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A Year of Departure

The Colosseum in Rome

“I find it odd to confine life events and creative evolution to the arbitrary boundaries of a calendar year, but, as I have noted before, I welcome the excuse to pause and examine the progress, trends, and implications of my experiences in the past months.” Guy Tal

Statue of Puerto Rican composer Catalino “Tite” Curet Alonso in the Plaza de Armas, San Juan Puerto Rico

Odd or not, the tendency to compartmentalize our lives into blocks of 365 days is as good a way to reflect as any.  A calendar year works as well as a birthday or anniversary year for that purpose.  And I fear that if it wasn’t for the annual reminder, many of our species would not bother to look back at all, occupied as we are with running around, faces glued to electronic devices of all kinds in our real or imagined “busy-ness.”

The Doge’s Palace in Venice, Italy
Michelangelo’s “David” at the Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze (Academy Of Florence Art Gallery)
The Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica

As I looked back through my photographs from 2018 I began to realize that it was truly a year of departure for me, both literally and photographically.

  • Kathy & I “departed” from the workplace after 40 or so years of work.
  • We “departed” the shores of the U.S. for another continent for the second straight year
  • My photography “departed” from the norm, as more and more of my photographs had people in them
  • My photography “departed” from the norm, as more and more of my photographs were finished in black & white
  • Even more of my photos taken “in” a place are not “of” or “about” that place
  • We spent a month (actually 28 days) at the beach, the longest either of us had ever been away from home
Castiglione d’Orcia, Italy
Early morning, quiet street in Venice, Italy
Early morning, quiet street in Venice, Italy

I’m not sure what to make of the fact that more and more of my photos have people in them.  I’ve historically considered myself to be primarily a landscape photographer, and have often responded to requests to photograph weddings and portraits with something along the lines of “notice that most of my photos do not have people in them.  Thanks, but no.”  I do think that as I get older I find that experiences and relationships have taken a higher priority than trophy icon shots or sunrises and sunsets.  Oh, I still get my share of those, but for the most part the photos that call my name are the ones that bring back memories of a place, or more likely the memory of my feelings that I had when I was in the place.  Venice is a good example.  As much as I loved Tuscany, the few hours that I spent – mostly alone – wandering around Venice in the early morning is one of my most cherished memories.

Room keys on maid’s cart, Pienza, Italy
Pienza, Italy
Montalcino, Italy

I chose this collection of photos not because they are my “best” or “Greatest Hits” from 2018, but rather because they represent how I feel about the things I did and places I went, and how I felt while I was there.  It’s not that these are photos I never would have taken previously, but more that they are photos that better capture my memory of a place, not just documenting what I saw.

Kathy & I wish everyone a Happy New Year.  We’ve got lots planned for 2019 and are looking forward to getting started!

I saw this guy every morning, picking up trash before dawn. While there were a number of these street sweepers, I always knew where this guy was because he whistled constantly. My memories of mornings in Venice include the strains of whatever tunes were passing through his lips.
Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort, Hilton Head Island, South Carolina
San Juan, Puerto Rico
Minneapolis Central Library, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Tuscan countryside near Pienza, Italy
St. Simon’s Island, Georgia
The Pantheon

In Search of the Genuine

Beaver Creek State Park near Rogers, Ohio

Kathy & I recently returned from a trip to Ohio to visit friends and family.  One of the days that we were there, we visited Ohio’s “Amish Country” with our friends Bill & Cathy.  There was an Amish area of western Pennsylvania when I was growing up, but I remember it as a place where my grandmother took her quilt tops to have quilted and to occasionally pick up a pie, some cookies or some cheese.  It always involved stopping at someone’s farm or a small market and was always interesting because they seemed rather shy and didn’t socialize much.  We did the business we came to do and then went on our way.

Beaver Creek State Park near Rogers, Ohio

That was a long time ago, and I admit that the world has changed.  But one of the things that struck me about this most recent visit to Amish Country was how commercialized it has become.  While there are still genuine Amish farms, furniture builders and markets, they are almost overshadowed by these huge, I’ll call them “mega-markets” that support the throngs of tourists that visit each year.  It is a far cry from the Amish country that I remember from when I was a kid.

Amish Country countryside near Millersburg, Ohio

As examples, what was once a small sales area of a local cheese plant is now a huge retail outlet, larger than the actual factory itself, selling something like 100 different flavors of cheese.  A place that was once a general store is now a multi-level trinket outlet with countless items to take home and store in our closets along with plenty of gifts for the kids and grandkids.  Kathy refers to all that stuff as the “mommy-can-I-gets.”  A restaurant called “Mrs. Yoder’s Kitchen” while possibly still owned by someone named Yoder, is essentially a huge dining hall with a kitchen and multiple buffet lines serving food that I wonder if the actual Amish would eat.  Maybe I’m wrong but that was the impression I came away with.  But the tourists love it!

Sugarcreek, Ohio

While we were in Amish Country I picked up a local tourist magazine that essentially contained advertising for all the places the tourists are supposed to visit while they are there.  I was struck by the number of ads for businesses that seemed to revolve around activities that weren’t actually Amish – fancy hotels, clothing stores, restaurants, music and play theaters, souvenir shops.  I couldn’t help but wonder how many of them were actually owned by the Amish and how much of the profits actually stay in the communities.  It would be interesting to know if you could actually figure it out.

Sugarcreek, Ohio

This isn’t all about the Amish or Amish Country, however, and my observations aren’t limited to one area of rural Ohio.  In many ways this commercialization is a reflection of the overall focus on commerce in our society, and applies to cities big and small, islands in the Caribbean and cruise ports around the world.  No longer is it enough to just enjoy the scenery on a walk down the main street in a cute little town in the middle of nowhere, but now our visit won’t be complete unless we have an opportunity to buy stuff.  If you manage to even find the town itself it is almost a miracle!  We’ve got antiques and gifts and fudge and restaurants galore, but too often the retail/tourism side of things has managed to erase whatever it was that caused the town to be interesting in the first place.

Roncevert, West Virginia

When we were in Italy, one of the highlights for us was exploring the towns of Tuscany on our photo workshop with Jeff Curto.  Most of the places we visited seemed to be close to the original, and the commercialization fell way short of what we see here in the states.  But a lot of the towns there, just like here, have undergone what I heard referred to as the “Rick Steves Effect.”  Places that were once quaint and charming suddenly become famous and are overrun with tourists.  Almost immediately these places lose what made them famous and become just another stop on the bus tour.  It’s a lot like cruise ship ports – every one looks the same after a while because they all contain the same shops.  But I digress….

Walnut Creek Cheese store near Walnut Creek, Ohio

I often comment about how places have become “Disneyfied” in that what tourists see bears little or no resemblance to what the place is best known for.  Multimillion-dollar developments replace straw markets and rum shacks in the Caribbean.  Gift and jewelry store chains promoted by cruise lines and tour companies sell merchandise in glitzy shops.  Merchandise that comes from parts of the world far removed from the place in which it is being sold. There’s obviously a market for that stuff, as these companies seem to be successful and growing.  But it makes it hard to experience a place for what made it worth visiting in the first place.

Walnut Creek Cheese store near Walnut Creek, Ohio

I know this may sound really negative, but that wasn’t my intention.  It’s just that all of these things have gotten me to think about how I want to experience the parts of the country and the world that we visit.  Do we want to check off a bunch of “must-see” tourist spots and buy the appropriate souvenirs, or do we want to seek out the undiscovered places that have as much or perhaps even more of the charm that made the famous places famous?  Do we buy our souvenirs, take our selfies and move on, or do we slow down, look around and try to find the places that are just off the beaten path?  It is an interesting challenge, for sure!

Train station in Roncevert, West Virginia

My Italy Experience – Week 2

Tuscan countryside near Montalcino, Italy
Background

I wrote previously about our Venice, Florence & Rome tour and have been meaning for far too long to write about the second week of our Italy adventure.  I keep promising myself to write more “in the moment” instead of months behind, but so far that hasn’t happened.  Retirement is hard work!

Piazza del Mercato in Siena, Italy

Italy began calling my name when I first saw Bob Krist’s photographs in Frances Mayes’ book In Tuscany.  Although I’ve not seen Under the Tuscan Sun, I’ve read all of Mayes’ subsequent books about her life in Tuscany and in particular really identified with her description of the life, the people and the scenery of Tuscany, and I especially loved the idea of La Dolce Vita, Italian for “the sweet life” or “the good life.”  Krist’s photos and Mayes’ narrative had captured my imagination and convinced me that Italy was a place that I needed to visit.

A trip to Italy had been “over the horizon” both literally and figuratively for years.  When I thought of traveling to Italy, there were two ways I wanted to do it.  First, I had been following Jeff Curto’s Camera Position podcasts for years, and when Jeff started doing his Photograph Italy workshops, I was convinced that I wanted to visit Tuscany “Jeff’s Way,” which would ideally be on one of Jeff’s workshops but could also be something we did on our own.  Second, I’ve wanted to take a transatlantic cruise either to or from Italy, flying the opposite way, and spending time on land either before or after the cruise.  A visit to Tuscany would undoubtedly have been a requirement of that option.

View of Siena from Basilica di San Clemente in Santa Maria dei Servi in Siena, Italy
Piazza del Mercato in Siena, Italy
Pienza, Italy
Planning

When Kathy & I decided to start planning a trip to Italy, our first idea was to fly there, do some kind of tour, then cruise back to the US.  We wanted to do a tour there because of the logistics of navigating all the cities and towns with their congestion, crowds and parking restrictions.  Not to mention the language, since neither of us speaks Italian!  We wanted to leave the driving to someone else.  We started looking at going in the fall, since the cruise ships that spend the summer in the Mediterranean start heading back “across the pond” in October and November and it should be easy to find one at a good price.

We began by looking at tours that would take us to the usual highlights of Italy – Venice, Florence, Rome, Pisa, etc. while spending an appropriate amount of time in Tuscany.  Appropriate to me was at least 3-4 days, but very few of them spent more than one night with most of them being a “drive-thru” on the way from one place to another.  For me to get what I really wanted would require organizing some kind of customized tour with a driver/guide to handle the navigation and logistics.  After much looking and analyzing, one day Kathy looked at me and said, “you just need to do Jeff Curto’s tour.  That’s what you’ve always wanted and you ultimately won’t be happy with anything less.”  Yes, I love this lady 🙂  and she is also the first to tell me that I need to buy the better tool or the better camera (when it matters) instead of taking the cheaper route.  That settled, we decided to look into doing that, and conveniently it was just a couple of weeks before Jeff opened his workshops for registration.

View of Pienza from the Val d’Orcia, Italy
Pienza, Italy
Pienza, Italy
Why Jeff Curto?

As I mentioned above, I had been following Jeff Curto’s Camera Position podcasts for years, and had come to love his teaching style and the fact that his focus is on “The Creative Side of Photography.”  His Camera Position podcasts – and additionally, while he was actively teaching, his History of Photography podcasts – showed me a person with the personality, temperament and teaching style that I thought I would respond well to.

I had corresponded with Jeff several times previously and he was familiar with me and my interest.  And rather than writing me off as another wishful-thinking wannabe, when I contacted him with questions about his upcoming registration and told him I was definitely planning to sign up, he “bent the rules” just a little to allow me to receive advance notice so I could get signed up.  Another star in the “plus” column!

Because the workshops are limited to just 7 people, I needed to sign Kathy up as a participant even though she likely would not be picking up a camera.  Fortunately, she doesn’t usually mind carrying one of mine, especially now that they are smaller and lighter!  And with the promise of daily excellent food and yummy wine, she wasn’t a hard sell.  Jeff was kind enough to adjust the fee for the fact that she would not need instruction and would not be participating in the critiques.

City government offices and the Tower of Mangia in Siena, Italy
Piazza del Campo, Siena, Italy
The Workshop Experience

From the time we signed up to go, Jeff provided regular and comprehensive communications, with tips and ideas for our planning, things to remember to bring and even “homework” to allow us to prepare for getting the most out of the experience.  All of the participants are on Facebook, so he set up a private group so we could get to know each other a bit ahead of time by sharing articles, questions and photos.  By the time we were ready to go, all our questions were answered and we just had to show up!

Kathy & I had chosen our earlier Tauck tour partly because it ended in Rome on the day the photo workshop was to begin.  It was an easy 10-minute taxi ride from our hotel to a piazza near the Pantheon, where we arrived early and had time to wander a bit before the rest of the group and our van arrived.  As it turned out, the rest of the group had stayed in a hotel adjacent to the piazza and had met for dinner the previous night.  Since that was the last night of our Tauck tour and was the night of our after-hours visit to the Sistine Chapel, we missed out on that dinner.  Otherwise it was a piece of cake to catch up with Jeff and the other members.

The Pantheon
Bagno Vignoni, Italy

I won’t go into excruciating detail about the agenda, because it is available on Jeff’s website.  I will say, however, that the entire experience completely met and exceeded my expectations.  We spent the week in the Tuscan hill town of Pienza, and while everyplace else we went was fantastic, I could easily have spent the entire week in and around Pienza.  Our hotel there was family-owned with nice rooms, a decent restaurant, a great location and very comfortable.  The town itself was lovely, with many shops, restaurants, interesting churches and architecture, and beautiful views of the Val d’Orcia.  The daily workshop schedule was relaxed but productive, and the fellowship and camaraderie of the group was exactly as I had hoped.

Our group “classroom” sessions sometimes involved standing under a tree in the shade and listening or watching, sometimes involved the group gathered in his hotel room with a television for viewing images.  Whatever the venue, Jeff was very informative and provided the inspiration and encouragement needed to benefit from the experience.  Jeff would be a great instructor anywhere, but his passion for photography and for Tuscany comes through in his enthusiasm for the workshops.

Montalcino, Italy

Jeff based the amount of tutoring and teaching in the field to each individual person.  The background of each participant varied in age, profession and experience.  Kathy was the only non-photographer, but as I’ve previously said, she sees and thinks like a photographer, the only thing that keeps her from being one is that she won’t use a camera!  One other person, who is the spouse of another participant and who was picking up a camera for virtually the first time, had very little experience.  The others were all experienced photographers with impressive travel experience and previous workshops on their resumes and with similar objectives for the week.

The “final exam” for our workshop was for the participants to select a group of images and put together a themed slide show.  We had a choice of software to use (I used Lightroom) and we each created a 20~ image presentation that we set to music and shared with the group.  Jeff also published them on his website.  I was the “overachiever” of the group 🙂 and did two – the links to them are at the end of this post.

Bagno Vignoni, Italy
Tuscan countryside near Bagno Vignoni, Italy
Conclusion

I feel like a came away from the week in Tuscany with 7 new friends: Jeff and his wife Mary Pat were excellent hosts, and the other 5 participants were great companions on our adventure.  Although we were only together for a week, Kathy & I had lunch with Jeff & Mary Pat several times and feel like we’ve been friends forever.  While it would cement the relationship to go on a few more workshops 😉 , I feel like we could meet up again anywhere in the world and have a great time.  I’ve become Facebook and Instagram friends with the other participants as well.  We may never get together again but we have forged a common bond that will last for a long time.

I could be happy going back to Italy in general and Tuscany in particular every year for a long time.  The only thing really holding me back (besides the obvious: funding) is that there are many other places I’d also like to see.  I do hope to get back to Italy, to Tuscany and on a Photograph Italy workshop in the near future.  In the mean time I’ll see what I can do about getting to some of those other places!

Piazza del Mercato in Siena, Italy

 

The Colors of Tuscany

Tuscany in Black & White

Thoughts on All These New Cameras

Big Meadows, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

I don’t usually talk about gear any more, but the recent new camera announcements from Canon and Nikon, and more recently Fuji, Panasonic and Sigma have gotten me thinking about cameras.  Not to buy a new one, I promise!  Just thoughts on what cameras we buy and why we buy them.

When the so-called mirrorless cameras came out, the whole idea – at least in my mind – was the ability to have a high-quality camera in a size that was smaller and much lighter than all of the full-size gear we had been hauling around.  Small and very capable cameras from Olympus, Panasonic, Fuji and others paved the way for a lot of folks to “downsize” to a camera and lenses that had excellent image quality without having to haul around a bag of bricks.  For myself, unloading 30+ pounds of Canon gear and replacing it with the smaller and lighter Fuji gear was a welcome change.  No longer did I have to carry my camera equipment in a suitcase that weighed more than my clothes!  I specifically remember checking into a hotel one time and having the bellman pull my Think Tank Airport Monstrosity out of the trunk with a “what the heck is in this thing…library books?” question.  Ah, not exactly!

Big Meadows, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Inevitably, some companies started working toward the idea of the “full frame mirrorless” cameras.  After a slow start, Sony has become a major player in a field.  I know a number of folks that have converted to Sony cameras, but it always interests me that those cameras and lenses are as big and heavy as the cameras they replaced!  Canon and Nikon have recently introduced their own versions of these “full frame mirrorless” cameras, but they are nearly as large as my old 5D and lenses.  What happened to smaller and lighter?

Ever since I traded in my medium format Mamiya 7 film camera for my first 5D, I hoped that some day there would be a digital equivalent of that Mamiya camera.  Fuji just announced a camera that comes very close, but at $4500 for the body it is out of my price range, and it is huge!  Nothing like the Mamiya 7, 3 lenses and a box of 5 rolls of film that I was able to put in a fanny pack.  Airport Monstrosity 2.0 here we come!

I’m really happy with my decision to move to the smaller APS-C Fuji cameras and lenses.  Right now my “ancient” X-T1 is still better than I am, and while I may eventually succumb to the siren song of a newer model, the stuff that I have suits my needs just fine.  It is interesting to watch where all the technology is headed, but watching from the sidelines is a pretty comfortable place to be!

Big Meadows, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

For fun, here is a link to a size comparison on Camerasize.com.