An Afternoon at a Coal Miners’ Cemetery

Did you know there was coal mining in California? I didn’t learn that until recently. This, despite the fact that the Mount Diablo Coalfield, the largest in California, was in Contra Costa, the very county where I was born. From 1850 to 1906, mines in the Mount Diablo Coalfield, many under the operation of the Black Diamond Coal Mining Company, produced 4 million tons of (low grade) coal, the primary source of coal and energy in California over that period. The region was home to five mining towns, the largest and oldest called Nortonville.

In 1885, the Black Diamond company shut down its mines in the region and moved its miners to Black Diamond, Washington, where the mines produced better coal. They dismantled the railways and the towns completely, leaving nothing but some brick foundations in Nortonville, some great piles of dirt where the openings of the mines had been, and the cemetery, now known as Rose Hill Cemetery, which overlooked the town of Somersville.

Here’s Somersville in 1878. You can see the cemetery up on the hill to the right, and the great mounds that mark the openings of the mines.

Photo from The Contra Costa County Historical Society


Here’s that region today.

A view of Rose Hill Cemetery from afar. (Click to enlarge)


You can’t see it in this photo, but the mounds over the mine openings remain. Nothing grows on them. The region is now part of the Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve, just outside the city of Antioch.

We visited the park on a cool, overcast March Sunday. Early spring is the best time to visit that area; there are hills that block the ocean breezes from that part of the county, and in the summer it can be twenty degrees warmer — or more — than it is in San Francisco, only an hour away. It can also be very dry and brown. I was a bit worried, since we haven’t had any rain, but the hills were green and blooming with wildflowers.

(Click to enlarge)


By the time we visited the cemetery, in the early afternoon, the clouds were burning off and the sky was turning blue. Continue reading

A Twenty-first Century Ghost Town

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I’m walking through the housing development where my parents live, in the Sierra foothills, a half-hour out of Reno. I can’t get over how silent it is. No cars drive by; no music or conversation leaks out of the houses that I pass. No birds. No insects. The sounds of the highway and the town don’t reach out here. There’s nothing but the sound of my footsteps. Even the lone dog that finally barks as I pass only serves to accentuate the stillness.

Continue reading

Twenty-five Views of the Alhambra

Many of you are familiar with the (multiple) series of Japanese woodblock prints known as Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji; Hokusai produced a series of that name, and so did Hiroshige. You may also be familiar with Henri Riviere’s homage to Hokusai and Hiroshige: Thirty-six Views of the Eiffel Tower (video of all 36 prints; link to a book of the prints).  This is my contribution to the genre.

In the blockprint series, the monument in question isn’t always the focal point of the images. Riviere’s images are especially subtle; I still can’t find the Eiffel Tower in several of  the scenes. My photos aren’t always so subtle; I was in full-blown tourist mode, after all. Still, the Alhambra dominates the older section of Granada in such a way that when I looked through my snapshots, I discovered its distinctive towers peeping out from unexpected corners. I’m especially proud of my photo of the Alhambra through the windows of the Generalife. I hope you enjoy.

On Stars and Story-Telling

Not too long ago, I posted a story that mentions how King Solomon froze two demons in the sky holding up a great pillar (the Milky Way). When the demons drop the pillar, the world will end. It’s a lovely tale, but I confess — I had to look at a photo of the Milky Way before the story really clicked for me.

Living in a city as I do, I can’t always appreciate how much the stars dominated the night sky for our ancestors. I don’t feel the visceral reality of the stories that they told: of sky-creatures and moon goddesses and gods who set star-crossed lovers as constellations in the heavens for eternity.

And then I came across The Mountain by Terje Sørgjerd: time-lapse photography from various sites on El Teide, the highest mountain in Spain. Through his lens, the clouds are a vast ocean (or maybe dust clouds from the riders of the Wild Hunt). The sun is a chariot that rides across the sky, and, yes, there really is a Great Pillar that wheels in the heavens above us.

And suddenly the stories make sense again.

Make sure to take note of the Milky Way as seen through a Sahara sandstorm, about 00:32.


Still Life, with Instagram Envy

I don’t do Instagram. I don’t need another social media account to complicate my life. I also don’t carry my camera on a regular basis. But every so often, the spirit moves me, and I whip out my phone to document a moment of my life and Facebook it.

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve always liked saturated colors; and now you see them everywhere, alternating with retro-faded snapshots, everything framed with faux-Polaroid or frayed-linen style borders. Photos seem naked without the effects. My straight-to-Facebook photos look so… bland. So I picked up Camera+, a camera plus filter app for the Instagram-envious.

I also picked up CameraSharp, a no-frills, no-filter camera app that gives you control over focus, exposure, and white balance (Camera+ does, too). Hurray, now I can play!

For a test run, I decided on some vanitas-style still lifes: a skull, some fruit, a watch, some wine. Strictly speaking, the wine should be in a tipped-over goblet, and I ought to have a fish or game fowl in the picture too. But I’m not spilling wine in my living room, and the closest we had to game fowl in the kitchen was a package of beef jerky, so that was out. Also, a vanitas is supposed to be an allegory about the ephemerality of life and the futility of pleasure;  using it as the subject of a tool that basically stands for instant gratification and the culture of self-marketing — well, that’s amusing, too.

For comparison, I took some shots with my “real” camera (a Lumix-LX5), too.

In the end, I got bored with the filters. Part of the reason is that the photos were pretty decent to begin with. The light was bright but not harsh, and the subject wasn’t difficult. I think I really only want the fancy filters and effects when my photo is flawed by bad composition, or bad lighting. The exposure control helps with the latter. I’ll probably use the saturation filter a lot, and maybe the “Ansel” filter (high contrast B&W), but I don’t see myself leaning too much on the rest. The focus and exposure controls are really useful, and  I like the white-balance lock.

Of course, now that I have the filters, I could start using them to start juicing up photos I otherwise would just trash — and then I’ll start juicing up everything…

At the moment, I like the plain photos better. I wonder what I’ll think a few months from now?

An Afternoon at Sutro Baths (Photo Gallery)

I took these photos on a drizzly day about a month and a half ago. They were intended to punctuate a post I’d planned about Glen Hirshberg’s short story “The Two Sams,” which is set in San Francisco. The story features the ruins of the Sutro Baths, and mentions various landmarks of the area: The Great Highway, Cliff House, the Camera Obscura. Hirshberg’s narrative makes a lot of use of  the fog and the mists, so common in that part of town;  so the weather on the day I went shooting was apropos. Then I decided not to write the post, and suddenly the photos seemed less perfect…

When I had my old Pentax, I liked to shoot slide film. I love the vibrant saturated hues of color slides, and the velvety high contrast of black-and-white slides. I don’t really miss color slides — nowadays, when it’s bright and sunny, I take my photos and load them into Photoshop, then push the Saturation slider as far to the right as I feel like. It’s not the most subtle effect in the world, but frankly, I’m not a strong enough photographer to always enjoy the luxury of being subtle.

But I do miss black-and-white slides. I’ve never been able to come close to replicating the range of deep blacks and creamy shades of gray of 50 or 100 ISO black-and-white slide film with a digital camera. I tend not to go black-and-white anymore. But if I’d had my old Pentax, that afternoon at Ocean Beach and the Sutro Baths would definitely have been a black-and-white day: a day of shadow and light, shape and texture.

The Pentax is long gone now, so I’ve had to find other ways to conjure from my photos what I see in my mind’s eye. Hope you enjoy them.

The Secret Ghosts of Objects

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He/She. Artists: Tim Noble and Sue Webster.

A friend posted a link to this gallery of Shadow Art yesterday. It’s a collection of photographs from four different artists who tease surprising and intricate shadow images from random objects.

What looks like a pile of trash becomes an image of two friends enjoying each other’s company. Squares of crinkled paper become the profiles of people you might pass on the street. All it takes is the right light.

It’s fun to try to figure out how they did it; it’s also fun just to imagine the hidden beings and secret messages that lurk in the innocuous objects that surround us.

At the bottom of the gallery page are links to the four artists who created this work. Enjoy.

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Profile. Artist: Kumi Yamashita.

17 Countries in 5 Minutes

A friend of mine just posted this beautiful time-lapse documentary of Kien Lam’s year-long journey around the world. The music was composed by Kien’s brother, specifically for the video.

It’s just plain gorgeous photography. What struck me while watching it was how the city I live in, and other places that I’ve visited (many of which I would consider “mundane”) seemed new and unfamiliar from his eyes. And other places that I’ve never been to seemed somehow familiar and everyday.

We are one world.

Kien posted the story of his journey here. Enjoy