Sunday, July 21, 2019

The Journey Continues: a different take on Communion


I have written before how I feel a certain sense of mystery about being in worship, and how Communion transcends whatever doubts I may be feeling within my faith. There is something both humbling and inclusive in the act of Communion that I have learned to appreciate, even more so in a liturgical tradition such as the Lutheran Church. 

Lately for me, though, there's been an added layer of meaning for me in regards to Communion, and that's because I've been helping serve Communion. 

For decades, I've participated in Communion, first within the Presbyterian tradition, which was celebrated by staying seated in the pew, and the church elders would pass trays containing a small crouton-type of bread, and then trays filled with mini-shot-glasses of grape juice. It was a very passive form of taking communion. Within the Lutheran tradition, you would go to the altar, be served a wafer and then take a min-shot-glass of sacramental wine. Sometimes you kneel at the altar, or stand, and sometimes you take Communion by a process called Intinction, where you dip the wafer or sometimes bread into a chalice of sacramental wine. 

Within this more active tradition I have grown to appreciate the sacrament of Communion on a very basic level. But it did not prepare me for the act of serving Communion, particularly in my church where we do kneel at the altar.

As I have served Communion I observe the faces of those whom I serve. Sometimes these faces are looking down at their hands, awaiting the small glass of wine. Sometimes the faces are looking up at me as I speak the words "Blood of Christ, shed for you." They are faces that I have shared coffee and donuts with between services. Faces that I've enjoyed quiet small group dinners with. But at the altar, these faces are different. Overall I'm touched by both the solemnity of what they are participating in, and the serenity of knowing that they are joining together in something that has its origins nearly 2000 years ago. Many of them whisper an "Amen" after I hand them the wine, and it is in that response that I find something that stirs deep within my soul. 

I find a great deal of Holiness in these acts. Perhaps it's because I find Holiness in the simplicity of various acts of faith, be they prayer, or the gentle and restorative power of touch, or in this act of taking Communion. There is a gratitude - a humble gratitude - that I also see. It's akin to the emotions I've seen of people who have been rescued from some dire fate, and they are grateful to the ones who rescued them, reaching out to the rescuers with grateful  hands and hearts.

And that's what I see in these faces as I serve Communion: a genuine gratitude for the significance of the moment, and recognition of the Gift of Grace that God so freely provides for us.

Soli Deo Gloria

Sunday, June 30, 2019

The health of Choral Music

Robert Shaw
In October of 1995 I read an interesting interview with the noted choral conductor, William Hall. I had sung with Hall in the Master Chorale of Orange County for two seasons, and by the time I read this interview, I was singing in the Pacific Chorale. Singing then was a major part of who and what I was, and my love of choral music manifested itself in hard work during and outside of rehearsals, as well as the performances themselves. And I was a voracious student of anything that was recorded by Robert Shaw, a master of what is called The First Art.

Hall's interview touched on something that I felt keenly back then: the lack of education in choral music, and the decline in choral music. I had clipped out a section of his interview, which I kept. In reading it now, nearly 24 years later, Hall was really commenting on the lack of good basses in choral music - the kind of singers who can get down to a low F or even a D, and resonate. 

But at the time, I really felt that his interview pointed to a larger problem: the decline in choral music education, and subsequently, the decline in choral music. 

John Alexander
Now, to frame this, I must share with you my early choral background. I had been exposed as a child and youth to really excellent choral music. When my family moved to south Orange County in the mid-70's, I found a much different response to choral music. The surfing and skateboarding culture there looked down on the arts, and any young guy involved in singing was immediately tagged "gay". So, other than singing in my church's youth choir (which ironically, all the "cool" guys in church sang in the youth choir to pick up on the girls), I didn't sing in my school choir. My scope and understanding of choral music was limited. In my 20's I started to sing in a very fine church choir directed by an alumni of St. Olaf in Minnesota, and I started to listen to recordings done by Robert Shaw and his choral and orchestral forces in Atlanta. But my scope was still limited. By the time I had sung with Bill Hall for two seasons, and then joined the Pacific Chorale, I was finding that choral music was alive, but my perception was that it was still in decline. 

Paul Salamunovich
Now, some 20-plus years later, I'm finding that choral music is not only alive, but thriving here in Southern California. Within the microcosm of Orange County, we have not only the Pacific Chorale, but other very fine choral organizations such as Choral Arts Initiative, The Meistersingers, The Paul Delgado Singers, De Angelis Vocal Ensemble, Men in Blaque and the Orange County Women's Chorus. We also boast of several community choruses and barbershop choruses. These art organizations engage both listeners and singers on a level that really did not exist in the 80's and 90's. The greater Southern California region has the Los Angeles Master Chorale, the Angeles Chorale, and many other pro- and semi-pro choral organizations. 

Robert Istad
All of these are fed by an educational system that could be looked at from the top down, with excellent music schools in the public sector (Cal State Fullerton, Cal State Long Beach, Cal State LA, Fullerton College, Orange Coast College) and with private schools (BIOLA University in La Mirada, Vanguard University in Costa Mesa and Concordia University in Irvine). These fine institutions are creating teachers with a passion for choral music who then take that passion into the classroom, from the intermediate level (I think of my friend Lorraine Joy Welling at Ball Intermediate in Anaheim) to the high school level (my friends Jeffrey Derus at Anaheim High School, Alan Garcia at Magnolia High School and Rachel Asmus at J Serra High School). These passionate and young choral musicians are creating an environment where they instruct more than just proper singing technique: they introduce their students to the wide repertoire of choral music from Bach to Whitacre; they teach basic musicianship; but mostly they create an environment of support and creativity that encourages their students to do more than just sing - they create an place where the music seeps into the souls of the young people, and these young people become the instructors and choral musicians of the future. 

Brandon Elliot
Not only is Southern California growing as a hotbed of choral music, with the internet, I've discovered through YouTube and social media outlets that there is a worldwide community of choral music lovers, artists and educators that are keeping this art form alive, and growing. The wonderful choral schools in the Midwest such as St Olaf and Concordia in Minnesota, Oberlin in Ohio, and the famed Westminster Choir College in New Jersey. The legacy of these fine institutions further creates students that then carry on the passion they learned from their instructors, and form their own choirs, such as The Singers-Minnesota Choral Artists, founded by Matthew Culloton, a graduate from Concordia University in Minnesota. 

But this world of choral music gets smaller with the ability to view videos on YouTube of choral groups from around the world. I am particularly fond of Trinity College Choir in the UK, and many of the fine choirs in that country that all stem from the great choir at Kings College in Cambridge. I've seen videos of symphonic choirs in Denmark and Germany that are inspiring.  

Yes, choral music is alive and well, and I'm so pleased to be in the midst of it.



Saturday, June 01, 2019

The stories they could tell us

I had a vivid imagination as a child. Pretend play was more important and more fulfilling to me than more active play like outdoor games or sports. Not only would I create elaborate worlds where I was the main protagonist, but I would also place myself into existing fictional stories, such as Star Trek, living out my dream of being the captain of a starship. My love of stories fueled my desire to read, and today, even though I like to mix my reading between fiction and non-fiction, my stack of books is heavily weighed towards fiction, with Steinbeck dominating the stack. 

Perhaps it's that imagination - that love of stories - that compels me to photograph old things. I want to know what stories might be behind those items. Like the old gas pump in Randsburg, California. Who got their gas pumped from that device? Perhaps some famous Hollywood movie star stopped there to gas up their Chrysler or maybe a Dusenberg as they were coming back from a making a movie in the Alabama Hills. Or the old, rusting combines in the middle of the Carrizo Plain. What are the stories of the men that operated those? 

I am wondering what are the stories these places could tell us?

One of my favorite photographic subjects are the California Missions. While I have not visited all of them, the ones I have visited are in various states of disrepair or restoration. Take the Mission San Juan Capistrano. Much of it has been restored, but the old church still is a shell, destroyed in 1812 by a large earthquake. Or Mission Santa Inez, restored, but heavily commercialized by being so close to the tourist town of Solvang. Or my favorite, Mission La Purisima, near Lompoc, which is the only mission to have been fully restored. 

While there are many photographic subjects to be found in the California Missions, it is the various doors and doorways that seem to capture my attention, perhaps because I wonder who may have walked through that door. Perhaps, in some of the earlier Missions, I may be walking through a doorway that Fr. Junipero Serra may have walked through himself. Or maybe another doorway would have been a place where the native Californians would have walked through to go to Mass. Or maybe a doorway to the barracks would have been a place where a onetime famous soldier would have passed through. 

These doorways compel us to pass through them. Sometimes the doors are open, or unlocked. Sometimes they are locked. Doorways beckon us to see what may be on the other side or on the inside, or if inside, what is on the outside. They beg us to move forward, or to keep out or in. 

But for me, these doorways whisper to me to stop. To take a moment and contemplate "who passed through this door before me?"

Door, Mission San Antonio de Padua, May 1998, c2019 John Prothero


Monday, May 27, 2019

Life begins at 58.....



You know, I always felt like I was one of those people that had their shit together. I mean, I've been working consistently, and with only a few times of non-employment (that would total maybe 7-8 months over a span of 41 years) I have worked non-stop since I was 17. I bought my own condo when I was 26. I started working for the company that I am currently employed by in 1983 (and I have been associated with them since the summer of 1982). I thought I had my life figured out in my late 30's, and was content with where I was and what I was doing when I met and (after several months of trepidation) started dating my now ex-wife. By the time we celebrated our 2nd anniversary, our 2nd child was born, and Justin (my now 25-year-old stepson) was 7. We had bought and moved into the house that the kids and I live in now. Several years ago we started going back to church again, and now I'm in my 4th year on the church council and my 2nd term as council president. I've taken the program I manage at work and have increased its revenue by 345%.

So, why do I get this constant feeling I’m supposed to be doing something else?

You might be thinking now after reading this that I may be just be going through some type of midlife crisis. I don’t think so. If there’s anything in my life over the last few years that could have been considered crises, then this doesn’t come close. When you lose your job, your marriage dissolves, and you lose your mom, all in the course of 3-1/2 years, you tend to downplay other things in your life that might be considered crises. So, that’s not what’s going on.

Maybe it’s that existential argument of wondering what my legacy is going to be. So much in our male-oriented society dictates that men must leave some sort of legacy, be it money, or fame, or whatever yardstick we a subjected to. Well, screw that. If anything, I believe my legacy is going to be good kids, who are turning into adults. Maybe not right away, but maybe someday Audrey will have a conversation with her children about what kind of dad – what kind of man I was – just as she and I have conversations about my dad, and what kind of man he was. I’m not worried about my legacy.

No. It’s something else. Something that’s been moving inside of me these last couple of years, but since last fall, has become more important to me.

I believe I was made for bigger and better things.

Yeah, that does sound arrogant. But it is not. I have realized that in these past few months there is an upswelling in my soul to be more involved in that which gives me joy. I have felt a strong surge of spiritualism in my life, a God-centric spiritualism, fueled by my love of nature, photography, music, and the written word. And I want to immerse myself in those joyful activities.

I have been reading more in the last few months, and the selection of books have ranged from the transcendental writings of John Muir, to the personal writings of the late Rachel Held Evans – writings that cover a humanist approach to nature, or a contextual understanding of scripture.

I have dwelt on my relationship with God, inspired by that which I have read, as well as meeting some of the good sisters of St. Joseph in nearby Orange, where they run a spirituality center. I am finding that I want to make this a larger part of my life. And recently, when I attended the Pacific Synod Assembly, I found that there were many Lutheran churches in our Synod, and in our conference, that are doing the work of God, and I want to be even more a part of that – even to the point of finding out how I may be a deacon within the Lutheran church.

I have gone back over images of mine that were taken (in some cases) 25 years ago. But they are images that evoke strong memories, and as I have endeavored to create some content that amplifies those feelings. I have started the framework for the photographic workshops that I plan to lead and am wanting to spend some time this fall working with a select group of friends, who enjoy photography, and help them to learn to “see”.

All of this – the photography, the desire to teach photography, the desire to read and immerse myself in the nature of God and in God’s creation, and the desire to be active in ministry, just make me want to say…..

Why am I still doing that which I should NOT be doing? Why am I not doing that which I SHOULD be doing? 

Saturday, May 11, 2019

God the.....

The Creation of Man - Michelangelo
When I was a child, I would spend occasional weekends with my strict Dutch grandmother. While I loved my grandmother, and have fond memories of her peanut butter cookies and glasses of root beer, she was a stickler for an early bed time (no later than 7:30 PM) and an early start to the day (usually 5 AM). She also scolded me any time I used the pronoun "she" in reference to my mother. "No. No. No!" She'd scold me. "You must never use 'she' when referring to your mother. You must always say 'my mother'". Being young, using "she" in reference to my mother was something that I did frequently, which earned a quick rebuke each time from my grandmother. 

Lately I've attended events where the issue of addressing the gender of God has come up. In addition to that, I follow a few progressive Christian women who refer to God in the feminine gender - they use my grandmother's dreaded pronoun "She". And this weekend I've been at the Synod Assembly for the Pacifica Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, during which time we reviewed a resolution to allow for a gender-neutral stance on how we refer to God. 

So, this is something that now is facing me, and I feel I must personally address it. Not necessarily for you, my readers, but for me - for myself. How do I refer to God?

First off, I will state that I believe in a God that is outside of time and space, and is a God that man cannot, and never will, fully comprehend. We as finite human beings must therefore find ways that we can explain him, which we've been doing for millennia. We try to contain God into a jar that allows us to wrap our heads around him (sorry, but not ready to make my final point yet, so allow me to refer to God in the male gender for a bit more). We are blessed with many theologians who do see God outside of our pale human reference, but that tends to be a bit rare. So, to state my first point, God is beyond our comprehension and understanding, so therefore, we cannot know what God's gender may be, or even if God has a gender. 

Second, we must look at the context of scripture, writings that have been collected over thousands of years, and used narratives and allegory to explain the God that they could not understand. You need to understand that traditional Hebrew and Jewish societal norms are based on patriarchal dominance, and in some Orthodox practices, women and men are to remain separate. Men have the leadership roles, including head of the household, head of the spiritual nature of the household, and bringer of income. This is the background of which both Old Testament and New Testament scripture is based - the male is the dominant and controlling figure. Therefore, it is easy to understand why scripture is heavily laced with God as a father figure, God as male. Even in the Gospels Christ refers to himself as the Bridegroom. So, my second point is we must understand the nature of where the male gender assignment to God originated. 

Now, before you go off and comment "well, Jesus himself (male gender) referred to himself as the 'bridegroom', which must mean that since he was God incarnate, God is therefore male." Or if you site St. Paul's first letters to the Corinthians and to Timothy, he writes about women and their subservient roles in the church. Again, you must understand the context of that time to place Paul's writings in the proper place that they should be. He was writing in a male-dominated world. Paul omits in his documentation of the witnesses of Christ's resurrection any reference to women. Some may cite Paul as misogynist, but I think he was writing in that context of time. And as to Jesus referring to himself as the bridegroom, well, he was male, so why would he refer to himself as the bride? Again, one must understand the contextual and cultural elements of the time in order to understand why God was considered to be male.

So, what do I believe? What gender is God?

I have come to the conclusion that God relates to us in spirit, so first of all, to assign a gender to God is futile and foolish. I am sure that we will have a large portion of Christian women (and other faiths that believe in God or Allah) that will always refer to God in the male gender. And I'm sure that we'll have a portion of Christian women and men, that will embrace God in the female gender because women are projected as natural caregivers: the ones that feed us and give us life. And many of our ancient indigenous cultures around the world saw the creator or great spirit as female, because of the correlation between giving life and nature giving life. 

So, with that in mind, what do I personally believe - is God male or female for me?

I think that this not a theological question at all, which I hope my arguments above have supported. I believe it is a relational question: how do I relate to God in the sphere of gender? And that, granted, is not easy. Since I have, from my childhood on, experienced God in the male gender, and see this as a deeply personal relationship, I see God as male. But I respect those (both women and men) who may relate to God as female. I have no issue with them relating to God in that way.

The only other way I can explain it was in my own personal narrative. I had a tenuous relationship with my dad that improved to the point where as I got older, he and I became friends. And my mother, who I loved, and who loved me, was over-protective. As I got older she became someone with whom I was not as close to as I was to my dad. I confided in my dad and sought out his counsel. Not so much my mom. My relationship with my dad, Abba, Father, became one of paramount importance.

So, for me, God is Father. 




Saturday, April 20, 2019

Were you there?


Good Friday. 

When Christians think of that their minds and hearts dwell on the Cross, the agony of death, and the moment when God separated himself from Christ. And at last night's Good Friday Tenebrae service, the candles being slowly extinguished at the utterance of each of Jesus' Last Words from the cross only amplified the solemnity of the evening. 

But for me, the significance of the evening was in two of the hymns selected. For they were hymns that my mother would sing to me out of a 1939 hymnal. 

So, last night, as the sanctuary darkened with each of Christ's last words, all I could think of was the gentle and loving voice of my mother as she sand "Beneath the Cross of Jesus" and "Were you there?" And while the text of those hymns speak of trembling, or "the burning of the noontide heat", with my mother's voice in my head they were (and still are) hymns of reassurance. 

Perhaps it was because she, a woman who possessed a strong faith, saw those hymns as reassuring. My brothers and I were never fed a message of God as a vindictive and angry God. We were given the loving God as manifest in Jesus. Perhaps it was her gentle love for all of us that permeated those hymns as well. 

So, on this Good Friday, while remaining contemplative about the significance of the event, I was dwelling on the love, the love that surrounded me as my mother sang in her clear, gentle voice. 

Saturday, April 13, 2019

It's not the camera...

One of my Facebook friends, who lives in Bishop, California, which is along the 395 (the highway to the eastern Sierra) posted a photo this morning of this Ansel Adams quote:

“You don't make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.”
And when I read that, it distilled into a single thought how I feel about what tool photographers use to capture an image. 

I often get comments from friends and people I know about how they can't take a "good photograph" with their devices, like an iPhone or smart phone. And I respond back to them a rough paraphrase of this quote (even though I wasn't aware of it until today). 

Creating a photograph has very little to do with which device is used, but it has everything to do with the person creating that image. I don't care if a person is using a top-of-the-line Nikon, or a Canon point-and-shoot, or their cell phone: if they don't have a sense of what makes a good photograph - either an inherent sense or an educated sense - then the device is going to yield poor results. But if they understand light, composition, or have educated themselves on the tools of photography, then even if they are using an iPhone, their images can be stunning. 

Conversely, many photographers invest in the tools that they know will help expand their vision and improve their photography. In my photographic journey I went from 35mm to medium format (which created an image that was 2-1/4 x 2-3/4" in size), and then eventually to large format, which goes from 4x5" to 11x14". I did that because I felt that my work would improve (and it did) as I increased my skill level. But today, I feel I capture stunning images with my Samsung, which I can even import into Lightroom and further enhance the image.

But it all starts with that ability to see the image, and, as Adams stated, bring all that we have seen, the books we've read, the music we've listened to and the people we have loved. 

Sunday, March 31, 2019

About passion

This is a blog post that I've been meaning to write for a while for a while. I've hesitated to do so, though, because I felt that in sharing this, it would expose a flaw in me. Yet the best way to face our flaws are to acknowledge them, and even share them, for the hope that others who share the same flaws will, in the spirit of friendship, encourage you to overcome those flaws, and get beyond that which may be holding you back from personal or professional growth.

I like to say I have two passions in my life - choral music and photography. Yet I will confess that I do not pursue these to the degree that I wish I did. I don't sweat over choral music scores until I find that elusive thought that the composer had in mind. I don't trudge in snow at daybreak to catch that magic photograph that I've been previsualizing for weeks, months or perhaps years. 

And yet I am friends with, associated with, or know through social media persons who have passion for what they do, and have excelled at it to the point that they can and DO what they LOVE to do.

Robert Istad
Valerie Millet
Take Robert Istad, who at a young age (hey, at 58, anyone younger that 55 is "young") has achieved a place in the choral directing sphere that is notable: Artistic Director of the Pacific Chorale, one of the most prestigious symphonic choruses in the country. Rob discovered music at an early age as a pianist, but turned his focus to choral music, and no doubt will eventually become one of the most influential choral directors in the country. Behind all this was the drive, the passion, to get there. To succeed. Ambition. Purpose. Focus. 

There's Valerie Millet, a photographer that I've followed on social media, who dedicates herself to her art to the point that she's constantly out in nature, photographing what stirs her soul. Her work sings with color that is rich yet not over-saturated, but more importantly, has a spiritual sense to it. She is out there, passionate for her art, and passionate in sharing it with others.

Dale Trumbore
Dale Trumbore, an LA-based composer whose works are being performed by choral groups ranging from The LA Master Chorale to high school choirs. Her music is a paradox: it is accessible music that is deceptively difficult to sing. Dale has always been focused on her music, and her passion is evident. You would not think of her as driven or ambitious, but she has always had that clear vision of who she wanted to be as a composer, and she is achieving that. 
Guy Tal

I've been following the landscape photographer Guy Tal for about a year now, and find his work to be brilliant. More than that, though, is his backstory. His father was a journalist, and naturally encouraged Guy to follow that path. But Guy chose photography. His choice is one that illustrates a total commitment - a passion - for his art, blended with his gift of the written word. And as I see his images and the thoughtful texts that accompany them, I know that this is something that I want to do.

Brandon Elliot
Finally there's my friend Brandon Elliot, who discovered in high school his passion for choral music, and totally dedicated himself to pursuing the goal of being a choral director. His graduate and post graduate work strove for that, and now, as the Artistic Director of Choral Arts Initiative, he's passionately pursuing music by new and upcoming composers, providing them with opportunities to have their work performed. I've always admired Brandon for his drive and his total commitment.

And when I look at these stellar artists I wonder - why do I not have that same drive. That same commitment. 

Why don't I have that level of passion? 

I often try to justify it by saying that my brothers and I were raised by children of the Great Depression: my dad was barely 9 when the Great Crash occurred, and my mom was 5. All through their young lives, up until the breakout of WWII in December of 1941, they lived in that great uncertainty that was the world at that time. They lived with less, and instilled in my brothers and I the value of hard work and not following "frivolous" pursuits. Even though our parents were both artists, and my father spent his entire career and retirement as an artist, it was more their vocation than a hobby. And to be honest, neither of my parents were passionate people, and they had no sense of ambition or drive. 

But that really isn't justification for why I don't pursue that which I say I have a passion for. 

Sometimes I justify it with the current life status that I am in: working full time, with two teenage kids at home who are just beginning to work, along with my adult stepson who only works seasonally. I have "responsibilities" to the house and to them. And being a single parent, I tend to feel I must shoulder those responsibilities. 

Yet, even in the days before I married, when I was single and living alone, and was financially comfortable enough that I could spend time doing photography, I didn't. I'm not one of those type of photographers that MUST be out there, shooting, constantly striving to improve themselves or their images. They agonize over Lightroom, struggling to find out every tool and trick that it provides as a means to improve their final vision. 

And I look at those folk and wonder "why don't I spend hours doing that?" 

I am constantly questioning why, if I SAY I am passionate about photography, why am I not DOING photography. 

This post is not going to provide an answer, and frankly, I don't think there really IS an answer. I do believe that there are many people who do have that ability to focus and have the requisite ambition that allows them to become what they want. Perhaps I don't posses that gift. And yet, why, if I know I don't have that gift, don't I then compensate for that? 

I really don't know......


Saturday, March 16, 2019

Being open to seeing

Last fall I related in a blog post about an experience photographing in the eastern Sierra one afternoon. While I had missed out on what I had "wanted", I allowed myself to be open to the moment, and in the end, I was rewarded with images that excited me. If you want, you may read that post here.

During that experience I allowed myself to imagine that I had a group of fellow photographers that were my students, and I shared with them the serendipitous moment that was upon me, or in this wide open and fictional classroom, my students. The lesson then was not to be disappointed, but allow yourself to be open to other photographic opportunities.

Much of landscape photography is about planning: studying weather reports; reviewing the tide tables; checking on what time sunset and sunrise will be. All of these activities are done to prepare you to be in a certain place at a certain time so you can capture "the image" that you are seeking. To get that perfect sunset shot of Morro Rock, or the golden sunrise on Mt. Whitney with clouds dancing among the peaks.

That's all well and good, and I follow many photographers on social media who plan and prepare for capturing those images. And I too sometimes plan ahead so I can be in a specific place at a specific time.

But I have found that more and more lately, I don't want to be in a "specific place at a specific time". I want to be, well, just "there", and allow that place at that time to speak to me photographically. And just as last fall in the eastern Sierra was a teachable moment for me and my fictional class, so this morning was a similar moment with another fictional class.

I had taken my time this morning leaving the hotel, and it was nearly 10 AM before I arrived at one of my favorite locations to photograph, Montana de Oro State Park, which rests at the southern end of the vast Morro Bay estuary. I must admit that the mini-vacation I'm on was not about photography as much as it was about resting (I won't go into details here). But I didn't want to spend my last full day of vacation holed up in my pleasant hotel room. So after a late breakfast, I headed out to the Park. 

As I drove in I saw many wonderful potential scenes, but nothing that leaped out at me. I stopped a couple of times in the pull-outs, and after scouting, was just not seeing anything. At one of the pullouts, though, I decided to walk up a short hill, and just see if there was anything. I did not have my camera with me. I just walked.

I came into this clearing where a eucalyptus tree had grown out, instead of up, and its long branches spidered out among the other trees. I just stood there for a few minutes, breathing. Listening. And then I saw my shot. I went back to my car, grabbed my camera bag and tripod, and came back up to set up the shot.

That moment was a teachable moment for my "class" of students. I conveyed to my fictional class the importance of just "being" in a place, and allowing yourself to listen. I conveyed the importance of NOT looking for "the shot", but being open to a sense of oneness with the environment. Perhaps you'll experience a peace that fills your soul. Perhaps your sense of hearing will be amplified by listening to the wind making the leaves dance, or a small squirrel running across the trail to its burrow. Or maybe you'll see the shot - not the one you were going for. But one that presents itself to you within that stillness. 



Thursday, November 22, 2018

Travels with Father - 1990, the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, and Colorado

I have been enjoying my time looking back and writing about the fall photographic trips I took with my dad in the 80's and 90's. I wrote an introduction back in November of 2013, which you may read here. I've shared about our 1985 trip to Sequoia and King's Canyon National Parks, our 1986 trip to Bryce, Zion and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, and our 1989 trip up the California coast and across to King's Canyon National Park. In 1990, I wanted to do an even grander trip, taking in the south rim of the Grand Canyon, the famous formations of Monument Valley, finally ending up in southwest Colorado, at the foot of the San Juan Mountains, where my dad was born. So, for nearly 2 weeks in early October, we trekked in my Volvo turbo wagon across northern Arizona, the Utah border, and the southwest corner of Colorado....


Our trip started out as many of our trips had: load up the car with luggage, camera gear, and a cooler with lunch meats and sodas, and then some sort of crate or box with the crackers and bread for our lunches. We had a full 8-hour drive ahead of us, with Williams, Arizona as our first stop. The drive was uneventful, and we pulled into Williams at sundown. Williams is known as the gateway to the Grand Canyon. From Williams it's a straight shot due north to the south rim, which is where most Grand Canyon visitors go. Williams is also the base for the Grand Canyon Railroad, the famous train that will take you to the south rim.

Dad and I wanted to get out to the canyon at sunrise, so we woke quite early, and headed north in the dark. I recall it being cold, and taking quite a while to get the inside of the car warm. We did arrive at the south rim minutes before sunrise, but discovered we were not the only ones there. Our destination, Mather Point, was already dotted with like-minded photographers, out early to get the same morning images that dad and I were hoping to capture. We captured some early morning images, and stayed as the sun warmed the rim. As the morning progressed, we headed east on the Desert View Drive, photographing the yellow-leafed oak trees, and capturing images of the east end of the canyon. Eventually the road we were on intersected with highway 89, which we took north until we got to highway 160, which went through the Navajo Nation and Monument Valley. I remember dad needing to stop and get something, so we found a Walmart in Tuba City. I felt so out of place with a Volvo turbo station wagon in a parking lot full of Chevy and Ford pickup trucks. 

We eventually got to Monument Valley, and took a detour to Gouldings, the famous lodge where there is a small museum dedicated to the John Ford movie "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon", arguably the best of John Ford's westerns that starred John Wayne, and were filmed in Monument Valley. Even part of the original set was still standing, and you could see the lodgings of "Captain Nathan Brittles, USA", which was the small cabin that John Wayne's character lived in. We visited the gift shop, and then headed over to the Monument Valley Visitor's Center. The Visitor's Center was perched on a spot that gave one a sweeping view of the two famous formations in Monument Valley: the Mittens. It was easy to see why John Ford chose this place to film. The Valley itself is a character in his movies: telling its narrative wrapped around the story that John Ford would create. It was late in the afternoon by now, and dad was anxious to return to Kayenta, where he had booked a room at the Holiday Inn. We decided to return to the Valley in the early morning to get some sunrise images. 

We returned early the next morning, and I set up my RB67 medium format camera to capture the sunrise as it glowed in the east, slowly bathing the orange sandstone formations in brilliant light. After the sunrise photography session, dad and I returned to Gouldings, where we enjoyed breakfast in the dining room that overlooked the Valley. After breakfast, we decided to take the loop drive through the Valley. 

Since the Valley is actually a Navajo tribal park, access to its formations is restricted to a single road, unless you hire a Navajo guide, who can and will take you to more famous locations. So, I started on the dirt road, driving carefully through rutted out sections. It was during this drive that I decided that I'd need to purchase a high-clearance 4WD vehicle for future explorations. While I never got stuck, I had to maneuver around those rutted out spots, stopping occasionally for opportunities to capture dramatic images. Dad and I stayed at Monument Valley all day, doing photography until sunset, at which time we returned to the Holiday Inn in Kayenta for the night. 

The next morning we had our breakfast there at the coffee shop adjacent to the Holiday Inn, and noticed that we were all alone. As I have noted before, traveling in early October is quite nice, because you often do have places all to yourself. The roads are open, and hotels are often priced low, due to it being the off-season. The only problem is that fall is when most states do their road maintenance. Over the years, dad and I had several times when we were stopped by a flagman, or had to follow a pilot car. 

We left Kayenta, heading back through Monument Valley, continuing up to highway 261, which then crawls up the side of a cliff on a dirt and gravel road known as the Moki Dugway. The vista from the top was amazing: seeing the wide open expanse of southeastern Utah, stretching down to Monument Valley and beyond. Dad and I headed over to Natural Bridges National Monument, which we had to ourselves. We spent a good part of the morning there, photographing the various formations as well as the ground-hugging juniper trees that dot the landscape. We then headed southeast through Blanding, eventually ending up at the 4 Corners, where we did the "touristy" thing and stopped at the 4 Corners monument. Next, we drove up to Dolores, where dad was born. 

Dolores was one of those kinds of towns that probably hadn't changed much since the 40's. There were still old buildings that could have doubled as old western sets for movies. An iconic town hotel that looked as if it was well over 100 years old. Dad and I stopped in town for a while, walking around and doing some photography. We stopped into the old newspaper office, where there were several old printing presses. We then took a side road that took a narrow bridge over the Dolores River, and up a hill. As we passed a cemetary on the left, dad told me that there were some distant relatives buried there, so we stopped and tried to find their grave markers. Unable to find any that indicated where his distant relatives were, we continued down the road to where it ended at the Mancos Highway. Dad asked me to hold there for a moment while he took his bearings, and then told me to turn right. Within yards, he told me to stop. There, on the south side of the Mancos Highway, was the cabin he'd been born in nearly 70 years before. 

Seeing the cabin that my dad was born in was a very interesting experience. On the one hand, the idea that my dad was not born in a hospital, but in a cabin was something I couldn't quite comprehend. Here it was, 1990, and unless you're in real rural areas, you are born in a hospital. But this was 1920, and I'm sure there was no electricity in that cabin. I'm sure that my grandmother went into labor, and maybe there were a couple of local ranch women there to assist, or perhaps a midwife. Dad and I got out of the car, and walked to the fence. The cabin was small, perhaps only 200 square feet. Most likely it was a single room. There was a tin roof, which looked rather new. The cabin appeared occupied. We were tempted to go into the property and ask if we could see the cabin, but we decided not to. We took some photos, and then headed back into Dolores, turning south to return to Cortez, where dad had booked a room for a couple of nights. 

Before we pulled into Cortez, dad directed me to the Canfield ranch property, where his parents had married in the living room of my grandmother's parent's home. The roads in this area were for the most part north/south and east/west directions, without a great deal of bends or turns. However, the road to the Canfield ranch deviated to the left slightly as it dipped into a small creek bed. Dad shared with me a story that my grandfather had shared with him, a story about when my grandfather was courting my grandmother, and how my grandfather had maneuvered a buggy down the dip into the creek bed, eventually to the low draw where the Canfield ranch was situated. Now here we were, perhaps 75 years later, taking that same gentle slope and small detour, down into the same dry creek bed, eventually pulling up in front of the old Canfield ranch. There, several yards from the road and behind a barbed-wire fence, was the remains of the Canfield ranch house. All that was left was the living room, which was the room my grandparents had married in. As with dad's birthplace cabin earlier in the day, we were tempted again to go to the front door of the newer home, and ask if we could go out to the ruins of the ranch house. But we decided not to. As I write this now, nearly 30 years after this trip, I wish we had gone up to both the owners of the cabin as well as the property owners here. To actually see these places and document them, as well as hear dad's stories, would have been highly educational and meaningful. 

After taking a few photos of the nearly collapsed cabin, we headed back into Cortez, where dad directed me to the Cortez cemetery. There he showed me the grave of his maternal grandparents, which was marked by a large dark marble monument. For me, since I love history, being able to see the gravesite of my great grandparents was quite an experience. But being in southwest Colorado, which is full of history, was a joy. All these towns were founded in the 19th century, centered around mining areas (Dolores) or ranching (Cortez). And as dad and ventured out of Cortez, through Dolores, and into the Dolores Canyon along the Million Dollar Highway, we came across places where mining at one time had been active, such as Rico. The fall colors in the Dolores Canyon were spectacular. It wasn't my first time experiencing aspens, but to see the steep hillsides blanketed in these golden trees, along with oaks and cottonwoods, was different. The blends of the colors and the green of the pine trees made for a magical experience. We soon returned to Cortez to check in to our hotel for the night. 

The next morning was clear, with wispy clouds dancing across the sky. We left Cortez, heading back up the Million Dollar Highway, going through Dolores once again. The morning light bathed the aspens, creating glorious photographic images along the way. We stopped at Lizard Head Peak, where dad shared with me the stories of how my grandfather and my great grandfather Canfield would pasture sheep up here in the summers, and how their landmark was the pillar of rock that formed the peak. We stopped at Trout Lake, then went to a special place that had a wonderful grove of aspen trees. We went into Telluride, did some photographs there, and then headed back south to Cortez for a final night. 

The next morning provided cloudy skies that created a dramatic vista. We headed south, down through the 4 Corners, and into the Navajo reservation, visiting Canyon de Chelly, another spectacular sandstone canyon with prominent rock formations, and one of the most famous and often-photographed cliff dwellings in the southwest. We continued southwest, ending up in a hotel in famous Winslow, Arizona. Our plan was to make a long drive from there to Blythe, just over the Arizona/California border for our final night. The next morning we had breakfast at a Denny's, and then stopped at the Meteor Crater, just east of Flagstaff. I was beginning to feel a bit ill, and by the time we were heading south towards Phoenix, I knew that I was sick, and needed to find a place to be sick. We changed our plans and headed towards Wickenberg, a small town that had a nice hotel we'd stayed at on a previous trip. By the time we got to the hotel I was in full food poisoning mode, and stayed in the bathroom for the rest of the afternoon. It certainly was not the end I would have wanted for what had been a wonderful trip. Thankfully, dad went to a nearby store, got some Saltines and 7-UP, and kept me company while I camped out in the bathroom. The next morning I woke up feeling much better, and we headed home. Ever since this trip I have avoided Denny's sausage, and all sausage for that matter. 

This trip was for me the beginning of my love affair with southwest Colorado, specifically the San Juan Mountains. Dad and I would return here in 1994, and then I would come by myself in 1997. I have yet to return, but have found the glory of fall in the eastern Sierra Nevada to be a good substitute.

However, there is still nothing like the San Juan Mountains of Colorado in their fall splendour.

All photos taken by Cliff Prothero, 1990. For a full album of dad's photos, you can find them here on my Facebook page. 

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Yes, I am a photographer

I had one of those defining moments in my life yesterday. One of  those moments in which I had no question that I am a photographer. 

You see, I doubt my skills as a photographer. I'm still learning how to work my DSLR. I'm still finding all sorts of tricks and tips on working on images in Adobe Lightroom. 

And frankly, one of my biggest self-doubts about my ability as a photographer is that I am not out there, constantly shooting. Granted, southern California lacks the kind of dramatic landscapes that I am currently in (and I'm writing this from my hotel room in Mammoth Lakes, California, which is a great location to explore the eastern Sierra). But if I was truly as dedicated and passionate about photography as I say I am, I'd be out shooting regularly. I feel the need to be inspired, and to be in places that enable that inspiration. Dealing with the daily commute, living in a densely populated area - these do not contribute to artistry. 

But yesterday, I did have one of those moments when I knew I was a photographer. Because I believe that it's not the photographic equipment that makes the photographer, or how the images are processed in some photo-manipulation software that makes the photographer.

It's how one sees light. It's how one understands light and how it affects the subject of your photograph. Along with understanding composition, understanding how light affects an image defines one as a photographer. 

I had planned to do late afternoon photographs in a specific grove of aspen trees near Silver Lake, along the June Lake Loop. I had photographed in these aspens the previous year, and they were magnificent in late morning light. I was at the hotel, checking my watch, aware that sunset was not until almost 6:30, but knew that the mountains to the west of Silver Lake might block the sun in the late afternoon, so I figured getting there around 4:30 or so would be fine. Well, I was wrong. By the time I arrived at 4:30, the sun had already dropped behind the huge ridges to the west. I was disappointed. I drove east a few hundred yards, and saw some aspens to the right that still had sun on them. I stopped the car, and noticed that they too would be out of light in a matter of minutes. Then I looked across the road, and saw another aspen grove that was sparse, but the light was still on it. I quickly drove across the road and parked the car, and got my camera out. And in that short bit of time, the direct sunlight was no longer on those aspen trees. 

But I saw something. There was a light on them that was different. They were not being lit by direct sunlight, but they were illuminated - and I use that word specifically - by other sources of light. One of those was a huge cliff face over my right shoulder that was acting as a reflector. It was filling this grove with reflected light, and the aspens were bathed in this light in such a way that I felt a sense of thrill. This was more interesting to me, more photographically interesting, then the countless images I see of aspens back-lit or side-lit. This was magic.

And it was then that I did realize that, yes, I AM a photographer. I do see other photographers that can and do create stunning, breathtaking images. I see photographers that obviously are very knowledgeable about their camera gear and photo-manipulation.

But what it really comes down to is how I feel about my images: and yesterday, I was pleased. I knew what I was getting was different and unique. I was creating a photograph.






Sunday, July 22, 2018

Days of Future Past

I'm sorry for that blatant plagiarism of the Moody Blues album name, but today, I was reminded about how much our past shapes our future. 

You see, I don't dwell on the past. I move on from whatever mistakes or poor choices I've made, just as I have progressed because of the GOOD choices and positive steps I've taken. But to understand me, one must understand my past. 


This was brought to my mind again today when a Facebook friend of mine posted a saying on her timeline:

I am actually extremely grateful
that some things didn't work out 
the way I once wanted them to.

Being the dreamer that I am, I have always had a "script" in my life: a preset course that I expected to go. But in these last few years I have learned that life doesn't follow your script. Life is improvising. And as I have moved on from the life lessons I've experienced, I've grown stronger because of those experiences. I have found that in having this attitude, I tend to experience more serendipitous moments. 

It is why my favorite poem is Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken", which I shared in an earlier blog. I see life - my life - as a journey. Sometimes that journey is one of faith, and the questions and struggles I have with my faith. Sometimes that journey is one of relationships, be it the relationships with my kids, or friends, or work colleagues, or fellow musicians and photographers, or women I date. Sometimes that journey is an inward one of questions and fears, triumphs and recognition for my skills and talents. Sometimes it's a journey of self discovery, and seeking ways to improve myself, and to intentionally place myself outside my comfort zone. 

When you're on a journey, you focus on what's ahead. But you cannot discount what was in your past. I look at my past and see so many things that make me who I am today. 

So, yes. I am grateful that some things didn't work out the way I wanted them to. Maybe grateful wouldn't be appropriate for all the things in my life I've gone through, such as being unemployed, or losing a parent, or getting divorced. But those things have shaped me, even though they were unexpected and unplanned for, just as much as the things I DID plan for. 

Saturday, April 14, 2018

On finding joy

Virgin River, Zion National Park, 1993
c2018 John Prothero

Sometimes I come to this blog with an idea of what I want to write, and then get distracted. Or sometimes I want to write but have no clue what to write about. 

But moments ago I experienced a moment of joy, and it was in that moment that I knew what I wanted to share. 

For you see, I had decided that in 2018, I was going to focus on the things in life that give me joy. And they are simple things. Yet in that simplicity is great clarity and truth, and a sense of profoundness. 

I find joy in the quiet mornings when the kids are still asleep and I have the house to myself, and the only sounds I hear are the birds singing and the waterfall splashing.

I find joy in the verdant green buds of the birch trees that are just beginning to show, or the deep crimson reds of the Japanese maple that are slowing coming out. 

I find joy in a sleepy teenage daughter who spent the night at a church youth group lock-in, and will probably sleep most of the day.

I find joy in knowing that this year I will read more and find more time to watch classic movies, maybe even break into "The West Wing" on Netflix, as I've been promising myself for years.

I find joy in the thought of where I will go this fall for my photo trip, perhaps southern Utah, or a return to the San Juan mountains in southwest Colorado. 

I find joy in the return to my photography, particularly finding the joy in the images that I took decades ago. It's like reuniting with a long lost and dear friend. 

I find joy in making connections with other photographers who share this passion of capturing the natural world, and sharing it through various means of social media. 

I find joy in making connections with other musicians, who, like me, share a love of choral music and singing, and the personal gift that it truly is.

Joy. A gift, not a reward.