Minotaur 1 rocket launch

This Minotaur 1 rocket was launched from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island, Virginia November 19 at about 8:15 pm. The vehicle was carrying a payload of 29 satellites into orbit – a record number of satellites ever carried into orbit by a single rocket. (You can read more about it here.)

This photo was made from Myersville, Maryland (about 200 miles away), and was one more very lucky shot. I didn’t even find out about the launch until after the scheduled lift-off time had already passed, but it was postponed over an hour for technical reasons. I began monitoring the countdown via computer and just had time to get my camera set up before it happened. I intuited the direction to aim my camera after consulting Google maps, and was also very fortunate to have clear skies for the rocket’s ascent. The color of the plume was much redder than I expected, but turned whiter as the rocket gained altitude and speed. The first stage burn-out and the second stage igniting was clearly visible after the rocket cleared the cloud bank.

The vantage point for this shot was South Mountain, a little west of Myersville. The string of lights at the bottom right is Interstate 70 westbound traffic; the glow above the horizon is from the town of Frederick. Technical data – Nikon D7000 with 12-24mm lens at 24mm, f/8, ISO 640, two layered subsequent 30-second exposures with a brief interval between (when the rocket was obscured by clouds). The final image below was slightly cropped. You can click on it to enlarge – enjoy!

Minotaur 1 rocket launch


Sunset over Harper’s Ferry

I’ve hiked up here twice in three days; the first time I went way up the mountain above without any water and got really dehydrated. Take a clue – if you hike up to such a place take water. The lookout point by trail is much farther than the distance as the crow flies. Take an orange or apple or something, and leave your heavy lenses at home – a wide angle is all you need. (I had the 70-200 f2.8 that first day and would gladly have traded it for a bottle of Gatorade.)

At first the two guys in the second photo were in the way, clambering around and shaking the trees. But when they started taking pictures they became perfect subjects, giving the scene a sense of scale. I got the email address of one of them and sent him this photo – it’s probably on his Facebook page now.

As for the third photo it’s really hard to photograph the river and the town of Harpers Ferry without the picture seeming lopsided, due to the angle of the bridges and perspective of looking down. I think I need to come back up here with a fisheye lens.

Regarding the rest, I was tempted to stay and get shots of Harper’s Ferry in evening with town lights on. But I also really wanted to see the river and sunset through the trees – so hiked back down and didn’t feel visually cheated in the least. Enjoy, and click on the photos to see them larger size.

Smart phone photos

So my old phone finally died and I had to go out and find a new one. I really liked my LG Chocolate flip phone. It was by far the best, most reliable cell phone I’ve ever had. Admittedly it took lousy pictures, but that’s what my big cameras are for. And the LG held over 50 CDs of music that I could play on my car radio, which was great on long trips.
But when I tried to replace the LG I found the world has changed since 2007, or whenever it was I bought it. There are hardly any more flip phones available, and the only ones in the Verizon store were certifiable pieces of junk. I really didn’t want a smart phone, didn’t want the extra data charge and didn’t want more complications. About the only thing that appealed to me about a smart phone was being able to get email on it. But my hand was forced, so I asked for the ruggedest, cheapest smart phone they had. It turned out to be a Motorola Razr M, which was on sale for $50.
This is by no means a sales pitch for Motorola. There are a number of things I don’t like about this phone. But on the balance it has worked well enough so far. I can even swipe credit cards with it, thanks to the Square device. The camera is sub-par; in fact I learned this is one of the most poorly rated smart phone cameras out there. But that’s not why I bought it, and it still takes better pics by far than any other phone camera I’ve had. Images have enough resolution that I now take landscape shots from my bicycle when on rides. I wouldn’t have wasted my time doing that with the old phone.
Here’s a short collection of summer photos taken with my new smart phone. One was taken at the Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. You won’t have much trouble spotting that, but nearly all the rest were taken from my bike (or canoe). And yes, I did tweak the color and contrast in Photoshop. The phone cam isn’t that good without a little post-production, but hey – it takes a lot less space than the Nikons.

Dames’ rocket flowers (Hesperis matronalis) by Meeting House Rd, Myersville, MD

Cornfield on Harmony Rd, Myersville, MD

Grass beside Highland School Rd, Myersville, MD

Potomac River, looking upstream from mouth of the Monocacy River

Headed downstream on the Potomac River across from the Tarara Winery at Leesburg, VA

Glass mosaic, exterior of American Visionary Art Museum on the inner harbor in Baltimore, MD

My old Gary Fisher bike, faithful companion through many thousands of miles of pleasure and pain

Looking toward Harp Hill from E. Church Hill Rd, Myersville, MD

View on E. Church Hill Rd, Myersville, MD

View from Harp Hill Rd, Myersville, MD

Roses in front of Andrea’s house, Frederick, MD

Panorama from deck above Pleasant Walk Rd, Myersville, MD

Julie Harris passing

A remarkable woman, brilliant on both stage and screen, has just passed away. And such a warm person, without least bit of prima donna about her when I made this photo back in 1994. She played nine notable literary women, including Mary Todd Lincoln, in a special presentation at Lebanon Valley College, and for three days engaged in a series of talks with students. It was a rare privilege to be there as an observer. Rest in peace, Julie Harris.

Coal Country exhibit and book event

My novel, The Redemption of Valerie Tolliver, was published this spring. It’s currently available as an e-book at Smashwords.com. Print copies also were made for a book event and signing, and should be available into the foreseeable future (you can email me to buy one).

After the novel was published as an e-book I made arrangements with the Griffin Art Center in Frederick, Maryland to have a small book party. At first I only intended to invite a few friends who had encouraged me,  to celebrate getting the book out into cyberspace. But when one of the Griffin’s owners asked if I might also do a photo exhibit with the book event, it took about two seconds to say “yes”. Because Valerie, the heroine of my novel, is from coal country. More than half of my real-life coal country photos were made in Harlan County, Kentucky – the locale of Hurt, Val’s fictional home town.

Finally in print

It was exciting to anticipate finally seeing my coal country photos in print. Although I had originally taken them for print publication, that never happened. The Appalachian coal region had been covered before by National Geographic magazine and editors there wouldn’t even look at my work. Later I had near misses with both Washington Post and Time-Life, but they too passed (for that story see my blog post on the coal country photos). These photos got me other important work, but this website is the only place they’ve been published. When I started printing them experimentally it was a revelation. They are even more powerful on paper than I imagined they would be.

My next adjustment in plans was when a friend told me, “You can’t have a book party without print copies of your book.” Of course he was right, but I really had to scramble to get it to press in time for the event, which was July 6. There were disruptions and complications – the worst being a badly misprinted cover, with no time for a do over. I had to print new front covers on my inkjet printer and attach them by hand to every book. I managed to get enough done for the opening, and the rest afterward. But the event was a success.

One of the best events ever for the gallery

Not just a success, but a resounding one. Several people from the Griffin Art Center, both owners and resident artists, told me it was one of the best events they ever hosted. The authenticity of the photos was a big factor. I was nervous for the first public reading from my novel, but the crowd was attentive and appreciative beyond all my expectations. About 25 copies of the book were snapped up for the signing with many more sold since. Now for the first time since it’s been completed, multiple people are reading my book simultaneously. Several have finished it and given it high praise.

Frederick News Post covered the event and by a small miracle got most of the details right (besides some verbatim quotes that weren’t quite, the only correction worth noting is that not all the photos in the show were made in the same coal mining village, but in various communities throughout the region).

The exhibit was appropriately staged in one of the more unfinished galleries at the Griffin Art Center. The photos below provide a brief look around the room. It was crowded on opening night, but probably easier to contemplate the images when the room was quiet. The photos below are clickable to a larger size, but to see the images individually (and more that did not fit the exhibit space) you can visit my Coal country gallery on this website.

The weekend after the opening a wonderful old couple came into the gallery while I was there. They were deeply engrossed in the photos, then I learned the man had been a third generation coal miner in western Pennsylvania until the mines there closed down. The newspaper article on the exhibit had brought them in. We sat and he told stories of how his grandfather was recruited from the Ukraine by an American company to work in their mines, and then told some of his own experiences. He had great stories about the Pittston coal strike in 1989 – just after my photos had been made. It was incredibly informative, an extension of the research I did years ago when making these photos. We could have talked much longer but agreed to get together again and continue the conversation. He has vital oral history that should be preserved – I hope to do some video next time we meet.

If you haven’t done so please visit my novel website at www.valerienovel.com. There you can read a generous excerpt from deep in the story – the Kentucky portion – as well as a synopsis of the whole story. You also can order the ebook from the link provided. Anyone who wants a print copy can email me for one at my contact address linked in the menu above. (One is pictured in a photo near the bottom below).

Spring tiptoes in

Poet Carl Sandburg wrote that the fog comes on little cat feet. I’m thinking spring does too. We’re emerging from the winter doldrums in mid-Maryland, very slowly but surely. Here’s an overview as of March 31: early flowers are out; the leaves are kinda sorta ready to pop – well, maybe in a few weeks. See for yourself…

A Vinca blossom (also known as periwinkle) peeks out from the detritus of winter along the banks of Antietam Creek.

It’s never too early for those who love fishing, and the season’s open. Also on Antietam Creek, at Devil’s Backbone Park.

Another angler upstream appears nearly headless due to obscuring tree branches.

A nearly full moon rises over Washington County, Maryland

…While the river outfitter across the road is definitely not yet ready for prime time.

It’s still plenty cold, like this day last week on Little Catoctin Creek near Brunswick.

Golden sun lights up St. John’s church yard in Myersville. This is an old familiar landmark as I bicycle up East Church Hill Rd.

The fence enclosing St. John’s church yard is slowly acquiring a backdrop of color. Stay tuned, it’ll get better.

New black and white

Recently I put black and white film into my old Rolleiflex again for the first time in several years. I haven’t gone very far with it, at least not yet. Nor have I hauled out my old 4×5 view camera. But with Spring finally here I have a feeling that could happen.

So far I’ve just poked around near my home and a little farther afield, across the river in Loudon County, Virginia, with the Rollei. There’s a Catoctin Creek flowing into the Potomac River from both sides, and it’s around this territory that I’ve made a few exploratory photos on film again.

My Rollei takes beautiful portraits and I look forward to doing more people work with it. Although I make mostly digital photographs these days, many of the photos in my portrait gallery on this website were made with this camera (see it here). It feels good to crank film again. And after the sterility of constant digital work I even enjoyed the tactile experience of developing it – something I loved to hate back in the days of shooting all film, all the time.

Anyway, just for the fun of it here are some late winter black and white images from around my neck of the woods. I hope you enjoy seeing them as much as I enjoyed making them. I think there may be more, even better b/w to come – stay tuned.

Catoctin Creek near Myersville, Maryland

Underneath Crow Rock Road bridge near Myersville

Awesome roots of a venerable sycamore

Roots of another tree nearby, in a tributary stream. Can you tell I love roots?

St. John’s Lutheran Church cemetery, Myersville. I love how the two cypress trees echo the two grave stones in the foreground.

Route 17 near Burkittsville, Maryland. I saw the clouds and the light coming off those wires and had to pull over, run into the road and snap this before any more cars came along. This was purely for that beautiful light.

Loudon County, Virginia, late afternoon light

Storm debris in a small tributary to Catoctin Creek near Lovettsville, VA

Milltown Creek near Lovettsville, VA

Lebanon Valley College President’s Report

Over 20 years ago I did my first photo shoot for Lebanon Valley College. In the time since I’ve probably made more photographs for LVC than any other client. With the addition of Bishop Library, the incredible Arnold Sports Center, the Peace Garden and the current Mund College Center expansion I’ve watched the campus grow more beautiful over the years. With the appointment of a new president it’s an honor now to have photographed for Lebanon Valley College under four administrations.

This year’s president’s report focuses on LVC’s interdisciplinary programs, and gave me another opportunity to breathe in the vitality of a terrific educational institution, and to “exhale” a few worthy images in return. One of my primary jobs this time also was to make a portrait of the new president, Dr. Lewis E. Thayne.

Dr. Thayne is a man with many demands on his time. While waiting to meet with him I noticed a constant flow of people into his office suite hoping for a moment with him – which made me even more aware of the importance of making our brief time together productive as possible.

An aside on coherent lighting

I’ll have more to say on the topic of coherent lighting in another post. But this assignment illustrated the need for understanding how light behaves (or doesn’t) and the limitations of digital cameras. Some digital shooters believe if they can master all the functions of their DSLR camera they can make any kind of photo well. Sadly this is not so. In portraiture and many other kinds of photography the quality and direction of light are equally important as its color, or white balance. These are key components of what I call coherent lighting, and they apply to all photography: digital, film, still photography and video. (Strictly speaking coherent light means all light waves are in phase, as with laser light – but I’m using layman’s terms here.)

My general college photography now is done now with available light and digital cameras. But there are times when available light is not adequate, and it’s essential to override it in a pleasing, naturalistic manner. A camera’s built-in flash or a shoe-mounted flash can’t do that. In this case, Dr. Thayne’s venerable office provided a mix of daylight through large windows and old fluorescent fixtures overhead. Neither source was appropriate for the kind of portrait we needed.

Fortunately I had anticipated this and had an ample light kit with me. My first priority was to find a spot that offered an appropriate backdrop. After he approved my choice I quickly set up an impromptu studio, adjusted the ratio of main and secondary lights and metered my flash while he was able to continue working. Then I had him move into position for the actual photography without wasting his time.

There was no second guessing anything, and I was grateful to learn later that Dr. Thayne was pleased with the result. Below is the image that was chosen for publication, followed by a sampling of other photos I made around the campus for the report (more can be seen on LVC’s website). As always there were challenges to overcome but most of all we had fun making these. Many kudos to LVC’s editorial staff headed by Tom Hanrahan and to designer Tom Castanzo (Afire Creative Group) for their excellent work in conceiving and making this piece. It’s always a pleasure working with them.


Dr. Lewis E. Thayne, Lebanon Valley College President

The statue of Quittapahilla has served as the backdrop for many photos over the years, and remains a college favorite for good reason. She just rocks!

LVC’s Colloquium Series this year focuses on “Happiness”, bringing together a broad variety of disciplines. Dr. Michael Kitchens teaches the course, and got a little happiness therapy from students for this photo. I also had to create the light you see here – the overhead fluorescents just weren’t up to it.

A truly innovative interdisciplinary program – LVC’s swimming coaches, physical therapy and education departments have combined efforts to research how aquatic exercise impacts childhood development. Team members add splash to a group portrait.

Drs. David Lyons (math) and Scott Walck (physics) analyze a problem with members of LVC’s Mathematical Physics Research Group. This photo was a challenge due to the small window I had to shoot through, having to discreetly light the room for the depth of field we needed and positioning the subjects for visibility, all while maintaining a sense of spontaneity in the image. But we came out with a pretty interesting shot, I think.

The math and computer science programs at LVC are structured to be interdisciplinary. Dr. Ken Yarnall, chair and associate professor of mathematics, with two students who are developing a smart phone app.

Another interdisciplinary area where boundaries are disappearing is chemistry and biology. Dr. Walter Patton with students in the chemistry lab

Dr. Courtney Lappas with two students in the biology lab.

Professors from an array of disciplines together publish “The Valley Humanities Review”, an international journal devoted to the best scholarship in their fields. Sometimes I can’t control much of anything about the shot, but have to discreetly catch a working meeting as it happens and try to get every face – this was one of those times.

Drs. Michael Schroeder and Gabriela McEvoy are parallel-teaching courses in Latin American history, literature and language that provide a deeper understanding of Central American history and culture.

Under the direction of music professor and director of music business Jeff Snyder, students have created their own record label – R||:evolution Records. For this photo they wanted to replicate one of their inspirations – despite the wintry conditions.

Professor Jeff Snyder

The birds

Coming out of the supermarket a few nights ago I first heard, then saw all the birds in the trees across the road. It wasn’t the first time I had noticed them, but this time I had a bit of free time. I got my camera from the car and walked across the road to take a few pictures. It seemed like a social event in the treetops, with small groups of birds coming and going. I shot pictures for a very few minutes, and when it was almost dark they all took flight nearly at once, as if on signal.

They quickly settled in the cattails of a water containment area by the supermarket parking lot. It looked like that was their nesting ground for the night. I haven’t been back to see if they are still there – would be interesting to see how long they stay.

Headlights from cars turning into the parking lot illuminated the mass of birds in the cattails, for this and the photo below.

Moonrise over the Appalachian Trail

A hazy, almost-full mooon was rising by the time I finished my hike on the Appalachian Trail last evening. This photo was made from South Mountain near Myersville, Maryland.