.  I love sunrises, I love sunsets, and I want to sleep at mid day (when I have my camera).  And yet.  The interesting things in life are somewhat unpredictable, and so are the interesting things that happen when you have a camera in hand.  I keep saying that to myself, but heck, when there are no shadows and the light is harsh, well, it can be a challenge.  And an opportunity.

Though I now shoot with digital cameras, I took my first picture with a plastic “Diana” camera that used 120 film.  Then I used my grandfather’s twin lens reflex camera.  My first picture with that?  A cat.  Oh, I can tell you this.  I don’t take many pictures of dogs.  Or cats.  There are a lot of pet owners out there who take amazingly great pictures of dogs and cats napping, jumping, lying down, looking coy – the whole myriad of expressions that an animal can show – someone has captured that.  And posted it on Instagram.  If I REALLY need to see (or want to see) a picture of a dog or cat, I can safely say that there will be no shortage of well shot, awesome, amazing, inspiring pictures of dogs or cats that I can readily see just by typing a few words and clicking my mouse button once or twice.  It just so happens that my desire for doing such a thing is minimal to non existent.

My father bought me my first real camera, a Fujica ST-705 screw mount camera.  I soon replaced it with a Pentax KM.  Then in college, I saved some money and bought a Minolta XD-11.  A fantastic tool.  It felt like an instrument that would last a lifetime.  And guess what?  I still have it.  I need to have it fixed (a little), but it still works.  I then graduated to a whole slew of Minolta auto focus cameras.  I started with the Maxxum 7000i.  I bought a Maxxum 9xi which I brought with me to my honeymoon.  I still have that great camera.

Then digital cameras became affordable.  So now, with my Sony digital cameras, I am constantly using them and post processing the images that come out of them.  In the old days, when I was going broke having film developed, the “one third keepers rule” worked wonderfully well.  For photo finishers.  Yes, one third of the pictures in the roll were worth keeping.  I always wanted the better shot.  Shoot more film.  Get them printed.  Or shoot slides.  Look at them on a light table.  Have a few pictures enlarged.  A cycle that ended when digital cameras became the main tools for image making.

Now, it’s easy to shoot hundreds, even thousands of pictures in a day.  I do it.  Everyone does it.  And then I copy the pictures to my computer and start looking at them.  The good ones are post processed.  The rest of them?  The marginal ones are saved, the terrible ones (a great majority of the pictures) are deleted.  That old “one third keepers rule?”  If you’re lucky, you’ll keep one third of one third of the images that you take.  It is so easy to click and not think about what you are doing.  It’s wasteful, really.  Not of pictures or camera clicks.  Of time and experience.  When it’s easy to delete, it is easy to think that something wonderful will be in the midst of all those clicks.  Sometimes, one loses track of what one is doing with a photograph.  One gets lazy at times.

Now, mind you, when you take pictures of flying birds, a whole lot of the images are of marginal quality at best.  Still, now that I have gotten the macro photography bug, the attention to detail that macro photography forces you to do has improved my image taking process somewhat.  I think, I look, I see, I imagine, I visualize, I click.  Still a lot of marginal images.  The difference, I think, is that instead of pressing the button when I see something interesting with my eyes, I look at something and try to see what’s interesting in the thing before my eyes.  That additional process, thinking about what you are looking at.  It makes a big difference in my photography.

For this second attempt at starting a blog, I am posting pictures taken with my film cameras.  I have my film processed in the one remaining photo processing store that’s within five miles of my house.  I take the negatives and use my macro lens attached to my digital camera and take a picture of the negatives.  I then process that digital image using Photoshop.  It’s not nearly as messy as processing the old Tri-X in smelly chemical solutions in an improvised darkroom, but the joy of a good photograph is as exciting now as it was when I first took a picture with that first camera decades ago.  Here, then, are some of the black and white images taken with my Minolta film cameras.

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The thing about film photography is that it forces you to think about the image that you are taking.  To think about the image you want to take.  To pre visualize.  Maybe even plan.  When you turn the focus ring to focus on the subject, that split second of extra time you spend looking at the viewfinder while the world focuses before you makes you think of what you’re looking at.  And then think how you will process that image to make it come alive.  Even before you press the shutter button.  When I first started to shoot film again, I was pointing the camera almost randomly and pressing the shutter.  It was disappointing to look at the first few rolls and realize that some bad habits have creeped into my image making process.  I stopped looking AND thinking.  I saw.  I clicked.  I deleted.  Film photography forces you to do things differently.   A few film rolls later, I’ve learned to slow down, take a deep breath, think about the image that I want to create, look at the world before my eyes, and then press the shutter button.  Analog in a digital world.  Try it sometime.

The “one third keepers” rule is alive and well.  The big difference that digital technology brings is that I can actually process the pictures the way I want them to look.  It would have been great if I had Ansel Adam’s skill as a master printmaker (not only was he a great photographer, what he did in the darkroom was equally impressive), but with Photoshop, I don’t have to mess with the chemicals, darken the room, turn on the safe life, turn on the enlarger, dodge and burn, etc.  The computer as my darkroom.  Where what I saw and what I imagined come to life.

When I wrote my first computer program so many years ago (tic tac toe anyone?), little did I know that the computer and the camera, together, will be the impetus for a tool that has become as ubiquitous as the automobile.  Holy iPhone, Batman!