Saturday, December 16, 2017

What I want for Christmas...


I hate to admit it, but I'm not in the Christmas Spirit this year. Now, before you get all judgemental and scold me, there are a lot of folk around us that aren't either. For many people, this time of year brings them a sense of loss. Perhaps they lost a loved one recently, or on a date around this time, and they dwell on that loss heavily at this time of year. There are many people who come into this season without family members to love them. And let's not forget those thousands of families that have been displaced by the recent fires in California, or hurricanes in Texas and Puerto Rico. So, I don't think I'm alone in saying I'm not in the Christmas Spirit.

But what is odd is that I usually AM in the Christmas Spirit. I'm usually excited about decorating, about the shopping, about the music, the movies - everything! I have certain "rituals" that I do every Christmas, like watching multiple adaptations of "Christmas Carol", as well as reading the story penned by Charles Dickens. Christmas music plays constantly, be it choral music or Nat King Cole. I do these things to help me get in that mood.

So, this year, I'm just not doing these things as I usually do, and when I do, I do not find the satisfaction that I have in the past. 

So, what is it?

I find that I am tired. Work for the last several months has been busy. Not physically demanding, but mentally taxing. There's much more to think about, to mull over. And I come home, fix dinner, and pretty much crash. I was dating a lot early in the year, and find that I cannot focus on that as well. I'm not singing right now, and I'm VERY relieved, because Christmas time for a musician is one event or gig after another, and you need to have that "crash" time, which you don't get until after Christmas itself. 

And I feel that I am at a crossroads in life. I really want to retire, and I want to pursue my photography as well, but both are impossible to do right now with the kids at home, Justin not working (and not paying rent), and just simply focused on keeping us in the house. It seems like life has creeped into the Holidays, and I'm not in the mood for rejoicing. 

I'm dating, but no one has knocked my socks off, and I wish I had someone that knocked my socks off. 

And I have to admit that our political climate has me worried and concerned for the very future of our country, and that is weighing on my mind.

And I have a dear friend who has cancer, and she already feels alone, and I worry about her at this time. 

And this weather we're having, with warm days and hot Santa Ana winds, is not getting me into the Spirit either.

So, now that I write this all down I can see why I'm not in the Christmas Spirit. 


Sunday, November 05, 2017

Working an image

There is a semi-defined process of how I take my photographs, and "work an image". It starts big, and ends up small. 

Granted, I don't always work this way. One thing about artistic discipline that you learn from studying a craft is that eventually, you break free of the bonds of that methodology, and create your own unique mehod. However, my approach tends to be consistent. 

I start by taking in the area that I am in. I spend a few minutes listening, observing, staying silent. Over the years of using framing cards (thick cardboard with a rectangular opening in the middle, which allows me to pre-visualize photographs) I've developed a rudimentary ability to "see" the images in my mind, even before I set up the camera. This often allows me to set up multiple photographic possibilities in an area. Or I can see just the one, and then when I'm complete with that photograph, I see another, and then that process continues. 

But in taking in an entire scene, my primary work method is to make it smaller and smaller, until I get to the detail that draws me in and gives me the greatest artistic satisfaction. As an example, here are three images captured from my recent trip to the eastern Sierra. As I explored Rock Creek, just off the paved road, there was this magnificent large boulder in the creek, surrounded by the turning colors of fall. But as you look at this, you see that I started wide, worked in a little closer, and then finally, very close. 




When I get to that final detail image, I feel tremendously satisfied, because I have become intimately engaged with the subject, from large to small. This is something I feel as a musician as well: the overall listening to a piece as I begin the rehearsal process, until the final details of line or phrase or text mesh so beautifully. 

Working an image, becoming intimate to my surroundings, is vital to my creative process, and yields for me stunning results.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Listening

To me, there is a strong link between listening to music, or being involved in music (which requires active listening), and landscape photography. 

Death Valley, November 2016
I had been thinking of my upcoming photo trip, and how I prepare for it. I don't just take out the maps, or book the hotel, or think of the places I want to go to photograph. There is another and deeper level of preparation that sometimes takes a little time, but it enables and enhances the creative process. 

It's the process of listening. 

I love road trips that take me hours or days away from the stress of work or family life. I find that those hours allow me to decompress from those stresses, which then allows me to listen to what is around me as I photograph. I cannot explain my process, or what catches my eye and why it catches my eye. But when I've fully engaged as an active listener in nature, it becomes a 100% commitment. And it isn't just listening with my ears: it's completely involves my sense of smell, my sense of hearing, and my sense of sight. I look down - a lot - because I find that in the detail there can be a natural composition that leads my eye to it. I frame it in my mind, long before the camera is set up. And just like a piece of music I sing, all the years of listening and developing my eye to see, is just like the years of singing and rehearsals that prepare me to sing to my best artistic ability. 

Death Valley, November 2016
For years I lived alone, and for a part of that time I worked at 2nd shift, getting home at 1 AM. Often, I was still too awake to go to sleep, so I'd select something to listen to within my collection of CD's, pour myself a Scotch, dim the lights and put on my headphones. And I would listen. I would let the music envelope me. And it was in those hours of listening that I believe I also learned the art of listening in nature.

Listening in nature requires that focus, that concentration. But more than that, it requires that you become open to what is around you. You hear the birds, or the elk bugling, or the sound of the stream as it courses its way over rocks and tree roots. And it is in that process of listening that I find my soul stirred and I find the creative muse that guides me to capture the images - the moments of natural music - that I do.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Sacred spaces

It's Sunday morning, and quiet. The kids are still asleep, I've had a light breakfast, and I'm enjoying my coffee and listening to the waterfall in my backyard. It's times like these that my mind wanders and thinks of things, often going from one topic to an unrelated topic, like preschool children in a playground. 

This morning I was thinking of sacred spaces, both from the aspect of buildings that are literally consecrated for use as places of worship, to places that can, for a moment, be the focus of intense spirituality.

I have always had a deep respect for faith-based houses of worship. From the serene Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, to Yosemite Chapel. And having photographed many weddings over many different faiths (Roman Catholicism to Jewish weddings), I have an appreciation for these houses of worship built and often consecrated or dedicated to God as places where people can come and be given a sense of hope and renewal. I have been in awe in Roman Catholic churches of the splendid sculptures meant to evoke an emotional connection to the story of Christ's Passion, to the importance of Mary, and to the respect of the Table, or the Baptismal Font, which play such and important part of a Roman Catholic parishioners' practice of their faith. I've been in Baptist churches, where the Baptismal Pool is front and center, taking even more prominence than the Communion Table. All of these places inspire something in me to be quiet, reflective, and contemplative. To me, these are sacred spaces created by man, but also I believe they are created for man, so that we can "go" someplace, and feel the closeness of God in those places, either by their design, or placement of icons such as the cross, or the Chi-Rho symbol. I still have a respect for them, and sometimes I feel a certain something that reaches into me and tugs at my soul. And sometimes, in these spaces, I feel like worshipping God at that moment and time. 

Sometimes, though, I feel that we often can find our own sacred spaces that fall outside the walls of a cathedral, or sanctuary. Sometimes, we can find ourselves in places where the very trees around us whisper that God is present. This is something unique, because it is never planned. I've been in places of great natural beauty and have found myself suddenly trembling, because I realized I was in the very presence of God. It was real. Just as real as you are sitting and reading this. Just as real as the hugs I get from my daughter or the affectionate fist-bumps from my teenage son. And in those places I find that my breath is taken away, and that I do not photograph them, because I am too in awe of the sacred nature of that place. And I go back 20 years ago to the hillside in northern Arizona, where I was in a stand of aspens that had a clearing in the middle, and the branches were arched over, as if I were in a chapel. And it was there that I did feel that God was there. I dropped to my knees, because I knew I was truly in a sacred place.


Saturday, September 23, 2017

On taking the less-traveled road....


Seasons have a big impact on my life, and each have their own calling, their own spirit.

Winter for me means Christmas and rain, cold weather and fires in the fireplace that go all day long.

Spring is really not a true season here in southern California, so I really associate spring with Easter.

Summer is my least favorite season. Not being in school anymore or having a career that coincides with school, summer is to me the time when I try to stay as cool and comfortable as possible. I really dislike summer. 

But fall - fall is my favorite season of the year. The nights and early mornings are cool and crisp. The trees that are in our area, such as maples, or ginkgos, pear trees, poplars and birches all begin to turn from a dull green to a glorious gold or red. Even the Japanese maple in my backyard joins the explosion of color. And fall is when my photographic eye is awakened to these grand colors, and I'm compelled to taking road trips to explore, to see.

Fall is also when I become more reflective, perhaps due to this subtle change in weather, and I begin to think of things that are slow and contemplative. And it's usually fall that I think of the paths I've taken in life, sometimes taking the well-traveled paths, but occasionally taking the paths that are less-travelled. And it's then that I think of my favorite poem, Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken".

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Travels with Father – 1989, the Central California Coast and King’s Canyon

One of my longtime goals has been to share the stories about the travels I did with my father.  I wrote an introduction back in November of 2013, and you can read that here. I've shared our 1985 trip to Sequoia, King's Canyon and Yosemite, our 1986 trip to Bryce, Zion and Grand Canyon National Parks, and here now is our trip up the California coast and across to Kings Canyon in 1989. Enjoy....

It had been a couple of years since dad and I had last traveled together.  In 1987 I had purchased my condo, and had used vacation time for moving, plus I didn’t want to have the costs of a vacation compound the costs of purchasing, moving and furnishing the condo.  In 1988 I took a trip to Maine to visit one of my mom’s cousins.  So, in 1989, dad and I planned our next trip together up someplace that I’d never been, but had heard much talk about: the Big Sur.

We had taken a family trip in 1974 up the coast, taking my mom’s aunt Harriet with us after the passing of her husband Davey.  We had gone to some of the missions (Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, San Miguel, San Antonio and Carmel) and came back through Carmel Valley, so I wanted to revisit some of those locations.  On that 1974 trip we had all of us plus Harriet, except Donald, who was probably in Europe with his high school class.  It was a great trip, and I had fond memories of it as dad and I planned this next trip.

1988 had been a good photographic year for me.  In January of that year I had gone to Yosemite with a friend and colleague, Craig Brubaker.  We spent a long weekend in the sub-freezing temperature and snows, creating wonderful images of the valley and of the magnificent granite cathedrals.  In the fall I visited the aforementioned Maine cousins, and took a couple of trips around the area, seeing the glories of the New England fall in the White Mountains, and the rustic beauty of the seaside villages all along the Maine coast.  I truly felt that my photography was becoming more and more refined and skilled, and that the images taken were getting closer to being shared and sold.

So, in 1989, dad and I planned a fairly ambitious trip.  We’d travel up the coast all the way to Carmel, cross the Salinas Valley and head over to Kings Canyon. We gave ourselves plenty of time: I think I planned to take a good 10 days off in order to enjoy the trip.  As usual, dad did the preparations, using the triple-A guidebooks to secure accommodations.  We purchased our film, packed our bags and food for the trip.  Dad came up the evening before and stayed in my extra bedroom to facilitate an early morning departure.  Everything was set.

The next morning was beautiful.  We loaded up the Volvo wagon, and headed north out of town.  We traveled up the San Diego freeway, and then headed west on interstate 10 to Santa Monica, where it empties out on Pacific Coast Highway – better known as Highway 1. We drove through the beach communities into Oxnard, where we had to re-connect with the 101 just south of Ventura.  We continued along the 101 through Gaviota Pass, where we exited again on Highway 1.  The drive through the hills up along the 2-lane highway, after miles of freeway travel, was refreshing.  Being that it was early fall, the tourists were gone and the road was virtually empty.  We soon arrived in Lompoc – flower capital of the state. Our first stop was at the mission La Purisima Concepcion – the only completely restored mission in the entire chain of historic California missions.  We had visited here on our trip with Harriet, so I was looking forward to this visit and the chance to do some photographic work.  The mission was quiet, and provided many opportunities to do photography.  It was one of the first times dad and I went our own ways, exploring our own artistic visions. The mission and its grounds left an indelible impression on me, from the moment we walked across a small wooden bridge into an open pasture that revealed the mission in its glory. I felt as if I had stepped back 100 years to a time when this was an active mission, with nothing around it except open fields. That perception still lasts to this day.

We wrapped up the day and continued along Highway 1, up to the farming community of Guadalupe. From there we went west to the Nipomo dunes, a state reserve run by the Nature Conservancy that possesses some unusual and spectacular dunes.  There was a storm approaching, which provided some dramatic skies.  We had the dunes and the beach to ourselves.  There was a fence that had been nearly completely buried in sand which provided some strong compositional shots.  We stayed there until the sun had almost set, then headed east to Santa Maria. The motel that dad had planned on was booked, so we found another motel for the night. We popped next door to a Denny’s for dinner, and retired for the evening.

The next morning dawned clear and crisp, and fresh from the rain the night before.  We headed back west towards Guadalupe, turning north at Highway 1.  The whole Santa Maria valley was clean and clear, and the fields of various vegetables were verdant green with rain.  We continued up Highway 1, passing through Vandenberg Air Force Base, to where the highway joined the 101 in Pismo Beach, eventually ending up in San Luis Obispo. We secured our room for the night at the Peach Tree Inn, and then took some time to explore the beautiful Mission San Luis Obispo and the downtown area.

The next day dawned clear and beautiful, but clouds off to the west told us that we’d not be in good weather for the whole day. After a brief breakfast we headed out of town to MontaƱa de Oro State Park, one of the most stunning and spare stretches of California coastline. Ever since that first trip there with dad, I have returned there often to photograph, or just revel in the quiet beauty. But this first exposure to the beauty of the central California coastline was just beginning.

We headed out of the Park, continuing into Morro Bay State Park, and then back to Highway 1, turning off onto Old Creek Road out of Cayucos. This too has become one of my regular drives whenever I’m up in that area. As we wound through the rolling hills of coastal oaks and sycamore trees we found plenty of photographic opportunities, and stopped frequently to take photographs. Old Creek Road ends at Highway 46, and if you cross the highway, it becomes Santa Rosa Creek Road. Way back in 1969 we had rented a motor home and had taken the Santa Rosa Creek Road out of Cambria. Most of the road is narrow - not even two lanes - and as dad drove us close to the edge of the road, my brother, Jim (who was sitting in the front passenger seat right over the front wheel well) felt that we were getting too close to the edge. Even today he still talks about that!

This time, dad and I drove it leisurely, making the slow climb up from Highway 46 to where the road crested the hill, and you could far ahead into the canyon. It is still one of my favorite spots to just see and breathe. We continued down the road, easing ourselves down the steep inclines and manipulating the switchbacks. I seem to recall asking dad why he even had thought of taking this road 20 years before in the rented motor home. It seemed so reckless now. The road meandered along the creek, past barns and remote ranch houses until it reached the Cambria High School, and finally, the small community of Cambria itself. We drove through town, out to Moonstone Beach Drive where we secured a room for the night at the Mariner’s Inn.

As I write this it seems like we would basically go from hotel to hotel, and not do too much in between. I didn’t think about it too much at that time, since I was living with mom and dad and I was used to their way of travel. For dad, you got up early, got on the road, did photography, and then around 3 PM started to get a room for the night. We’d usually hang out in the room during the afternoons, rarely exploring during the magic light of the late part of the day, eat an early dinner, watch TV and were asleep by 9 PM or so. So, our daylong drives were short, and our main purpose was photography, not distance. As I travel now I use the morning and late evenings to photograph, and during the day if the light is right, and secure a room long before I go so I don’t have to worry about it at 3 or 4 PM.

The next morning we got up, explored the beach a bit, and then headed north on Highway 1. We passed the grand Hearst Castle, which we had toured on that trip 20 years before. Our goal was to get to the Big Sur Lodge, but the skies were ominous, and as we drove north on this narrow stretch of cliff-hugging road, we were greeted by rain. We stopped at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, which has the often- or even over-photographed McWay Falls, drove past Nepenthe, the restaurant the mom and dad had visited on their honeymoon in 1952, finally reaching Big Sur Lodge during a gentle rain. Shortly after we got into our room, which really was a small nice cabin, the rain came down hard, and our usual afternoon of photography was thwarted. There was no TV, but I had brought my boom-box, so I listened to music while dad read. We went to dinner at the lodge, and then back to our room for reading before turning in for the night.

The next morning gave us the type of conditions that make for great photographs - clouds left over from the storm. We left the lodge, heading north until we got to a nice pullout where we stopped and took several photographs. The clouds were very dramatic, and both of us captured some very nice images. After satisfying our creative selves, we drove into Monterey, and spent a wonderful late morning at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The 1986 Star Trek movie “The Voyage Home” had been filmed here, so it was somewhat familiar to me. But truly seeing the displays and the mammals and fish of the central coast, particularly the sea otters, was a treat. We then took the famous Seventeen Mile Drive, winding our way back down to Carmel, one of mom and dad’s favorite locations. We spent the late afternoon at the Mission Carmel, one of the most visually stunning of all the 21 California Missions, and the one where Father Serra is buried. I have returned there to photograph, because it offers so many wonderful textures and colors. Rather than stay in Carmel, which can be expensive, we took the short drive east to Carmel Valley, where we booked a place for the night. As we were eating at one of the local establishments, an aftershock of the recent Loma Prieta earthquake shook the diner. No one panicked, and we returned to our meals. Our room was comfortable, and large, and even the bathroom had a separate dressing area. There was another mild aftershock, but nothing that worried us.

The next morning we returned to Carmel, heading a bit south to Point Lobos State Reserve, another rugged area of central California coastline. But to me, this place had a stronger draw, because photographers like Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Elliot Porter photographed here. It was, you might say, the Mecca for landscape photographers along the central coast. The morning was crisp and clear, and dad and I spent quite a bit of time capturing images of this amazing place.

Our time along the coast was done, because we were going to head over to Kings Canyon for the last couple of days of our trip. We drove through Carmel Valley, and as we did we came across several tarantulas crossing the road. Dad shared a story with me that he’d heard from an old buddy of his who served in the army during WWII. This buddy stayed at Camp Roberts, close to where we were. Apparently, there is a short window of a few days each fall when male tarantulas start seeking out mates, and this army buddy told dad about tarantulas in his boots and his bedding. As we carefully drove through the small army of black hairy spiders, I tried my best to avoid them. We continued down through Carmel Valley, eventually reaching the 101 at King City. From there we hooked up with highway 198, which took us across the San Joaquin Valley to Visalia, and then up to Kings Canyon. Dad had not been able to secure us lodging at Grant Grove, so when we got to our small cabin for the night in Wilsonia we were not too happy. It was tiny, with a small bathroom. We decided that we’d make the best of it, and headed for an early dinner at the Grant Grove Lodge. While we were there, dad shared with the front desk about our poor accommodations, and they told us they had an opening. So, we booked a cabin (the same one we’d stayed in 3 years earlier) and we returned to the other location to “check out”. Dad did a little fib about having stomach problems and that we were going to head home, and got out of paying for the cabin. We then returned to the Grant Grove Lodge, and enjoyed a much more comfortable cabin.

There was snow on the ground - not much, maybe 2-3 inches, but it was beautiful. The next morning we explored the Grant Grove, capturing images of those magnificent trees. I had brought along my Mamiya RB67, which shot 6x7cm transparencies. It was a heavy camera to move around, but I wanted to have good, clear images. We left the Grant Grove, driving down The General’s Highway to Sequoia, and grabbed some images there. It was cold - the oak tree leaves were all golden and there were small puddles iced over. But we were rewarded with spectacular photographs.

We headed down the mountains, back into Visalia, where we stayed with dad’s cousin, Jean, for the night. As always, listening to the wonderful stories of their childhood during the 20’s and 30’s was a treat in itself.

I write this so many years later - nearly 30 year later to be exact. I remember these trips as the times that dad and I spoke volumes in our silences. No, we got along. But we both felt that the road and the natural beauty surrounding us needed to be listened to. It was not unusual for us to drive for miles or even hours without a spoken word. And now, as I take my teen son on trips to Death Valley and Joshua Tree, and maybe even Sequoia, it’s like being with my dad again: enjoying the silence as we build our relationship.

All photographs taken by Cliff Prothero

Sunday, August 06, 2017

The Ripple Effect.....


I'm sure we've all done it. The surface of the lake or pond is absolutely still. No breeze. No fish biting in the early morning sun. And we pick up a pebble or small rock, and we toss it into the water, just to see the waves that emanate from that spot, creating perfect circles that eventually will reach the opposite and distant shore. 

Over the last several months I have felt almost helpless. No, not a fearful sense that my life is spinning out of control, or anything of that nature. If you've followed my blog you've known of my conviction that we as Followers of Christ are to be Christ - really God - in this world. And that's where my sense of hopelessness is based: I don't feel like I'm doing enough, or even ANYTHING, to "better" this world. I have grown more cynical, more anguished, at what I see as a growing lack of compassion amongst us. And sadly, much of this has been from those who call themselves Christian, and who work hard to make sure that a gay couple cannot marry, or a woman cannot have an abortion, yet they ignore those who are helpless or homeless. This has only exacerbated my anguish and feeling of helplessness. 

The only consolation that I seem to find is that while I cannot change the world, I CAN change my little part of the world.

And that was spoken to me in the clear loud gentle voice from the pulpit this morning. 

The Gospel lesson for today was the story of Jesus feeding the 5000 (Matthew 14:13-21). We know this story. There were 5000 men and probably thousands of women and children as well. They scraped up 2 fish and 5 loaves of bread. Somehow, miraculously, Jesus feeds them all, and after the feast, they gather 12 baskets of leftovers! As our pastor spoke, he pointed out something I'd never thought of: through this act, Jesus didn't solve hunger. He just fed a few thousand people. 

And it hit home to me, almost to the point that I started to cry. As Followers of Christ, we cannot change the world (yes, some do, but it's very few). We are meant to change OUR world. Our sphere of influence. 

We are to be the ripple in the pond

The Ripple Effect is such a true analogy of what it means to be living a life of service to God. For if we can change or positively impact the life of one person, that one person can go on and touch the life of someone else, and soon, from our simple act of compassion, the circles of compassion and kindness will go out from us and touch lives. I don't have to try to run the entire campaign for feeding the hungry or getting a national homeless network established. But I can do something here, at home. Maybe it's teaching the kids to be kind and have compassion. Maybe it's just saying hello to someone at the supermarket. Maybe it's just helping my elderly neighbor get her paper in the morning. This is how the Ripple Effect of God works. It's not in the grand statements like a huge waterfall. But in the small ripples that go from one place and soon, reach out across the pond. 


"I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples."
Mother Teresa