Saturday, July 31, 2010

Eine Blast from the (college) Past...

...from a photographer's notebook

The more years I spend on the planet, the more I marvel at the capacity of the human brain (well, at least mine) to store major amounts of trivial information, bordering on the useless…until such time, that is, when it just might morph into being useful (in a crazy sort of way).

Case in point: Decades ago, while taking a beginning German course in college, I happened to learn the phrase: Die Katze ist auf die Mauer gesprungen. It means: The cat has jumped on the wall.

Not exactly as useful as asking where the rest room is in that Frankfurt Gasthaus, or how to get to the Bahnhof in Bamberg.

But I just liked the sound of it, so it snuggled its way into those remote little little gray matter “nooks ‘n’ crannies.”

Fast forward to February 2008 during a photo trip to Germany. My German friend Tom Reitzel, a fellow photographer, and I were wandering through the inviting cobblestone streets of the town of Bad Mergentheim. I was concentrating on architectural features, timber-framed houses and such…when a cute little tabby cat came scurrying across the cobblestones and leapt up onto a stone wall, close to where I was standing, and peered back at me as if to say, “Here’s your next Kitty picture.”

After shooting a few frames of said kitty on the wall, and attempting to converse in Cat, I found myself shouting excitedly over to Tom (somewhat to the amusement of some of the town-folk who had been watching this camera-laden Amerikaner taking pictures of…and trying to carry on a conversation with a cat)…

“Thomas – Die Katze ist auf die Mauer gesprungen!”

Well, I suppose "you had to be there," but sometimes I do feel those university years were actually worthwhile.

Herzlichen Dank, Frau
von Braunmühl, for having me learn all those worthy little German tidbits...

This vertical image is available in gallery prints as well as in two versions in my line of Photo Note Cards.

For a larger, higher resolution view, please click on this link:

While there, if you would like to view more of my images, click on "More photos of this photographer."

©2010 Steve Ember

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Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Digital Genie meets the Corn Cobs...

...from a photographer's notebook

Chicago Forms No.1

I have always been attracted to the strength and diversity of Chicago's architecture. Anytime I'm in the Windy City, my cameras are always active. And, as my visits to Chicago are usually separated by years, there are always new motifs to beckon.

While this image is not strictly speaking a new motif, it is a new interpretation of an old favorite “rediscovered” while scanning some long-unviewed slides last summer.

I first photographed the distinctive Marina Towers, as a teen rookie photographer on my first visit to Chicago. My vantage point was the bridge that carries Michigan Avenue over the Chicago River, between the Wrigley Building and the Tribune Tower. I was using a very basic rangefinder camera without the benefit of a wide angle lens. And I couldn't figure out how to get far enough away to allow my modest little 45 or 50 mm lens to encompass the soaring height of the twin “corn-cobs” (a nickname I later learned was used by locals to describe the unique shape and features).

Somewhere in a nondescript old box would be a crude (by today's digital standards!) black and white “panoramic” that a local camera store's lab cobbled together from two adjacent frames of Plus-X shot in that basic little camera.

New views of the “corn-cobs” were shot on each subsequent visit. The cameras (and their lens capabilities) got better, of course, but the viewpoints were always at street- or water-level.

Then, on one visit, as a result of a chance meeting, I had the opportunity to shoot some Kodachrome-64 slides on a spectacularly clear day from a balcony halfway up one of the Marina Towers.

Naturally, there were all manner of cityscapes, including elevated trains, the Chicago River, and the aforementioned architectural feast.

But that high viewpoint also allowed for some nice telephoto-generated geometrical contrasts between the curving balconies of the East Tower and the stark vertical lines of the dark monolithic office building adjacent to Marina City at 330 N. Wabash (I believe it was then called the IBM Building).

As much as I like the unaltered Kodachrome slide, the nocturnal creative urges took over, and I allowed the digital genie out of her bottle briefly, for a bit of interpretive license.

Hope you'll enjoy the discovery as much as I did...

Chicago Forms No.1 is currently available in matted and framed 14x20 and 12x18 Epson Archival Giclee Prints. It can also be ordered in additional sizes, both larger and smaller, as well as in custom printed Photo Note Cards.

If you would like to follow my photography on the web, please visit
I'm pleased to announce that my work can now also be seen on the Europe-based FotoCommunity. Click on and enter my name in the Search box. If you like what you see, please bookmark the sites, as new work is added each week. Thanks!

©2010 Steve Ember

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Sunday, July 18, 2010

Rush Street, 2 AM

...from a photographer's notebook

Usually, looking through my photographs makes me smile, as it brings recollections of favorite places, fondly remembered travel experiences, or the quiet joy of capturing a very special work of nature.

But sometimes a photo gets made simply because it’s “there” and, through the photographer’s eye and sensibilities, it can’t not get made.

Such was the case one late night in Chicago in the middle 1980’s. I was walking back to my hotel after a late dinner and some jazz along Rush Street.

Fortunately, there was still some high speed fim in my camera from some shooting earlier that night, which allowed me to capture this fleeting but, to me, very poignant “nightscape.”

© 2010 Steve Ember

Rush Street, 2 AM, from an Ektachrome transparency, is available in matted and framed prints in various sizes and will be joining my line of Photo Note Cards.

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Thursday, July 15, 2010

Best Friends

...from a photographer's notebook

There are photographs that make me smile when I first see them in my viewfinder…and subsequently, whenever I look at the finished image.

There is something utterly timeless about this scene, don’t you think? Perhaps mid-20th century? Before everyone was “wired” to iPods and such…an enduring small town ambience, comforting in its innocence and wholesomeness…

It was actually taken close to the turn of the century, in 1999. I was visiting Western Canada and this was on the second day of a leisurely drive from the West Coast to Moraine Lake. I’d overnighted in Kamloops and was driving the Trans Canada Highway toward my destination in the Banff Rockies. In mid-afternoon, I decided to break up the trip at the village of Chase, in the interior of British Columbia, and walk about with my cameras in the inviting afternoon sunshine.

Chase, actually named after an American who settled there in 1867 after coming to Canada to find his fortune in the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush, sits along the South Thompson River. OK, I’ll admit the reason to stop here was to capture the bright red locomotives of the Canadian Pacific Railway pulling their long freight trains along Lake Shuswap, and perhaps to even catch a passenger train amidst that same scenery. But after doing so, the timeless, small town ambience of Chase invited further exploration.

So, about that photo of the two young ladies…

I stopped at a small convenience market for some refreshments. It was a rustic little place run by a friendly Asian couple. After taking some photos in the store, I returned to the sunshine, in time to see the two girls outside the store under the sun awning.

What charmed me about the scene were the many elements in juxtaposition…the “little lady” with her purse (I think she was the shopkeepers’ daughter) and the cute little “tomboy.” Different clothing styles, but clearly “Best Friends.” While I’m certain they both enjoyed the ice cream by Nestlé as well as the soft drinks by Pepsi, my hunch is the “tomboy” might also have found use for those worms (see the sign in window)…at the end of her fishing pole in Shuswap Lake at whose mouth Chase sits.

Recently, while searching out film images to scan for a stock agency representing my work, I “rediscovered” the slides from that afternoon in 1999, including of this lovely moment in the Chase sunshine. While I like the original slide, the “lost in time” nature of the image suggested its treatment in toned black and white.

Perhaps you’ll indulge my nostalgic, sentimental side in adding the deckle-edge border to the “snapshot.”
©2010 Steve EmberAdd Image

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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

In the words of Koko, the Lord High Executioner...

...I've got a little list.

Oh, actually is a very long list. And a moving target in terms of time and money coming together at propitious moments. A list of journeys I wish to I want to shoot (or scan from thousands of slides sequestered in drawers of yellow, green, and silver boxes - slide film devotees know exactly what those colors mean)...the Special Lady I wish to find...projects I want to do...piles of stuff I need to file or toss...the new driveway...and the topic of this short post:

Starting a web site for my photography!

Well, it's not as though my work is not "out there," web-wise. But it would be so nice to have one dedicated spot in the cyber universe on which to display my work to clients, friends, and visitors. That might take a while longer, but I'm happy to announce a very nice spot in www-land to which I was introduced as a result of entering a recent photo competition. Indeed, it was the first photo-sharing site I found really appealing, and I have been enjoying adding new work to my pages on (as well as enjoying the work of so many fellow photogs). Indeed, some of my favorite images are making their first appearance on this easy-to-navigate site. Here's one - Hope it takes the edge off the summer heat and humidity for you.

Tractor in Winter

If you'd like to have a look at some others, just click on the following link. You may then click on any images that look appealing for a larger view, including on a nice black background, by using the "Lightbox" feature.

If you like what you see, please bookmark and come back often - It's a work in progress!

Oh, that reminds me, I've got this open-reel tape of Gilbert & Sullivan's "The Mikado" by the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company with a wonderful cast headed by John Reed as Koko (the cat with that gruesome snickersnee), the yummy Valerie Masterson as Yum Yum, and the great baritone Kenneth Sandford as the quintessential haughtily bureaucratic Pooh-Bah, all conducted by Isidore Godfrey in glorious London/Decca ffss sound (am I revealing my era?)...that I've been wanting to transfer to cassette or CD for enjoyment on the road.

Guess I should move that one up the list, eh?

Tractor in Winter is available in matted and framed prints in many sizes, and will be joining my line of Photo Note Cards, just in time for the Winter Holiday Season.

©2010 Steve Ember

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

A fleeting (photo) moment in the rain...

...from a photographer's notebook

Some of my favorite photographs just happen to fall into that delightful "serendipitic surprise" category of those I hadn't planned to take. From previous postings, it's probably clear the kind of photographs I hope to make when in my beloved Alpine settings, but the vagaries of mountain weather always present opportunities and serve to remind this shooter not to stash those cameras too quickly. Case in point...

On my first visit to Innsbruck, expecting to capture vistas of the magnificent Austrian Alps looming just beyond the old town’s distinctive architecture and cobblestone streets, I was disappointed to find the mountains totally obscured by the clouds that insisted on dumping a soaking cold rain on the town.

While consoling myself with Innsbruck’s sinfully rich pastries, and warming my insides with her rich coffee brews, I did manage to walk off a few of the calories in the old town’s sheltered arcades…when suddenly, perfectly presented--for one fleeting moment--across the cobblestone gasse was a woman standing under her umbrella, framed in the doorway of a stately rose-colored building which led to an open courtyard, against which she was silhouetted.

Up came the Nikon with the high-speed color film and the 50-mm lens. No time for swapping lenses or alternate views with one of the other cameras. Unlike many of my images that were part and parcel of lengthy shooting, "Domplatz" was captured literally in the blink of an eye. It has been one of my more successful photographs in terms of juried honors, but more notably, in terms of what I’m so pleased to have been lucky enough to capture.

I am delighted that Howard Paine, former Art Director of the National Geographic (and the man responsible for introducing photography to that magazine's cover!) selected "Domplatz" for inclusion in the July exhibit at the Art League Gallery in Old Town Alexandria. (703-683-1780)

Domplatz is available in framed or matted prints in print sizes up to 16x24 (it is displayed as a 14x20 print in the Art League's July show). It will also be joining my line of custom printed Photo Note Cards.

©2010 Steve Ember

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Saturday, July 3, 2010

Switzerland Serendipity

...from a photographer's notebook

Eiger-Mönch-Jungfrau Massif  ©Steve Ember                                                        

I am probably guilty of some pretty heavy use of the word “serendipity.”  But so many of my most fondly remembered travel experiences – and their associated photographs – would not have happened were it not for that funny-sounding word sharing the travel see-saw with careful planning.

Take Switzerland, for example…

Considering my passion for photographing rugged Alpine settings, it might sound strange that it took me about 25 years of running hundreds of rolls of Kodachrome, Ektachrome, Fujichrome, Agfachrome through a bunch of cameras before my first “meeting” with the Swiss Alps!

And it wasn’t even what I’d call a well planned visit.  Firstly, the trip in 1988 was shorter than my typical European visits – I think it was only eight days in length.  The intent was to visit Paris for a few days, and then ride the TGV for the first time, to make my first visit to Switzerland.

The time in Paris kept getting extended for reasons that are best briefly summed up by that old expression “Cherchez la femme!” Well, la femme turned out not to be as interested in cherchez-ing moi, and I realized if I was going to see Switzerland at all, I’d best allez-myself-en, tout-de-suite.

As I was doing some photography of the vicinity around the Paris Opéra, I noticed a Swiss Government Travel Office. Let’s call that Serendipity No. 1, not for its discovery, but for what occurred inside.

With great embarrassment, I explained to the gentleman my plight – namely that I now had only a short time left on my trip for a visit to Switzerland, that I had to be back in Paris in two days for my return flight, and that I was in need of guidance as to the best way to accomplish this in a way that would provide the best introduction in terms of Alpine photography.

I mentioned he was a gentleman. Without making me feel like the inept travel planner I knew I was guilty of being at that moment, he suggested Interlaken as being the best target, for its central location amidst some quite impressive Alpine sights.  Honoring my desire to experience the high-speed TGV, he worked out my rail itinerary, TGV from Paris to a little spot called Frasne, where I’d board a Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) train to Bern. Transfer at Bern to another train for the short trip to Interlaken.

My Swiss advisor told me that, at that time of year, late September, there’d be no problem finding a hotel in Interlaken and that there were many lodgings in close proximity to the centrally located main station, Interlaken-West – where I’d get off.

Now the trip from Bern to Interlaken starts to get very scenic at Thun. From there, through Spiez and on to Interlaken, it closely follows the lovely Thunersee (Lake Thun). And as we sped along, I began to see those impressive Swiss Alps in the distance.

The SBB car in which I was riding had those “pull-down” windows that make a photographer’s heart leap in rapture.  My fellow passengers seemed not to mind, so I was a happy camper with my new Canon EOS-620 auto-focus SLR, purchased for just such applications, as well as my trusty Nikons.

So involved was I in my photography that, as we rolled into Interlaken-West, I realized there’d not be enough time to put my gear away, gather up my bags, and disembark.  But that was OK, as I knew the train would terminate at a station called Interlaken-Ost (East), just a few minutes down the track at the other end of town, and I’d not run the risk of forgetting any of my belongings in the haste of rushing to get off. And, besides, I could take a taxi back to where all the hotels were.

And now, for Serendipity No.2…

I knew nothing about Interlaken-Ost station other than it being the end of the line for my train.  I had no idea that, in addition to it being the terminus for the standard gauge mainline, it was a magical gateway for the narrow gauge trains that call at villages along the Brienzer-See (Lake Brienz) on their way to the Brünig Pass and Luzern…or meander through the mountain valleys and provide access to the higher mountain villages, and even the Jungfraujoch at some 11,000 feet worth of altitude.

Nor did I know that the view from Interlaken-Ost was not only a colorful assortment of trains and rolling stock I’d never before seen (yes, I am a rail-fan if you hadn’t already surmised), but that the station sits in the shadow of the mighty Eiger-Mönch-Jungfrau massif.
I in fact had no idea that towering mass of semi-cloud wrapped Alpine majesty was the mighty triad that dominates the Jungfrau-Region of the Bernese Alps. What I remember feeling, however, was this sense of wonderment at finally coming face to face with those Swiss Alps.
So, between photographing the colorful assortment of mainline and narrow gauge mountain trains at this busy station, as well as those towering peaks, I suppose an hour or more had slipped by, and I still had not snagged a hotel room for my stay in Interlaken.

As I contemplated whether to find a taxi or walk back to the central part of Interlaken, I began to pay a bit more attention to the charming looking rose colored building that stood just across the street from the station. 

Serendipity No.3…

It was a hotel…right there at the station, and it certainly looked inviting, to say nothing of convenient.  The sign said Hotel du Lac.  And a room was available.  This was my first taste of that wonderful friendly and efficient Swiss hospitality I’d heard about. My comfortable room was a train- and mountain lover’s dream as it gave a higher viewpoint of the activity at Interlaken-Ost as well as those imposing mountains I’d admired from track-side. 

One I’d freshened up, I went downstairs to speak to the friendly folks who had checked me in and get some guidance as to the best ways to spend my too brief first visit to the Alps. The Hotel du Lac is owned and operated by the Hofmann family, and Herr Hofmann could not have been more helpful in helping me plan some good itineraries based on my railroading and Alpine photography interests.

For that afternoon, he suggested I relax with a nice meal in their restaurant overlooking the Aare River and then to take the late afternoon cruise on Lake Brienz, which would depart from the hotel’s dock. It was one of those perfect late September afternoons, and I followed his suggestions, including getting off the lake steamer at Brienz to ride up the Rothorn mountain on the Brienzer Rothornbahn train, and then return to Interlaken on the narrow gauge line that follows the shore of the Brienzersee.

The next day was just as photo-perfect, allowing a higher-altitude visual feast – the first visit to Mürren – and Piz Gloria!

The village of Mürren sits at an altitude of 5,400 feet, on a mountain ledge, high above the Lauterbrunnen Valley.  The valley floor is 2,624 below.  Mürren is traffic-free – as in: you can’t get there by automobile.  The only wheeled conveyances are electric vehicles for transporting luggage to and from the hotels…and little red wagons, so kids can transport groceries. 

There are but two ways to reach Mürren, assuming you’re not a hawk. I’ve tried them both (on different visits), and I recommend them both!

On this first visit, the itinerary was the Berner-Oberland-Bahn narrow gauge train from Interlaken-Ost, via Wilderswil, to Lauterbrunnen.  From the Lauterbrunnen station, one boards an incline railway (funicular) train for the (maximum 60% gradient!) climb up to Grütschalp.  Well, at least that’s what was there in 1988, the time of my first visit.  The funicular was, shall we say, rustic, but rustic in a Swiss way (read: noisy and not terribly comfortable, but entirely safe).  Since then, however, the steep rocky slope into which the incline cog-rail tracks were set was deemed unstable, mandating the end of the funicular, in favor of an aerial cableway covering the same distance. I can only imagine the cable car giving even more impressive views of the Alpine splendor than were possible when riding the funicular, and I intend to try it on my next visit.

The third stage of this journey is from Grütschalp to Mürren via narrow gauge electric railcar of the Bergbahn Lauterbrunnen-Mürren (BLM), although a hike along this plateau ledge affords numerous views of the rugged peaks of the Berner Oberland if you’d prefer to carefully set up your shots. And if you should tire along the way, there is a mid-point station for the railway at Winteregg.

I mentioned there are two ways to get up to Mürren.  The other is the breathtaking Schilthorn Bahn cable car ascent from Stechelberg, also in the Lauterbrunnen Valley.  Stechelberg can be reached from the Lauterbrunnen train station by Post Bus.  It’s just a short ride from Lauterbrunnen, and these buses are coordinated with the train schedules such that, if you can’t get there by train, the bus will get you there, and there’s usually a bus leaving within minutes of your train’s arrival. As the large and comfortable cable car begins its ascent from Stechelberg, I know you’ll be smiling.

Here is a photo taken on a subsequent visit capturing the enchanting Winter Wonderland view of the Lauterbrunnen Valley from the intermediate station at Gimmelwald. Just had to come back and see that rugged Alpine splendor in Winter’s lovely dress.  See why I love the Schilthorn Bahn?

That same Schilthorn  Bahn will take you high above Mürren to – where else? – the top of the Schilthorn, perhaps better known from a certain James Bond movie as Piz Gloria.  More on that destination in a bit. (Bring your appetite along!)

Back to Mürren, where the view across the valley is stunning.  That same majestic Eiger-Mönch-Jungfrau Massif I’d admired from my window at the Hotel du Lac and the platforms of Interlaken-Ost station takes on another dimension when viewed from higher up, along Mürren’s main street or from one of the hotel terraces looking out over the Lauterbrunnen Valley.

Mürren lies north-to-south on that aforementioned mountain ledge.  If one is merely visiting for the day, it would make sense to arrive via the Lauterbrunnen-Grütschalp-BLM connection and to depart via the Schilthorn Bahn cable car back down to the valley floor at Stechelberg, Post Bus back to Lauterbrunnen for the train connections to Interlaken or other points in the Berner Oberland. But…if you ride the Schilthorn Bahn cable car only between Mürren and Stechelberg, you will miss half (or more!) of the breathtaking vistas of the Berner Oberland, including the view from the terrace at Piz Gloria at 9,744 feet…or the hearty deftig fare in the revolving restaurant, which presents a 360 degree view of the surrounding peaks in the span of an hour.  And, yes, there is something, oh, romantic about enjoying that “stirred, not shaken” Martini with your meal as you glide ever so slowly past the window that says “007” while savoring the breathtaking (Have I used that word too often? I offer no apology!) panorama of Swiss Alpine grandeur.

If anything I’ve written implies Mürren is merely a day-part excursion, that is not my intent.  I relate merely the experiences of my first visit and a subsequent brief return with some friends. My intention is to experience Mürren again for at least a few days, staying in one of her inviting hotels, so as to take in – and photograph – the mountains in all their moods, from sunrise to Alpenglow.

Naturally, the D-SLR will be at hand, but those 20 rolls of Kodachrome-25 in my freezer, as well as a similar number of rolls of Agfa-Pan 25 black and white deserve something really special to excite their fine-grained emulsions, especially the K-25 that the one remaining Kodachrome lab (in the world!) will stop processing at the end of 2010.  Seems this is the time for that hoped for return to my beloved Swiss Alps…including that little mountain gem called Mürren.

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