Always Have A Camera On You With the holidays being upon us, we’re waist—maybe even neck, or higher—deep in obligations, commitments and responsibilities. It can seem like a miracle to find the time to even eat or breath; time flies by at such a dizzying …
Month: November 2020
Also: Why Less is More with Photography Gear
It’s usually at the five-hour mark of our nine-hour trip when our convoy of cars pulls over to eat something quick, fill up our gas tanks and stretch our legs and backs before continuing our travels northward.
Our journey? Every year we make it a point to join one another on a family vacation in Michigan’s serene and majestic Upper Peninsula—on this particular year it was Copper Harbor, on Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula, that received the nod.
Step out of your vehicle after nine hours of almost-continuous driving, and you’re going to appreciate where you are. That’s part of the allure. When you’ve driven a long time to arrive somewhere, you’re really there. You’ve arrived and there’s no going back.
Luckily for us, Copper Harbor is as picturesque a place as there ever could be to step out.
If you’re going to take a vacation, take a vacation.
This Town is a Gem
Copper Harbor is the last town on the Keweenaw Peninsula and it overlooks the mighty and vast Lake Superior. It began as so many towns did in the Upper Peninsula, as a mining town.
Today, in the “downtown” area, one can find a general store, a brewery, an adventure store, art galleries, restaurants and other fine, quaint shops.
In a town like Copper Harbor, when you see a general store, you know they have more wisdom than most; the winters in this area laugh and mock winters anywhere else. To live in such a place all year long takes a will, stamina and immunity to seasonal affective disorder.
No trip to Copper Harbor is complete without making it to the top of Brockway Mountain. Once you reach the summit—735 feet above Copper Harbor—you’ll be treated to soul-enriching and awe-inspiring panoramic vistas.
We rented a house on nearby Lake Medora, but there are numerous motels offering Lake Superior views and vistas that are highly recommended. One of my favorite lodgings, only based on its mid-century office, is the King Copper Motel.
Meg surprised me one night by staying at the historic Keweenaw Mountain Lodge. Built in 1934, the most difficult part about the experience at the KML is realizing it’s not 1934, or some year close to it. The construction is original and the property is even listed on the National Register of Historic Places. We made our way to the lodge’s pub and clinked our I.P.A.-filled glasses to our rustic excursion.
One day, Meg and I would love to live in the area for one year, to experience it; we’re ripe for the punishment. Plus, we live in northern Michigan already, where the cloudy days outnumber the sunny ones, so we have practice. If you can grin and bear the cold, you’ll be richer for having experienced the wilderness and outdoor pursuits that the Upper Peninsula provides.
The trails around Copper Harbor offer world-class mountain biking, for every level and ability. When you’re done pedaling, you’ll have a smile that won’t quit; they’re that fun. The trails have names like Raptor, Flying Squirrel and Woopidy Woo.
The place averages 208 inches of snowfall a year…208. The gas station pump in town has rolling numbers and I’m convinced it’s because anything computerized wouldn’t survive a winter. Enough about winter though, we were there in summer and in summer it’s a totally different experience.
Wherever you are in Copper Harbor, you can either see water or you’re extremely close to it; with that Lake Superior air in the lungs, you feel invigorated. Speaking of invigorated, Jamsen’s Fish Market and Bakery, right on the water’s edge, is the place to satisfy any craving your taste buds desire. It’s also a perfect spot to look out into the harbor and beyond.
Walking through Copper Harbor, it’s obvious that the town is genuine. It’s a simple, beautiful place that doesn’t have a lot but what it does have, is wonderful. And they, as well as we, wouldn’t have it any other way.
What Camera Did I Bring?
I said, ” ‘Why Less is More With Travel Photography’, ” and it’s true. When I contemplated my camera for this family vacation, there was only one piece of gear I wanted: Canonet QL17GIII. I’m going to save you from boring technical specifics and camera-gear bullshit. Once you pick up this camera and get it overhauled so it’s in good working order, you’ll have a crazy-good 35mm film camera—for maybe $200, at the absolute high end—that should leave you wanting nothing. It’s that good.
What takes place when using this camera is that you’re using a camera so small and discrete, that you are able to concentrate on picture making. It feels like a toy, it’s so small and quiet.
There’s a light meter in the camera but I always use a hand-held light meter so I don’t bother with the camera’s light meter.
The Canonet is whisper quiet so whenever you do press the shutter button, don’t be alarmed if you don’t hear anything; you probably made a picture.
Thirty-five millimeter was my medium of choice because I wanted to be forced to take the creative process slowly. Of course there are limitations, but for this trip it was perfect.
Forgotten but not Gone…Yet Water skiers buzzed by shorelines as they waved to onlookers from rich blue waters in California’s Coachella Valley. Meanwhile, picnics by the plenty were had under palm trees as vacationers and seasonal folks enjoyed all that could be offered in this …
It Started with National Geographic When I was just starting out with photography, my main source of inspiration—and countless other photographers’ inspiration—was National Geographic magazine. In its pages, you could be transported to a Hawaiian volcano, a Mongolian steppe or in an Italian village. Not …
Exploring an Asylum
When you think of an asylum for the mentally ill, you might think of old buildings with tall, decorative spires; wide hallways with checker-board floors; and of course, the residents who spent their time there.
All of this existed and continues to exist today at the former Northern Michigan Asylum, which then was called the Traverse City State Hospital, and what is known today as the Village at Grand Traverse Commons in Traverse City, Mich.
Growing up, the State Hospital as we called it—my mom completed a nursing internship there—was the source of all kinds of stories and gossip. When it closed in 1989, all of the patients were forced out; this was a major contributor to the large homeless population in the area. Rumors abounded about ghosts and supernatural happenings. The old State Hospital has always been a structure that loomed larger than it’s physical presence already was.
Whenever possible I’d run up to a building on the property and look in as many windows as possible. It was an eerie sight to see no people but to see what remained such as tables, supplies and wheelchairs.
Some quick facts: The main building, Building 50—300,000 square feet and approximately a quarter mile long—was completed in under three years before opening in 1885. After the main building, numerous outbuildings, barns, a power plant and other structures were added.
The asylum was built according to the Kirkbride Plan—a tall central buildings with symmetrical sides. The attention to detail in craftsmanship and aesthetics is nothing short of unbelievable. Air grates were beautifully designed, befitting of a Rockefeller mansion rather than a hospital. Walls had rounded corners so patients wouldn’t injure themselves and ceilings were high so the spaces didn’t feel confining.
The original superintendent, Dr. James Munson, believed in therapy through beauty. The large grounds had, and continues to have, one of the most diverse populations of trees around.
The fact that the buildings are still standing is a testament to the construction quality.
An Asylum Tour
Yesterday, we were able to tour some of the cottages, buildings and Building 50. Once we reserved our tickets and signed a wavier—in case the asbestos, lead paint or paranormal presences got the best of us—we were good to go.
A number of the buildings remain unrenovated so to step in them is like taking a trip back into another time and dimension. Water has taken its toll on a lot of the exteriors and interiors; but, surprisingly, a lot of the rooms and buildings are in tact. Floors are straight and walls look like they could still have art hung on them. The lead paint everywhere is cracked in the best of ways; the crackling is the look that people try to duplicate these days.
It was a solemn experience to walk into rooms once lived in by people who had to stay there permanently or at the least, extended periods of time. Each patient room had a window and the farther toward the outside ends of Building 50 a patient was, the more mentally unstable they were.
In the attics of some buildings on the property, there were bricks that were signed by workers. Some bricks were simply signed and dated while other bricks explained a specific task that was completed, such as building a roof.
A network of tunnels that carried steam to the buildings is able to be accessed even today.
After being acquired by the Minervini Group, the old State Hospital has taken on a new life and is being used for living spaces, office spaces, shops and restaurants. Those walls, floors and ceilings do talk though and they forever remind the present of the purpose the building had in its past.
Michigan is a funny place; if there’s a way to have fun doing something—no matter the weather— it’ll be done. Recreation-wise, it’s a one-stop shop playground: four seasons and infinite terrain from sand dunes to woods and rivers. Water provides a host of activity potential since the state is surrounded by the Great Lakes.
In the northwest lower peninsula of Michigan, when the wind hits strong and from the southwest, it becomes a surfers’ mecca. Combine the invisible thrust of wind with seemingly infinite water and it becomes simple to see why it makes sense.
There are certain spots that are more mecca-like than others. Frankfort is the area that immediately comes to mind. It’s situated on Lake Michigan and if the wind is aiming right, surfers of all kinds will descend upon the beaches there to take advantage.
Underwater currents and lake structure are positioned in such a way where a good wind can turn into sizeable waves perfect for surfing. It’s not as if people are shooting barrels or dropping into mega waves. They’re not bad though and since the next closest spot for surfing would be the west coast or spots along along the east coast, the proximity is nice.
One other thing: it doesn’t matter what time of year that wind hits, surfing in Michigan is a year-round activity. That’s hardcore. November? Sounds nice. February with a negative-degree wind chill? Let’s hit it bruh.
Portrait of a Surfer
As a photographer, I’ve often envisioned—as a photographer may tend to do—a scenario when I pull up to a wind-struck beach. The gusts are mighty, surfers are surfing, and I approach one for a portrait. In my vision, I situate my strobe and softbox perfectly to provide the pleasing light that captures a Michigan surfer in his or her element.
Now for reality. The wind was kicking into Frankfort, from the southwest, at something more than 20 miles per hour. As predicted, surfers are already there getting into the water to make the most of it. As soon as I turn off the ignition and prepare to photograph, I realize, there’s no way I’m subjecting my strobe and softbox to these types of conditions. I’ll be lucky if I don’t have a Sahara’s worth of sand in my camera bag let alone use a softbox in gale force winds.
Luckily, I’m comfortable with natural light. This day was straight high sun, with no clouds, and it was probably 1:00 p.m. or 2:00 p.m. No matter.
Pro Tip: A high-contrast light, like sun with no clouds, can be difficult to work in. Worry not: all you have to do is find shade of some sort and you’re all set. With digital, there’s some room for exposures that aren’t perfect, I get it. Here’s the thing though, if every there was a situation where a really good exposure was needed, this would be it. You can’t make the shady areas too dark or the bright areas to bright. What you want is to have a balance of the two. Do this by checking your camera’s histogram so that nothing is too extreme on the exposure. This allows you to bring out detail in the shadow and not lost the highlights.
Making my way through stinging sand toward the beaches of beautiful Lake Michigan, as good luck would have it, a surfer had just exited the water before making his way toward the pier for another round of waves. I approached him for an impromptu portrait session, and he was game.
I situated him in a way so that his face would be completely in shade; this causes the sun to almost be perfectly behind the subject. Despite not using a softbox, I’m thankful I didn’t have to subject my lighting equipment to an influx of sand and I actually like the light quite a bit.
A Perfect Day at the Beach
The term street photography is lofted about quite a lot. Here’s what it is: Street photography doesn’t have to be a ‘street’. ‘Street’ can be anywhere. That’s the beauty of it. To me, the ‘street’ in street photography is wherever you’re at. It’s the environment in which people are found in the area you’re in.
For me, on this day, it was the beach. I left Frankfort beach and the shores of Lake Michigan, feeling like I’d captured a fantastic portrait of someone getting outside and maximizing sport and life. I drove home feeling good about the images I made of surfers and the Lake Michigan scene and I hope you too are able to appreciate whatever surroundings you’re in as you make images of your surroundings.
The Biggest Single-Day Mountain Bike Race in the U.S. The saying goes,”If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.” In northern Michigan that weather could mean a 40-degree temperature fluctuation, rain, sun, snow…all of it, in one day. Add a 29-mile course of Michigan …