Saturday, March 18, 2017

I never thought about this....

I read something recently in a magazine that my brother, Jim, shared with me. As we approach and observe the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, this article laid out a supposition that the Reformation had unintended consequences that "injured the church's life and witness, continuing to this day." There were two paragraphs in particular that stood out to me, and in light of the current administration's budget that would cut the National Endowment of the Arts completely, I felt these two paragraphs explain a great deal.

I've always wondered why there is such a hesitancy to fund the arts more substantially in our country. I don't have any facts to back up my point, but my perception is that Europe does a much better job funding the arts. Japan and even China have a vibrant arts presence. Again, I do not have any data to state that those countries have an active government funding of the arts. But when I looked at what the 2016 United States budget for the NEA was, I did find that it was .012% OF THE ENTIRE FEDERAL BUDGET!1 The actual dollar amount was $148 million. That's an M folks, not a B. 

So, why is there such a backlash, nearly a hatred for arts funding? Granted, I do believe that it is the responsibility of the patrons of the arts (which includes me) to support them. I support them because I believe in them and their value. Like the great British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, I believe the arts are vital to our very survival. But why do we as Americans feel this antagonism for supporting the arts, while we'll subsidize athletic teams wanting to build billion-dollar stadiums? When reading this article, and the specific paragraphs, I now understand: 

Rejecting Art and Beauty

    The Reformation bred a mistrust of aesthetics. This is particularly true of those branches following Calvin, and certainly Zwingli. One sees it most in architecture and worship style. Reformed church building shunned art, rejecting the "idolatry" they saw practiced in the unreformed church. Walls were blank. The focus was on the pulpit, to hear the words of the Word. The emphasis, here again, was on right articulation of doctrine. "Smells and bells" were dismissively forgotten.

     In some ways, protecting the church from the influence of art and aesthetics derived from a strong division between the spiritual and the material worlds. The appendix to "The Westminster Directory of Public Worship" even declares, "no place is capable of any holiness." This reflexive desire to keep matter and spirit detached from one another continues to infect much of Protestant thinking. The more recent movements toward liturgical renewal, including even sensory-saturated worship, as well as the recovery of liturgical arts and dance within mainline and even evangelical congregations, can be understood as finally rejecting the Reformation's war on aesthetics.2

I found this to be extremely revelatory. Our national spiritual heritage was even more anti-aesthetic than this author states, because the Pilgrims came over to the north american continent to escape the religious persecution they were subjected to in England. They believed that anything that could give one pleasure, such as the arts, sex, or even expressive (liturgical) worship, were the works of Satan. We have in our national DNA, you might say, a fear or even a paranoid fear of the arts and artistic expression: it is born of the Calvinistic ideas of asceticism, or the rejection of anything that might bring pleasure. And, even after nearly three centuries, we cannot seem to shake it. 

It is my hope that there is an awakening in the arts community on a national scale, but an awakening as well in those that are patrons that enjoy the arts, but do not contribute of their time or money. Therefore, if we loose the NEA funding, the loss will be mitigated by those who believe in the arts and their value. 


Saturday, March 11, 2017

Putting it into focus....

I have to admit - I've been feeling like I've been out of focus the last couple of months. There's been so much going on, from de-Christmasfying the house, to planning my church's upcoming 60th Anniversary, to work I've been doing as a board member of Choral Arts Initiative, and feeble attempts at dating - I just seem to have not had much time to do what I LIKE to do. 

And through all of this has been the steady drone of work, with strategic planning for 2017. There's been time spent with the kids that included a short 24-hour trip to Joshua Tree in late January with Colin. And finally, my birthday late in February. 

But through it all, I've not been content. I find that I really want to spend time on my passions - the things in my life that give me joy. I don't have any Pacific Chorale obligations until May, but being on the board for Choral Arts Initiative, with the release of our first CD later in March, has kept me involved with my passion for choral music. But my photography has not taken as much of a center stage as I want it to. 

Well, this morning, at breakfast with my brother Jim, things came into (no pun intended) focus. And I feel energized and feel the passion returning. 

During breakfast, Jim was telling me about a fine art painter that he knows that does workshops, and makes enough money to cover the expenses of art supplies so he can continue painting at his leisure. It reminded me of the days when I used to do wedding photography, which would pay for my photo trips with my dad or by myself, or the occasional photo workshops I'd go on. And my mind went back many years ago to the idea of running my own photo workshop. 

Lorrie's grandparents used to live in a small community named Walker. It's located up highway 395, in the northern Sierra, near Tahoe. In January of 1997. the northern Sierra had a warm spell followed by a warm storm system that not only rained hard, but caused premature ice melt, and the Walker River became a raging torrent that took out part of highway 395, and part of the town of Walker. Lorrie's grandparents were fine, but they knew of several townfolk who lost homes and businesses due to the flooding, along with the complete devastation of the fishing on the Walker River (which has recovered). The area around Walker is beautiful, but Walker is only a short drive north of Bridgeport, and the Twin Lakes area near there. A ways past Bridgeport is Bodie and then the Virginia Lakes, and even farther south is Mono Lake and the Tioga Pass. 

So, after one Thanksgiving trip I thought of doing a photo workshop, with Walker as the base. I had contacted a hotel there in town that had both rooms and a small meeting room, and told them of my plan. They agreed to host the participants. Unfortunately, my dream never came to full fruition, but it never went away either.

And as Jim and I talked during breakfast, I realized that I could start planning something again. Something that I could do that would encourage photographers who are seeking a way to see beyond how they see now. Take them to the places where nature, in all its artistry, can bring about creativity. 

It's a dream, and it's one I will put my focus on, perhaps running something out of Walker in the fall of 2018. 

And now I'm content again.........

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Out with the old, in with the new....

As I write this, it's hours away from a new year - 2017. I have many of my social media friends lamenting 2016 because of all the celebrities we lost in this past year, notably Alan Rickman, Prince, and most recently, Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. But for me, 2016 has been a challenging year because of personal loss. And yet, I find myself buoyed in spirit and cheerful, because those days are behind me, and I am looking ahead.

Many of you know that earlier this year my mom passed away. And many of you shared in my grief through this blog and my social media posts. Her passing was difficult - more so than I had thought it would be. But the grief was intensified by another loss in my life: the end of my marriage.

Some of you are aware that Lorrie and I divorced this year, but many of you may not be aware of it. We both have done our best to keep it from being publicized on Facebook, and I have probably been more vocal about it in person than she has. But I have been more vocal because I want to move on, and I had many work and church friends that cared and wanted to be a support to me and the kids. Our marriage ended amicably, and we are dedicated to co-parenting the kids. But I knew as it ended that I would want to move on. And I feel that I have. Oh, sure. There are still remnants of Lorrie here in the house: the decor; her computer is here; and some of her clothes are here. This house still reflects her. Thankfully, I am for the most part comfortable in that, because I do like the decor. It's warm. It's familiar. And for me and the kids (who are still with me, including Justin), it's home. 

But I know it's time to move on. And, it's also time to rediscover myself. I have returned to my passions (singing and photography), and have received a great sense of joy and fulfillment in those activities, just as I felt 20 years ago when they were such a major focus of my life. I have plans for my photography that are measured. I'm not trying to do it all at once. And in a small way I'm involving Colin with it as well. It turns out he has the Prothero love of road trips and seeing things. And so while I do my passions, I can build relationships with the kids.

Part of the rediscovery of myself is learning how to balance work, my time with the kids, my time for my passions, and my time for dating. I have been dating, and find that I'm not ready for a relationship, or the "boyfriend/girlfriend" thing. I find that there are too many women that I wish to go out with. Yes, I'm on a few dating sites, and so far, they've been fruitful. More importantly, though, I realize that I am not wanting to get into a relationship yet, because I need to go through this journey of defining myself not as "Lorrie's husband", but as John. As Colin and Audrey's dad. As the photographer, and as a musician.

So, here's to an unknown but anticipated 2017!

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Like riding a bicycle

You know the old saying "It's like riding a bicycle: you never forget." Well, this past weekend for me was like getting back on a bicycle after being off of one for years.

I have shared in many previous posts about my passion for photography, and how I love to be in nature. To me, the two are symbiotic: I go out into nature to be inspired to create images, while at the same time I desire to create images as a means to be out in nature. 

This past weekend I loaded up my Outback and took Colin, my 16-year old son, on a trip to Death Valley. The purpose of the trip was to do some stargazing. But I took the opportunity to take my camera along, just in case I had some time to do some photographs. And the trip rewarded me in three very distinct ways.

First of all, I did take some time to do some photography. In the morning of our first full day, Colin was not quite awake, and it was daybreak, so I headed into the park, stopping at a location that gave me a tremendous view of some hills that soon would be touched with sunlight. I set up the camera and as I did, I felt something. There is, for me, a certain oneness of being out in nature. I don't have these feelings often, and when I do, they are confined to those times when I am free, and out in the open, and setting up the camera or just standing there. But while I'm out there, I feel as if the surroundings speak to me, and try to tell me things. Sometimes I feel like they're voices to help my creativity. Sometimes they're voices that tell me to listen to and trust myself. And often, I feel that they are the voice of God, speaking to me in the stillness of that time and place. And I listen, and I allow the voices to guide me to see and understand. I have, in my photographic travels, been in places of intense quiet, and have felt a presence, which I only can attribute to God. 

The second reward was the realization that even after years of absence from photography, the eye is being fine-tuned to seeing things again. Sure, we all "see" things, but do we really SEE them? One of my favorite things to do is leave the camera on its tripod and walk around, hands behind my back, looking down. I look for various things: colors contrasts between objects on the ground; graphic shapes and forms; juxtaposition of colors and textures; variations of tone and shade. All of these things can be seen by just looking, and as I walked around, I felt myself seeing things, and in seeing them, I did capture some good images. But it was that acknowledgement that I was SEEING again which gave me an intense feeling of joy. I felt I was "back". The old John. The creative John. He had not gone away. 

The final reward came in seeing Colin's reaction to Death Valley. I have to admit that as we were leaving that morning for the drive to Death Valley, I was concerned about whether he'd enjoy himself or not, or if he'd be bored. But neither of those things happened. Colin has an interest in both geology and astronomy, so seeing these vast expanses of desert, with the fascinating rock strata, volcanic cones and lava flows, and rocks strewn all over the side of the highway, were exciting for him. And as a travel companion, I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed his company, because just like I was with my dad, Colin was with me. He didn't speak much (my dad only spoke when he saw something to talk about), and when we'd stop, Colin would get out of the car and explore a bit. I know a return trip is in order, but for me, it was the passing on from one generation to the next of this love of seeing and observing. 

I am glad that, because of life changes, I am returning to my passions. But I'm even more pleased that my kids wish to be a part of this as well. 

Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Journey Continues - Confirmation

Pastor Taylor with Confirmands Andrew, Erika and Aidan, 2016
I must confess that being raised in the Presbyterian church, I missed out on some of the more liturgical aspects of worship, one of them being Confirmation. Oh, sure, when I was a teen and I went to a Youth Orientation Class, being run by our youth pastor, I learned about the basics of the Presbyterian denomination, played some trust games with my fellow teens, and in about 4 weeks, I could join the church as a member, rather than just a kid on my parent's church membership.

But today was Confirmation Sunday in our church, which we choose to observe on Reformation Sunday, making it a celebratory day. And even though both of my kids have gone through Confirmation themselves (Colin was Confirmed in 2014, Audrey in 2015), it wasn't until today that the significance of Confirmation made itself evident to me.

I look back at my own faith at this time, and place it in a shadowbox that was encased by my mother's faith, and held in it as well the faith that my two older brothers had. Church was never forced on us, but we were still expected to attend. Then, when my brother Jim went to college and began to stretch his wings, mom felt he was backsliding. I look at my oldest brother, Donald, who has embraced a life of science to the point where he seems to fight the faith he was raised in. So as I watched these three teenagers today, who stood in the pulpit and made their statements of faith, I realized how important this seemingly innocuous Rite is. And it is called a Rite - the Rite of Confirmation.

You see, my brothers and I never had the chance to stand in front of a group of folk and state what we believed. Oh, sure, we may have had through various youth events to give testimonies, but never in such a public forum. And even though I listened to Colin and Audrey's statements of faith, I never saw it any other way than the perspective of being a proud dad. 

But today I heard something different: I heard three young people publicly state and profess the reason for their faith. These were carefully crafted messages, and even though none of them were over 3 minutes long, they spoke volumnes of the journey these young people have taken, and more importantly, the foundation that has been built to carry them through their continuing journey of faith. But more importantly, I realized that what they were saying was that their faith was now their own. The claimed it from their parents. They are now stewards of that faith. And to me, that is so exciting!

And I thought of my own kids, whom I told that I WANT them to have their own faith, not mine or anyone else's. It's theirs, and theirs alone. I have told all three of the kids that I want them to continue to go to church and then when they're 18, they can do as they please. Because I want them to get that core truth: that solid foundational belief, so as they travel in their own spiritual journeys, they will have that firm set of beliefs to hold them as they face challenges and other belief systems. And, so today, I think of my kids, and the statements they made, and the hope that they choose to take a journey that will lead them to a place where their faith is strong and truth-filled.

Soli Deo Gloria

Friday, October 21, 2016

Life without regret

Many years ago I took on the life philosophy of having no regrets. Up to that point I had been someone who played it too safe (I still play it safe), but I never took risks or opportunities if they presented themselves to me. This was a major step for me, and led me to both personal and professional growth. But never was it more exemplified than one late afternoon in October, 1994.

It was the last big photo trip that I was to take with my dad. Sure, we did other trips after that, but just short ones that only went to parts of California. This trip took us to Colorado, and then into Utah. We spent a full day in Moab, taking in both Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park. That afternoon, I decided I wanted to get some sunset photos of the famous Delicate Arch. Dad opted to stay in the room, so I did the drive to the trailhead parking lot, pulled out my big camera bag and hefty tripod, and set out on the trail. 

The trail was a mile-and-a-half long, and for a good half-mile climbed up a gentle slope of slickrock. Now, I had all my camera gear, and even though it was in a backpack, it weighed nearly 30 pounds. The tripod was heavy-duty, and added 10 pounds to the load easily. About half-way up this trail, realizing I didn't know how much further I had to go, I began to think about turning back. The sun was setting quickly (as it does in the fall), and I just felt that I would probably miss the sunset shot and be disappointed. I started to turn back.

But then I thought to myself "Hey! You have never been out here, and you really don't know if you'll ever be here again. Just go for it!". I listened to that voice, repositioned my gear on my back and placed the heavy tripod on my other shoulder, and continued on.

For those of you who have never been to the Delicate Arch, but have only seen photos of it, you should go there. The photos do not give you the correct idea of how large the Arch is. You think "oh, maybe it's 10 feet tall." But it is massive, and the natural bowl or amphitheater that you see in front of it is massive as well. 

So, here I was, coming around a corner, seeing this tall arch, and this bowl, not lit brilliantly by the setting sun, but bathed in a soft, pink glow from the clouds to the west. The light on the Arch and the other formations was surreal, and one of the most perfect serendipitous photographic situations I've ever encountered. I set up my camera, and shot a few photos of this wonderful sight, until the light was so dim that my film would not have been able to capture it anymore. 

Delicate Arch, Arches National Park, Utah, c1994 2016, John Prothero Photographer

As I hiked back to my car in the still darkness, (I did bring along a small flashlight), I realized how important my life philosophy of "no regrets" was to me. Had I listened to that whiny voice, and turned back, I would have regretted it, and have missed one of the most important images in my small library of work. 

And as I go through life, I can say I have NO regrets - well, maybe a few. But they are small regrets, not ones that were life choices regrets. And now, as I return to my passions, I will make choices without regretting anything.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

The Art of Composition

Having grown up in an artistic family, the basics of composition in a painting, drawing or photography were second-nature. Even the way my dad would landscape the yards we had in Glendale and San Clemente had a basis in design and composition. In photography, the rules of composition apply just as much as they do in other visual art forms. As I return to an art form that I loved so much, I find that those basics of composition are still with me - just as much a part of me as my memories of places, or my mom's singing, or the Sunday dinners at home. 

In photography, using the basics of composition can make the difference between a "meh" picture that you see on Instagram, to one that makes you say "WOW!" and you click the little heart icon to "like" it, or even go so far as to comment on it. And as I have been viewing other photographer's work on Instagram (which is a great platform for serious amateur and professional photographers), I'm seeing many images that COULD be "WOW!", but are just "meh", because the person did not use those rules of composition.

Now, in fairness, many folk who use their smartphones to capture images have never studied art, or the rules of composition, and out of fairness we can't dismiss what they tried to do: capture something that stirred them emotionally. And some of those folk that I see on Instagram may have a natural ability to understand what makes a good image, and they take it without even thinking of it, and select a filter that gives them that emotional feeling they had in that fleeting moment. And, to be fair, even those who MAY know about composition are not going to be successful in every attempt they make to capture the emotional response to what they are seeing.

So, what are the basics of good composition, and since my art is photography, what is good photographic composition?


The first thing that most photographers comment on is the rule of thirds. When I see a perfectly symmetrical image, with the horizon line smack in the middle, or a vertical object that divides the scene perfectly in two, I respond in two ways: either the photographer was intentional in this; or they had no clue about the rule of thirds. The rule of thirds states that you divide your frame into three horizontal sections, and then three vertical sections, like this:

The four points where those verticals intersect are call the points of interest. So, the goal, especially if you have a subject in your image, like this shell, is to have it at one of the points of interest. Here, it's in the lower right point of interest. But notice too that the horizon is dividing the middle and the upper third of the frame. This is a very strong compositional element, and creates a dynamic image.


Leading lines are important, because they bring the viewer into the image. Having strong leading lines create a sense of depth, which psychologically bring the viewer deeper into the image.  Here's a good example of leading lines taking you in, all the way to the back of the image. Also notice that the vanishing point (where the road disappears in the distance) is near the upper left point of interest. This images invites you to "enter" into it, and experience it, due to the leading lines. 

Taylor Creek Road, 1997, copyright John Prothero 2016


There are basically two types of curves you can use in photographic composition: an S-curve, and a C-curve. Either one are strong compositional elements. I particularly like S-curve, as in this image below taken on a winding road in the central California coastal hills. As with leading lines, S-curve that start at the bottom, or the corner of an image, lead the viewer into the photograph, enticing them to be part of what they see. 

Another strong form of composition is using diagonal lines, which can also be used as leading lines. If you use them to create strong angles at the four points of interest, it creates a powerful image. Triangles as well can be used to create strong interest, particularly around the subject of your image. Here are examples of an S-curve, diagonals and triangles. 


As you can see, using diagonal lines can inherently lead to triangles, so you've used two different compositional techniques to strengthen your image. 


No, we're not talking about something out of a Dan Brown novel. The famed Fibonacci Sequence from "DaVinci Code" was a real sequence of numbers, which is manifested in a strong compositional element as seen here:

Notice how the image has a cluster of something at a starting point, and then the rest of it spirals out. For me, I use this technique quite a bit, yet it's more instinctive. And you can apply it in any orientation in the frame, and within a portrait or landscape orientation.


Well, let's look at what I'd say is a poorly composed image.

When you look at this image you see that the seawall is just about in the center of the frame. Thankfully, it's closer to the line that divides the middle third of the image and the bottom third. But what really stands out is that this while tower is smack in the middle of the frame, and is a white tower brightly lit. When viewing this image there is little sense of depth, little sense of movement, and so you don't feel compelled to enter into the image - it doesn't engage you. Bright objects in an image stand out and come out at you. So, by this white tower being in the middle, there is nothing that leads you into the photograph. In fact, the white tower grabs all your viewing attention. It just sits there, sterile. Some ways the photographer could have made this interesting was moving the white tower to one of the vertical lines in the frame. I would have gone closer to the seawall and have used that as a leading line into the tower. Also, this is strongly backlit, which can be problematic. Having a strongly side lit subject is more interesting.


Well, not only did I learn from observing my parents and taking art courses, when I used to do large format photography, you have to rely upon composition in order to make sure the image is going to be worth printing, or for that matter, exposing. Large format film and processing is an expensive venture. But it did force me to look at images from a pure compositional standpoint and even from a lighting standpoint. Let's look at one of my black & white images taken of a sand dune in Death Valley National Park. On the left is the image I printed. On the right is the same image as it appears in the back of a large format camera: upside down and backwards. 

Sand dune, Mesquite Dunes, Death Valley National Park, 1994, copyright 2016 John Prothero
When I was viewing the scene on the ground glass of the 4x5" camera, I had to look at what drew me into the scene very carefully. I emphasised the foreground, which uses shapes and curves to enhance it's composition, and then I put the sky at the top of the frame because I wanted the viewer to be pulled into the image - I wanted them to be compelled to walk on the dune. Then I did additional work in the darkroom to create the deep shadows. Photography uses the psychology of dark and light - dark recedes, light comes forward. By having a very dark dune at the top, the image now has a sense of depth and distance. 

By using various elements of composition, whether your taking an image with your iPhone, or with a DSLR, or large format, you can create stunning images that have the ability to elicit strong emotions from the viewer, and take your images from "meh" to "WOW!"