Sunday, August 24, 2008

Bob's Magic Horse

Take a second and click on the picture to the left. Look at this merry go round horse. Look at the fracture running down his neck. Look a the amazing detail in the hand carved flowers. (Click on the "Back" arrow when you've finished looking at it and I'll meet you back here.)

Here's how that San Antonio horse came to be here in front of your eyes.

Doug, one of our two traveling companions, did most of the driving on our San Antonio / Houston trip. He’s a little guy who reminded me of a bantam rooster. He drove the streets of San Antonio like Mario Andretti going for the checkered flag but, since he never actually killed anyone, I mostly let him alone except for the occasional sharp intake of breath and soft whimpering sound.

We were on our way to the Botanical Gardens and out of the corner of my eye, we saw an amusement park that looked so completely out of place that all I could do was say “Oh! Oh! Oh!” and point furiously. The long-suffering Doug, who had spent considerable amounts of time in the car with two photographers understood me perfectly. “Oh! Oh! Oh!” in photographer means “Excuse, me Doug. But I see a subject I would very much like to photograph. Would you mind pulling over so we get out of the car and make some photographs?”

To his credit, Doug didn’t sigh or growl. He just pulled over and Sheree and I piled out of the back seat and walked into another era.

The Kiddie Park has been on this tiny strip of land in San Antonio since 1925. I love amusement parks, especially when they are deserted. There’s a very specific feeling that creeps in a place designed to entertain crowds of people when the people are gone. It is a pleasant desolation.

The gate was open so, even though there weren’t any people, Sheree and I walked in. It was the now-familiar San Antonio trick of stepping back in time and listening to the voices and songs of people long gone.

I was standing there, camera limply held in my hand, drinking this in. We’re talking about a place that has entertained children over three plus generations. The rides looked lovingly maintained but so very old. I have no idea why I felt emotional standing there but I did.

“Can I help you?” The voice jolts me back to reality. I see a tall thin man advancing. His arm is in a sling but there’s a manner about his approach that tells me I am about to meet the owner. For just a second I think of him with a striped shirt and armbands. Maybe a straw hat and a bamboo cane. Then the image is gone.

“…the gate was open,” I say. I do NOT want to be sent out of this place yet. “These things are beautiful.”

He looks at me for a long second. I suspect he’s formulating an opinion as to whether I am really a gang-banger cleverly disguised as a genial kinda round Canadian tourist with a camera.

“How old is this park?” I ask. I figure the bestdefense is to get someone to talk about themself.

The look continues for a few seconds and then suddenly his face cracks into a smile and I realize I’m in.

I have met Bob Astin.

“When I was four,” he says with the air of someone who has told this story before, “I came here with my dad. I asked him to buy it for me. He didn’t. So when I was 27, I bought it myself. Been here ever since.”

I am swept up for just a second in how much I immediately like this man. I recall riding merry-go-rounds as a kid and wondering how we could get one to fit into our living room. I remember the sound of the music and the gentle up and down motion of the horse. I remember looking up and watching myself in the mirror and scrunching my eyes up tight and rocking back in the saddle. Yeah. I remember the magic of a carousel. But I grew out of it. Bob didn’t.

He’s warming to his subject now. He takes me to the merry-go-round.

“These horses here?” he says with a daddy pride, “All original. Each one unique. Each one carved by an artist from wood. No additions. Been here since 1925.”

Is it wrong for me to think that this is so cool I can hardly stand it? I look at these horses. So many of them are cracked and lovingly reassembled. They, like the San Antonio Missions, are time travelers. How many little hands have touched these creatures? I cannot stop my own hand from running over the pitted paint and the cracks.

“Kids,” says Bob. “They climb on the legs. They break them.” He shrugs, apparently deciding that children are a force of nature. He doesn’t seem to mind much.

I am blown away by the thought that most of the children who rode here when it was brand new are dead now. Maybe they grew into men who died on a lonely beach during the second world war. Did some go off to nearby NASA and help put a man on the moon?

As I look at these horses, I start thinking about how I am going to convey their stark beauty in a graphic. These are hand-carved horses. Each one is unique. Each one hand painted. These horses served as templates for their modern counterparts. These are the originals.

Bob and I talk for a while. How long, I do not know. But we are chatting like old friends. I suspect it’s because we both get the whole merry-go-round thing. Neither of us has forgotten the sensation of friendly motion and the wind in our hair and each ride that ended too soon. We both see these horses as utterly wonderful things.

I ask him if he will pose for me on the merry-go-round.

“People always asking me to do that,” he says. “Don’t know why.”

But his tone sparkles just a little and we both know why.

“Look straight at the camera, Bob,” I say.

“I’m lookin’ at ya,” he says. He isn’t sure whether to smile or not so there’s this odd expression on his face. It’s perfect.

I wanted the image to be a little off center to draw the eye. I want the image to be odd because the subject is odd. The background is black and white while he is in color to bring the modern man into the historical context. The flag is a wonderful background component, so I allowed a little color here.

The horses are the stars of the show, though. I cannot stop looking at them.

My wife comes and reminds me that our very patient travel companions are waiting.

I smile and nod at Bob.

He smiles at me and for an instant I see at once the face of the kid who wanted to have his own amusement park…and the man who bought one.

The Missions of San Antonio

I have a picture in my mind: there’s this little Franciscan monk wearing a black robe. He has a fringe of hair around an odd-looking bald spot. The sun is hot, maybe a hundred and ten degrees. This guy is lugging fifty and sixty pound rocks across an empty clearing and piling them carefully one on top of the other. Maybe he pauses to take a drink of tepid water. Maybe he takes a second to wipe his brow. Maybe he prays.

As my “eye camera” draws back from a perspective in the clouds somewhere, I see many of these dark shapes moving across a desolate clearing carved out of a savage desert. What are they doing? Why are they doing what they’re doing?

They are building Missions – churches. They are literally building San Antonio.

There are four Missions here. They were all built in the 1700’s – I imagine by sweaty little guys in black robes with some help from the local Indian population.

These Missions are amazing to me. It’s history you can touch. And it’s history with the magical ability to touch you back. You can put your hand on the same warm rock that some anonymous person placed there over three centuries ago. I defy anyone to say that’s not magic.

Sheree and I packed up the cameras and crept out of our lodgings three mornings in a row to get these pictures. Even before the sun comes up, you can feel that Texas heat the instant you step out of the door of your air-conditioned home. It’s not a nasty heat. It’s an enveloping warmth.

When the sun starts to come up, the air fills with this wonderful energy and the sky is painted with such vibrant colors you can hardly snap the shots fast enough. (Photoshop users can make a dramatic sky much moreso by going to Image> Adjustments> Contrast and Brightness and working with those “Oooo” and “Ahhhhh” inducing sliders. A good rule of thumb is to move them only a little. Remember that you are simply trying to enhance the sky…not make it look like Armageddon.)

Sheree, being an intrepid sort, suggested we go back to one of the Missions for sunset.
I wasn’t getting anything that night that made my heart flutter until it was almost dark. Green lights from the trees nearby came on. They bathed the Mission with this other-worldly glow. I set the ISO on the camera to 100, set it on a concrete block (I don’t carry a tripod) and used the Self Timer feature to eliminate any camera shake. The exposure must have been thirty seconds or more. But when the shutter finally clicked closed, I had a wonderful image.

There’s really no way to capture what the Missions feel like at night or in the early morning. When I look at these images, I remember the peace drifting through the air around them. You can feel that these Missions have been here for centuries…and they will still be here long after we’re gone.

I remember the multitude of cats that crept out in the early morning hours to keep us company. I remember the excitement we both felt, standing in the middle of a field, watching the sun slowly creep along the stonework.

And I remember, most of all, thinking of all those little guys in black robes, sweating under an unforgiving sun to build a monument to their God in the middle of a desert.

Peering Near-Sightedly at the REAL Texas

What is it about Texas?

Something gets under your skin here. It’s an infection you want to get. Maybe it’s the wide open spaces. It could be the casual beauty of the cities or the pleasing Tex Mex blending of pastel colors. It might even be all the history you can touch at the Alamo, the Missions – all the famous faces and all the legendary places.

But I think the real secret of Texas isn’t the people. It’s not the history.

It’s the Bar-B-Q.

Texas Bar-B-Q is one of man’s great creations. Forget the wheel. The internal combustion engine? Pffft.

I invite you to give Texas Bar-B-Q just a few seconds of your consideration. Think about a plastic plate loaded down with enough glistening meat to make a vegetarian run screaming the other way. Think about savory sweet sauce, the kind of fatty juicy pork ribs that give your doctor nightmares. Consider thick slices of melt-in-your mouth brisket. Think about sinking your teeth unrepentantly into meat that falls off the bone…and being surrounded by other unrepentant carnivores doing exactly the same thing as you think to yourself “These are my people.”

I love Texas Bar-B-Q.

I love that the napkins come right off the paper towel roll and they expect you to help yourself. I love that the meat is heaped up on plates until they strain under the weight. In short, I love Texas Bar-B-Q…and I especially love Texas Bar-B-Q served up at Bob’s Cook House in Weimar (which is pronounced, with flagrant disregard for the English language as “WEE-mer”) Texas. (I’m pretty sure this is where the Queen eats when she’s in town.)

You’ll have to hunt for it. And when you find it, you’ll only see the sign that reads “Bob’s Cook House” if someone remembered to prop it up against the building. But wveryone in Weimar knows where Bob’s is. Just ask.

Treasures like Bob’s are worth looking for. They are worth hunting for. They are worth flying thousands of miles, renting a car and traveling through 104 degree heat for.

Chances are that Bob himself will be on hand to greet you with a big smile and a completely unaffected Texas drawl. (That's the aforementioned "Bob himself" to the left.) Both of the times we went there (yes…we went back…you betcha!) he told us about something that was on the menu that they were out of. Who cares? Bob’s is about food. Lots of food.

If you time your arrival right (and you HAVE to time it right because Bob now closes shop at 2:00 in the afternoon “due to football season”) you’ll see various members of the Weimar football team arrive for lunch. I stand to be corrected, but I think roughly half the team is related in some way to Bob. These guys look like they stepped out of a “small town Texas” movie. They are polite, they nod affably to a table full of strangers from Canada, and chat in muted tones with sweet looking cheerleaders and each other. They don’t throw things. They don’t swear and they tuck into the food with almost as much gusto as I do.

A policeman was chowing down when we got there the first time and warning Bob that the Bar-B-Q was making him sleepy and his crime-busting instincts would be dulled – which may or may not be a big deal in Weimer.

I know what he was talking about. Somewhere between the last morsel of brisket and the final scrapings of potato salad, a happy little “meat sweat” broke out on my cheekbones. This is the direct result of being unwilling to throw any of this feast away…but also not quite having enough room inside me to put it all.

In Houston and San Antonio, I had the sense that many of the people we met were “putting Texas on” for the tourists. Does that sound strange? Let me put it this way: it felt like a lot of the people we met were trying to act like they thought we expected Texans to behave.

Exaggerated accents and an almost annoying determination to work the word “y’all” into the conversation as often as possible made me suspect that most of them were really from New England.

But there’s no pretention at Bob’s. They took the time to get to know us, they greeted us like old friends upon our return and they fed us more than any mere mortal could be expected to ingest at any one sitting.

You see this woman to the right? It was a week between visits. She not only remembered us. But she also remembered what we ordered.

I don’t think Bob’s has a website. I only have their email because they wrote it on the back of a business card and asked almost shyly if we would send them copies of the pictures we took.

If you want to spend a few minutes having the kind of authentic Texas experience you were hoping for when you booked your flight…you would be nuts to pass by Weimar and not take your tummy to Bob’s Cook House.

Just make sure you get there before two if it’s during football season. I understand football season is a "Texas thing."

So is Bob's.

Picturing Faith

I am a Catholic in recovery. When I was a kid, people thought Mass had to be said in Latin. (Apparently God spoke only one language back then.) I sat through many a Latin Mass on insufferably hot afternoons, looking out the window, tugging at my collar and telling myself stories set far, far away in lands where things were much more interesting. I was only ten, but I clearly remember wondering how it could possibly be worship to God if I didn’t know what I was saying, what the priest was talking about or what the congregation was singing. If I didn’t know what I was saying why would that mean anything to God?

I believe in God and Jesus and I know exactly WHO my Lord is. I get all that. But the whole Catholic thing is a life long source of fascination to me. This fascination only grows stronger here in San Antonio where they take the whole thing very seriously.

The Jesus you see depicted in the Missions and the churches here isn’t calmly looking heavenward with impassive eyes as spikes are driven into his bloodless hands. This Jesus suffers. The depictions of him being literally tortured to death show bone and blood and pain. Canadian church ladies would faint dead away if they saw what the Spanish have created here. I've decided against posting the really bloody pics here since kids might be seeing them. But they could have been drawn out of a Stephen King novel.

The Spanish Jesus isn’t white either. Going back one more time to all those years in Catholic school, I could never figure out why Jesus had blue eyes. I could see no reason why he had the same skin color as me either, when he wasn’t born anywhere near Canada. The Spanish Jesus can be brown or white or even a little on the yellow side. I like this a lot.

San Antonio is full of churches. And the churches are full of art and people and interesting pictures just waiting for some guy with a camera to come along and shoot to his heart’s content. Just do so with a little respect and there is a very good possibility some frustrated but hulking paritioner won't pound you into the ground.

So I did.

Shooting inside churches, regardless of your religious beliefs, calls for a few changes to the way you (or I) would ordinarily do things.

1) You need to be gentle in the use of your flash. A flash can be disruptive to people who are praying and I think photographers have to realize that, on at least one plane, they are guests in someone else’s house. Most cameras have a museum setting that allows you to take shots without using your flash. Yours may be called “candlelight” or “night portrait.”

2) Since churches often have really low light conditions, you may want to set your camera on a jam or the back of a bench, and use your self-timer. This allows you to set your aperture as narrow as you like. You don’t care how long the exposure is since the self timer means you don’t have to worry about camera shake. Remember that flash often blows detail and atmosphere right out of a subject.

3) Think about how other people have photographed the same thing you’re after…and don’t shoot that way. Try very hard to see a statue from a new angle. Look at it from the floor or above. Change the angle radically. Try skewing the picture, try messing with your White Balance settings to get new and wonderful effects. The picture to the left is a good example. With a straight on shot, the boy is a very minor component. Changing my angle allowed me to show a boy contemplating spikes as an out of focus Jesus is murdered in the background.

4) When shooting statues, try to use one facet of the artwork: a hand or a smaller component of the overall picture. If your intent is to take a good picture of a complete statue, you are simply taking a picture of someone else’s artwork. Try taking a new view of what they have done to create completely new art.

5) Take LOTS of pictures. I say this a lot. But it’s really important. Who cares if you take a hundred shots to get one good one? You still have that good one. It’s digital. Relax. Delete the rest.

Houston? We Have A Problem...

If you want to get out of Houston (and believe me, this morning we were MOTIVATED) you have a couple of options. You can either take a really expensive bus tour to NASA…or you get on a city bus, take a fifty minute ride and get there for about a buck and a half each way.

We opted for the bus. We nearly always opt for the bus. Yup. It’s a whole lot less expensive. But it’s also a great way to see the “real” city. When we get there we aren’t tied to some tour director’s schedule. (Sheree and I are nearly always the last ones back on the bus since we are taking pictures and chatting to people and stuff. We have survived many a steely gaze from tour guides.)

When we go on our own, we can take our time and take as many pictures as we want.

I remember reading about the “Number One Way To Annoy Your Traveling Companion When You Go To NASA." You are supposed to get yourself lost and keep repeating the phrase “Houston…we have a problem” until your pal punches you.

Still there’s no ignoring the fact that this is where history was made. It’s incredible that a bunch of people decided their goal was going to be to put a man on the moon and they did. They were using computers with a tiny fraction of the power in this Dell laptop I am writing on right now. They communicated with vacuum tubes and did many of their calculations on slide rules.

And they put a guy on the moon.


NASA is well aware of its historical significance. Everywhere there’s John Williams-like music playing. It’s stately and full of self-importance. At first, it’s pretty cool. After a few hours it gets annoying. After a few more hours you are inwardly wondering what would happen if you crept into the control room and switched the John Williams stuff for Bavaria Bob’s Oompah Band.

There’s a tram available to take you around "private" NASA places. You go through a security check that makes no sense at all. Here’s why: you remove your belt, empty your change and make sure there’s no metal anywhere. In order to do this, you need to put your backpack on a table. No one looks at this. No one opens it. No one looks inside it.

Once I passed through the metal detector, the round bored looking security guard handed me my bulging backpack and pointed the way to the tram upon which I would shortly be heading for the very heart of NASA. The fact that there could be twenty pounds of explosives and ten semi-automatic weapons in that backpack instead of camera equipment apparently never enters anyone’s mind.

Ah well.

The tour is interesting. We get to see the places where they try to make astronauts in training puke (otherwise known as a 'mission simulation') and we see real rockets and pictures of endless astronauts. There is a point in the tour where the bus stops in front of a pretty ordinary looking clearing with a few benches surrounded by trees. They guide explains that this place is a monument to people who died while in the space program. There are a lot of trees and for once John Williams is taking a break and the silence actually feels much more reverent to me. Say what ou want, but these people believed in something and they died for it.

We see genuinely historic places. Here is the room they used when the first man on the moon. It was RIGHT here that they ran the mission from. It feels like something out of the sixties: old furniture, all light orange. A bland room is in front of us behind a big glass wall. There's a bright red phone that probably connects to Someone Really Important. It is full of old looking computer equipment. When you look at the equipment you can almost imagine tapes spinning on reels.

As the presenter ensures we are absolutlely positively "no doubt about it" aware of the history that was made here, I stand at the back of the room. I become aware of a rough texture under my fingers. It's that wallpapery crap they used to put on walls. And great strips have been torn off.

My wife is a believer in the "Super Conscious." That is the notion that ideas occur to multiple people at the same time. I realize with a start that hundreds of tourists have stood here and torn little pieces of wallpaper off so they can take a bit of Mission Control with them.

I look around me. The security cameras are facing other directions. The guide is looking the other way. I tear a tiny scrap of wallpaper crap off as I look intently at the guide, nodding attentively. I have someone in mind who will be really excited to have this.

NASA makes for a great three hour visit, we decide as we wait for the 24whatever under one hundred and ten degree heat.

When we get back to the hotel, the news is full of dire warnings from New Orleans about Gustav. We get a message that our Amtrak train has been cancelled. We have two options: stay in Houston or rent a car and drive to San Antonio.

We leave tomorrow morning.

Dodging Hurricanes in the Gulf

It's been really difficult to get online these past few days. The reason? We started our trip in Houston. Our plan was to go onto San Antonio and finish up in New Orleans.

We were intitially slated to arrive in NOLA the same day Hurricane Gustav was. We'd planned to travel between these places on the Amtrak. First Amtrak cancelled our reservations and then we lost our hotel reservation. We know now that Gustav didn't do anywhere near the devastation we'd been exepecting. But we didn't know that then.

I am going to be posting chunks from my travel journal here. I am not sure the pics will make a lot of sense. The one that opens this blog was "stolen" from inside the Alamo. (You are not allowed to take pictures inside the Alamo...but I did. Heh heh.) The journal starts with me sitting in the Seattle airport.

It is midnight. I am sitting in the Seattle Airport on a five hour layover. I am waiting for a flight to Houston where we will meet another couple. Our plan is to spend a few days in Houston and then move onto San Antonio. After that – the plan is to go to New Orleans and then back to Houston.

There’s a surreal feeling in airports especially at this hour. An African man is yelling into his cell phone. I have no idea why. He doesn’t look angry. I suspect “loud” is his natural state. A child, maybe three or so, is screaming. The parents look at him like he’s an alien they have no control over. It’s amazing to me that these people don’t get taken away by the child police.

It’s delightful in a way, really. Everyone here is going somewhere. We are all travelers. We are all going somewhere. We are all going. I like going. I like that feeling very much.

I am not sure how I feel about traveling with another couple. We’ve never done this before. I am not a social being. Never have been. Never will be. I am lucky to be able to spell the words “social being.”

Still…I have decided that I am going to learn this social skill stuff. Learning how to coexist with other humans on a continuous basis may just be useful one day. And it doesn’t hurt that the people we’re traveling with are pretty cool.

No one can figure out why we are going to Houston.

When we told the customs officer we were going to Houston, he rolled his eyes and asked “Why?”

We told him we were going there as tourists and he looked at us with a surprised look on his face. “Really? Ain’t nothing in Houston.” He shrugs, writing us off as crazy Canadians, I guess. He stamps our passports and we get on the plane.

Houston is hot and humid and there is not much on the surface of this place to do. It seems to be a town devoted to business and, like many other business towns, it is clean, functional…and devoid of interesting people.

We are walking through the downtown core. In most other cities, this would be choked with pedestrians moving quickly and trying desperately to avoid actually touching another person. Not here. I feel like I have walked into a George Romero zombie film, like all of a sudden, these rotting corpses are going to start flowing out of darkened entryways looking for brains to eat.

There are so very few people about. It’s creepy in a way. Where are the tourists? Where are the people?

We locate the Tourist Information building. This is the domain of Mildred. Her name is on a sign behind the counter. She is a sharp birdfaced woman who looks a little like she just swallowed a hairy insect. We stand at the counter and she comes over.

Her greeting smile looks more like a grimace and before she even opens her mouth, I know what she is going to sound like. Sure enough – there’s a reedy complaining sound to her voice.

“Help you?” she asks. Her question carries the same tone you’d expect to hear in the voice of a lifeguard asking you if you’ve just peed in their pool.

My companions and I ask about Houston and for suggestions on what we should consider doing while there.

She purses her lips for a really long time and the idea I am imposing on her valuable time gets much stronger.

“Well I can get you some brochures,” she says.

We smile but she doesn’t move. I smile (again) and kind of nod and she sighs (again) and ambles off. She returns with a pile of papers. She brings out a white map and a red pen and looks peevishly at the map for a long second. I am wondering if she is one of those people who delights in making marks on a map, telling you where all the important stuff is...and makes scrawls all over it that you can’t make head or tale of later. She smiles. Sort of. And I know instantly this is what she has planned for us.

“You’re here,” she says, drawing a small square on a blank part of the map. “If you go down Blather Street past the Quickamonga turnoff, make a right at the Blahblah Boulevard you will wind up in Blahblahblah Park which is open two to five on every other day except Thrusday.”

I look down at the map. Sure enough – there’s a mass of confusing lines drawn all over it. We stand there looking at her.

“Are there any festivals?” my wife asks.


We had sort of expected a little more information. But we nod. We are polite.

She produces brochure after brochure. In a remarkably short period of time, we have amassed pile of brochures and the white map looks like someone in the midst of a seizure was writing on it.

“How do we get to NASA?” I ask.

“You take the 246 or the 249 from here.”

Mildred draws an “x” on a map.

“Could you write ‘Bus’ there?” I ask. She gives me a sharp look. “So we can find it later?”

She sighs and finally acquiesces and writes the three letter word beside the number. But it’s not a total victory. She’s done it so quickly that the word is hardly legible. Mildred does not like having her strategy compromised.

“Can I have a bag for all these brochures?” my wife asks with a tone that usually makes complete strangers do anything for her.

Mildred looks at her. “We don’t usually do that,” she says. Then she pauses to consider the request. “Alright,” she sighs.

She shuffles off to get a map with an air similar to a teenager being forced to take out the garbage.

While she is gone, an old guy walks up to us. He has the words “Walking Tours” on his cap.
“Wondering where the people are, huh?”

I nod and resist asking him if someone has dropped a bomb that vaporized all the people. Texans so far have not appeared to have great senses of humor. And many of them are armed so….

“There’s tunnels,” he says with a sly look.

I am thinking of H G Well’s Time Machine where people live underground like latter day moles as they wait to be eaten by the creatures raising them.

We decline the tour and Mildred grudgingly gives us directions to where the entrance to the tunnels are. She spares one last look at the pile of brochures and the swell plastic bag she has given us. “Hope you are going to be using all them and they don’t just get wasted.”

Sarcasm is a gift and I bite back several remarks in which only I will see the humor. We depart for the tunnels. There’s no need to go into our experiences in the tunnels. It’s basically a large underground mall with offices . Big deal.

So far I am not impressed with Houston. Don’t get me wrong. I do believe it’s possible to have a good time anywhere. (Well, for everyone except Mildred, maybe.) But Houston could test that premise.

A Time When Men Were Men and Women...ummm...Weren't...Men

I hate camping. To tell the truth, I have always hated camping. I've just never grasped the concept: you leave a perfectly good house with all your stuff and on purpose go to a place where you have to haul your own water, endure ferocious insects and pee outside.

Don't get me wrong: I find the idea of squatting around a campfire bristling with male outdoorsyness at the end of a long day riding herd on a gaggle of cattle, sipping cowboy coffee and trading tales of loves lost and conquests made quite appealing. But camping is never like that. It's sticky and nasty...the food usually stinks...there's generally something small and furry trying to crawl into my mouth while I am sleeping.

Em Te Town ( is kinda like that. It's about two hours out of Edmonton. The sign says "Step Back into the 1800's." It's a western theme town someone built out at the end of a long gravel road very close to the place marked "Nowhere" on your map.

We drove up, my wife and three grandchildren and me, and saw a bunch of old buildings. There's a church and a saloon (where you can get real beer!) and a creek and a ton of antiques. Someone spent a lot of time building this place.

We walked into the Saloon (because this is where you have to check in) and got the key to our cabin. It is the most expensive lodging on the whole site. It has electricity and has been presented to us as the "penthouse" of accommodations available in Em Te Town. So it was with no small anticipation that we piled into our car and drove to Cabin 6.

We know it is Cabin 6 because someone has scrawled "Cabin 6" on the door with a big black marker. The key is to a lock that hangs very importantly on a hinge. Said hinge is on the OUTSIDE of the door and could be removed with a screwdriver quite easily, despite the really big lock. This security flaw aside, I am still about half hopeful that the inside won't suck.

We open the door and look in, all of us standing on the old wooden porch, peeking into the cabin. It's rustic, alright. There's a swaybacked couch against a window that looks like something most people would throw out. Along the window sill are candles with a Christmas-like Three Wise Men motif. It's August. There are three tiny (read this as "coffin-like") rooms with really small beds along the back and a big wood burning stove.

We enter the cabin with much talk of this and that and I am already thinking about the spiders living in the couch and the possibility of venomous snakes lurking under the covers of the bed, just waiting for a warm body to slither up against.

I see a sign posted on the wall about the Rules of Em Te Town and this particular cabin. These rules reference a furnace and give detailed instructions on how to turn the furnace on. Being male and reasonably sure I can recognize a furnace, I start poking around the cabin. I can't see it. I don't want to raise the issue with Sheree because I have the idea that she will just point and I will see a furnace spring into existance.

So I go to look for Sid, the affable groundskeeper guy, to ask him where it is. Sid is a skinny older man who wears a lot of plaid and has a hat that looks like it has been passed down through at least five generations.

He comes into the cabin and peers around.

"No furnace," he declares. "We had to tear it out."

I look at Sid for a long moment.

"Furnace was condemned after we took the place over. So we tore it out. Haven't replaced it yet," he says as though that explains everything.

"," I start.

"You gotcha a good wood burning stove though," says Sid crossing the room and patting the iron antique with a certain affection. "Tell you what. Why don't I bring you some wood?"

I am not sure how to make a fire. This is one of the most closely held secrets of my life. I have never known how to build a fire. And the idea of having to build a fire inside my own HOUSE isn't attractive. Sid, who has already delivered a very small pile of firewood which we purchased upon arrival for seven dollars, goes off to get the wood and I look at Sheree.

Sometimes I think Sheree expects she married Grizzly Adams. She expects that guys know how to do outdoors stuff. She certainly does. It's a reasonable assumption, I suppose. But I don't. Never said I did. Never wanted to. I feel a long weekend coming on.

When we finally go to bed, stalked by several flies who buzz around our heads, we find the mattress is hard and thin and where it isn't hard, there are springs. The cabin is too hot and then too cold and I have decided to simply endure the night.

After seven years the night passes and I realize Sheree hasn't slept much at all. I know this because neither did I. This means neither of us is going to be in a very good mood today. I hate it when that happens.

"Why don't you build a fire?" suggests Sheree.

Shit. I briefly consider pretending I didn't hear her. But that never works on her. Never.

"...a fire?" I start, definately not Grizzly Adams. "I don't know how to build a fire."

"Every guy knows how to build a fire," she says. "I can't believe you never learned."

She looks at me for a long moment and then walks away. I set my jaw and go about building my first fire. I have an idea of how it's done. But in practice it's not unlike trying to perform brain surgery after seeing Boris Karloff in a mad scientist movie. I have a vague notion that you need paper and little twigs and that you need to spend a lot of time blowing on it. After a while the fire simply happens.

I do this and watch the embers die -- probably because I have dumped optomistically huge logs on them. Not the way. I go back into the cabin uncertainly, feeling like a dork. But I really have no idea what to do. My father always started a fire with liberal amounts of lighter fluid.

Sheree notices me standing there and, after a long-suffering look, tells me to take paper and twist it into an "8" shape and then put twigs on it.

"Ah," I say as though that explains everything. I go out to twist the damn paper.

Caedmon, my ten year old grandson, comes out to help and eventually we get a blazing fire going. I am eagerly awaiting Sheree's return from the shower to show her that I am, in fact, male and able to generate fire.

When she comes back she looks at the fire and then looks at me. Then she goes inside. I sigh and determine to enjoy this little rite of passage on my own.

We spent the rest of the weekend looking at stuff. We went into Buck Lake to buy marshmallows and other necessities and we looked at the two horses. One of them came to Caedmon, ignoring the rest of us, and did the oddest thing.The mare goes directly to him and greets him like an old friend. It is a sweet and unexpectedly tender moment. I see his face soften and watch as he gently touches the horse and the horse presses its head into him. The moment makes me feel something powerful and proud deep inside where the grandpa part of me lives. It is a magic moment that almost makes up for the sleepless nights. Almost.

Our last morning greeted us with thunder and lighting and buckets of rain. My oldest grandson, Perrin, returned from a trip to the outhouse with a "why oh why did you bring me here?" look on his face.

As we drive away from Cabin 6 one of the kids asks if we can do it next year. I suppress a shudder. Then I remember that I can now actually build a fire...and the pics turned out well...and there's the very off chance that I will develop some survival skills within the next year.


But they can keep Cabin 6.

And the spiders.

Friday, August 22, 2008

A Real Haunted House

You can see the old farm house from the highway. Every window has been smashed and panels on the front door have been kicked in. It looks brutalized by time and people and years of neglect.

Seeing this house, I get the same feeling that overtakes me when I look at cars in a wrecking yard. Once they were brand new. Once someone drove each one of them off the lot...maybe on a hot summer afternoon with great tunes playing on the radio. Now they're here, ready to be crushed and melted and re-made into something else.

This house isn't ever going to be re-made. But people used to live here. They laughed and worked and died inside its tiny little rooms and one day they left it behind for the squatters and the hobos and the mice. And one by one the people left. Now only the mice remain.

My wife, Sheree, and three of my grandchildren have stopped here to have a look. We're at the tail end of a small camping adventure in Em Te Town -- a western theme resort/campground. Em Te Town was built by someone who had a great passion for the 1800's. It was a "someone" who had a great vision -- but the town still felt "put together." Interesting to look at, but contrived.

This house, this deserted and forgotten gem, is the real deal.

The kids pour out of the car and start walking around the house, asking us excited questions and pointing out amazing things to each other.

My wife is smiling. She sees me looking at her and says "We played in houses like this all the time when I was a kid. Magical..."

She smiles as she remembers. And we both smile as we watch our grandchildren explore the exterior.

I am feeling oddly emotional and I can't explain why. It's just an old house. But there is something so very sad about the fact that it is rotting and forgotten and broken. A house without people looks lonely and very old.

"Go in," says my wife to the kids. "I know you're dying to go exploring. Be careful. Watch out for nails and don't touch anything. I give you permission to go."

There's a smile in her voice and a note of excitement. The formal statement she's just made is intended to release invite them to have a guiltless adventure. She knows well what the kids are feeling. She wants to pass onto them her traveler's heart. She wants them to feel the breathless touch of pure adventure that makes their hearts beat faster and their breath quicken. And this touches me too.

In my life I have driven by thousands of these houses without a single thought. Again, I reflect, I am looking at one tiny part of the world only because my wife has stopped to look at it.

As I work my bulk though a kicked in panel of the front door, I really feel like I am going back in time.

Before me is a wood stove with a farming manual open on top of it. The floor is littered with bird droppings and the musty mysterious scents that fill a place after many lonely years.

Coats and hats hang on hooks. (Sheree took an utterly amazing picture of this. You can see it in her post Have a look at it and tell me National Geographic shouldn't publish it!) Shoes lie forgotten on the floor. There's a mattress in each room and the whole place is littered with droppings and stuffing and time-scarred clothing.

Inside one tiny room is a Bible tract with a quote from the Sermon on the Mount. My imagination goes into overdrive here. Did some hobo pass a few weeks here, reading this stuff? Who was he? Who lived here in the first place? Where did they go?

I take a lot of pictures. And as I do so, I am feeling strangely grateful. I am grateful to the house, as absurd as that sounds. I am grateful to the people who built it as well as the current owners (whoever they are) who have not torn it down. I am grateful that I can use photography and Photoshop to give visual representation to whatever it is that causes that lump to form in my throat. I am also grateful to my wife, who once again has made me stop my mad headlong rush through life to show me an amazing but very quiet treasure.

The house is still there. Mice scrabble in the walls. The clothing and discarded magazines tell eloquent and compelling stories. There's magic oozing out of its bare wood and distant whispers of people long gone still crackle in the air. This is a house haunted by many voices...many lives and I am blessed to spend a few minutes here and make some pictures of what I see.

Try it for yourself. Stop at a house near you. Have a look. Don't touch anything. Look out for nails and have fun.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Lord of the Image: Building Magic Into Your Graphic

It's January in Edmonton. Freezing. Sheree and I are just recovering from the Christmas season, but we are getting onto a plane and going to New Zealand. We expect one of the highlights to be a tour we've booked that goes to some of the Lord of the Rings film sites.

But as the day grows closer, we start getting more and more unhappy with the prospect because each day off the ship (it was a 12 day trip into NZ and Australia) is precious and you hate to waste even a single moment on land.

So it was with considerably lower expectations that we got onto a bus in the early morning hour and headed off with other LOTR fans to see where Peter Jackson actually made his film magic.

Let me tell you just a little bit before we get to the meat of this blog. Tolkein opened my eyes to a whole new world. I first read The Hobbit in my teens and have been fascinated with things fantastical since then. Sheree and I have matching white gold wedding bands inscribed with elven script.

It's not a geek-like obsession. It's more in agreement with the beautiful notion that we are both on the same journey.We expect to go "there and back again" and it doesn't matter to us even a little bit that we are a Fellowship of Two.

But we didn't fancy being trapped in a bus all day. The tour guide, a fellow who had been an extra during the filming, warned us that we were going to be seeing where the film was shot, but that all the props were long gone.

Sheree and I traded looks and sighed.

I've never been so happy to be wrong.

It was one of the GTDOAT ("Great Travel Days of All Time") as we bounced around the NZ countryside and saw site after site, listening to stories of how the filming actually happened. It was a step beyond geek heaven.

The guide was passionate about his subject matter. He loved talking about the film and he loved Tolkein and on that bus it was perfectly alright to wonder aloud what the elven bread would have tasted like and for me to defend my stand that Samwise Gamgee is, in fact, one of fiction's great supporting characters of all time. We were among our kind of people. You get the picture, right?

There were moments when I really felt like magic was stirring and I could see the Galadriel giving Frodo a gentle kiss on the forehead as he set his jaw and marched off to Mount Doom. I could hear the rustle of elven garb as a silent procession moved through the woods to self-imposed exile from Middle Earth. I'm pretty sure I saw Sam peeking out at me just around the corner of my imagination as he set about preparing an evening meal. I felt again the breathless excitement of watching the Fellowship of the Ring set out on a quest of such grand scale that the fate of the world hung on its outcome...

Yup. I love that book. The subject matter makes my blood race. How do I convey that feeling to you -- who may or may not care about Middle Earth?

Let's start with an actual setting. The bridge in the picture at the top is one that LOTR movie fans probably won't recognize. It's on private land -- but when the filming was being done it was a vision of light and soft curves. But some very important scenes were filmed here.

I wanted to bring some sense of the magic to this photo -- which was after all -- your basic white bridge. I used a picture of Galadriel from a calendar I owned, scanned it, and built it into the graphic. (No. I didn't take the picture of Cate Blanchette...sigh) I kept the opacity very low so she just comes in on the border of the picture.

At one point the guide was reading a scene from the book where Legolas is interacting with Frodo. I happened to see my wife's face and really wanted to capture that expression. It's the look every book lover knows because it is imprinted on their soul the very instant they read something that delights their spirit.

Legolas (Orlando wasn't available for a sitting, either) is just barely on the fringe of the photo. I used an Overlay Blend so he becomes part of the background . (You'll find Blending Options at the top of the Layers Pallet. Overlay is one of many potentially wonderful effects.)

The site, and the graphic need to be visual depictions of what it felt like to be standing there, listening and being happily enveloped again in Tolkein's sweet spell.

It is, ultimately, a blending of ideas and images. It is a mix of both to create something new, as I try to convey to you what it feels like to read a book or touch magic...or have magic touch you.

So how can you share a few well-chosen steps of your journey with the world? What elements would figure in the graphic you would create? What colors would you use? What backgrounds? What would be the atmosphere of the image you build?

Think about Tolkein when you start the project. He had the same pen and paper that every other writer has had since cavemen were scraping rocks on walls. But he had a vision and it was his vision that far transcended the elements of pen and paper and became something utterly unique. Pen and paper were just the medium through which he fashioned his creation. Let me say it again: He transcended his chosen medium.

You can too.

You have a camera, an imagination and Photoshop.

Where do you want to take your viewer today?

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Accenting with Color

I love the picture of this NYC cop about to tell someone off. The shot was taken at the St. Patrick's Day Parade last year. Sheree and I were up very early, staking out our places on the parade route...because no one knows how to throw parades like New Yorkers do.

I wanted the treatment of the cop to be in very sharp focus. I wanted the gaffing tape repair to his radio to be sharp. But the picture simply refused to pop until I allowed the only thing in color to be that "way out of focus flag" in the background.

You recognize it, of course. But the line from the cop's eye runs directly across the flag and off the image. That's what makes it one of my all-time favorite pictures.

To create this look is pretty basic. First you make a COPY of your color picture, you DESATURATE the top cop layer and use your Eraser Tool to remove the black and white flag, allowing the color flag on the layer beneath to shine through. Alternately, you can use a selection tool to select the flag and press DELETE.

If you are using CS3 to desaturate your photo, do it with IMAGE> ADJUSTMENTS> BLACK AND WHITE. This addition is one of the absolute best things about CS3. You can desaturate by individual color. It is a seriously way cool thing. Try to suppress the "ooooo" and "ahhhhh" reflex as you see what it does as you move those sliders around. I dare you.

Think about the techniques you can use this for. Remember all those sappy pictures with little kids dressed up like adults giving each other roses...and the only actual COLOR in the photo was the flower? They were very powerful visuals. Think about applying your little splash of color to an object you have put on a Dynamic Point on the Rule of Thirds. The very notion of all the possibilities of preselecting one color area amidst a sea of black and white makes my head hurt. (But it's a good hurt.)

Think about going beyond Black and White and making the picture sepia (IMAGE> ADJUSTMENTS> PHOTO FILTER) and introducing a splash of color to that image. You get it, right? The possibilities are endless.

What makes a picture stand out? It stands out because it's a visual someone relates to, right? Endless pictures of Uncle Ned making a big show of picking his nose each time someone turns the camera on him get pretty boring very quickly. Okay. They get boring immediately.

But how about a guy who has dyed his moustache green for St. Pat's Day? I like this picture too -- and there's very little Photoshop in it. It makes an interesting visual: the curve of his face, the curve of his moustache...the smile...but where do your eyes go? Uh huh. The moustache. Why? Because it's the only element of the picture that doesn't make sense.

Our eyes send the picture to our brain and our brain sends it back with the question: "Are you SURE it's green?" We keep looking and, sure enough, it is. Confirmation goes back to the brain and before we know it, we have the viewer engaged.

It's the visual juxtaposition that hooks the viewer.

Blending color and motion can have the same effect. The NYC Firefighters had a vision all their own. And I think this picture works as well. What is it a picture of? It's more than a bunch of guys waving flags. It's about pride and patriotism. It's about motion and color.

It's about the guy taking the picture of the people waving flags. It's about a whole bunch of stuff -- which ordinarily would be the kiss of death for a photo. ("Whole bunch of stuff" usually results in a "Picture that isn't of anything at all.") This one is about flags. It's about people. It's about people and flags. It's a line of red white and blue on top and a line of dark clothes beneath.

The common element in all three of these graphics is color that draws your eye to a specific part of the graphic. It's the color that draws the eye and insists where the eye looks. It's color that engages us.

We humans are drawn to color like moths are drawn to light. So use that reflex to make your graphics stronger.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Hello, Purist!

I have been playing around on Flickr...the photo display community, these past few days.

It seems to work like this: you post a picture. You go hunting for other pictures you like and tell the people who made them that you think they are wonderful. (If you'd like to tell me how wonderful I am, my "Photostream" is but please remember that I am very sensitive and have been known to cry and sob for hours if someone hurts my feelings.) Then they come back, look at your stuff and tell you they think you're wonderful too.

It's okay, I suppose. But I have noticed that on a number of Flickr groups have "NO PHOTOSHOP" rules. These rules are written with the same passion you'd say "NO DEAD MAGGOTS OR ROTTING CORPSES."

There's actually a group called "Photoshop is not a dirty word." I was a little surprised at the vehemence some of these people have about not using Photoshop.

How come?

I think it goes back to a belief that, since Photoshop is digital editing software, the people who use it are second-rate photographers who take crappy pictures and try to make them better with Photoshop.


In the first place: a crappy picture will (at best) be only marginally less crappy after you've slaved over it in Photoshop. The round man brandishing the two pickles up top (who I met at a Renaissance Faire in New York) is making a comparison. That's the way I see the Photoshop/Photography debate. It's entirely two different pickles.

They are related art forms -- but they are not the same. I happen to be married to a die-hard purist. She'll crop a picture. She'll even make some minor adjustments. But the pic you see is the pic she shot. (Speaking of photography, you'd do yourself a massive favor by reading her blog on the "Basics of Photography." Bar none -- it's the clearest instruction on what plays into taking a good picture

I, on the other hand, usually look at the picture I am taking as the starting point of a Photoshop project. Of course I want the pic to be as excellent as possible. The better the original, the better the starting point for my project.

There are purists everywhere. There are even Photoshop purists who think that whatever effect you create MUST be done in Photoshop without the aid of plug-ins or third party filters. The idea is that if you don't know how to get the job done in Photoshop, you shouldn't be doing it.

I, on the other hand, think that the artist's concept for a visual piece is what really matters and who cares how he gets there? It takes as long to learn plug ins as it does to learn Photoshop in some cases. If you can get the exact effect you're looking for with a plug in -- I'm all for it.

"Garden Girl" -- the green woman above, is a white statue somewhere in New Zealand. The white was uninteresting. She's got a green gradiant now -- but still retains the stone look. Added shadows enhance the look. So does the brick wall...and the fact that the green on her was taken from the green plants behind her. ("Garden Girl." Get it?) I like touches like that.

I agree with the purists. It's no longer a photograph. It's an image of a photograph remade to suit the image I had in mind when I took it. It's now digital artwork.

This actor (the one with the goggles) was promoting a movie about a race between New York and Paris. Aside from being a wonderful concept, the picture just didn't work in color. It needed grain and it needed a single tone. It needed to look gritty. I don't know how it could work as well as a color or even a black and white piece.

I agree it takes skill to make a great photograph. Absolutely. It also takes skill to turn out a great digital image.

What's the purpose of visual communication anyway? We are all looking to communicate an idea or a feeling or a concept. We're all trying to make the viewer of every photograph or image feel something.

Here's a garbage can on Edmonton's Whyte Avenue. This is the "trendy area where there are also still a lot of street people."

I suspect one of them chose to put a different four letter word on top of a garbage can. I liked it. And while I was taken with the photograph, I was already thinking the image would be stronger if an element of "painterly" effect was added. The distortion is just enough to keep the image interesting.

So, hello Purists. It's nice to see you. I think you photographer types do some amazing work.

Now how about you all lighten up a little, okay? Take another look at the stuff graphic artists are doing and try to tell me there's not some wonderful art being generated. Or don't. Suit yourselves.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Signs, Doors and Windows...and an Old Car

As our trip to Vegas eases into that place where travel memories go when they start to lose their sharpness, I wanted to take a moment to talk about unusual picture opportunities that present themselves along the road.

The car to the left, for example. Remember the blog where I told you about the jolly guys who had the squirting mustard bottle? This car is out front of their restaurant.

Visually, I suppose it's interesting. But it's also a mish-mash of colors and...stuff. So what makes it work as a graphic for me?

I will often look at a picture of someone's creative work and start wondering about them. The creator, I mean. Take another look at the car. Someone went to a whole lot of trouble to make something that would make an impression on the viewer. Who did that? Why go to all that work and trouble?

How about this snowman? (I think it's a snowman...) From the highway it looks pretty charming because it's hanging out of an Airstream trailer. When you get closer, you can see that the elements and passersby haven't been kind.

Up's kinda creepy.

Of course you have to walk off the highway, through a field where any number of snakes and/or scorpions could be lying in wait for the unwary, round little photographer who just has to get closer to his subject. (I picked up about six hair-thin spines of some kind of pointy plant matter in my foot. I am still trying to get the last one out...)

But look at it. We're talking a snowman hanging out of the window of a trailer in the middle of a desert. Yup. It was worth a picture. (I'm not so sure about the pointy things.) There is no reason for the trailer to be there. Who put it there? Why? (I half suspected it was placed there by the snakes and scorpions to trap unwary photographers...but maybe not.) And why did they stick a snowman in the window? Curiouser and curiouser.

Sometimes the fascination comes from a simple doorway. You will find this particular door about halfway between Kingman and Seligman.

The whole area around it has been crammed tight with artifacts, cars, signs, props, gas pumps and cattle skulls.

I had a small photographer's siezure as I very nearly drove by it. It's a place custom designed for photo hounds.

But look at the door. Click on it. Read what cowboys are supposed to do. Read the rest of the information and tell me that it was not created by someone oozing personality, and pouring that personality onto the door.

Sometimes the object of attention can be something that looks really old -- like this old sign for a Chinese restaurant. There was very little Photoshop done to this sign. The sky really was that blue and the sign really is that worn. I was blown away by the signs in The Boneyard because they make me wonder about the many thousands of people who have seen them, walked by them -- been lured in by them.

Signs speak loudly about place in which they have been found as well as the people who live there.

I am turning the corner of the Vegas trip now. My work has been busy and I am already looking forward to the last trip of the year to Houston, San Antonio and New Orleans.

But I've also noticed that each trip -- from Greece to New York City to Vegas -- each one takes on its own sense of being in my mind. Do you find that about your trips? There's a very distinct tattoo or aftertaste each trip leaves on your spirit.

For this last Vegas trip -- which only lasted a week -- I will retain always the memories of going down Route 66 with my favorite person chatting beside me. I'll remember the magic of Fremont Street as one night slid slowly into the early morning of the next. I'll remember the flat out excitement of being in The Boneyard -- and eating real french fries at Mr. D's Diner. I'll remember driving down a two lane highway with the windows down listening to great music with vast desert all around me.

I love travel.

Love it.

My father asked me the other day why I travel so much. There was a slight, unspoken criticism that maybe I spend too much time on "vacation." But I would beg to point out that there is a vast difference between a vacation and travel.

Those who vacation will sleep in, sit by the pool and live their lives measured by the meals they plan to consume. Travel is...being somewhere exciting and seeing something you have never seen before. It's trying to capture that wonderful magical experience with the click of a shutter. It's about getting up very early and staggering back to the hotel with aching feet -- but knowing you have a couple of hundred pictures you can't wait to see and share. For me it's also about experiencing all this with my wife -- and, at that is the sweetest thing of all.

Yup. There's a difference between vacation and travel. What did Patton say? "For those who understand, no explaination is necessary. For those who don' explaination is possible."

I suspect they will need to strap my wheelchair into the spaceship in about forty years. But God willing -- I will still be going to places both old and new with Sheree. And if I go -- I will have my camera. And if I have my camera -- Photoshop won't be far away either.

So there.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Surviving the Las Vegas Strip

It's a little before 8:00 in the morning. I can already smell the hot sun on the pavement of Las Vegas. My wife and I are creeping across the street from our rented condo at Granville. We are going to play a little on the Wizard of Oz slot machine. We figure if we go early, we'll get there before the problem gamblers arrive. (You just shush.)

The South Point casino has four of these machines, one right next to the other and last night they were choked with happy, laughing people who were cleaning up with jackpot after jackpot.

My wife is a huge Wizard of Oz fan and she loves slot machines. I love the fact that this is a penny slot it takes marginally longer to eat your money.

We cross the casino...all senses tingling, fingers teasing the allocated but no-doubt doomed dollars in our pockets. At first I am surprised at how many people are here at such an hour. (You can never tell what time it is in the casino. It could be mid morning. It could be midnight.)

"Boy...there sure are a lot of problem gamblers here this morning," I comment to my wife.

She gets the joke -- but is ignoring me.

"You'd have to be half crazy to be in a casino before breakfast," I add cleverly.

She ignores me some more.

"Holy smokes! You'd have to be--"

She turns to me and fixes me with blue eyes just on the edge of saying something really nasty. I grin and make a lock-box motion with my finger at the edge of my lips, waggling my eyebrows in my very most innocent manner. After fixing me with a "Shut up and I mean it" look, my wife takes my hand and we walk together to the back of the casino where the Wizard of Oz slot machines are.

There are two people sitting there. One is an enormous woman, who barley fits on the stool. Her clothes are sweat-stained and a cigarette smoulders in an ashtray beside her. She is mechanically pushing the "Bet Maximum" button and I realize that this particular penny slot machine is taking her for about three bucks a roll.

Beside her is a man. His chin is on his chest and he is breathing heavily, showing every sign of a someone who is either sleeping deeply or has passed away unnoticed at some point during the night. He wears sweat pants (more to make a fashion statement, than as actual workout gear) and a sweat shirt that may have fit well about fifty pounds ago.

The woman hits a jackpot. The machine has a small siezure. Her expression doesn't change. Not a bit. She keeps pressing the Bet Max button again and again. For reasons I do not fully understand, the whole tableau is starting to depress me.

My wife and I hate the smell of smoke and she wanders off to another game. I, however, am transfixed. It's not unlike watching the same train wreck over and over again.

This woman bets again and again and again and within the space of just a few minutes, she's lost a couple of hundred dollars. All her money has fallen victim to that most reliable staple of Vegas magic: POOOF! It's gone. She pokes the man and wordlessly they rise and shamble off.

I am left thinking of "Undead Casino Zombies" because the way they move makes me remember George Romero's creatures. I start to wonder if the entire purpose of the exercise was to give her money to the slot machine in the first place and now she can finally relax because it's gone.

A girl in a costume that can't be comfortable comes around with a tray full of beer and highballs.

"Cocktails?" she asks no one in particular. "Cocktails?"

It's not even nine o'clock in the morning, I wonder out loud.

This isn't Las Vegas. It's the Island of Lost Boys. It's "para-dice." It's the rabbit hole.

For just a second I feel like an alien dropped into a strange world. All around me slot machines purr and hum and spin. People smoke with a strange meditative manner that tells you they are far, far away and their world has contracted to the few inches of dancing light in front of their eyes. It's still relatively early so there aren't loud hardware salesmen types thumping each other on the back in male bonding rituals at the craps table.

Nope. At this hour it's quiet. It's intense and resigned all at the same time. It's very strange.

Here are some tips for surviving the Strip:

1) Don't go.

2) If Point 1 isn't an option, then ensure you take picture ID with you. On the very off chance you hit a jackpot, you will need ID to get your money. It's actually a Nevada law that you must have ID in casinos. This way, also, if you have a heart attack they will know where to send the body.

3) Try to limit what you are going to bet. My father once told me to take twenty dollars, put it into one pocket and when it's gone -- to walk away. It sounds basic, right? But just think about it for a second. People put more money into the machines because they are expecting a payoff. They expect to get their money back. I remember a college psych class where the prof said "that to do the same thing over and over in the expectation of a different outcome is the purest definition of insanity." You do the math.

4) Yes. The drinks are free. But tip the girl a buck, okay? Maybe you'd like to be trapped in those shoes eight hours a day? And remember: the more you drink, the dumber you get. Do you think it's possible the casinos want it that way? Nah.

5) Taking pictures inside casinos will get you a great deal of immediate attention. I don't know what the issue is -- but security people appear out of nowhere when you start pointing a camera around. This can be highly entertaining if you do it four times in a row at the same casino -- pretending you don't speak english each time. (Okay...maybe I find it entertaining.)

The pictures here were taken at Treasure Island, by the way, on the only day we spent on the Strip. I would have included some of the shots I took of slot machines...but I am pretty sure that I'll get the chair if I actually admit I have them.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Signs of the Times: Vegas Neon

There are some things that video just does better than still photography. I started figuring that out around the midnight hour on Fremont Street in Las Vegas.

That's when they turn on all the vintage signs and since both my wife and myself LOVE these signs, we were looking forward to photographing them.

You are not going to get a better exposure or a tighter crop than the picture on the left. It was an amazing sign. The colors came on in impressive waves and, by prefocussing and judging the time exactly, I was able to hit the shutter button when all the lights were on.

It's still not a very interesting picture, is it?

Neon and flashing lights are about...well...neon and flashing. You can't convey that in a photo. You can just capture that one second and hope that is able to give your viewer a taste of what it was like to be there.

Even when the sign itself is interesting, like "Smoking Good Times" you still won't get a great image. It's like taking a picture of a picture, or someone else's artwork to me.

If we are taking pictures as graphic artists, we need to take pictures that show our subject in a new light, and hopefully convey a sense of that subject. Otherwise it's a picture of a picture, neon or not.

I am told that the name of this neon girl is "Vegas Vicki." She is currently working over a "Gentlemen's Club" in Fremont Street.

As I stood there late in the night, I had a sneaking suspicion that my neon sign graphics weren't going to be all that interesting. So I started taking pictures at odd angles, with strange close-ups.

I wanted to take the neon out of this picture so FIRST I copied the original layer and blured it a little. I wanted to take the harshness of the flat neon lines out. Then I added a blur around the outside of the graphic, since I wanted only her face to be featured.

I copied the original again onto it's own layer and worked adding a brush-stroke texture my graphic. Reducing the Opacity on this layer to about 40% allowed me to have a whisper of that texture come through to make the picture have a "painterly" effect.

Finally -- I flattened the layers and took the whole mess to Virtual Painter's Watercolor filter. I use this plug in all the time and it did a great job on de-neoning the whole graphic.

There's another multi-layered "saloon type neon girl" a little further down Freemont. I looked at this sign for several minutes before I started shooting.
I was trying to see it in a different light.

"What else could she be?" I asked myself.

"She's a superhero," I answered me -- surprising myself with the observation as well as drawing some odd looks from passersby.
So I shot her that way. When I was done, her hand is in the air and she looks like Wonder Woman about to kick someone's butt.
I worked with a Contrast Adjustment Layer to bring the colors down to five or six primary colors. I added a halftoned look and finally took the whole graphic to Alien Skin's Snap Art Comic Book filter. I added a brick wall texture very gently behind the main figure and am very pleased with the final result.

Here are 5 Kick-Butt Tips for Shooting Neon Signs at Night:

1) Brace Your Camera: A tripod is a great idea. But, since I am pretty lazy about what I carry, I have also found fence posts, light standards, garbage cans etc. wonderful places to put my camera down to avoid the dreaded "night shake" syndrome.

2) Use Your Delayed Shutter: This is the setting you use when YOU want to be in the picture. Usually it's a three to ten second delay after you press the shutter button. This allows you to avoid camera shake since the camera is no-doubt-about-it still and stays still after the shutter's pushed.

3) Make Sure You Consider Your Scene Modes or a High ISO: A common problem with night is the...ummm...darkness. So you need to give your camera every break. I'd much rather get an exposure that is a little dark because I can tease the detail out using Photoshop. If the exposure is too light -- that detail's not there.

4) Take LOTS of Pictures From Odd Angles: You never know how you are going to be using the shots. But if you take LOTS of shots you have a very good chance of seeing one you can use for whatever strange and wonderful treatment you have in mind.

5) Study your Subject BEFORE You Start Shooting: What else could it be? Is there one part of the image that would make a great close-up? Could the picture be of something other than what it is? Could a soldier be a superhero? Could a sunset be an atomic explosion?'

How We Wound up Watching Roller Derby on our Anniversary

Let me set the scene: it's our 21st wedding anniversary and Sheree and I have reservations at a great Las Vegas eatery called "The Bootlegger."

We've just finished photographing The Boneyard (I think it's two blogs back), I am recovering nicely from a minor heatstroke and we have decided to poke around Fremont Street.

Fremont is often called "Downtown." It's where Old Vegas is. Downtown was first -- the garish Strip came after. I like downtown. It's got a bunch of old stuff. It's got great signs. It's got a massive video screen on the ceiling that goes for three blocks.

But best of all it has interesting people.

"I want that one," says a girl off to my left. The voice is so loud and hard that I turn to look.

The woman has green and purple hair. She's dressed in black -- and it looks like she is wearing her underwear over top of her clothes. Not quite goth. Something tougher. There are many piercings: her nose, her lip and her eyebrows. I am wondering how she manages metal detectors at the airport and little things like blowing her nose. She wears a brightly colored shirt -- but when she moves I notice that it's not a shirt at all. She's got tattoos running up her arms and across her back. There are Japanese warriors and dragons. There are flowers and dates. There are names -- and it's all woven together in this symphony of color.

She's intent on looking at necklaces and earrings. The clerk is beside himself putting things into bags for her. You can tell he's willing to overlook a strange appearance in favor of a well equipped credit card.

She turns, sees me staring (something that probably isn't real unusual) then she smiles, waves and goes back to her shopping.

I look at Sheree and shrug. She shrugs too and we continue exploring Fremont.

A little further down the way a round little man (who looks a lot like the road manager from "Almost Famous") is painstakingly putting down tape on the cement floor in the direct middle of Fremont Street. He's being helped by another tattooed girl who is wearing a yellow shirt that is about two sizes too small. It is not not a good clothing choice.

"I wonder what they're doing," Sheree says.

I shrug and pretend I am not even remotely interested.

"Why don't you go ask them?" she asks.

I shrug again. Sheree sighs and walks over and talks to them. They are having an animated conversation and all three wind up laughing. She comes back to me and starts walking.

"Well?" I ask.

"Well what?" she says.

"What are they doing?" I ask.

"I thought you didn't care."

"Just curious," I say, unable to come up with a more witty rejoiner.

"It's flat track roller derby. There's a roller derby convention in town," she says. Then she laughs and says "We just keep walking into great stuff! We're going to get great pictures!"

Sheree charms some of the athletes to pose for pictures and before long one of the men, wearing a tutu and a flower in his hair, is mugging for the camera. How does she do it? I watch in wonder. My wife can get pretty much any stranger to do anything. I've seen it a hundred times and I have no idea how she manages. (You should have a look at her blog as well: )

We promptly cancel the Bootlegger and settle in to watch them set up a flat track roller derby. Before long the ladies of roller derby are taking the... ummm ... concrete.

It's a very challenging thing to shoot. We're under a canopy that runs the whole length the main Freemont area. The women move very fast and the only way to get any kind of half decent shot is to use my telephoto with a Continuous Focus sports mode. Even then it's tough to get.

These women are not pampered princesses. They're tougher than some of the bikers we've seen. And they have colorful names. There's Daddy's Girl and Cherry-licious and many more that I can't put here on the off chance children will read this.

But it's fascinating to watch. It smacks a little of WWF or a Monster Truck rally and, as I see them go past, I realize I have only a faint idea of what they are doing. My knowledge of roller derby is limited to watching Raquel Welch in "Kansas City Bomber" years ago...and I didn't understand it then either.

But apparently roller derby works like this: the people skate in circles. They knock against one another and eventually (and understandably) someone falls down. The crowd cheers. Two players wearing panties on their helmets (no...I don't get it either) skate very quickly and do things that make the crowd go "ooo" and "ahhh."

Occasionally a referee blows a whistle and everyone puts their hands on their hips and skates around trying to catch their breath.

How do you communicate this energy in a picture? You need to shoot a LOT of pictures.

Relax: it's digital. What doesn't work, you delete. No harm no foul. Besides -- this was so awfully entertaining to watch. These people were having fun...or as much fun as you can have skating in 100 degree heat in the middle of a sidewalk in Las Vegas.

And Sheree and I had a blast. We traded the formal Bootlegger in on a wonderful tropical buffet and played on slot machines until the wee hours. Then we took a walk around Fremont Street and took some more pictures, sipped a little beer, held hands and were just totally relaxed into enjoying the evening and each other.

So that's how I took my bride of 21 years to roller derby for our anniversary. We had a splendid time.

Am I a class guy or what?