Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Seattle, Washington, USA

There's something a little off about paying thousands of dollars for a state of the art 22 megapixel digital camera, then shopping around for the crappiest plastic lens you can lay your hands on.

The Holga, a twenty dollar Chinese plastic toy, was long one of my favorite cameras. In the old days of film, I'd come home with hundreds of rolls of Velvia and a dozen or two poorly wound 120's of Scala or Tri-X. When it all came back from the lab, I went straight to the Holga film. With color slides, I pretty much knew what was the box. The Holga suffered from light leaks and blurry nonsense when it wasn't falling apart in your hands, but still. But once in a while some magic creapt in. With the twilight of film, I left my beloved toy behind on most trips.

But the nice people at Holgamods.com have found time to glue those crappy, blurry plastic lenses onto Canon lens caps.

My version has a tendency to fall apart in my hands when I try to focus, and every time I pick it up out of the dust, the lens gets a little softer, picks up a bit more flare and I love it that much more.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Final Tally - Australia

Final Australia Tally

Days Travel: 27

Number of Digital Frames: 39,554 (including tedious time-lapse frames)

Number of 35mm Film Frames : 3

Kilometers Driven: 10,692

Maximum Speed: 161 km/hr

Number of McDonald's Receipts: 16 (curse you, free wi-fi)

Total hours flown on Qantas: 27

Total hours slept on Qantas: 0.25

Total movie watched on same: 9

Total Books Read: 1.7

Total Equipment Casualties: Two lenses dropped, one tripod...misplaced

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Sydney, Australia

After a few thousand miles of solitary Outback driving, popping out of the tunnel and into Sydney rush hour traffic was a shock I was ill prepared for. The last of the sweet sunset light was already fading, and I struggled to navigate across the Harbour Bridge to photograph the city skyline before dusk faded into night.

Facing an airport deadline, I covered more than 1000 km of country roads today while maintaining autobahn speeds and a serious iced coffee/meat pie buzz. Rushing over Circular Quay in the middle of eight seething lanes of rush hour traffic was just a little too much stimulation.

The vast distances here have frustrated me again and again. The notion of driving from Sydney along the Tasman and up to the Top End and thence to Queensland was always ridiculous. Imagine driving from Atlanta to Houston and then up to Banff for the day before setting off in the general direction of Quebec, checking out the Chesapeake and then dropping off the rental car by noon in Georgia.

To my eye, this is a vast, wondrous country with some seriously pissed-off weather. Half the country is in flames, the other half under flood water. Shark attacks on the coast, Dengue fever in the tropics, dust storms and locusts in the middle. If I see four guys on horses asking directions to the apocalypse, I’m heading the other way.

I call the final score Large Antipodean Continent - 1, Overambitious, underfunded Photographer - 0.

I’m looking forward to the rematch.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Ivanhoe, Australia

I walked into the pub and asked the bartender, “Is it always like this outside?”

It must have been something in my eyes, or maybe the orange hair, face and clothes, but I diverted his attention from pouring beers long enough to peek out the front door.

He called back into the bar, “C’mon and have a look, it’s the end of the world.”

I fully intended to push on from here, a dying town in the northwest corner of New South Wales. This used to be sheep country and prosperous, but that was before twelve years of punishing drought. Ivanhoe is now a town of one pub, two gas pumps and no small number of sun-faded For Sale signs.

With the grass long grazed to stubble, the red Outback dust takes flight without much provocation. I had watched the sky turn brown and strange through the day, as strong winds fanned by 105° heat gathered in the face of a passing weather front. I’d hoped to make two or three more hours before dark, but folks just shook their heads.

A guy at the gas station looked up and laughed, “It ‘asn’t gotten bad yet. The ‘roos aren’t even out.”

I made no more than five miles before a red veil blotted out the sky, swallowed my headlights and covered the road. I stopped the car and stepped outside to get my bearings, and immediately wished I hadn’t. Dust filled the space between molecules with forty knot blast furnace gusts, and the power lines buzzed with weird static.

When I turned around and found my way back to the pub covered in orange, I asked for a beer and smart-assed, “You get much of this?”

One of the locals slowly looked me up and down and smiled, “Dust? Yeah mate, a bit.”

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Woomera, Australia

He popped up in the middle of the road, out in the middle of absolute nowhere. I only saw him at the last minute, and turned hard, almost swerving into an oncoming car. The other driver’s eyes went wide with fear, but HE didn’t flinch. Flap-necked lizards are known to be, well, unflappable.

I pulled a U-turn and slowly drove back. He remained unmoved, basking in the morning sun like the king of the blacktop. I pulled out my gear, and it was only the clattering of a dropped lens hood that sent him scurrying into the desert. Luckily, the only cover was a pile of dead branches, and once wrapped into those he adopted the ‘If I stand perfectly still you can’t see me’ defense.

From his perspective, it must have been a trial, remaining motionless while a smelly, hairless, middle-aged beast crawled around him sweating and swearing, probing with clicking metal bits and flashing lights. The spectacle of me down on all fours, cargo short clad butt in the air, genuflecting to a pile of dead shrubbery, caught the attention of the few passing motorists.

Everybody slowed down, but nobody stopped. You see some crazy shit in the desert. Best to lock your doors and just keep moving.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Kings Canyon, Australia

I open my eyes and the alarm clock says 5:40. There are days when I bound out of bed eager to see what the world has on offer, but this isn’t one of them. Gray light filters through the blinds and I ask myself, not for the first time, “What am I doing here?”

I drive the trailhead at Kings Canyon for my morning death march. Eight kilometers of rugged hiking over sandstone that glows with a furnace heat in the morning sun. I climb and sweat and swat at flies. The pictures I’m making bore even me. I am so completely done with this place.

My old girlfriend had a name for me when I get like this. Mister Miserable.

I overhear bits of the tour guide narration. Blah blah 330 million years...Sandstone....Tectonics....blah blah...I can see for myself that rainwater, when it comes, collects in the canyon pools, sustaining an oasis of life. I read somewhere that the Aborigines who hunted this valley hold its headwaters sacred. A nearby line of hikers take a more secular approach.

Descending toward a verdant pool dubbed the Garden of Eden, the hikers merrily chatter, eat their breakfast and some strip down to go swimming. A group of German girls emerges laughing and dripping in lacy brassieres and panties.

Even that doesn’t cheer me up. I climb out of the gorge alone, away from the merriment and back toward the parking lot miles away.

But every once in a while, when I deserve it least, the world offers a gift.

I glance down and see a smaller pool, still as glass. Framed by ancient sandstone, it forms a perfect mirror, reflecting the palms, the vertical canyon walls and the deep blue sky. I climb back down and frame, then re-frame the scene. The youngsters pack up to leave, and one of the Germans offers me the last of her chocolate chip cookies.

I stay for a long while, watching the play of wind and light on the water. Mister Miserable will have to go on ahead without me.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Ayers Rock Redux, Australia

As a traveler, I am hostage to the vagaries of human nature. Most times I am well fed, treated kindly and released unharmed as soon my hotel bill is paid. But sometimes that blind faith gets bundled off in the boot of a car and vanishes without a trace.

During my visit to Ayers Rock, I have struggled to photograph the night sky here. This requires one small part technical wizardry (put camera on tripod, press shutter for exceedingly long time), but also a bit of ethical flexibility when it comes to park rules. There’s a big of strategic fence hopping involved, along with the whole question of the park’s nightly closure. Finally, you have to hope that no one stumbles upon said thousands of dollars of unattended hardware and makes it their own.

Having scurried 200 feet into the brush to hide one camera, I felt safe in leaving it unattended as it automatically took a picture every 40 seconds, and I wandered off to shoot the sunset. I didn’t return until nightfall to change batteries and bid the camera a successful evening. With no one in sight, I hopped the fence. In the darkness, I heard no clicking, saw no tripod. Everything was gone.

My mind raced. Did a dingo snatch my baby? I only remembered one car parked nearby when I left, but who would just wander off into the bush following the sound of a clicking camera. Must have been the dingo.

After a sleepless night conjuring implausible explanations for my insurance adjuster, I went out to half-heartedly shoot the dawn and keep an eye out for that car. Which I found parked and unattended at a crowded trailhead. I sat down and waited for an hour in the flies and heat for someone to show. I wasn’t really sure what I was going to say, but I saw a lot of different possibilities, all of them bad, Angry denials followed by a thrashing.
No stolen gear after all leading to legal unpleasantness and deportation hearings. Screeching tires, a high speed police pursuit, a ranger shoot out. .

Maybe I watch too much television.

As it was, three young hikers emerged from their lap around the Rock. All wore headnets against the flies, and a hatchet-faced young woman sat down in the shade to light a smoke and take a long drag through the mesh. With an hour of preparation and rehersal behind me, I still couldn't think of anything better than, “Did you guys happen to see a camera and tripod last...”

“You’ll have to ask my husband about that,” she snapped.

So I did.

“Aw, right. So that was yours then.”

“Well. Yeah.”

“We reckoned someone had left it.”

“Really....hidden in the brush...while it was still taking pictures....”

“Crikey mate. Japanese tourists, you wouldn’t believe the stuff they do. Sheila, where’d you put that stuff?”

It eventually came back to him, and he retrieved my camera from the bottom of his duffel bag in its protective wrapping of dirty underwear, dug my carbon fiber tripod out of another bag, and rummaged somewhere else entirely to unearth the finder and timer cable.

“We were gonna' drop it off with the rangers...”

Normally, I would chirp in something helpful here to break the tension, about not wanting to bother anyone, thanks for keeping an eye on it. But for once, I just kept my mouth shut as he handed over my gear, piece by piece.

There really wasn’t anything to be said at all, at least nothing that wasn’t going to lead to a beating by a large man in a bug net. I took my gear, walked back to the car and drove off, trying to figure out what the hell just happened.