On composing a new landscape

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For the third assignment in my Photo 6 Digital Camera Fundamentals class this past spring, the instructor asked us to practice the main principles of photographic composition. We had to choose a single subject and then make two images each that described each of the following composition choices: spot, line, shape, pattern, emphasis, balance, contrast of sharpness, contrast of light and dark, horizontal rule of thirds, and vertical rule of thirds. The purpose of the assignment was to extend the camera basics that we learned in assignment one and assignment two, and apply those basics to really make specific, deliberate choices while looking through the viewfinder.

I decided to make photographs of my wife’s beautiful landscaping and flowers around our front and back yards. We just celebrated my 10th anniversary of living in this home, and my wife and I have spent a lot of time in the last two years especially upgrading the yards. Each weekend, we’ve torn out sections of grass and worked up the barren stretches of hardpan one small area at a time, planting a patchwork of low-water plants, vegetables and herbs, and even a few dwarf citrus trees. The resulting photo set is far from comprehensive, in terms of all the small wonders we’ve managed to grow, but I think it captures a snapshot of where the yards had evolved in April 2012.

To make the photos, I used my Nikon D50 digital SLR camera and Nikkor AF-S 35mm f/1.8 prime lens. I made the photos entirely with manual settings. As I reflect on the set now, a couple months later, I love studying all the imperfections in our yard. Living in a sprawling suburban city like Fresno, many homeowners tend to favor lots of straight lines and perfectly manicured lawns. We have composed an area that is much more irregular, much more of a mishmash, which I think reflects the way a landscape was meant to be.

Ten-year house anniversary

A panorama of our backyard, taken just after sunrise this morning, shows some of our garden projects in progress.

Home is where the heart is. Home is where you hang your hat. A good home must be made, not bought. Where thou art, that is home.

You can never go home again.

… Or can you just make a new one? This past March, I quietly celebrated the 10th anniversary of living in my house on North Augusta Street in Fresno. It’s the longest period of time in my adult life that I’ve lived at one address, which is a significant fact if you consider that I had five– count ’em: FIVE– addresses in 1996 alone, the year I graduated with my Bachelor’s degree from Fresno State. Here’s a brief list of the streets I’ve lived on:

Ten years later, I still haven’t fixed that crooked number.

1973-1977 — E. Kings Canyon Road, Sanger
1977-1995 — Avenue 408, Dinuba
1995-1996 — N. Backer Avenue, Fresno
1996 — Road 104, Dinuba
1996 — Main Street, Newman
1996 — Dana Drive, Fairfield
1996-1997 — Peach Tree Drive, Fairfield
1997-1998 — Sunset Avenue, Fairfield
1998-1999 — E. Tabor Avenue, Fairfield
1999-2000 — Marina Drive, Modesto
2000-2001 — E Street, Modesto
2001-2002 — N. Brawley Avenue, Fresno
2002-present — N. Augusta Street, Fresno

I’ve had a complicated relationship with this house since March 2002 when I moved in. I’ve seen it through major upgrades– a remodeled kitchen, a remodeled garage, new windows, a new roof, etc. I’ve seen it through major life changes– sharing space with more than a dozen housemates, beginning my marriage, getting a dog, and weathering a neighborhood real estate crash that erased my equity and left my mortgage underwater. But most of all– and even though I’ve cursed it many times for its drain on my energy and my bank account– I’ve seen this house give me a stable place to come home to each and every day. After living with my parents at one address for most of my childhood, I lacked a stable home during most of my 20s. This house changed that.

Aurora at home in L.A. Photo by her husband, Ben.

My friend Aurora Lady, a Central Valley native who’s now working as an artist and illustrator in Los Angeles, once stayed with my wife Tracy and me for one week in 2007 as part of her migration project. Aurora decided to give away most of her things and consolidate her life. She spent three months living one week at a time in different people’s homes, doing what they do, to see what she could find. On her old blog, Aurora documented the beginning of her week with us, and then she later documented the ending. Here is my favorite part of what she wrote:

“When I first heard Jefferson say he owned his house, it blew my mind. Owning a house, a building. I feel horrible as so many people want this and I can’t manage to wrap my head around the concept. It’s an argument I find myself having every morning. Am I different or just a fucking jerk? Not everyone wants to live the way I do, and not everyone wants a house, and that’s cool and I need to roll with it. It makes me sick that I have a ‘thing.’

What it all comes down to is death. How you want to be remembered, what others can glean and take with them. I don’t want to die with land, and I know spending time trying to aquire it would be a waste to me. The thing is, I see the comfort in having this house, how it aids in Jefferson and Tracy thriving since they are so busy, how lovely it is to come home to something stable.”

Impromptu family photo, April 2010.

This morning, I asked my wife what she loved about our home. At first, she jokingly said: “My own washer and dryer!” But then she said that she loved our home because it was where we, together, planted her first garden this spring. As cilantro and zucchini and three varieties of tomatoes and tons of other herbs, spices, and vegetables now stream out of our garden and onto not only our plates but also the plates of our friends and families, I give thanks for this hunk of land, these stucco walls, this new home I have made and keep returning to.

There are many tradeoffs, yes. There are also many rewards.

Radio story: Smart growth


A few years ago, when I taught the in-depth reporting class for Fresno State’s journalism department, I used to tell young reporters that if they really wanted to understand the news, they’d better start attending planning commission meetings. They would all predictably laugh, but then I’d show them some sample agendas from the campus, city, and county planning commissions to convince them how serious I was being. After reviewing those agendas, I asked students to then use published news reports and public document searches to track how some of those agenda items unfolded. Analyzing the outcomes showed students the influence that the planning commission has on public policy and everyday life.

I’ve never much liked going to government meetings, myself. (As some might say: Those who can’t do, teach!) But last summer as an intern at KQED Public Radio, I was asked to work on a complex public policy story with my colleague Sasha Khokha. We took a look at “smart growth”– a city planning strategy that calls for densely built areas of homes near public transit, with lots of walking and biking space– and how the car-loving, largely suburban Central Valley was responding to its many challenges. The story was part of KQED’s excellent Miles To Go series about sustainable growth statewide, put together by the station’s Climate Watch science and public policy reporting team.

The story took us nearly two months to research and put together. Sasha handled most of the interviewing, and she wrote and voiced the radio piece. I handled most of the research– which included reviewing government documents and reports related to smart growth– and I produced a blog post that included a photo gallery with captions, an interactive map, links, and an unplanned but lively discussion with KQED listeners in the comments section. I also earned credit as a field producer on Sasha’s radio piece, as I oversaw the details of Sasha’s 4.8-mile walk from the Harlan Ranch smart growth development to the nearest supermarket. That’s Sasha with her radio gear in the photograph above, standing where the sidewalk ends.

Last week, about one year to the day from when we started working on the story, I drove out to Harlan Ranch in northeast Clovis to see how far the development had come since Sasha and I visited last summer. I was shocked to see an explosion of new homes– hundreds more new homes finished than before, many of them already occupied or sold, the development creeping steadily eastward to where Freeway 168 stops being a freeway between Tollhouse Road and Shepherd Avenue and then heads for the hills. There was still no sight of the planned shopping center inside the development, but I knew that part of the plan could take a decade or more to come to fruition. People who live there still have to drive out to get to a bus stop, a gas station, or a pharmacy.

There was lots of change, but also not much change. When I thought more about it, I wasn’t all that surprised. Planners had given the green light to build there, and that’s what the developers were doing. After that, people were still lining up to move in. I learned a new lesson about the planning commission: Sometimes the story isn’t over for many, many years.

As seen through a filter

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This past spring, I took an intro to Photoshop class at Fresno City College. It was a frustrating experience overall, mostly because the program itself has grown so gargantuan and counter-intuitive over the years that it takes a long, long time to come anywhere near mastering it. My instructor joked that there would probably someday be a Ph.D. in Photoshop, and that no single person would ever know everything there was to know about it. So, I accepted early on that nothing I could learn about Photoshop in just 18 weeks would give me more than a cursory introduction. That said, I was happy to discover and practice many of the basics. I can now make passable basic photo adjustments for color and tonality, black-and-white conversion, dodging and burning, blemishes, and restorations.

For one assignment, the instructor asked us to go out and make photographs all over campus– the biggest variety of photos we could make in an hour or so– and then come back to the lab, edit down the shoot, and then experiment by applying Photoshop filters on our final picks. The Fresno City College campus, dotted with greenery, walking paths, and older buildings, provided a gorgeous subject to photograph, especially in the golden hour when these photos were made. I had a lot of fun not only making the photos in the field, but I also enjoyed playing with the dozens of filters available in Photoshop CS5. My favorites images from the assignment are presented in the slideshow here.

I’ve read a fair number of articles lately about how Photoshop filters and mobile apps like Instagram have destroyed creativity in photography with their blurry, fuzzy realities. Prominent editors at places like National Geographic have even urged photographers to please stop using software filters altogether. I understand and agree with some of those arguments, especially when it comes to photojournalism, so in my own work I have mostly stuck with the idea that if you can’t do it in the darkroom you probably shouldn’t be doing it in Photoshop or some other program.

But of course, there are exceptions. I do love to play with Instagram filters because they’re fun, low risk, and built primarily for instant sharing via social media, rather than for more formal photography. And newspapers and magazines for years have used sepia tone and other alternative processes– both in the darkroom and in Photoshop– to give certain photographs an intentionally old or weathered look. I still believe that the primary measure of quality in a photograph will always come down to the composition. But as software continues to evolve, perhaps so will our attitudes about seeing through a filter.

An object in motion

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For the second assignment in my Photo 6 Digital Camera Fundamentals class this past spring, the instructor asked us to practice controlling motion by using manual camera controls for shutter speed and aperture. We could photograph any one subject to produce a series of eight photographs that showed a range of motion with the camera sitting still and eight photographs that showed a range of motion with the camera moving. The purpose of the assignment was to apply basic manual settings to produce blur shots and panning shots.

I enlisted the help of my good friend Eric Parker for the project. Eric teaches writing and literature courses at the University of Alabama, but he’s in Fresno for several months working on his book project. I’ve known Eric since 2004 and he has almost always chosen to be a bicycle rider, partly for financial reasons but mostly for environmental reasons. So, I invited Eric over to my house and asked him to hop on my wife’s Raleigh Special cruiser and pedal back and forth on our street in front of Cary Park. We found a nice spot about halfway down the street with a sign at the edge of the park that reads: No Vehicles on the Lawn. I thought that would make a nice juxtaposition of man vs. nature to frame each photograph in the series.

To make the photos, I again used my hand-me-down Nikon D50 digital SLR camera and Nikkor AF-S 35mm f/1.8 prime lens. We got a few strange looks from neighbors passing by in their cars, but for the most part Eric just rode up and down the street about 30 times as I stood nearby manually making exposures at different settings, one by one. My favorite photograph in the motion series is the one made at 1/30 of a second; my favorite in the panning series is the one at 1/8 of a second.

The full set reminded me of Newton’s laws of motion: basically, an object in motion stays in motion unless the object is acted upon by some outside force. I think Newton’s laws are good reminders for creative types like Eric and me, trying to figure out how to make it as freelance writers/teachers/artists. If we keep moving, the only thing that can stop us is the lens in which we view ourselves.