18 April 2012

Union Station, at a Glance

I admit that I have a somewhat childish fascination with trains. I never built models of them as a kid, preferring WWII airplanes. And though I did have a train set that my dad mounted on an accurately painted large piece of plywood (lakes and greenery and a bridge!), I don't particularly have any wistful memories of playing with the trains. So I came rather late to my appreciation of things locomotive.

Trains and train stations are part and parcel, and though many of the latter can be quite grim and grubby, others are exceptional design expressions of architects and their times. Whether grand or quaint, many train stations are prime territory for photographers.

One of the things I like about shooting established architecture is that I explore the structure with my cameras and then often I'll explore again via my computer and Wikipedia, or other reference sites.

Case in point: I was in Los Angeles on a photo trip this past February and spent an hour photographing the Union Station. Completed in 1939, it is a blend of three architectural styles (according to Wikipedia): Dutch Colonial Revival, Mission Revival, and Streamline Moderne. Of course I looked these styles up and Mission Revival seems the obvious parent with perhaps a touch of the Moderne.

Regardless of its pedigree, it is a compelling structure with many interesting features. This starts with its distinctive tower and art-deco inspired building entrance. Once in the building you are confronted with a long foyer and to the left the old blocked-off-to-the-public Main Ticketing Concourse. This is now used for scheduled photo sessions like the couple shoot I saw taking place. I would have loved to wander in this spacious room but contented myself with a few wide-angle shots.

The main waiting room is ahead and though it is now occupied by the ball cap crowd, you can almost imagine the fedoras and suits of the '40's and '50's. At the end of the the train access passageway is a large room with a huge crystal-like skylight overhead (really, the word skylight does not do it justice) . This appeared to be a connector to a bus station and despite the fact that bus stations are generally in a different (and lower) league than train stations, this room had fascinating touches and wonderful light.  

Too quick, my walking tour was over. The sunset was approaching and Frank Gehry's Concert Hall was just a few blocks away. Its shimmering mirror-like panels beckoned.


02 April 2012

Return to Eureka Dunes

It was one month shy of a quarter century since I had last been here. Easter week in 1987 we – my wife, our 7-year old daughter, and our 2-year old golden retriever – pulled into the lee of the 700+ foot tall Eureka Sand Dunes in our 1972 International Scout. The only other person there was some bozo riding a 3-wheeler on the lower dunes, fortunately in the distance. There was no campground, certainly no outhouse, and in fact Death Valley was still a Monument and its boundaries did not yet extend to this lonely and remote valley. Against a crystal blue sky we climbed the highest dune and later that night relished a warm evening beneath a canopy of limitless stars.

Fast forward 299 months…the Scout is long gone, Whiskey – our first golden retriever – lived a long life but is also no longer with us, our daughter is grown up, my wife was at home, and me and my friend / photography-partner finally arrived after a 10+ hour drive at the primitive Eureka Valley campground on this cold, cloudy March afternoon. Death Valley National Park extended its borders a decade-and-a-half-ago to include this valley, as well as Saline and Panamint Valleys. Other than fourteen or so widely scattered campsites, and the one lone sentinel of an outhouse, it was hard to see any difference in what I remembered from 25 years ago. Oh yes, no bozos are permitted to ride their toys on the dunes…progress.

It was chilly but after selecting a site and setting up camp, we ventured into the lower march of dunes to photograph a sandy sunset. Little time remained before the sun dipped below the horizon, and my goal was to hike high on a dune ridge to a) be beyond any traces and tracks of human footprints – always a challenge in the dune environment – and b) be positioned appropriately to capture the waning light on the dunes.

It didn’t take me long to clamber high enough to reach a stretch of virgin sand, long with sinuous cascades of ripples. The clouds played havoc with the light – a muted softbox effect punctured by occasional bright bursts of the sun and its light – and ultimately yielded little in the way of dramatic and classic sunset colors. Nonetheless, there were brief windows when things worked and the elements came together to create interesting images: a knife-ridge here lit by golden light on one side, shadowy dusk descending on the other; a thin, struggling bush there acting as an organic counter-point to the mountains of silky silica. I concentrated on those moments and subjects, attempting to distill the essence of cool spring dusk turning into the winter of a cold, starry night; trying to do justice to the power, beauty, and serenity of the desert environment.