Upon arrival to the Smithfield Street Bridge in downtown Pittsburgh, the rain had stopped and the sun began to rise…slowly, but quickly enough that time was of the essence. The color was peak and fading fast.
Scouring the bridge for a pleasing composition, I noticed a puddle on the center median of the bridge. Not being one to shy away from a precarious perch, I crossed the inbound lane of the bridge, only slightly illegally, to go play in the water. Laying on the ground in a puddle to catch a unique reflection has kind of been my thing since 2011 and I’ve only been mistaken for a homeless vagrant 7 or 8 times. In fact, as the story goes, that’s how I made my first dollar as a photographer. While walking along the North Shore, some lovely, kind soul had pity upon me, the face-down-on-the-ground-in-a-puddle photographer, and tossed a few bucks on my back so I could grab a bite to eat when I came to.
But I digress. Back to “Maze” and the near tragedy.
Crossing the traffic and dodging speeding buses was a challenge, sure. But squeezing my larger than average frame on to a smaller than average bridge median proved to almost be the end of me. Or at least my leg which was hanging off the side of the median as said incoming bus was whizzing by. ‘JP Diroll – Risking Limbs For Your Art since 2017’ has a nice ring to it, yes? Monty Python and the Holy Grail anyone?
Unfortunately for me, the tale had not yet concluded. Mr. Bus Driver that almost took off my leg must have been pretty ticked at me. Although it can’t be proven, we (myself and the two friends on the bridge with me) are 137% certain the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police received an anonymous tip from him that “5” people were hanging out on the bridge. Illegally. Uh-Oh.
Now, I’m not saying I should have been on the bridge, specifically the middle of it. I shouldn’t have. But come on, ‘5 people.’ I’m a big guy, but as big as 3 adults. Low blow Mr. Bus Driver, why you gotta be so mean?
So there it is. I did not lose a limb. I did not lose any days, hours, or even minutes as a free man. But I DID gain one hell of a photo, a slightly exaggerated story, and a lifelong memory!
The full moon is a wonderful event to photograph. Something about watching it rise fills me with energy and curiosity. Even when I don’t plan to photograph the moon, I love to watch, often from the back window of my home, as it crests the horizon,
When I do photograph the celestial event, though, I like to have an idea and a plan to execute the idea. But you know what they say about the best laid plans…
Usually, my plan involves getting to the spot I’ve chosen no less than an hour before the man in the moon is set to show his face. Sometimes, this early arrival spells trouble for my plan. See, as much vigor as the thought of creating a new moon shot fills me with, the idea of waiting turns me into my four year old daughter. She doesn’t like to sit still, and I don’t like it very much lately either, so my mind wanders. Then I do.
For this latest moon adventure, I realized this is probably not a bad thing.
The photo above is an older photo, taken in 2015 from the West End Bridge in Pittsburgh. I was hoping to recreate it, but do it better. And had everything gone to plan, I would have walked away with a nice, solid image that would have probably made a lovely print. But it wouldn’t have been different. I wanted to make something different and I bet that’s what you want to see to!
So I abandoned my plan and let my mind wander.
First, my right brain took charge, allowing creativity to also wander. A lot of “what ifs” charged through my mind. That’s when I noticed the lovely light on the railing in front of me. Bingo! “I’ll work with this until the moon rises in 30 minutes,” I told myself.
This is when my left brain kicked in and started firing on all cylinders, bringing out that engineer in me that I often keep hidden. I must have analyzed every spot on the bridge for a good 100 yards, trying seemingly endless combinations to make sure the city would be framed perfectly by the railing. Finally I found my spot.
Then the Mr. Moon showed up, close to where I knew it would rise, but the composition wasn’t right. There went that plan again. Good thing I didn’t give the right brain the rest of the night off. Now that the moon was present, I had all of the pieces of the puzzle and I just needed to put them together.
After one hour and fifteen minutes of tinkering – an inch up, three railing supports to the left, back up half a foot – it all came together and this was the final photo:
It’s DEFINITELY different but still reflective of my style (if I have such a thing) and it was more challenging to create than the original concept, which makes the final image that much more rewarding.
DETAILS ABOUT THE IMAGE
Thank you for making it this far. If you like the final image and want some more details, this is the place for you.
1 – THE MOON – obviously, the moon was critical in the image. Not just including it, but framing it as well.
2 – FRAMING – the framing was the single most important part of the image. Not just the composition and concept, but the actual spacing of the building between the railing. Notice the Gulf Building on the left – dead center of the railings. The US Steel Tower and the new PPG tower equally spaced from the railing as well.
Keeping the balance in the image and preventing the buildings from intersecting the bridge, all while keeping the moon centered too proved to be quite the challenge, thus the nearly hour of tinkering with the camera and tripod to get everything lined up perfectly
3 – SHARPNESS – because I photographed this with a telephoto lens and only few feet from the railing, getting the entire scene to be in sharp focus in on frame wasn’t an option. So I did an exposure with the focus on the railing and a second immediately after, focused on the buildings. I combined them in Photoshop for maximum depth of field.
So there you have it, a little backstory to what’s probably my favorite image of the year. I hope you enjoyed the photo and the recount of how it was created.
In life, they say it’s good to have a plan, a strategy to help achieve the goals or tasks we set for ourselves. I wholeheartedly agree. Without a plan, I all too often find myself orbiting around my own brain wondering what to do next. Having a step by step, actionable list of things to do is helpful to me and essential to keeping me focused and on task.
But that’s really only feasible from the business side of my photography, not the artistic and creative side. Sure, when a sunrise needs to be prepared for, many things can be mapped out and counted upon. I know the sun WILL come up and I know WHERE it will rise. I know the bridge that I want to photograph or make photos from will be there, potholes and all, because hey, this is Pittsburgh. But there are factors that are beyond control. Traffic getting to the city, complete drear and cloud cover (again…Pittsburgh), or my 6 month old baby needing me at 6AM so I’m late for the sunrise are a few that spring to mind. These circumstances render a plan completely useless, causing photography to often take on “take what you’re given” mentality.
Often times, this take what you’re given approach ends up feeling a concession. You can’t get what you planned or hoped for so you settle for something different and presumably not as good. In my experience though, different is better than good.
Other times, luck prevails, the weather cooperates, and the stars align. Or in my case, the planets do.
The weather in Pittsburgh this last week of January reached record breaking lows and can only be described by most as brutally cold. The meteorologists said stay inside but what I heard was the rivers are going to freeze. Time to make a plan. So I did.
And what did we just learn about plans. They change. The river was frozen, yes, but not nearly as much as I’d anticipated…or hoped. I’ve seen it completely frozen over several times when temperatures weren’t nearly as cold. Most of the river was still flowing, but with large chunks of ice slowly floating along. So I went with a long exposure to convey the motion of the floating ice contrasting with the static ice that was building along the bank of the river. Cool. Pun intended.
What I wasn’t accounting for, or expecting, is what I’m calling a happy little accident. And I was lucky enough to catch 3 of them!
If you look at the photo, you’ll see the moon and two bright stars. Normally I’m pretty in tune with where the moon is going to be, but I read my app wrong and was surprised, pleasantly, to have it in such a pleasing spot for my intended composition. Happy accident number 1. But those two bright stars, it turns out, are actually Venus and Jupiter. This was totally unplanned for, I must admit. They are a tiny, yet impactful, morsel of photographic tastiness that you were completely unaware of but privileged enough to not only see, but include in your photo in a meaningful AND intentional way! Happy accident number 2!
…and happy accident number 3? Well, I was lucky that Uranus wasn’t also in the picture!
You can read more about Jupiter and Venus HERE
2018 was another year of not getting out enough with my camera, making new but not exciting work, and feeling like I was underachieving against what I know I’m capable of. More of the same old, same old. Perhaps that is why I delayed completing my year-end wrap up until the third week of January. But that same old narrative is getting old. Really old. And when I sit down and actually review the year, I made some great photos that I’m really proud of, which I’ll summarize here. And I’ll do it briefly. Just kidding, I’m pretty wordy…but I hope you’ll bear with me. You might even see a photo or two that have never been released in to the wild. *Hint, hint* ⬇️ 😱 ⬇️
Okay, let’s jump right in. If you don’t already know, home base for me is Pittsburgh. Actually, it’s my only base. I wish I had an east coast office and a west coast office but alas….starving artist and all that jazz. Now if you remember, winter didn’t want to end last year. Ever! And most people hated that. I, on the other hand, was okay with it. Until I wasn’t. But the frozen rivers and fluffy white stuff have a way of providing an endless flurry of photo opportunities, opportunities I’m usually pretty happy to seize upon.
Perhaps my favorite part of the Endless Winter of 2018 was my incorporation of trees, snow, and the skyline. I never want to have a “thing” or something that defines my work, but if I did, my “thing” would be mixing nature and Pittsburgh. And winter is a great time to do this.
But the wintry photos were not only isolated to the confines of the city. I also took to nature to find snowy trees. There’s just something about a barren, lonely tree, maybe even stationed on the crest of a ridge against a backdrop of featureless sky that sings to me. Throw in some snow that accents the rhythm of every branch and you have a ballad worth singing out loud. In the car. By yourself.
And while we are on the subject of trees (#iliketrees – if you know, you know. If you don’t, just ask!), spring was pretty awesome as well. Once again, the opportunities Pittsburgh offers in the spring are unrivaled. I don’t have any sort of frame of reference to substantiate this claim, but Pittsburgh is pretty awesome once the blooms indeed begin to bloom. This season of new growth was also a metaphor for my approach to photography in 2018 which I continue to pursue as 2019 ramps up. Take often photographed subject matter and locations and make them fresh. Shed the old, but remain beautiful. Come back even prettier. That was and remains the goal. The three photos below, I think, exhibit this quite well. (Check out this unique look on flowers in the Pittsburgh)
Now again, the beauty of nature is easily found in between and along the edges of the banks of the three rivers, but it stretches far beyond that. This time, all the way to the far off land of Ohio!
As of late, I’ve been a little more in to photographing flowers. To that end, I wanted bluebells this past spring. So to the Googles I went. Google told me one of the best places to view such a wildflower is the UK, a place I’ve never been, and when Google talks, I usually listen. I was oh so close to booking a trip, too. Just for some flowers. Not sure how I would have pitched that one to my boss? What Google didn’t tell me, though, was I had another option. Luckily, with a little help from some friends, I was able to find a patch of bluebells in Ohio, which as you may have guessed, is far cheaper, quicker and more readily accessible to reach than England. I’m not saying I’ll never go, but for now I’m glad to have saved that airfare!
As lucrative as the spring was from a photographic standpoint, the greatest attainment was on a much more personal level, but still photographically centered. In April, I had the privilege to present my Pittsburgh photography to the Photo Section of the Academy of Arts and Science of Pittsburgh. Whew, I know it’s a mouthful. Essentially, they are the oldest continually operating club in existence in America, dating back to the 1880s. That’s right…1880s.
To say that I was honored to have been sought out to put together a program for this club is a drastic understatement. Fred Astaire was tap dancing on my nerves for two solid months. I’ve spoke in front of a group before, but never quite as long as was needed for this presentation, which lasted around 50 minutes.
In my effort to prepare a program that both educated and entertained the crowd, I put in more preparation and thought than I think I have in any other endeavor in my 34 years, resulting in a clear, concise story about my process with real life examples using actual photos I’ve taken. The reception by the crowd was humbling and I was thrilled with how taken by my work they were. However, the more impressive achievement was they laughed at every single joke. Phew. I left never feeling more confident about myself and my work and more inspired than ever to keep creating.
Not only was it a boon to my confidence and inspiration, but the preparation took me down the path of self reflection and research in to my own portfolio. What worked that doesn’t any more? What have I learned? What might be valuable to others? Which photos have stood the test of time? And what goes through my mind as I’m creating an image? This last one was the key and one in which I’ve thought about but never put on paper, which ultimately led to this series of blog posts about what makes me tick and how I begun this path to becoming a full time photographer:
- Once Upon A Time
- Be An Engineer They Said…
- Family First, Photography Second
- It All Started With an HDR
Another byproduct, for lack of a better word, was a gentle nudge from one of the members of the camera club to take a little journey out west. Through his guidance and experience, we were able to put together one hell of an itinerary for my weeklong trip through Colorado, a place that was always on my radar, but never really top of mind. If you’re reading this, Robert, thank you!
And while I’m thanking people, let’s hear it for my rock star wife who held down the fort like a seasoned pro with two girls, one of which was only 8 weeks old at the time, while daddy was prancing throughout Colorado. How she didn’t jump off the proverbial mountain is a mystery, an enigma the likes of which will never be solved!
When you hear Colorado, what do you think of? Mountains of course! Flying in to Denver, I was surprised how flat it was. Again, until it wasn’t. Once I was beyond the Denver city limits, I’m not sure my vehicle was ever perfectly level. It was kind of like Pittsburgh but on a much grander scale. There were mountains and hills every which way and they were stunning. Everything I’d imaged since I’d never actually seen a ‘real’ mountain before.
The mountains were of course jaw dropping, but for my first experience I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a touch disappointed. When I envision the mountains of Colorado, I think tall and I think snow capped peaks. During my visit, I did not see a single speck of snow. Of course, the day after I left most of the state was pounded with it, but that’s a different story. But because of the lack of snow and because of the time of year I visited (late September), the trees kind of stole the show.
Have I mentioned I like trees? No? Okay, well I do. And there were plenty of them on this trip. Aspen trees as far as the eye could see. A see of yellow nestled in every valley between every 14er (that’s what they call peaks 14,000 ft and above in CO). These aspens surely did put the COLOR in Colorado, and I won’t soon forget them.
Aside from the snow, another element that eluded me out west was the light. There were definitely challenging conditions photographically speaking. Aside from the first night in which I was treated to a stellar sunset light party, there were really no epic skies to speak of.
In fact this notion of outrageous sunrises and sunsets, the likes of which cause the angels to weep, was largely absent for me and pretty much an undertone of the images I was able to produce this year, both in Colorado and all year at home in Pittsburgh. Make no mistake I’m happy with what I got, which is a collection of SOLID images.
But by and large, the super dramatic, ultra colorful dusks and dawns (and there definitely were more than a few) remained unrecorded by my camera’s sensor, seen only out my front window or through my rear view mirror. Except for this one.
So that’s it. My year wrapped up in to a clear, concise, 1600 word, 30 photo nutshell. And what a wild year it was. WAIT! Did I just say wild?? How could I forget? It actually was wild this year. Back in early spring, I bought a new toy. A Nikon 200-500mm telephoto lens. It was bought mostly for my wildlife photos, but I’ve also found myself using it in the city for some abstract and detail photos. But, the animals look best through this lens.
Ok. NOW we are done. I promise. And if you made it this far, wow! Good for you and your attention span. You must not have little ones with you. But in all seriousness, THANK YOU! Whether this is your first time on my blog or you are intimately familiar with my work, I appreciate you and I appreciate the support. You help me to do what I do. You helped make 2018 an amazing year, so let’s do it again in 2019!
Who out there likes flowers? Not me. I was never much of a flower guy. There was never much of a need for me to like them. Sure they were nice to look at, but…well, that’s it. They were nice to look at. Occasionally. Up until last year, my only real experience with flowers was getting a corsage for my dates to prom and homecoming, which my mother took care of, and the flowers for my wedding which my wife took care of. In my defense I suppose, I did pay for and pick up said flowers so I wasn’t completely dead weight.
Then something changed. Last year a bought a macro lens for my photography. This allowed me to get super close to things and photograph the fine details of an otherwise uncomplicated subject. As it turns out, flowers were a PERFECT subject for experimentation. So experiment I did and now I can’t seem to get enough flowers and plants in my life. I find myself noting new ones I’ve never noticed or seeing if there is a safe place to pull off when I see a spectacular roadside bunch of blooms. I’ve even bought some plants. What!?
The world of macro has really opened up my eyes and allowed me to see things differently. I don’t intend for my flower photos to over take my Pittsburgh photography as my best sellers in print, but I do intend to look at things differently as a result of my foray into flower photography. And I’ve been able to do just that.
Seeing differently, and uniquely, has always been paramount in my work. There are a lot of photographers these days so standing out is a challenge. With the Pittsburgh skyline being my perennial (see what I did there?) favorite subject, I wanted to incorporate it in to my newfound, ever-growing interest in flora. But how to do that? I think I found a unique way which you will se in the proceeding photos. Each composition will include some sort of bud, blossom, or bloom and also a bit of the ‘Burgh. Whoa! Holy alliteration, Batman!
Can you tell which part of Pittsburgh is peaking through in the pictures?
We’ve all heard the term “the one that got away,” yes? Yes, of course we have. And for some of us maybe the phrase is even applicable. Not so much in my case because I’m married to the woman of my dreams and am about to have my second beautiful daughter with her. For those that are wondering, I’m not in the dog house or sucking up because my wife probably won’t read this, my first daughter is 3 and can’t read yet (yet!) and my second daughter, well the library in her womb has been closed for renovations for weeks so no reading in there either. Okay, let’s crawl out of the weird rabbit hole and get back on topic here. Focus, JP!
Now where was I? Ah, yes…the one that got away. I don’t have one. I do, however, have many many many suns that got away. See what I did there? I love puns and plays on words. I’m of course talking about sunrises and sunsets. As a city/landscape photographer the sky is my canvas and the sun provides the paint for it. Without light, a photographer has nothing. I think I’m pretty good, but I am no exception to this necessity for the suns gleaming rays.
With this dependence on light, for me, comes a constant, almost gawking and definitely studious observance of the sky, the position of the sun, and clouds or lack thereof. There is no foolproof method to predicting whether a sky will erupt with color or be a dud, but there are apps and programs out there to help predict such occurrences, but even without the technology, I usually have a pretty good gut feel for what’s going to happen. But just like the software, my gut, impressive as it might be, is not infallible.
Tracking the position of the sun, however is pretty precise and always reliable. But, just because I almost always know where the sun is going to crest or dip below the horizon, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t get away from me. What do I mean? Sadly, that means I am not physically able to catch on camera every jaw-dropping sunrise or every sunset that makes the angels weep. Sometimes, when I don’t have my camera and I’m watching the sky explode with every shade of red, orange, and yellow imaginable in my rear view mirror or from my bedroom window, I sit right beside the Angels and shed a tear with them. And by sometimes, I mean this happens A LOT!
This mourning for color undocumented is usually pretty short lived once I drift back down to earth and realize if I wasn’t out catching the glow of a fiery sunset, I was more than likely spending time with my family…and maybe even able to enjoy that sight with them. So that’s the point of this kind of bizarre rambling. Take in the color. Enjoy it. Remember it in your mind’s eye. And certainly don’t sweat if you weren’t able to snap a photo of it.
One of the things I’ve struggled with in keeping up with this blog is what the focus should be. Time after time I’d sit down with an idea, write a couple sentences, maybe even a paragraph or two, and then abandon it because it didn’t match the theme of the blog. There was a major flaw with this: there was no theme. There was no structure or cliffhanger to make you tune in next week to see what happens. It was a random collection of stories and photos supporting the story.
I know what you’re thinking: “Boy, this guy is doing a lousy job at selling his own blog.” To that I say…”True story!” But that was the old blog. That was the old JP. The new JP is firing up his revamped blog that is going to be completely different and more exciting than ever before. The new blog is going to be…wait for it…
….A random collection of musings, stories, maybe some humor, and of course, PHOTOS (I am a photographer, after all) from the far off place of JP Land. (If you’re interested in traveling there, now is the time…nobody goes there anymore and flights are cheeeeeap!)
So why no dramatic change to the original “structure?” Because I know my strengths and at this very moment those DO NOT include the ability to write a blog that can substitute as a novel.
Instead, I want the blog and stories to be for people who have followed my work for years as well as those who are just discovering it. I want it to be for those who like pretty words, those who like pretty pictures, and those who like pretty words about pretty pictures. I want it to be where people can escape the mundane of everyday life…okay that sounds trite, I admit, but I do want to create a 5 minute retreat with each post that at least one person can relate to, even if that person is only myself. I might just even add a bit of humor – work with me on this one, I’ve only been a dad for 3 years but I’m getting the “Dad joke” down pat. I want this to be just what it’s always been, but with more regularity. I want it to evolve as I evolve.
And this time, I’m doing exactly what I want to do which is to make this blog an extension of myself. To do that properly, to share my stories, I have to examine the story of me, learn who I was, who I am now, and who I want to be. But you’ll have to tune in later for all that…oh look, my first cliffhanger!
Yesterday marked 1 year to the day of chasing a dream, or in my case a cloud, and actually catching it. I thought I had blogged about it last year at this time, but it turns out I did not. This is my recount of one of the best mornings of my photographic life.
Who here has seen the Jetson’s? What’s your lasting memory? The first thing that comes to mind every time I think of that futuristic cartoon is the way the city seems to rise above the clouds. And ever since I’ve taken up photography, that is the dreamlike image I’ve been chasing in the city of Pittsburgh.
Saturday, January 21, 2017 changed all that…and sent me on the chase of a lifetime.
After about half an hour of shooting the scene you see above, we parted ways…but the chase continued. I wanted something different and it seemed like every photographer and their mother was out shooting since it was a Saturday, so I took a gamble. The gamble paid off. I had a “secret” spot and since it was secret, it was just me, my camera, and a dreamlike landscape that nobody else was capturing. This next image represents my vision and also my dream…one I’d been chasing for 7 years. To amplify the dreamy quality, I went with a 5 minute exposure to draw out the motion in the fog and clouds.
This is where I realized just how many photographers were out, making the need to set myself apart more important than ever. Sure I could have squeezed in between the ten or so cameras on the Duquesne Incline Overlook, but who wants to see the same shot from 10 different people? I don’t. I want to be unique…so I pressed on, and again my gut was right, rewarding me with pleasant results.
As I was shooting from atop the “mountain,” The wheels in my head continued to spin out of control. “What if I went to the West End Overlook? Those clouds to the right of the city that I can’t quite get in to the frame from here would make a perfect ‘V’ pointing right at the city.” And with that the chase continued.
Before shooting the pink sky, I thought about leaving for the overlook because of that bank of clouds I mentioned. Upon arrival to the West End, though, I’m glad I didn’t. The fog was too thick and the city could not be seen. I’m not sure that’s the case before I arrived, but I had a sure thing from Mount Washington so I played it “safe.”
Four hours after it all started, the chase was finally over…
Or was it? I don’t like to give up to quickly, and again, the conditions were so rare and I’d been out so long, what was another half an hour? As it turns out…that half an hour might have been the most important of the morning. The sun rose above the fog and clouds, illuminating the tops with a texture I’ve only ever seen if photos of fog surrounding the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
At this point, I was floating just like the city I was photographing seemed to be. But alas, the sun rose too high and nearly blinded me as I was composing a shot. NOW…the chase was over…but not before recording possibly my favorite photograph of the morning and the shot of a lifetime!
Continue towards the end of January and euphoria presented itself. I was finally out to see Pittsburgh encapsulated in fog, but only from the river up to about a third of the height of the buildings. The Jetson-like setting I had been chasing since picking up my first (real) camera was there for the taking. And take I did.
It’s said that you shouldn’t stare directly into the sun because it can lead to permanent damage to your eyes. Since my eyes are literally how I make a living and provide for my family, I usually heed this advice, but only if the sun is unobstructed. If the sun is partially blocked, by say a bank of clouds, you get a beautiful array of light beams dancing gently in the sky making their way down to earth. Something so soft and beautiful couldn’t hurt, right?
Up until this past week I would have agreed. Now, I’m not so sure. But it’s not my eyes that I’m worried about. It’s my heart. I’ve heard before, and even said it myself (last night in fact), that those rays of light we see being filtered through the clouds are our loved ones watching over us. If that’s true, and I just might believe that it is, aren’t those very light beams also a reminder to us that our loved ones are no longer with us? Again, that’s true. That hurts. But the pain is temporary.
If you’ve ever witnessed the scene I’m describing, you know these wonderfully golden rays don’t last very long. They are beautiful. They are intense. They are also fleeting. And for me at this time, perhaps these beams are a most appropriate symbol for the friend – no, brother – I’ve recently lost. His life was beautiful. The impact he had on anyone he ever met was as positively intense as his immense size. And his life, fleeting – a seemingly brief moment, gone at the speed of light. But, unlike the heartache and the light, his impact will be everlasting.
Anyone that ever met him remembered him…and they were better for it. Good journey my brother, until we meet again. And we will meet again.