American West, beach, california, Drone, Nature, Personal, Philosophy and Photography, travel

California 1, Part 2

The road after Monterey was new and exciting to me. Every panel and exit sign looked like a page from Steinbeck’s novels. Monterey, Cannery Row, Salinas, Moss Landing, Santa Cruz. The land I drove through was just as literary as agricultural. A city slicker with a fast car and a Western heart, I glided down the California 1 looking to my left and to my right, trying to guess what was the name of the crops grown along the road.

When the fog clears, Moss Landing is a fun sight to behold. It somehow reminded me more of the purpose-driven landings of the Northern Pacific coast than what I usually see in Southern California. Also the fact it’s called Moss Landing and not Moss Marina must be indicative of some difference. If the fog does not clear, you can still hear the clear calls of the sea lions who welcome themselves on the piers and pontoons.

After the busy bypass of Santa Cruz, the solitary wilderness becomes once again the most faithful companion of the California 1.

A few miles north of Santa Cruz I had to quickly pull over for what instantly became my favorite road sign west of the Mississippi. Someone had painted a capital red HAVE FUN on a white wooden board. Maybe I needed the reminder, the explicit injunction to have fun and enjoy the moment. That made me wonder if sometimes we are so absorbed in doing what we like and doing it well to the point that we forsake the importance of having fun.

Had someone asked me, “are you having fun?”, I would have enthusiastically said yes, but it’s also true that the road had not been devoid of overthinking. Primarily about where to stop and whether to stop and what photos to shoot which ones could or should be taken another time maybe a better time what does the future holds I remember when I was a child and this was the kind of trips we’d take with my parents from Portland, OR to San Francisco and where have all the flowers gone long time passing.

That sign cleared my mind as an instant mantra. Make sure you are having fun and quite literally enjoy the ride, and all the rest will come naturally. I smiled and took a deep breath, sat down, rolled down the windows, turned off the radio and put the car in gear.

I knew this was going to happen at some point, because most of the peninsula boasts some impressive mountains, but I did not expect the 1 to climb so abruptly as the gentle shore was replaced by humbling wind-swept cliffs. I stopped frequently, carefully crossing the road and carefully peeking over. I have a mixed relationship with heights but holding a camera usually makes me bolder – probably because of our usually unjustified exchanges of confidence between unrelated domains.

The California 1 descends to kiss the Ocean again at Waddell Beach. It appears to be a pretty cocktail of Ocean spray, wind, sand, and mountains that make the Beach a popular destination for hikers, kite surfers and hand-gliders.

One thing struck me since the very first miles past Santa Cruz: the extremely young age of the people I would run into. Now, I’m not that old myself but I am way past the age of college. At most gas stations, state beaches, parking lots, all I would see was college kids going surfing and enjoying the beach driving old Ford Explorers. I was not surprised, given the number of Universities scattered around the Bay Area, but it was amusing to feel as if I was really tapping into the cliché.

Such thoughts was I musing on when I saw another road-sign. “Slow for pie”, it said, in a neat cursive writing. That was not as good as “HAVE FUN”, but it was a refreshing change from the usual moralizing panels instructing drivers to slow down for kids, pets, cattle, trucks, pedestrians, bikers, horses, deers, bears and more horses. I slowed down indeed, I pondered it in my mind for ten seconds, I made a U-turn, and reverted back to the farm to which the sign belong. It was the Pie Ranch. I’ll keep it short, because if you go there, it’s worth a stop, while if you don’t plan on going there, I will only make you envious. The Pie Ranch is an educational farm south of Pescadero on the California 1. Among many wonderful things that they do, they bake pies out of amazing ingredients that are virtually all seasonal, local, and organic. I drove off with a blackberry peach streusel pie that gave us two wonderful breakfasts in San Francisco.

More miles. My eyes were on the road, my mind was on the load (the newly adopted pie). More beauty made me stop. The part of the road between Santa Cruz and Pescadero is overall astonishing and I’ve made many mental notes to come back and dedicate more time to each place.

Pescadero is incredibly magic. You’ll find some big rocks jotting out into the ocean, beaten by the wind and the waves.

Notwithstanding the gusty winds, the shore was too gorgeous not to attempt to frame it from above. I had one more full battery in my drone, and it quickly took off. It’s always interesting to notice how those little guys handle the wind far better than we think they would.

Look at the second jetty, if I can call it this way. There are two tiny black spots: those are people, and this should let you figure out the impressive magnitude of this natural work of art. My flight didn’t last long, because a flock of seagulls quickly caught eye of something braving the wind as well as them, and quickly moved over to have a closer look (and repel the aggressor). Out of respect and out of fear, I don’t take chances with probing birds. I landed right away – and a few seagulls followed way too close for comfort until the very touchdown.

At this point… my plan changed a bit. My original idea was to follow the California 1 all the way to San Francisco, park at the Golden Gate lookout, look out at the Golden Gate, and then meet Anne-Claire at the hotel. Truth be told, I had been on the road for more than eleven hours and I was feeling a little tired. I drove through San Gregorio, Half Moon Bay, and fancy Pacifica (I finally understood why the Chrisler car was called this way). In Half Moon Bay, a street, Ruisseau Français Avenue – literally meaning French Creek Avenue – caught my attention and I promised to enquire during my next trip. Why French creek? Did some French explorer come and baptize the place “French River” and his colleague said “Jean, let’s be realistic, this is more like a French Creek”? Maybe. We will never know. Or we will.

Anyway this was my intellectual level when, close to Daly City, I saw the sign for San Francisco via the Interstate 280 and I said “Alright, let’s bring her home”. I feel a little bad, because I cheated myself out of my original plan for a handful of miles, but they might have prolonged my trip by one full hour easily – and I knew I didn’t want to cross urban San Francisco from North West to South East at rush hour with twelve hours of driving on my back. I was happy to find out though, thanks to Wikipedia, that the Interstate 280 is “referred to as one of the most scenic urban freeways in America”. It was scenic indeed, and the elevated winding road got me away with a few nice captures of San Francisco during my final approach.

There I was, tired and happy. More than 450 miles, twelve hours and twenty minutes and two meals after leaving Los Angeles International Airport. This had been a mighty trip, a day to remember. A day of slow driving and windy roads, a day of fun and pie ranches and elephant seals and foggy mountains. A day of blue highways.

Supplement

I meant to dedicate the following day to taking photographs of San Francisco, but unlike the day of my arrival the air was hazy with local fog and smoke carried from distant fires.

The only worthy image I could capture is this skyline of San Francisco from Treasure Island, monochrome for obvious reasons. You can go on my Instagram and see a detailed version of the same panorama in ten photos.

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beach, california, Drone, Nature, travel

California 1, Part 1

As a teenager, I loved travel literature. I was an eclectic reader, enjoying everything from the philosophy of travel that Bruce Chatwin would sketch in his Moleskine notebooks, to the hilarious adventures told by Bill Bryson (à la mode of the National Lampoons), without omitting Gerald Durrell’s naturalistic journeys, and many many more.

There is one single book, though, to which my understanding of travel is most indebted: Blue Highways, by William Least Heat-Moon. The book is a detailed chronicle of the author’s journey, in 1978, as he drove through the United States in a van, steering away from the cities and freeways, taking the time to discover and understand the people and places lining the Country’s smaller and less traveled roads – drawn in blue in the Rand McNally atlas – while obviously understanding himself and his own identity.

This is the kind of travel that I enjoy. What’s a lucky man? A lucky man is one who does as an adult the things he would read about as a kid (unless he really loved to read horror novels).

Freeways and Interstates are a godsend, but on the Freeway, you are going somewhere. You’re actually traveling to some place. As soon as you exit and venture on a State or County road, that’s where the real travel begins. You’re traveling, period.

Last week Anne-Claire had to go to San Francisco for work. I carefully kept the weekend free from work so that I could go with her. Or rather, my plan was to accompany her to LAX at five in the morning, and then drive to San Francisco through the 101 and then the iconic California 1.

I got to Santa Barbara a little before daybreak, and I bypassed the coastal portion of the 101 that goes to Gaviota to climb the Highway 154 instead, the Chumash highway that winds through the Santa Ynez wine region.

The first wonder I saw was the fog lifting from Lake Chumash in the grey light that precedes dawn. If that was the most beautiful sight I was going to see that day, well the trip would have already been a success.

I was getting hungry for breakfast at that point, and I tried my luck in different towns for an appealing eatery. Most places were still closed.

Los Olivos, as the fog cleared, was my last hapless stop. My eyes were satisfied with every turn of the road, but my stomach begged to differ, so I drove further North, to the charming town of Arroyo Grande – where both my sight and my hunger eventually found solace.

Fortified by eggs, pancakes and a side of hash-brown, I hit the road again. In San Louis Obispo I exited the 101 to finally explore the many marvels of the California 1.

By the time the fog cleared completely, I had reached San Simeon – the beauty of the beach greeted me, together with a low fly-by of a devilish Turkey Vulture.

A few miles north, I was in for a treat. I pulled over at the Elephant Seal Vista Point. I was expecting the “usual” seals basking in the sunlight, but a legitimate National Geographic moment unfolded before the observers’ eyes (and lenses): several males wrestled in the shallow water – to the complete indifference of several unimpressed females.

I stopped several times along the road in Big Sur. As in the case of Sedona, photography has a hard time giving justice to the whole area. Big Sur is more than a beautiful sight: it’s a symphony of visions where each glimpse adds meaning to what you just saw and foreshadows what you are about to see. I am far from claiming that my work is done there, but relying on the aerial camera (the drone) allowed me to paint some slightly more comprehensive images of the cliffs and shores among which the CA-1 winds and climbs.

I spent a few hours in Big Sur, but no matter how much time you spend there… it always feels as if you would need a lifetime to understand what you see, let alone report the beauty you are witnessing.

If you plan on rejoining the 101 after Big Sur, you may feel as if your journey to the Bay Area is almost over. But if you intend to continue through Monterey, Santa Cruz, and drive the 1 all the way up till you reach San Francisco from the Western coast of the Peninsula, then you know there are many hours and many stops before you reach your destination. Big Sur was as wonderful as ever in a rare clear summer day, and it took quite bit of esthetic resolve to resume the drive North. Nevertheless, the landscapes I was to encounter in the next couple hundred miles were going to prove a clear reward for my decision not to linger further but to drive on.

To be continued and concluded in Part 2.

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American West, Art, Desert, Drone, Nature, Philosophy and Photography, travel

Drone Out West – A Brief Guide to the “Endless Skyway”

We took a little trip in the South-West. That’s the reason why I’ve been silent. Nothing crazy, just the usual eighteen-hundred miles trip touching Las Vegas, St George UT, Page AZ, Monument Valley, Bluff UT, Sedona AZ, Scottsdale and back home to LA.

I took only three recording devices with me. My beloved Fujifilm X100V fixed lens camera (I will make a post about it, soon), my DJI Pocket 2 (think of a less sturdy, but stabilized GoPro) and my Mavic 2 Pro drone.

I love flying my drone in the wide open spaces of the South Western states. I know that drones are highly reliable and since taking my Part 107 and becoming a commercial drone pilots I am pretty comfortable about dos and don’ts of the trade, but around Los Angeles, even where you are perfectly allowed to fly, it’s always so busy with people and traffic (and birds) that you can’t help sighing with relief every time you land your aircraft after a flight. Flying in the desert (as in any sparsely populated area) is so liberating. Not because you would do anything crazy, but because the worst that can happen if your drone crashed is that it crashes, period. Granted the economic loss would be bitter to swallow, but that would be all. Crashing the drone on someone or someone’s car would be several levels of magnitude worse.

I learnt some interesting lessons about flying a drone in the South West, some apply to the summer, some work in general, some don’t apply only to the South West.

1. Mind the heat!

You don’t just unpack your drone and fly: check the temperature first. It doesn’t matter how much you like the heat, your little quadcopter likes it less than you do. The Mavic 2 Pro has a maximum operating temperature of 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius). Temperatures in the low 100s, or high 90s, summed with the thin air of the South Western plateaus will put more strain on the engines and hence demand more to an already hot battery (just to make the picture more idillic, a hot battery might deform and dislodge from its slot just enough to make the drone lose power and crash).

The solution is to be goal oriented when you’re flying in the heat: see, think, fly, shoot, land. Keep the flights brief and don’t stray too far in case you had to land earlier than expected because the battery is depleting too fast.

That’s what I did in the Escalante – Great Staircase National Monument. It was too gorgeous not to try a shot, but it was nearly a hundred degrees so I did not have much time to fly around – not excited about the idea to go retrieve the little guy in one of those canyons.

2. Use the constraints to your artistic advantage

Rules are not there to be broken, especially FAA rules. All the more if you have a part 107 license and flying a drone is part of your livelihood. Many Western points of interest, like National Parks, preserves and human-made landmarks (e.g. dams) are No Fly Zones. If you use an app like Aloft or B4UFLY, you will see those areas clearly marked. Most drones have some geofencing systems that won’t let you fly there anywhere.

This is no reason to despair, though! Think like an airplane! You can stay out of the NFZ, and position yourself at such an altitude and angle that grants you a spectacular view without breaking any rule. Think of the constraints as of guides, and work your storytelling around them.

I find these images of the Glen Canyon Dam area and the Colorado River in Page, AZ pretty interesting, and no law was broken to produce them.

3. Higher is not necessarily better

The whole point about flying a drone is to go high, right? Plus, in the desert, far from airfields or any other controlling agencies it might be tempting to fly higher than the allowed 400 feet. And yet, sometimes the interest of flying a drone does not lie in how high you can get, but in the unique perspectives you can achieve. Consider this shot of the Navajo Twins, in Bluff, UT.

If you fly lower, and closer, to the formation you can get some far more interesting results.

Drone photography is aerial photography, but also different from what you would capture from an actual airplane or a helicopter. Sometimes it’s about how close you can get to something to unlock a unique visual, and not how high you can get above it.

4. Recollect in tranquillity

I’ve often said that digital photography is much akin to Impressionist painting. Impressionists did not paint their masterpieces al fresco. They were indeed fans of the open air, but they would sketch and mark their impressions about the light on paper, then return to their studios and paint based on their sketches, their notes and their recollections.

Digital photography is the same. It’s where editing comes to play. To me, editing is what lets your eyes see now what my heart saw then.

I flew my drone quite a bit in Sedona, AZ. Then I sat down in the patio of the beautiful home we rented and, looking at the very same rocks I had shot a few minutes ago, I tried to edit my photos. I was disheartened. I was having a very hard time making the photos look as beautiful as what I was looking at. I almost discarded everything.

Little did I know that, recollecting in tranquillity a few days later in my studio, recalling the vistas of Sedona with my inward eye – as the poet Wordsworth would say, I got a totally different impression from those shots. I am able to tell you know what Sedona looked to me, or better, what Sedona made me feel like then. The the beauty that surrounds you in a stunning embrace everywhere you look, the purity of the rocks and the threes in the blinding light of the early afternoon, and those sunsets that seem to be reflecting the energy vortex rising from the ground.

This brief guide was not meant as a how-to, but more as a source of inspiration. As always, my images can be purchased as prints of any size and format. In a few days, I will update my Visions of the American West with more visions from this past trip.

Happy Trails, and enjoy the endless skyway!

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beach, california, Drone, los angeles, Nature, Redondo Beach, South Bay

Redondant Gallery

In the past few weeks my photography has been very Redondant: that does not mean that I always photograph the same thing, but rather that much of my work revolves around Redondo Beach and the immediate surroundings.

On the cusp of Spring and Summer, our Western skies turned into a kaleidoscope of gorgeous displays, some offering a foretaste of the heat to come, other reminiscing of colder months.

A few days ago, I got this classic afternoon vibe.

And the view was amazing from Malaga Cove as well, with a flock of pelicans heading my way. It’s actually rare to see the mountains so well in the hotter months.

This is a similar view but shot from higher up, precisely from the Queen’s Necklace Overlook in Via Del Monte.

The Redondo Beach Pier has been offering some very rewarding sights, too. I love to get cozy with the timeless impression you get down there.

And every image becomes dense with the emotional recollection of Kodak Chrome.

But what you see from the Pier is most magical and awe-inspiring, too: consider this morning view of Redondo, Torrance, and Palos Verdes shot from the southern side of the pier. The sky looks like a cross-seasonal patchwork mixing marine layer and scrambled cotton candy clouds.

Since getting my FAA Part 107 license in April, I’ve felt the growing lure of the endless skyways over the South Bay (at least where they are not restricted by LAX and Torrance Airport).

Thanks to the drone, I can see how lucky the hawks and the seagulls can be as they soar high above our beautiful shores.

And if you go up high and look to the north, the view is not shabby one bit.

The drone has often become my go-to for driveway photography. Meaning, all I have to do is go to my driveway, unfold the propellers, and climb to the allowed clearance. And this is what I see.

You know as they say, work smarter not harder. Once upon a time, whenever I saw a dramatic sunset in the making, I would grab my gear and run to the Esplanade. Sometimes I would get there in time, sometimes it was a bust. Now, when I see some promising sunset, I can just release the drone and have a look from up high. This does not only let me catch more sunsets, but also affords a new framing of the sunset into the geographical and esthetic fabric of our city.

And I can embrace all of the beauty in the space of a single gaze.

But do not worry, some special accents of our Redondo State of Mind can only be captured by being there, boots on the ground: so you will still see me with my camera in hand trying to frame that perfect sunset, although I know very well that the best shot is always yet to come.

You can see more of my photography of Redondo Beach and the South Bay on the dedicated page in my website or on my Instagram.

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American West, california, Desert, Nature

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

The first rule about the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is that you always say all of its name. You can write it as Anza-Borrego Desert SP. Maybe I will do so. But I really like it so much that I feel like speaking out its full name whenever I am telling someone about it.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is one of my favorite places in the entire world. I discovered it in January, five months ago, and I’ve been back four times since then. You can see me as an Anza-Borrego Desert State Parkevangelist. I like to share what I love, and I share with insistence what I love with passion.

I think I first found out about it on Instagram. As you know, I am a fan of everything Western, primarily landscapes, and a strange place started popping up on my feed. The barren, crevassed hills and lush palm groves growing in its canyons called me with growing insistence. Feeling a bit like Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss’ character in Close Encounters of the Third Kind), I started talking to my friends about the attraction I was beginning to feel. “Do you know about Anza-Borrego Desert State Park? Have you been there? Do you want to go someday?”

It didn’t resonate with anyone. I would not give up. Emboldened by the typical New Year’s resolution to do more of what makes me happy, I made up my mind to go on a solo trip and discover Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. On January the 5th, 2021, at 0600 hours, I left our home in Redondo Beach and headed out to meet the rising Sun.

The weather was extremely unpromising until I reached Temecula, but the clouds and the fog cleared when I got on the 79-E. Let me start by saying this: the road to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is good till the last mile. As soon as you leave the freeway behind and enter Temecula’s wine county, you start wondering if you just teleported back into the California of Steinbeck and Kerouac. The vineyards lead you to the rolling hills surrounding Holcomb Village, and then the roads open into the dry prairies around Warner Springs. You get to cross the Pacific Crest Trail three times, the first two shortly after the airfield lined with dozens of white gliders, and then again after you make a left onto San Felipe Road and climb onto Montezuma Valley.

The S-22 climbs, and your excitation climbs just as much. Not just the first time. Every time you are about to enter the Anza Borrego Desert State Park.

The engine of my faithful Mustang hummed a little louder as it pushed through the last few hundred yards. It paused, rode flat for what seemed a very short laps of time, and then pointed its nose downwards, gliding down the roads in the final descent to a newfound land of wonders.

This is how Anza-Borrego Desert State Park first reveals itself to you.

And this is what you get, a few switchbacks further down the road.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, which happens to be the nation’s largest state park, is not a jewel. It is a treasure chest filled with countless gems and exquisite golds. The Palm groves in the canyons are home to the only palm tree that is endemic to California (most of our palm trees where brought to California through Mexico by the Spanish settlers).

I love those palm groves, but I also love each and every plant that proves its relevance in the desert, day after day. Also the trees that owe their presence to man are special there. Go wander north-east of Borrego Springs, and your hike will smell like grapefruit flowers. The breeze blows their scent to you from the orchards surrounding the town.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is also magical where there are no plants. In the badlands where virtually nothing grows, in the narrow canyons where it’s even hard to spy a spider or a bug.

When dusk falls upon the desert in Anza Borrego Desert State Park, it’s as if you emptied a chest of all of its treasure, only to find a fake bottom, that you remove to discover more treasure.

How comes? Because Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is also a Dark Sky Retreat, and on a moonless night I saw more starts than I’have ever seen anywhere else in the world.

And if the Moon is there and scares away the stars, well, she will come to say bye on the morning that you leave, and make sure you come back soon.

I have not been in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park since early March. It’s a little too long, because the desert is my happy place, and Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is the happy place of my happy places.

Have you ever been to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park? Do you want to go now? I do.

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beach, california, Drone, los angeles, Nature, Palos Verdes, Redondo Beach, Sensor Fresh

Soaring

Last week I passed the FAA exam to be a commercial drone pilot. I can’t wait to receive my badge. The theory you get tested on is interesting. As this great video study-guide tells you, at least 75% of what you have to learn is not directly relevant to you flying a drone, but the FAA wants you to “appreciate the complexity of flying.” And you sure do learn a lot of fun facts: one thing that really blew my mind was to discover that the numbers of the runways are not randomly assigned, but correspond to their approximate orientation with respect to the true North: Runway 18, for instance, is oriented 180º, so it heads South. Crazy, right? Runway 22 is headed Southwest, and so on and so forth.

Anyway, as it often happens with this kind of things, over the past month I spent much time studying and basically no time flying, so today I rewarded my self with a nice flight over Buff Cove.

As much as the drone is a fantastic flying photo camera, it would be a pity not to explore its video capability as well, so I recorded and produced a two-minute flight over the cove. Whenever I take this kind of video, I am positively amazed. Not at my own work, but at how easy it is to record this kind of video now: just fifteen years ago, I guess that a helicopter would have been the only means of capturing the footage I recorded today.

If you like my videos, don’t forget to like and subscribe to my YouTube channel! There’s only a handful of videos right now, but I plan to grow my collection fast, so stay tuned!

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Orange County Blues

We went to Crystal Cove, OC this morning. It was somewhat overcast. As you know, I’m all about colors. When it’s overcast, and colors don’t shine as bright, then I play with black and white.

The light and the textures looked great in black and white as I was shooting. Once at home, I kept processing in black and white. It was lovely. Then I started trying out different colors, and I loved them too.

I loved how each processing gave our a different vibe. Each photograph played according to a different harmony.

The story each photograph tells is so unique that I cannot pick one and say “you are the one”.

I hope this gives a little insight into my editing processes. To me, editing is not different from cooking. It’s like preparing a salsa for the pasta. Different ingredients will call for different spices, and different spices will be suitable for different occasions.

Filters, you say? I don’t know. Call a rose by a different name, and it will smell just as nice. I don’t like the notion of filter because it’s often used in a diminutive way. Filters are usually a handful of one-size-fits-all presents you slap on an image.

Editing is more about the careful and loving fine-tuning of dozens of parameters, colors, shadows, textures, brilliances, emotions. I have my recipes, that are never twice the same, and that I like to think I improve with every photograph I produce.

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American West, Desert, Nature, Personal, Philosophy and Photography

Visions of the American West

I don’t know how I fell in love so deeply with the American West. A Latin expression comes to my mind: nomen omen. Romans believed one’s name could hint to the person’s destiny, and my parents did chose Wayne as my middle name. You could also say that the Romans got it upside down, and it’s one’s name that actually imprints their fate. No matter how you see it, the love of the West is inscribed in my name.

Fun fact, the etymology of Wayne is bound to the Westward movement and traces back to the wainwright, the wagon-builder (“wain” being the archaic word for the wagon, or the stagecoach).

Western movies have surely played a major role in my fondness of the West, and my western photography is imbued with a cinematic taste.

As I recently watched John Ford’s 1939 movie “Stagecoach”, I was elated to discover a sequence very similar to a photograph I shot in the monument valley, featuring the first butte one encounters upon leaving Kayenta, the gatekeeper to the Monument Valley.

Being born and raised in Italy, my Western imagery somewhat reflects the Old Continent’s fascination with the Old West. On the one hand, I partake of John Ford’s visions of grandeur, as I look to represent the awe-inspiring vistas reminiscent of National Geographic; on the other hand, I am influenced by Sergio Leone’s realism as I paint the Western deserts in all of their barren and blinding inhospitable beauty.

We sometimes describe the Western deserts as Martian, or Lunar landscapes. The difference, though, is that life abounds in the desert. One of the reasons why I find the desert so inspiring, in fact, is the relevance of life. Nothing lives by chance in the desert, every life form sings and celebrates its own relevance.

Living in Los Angeles, I am blessed with a unique access to the American West. On top of being, quite literally, the end of the trail, I can drive three hours and be in one of my favorite places in the world, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. I can also drive little more than half a day and reach the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, and the countless wonders of Nevada, Utah, and Arizona.

This is a blessing I am aware of every day. The West is my backyard. I can access it with such ease that I do not even need to think about it. Yet, the American West retains the wonder of a legendary past, certainly romanticized, but whose epic narration had begun even before the Census Bureau declared the closure of the Western frontier in 1890. Every so often, a zealous mind sets on to seek the “real” West, the reality of the Westward movement. Even before Hollywood, the Westward movement could hardly discern itself from its own self-narrative and ideology.

Then Hollywood came, and the rest is history: still, never before in history a given space-time was narrated and mythicized so close to its very unraveling, chronologically and geographically. John Wayne did meet Wyatt Earp, the deputy marshal of Tombstone, and when the latter died in 1929 in Los Angeles, western movie star Tom Mix was among the pallbearers.

If someone can take all of these elements apart, I tip my hat to them. I cannot. The nineteenth century, the Western movies on which Hollywood was born, Kerouac and McCarthy, my 2011 Silver Mustang and the sensors of my digital cameras, all of these things come together in my eyes and in my mind. I go out there, and look where the geological history and the histories of our people fold and bend like the Colorado river.

Countless towns in the South Western states claim to be “where the West still lives”. If you’re looking for me and I’m not in Los Angeles, I’m probably somewhere out there.

Happy trails!

Tom Wayne Bertolotti, W.S.P.*

You can see a selection of my Western photographs on the website Visions of the American West.

*W.S.P. stands for Western Standard Photographer and it is an acronym I molded on Chet Atkins’ C.G.P. (Country Guitar Picker)

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beach, california, los angeles, Nature

Hokusai Americano

Whenever I take photographs of certain waves, I think I get possessed by the same demon as Katsushika Hokusai (1760 – 1849), the Japanese artist who authored iconic print such as The Great Wave off Kanagawa. In case you were still not sure, this post is about waves.

Last Sunday, I was at La Jolla Beach, in Malibu, shortly after dawn. To tell the truth, I was there at 7 AM which is way past dawn. Anne-Claire was running there with her trail running club. Although I sometimes try to hurry my sedentary body up and down the trails surrounding Los Angeles with uneven results (mostly poor), I am really grateful to her hobby because it makes us be into the wild in the very early morning. We are morning people, we go to bed at 9 and wake up at 5. Sleeping nine to five, what a way to make a living, right? If you see a photo of mine shot at night, it’s likelier to be early morning than late night.

We left Redondo at a quarter to six, because the Ray Miller trailhead (the end of the Backbone Trail that crosses the Santa Monica Mountains) is one of the furthest from us: it takes more than an hour to get there if there’s no traffic. As soon as we drove past Malibu I started feeling gusts of wind tugging at the car. That was a little disheartening. I like comfort. I like mild temperatures, gentle breezes, pastel lighting. I am also aware that no guts no glory, that the faint heart never won the fair lady, and so on and so forth. We got to the trailhead, parked the Mustang on PCH because the gates of the parking area open at eight (that is so late). Anne-Claire went running, I bundled up in my winter jacket, pulled the hoodie up, and hesitantly headed to the beach. The beach was very happy to see me and started sandblasting my bare calves con gusto as soon as I approached the shore. Little did I know that the wind was just excited and wanted to hurry me to an unspeakable marvel.

The beach was empty, a fisherman and I were the only spectators to the display of wonder that every wave would perform. They were not solo dance acts: each wave would find a partner in the wind that was rushing down to meet them from the Santa Monica Mountains. Splash splash woosh woosh.

Each wave seemed under a different spell, each crest a bejeweled crown of fractal delights. I must have spent at least half an hour just collecting waves.

You know how these things work: you think you hit the ceiling of beauty, and a new wonder unfolds before your eyes. The Sun must have head about the waltz that the wind and the waves were dancing, and decided he wanted to come and have a peek.

A peek was all the Sun needed to decide he wanted to join the dance too. And that’s when the wonder stepped up to the very next level. The crests were not anymore the the foamy fins of giant fishes, but they became like golden flares, exploding from the surface to dissolve soon after back into the Ocean.

What was happening on the beach was not less delightful: I just had to pick the scale, the distance where my eyes and lens would wander, and I was in a little heaven of water, salt, sand, rocks, and sunshine.

My original plan was to remain on the beach for a few hours, but you know, the spectacle of beauty changes hearts, and it made mine stronger. I moved the car inside the parking area, grabbed my hiking pole and started walking up the trail. Twice the wind wailed and blew dust in my overly sensitive and delicate blue eyes, and twice I turned back, walked a few steps towards the parking, stopped, sighed, and started walking up again. I must have hiked a couple miles, till the where the Backbone trail bifurcates into the Overlook trail.

This astonishingly Mediterranean trail winds and turns and keeps you marveling at how much this looks like Greece, until you get to a plateau from which you spy a view that is not Mediterranean at all, quite the opposite: to the East, the Boney Mountain Ridge elevates in all of its humbling majesty. It is a legitimate Western vista that situates you where you actually are. It reminds you that you are in California. You are at the much-sought prize of a Westward movement that unravelled through this Country for more than two centuries, shaping it at the very same time. You are standing at the end of the trail.

I actually jogged my way down because I was really hungry and lunchtime was approaching. Little bonus, on the way home we pulled over at one of the viewpoints of Malibu. It does not matter what you think about actually visiting Malibu, when you see it from up there, you can’t deny that God must have been in a jolly good mood on the day he made Malibu. I say it every time and it never gets old.

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Birds, los angeles, Nature, Redondo Beach, Uncategorized

Keeping up with the Birdashians!

“I really hate hummingbirds!”, said no one ever. You really gotta love them if you live in Southern California! We moved to Redondo Beach from Paris more than two years ago, and the omnipresence of these birds is one of the natural wonders that make the eyes of any expatriate glow with awe. Hummingbirds, seals, dolphins, pelicans are matter of fact to most habitants of the Pacific Coast, but for Europeans they epitomize exotic fauna. For us, they are as much a wow-factor as koalas, parrots and gazelles would be. Let’s be honest: even raccoons, possums, skunks, coyotes and friendly squirrels get us really excited. But hummingbirds are one step above.

Yes, they are everywhere, but most times you encounter them, hummingbirds are going places. A little like avian electrons, if you know where they are you don’t see where they are going, and once you know where they are going you can’t know where they are anymore. That’s why I was really on my toes when I saw this hummingbird hanging out A LOT in our backyard. When I saw it carrying feathers and little straws in its beak, I thought it might be nesting. I could follow the bird’s alert and seemingly erratic flight until it laid on a surprising low branch and I saw the nest. I felt like a kid in a candy store: a photographic treasure had just uncovered itself a few yards from our bedroom. Little after I spotted the hummingbird, the “it” became a “her” because this charming birdie spent most of her days sitting proudly on her nest, keeping her egg(s?) warm.

This was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. This is the first photo I took of her. A word of disclaimer: although she might claim the opposite, I never invaded her privacy. I was always several feet away, shooting her with my professional Fujinon XF 100-400mm zoom lens.

I like names. I think names are great and provide a great connection with people and animals, so I decided this hummingbird needed a name. We brainstormed with Anne-Claire, and we thought Cindy was the most appropriate name. We understand and respect the fact that she probably has a name in hummingburdian, but our rudimentary vocal systems cannot reproduce the elaborate sequence of buzzes, whistles and chip notes it consists of, and she was a neighbor now so she needed a name. And names go with surnames, and given how – by then – she was the gossip of our whole block, her family name could only be Birdashian. That’s when Anne-Claire cleverly quipped “Ha! So you’re keeping up with the Birdashians!”.

Cindy offered me and my lens some incredible photography opportunities. I like to think that the best is yet to come, but I am not sure I’ll ever craft hummingbird pictures as precious as these. It must be said, Cindy Birdashian has a great taste for deco and put up her nest in a very flattering location, with patches of light playing on her feathers and the leaves around her in the morning and in the afternoon.

One night was the direst. Remember? It’s when that horrible storm hit the South Bay and the Los Angeles basin with buckets of rain and strong, strong winds. We barely slept, stressing the whole night, turning the light on in the backyard every few hours to make sure the nest and its occupants had not ruined to the ground. But hey, hummingbirds are great engineers and although she probably dragged down all of the saints in her calendar and said the grossest swearwords in hummingbirdian the whole night, the nest withstood the rage and the fury of the elements and was still standing strong on the following morning.

And then, one day it happened. My neighbor came down the stairs leading to the top unit and said “The eggs have hatched!” I grabbed my camera and hurried up his staircase, and there they were! Two little dragons, getting more and more bird-like with every passing day. They might feed on nothing but sugary regurgitations but it’s positively amazing to see how much they grow with each passing day.

Have you ever seen a hummingbird mom feeding her babies? I did, and my camera did too. It’s a unique wonder of the natural world. My favorites are when she taps on their little beaks to make them open wide, and once they are done, how she jump-sits on them to make sure they’re all warm and cozy. Just so you know, I was jumping with joy and I even made a little triumph dance when I saw what I had captured.

On my last photography session with Cindy I was able to get some good still images of her and her babies. These are some of my favorites family portraits.

The good news is that Cindy and the baby Birdashians are doing great, I see them every day. The bad news is that those last photos are probably the last I will able to shoot for a while. The reason is not my lack of passion, even though as the birdies grow her visits to the nest are less and less frequent and. Rather, Cindy has explicitly shown a growing distaste for being photographed. I am crouching behind a hedge, with a hoodie covering my head, just the tip of the camera protruding from the top of the hedge several feet away from her, and yet she’s not happy. She comes behind the hedge and buzzes (you know when they rev their wings and sound like a big bug) and chips and insults me straight in my face. Good photographers know when they have overstayed their welcome, and promptly retreat. Cindy had made it very clear, and it was time for me to congratulate her on the beautiful family she raised and walk away.

I might be brave, or lucky enough to sneak up the stairs with my camera one more time once the younglings are all feathered up, and in case I will update this post. Otherwise, the ride was good and I am grateful for being able to witness something so unique over the course of a full month.

See you around Cindy. It was really fun keeping up with the Birdashians!

UPDATE 2/17: I went out earlier and saw Cindy and her kids basking in the morning sun! I quickly grabbed my camera, got some shots, realized the memory card was not in the camera, hurried back inside, got the memory card, took some more pictures. Cindy gave me a grace period of five minutes, before losing her tempere and buzzing down on me. Totally worth it, though!

UPDATE 2/20: I spied a delightful sight yesterday afternoon. Cindy’s kids were perched on the nest, chilling. I thought that would make a nice image because you finally could see their bird-like shape. I grabbed my camera, got in position, aimed for the nest. I saw a blur, I heard a flutter, and the young birds scrambled. I could track them around the yard and in the back alley, mother Cindy watching over them (and freaking out a little bit, but that’s what she does most of the time).

I’m really proud of them. And I am grateful towards Nature and the Great Landscaper for letting me observe the wonderful functioning of such a small and perfect gear in the universal clockwork. I now say, half jokingly, that on the bright side I gained back full ownership of the backyard. I can use the fire pit again, or engage in any other fire-and-smoke related activity with an easy mind. And work out, very important. But in truth, not only I will miss them. There’s something more, and I think it connects with the strange times we’ve been living since early last year. I looked at the empty nest this morning, and my heart ached a little bit. My heart ached because I felt the passing of time. In spite of this feeling of an everlasting present dragging on since the last Spring, I realized that time does move on. Chapters are opened and chapters are closed. It’s just our human history, especially the micro-history of our plans and projects and affections and aspirations and longings and everything that makes us human that is still stuck.

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