"What the human eye observes casually and incuriously, the eye of the camera notes with relentless fidelity"... Bernice Abbott

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Zion National Park in Autumn

During the peak summer months, the number of tourist visiting Zion National Park exceeds the park's capacity and forces the park service to restrict the number of vehicles allowed to enter.  Visitors must then rely on the park's shuttle system in order to reach the many hiking trails and landmarks that the park is known for.  Not so in Autumn.  Access into the canyon is unrestricted and the solitude that one seeks in a place as majestic as this can easily be found.  

As the trees drop their leaves, their colors create a vibrant foreground to the canyon's distinctly red walls. A light rain adds to the beauty of the canyon walls that rise hundreds of feet above the canyon floor. Standing in this unique valley, one can only feel dwarfed by  the forces that created this sanctuary. But the beauty of this formidable landscape is the reason we are compelled to challenge and explore its terrain. Those who do are rewarded with sights and sounds that can overwhelm the senses and give way to a moment of clarity; an opportunity to reflect and prioritize. Deer and wild turkey confidently walk among us as a lone hawk flies overhead; a reminder of the balance between man and nature, and what each has to offer the other.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Signs for the Times

4th & Lacy, Santa Ana
When I first noticed these billboards a couple of years ago, I immediately passed them off as visual blight equal to gang graffiti. Then one day while parked in front of one of these public billboards, I began to view this mishmash of colored paper and tear-off phone numbers through the eyes of a photographer and that is when I developed a new appreciation for them. As I gazed at the wall, the random patterns and vibrant colors began to take on a life of their own, forming a kaleidoscope of hues and textures that unexpectedly altered my view.    

Santa Ana

But a closer look at these walls revealed much more. Each of these transitory postings represent a person living on the margins; a lifeline to those who lack access to Craigslist or funds for newspaper ads. Many are from small business owners struggling to survive day by day in an increasingly competitive world, and most are from individuals selling goods and services.

Pilsen Market, Chicago
Fullerton Parking Lot

They are symbolic of today’s economic environment where homeowners struggling to make payments must rent rooms; where the indigent seek medical attention from  unlicensed Curanderos, and where services from palm readings to massages are available. These local billboards serve an entire underground economy where cash is king and desperation reigns. 

Santa Ana
Lavanderia, Chicago
They have proliferated as the nation’s economy continues to plummet. Competition for space is fierce as many of these ads regularly encroach upon each other by weeks end, before they are removed; allowing the process to begin again. This is direct marketing in its most basic form, serving a market not captured by corporate America. 

El Toro, Wednesday morning
El Toro, Thursday night

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A Salton Sea Journey

In 2003, I made a photographic journey to the Salton Sea in search of the decaying and salt encrusted homes that are so often the subject of every photographer that passes through the Imperial Valley. I took along my medium format camera and my trusty 35MM camera for this adventure. It would be another year before I would buy my first digital camera.  

It was late afternoon when I discovered one such home along the west shore, just north of the retirement village of Salton Sea Beach. This home, like the hundreds that once peppered the shores of the lake, was once a symbol of the promises that the Salton Sea once held in its bid to become the California Riviera. Now, they serve as a constant reminder of lost dreams; a losing battle against Mother Nature; tombstones of a once promising destination along the San Andreas Fault.

I began to photograph the home and what was also left a service garage at the edge of the lake.  The walls of the garage were contorted as the foundation slowly sank into the lake and the metal roof had surrendered to the lakes’ unusually high salinity long ago. Entering the structure was deceptively challenging, one wrong step and I would sink into the thick layer of desiccated fish carcasses that had accumulate over the years from the annual die offs.  While framing my shots, I began to notice smoke rising from nearby Salton Sea Beach.
I soon realized that the fire was beginning to intensify so I quickly packed my gear and headed in the direction of the smoke.  When I arrived, I found a community in chaos.  One mobile home was engulfed in flames and a second one was beginning to burn along with it. This sleepy little retirement village had come to life as residents watched helplessly while their neighbors homes burned, all the while fearing for their own.

Individuals from the local senior volunteer fire company were already on scene and waiting for their equipment to arrive. The smoke began to darken the sky when I captured a lone fireman walking into a wall of thick smoke. Fire companies arrived from Salton City seven miles to the south and from Thermal four miles north as the fire began to spread to the patio of a third home.  Because of the remoteness of the town, if the fire was to spread, additional firefighters would have to be called in from the two nearest stations in Mecca, 17 and 26 miles away. These senior volunteer firefighters knew they were the only ones who would be able save this community.

The second home would be lost before the battle to save the community began in earnest. Not knowing how far I would be allowed in, I began to photograph the firefighters as they struggled to control the blaze, expecting to be told to leave at any minute.  Instead, I found myself helping the firefighters drag and reposition the heavy fire hoses as they attacked the flames. One minute I would photograph firefighters battling the blaze and the next I would sling my camera over my shoulder and help drag fire hoses where they were needed.

These senior volunteer firefighters showed as much determination to quell this fire as any rookie would have. Their perseverance paid off as they saved the third home and stopped the fire from spreading.  As brief as this encounter was, I am fortunate that I was able to capture these unique moments from the Salton Sea that day.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Eagle Has Been Grounded

The Costa Mesa City Council has pulled the plug on a partnership that provided Airborne Law Enforcement services to Newport Beach, Costa Mesa and Santa Ana. The helicopter, known as Eagle, has now been grounded due to either budget cuts or politics, depending on who you ask.  With its forward looking infra-red camera and high intensity light, few criminals found sanctuary once Eagle arrived on-scene.   


I considered Eagle to be my mechanical muse because it was the focus of an ongoing photo project I call The Omnipresent Series.  I spent many nights chasing Eagle so I could set up my camera for time lapsed photographs that produced surrealistic images of a seemingly terrestrial light tearing through the urban night sky. I began the project using a film camera and in 2004 transitioned to a digital camera. Each process produced equally provocative results.

Though the light in the sky was the focal point of my project, I soon found that the urban foreground played an equally important role in setting the mood. By emphasizing the juxtaposition of the light hovering over the urban landscape, I was able to achieve a sense of anxiety and trepidation that Contributing Editor for Art in America, J.W. Mahoney, once described as “disturbing and unsettling.”

I would be fortunate enough to show these photographs at the Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana, Irvine Valley College, the Photographic Center Northwest in Seattle, the Target Galley in Alexandria, Virginia, and as part of an online exhibit with the Silver Eye Center for Photography in Pittsburg. 

But Eagle was more than my mechanical muse, it was also my savior. Late one night during work, my partner and I stumbled into a running gun battle and suddenly found ourselves facing the barrel of a gun. It was one of those “life passing before your eyes” moments where I found myself putting my fate in God’s hands. I called for backup and within seconds Eagle arrived.  The sudden appearance of the helicopter overhead sent the gunmen running and gave us the opportunity to seek safety. I will always be indebted to the crew of Eagle for that night and am fortunate to have preserved these moments so that I may share them with you.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Death of a Hospital

The Santa Ana Hospital Medical Center served central Orange County for decades and was once one of three local trauma centers in the county.  During the late 1980’s, violent crime was on the rise in Santa Ana and many victims would spend their last moments on a hospital gurney inside this hospital.  In 1990, the trauma center was closed due to cost. Still unable to compete with larger hospitals, the Medical Center would close its doors forever by the late 1990’s.


As the hospital fell into disrepair, thieves, vandals and junkies would break in to steal what wasn’t bolted down and then return for what was. On-sight security would be hired to watch over the vacant building as numerous potential investors would pass through its halls. The hospital seemed cursed as it continued to remain vacant even during the height of the real estate boom. While developers snatched up blighted and vacant property in the north and south ends of the city, the hospital property remained dormant.

For many years, I had heard stories that the hospital is haunted. Some of my associates have been in the facility and claimed to have heard children’s voices and the patter of little feet in the children’s ward while others have been overcome by a sudden chill when the facility has no working air conditioner.

Security Guard Paul Sowers was kind enough to shed some light on these claims.  While he personally hadn’t seen or heard anything that would qualify as paranormal, there have been several guards who, over the years, abruptly quit after claiming to have seen people or apparitions passing through the hallways while on their rounds.  Room by room searches would be conducted after these sightings but they would always come up empty handed.


Paul took the time to show me around and I was surprised how well kept many areas of the hospital were.  Non-essential medical supplies were still in drawers and scrubs were hanging on racks. So with camera in tow, I began taking initial photographs of the hospital and would continue to do so in the coming months.  Paul trusted me enough to let me roam freely throughout the facility, day or night. This freedom allowed me to become familiar with the hospital’s many characteristics but by the end of 2010, Paul and his crew would be gone and the new property owners would erect a fence around facility, leaving it vulnerable to vandals, thieves and junkies once again.

One day, an opportunity arose that allowed me to return to the hospital to photograph it. By now, the place had been stripped of all its wiring and there were no working lights. Holes had been cut through graffiti covered walls, and ceiling tiles littered the floors as every inch of copper wiring and plumbing had been mined from the hospital.

Guided only by my flashlight, I walked through the surgical area of the hospital that was once so familiar to me but had now evolved into an eerie criminal playground with far too many places for one to lay in wait.  The place had become too dangerous for me remain alone so I packed my gear and made my way to find the distant exit. I had never experienced paranormal activity during my any of my previous visits, but as I walked through the darkened hallways I sensed that I was not alone.

I began to feel as though someone was watching me as this once treasured and captivating place had transformed into an unfamiliar labyrinth lined with abysmally dark recesses; the type of place that engulfs a child’s nightmare. Surrounded by the darkness, I became disoriented as I searched in vain for that once familiar exit. The darkness seemed so dense that the beam from my flashlight scarcely penetrated it.

Time seemed to crawl as I shined my light into each passing room until I finally caught a glimpse of daylight off in the distance.  As I neared the exit, a sudden chill enveloped me, sending a shiver through my body. As I kept making my way toward the door, I began to wonder if what I was feeling was just my imagination or were the spirits who died here inviting me to stay a little longer?