Timeless Beauty

There is no place quite like Yosemite National Park.  It’s been a while since I visited the park – all my pictures were taken with my old Minolta film cameras.  I’ve been looking through my slide collection lately and after looking at these pictures for the first time in over twenty five years, it was time to “scan” some of the slides so that they can finally be a part of my digital collection.  Here are a few pictures from my last trip to Yosemite, taken in May 1994.  I need to go back and visit this wonderful place once again.  Of course, I can say the same thing about Bryce, Yellowstone, Arches, Acadia, the Tetons – the national parks are a true treasure that have endured for millennia.  Let us work together to ensure that these landmarks, centuries from now, are still a source of wonder and inspiration for those who come after us.  Assuming, of course, that Yellowstone doesn’t blow its top in the meantime.

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And then, Yosemite

When I was young, my parents used to take me along trips and vacations to see the wonderful places the world had to offer.  I remember driving to Skyline Drive and Shenandoah National Park for the first time.  My father was ecstatic looking at the mountains and the seemingly endless views of the valley below.  My mother was busy posing for photographs.  I was unmoved.  A typical teenager, I just wanted to stay home and do my own thing.

A few years later, my grandparents were visiting us in Virginia and they decided to visit their friends in rural southeastern Virginia.  If the barely two hour drive to the Shenandoah was long, the drive to Richlands, Virginia seemed like an eternity.  Mountains, hills, valleys all melded into a mosaic of interstates and highways, rural roadways, the occasional town.  It was a happy time for all – friendships rekindled, beautiful mountain air – with the exception of the grumpy teenager who just wanted to stay home.  And of course, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was only a “short” distance away.  So what to do?  Drive through more mountain roads, look at never ending forests, gaze upwards to look  at yet another mountain peak, and meet native Americans for the first time.  That part of the trip was actually interesting.  Clean mountain air, the fog that covered the mountains that made for spectacular sunrise and sunsets, the breezes that made the hot summer days bearable – I didn’t breathe, see or feel any of that.  I chose to ignore the beauty that was around me.  I just wanted to be home.

When my father bought me my first real camera, I started taking pictures of my friends.  Eventually, I started taking pictures of the monuments and landmarks that were so close to me.  Visit to the woods and parklands soon became a favored diversion.  I started to read about the great places to visit in the United States.  Shenandoah National Park.  The Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  Yosemite National Park.

I visited family and friends in San Francisco and they offered to drive me to Yosemite.  I was unprepared for what I saw.  I knew that the place was beautiful – who hasn’t seen the pictures of Yosemite taken by Ansel Adams and other great photographers.  I envisioned cliffs, mountains, streams.  Instead, I was treated to one of nature’s great cathedrals.  Yes, El Capitan, with its granite face was a sight to behold.  Half Dome, Yosemite Falls – they were indeed impressive. Still, they are but backdrops to the true beauty of Yosemite.  The life sustaining valley nestled within the great peaks of the Sierras.  The stone monuments, beautiful as they are, are the supporting cast to this place that the trees and animals call home.  Yosemite.  A monument for the ages.  A cathedral for the living.  A gift of magnificent beauty for all.

Beauty in Everything

We are surrounded by beauty.  Often times, we look at everything at the most superficial level.  We see a pretty face, a pretty dress, a beautiful landscape, a stunning sunset.  We travel all over the world to see the Andean glaciers, the auroras in Iceland, the arches and hoodoos of the American southwest, the water wonderland that is Guilin.  We dream of going to far off places, depicted so beautifully by thousands of photographers and artists who share the same passion of seeing, drawing, photographing the places and things that have been universally deemed as beautiful.

We ignore the innate beauty around us.  From a child gazing longingly at the candy cane in the window, the grandmother being escorted by a loving grandchild as they cross a busy street, to a homeless man grateful for a cup of coffee that a stranger provides.  There is so much beauty in the world, if we could only look beyond our preconceptions and prejudices.  And wonder at the beauty that is everyday life.

The bluebird singing.  The stars in the night sky forming patterns that have guided mankind’s journey throughout the ages.  That feather in the grass. Pick it up and look closely.  You may be amazed at what you see.

Wet and Wonderful

It was a rainy Saturday afternoon in early September.  I’ve become quite keen on macro photography lately, and with the intermittent nature of the showers, it was time to explore the flowers at Meadowlark Gardens in Vienna, Virginia.  Raindrops are beautiful when viewed closely, especially when the world around them is refracted and reflected in unpredictable ways.

The garden was not as quiet as I thought it would be.  On the Atrium at the garden, a wedding reception was getting under way.  My first thought was – well, I wonder what kind of wedding pictures the photographer will be able to take.  With a heavy overcast and the rain fairly steady, the wedding party wasn’t spending a lot of time in the beautiful garden.  Sometimes, the best laid plans are thrown asunder by water droplets from the sky.  Still.  A wedding is a celebration, after all.  I suppose wedding photographers will have contingency plans for times like this.  I am glad I am taking pictures of flowers, raindrops, and dew laden plants and not have to worry about pleasing clients on their wedding day.  I wish the newlyweds joy and happiness in their new life.  And may their special day be captured in a special way.

Back to the garden.  The overcast skies made the colors of the flowers really pop out.  It was a feast for the eyes.  The colors!

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Orange, yellow, pinks, purple, red hues, deeply saturated.  The flowers, holding the moisture in their petals. Insects, weighed down by the moisture, slowly drying themselves out in the open air.  Each droplet beckoned to be photograph.  I felt like a bee, moving from flower, to flower, getting ever closer, looking at a familiar world made even more beautiful by the transient beading of water from the sky.

Closer.  Closer still.  Until the world around the flowers can be seen reflected in the droplets that hang precariously on a ledge.  In an instant, a droplet would separate itself from a leaf, from a petal, the reflection rendered so beautifully being pulled down by the invisible force of gravity.  A drip here, a drip there.  Beading, elongating, falling.  Focus.  Focus.  Images go in and out of focus as the lens points excitedly to yet another seemingly frozen moment of time.  Click.  Click. Click.  Each drop a picture.  Each drop a memory.  Nature paused and I was transfixed.

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Classic Subject, Vintage Lens

Over the weekend, a very nice lady gave me an old Minolta Rokkor-TC 135mm f4 lens.  This lens is over five decades old.  It was a sunny day yesterday, so it was a good opportunity to test the lens on a classic subject.  It was off to Meadowlark Gardens for a quick lunchtime photo session.  The lens was attached to a modern Sony APS-C mirrorless camera.  Some pictures.

The lens is lacking in contrast compared to modern lenses; this is most noticeable when there is strong backlighting in the image. Focus peaking works quite well and the ability to magnify the area that I am focusing on is very helpful; unfortunately, I was concerned that the butterfly would fly away before I achieved optimum focus on the subject, so I some of the images are not as sharp as they could have been.

The images were sharpened, contrast added, vibrancy and saturation tweaked, and in the case of the featured image, I deleted “unnecessary” objects from the picture to isolate the flowers and butterflies.  I also had to extensively blur the backgrounds on the featured image and on the last image in the set.  Still, the lens is quite nice.  I am looking forward to using this lens for portraiture – it will probably great for that.

The old lenses are certainly worth trying out.  And as the 135mm f4 Rokkor-TC shows, they will be useful tools for decades to come.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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