Archive for February, 2010

Architecture as art

Friday, February 26th, 2010
Architecture as art

While on the University of Oregon campus the last few days attending a conference, I had the pleasure of walking by a particularly beautiful building every day.  Opened in January of this year, the John Jaqua Academic Center for Student Athletes stands on the corner of Agate Street and Franklin Boulevard.  As Agate is one of the main entry points into the campus, the Jaqua Center is quite an exclamation of a welcome to a campus filled with stylish, “traditional” college buildings of brick and stone.

The building was named for John E. Jaqua, a war hero, lawyer, football star and, oh yes, founding board member of Nike.  Achievements certainly worthy of recognition on a football campus like UO.  It appears that the building has a two-fold purpose: to exceed minimum NCAA requirements for academic support to student athletes and to serve as a beacon to draw in potential high-caliber athletes to the Ducks’ athletic program.  It’s interesting to compare “traditional” media accounts of the public reception to the building with the comments among students on the campus blogosphere.  As discussed in the mainstream media, the building is opulent to the extreme, with questions surrounding whether the expense is worth it and whether it will accomplish its mission.  (One media source even referred to it as the “Taj Mahal.”)  On the campus blogosphere, it appears that there is some student opposition to the building, claiming that the 40,000 square foot building, by being open to a select few of the student body, discriminates against the general population and places clear, unfair preferences on student academic success.  A group called “UO Students for Equal Access” has formed a Facebook page called “NO to the John Jaqua Center” and has a developed following of 718 members.  On the other hand, students supporting the center have noted that the gorgeous building adds value to the campus aesthetically as well as providing a valuable service of “making life easier” for the student athletes who bring so much revenue and exposure to the school.  Supporters have also formed a Facebook page, but have so far only garnered 264 members.  You would think they would have more supporters just from the athletes alone.

I think that the pro-Jaqua Center crowd is closer to the point on the value of such a building.  We generally as a society do not question the value of art, particularly public art, and what it adds to the aesthetics of our community.  And I also think that architecture can also be an art form in and of itself.  Sure, sometimes building designs have a purely utilitarian quality – like most of the buildings in Alaska.  (I do not think some of these UO students would complain about opulent buildings if they spent a semester on the UAA or UAF campuses, which are replete with drab, practically Soviet-style purely functional buildings.)  But as a visitor to the University of Oregon campus, I was simply “wowed” by this building.  I stopped to admire it several times throghout the day, and took about a half hour out of my time one evening to study it with my camera.  To me, this building says something about the University of Oregon’s priorities.  No, it does not make me believe that the UO shows undue favoritism to its athletes, it shows me that the UO gives great concern to campus aesthetics and quality in its facilities.  When the UO decided it needed to have an expanded facility to provide academic support to its athletes, it could have merely provided a simple facility that still had the same space, room and facilities for academic pursuits.  But the administration decided to instead pursue beauty and quality.  When a university has the luxury of being able to do that, any prospective student or supporter knows that the university has the broad support and vision necessary to be successful, in whatever ventures it may pursue on behalf of its community.  And that is something that any UO student, staff or faculty can take pride in.

Two views

Friday, February 26th, 2010
Two views

When driving through the Pacific Northwest, you can see two different kinds of forest: alive and thriving, or clear-cut and dead.  These two different types of forests represent two vastly different views not only of what forests are good for, but what benefits are derived from natural resources in general.  One school envisions the forest as a place that provides habitat to numerous animals, provides the nutrients needed to make for health fish spawning streams, filters and cleans surface water before it enters the ground table or provides drinking water, and provides numerous recreational opportunities for humans.  The other school sees the trees in terms of board feet, jobs, and short-term business returns.  The first school sees the logging industry as fouling a valuable resource that belongs to everyone.  The second school sees “environmentalists” as interfering with their right to log the trees. 

I am going to step out on a limb and say that there is no right answer on the subject.  I say there is no “right” answer because such a statement assumes that there is a choice.  There simply is not.  Our short history of industrial development has shown us time and time again that industry simply does not care about the greater good, and inflicts long term and often irreversible damage upon wildlife and ecosystems to provide benefit to individuals who have long since died.  While those now-dead people can no longer enjoy the short-term economic gain they achieved, those of us who remain today are stuck with the consequences. 

Take logging, for example.   The first thing to realize before discussing the difference in values between the two schools is to understand the subject.  The vast majority of pulp produced in the United States comes from private lands; as much as 96%.  Private land is also more suitable for logging than national forest lands, which provide a much lower yield of usable timber due to steeper, higher elevation terrain.  With few exceptions, there is nothing stopping a private landowner from logging on his or her own land and “environmentalists” are not involved in combatting such logging operations.  The focus of the fight is on public lands, mostly national forests and some state forests in the Pacific Northwest.  Yet, unlike those companies that log on public land, that private landowner is financially responsible for creating the infrastructure necessary to log the timber – he has to build his own roads to access the timber, build the bridges, and do whatever else is necessary to access and harvest that timber.  He also has to pay the market value of the land where the timber is located; most owners are not going to give away their land for free.  But, if you log on national forest land, you don’t have to incur those expenses and you don’t have to pay a fair market value for the lease of the land you will use for logging operations because the formula the Forest Service uses guarantees that the timber is sold below cost.  In the 1990s, the federal government subsidized logging on national forest lands to the tune of $8 billion, much of which went into infrastructure construction. 

Another important statistic is the impact of “anti-logging” activities on regional employment, logging jobs.  But the truth is, federal timber supplies are insignificant to the lumber and wood products industry. Between 1988 and 1996, the amount of timber logged from national forests dropped by 70 percent, from 12.6 billion board feet to 3.9 billion board feet. During this period, national employment in lumber and wood products jobs actually rose. In 1988, the lumber and wood products sector supported 771,000 jobs with a $15.2 billion payroll. In 1996, the sector supported 778,000 jobs with a $20 billion payroll.  The myth that halting logging on national lands hurts jobs is the equivalent of the “death panels” claims being bandied about today in the healthcare debate.   In reality, automoation is more to blame than “environmentalists.”  Between 1979 and 1988, while logging levels increased, more than 26,000 timber jobs disappeared. Due to automation, it takes only 3 workers to produce the same amount of timber today as it took 5 workers to produce in 1979. 

So, back to my two schools of thought, starting with the pro-logging lobby.  Essentially, this school is clamoring for logging on public lands for reasons that don’t stand up to scrutiny.  Logging in national forests is not crucial to the survival of the industry or for providing jobs.  And not only is logging not necessary, the logging industry is given special treatment in the form of subsidies and low lease rates that are not provided for logging on private lands.  There simply is no reason to log on public lands, period.  Yet, it survives in this country today, clinging on for dear life, kicking and screaming any time anyone attempts to take away its toy. 

For the other school of thought, those who oppose logging on public lands have to fight not only the industry, or the government that supports it, but public misperceptions and misinformation about why logging on public lands should continue.  And for all those temporary benefits derived for a select few from over a century of heavy logging, we and future generations have only dwindling forests and related resources to show for it.  The United States was originally blanketed with a billion acres of forest.  Now, only 40 million acres remain uncut, providing clean water, recreational opportunity, important wildlife and fish habitat, and clean air to a society in ever increasing need of all those things. 

Aside from talking about numbers or values, or short-term versus long-term gain, there is also the basic aspect of aesthetics.  The following photos were taken from state forest land in Oregon.  You tell me which one you would prefer to drive or hike through.

At Cannon Beach

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010
At Cannon Beach

I had the pleasure of photographing one of the most iconic locations on the western coast today.  While the various rock stacks along the Oregon-Washington coast, few are as well known as Haystack Rock, at Cannon Beach, about a two hour drive west of Portland.  I had planned to incorpote a vist to Cannon Beach as part of a trip to Oregon, but when I started to make my way west from Portland, I became worried about my chances.  I was running into typical Pacific Coast weather: clouds, rain, sprinkles, and then sheets of rain.  I spent most of the day scouting the coast south of Cannon Beach after arriving at the coast, then headed back into town to check into my B&B, the Cannon Beach Hotel.  When I was done checking and and unpacking, sunlight started to occasionally peek out among the many clouds.  By about an hour before sunset, there were plenty of patches of blue, consistent sunlight, and lots of promise.

I stayed on the beach for about two hours.  I am pretty sure that I was the last person to leave the beach.  It was so dark, I had to pull my headlamp (no nature photographer should leave home without one) out of my camera bag to stow my gear and make my way back to the B&B.  As I knew this would be my only evening to work Haystack Rock, I tried several angles of composition on the rocks, working at various distances from the rock.  I was one of three photographers on the beach for the evening.  Two of them stayed pretty much at the same spot, but I am sure that they also didn’t have to suffer going home with pants soaked all the way up to their mid-thighs.  Small sacrifice to get some of the shots I was able to capture.  One of the photographers, Gary Loveless, is a local who was very helpful in giving tips to the other photographer, who seemed to be a learning amateur from out of town.

Light on the (artificial) land

Monday, February 22nd, 2010
Light on the (artificial) land

As I have mentioned before, the phenomenon of alpenglow is one of the things that makes winters in Alaska simply magical.  It turns entire mountain ranges a bright pink that glows with such a saturated richness of color that you can almost taste it.  It also does wonders to buildings in the late afternoon and early evening.  For Anchorage, a town that has many buildings that are well designed to reflect the sky and light of our environment, that magical light can do wonders.

As part of my ongoing 2010 Project, I have been exploring how light dresses buildings during this magical time.  A while ago, I posted a blog featuring some midtown buildings at that time of day.  In the past few weeks, I have been working more in the downtown area, seeking to capture the many wonders that fall upon buildings in the late afternoon.  It is amazing how much gorgeous light can improve even the most institutional of buildings, like the old Boney Building in downtown Anchorage.  Here are some of my results ….

It’s Breakup, just look up

Friday, February 19th, 2010
It's Breakup, just look up

I hate Breakup.  One of the reasons I enjoyed my monthlong visit to Badlands National Park last spring as the Artist-in-Residence for the park is that I got to avoid Breakup, that annual exercise of sloughing off winter to make way for spring.  Vast amounts of snow and ice melt, at first gradually but eventually at breakneck speed, leading to chaos on the roads and walkways.  Mud and slush become the norm, decorated with the browns and dark greys of a winter’s-worth of dirt and gunk collecting on the ground.  You have to keep a jug of windshield wiper fluid in your car at all times because of the frequent use of your wipers to beat back the constant road spray of watered-down mud that becomes the norm of any commute anywhere in the state.

To put things simply, it’s an ugly time of the year.  Michelle loves it.  She likes how it signals the beginning of spring and the promise for new things.  As a nature photographer, I hate it because it heralds a period of several weeks where everything around is pretty darn messy and ugly.  Now that I am represented by Alaska Stock, perhaps I should invest time in taking images of the ugliness for editorial or commercial users that need images of such things.  I suppose I will get around to it.  I am just hoping that the current Breakup we are experiencing is not the real deal; it’s about two months early.  One of the things that makes winter worthwhile here is the snow.  Losing it without the benefit of actual warmer spring temperatures that are here to stay takes away that finer aspect of living in southcentral Alaska in the winter.

My first impression of spring Breakup came not from living here, but television.  Yes, leave it to “Hollywood” to educate me on a culture that I would later become a part of.  I am talking, of course, about the TV series “Northern Exposure.”  The episode aired in 1991, during the second season, and was called “Spring Break.”  One of the key elements of the plot line is that everyone in the small town of Cicely obsesses about the ice breaking up, heralding the beginning of spring.  While I have yet to find any town in Alaska that celebrates Breakup with a “Running of the Bulls” (all of the men in town going for a naked jog with all the ladies cheering them on), we do obsess about Breakup in Alaska.  We even have  a lottery (the “Nenana Ice Classic“) where you can guess, with a cash deposit for each time slot you pick, when the ice on the Tanana River will break apart in the spring.

While I may not care for the sloppy weather, forcing me to switch from wearing my Sorels to wearing Extra Tuffs to get around, it doesn’t mean that there are no photos to be found at all.  At times like this, I find myself looking up more, seeing how the light its hitting the buildings downtown or perhaps what special show the sky provides for sunrise or sunset.  And maybe someday too, I will warm up to Breakup itself, embracing the gritty muddy chaos that it brings by photographing some of its spirit as well.

A new Homer

Saturday, February 13th, 2010
A new Homer

For the last couple of decades, one of the prominent features of winter in Homer, Alaska was a woman that everyone called the “Eagle Lady.”  Jean Keene had been feeding bald eagles from her trailer on the Homer spit since shortly after her arrival in 1977.  What started out as a pair of eagles grew to a feeding frenzy of a couple hundred up until when she passed away in January 2009.  She was known and revered by many for her generosity and what she did to care for the bald eagles in the wintertime.

I never really was a part of that fan base.  When I first heard of her practice shorly after arriving in Alaska, I could not imagine how she had been allowed to violate numerous federal laws for so long.  As a photographer who strongly believes in not manipulating wildlife to get a photo, I could not relate to the photographers who, if you knew her, were allowed on her property to get close up shots of eagles during feedings.  I did not approve of the practice of many photographers who capitalized on the relaxed rules due to Jean’s practice by taking frozen herring to the end of the spit, tossing the fish into the water and capturing a photo of a bald eagle “catching” a fish.  I never saw the feeding as taking care of the eagles, but interfering with their natural life cycles. 

You can no longer see a hundred or more eagles clustered in one place on the Homer spit.  But, there is no dire shortage of eagles, either.  When Michelle and I went out on the spit, we saw around 30-40 eagles at various locations.  They are easy to find on any high point, whether a spruce tree, light pole, signpost, or roof top.  And due to their habituation over the years, they are very approachable.  They will likely continue to winter here in decent numbers for the same reasons that ravens and gulls flock to the spit in the wintertime – commercial fishing activities still provide plenty of food. 

Homer can be a beautiful time in the winter, or it can be drab and gloomy.  Unfortunately, we planned this trip during a bout of the latter.  But even in such conditions, it is still possible to find photos if you look for them.  With broken clouds can come some sunshine to add contrast and detail.  The diffuse light can be great for capturing wildlife, whether an eagle in a tree, raven on the ground, or aging sea otter in the bay.

Our “clowder”

Thursday, February 4th, 2010

So, it turns out that the proper term for a large number of cats, according to,  is a “clowder,” not a “herd” or “gaggle” as it sometimes may seem.  For those of you who have followed my blog for a while, you will recall that back in late August we lost our older cat Tash to a sudden kidney failure.  We waited for a few months before looking for a new cat to take into our home.  Keeping in tradition with all the cats we have, we were intent on adopting a rescue cat or a cat from a shelter.  But what do you do when you are seeking to replace a 23-pound cat?  You get two.  Well, at least that was not our original intent.  We were at the shelter looking at cats and I left a message with my friend Faith, who helped me connect with Tash, and aksed for her input.  We were having a hard time choosing among the dozens of cats at the shelter who could all use a good home.  Faith returned the call while we were still at the shelter.  When we told her what we were up to, she said, “Why don’t you take two; they’re small.”  So Michelle and I looked at each other and said, “Okay.”  That brought us up to five.  It turns out there really is a big difference between four cats and five.   It’s really noticable at evening feeding time in the kitchen. 

As you may also recall from my blog post about Tash, one of the things I realized with considerable heartache after he passed was that I had hardly taken any photos of him during the three years he was with me.  So, I committed to start taking more photos of all our cats.  Some of them are much easier to photograph than others.  Our new long hair Tabby, Jynx, is quite the ham.  He also has the habitat of lying down in some rather odd and sprawling positions, and likes to get into things; all of which make him a good photo subject.  Our other new cat, Kobuk, who is a beautiful chocolate-point Siamese, doesn’t care much for photos.  He just stares at me with this cocked-eared stare that we call “The Look.”  One of the first photos I took of him was shortly after he had his teeth cleaned, and his left foreleg had a near-bald patch of fur where they had to shave for the IV.  The two brothers, Bolshe and Menshe, are often easy photo subjects.  Menshe can often be found waiting longingly at the window for birds to stop by.  Bolshe, while engaging in a lot of silly behavior that does not photograph well, does have a tendency to curl up in a tight little ball while he sleeps – great fodder for the camera.  Harriet, our lone female and quintessential Black Cat, is extremely cute but often difficult to photograph; not only because she is so dark and makes for a tough exposure, but tends to not stay still long enough to get close for a good shot.   Here are some of my recent efforts:

Of course, with the new cats comes new cat dynamics.  Jynx fairly quickly learned to get along with everyone and settle into the new environment, making our home his own.  He quickly bonded with the cat tree, which still remains his favorite place despite finding other havens to lie around or play.  Kobuk on the other hand has been a bit slower to adjust.  It took a while before he would come out from under the bed and integrate, and for the longest time, he would take off in a run if you looked in his general direction.  He is warming up quite a bit now, and generally gets along with the other cats … except Harriet.  For whatever reason that we simply cannot fathom, Harriet and Kobuk have issues.  It started with Harriet stalking Kobuk when Kobuk was still scared and getting use to this place.  Now, the roles are reversed and Harriet is extremely defensive around Kobuk.  We have purchased a water sprayer to help defray any such shenanigans when they occur when we are home.   For when we are not at home, we purchased a product called “Feliway,” or what we call the “Opium Den in a Box.”  Imagine those Glade plug-ins that you put in your electrical outlet, but this is instead a pheremone that is supposed to help the kitties mellow out.  We used it before when Michelle and I first moved in together a few years ago, when we had some integration issues between her cats and mine.  We stopped using Feliway when we found that our cats completely stopped doing anything but lounging around near the stuff.  They were even slow to get up when we called them for evening dinner.  So far, we have not seen similar results and hope that it helps to mellow out the two cats with issues while we are away. 

Which led me to think more about ways to figure out what all of these cats do when we are not at home.  If only there were some way to see what these guys are up to while we are at work.  We don’t have a need for a Nanny Cam or anything like that in the house.  We do have a video camera, but it is fixed on the inside of our bat house, waiting for spring and for the bats to return.  So, what to do … then I thought about using the technique I have used to create time lapse videos of landscapes and applying them to the inside of the house.  The video below is the first capture of the “secret lives of cats.”  Note that I forgot to disable the auto focus on the camera; I simply did not think that it would keep refocusing when on a fixed target.  There are plans for more time lapse efforts in different parts of the house because, as you can see in the video, there must be some activity going on somewhere else.

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