Wednesday, July 30, 2014

faded letters painted

faded letters painted
on a brick wall: head to foot 
men women children

I tag along while John drives a group of visiting Chinese parents on a field trip to Pella, Iowa. Pella was founded by Dutch immigrants and the town has lovingly maintained the tradition of everything Dutch: windmills, wooden shoes, pastries, lace and architecture. Even the newer stores are built in the traditional Dutch style.

After lunch in a local cafe, packed with tourists as well as local people, we wander around the town square. I stop to admire the pastries displayed in a window, traditional ones shaped like the letter S as well as round ones filled with raspberry jam.

While the others go shopping, I hurry back to THE WALL on the side of an old brick building that now houses Smokey Row restaurant. I spotted it when John parked the bus and now I spend the next two hours happily taking close-up photographs.

During the hour drive from Fairfield to Pella, while the visitors jabber away in Chinese in the back of the bus and the translator nods off, I read a book called Understanding Close-up Photography by Bryan Peterson. In one of the chapters, Bryan talks about variations on a theme and his love of letters. Over the years, he says he has put together five complete alphabets, with each letter in each alphabet being entirely different. Being a writer, I also love letters, and as a photographer, I'm fascinated by anything small. So when we pull into the parking space and I am faced with this wall, I feel like Bryan just handed me an assignment.

I start with individual letters at eye level and lower. The words on the wall were painted a long time ago, before the building became a restaurant, and now the paint is faded and peeling. But this is what I can make out: HEAD to FOOT, and below that, MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN. Much higher up, I can read: YOU. But the next row down is too obscure. While I'm moving from letter to letter with my camera on a tripod, a woman stops, curious as to what I'm doing. She confirms what I suspected, that Smokey Row used to house a pharmacy and general store, perhaps Van Spanckeren's general store.

After I run out of big letters, I notice the small letters imprinted on many of the bricks. I finally figure out that they say: DRAIN TILE CO. PELLA, IOWA. Later, I come across information on the Pella Opera House website, about the construction of the Opera House, rebuilt in 1900, as well as the general store.

The [Opera House] building was designed by Architect Stanley De Gooyer and was built and largely financed by Herman Rietveld, owner of the Pella Drain and Tile company. The Pella Advertiser of Nov. 8, 1900 says that Mr. Rietveld has done more for the building interests of Pella than any other man in our city. The building in which Smokey Row is located is another building constructed of bricks from his company. He also built several buildings and in Harvey and Monroe, the hometown of his first wife Frances Ota Livingston. A business man with many interests, he was involved in banking, newspaper publishing, various manufacturing businesses and farming.

Five years later, this ad appears in The Drainage Journal, Vol 24: 

For Sale
$20,000 Brick and Tile Plant.
60 Double Deck Dryer Cars.
10 Acres, 5 Kilns, good market.
Having gone into banking and building 
business can use product as part pay.
Write Pella Drain Co., Pella, Iowa.

Today, Pella is well known for Pella Corporation, founded in 1925, one of the largest window manufacturers in the US, but the corporate headquarters are made of, you guessed it, bricks.

The building built by Herman Rietveld on the corner of Main Street could be at least a century old, yet the bricks, if not the paint, are still in fairly good condition.

The cast iron fire escape running up the exterior of the wall to an upper floor door casts lozenges of light on the wall through the holes in the risers.

While I'm taking a photo of the light patterns falling across the orange bricks, a yellow leaf lands at the bottom of the wall. I've been focusing on inanimate bricks for over an hour and suddenly this bit of organic matter literally blows in. What a beautiful spot of color and contrast. But as quickly as it arrived, it flutters away. 
          In Bryan Peterson's book he says, "I'm a big believer in 'moving' my subject, or adding or taking away an element or two, if it means getting a better shot --as long as it does not change the truth of the photograph." Remembering this advice, I retrieve the leaf, apply a little saliva on the back, and stick it onto the wall below the purple brick, where I feel it does make a better shot.

On the wall to the right, I notice more lettering and back up to the street to figure out what it says: it's the real thing. Of course, it's the well-known jingo for Pepsi-Cola, but the Pepsi logo has long since faded away.

On this section of the wall I really get as close as I can focus, and some amazing abstract paintings appear in my viewfinder.

Many people pass by while I'm peering at the wall. I imagine it might look strange to take photos of peeling paint, but no one seems to pay any attention.

Until one woman stops and waits until I finish a shot.

"I've always thought this wall needed to be repainted," she says, smiling.

"Oh, no!" I exclaim. "This wall is a work of art!"

"Look at this." And I show her some of my close-up photos on the view screen.

"Oh my," she says. "You've opened my eyes. I'll never look at this old wall the same way ever again!"

As I pack up my gear to leave, some kids on bikes come wheeling up the sidewalk. All four of them jump off their bikes and dump them on the sidewalk, not even bothering with the kickstands, and dash into Smokey Row. The red, white and blue bikes lie in a circle sprinkled with sunspots, below a sign in the window that says SUNSHINE. Obviously, no one worries about bike theft in this small en-light-ened Midwestern town.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

little green leafhopper

little green leafhopper
perched on the curving style 
of a yellow daylily,
sucking the lily's sweet sap,
eyes shining bright red

On the stem of this asparagus fern, spaced about a hand's width apart, three tiny leafhoppers are so busy sucking sap that none of them budge when I take a close-up.

This leaf-shaped insect is not a leafhopper, but a long-horned grasshopper or katydid. The long horns refer to its long antenna and it's called a katydid from the sound of the male's mating call, made by rubbing a scraper on one foreleg against the toothed edge of the other foreleg. It feels rather than hears with its antenna, and its hearing organs or tympana are actually located on its forelegs. That must sound really loud to its own "ears"!
          It's a much bigger insect than the minute leafhopper and the katydid chews plants rather than sucks sapLike other grasshoppers, it prefers to hop rather than use its wings to fly. Katydids can also climb up (or down) walls, as this one is doing. It's leaf camouflage doesn't work very well on the white siding, so maybe that's why it's heading for the tip of a Sansevieria leaf. 
          We used to call this pointy-leafed plant "mother-in-law's tongue," because its leaves look like sharp tongues. Now that I am a mother-in-law, I prefer to call it a sword plant. But when I was a child, we had a potted mother-in-law's tongue sitting in the upstairs hallway. This leathery-leaved plant survived in the dim light and dry indoor air. 
          To me it was a miniature forest and I was a kind of Walt Disney version of Johnny Appleseed, planting the seeds I saved from my school lunch apple in the dry soil. My mother only watered the plant once a month, so naturally the seeds never sprouted. And even if they had, I didn't know that they would not grow up to produce the same kind of sweet apple that the seed came from.  Now I have an orchard with heirloom apple trees that have been grafted to run "true," but like the historical John Chapman I still plant a few of the seeds and nurse any that sprout. Who knows? Maybe one day I'll discover a tasty new apple species.

Friday, July 25, 2014

portrait of a young girl

portrait of a young girl
wreathed in white, her double
hovering outside

One of the highlights of our travel photography trip is a visit to VanArts, the Vancouver Institute of Media Arts. We enter the building that houses the institute and take the elevator to the fifth floor. On the way up, I can't resist taking a photo of Samantha, wearing dark glasses and a trench coat, standing in the corner where the mirrored walls reflect her image like a pair of identical twins. This, as it turns out, will not be the first time I see her "double."

When we step out of the elevator, we're in a small reception area. On one wall there's a poster that describes what VanArts offers: acting, animation, broadcasting, game art, photography, visual effects and web development. Large posters along the hallway exhibit student projects.

On another wall, next to a replica of a Chinese clay warrior, I especially like the part in the institute's mission statement about supporting the realization of the student's dreams.

We meet our host, Ian McGuffie, Head of Digital Photography, who leads us on a tour of the facilities.

The hallways are filled with student artwork, like this animation storyboard.

In one classroom, students are working on digital photography in Photoshop.

Photos of famous actors line another wall. This guy looks like he's being pierced by light.

In the broadcasting studio, a woman who could be a model herself sits behind a mike.

I get a chuckle out of one of the instructors standing between a model skeleton, haloed in soft light, and the image of a nude man on the bright white screen of a computer monitor.

Chairs for artists and nude models arranged in a circle, with soft natural lighting from the clerestory windows.

In another hallway, the linear lines of a bank of red lockers and a silver stepladder contrast with a round blue trash can, while the one open locker draws the eye into the dark, private space within.

After our tour, Ian takes us to an auditorium for a wonderful visual lesson on the history of photography, especially emphasizing the rule of thirds, as in this famous black and white photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson. I'm trying to imagine the skill required to capture a moving subject, not knowing until you've developed the film whether you got the man at all, let alone in the "sweet spot" that makes this photograph so appealing.

He does show us how many contact prints and how much cropping it took to come up with this famous portrait of Igor Stravinsky by Arnold Newman.

Meanwhile, I am taking a photo of Hiyan, who looks like a little elf in her brown hood, raptly listening.

And then sitting with her big yellow purse like a life bouy in a sea of blue chairs.

At the end of the day, Ian accompanies us on the elevator down, and I discover that he has a triple! When he sees me focusing on him, he says, "Ah, yes, favorite spot for photos."

The next day we meet with Mauricio Orozco, an advertising and commercial photographer, for a hands-on workshop in portrait photography. Mauricio, who was born in Mexico City, and Gabe, our instructor, who is also from Mexico, hit it off right away, We all really love the way Mauricio takes us through the details of studio lighting, reflectors, backdrops, props, fans, stills and motion shots.

This is what the fan is for, blowing hair or clothing. And oh my, what a red backdrop and just the right lighting can do to create drama.

Some of my favorite portraits are the ones that are not posed, like Hiyan delicately texting on her beloved pink cell phone.

Alena cradling her camera and looking thoughtful. And the one of Samantha sitting in the window with her double floating outside.

Of course, when I'm not shooting live models, I start seeing charming images everywhere, like the curves and complementary colors of a blue umbrella and textured silver reflector on the blue and white floor.

Or the same reflector like a gold portal to a long green and blue exterior walkway.

The same walkway, with some little plant growing through a crack in the moss green tiles and the white splotch of a bird dropping, both reflected in the glass panes.

And all the blue and white verticals and horizontals of the architecture and the reflection of brick buildings across the way.

When I look out one window, I spot two white eggs nestled in moss growing on the flat rooftop of the building next door, and I am happy to see nature adapting and thriving even in the midst of a big city.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

twin galaxies

twin galaxies --
iconic clock tower cobbled 
out of pinball cards

As I'm leaving ICON Art Gallery after my painting lesson, I pass two pinball machines and two young men inside the display window, plastering the walls with hundreds of cards for the upcoming Twin Galaxies exhibit. Then I do a double take. Our iconic clock tower, reflected in the window, looks like a giant jigsaw puzzle made of pinball cards. How cool is that?

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

blue and all blue

blue and all blue --
low lying spatula of hills,
curving ruffled wake

We're all reluctant to leave the magic of Salt Spring Island, but we have to get to Vancouver, so we line up at the ferry, four cars wide. I wander down to the water's edge. Under an arbutus tree, a couple patiently sits, reading while they wait to board with their bikes. Nice to see people still reading paper books!

On board, I roam around the boat, happily taking photos of seascapes, marine paraphernalia and people.

As we near the port, the Coastal Mountain Range rises like white-cap waves on the blue horizon.

The ferry that was behind us docks just before we do, so we get to watch vehicles disgorging while others wait to enter the twin parking decks.

When it's time to disembark, I can't find the car I came in. Walking up and down the rows of parked cars, starting to get a little panicked, until I remember that I got switched from the white car to the black car back on the island. So easy to get confused when you're traveling and things keep changing!