To me, schools in the summer are one third peaceful, one third harmless, and one third sad.
After all those years, the sight of a school in June still whispers “September” and I frown a little bit.
Even a school that has no relationship to my past, and that is six thousand miles away from where I grew up, such as the Malaga Cove school in Palos Verdes Estate.
I have a bit of a difficult relationship with schools. I have a PhD, I have a strong drive towards teaching. One of my favorite things over the past year was when school-buses got back in service and I saw kids going back to school. At the same time, I was the not-so-popular, high-achieving, often lonely and sometimes bullied kid from elementary school till halfway through high-school. Every time I see a school, old Tom and young Tom kind of clash: aspirations, ideals, and memories forming an interesting cocktail ranging over a curious mix of emotions.
But I think it’s nice to put all of this into photographs.
It’s been a long day. I finally gave in and ordered postcards (I spent the whole afternoon editing them). I got a new Aputure light with a Fresnel lens, I’ll use it tomorrow and I haven’t even got it out of the box yet. I framed the first print of Coyote for some friends of mine, as a housewarming gift.
This is Coyote, short for Can’t catch me, Coyote. It’s one of my favorite photographs. I shot it while driving a van from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon to the South Rim. Those on the left are the Vermillion Cliffs.
But I digress: I do all this, and my right eye is acting weird. I was preparing to enjoy a nice dinner (some chili that my neighbor cooked a few days ago) with some French wine (La Vieille Ferme red, harvest of 2019, one of my favorites), when I look out. And I see something grand is happening out west. It’s been cloudy all day, but the day had a happy ending for all of us light-chasers.
My best bet was to grab my drone and fire it up asap. Scramble! Scramble!
First, it looked like this.
And like this:
I was happy, I got back inside. Ate dinner, drank some wine. Then my eye starts acting weird again and I look away from the screen to give it some rest. And there’s the Sun, showing up just five minutes before the curtains fall on today.
And then it went like this and my heart melted a little bit and I landed. Happy.
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!
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.
I got a new bike last week. I have a love-hate relationship with bicycles. I’ve bought bicycles all my life. Sometimes on a whim, sometimes after careful research. Some of my bikes were stolen. Some were traded. Some were left behind.
**Here begins the story of me and my bikes, if you do not care feel free to skip forward**
More than a decade ago, I went to a sporting goods store (Decathlon) in Turin, Italy. I needed to get a bike fixed. While I was there, I tried an entry-level road bike. It was bright red. You know, Ferrari red. You cannot let an Italian try a fast red bike and imagine he will react neutrally. I bought it. A few months and some bad falls later, I realized that drop bars do not offer the maneuverability you need to handle the busy and unevenly-paved roads of European cities. So I hated that bike and stored it at my parents home.
Fast forward, in 2015 I moved to Paris. After a few more unlucky attempts at purchasing a bike there, I went back to Italy, had the drop bars on my road bike replaced with flat bars, and that bike became my pride and joy, especially after Anne-Claire gifted me a beautiful Brooks saddle decorated with a Thunderbird design. Over three years, I rode several hundred miles around Paris with that bike. I also had a major fall once, after which I dragged myself to a pharmacy to get my bruises sanitized. The pharmacist, an elderly lady, prompted me to drop my trousers so I could put some disinfectant on my thigh. I asked her if there was a backroom where I could do that in case another client came in, but she said no and insisted that I just go ahead. Which I did. Ah, la France.
Fast forward again to 2018. We moved to California. My bicycle-purchase journey started once again, with a couple of failed attempts (much more costlier than in Europe because, on average, everything bike-related seems to be 30% to 50% more expensive in the US than in Europe).
Over the last couple of weeks, there I was, in the good company of at least half a million Americans: I wanted a new bike, one that would match my specs, my budget, that I could try, maybe have a little bit of a choice, and most of all I wanted it now. Anyone who tried purchasing a bike right now knows that everything is out of stock, with several months of backlogs, half a year-long wait lists, and most of what bike stores have are either high end models or entry level clunkers. And everything in small sizes.
But I lucked out! I went to Safety Cycle in Torrance and they had the kind of bike I wanted. I got myself a Specialized Sirrus X 4.0. I would have preferred a carbon frame, but I realized that on top of not being available, it was only two pounds lighter and almost a grand more expensive. I also wanted thinner tires, but those are easy to replace and I had also been toying with the idea of getting a mountain bike and now I cannot wait to get these gently-gripped tires on some easy trails such as Westridge and Sullivan, maybe all the way to Nike Station.
**If you skipped earlier, you can resume reading here**
The reason why I am really excited about this bike, on top of the ordinary perks of biking (less fuel and pollution on local trips, no parking hassle, workouts, mood), is that it biking really pairs well with photography. Just think of the Palos Verdes Peninsula: many amazing vistas from Palos Verdes Boulevard do not have easy or legal parking. With your bike, it’s a no-brainer. Pull over, shoot, ride.
I rode my bike to Malaga Cove two days ago, just to test its climbing capabilities with a heavy-set rider. 100% approved. These are the first two photos I took from a bike outing, so they are a little special to me.
Today it’s Friday. On Friday mornings, Anne-Claire and I always have breakfast at Eat at Joe’s. I think their breakfast burritos are just unmatched (but I also know it’s a matter of very personal taste so if you prefer Phanny’s we’re still cool). So today I decided I was going to bike there. It reduced the guilt, and prompted me to to take a little detour on my way home.
When rosy-fingered dawn appeared, I was at the Redondo Beach harbor.
I’ve often visited the beach in the very early morning, but never the harbor. By car, it’s a bit of a hassle. You have to park, pay, walk to what you want to see, walk back. As a biking detour, the scenery just gave itself to me.
There was a softness, a tranquillity that I had never seen there. I actually reminded me of my bike rides in Paris when I was going to teach in the early morning and businesses were not open yet, so once you left the most trafficked roads you would fine yourself surrounded by an unreal quiet.
The emptiness and the silence also inspired me to try some unexplored perspectives. It’s funny how, when you visit a familiar place at an unfamiliar time of the day, it feels like a new discovery.
I’ve been toying with this idea for a while. To take a drone shot of the magnificent sunset in Redondo Beach.
It is intimidating. Flying your drone is always intimidating. I like to say that every flight feels like your second flight.
At the same time, I’ve been studying hard to get my Part 107 commercial drone pilot license, and that’s where Francis Bacon’s famous motto comes into play: Scientia Potentia Est, “knowledge is power”. Knowledge lets you do more, better, and with more confidence.
There’s a bit of a paradox surrounding drones: everyone loves drone photography and footage, but many people dislike seeing drones flying around. There is a lot of negative bias around drones. One day I will elaborate on this, but I think that half of the issue is purely evolutionary: the fact that drones sound, look, and fly like big insects, and the whole thing of being seen by something we don’t see elicits our primordial scare of predators. On top of this, a few people have been using their drones in illegal, annoying, reckless, or simply stupid ways. Sadly, it takes a few morons to taint the reputation of a whole sector.
I hope I can do my part and show how drones are tools of beauty that give us unprecedented views on everyday vistas.
Without further ado, here’s what I did yesterday.
✅ Request LAANC authorization from Torrance Airport (funny enough, my home is on the demarcation of the 100ft and 400 ft clearance areas of the Zamperini Airfield airspace. If I take off from the back alley, my allowed ceiling is 100ft, on the front Avenue, the ceiling is 400ft).
✅ No people, kids, and pets close to the take-off and landing area.
✅ No hawks or ravens flying nearby.
✅ Good weather, low wind.
Here’s what happened:
This was not a real “flight”, more of an elevator kind of thing. I flew up, stayed there a few minutes, flew down. Here’s what Redondo looked like from up there.
I did also take a 180º panoramic shot, right into the sunset, stretching from Palos Verdes to the Redondo Pier.
Kind of magic, huh?
Now that I found this safe and beautiful spot, I cannot wait to see what this looks like at other times of day. What I am really looking forward to is to capture the marine layer blowing in from the ocean. That will be some eye candy.
Make sure to follow my Instagram for more updates on my photography!
“Nightswimming deserves a quiet night.” Nightswimming is one of the songs I love to listen to when I drive at night. It’s a dreamy song by the R.E.M. (from the 1992 album Automatic for the People). The R.E.M. played a dreamy kind of alt rock. One thing that I like about the notion of dream, and its adjective dreamy, is that it is a vox media. It denotes something neither good or bad, or maybe both good and bad. Even without turning into a nightmare, a dream is strange. You can mean it in a positive way, when you say “it feels like a dream”, but you are nevertheless opening to the ambiguity of the dream, to its lack of rationality, to how you feel like everything is crystal clear, and yet when you try to focus on something, it blurs away.
The key turns in the ignition, the ten year-old Mustang purrs softly and off we go nightswimming.
In case it was not clear, I went to the Pier. That beautifully fat sign makes sure you cannot be mistaken. You’re at the Pier. It’s a colossal sign. It shouts at you. It has an intrinsically epic quality, a little like the poster of Ben-Hur. The-Pier.
I love the Pier because, now that at least dine-in-outdoors has reopened, it feels kind of normal. I do get fishermen: them and I, we were into the night hoping to catch things that we like. Fish for them, images for me.
I hope they were as happy as I was with my catch. Old Tony’s, the seafood restaurants, those sail-shaped shelters on the outer walkway, Kincaid’s, the Police hut, they are all icons of Redondo Beach, and tonight they came to me one flash after the other, a vision and then a blur and then another vision.
My body and my mind were protesting that it was way past dinner time, and the smell of fried seafood didn’t help, but I was not done yet. I wanted to dip a little longer in the quiet of this Super Bowl night. I got back to my car and headed towards the Riviera Village. The quiet was almost palpable. I could take several shots in the middle of Catalina without ever fearing that a car would run me over. It was like being in a dream. It was magic and a strange and I did miss the people a little bit. It’s not easy to be social these days, so I went for the name and let my local journey end at the Social Republic. Plato would have appreciated. Gas heaters outnumbered patrons three to one, and kept my body warm(er than the soul). The Space Dust IPA and the House Burger with fries and pickle were able to warm my soul as well.
First, just so nobody worries, I’m not feeling particularly “trapped in a country song.” I’ve just been meaning to shoot something with my LEGOs and the instruments that are laying around our home (there’s a lot of them) and my macro tubes.
Seeing the little mini figure behind the six-strings reminded me of that country & western trope, when the singer is behind the bars because of something he did (usually for love). It also reminded me of that line in Dire Strait’s Romeo and Juliet that goes “All I do is kiss you / through the bars of a rhyme”. Hence the title.
I love LEGOs, I love the stories you can build with them. Maybe not everyone knows that, towards the end of my academic career, I wrote a book about philosophy and LEGO. Right now it’s available in Italian and in French, but I have not given up on finding the motivation to finish the English translation 😉
So yes, I do I have my minifig alter-ego, and Anne-Claire has one too!
The title of this one is “Resting on C”.
So… here’s a little freebie! If you like LEGOs and songs and fun photographs, this image is cropped so that you can use it as a screen saver for your phone!
The wind had offered such a display of gracious brutality a couple of days ago. And we all wondered before it, and rightfully so. It reminded us of Nature and her unmediated might. Made us feel mostly elated but a little scared at the same time. Kept us up at night and gave us a reason to exit our shelters to go and see.
In Kant’s words, it was sublime. A vision that cannot be grasped by our senses, that transcends them and leaves us in awe.
I went back to the beach yesterday, and it was the most depressing walk ever. There were a few more people strolling and jogging, and the seagulls were looking at us in an unmistakably spiteful way. As I got closer to the shore, I understood why. The shore was a vast landfill of small trash, coughed up by the wind and stormy sea, so that they can breathe a little before they take them back in.
Countless plastic straws, and masks (because the pandemic is sure as hell teaching us to take better care of the Planet), and bottle caps, and plastic wrappings, and very specific items such as the plastic frames used at the dry cleaner to reinforce buttons.
My heart was pining. I was raised Catholic and I felt guilty. To quote the Brothers Karamazov, I felt guilty of everything before everyone. Guilty of our duplicity, our chameleonic ability to turn an admiring eye on the beauty and a blind one on the unnecessary desecration we daily perform. We are the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.
I have little hope that art can change the word by depicting the brutality it means to decry. I also think, though, that art can change the world and it can do so by becoming poetic, by abstracting and idealizing, by honing its expressions until razor sharp to cut through our indifference. I gave it a chance.
I have a favorite quote about L.A., by Shakespeare.
“This other Eden… demi-paradise… this precious stone… set in the silver sea of this earth, this ground… this Los Angeles.”
This is the opening monologue to one of my favorite movies ever, LA Story (1991), with Steve Martin playing the role of Harry Telemacher. Just the name Telemacher is mind-blowing: as the movie weaves dreams and stereotypes into an ageless mythology of Los Angeles, the hero’s name is an ingenious blend of Television and the german root -macher that would signal a craftsmanship, an artisanal activity.
I think of this quote every time I shoot this kind of vista, in which Los Angeles emerges in all of her unique glory. Palm trees, sunshine, iconic skyscrapers and snow-covered mountains.
Speaking of mountains, these mountains are not a joke. Look at this:
That’s a real deal mountain mama: I’m sure John Denver was impressed by these mountains. I mean, I am not renown to mess with any Sierra, but this is definitely not a Sierra you want to mess with!
To be honest, my initial idea was to shoot more details of DTLA, but the scene is so inviting that you feel like going wide rather than narrowing down. Anyway, I sneaked a couple of those too, because you know, at the end of the day it is a very pretty downtown.
Every time I shoot DTLA, I wonder whether to photoshop the cranes away. But then, I keep them as a reminder of the ephemeral beauty of this part of town. Whereas much of LA has mostly remained the same over the past decades, DTLA grows and changes as you read this. For better and for worse and then for better again. Fairer, and uglier, and fairer again. And these cranes are a reminder that this photo is probably very different from the same image snapped five years ago, as it will be different from the one someone will take five years from now.
If you are wondering where these were shot from, it’s Kenneth Hahn recreation area. Much to my shame, it was my first time there, even if I had driven by on La Cienega countless times. I met there with my good friend and photographer Erik Jay. Big kudos to him, not only for the wonderful company, but because he was kind enough to give me one of his polarizers for my new XF100-400mm zoom. For our standards it was relatively clear, but once the zoom starts stacking the haze, the polarizer was a game changer: thanks again man!
Before heading home, I wanted to try something out, just for fun. See what kind of image I could get of DTLA with my drone. I found a safe takeoff spot south of the 10 and west of the 110. It was a very fast operation. Park. Deploy. Climb. Shoot. Land. Leave. As of now, I am doing this drone thing 100% for fun, so every flight is like my second flight. Whew! What a rush!
I’m wondering if I could take off closer to the crossing of the highways, or even somewhere by the convention center. More to study and to find out!