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.
Walt Disney once famously said, “I only hope that we never lose sight of one thing – that it was all started with a mouse.” That mouse is of course Mickey Mouse and “famously” might be too strong a description of the quote unless you are a Disney dork like myself. The “it” he is referring to is essentially the Disney empire, which I could go on in detail about, but since I’ve alluded to my love of all things Disney in another post (READ IT HERE), I’ll skip that part. What I’d like to call attention to, though, is what this quote means to me: We all start somewhere. I’d like to share with you my somewhere.
Let’s travel back a few years, somewhere around let’s say fall of 2004. I was a sophomore in college and things were going well for me. Grades were improving and I was in what at the time seemed like a perfect, serious (for a 20 year old) relationship. I was happy…until I wasn’t. Well, actually, until she wasn’t. Several hours before the stroke of midnight on February 14, 2005 – that’s Valentine’s Day, folks – my “serious” girlfriend broke up with me. Ouch. As if that weren’t bad enough, at that very stroke of midnight, we’d rip another page off the old day-by-day calendar and I would turn 21 on February 15. Double ouch. But at least I could now legally drown my sorrows in beer. But I did not.
I’d like to say what I did was take this opportunity to take a negative and turn it in to a positive. I’d like to say it was no big deal and that “things happen for a reason.” I’d like to say those things, but I can’t and a discussion with my best friend recently reminded me that this saying is bullshit. Sometimes things suck and it’s okay for you to acknowledge that they suck. This was one of those times, even if only temporarily.
Make no mistake; I don’t recount this story for pity or feelings of sadness. By all accounts, I wouldn’t be where I am today without this chapter in my life. I am HAPPY now so I am grateful for what happened back then. It turns out that, in retrospect, this actually was one of those “things happen for a reason” scenarios. At the time, however, a void was present in my life for several months, a void that needed filling so that I didn’t sit around all day, wallowing in my self-pity making mixed CDs, which I did. I needed something to occupy my mind, to numb the pain but with a more positive influence on my life. As it turns out, that empty part of me took the shape of a camera and it was easy, satisfying, and productive to fill.
I started taking walks with my tiny little point and shoot camera, just snapping away with whatever struck me as interesting, with Point State Park being a common subject. The photos – snapshots really – were no good, but my mind was occupied and I was done feeling sorry for myself.
The void inside me began to shrink, and as it did my desire to turn snapshots into actual photos grew rapidly. Consequently, so did my camera when I bought my first DSLR in 2007. It was a used, entry-level camera – a Nikon D50 with a monster 6-megapixel sensor. It would be just perfect for my upcoming trip to St. Thomas and many trips to the zoo. But that camera just didn’t cut it. I needed more. I needed bigger. I am a man after all!
In 2009 I upgraded again for a trip to Mexico, this time to a new Nikon model, the D300, with twice as many megapixels as my last camera. At the time I thought megapixels was all that mattered, even though I wasn’t really printing photos. They’d only be seen on a small screen so resolution wasn’t as important an issue as I was making it out to be. But again, bigger means better, right? After Mexico, the camera probably spent more time on the shelf than it did in my hands – just kidding, I was a slob so it was probably in corner of my room on the floor under a pile of clothes and some empty Gatorade bottles. The point is I didn’t use it very much in ’09 or ’10.
Fast forward to 2011. I’d been using my camera a little more regularly at this point and uploading the shots to my Flickr account, a popular social photo sharing platform at the time. No one had really noticed the photos, and for good reason – they weren’t anything special or different. There was mostly wildlife and some marginal landscapes with a poorly executed Pittsburgh skyline shot sprinkled in here and there. (I just went back in to the account for the first time in year’s today to have a look at the early stuff, and wow! It’s like looking at pictures of yourself decades ago….”What was I thinking!?!”).
But then I uploaded a photo called “Winter’s Light.” This photo, oh this photo. It’s an HDR, which is short for High Dynamic Range meaning it contains fine details in both the dark shadows and the lightest lights and generally includes multiple exposures since camera sensors at the time were unable to record the detail that your eye can process in a single frame. Admittedly, it is very easy to let an HDR photo get away from you, looking almost cartoony and certainly fake. This photo is no exception. It has a painterly feel, keeping it just on the cusp of natural meets unbelievable but definitely falls beyond the range of my processing these days, which tends to have a vibrant, yet natural feel to it. That said, Winter’s Light has held up to the test of time for me, partially because I’ve yet to see comparably impressive light on the Warhol Bridge, which is the main showcase of the photo, since that cold winter day in January of 2011. Oh yea, and it still sells too!
A few hours after uploading to Flickr, it began to rack in the ‘favorites’ which is today’s equivalent to a Facebook ‘like.’ “Cool,” I thought. And that was it. Then the photo got “Explored,” which means a daily feature essentially. Again, cool! Up to this point, most of my photos received a whopping 2 favorites and if I were lucky, a comment or two. Again, they were mostly overdone HDR landscapes or wildlife shots that didn’t deserve much merit. This one, though, made it to triple digit likes and was racking in the views. This felt like a big deal for me. It turns out that it was.
Looking back, that extra bit of exposure on Flickr really was a catalyst for me. Though it didn’t go viral or directly result in any immediate sales – selling my work wasn’t even an afterthought at this point – and didn’t bring any notoriety either, it did serve as a fulcrum allowing me to leverage my passion for photography in to something a bit more. Winter’s Light did not launch my career in photography, but it sure has hell gave me the confidence I needed to pursue it!
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.
Not too long ago, some close friends of mine and I were having a conversation. Generally when we speak the conversation can quite literally go any which way and change directions in an instant. We talk about life, friends, elephant dung (don’t judge us but this is true), and everything in between. But since we are all full-time artists, it can be all but guaranteed that the state of art industry is going to pop up in any given conversation. This was no exception.
As we continued musing about the highs and lows, gripes, griefs, rewards, and inspirations behind our work, we stumbled upon a question: “What is your favorite (insert your own type of work here)?” Now this is a question I get ALL the time at shows. Folks walk in, take a look around, enjoy the work, pick out a favorite, then ask me, “What’s your favorite photograph, JP?” My answer is always immediately and unequivocally the same. I don’t have to say a word. I just point to Winter’s Light, which is always hanging…
This is the image that started it all for me. It’s not the image that launched my career in photography, per se, but it is the one that gained a little recognition and gave me the confidence to pursue a lifetime or creating images to share. It features lovely light, nice foreground interest, and the composition is good. It will likely always remain my favorite image I’ve ever taken. That is, until I heard the following.
When I asked my friend, Johno (of Johno’s Art Studio – check out his work here) what his favorite painting was, I was stunned by the simplicity and brilliance of his response. “My last one,” he said. My last one. It made perfect sense. His wife, Maria (of Maria’s Ideas – check out her work here) went on to explain, though the point hit home immediately. We should ALWAYS be learning and improving on past works and experiences and incorporating the lessons learned into our next piece. Simple yet brilliant.
I’d be lying, though, if I said that this revelation didn’t shake me to my core. I just stated how Winter’s Light is my all time favorite photo I’ve ever taken. Look at the watermark on it. It was taken in 2011. Clearly this is not my last photo. In fact, it was one of my first. Does that mean that I’ve not improved upon my photography process in the five years I’ve been taking photos? Of course not. This is simply a good photograph with a ton of sentimental value attached to it, so chances are it will still remain my favorite. But that doesn’t mean there are not things I would change. Not just with this photo, but every single photo I’ve ever taken. Everything can be better.
And that, my friends, is the entire point of this post. Never become complacent in your achievements. You can be happy about them, but unsatisfied with them. It’s okay to want more. It’s okay to be your own toughest critic. Every time I click the shutter I want that newest photo to be the best I’ve ever taken. This is obviously unrealistic, as I take my fair share of “clunkers,” but I believe having that mindset will allow me to continue to learn from past mistakes and build upon current successes.
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.
One of the most common themes I notice this time of year is that people DO NOT like the snow and ice. The reasons might vary, and to some degree, I agree. Most of us don’t like the seemingly inherent danger that follows the cold weather. Roads become treacherous if not treated properly or proactively, and if the snow (or ice) is significant enough, any amount of preparation and treatment may well end up being futile. It’s easy to see why this would be a reason to wish away the cold and relocate to Florida.
Living in Pittsburgh, where winter -and certainly snow – are not a new concept, it can be very easy to become annoyed with snow. If you look out your window and see falling snow, it’s almost a guarantee that you can jump on your Facebook Newsfeed and see no less than 37 memes and complaints about “people not not knowing how to drive” and “this is Pittsburgh, it’s snowed here before.”
You’ll also see even more dramatization about the amount of snow that’s going to fall and gripes about how the weatherman is NEVER right. I try to give the meteorologists the benefit of the doubt – they are trying to predict the future, after all – but I don’t think they do themselves any favors by naming every storm. And monikers such as “Snowzilla” and “Snowmageddon” don’t help, but I don’t believe those names come from the news stations. Regardless of where the names originate, Facebook certainly does not help contain Snowzilla’s icy breath from causing the next Snowmageddon. So, yes, Facebook drama queens and lousy traveling conditions allow me to sympathize with the winter haters.
My sympathies end there, though. My disdain, if you can even call it that, for winter does not begin or end with the cold, snow, and ice. It’s merely the other people that dislike it so much that they can do nothing but be bitter about it that causes me to sometimes, and only sometimes, wish the snow would melt.
In all actuality, I embrace the biting temperatures and the frozen stuff that falls from the sky. To me, there’s no beauty like looking out at a scene with a blanket of untouched, pristine snow. Walking along, listening to the subtle crunch of snow beneath my feet with my camera in tow…well that is euphoria for me and I forget about the cold.
I forget about the cold, that is, until the mercury busts through the bottom of the thermometer. Even when that happens, though, there’s a good chance you can find me playing near the banks of the rivers in the city. See, when it gets to be so cold that the rivers, mostly the Allegheny River, freeze I find the patterns, lines, and shapes make for amazing compositional elements in my photographs. This ice usually lasts more than a day also, and even though the it’s seemingly solid and static, the patterns are pretty dynamic which allows for unique photos with each visit, even if I stand in the exact same spot.
Usually, inclement weather is a detriment to my photos along the rivers because I almost always try to incorporate reflections for added interest. But if it’s windy and choppy, the reflections are nil and that can make for a dull subject and photograph. Frozen rivers, though, provide patterns, shapes, and lines that negate the need for a reflection. They serve as an interesting foreground and lead you right to the subject of the image. If the skyline is reflected in the ice or unfrozen patches of water, then that makes the image even stronger. Not needing calm waters expands the amount of “worthwhile” time I can spend on the shores and adds endless possibilities to what I can create. So I say bring on the snow and ice.
Now I’m not saying winter is a season without its drawbacks or that it doesn’t get unbearably cold out there. It does. It gets really, really cold. But I feel, when I’m not numb from head to toe, that after a freshly fallen snow, there’s too much beauty to be seen out there to stay inside. If I’ve yet to show you enough to convince you to take a winter excursion yourself, well the cause might be hopeless. So just cuddle up next to the fire with a nice glass of wine or mug of hot chocolate, and take a trip into the cold through my eyes. Let me show you what most choose not to experience. Let me freeze so you don’t have to.
Labor Day has come and gone. Summer doesn’t officially end until September 22, but for most Labor Day is the unofficial end of what many consider their favorite season of the year. I, again like many folks, equate the summer with the beach. Right, wrong, or indifferent….that’s what I do. And it occurred to me just this morning that on all my social media platforms, this blog included, I’ve neglected to share a single beach scene or any non-Pittsburgh photo that just screamed summer. Perhaps that’s because, for the first time and years, I visited zero beaches. None. Zip, zilch, zero. But that’s okay. I had an awesome trip to Disney World, took a nice long weekend family trip to Ohio, and had a couple trips to Washington, D.C. sprinkled in there as well. They were all great times and in many ways they were better than a trip to the shore. All that being said, though, I’d be remiss if I didn’t share a photo from the beach. So with no further ado, please have a look at my absolute favorite beach scene I’ve ever photographed.
The above scene was taken at the inlet at the border of North and South Carolina in Cherry Grove, Myrtle Beach. Each morning the tide would fill the inlet and upon its retreat create some of the most amazing, intricate, and unique patters in the sand I’ve ever seen. I can’t wait to get back…who knows – maybe a fall beach trip is in order!
Last Monday seems like a blur. It was a whirlwind of activity and a morning of shooting unlike most mornings for me. Typically I don’t like to jump around from location to location (in the same morning or evening) trying to find that perfect spot for a photo. I like to set up shop, move around within that spot, and take advantage of the conditions before me. Sometimes, though, I need to change things up a bit and that’s what this Kickstart series is for me – breaking norms, exploring new ideas and concepts, and getting outside of my comfort zone a bit. Monday provided me with just that opportunity.
Upon waking up, I checked the conditions outside my office window at home. Fog. Awesome! I grabbed my gear and headed out the door. Within a mile from home the fog was gone and I thought the morning would be foiled before it even started. Luckily, by the time the city was in my sights, I couldn’t see it! A nice blanket of fog was covering the skyline. I had a feeling Mount Washington would not provide much in terms of photos as the fog was higher up and pretty dense. I began my morning there anyway and I was right. Upon my arrival, the twilight fog was impervious. Nothing was visible more than a hundred feet or so in front of me.
I mentioned I don’t like to jump around too, too much during sessions. Well after this sight, I knew that would have to change. If I stayed in this spot, I’d have a camera full of the same scene and who wants to see that? Not me and I bet you don’t either. So I jumped in my car and headed down to the Duquesne Incline. Nothing to see there as I suspected – in fact I never even took a photo from the overlook. Back to the car for the next location. I flew down PJ McCardle and down into Station Square. I stopped by my favorite spot along the train tracks, but again the fog was too dense and I couldn’t catch any skyline. The Smithfield Street Bridge was my backup plan to the tracks and luckily, it didn’t disappoint. The fog was thick but not impenetrable so I was able to hop up on the Median and snag a few frames. The buses flying by combined with a long exposure allowed me to catch some nifty light trails to complement/contrast with the moodiness somewhat invisible skyline.
Next on the plate was…wait for it…Mount Washington. Yes, I went back. I’ve had a shot in mind for years and I was hoping to get it. The conditions weren’t right and you still couldn’t see anything so I was thwarted again. Oh well. I’ll catch some day and share it all with you. Since the mountain was a bust, I headed low again to my favorite spot…the North Shore. This is where I hit my stride and found some success. I started between the Clemente and Warhol Bridges shooting above and along the dock at water level. Conditions were pretty nice and I was able to snag a few good photos.
Even along the North Shore, though, I jumped around more than usual. I hit a couple spots that I like to frequent up along the Sister Bridges that I enjoy. The rocky shore along the Allegheny provides an awesome foreground and makes it feel more like a landscape photo than a cityscape.
For my last spot, I jumped down across from Heinz Field to incorporate the fountain. The river was very calm as I snapped the first photo featuring the fountain. As luck would have it, after that the wind picked up and the still reflections were nothing but a memory caught in one photograph. I kept working the scene, though, and incorporated some of the flowers along the river walk. I got some strange looks since I was basically standing in the tall patch of weeds, but I didn’t care. All in all, it was a fantastic morning of shooting. I’d been waiting for 3 years for fog like this and it didn’t disappoint.