Saturday, March 26, 2011

Moon Song

   from a photographer's notebook...

The "Super Moon" rises above the Potomac   ©2011 Steve Ember

Most of us who enjoy the beauty of a moonlit night don’t think in terms of “apogee” or “perigee.”

Those terms are for astronomers – not songwriters, romantics…or photographers. Songwriters have waxed poetic over “harvest moons” – as in Shine on, Harvest Moon, for me and my gal…Blue Moon – you saw me standing alone, without a dream in my heart; without a love of my own. Oh, You Crazy Moon, look what you’ve done.  MoonglowHow High the MoonMoon Song, Moon Over Miami... But admit it - you’ve never heard a song about the moon’s apogee…or perigee…

Me, I didn’t know the difference, or much care about it…until a friend who knew my photography, alerted me to the Super Moon that was to rise here in Washington at 7:39 PM last Saturday evening. 

What was so special about this particular moonrise?  One word: Size. Yes, size matters when one is including the moon in a nightscape type of photograph. And I have any number of favorite spots in our nation’s capital for capturing a moonrise.  One is on the Virginia side of the Potomac, where one can see a panorama that includes the U.S. Capitol, the Washington Monument, and the Lincoln Memorial, all nicely arrayed before one’s lens…just waiting to be adorned by a great big full moon.  My preference tends to be the big orange colored “harvest moon” of the type we see around here in autumn.

If you’re a photographer, or just a moon-loving romantic, you are certainly aware of the fact that the moon – especially the full moon – looms much larger when it is close to the horizon.  In other words, shortly after moonrise. And if you’re a traditionalist behind the camera, you like to capture that fullness as it actually appears, and not use Photoshop or other technical wizardry to make the moon take up five times as much space in your photo.  Fun, perhaps…but kinda bogus.

There is also the consideration that while the moon always rises in the east, the actual point in the sky will vary…and that, of course, affects where it will appear in your photograph, composition-wise. And, if it’s going to be a full moon – and your (photographic) stars are in alignment, such that it will be just where you want it, but a big bank of storm clouds or other meteorological impediment should rain on your parade, what then?

One begins to see why some photographers diss Mother Nature and cut and paste that full moon…

So, imagine my glee at the weather conditions Saturday evening.  Dry, comfortable temperatures, and superb visibility from my chosen viewing point, as I arrive, set up my tripod, latch on the camera, and compose my view.  Dome of the Capitol at the left, nicely lighted…the spire of the Washington Monument equidistant between the Capitol dome and the crisp, brightly lit columns of the Lincoln Memorial in the center, casting its reflection in the indigo, almost still Potomac

Just a few minutes to consider the differences between apogee and perigee and their bearing on something called the “Super Moon.” No, I hadn’t heard that term before.  Was I not paying attention back in 1993?  That was the last time a full moon – at perigee – paid us a visit. Well, maybe we didn’t know to name it back in ’93… But it was there.  And it was soon to be here. And best to catch it, as the phenomenon will not re-occur for another 18 years or so.

Now, this is not to say songwriters, romantics, and photographers will have to wait 18 years to be enchanted by a big orange full moon rising majestically over our favorite masterpiece of nature or architectural landmark. And we photographers, through judicious selection of varying degrees of telephoto lens perspective, will be able to make that moon as large – and as textured – as fine optical glass and a solid tripod can provide.

But, back to what made the Super Moon so dramatic…and so very unique.
Our Moon travels around the Earth in an elliptical orbit, and that elliptical path happens to have a farthest point – called the “apogee,” and a nearest point, called the “perigee.” Now, according to NASA, moons at perigee appear 14% larger and 30% brighter than moons at apogee.

But … a perigee moon almost coinciding with a full moon … that is what all the fuss is about.  Technically speaking, a full moon is only a “full” moon for an instant.  On either side of that tiny time point, it is not quite exactly its perfectly round, uniformly bright self.  But let’s not quibble over such minutiae.  I mean, I’m going to leave my sextant and measuring tape at home.

As you can see in my Washington photos, the (OK, nearly!) full moon presented itself as a big orange disc while still low to the horizon.  As it rose, it would become both smaller and whiter.  And if you viewed it, say, at 8:39 PM (an hour after it appeared), it looked pretty much like any other full moon in a nice clear sky.

Mighty big when it first appears!     ©2011 Steve Ember
And that gets us back to why the relatively few minutes after moonrise were so visually dramatic – a “Super” moonrise, if you will. For at the point where this (almost!) full moon is at perigee, a sort of optical illusion I will not pretend to understand, or even try to explain, makes it look truly formidable. One can only imagine the primal fears it inspired in our hunter-gatherer forbears as they went about with their clubs in search of dinner on the hoof. 

A glowering fiery orange…mass…on the horizon. Out of all proportion to any harvest moon we’ve admired.  Or sung about. Or photographed.  To present such to you myself, I would have had to be on higher ground with a much longer lens than the telephoto I was using Saturday, in order to get a clearer shot at the true horizon. And that would have precluded capturing the panorama you see above. 

On the web, you’ll find many such dramatic shots with the moon supernaturally large, during that very brief phase, at and just above the horizon, which most precisely defines a “Super Moon.”
      While looking perhaps a bit less "super," by 8:17, the moon has risen sufficiently to cast a nice reflection in the Potomac.      ©2011 Steve Ember               

Incidentally, have you ever wondered how much the moon climbs in the sky in, say, thirty seconds?

Typically, when I’m shooting after-dark cityscapes, I will use time exposures of varying lengths, favoring a small aperture for best depth of field and capture of the lights in the buildings, street lighting, traffic, etc., as well as capturing some nice “starbursts” in those lights.  The smaller the aperture, of course, the greater the interval the shutter must stay open. Fortunately Saturday, in most of my shots, I was conservative as to those l-o-n-g  exposures, preferring to shoot many bracketed sets to get just the right lighting during a fairly short window in which the moon was still large and in the proper space within my composition. 

But I did shoot one frame with a teeny-tiny f/stop and (according to the EXIF data recorded by my camera) a shutter duration of 30 seconds. Look closely at the photo below and you will see some “ghosting” around the moon, showing just how much it rose in the sky in those 30 seconds!
In this 30-second exposure, you can see  just how much the "super moon" rose in that interval.     ©2011 Steve Ember
By the way, speaking of sublime lunar experiences, have you ever heard the sublime Sue Raney singing "Moon Song?"


©2011 Steve Ember 
I will be offering a number of my "Super Moon over Washington" nightscapes as Photo Note Cards and gallery prints in various sizes.  For a higher quality view, please go to my fotocommunity site and click on the Nightscapes-US folder to see more.

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Monday, March 14, 2011

I LOVE this Billboard!

    from a photographer's notebook...

Mr. Boh proposes to Miss Utz   ©2011 Steve Ember

Disclaimer: I have no commercial connection with Smyth Jewelers, but I could not stop smiling when I saw this billboard!  If you are from Baltimore, or have any knowledge of the city, I’ll bet it makes you smile as well.

I grew up in Baltimore, before moving to Washington to pursue my broadcasting career. 

Unlike some cities with large transient segments in their populations, Baltimore does not forget its roots and traditions.  It embraces them.

And this sign simply and at the same time, eloquently, “marries” two of those traditions: Natty-Boh (that’s National Bohemian Beer, for the uninitiated) and Utz Potato Chips.

For as long as I can remember - and that goes back to childhood - Mr. Boh, the one-eyed, mustachioed, hair-parted-down-the middle, trademark of National Bohemian, represented the beer in TV commercials (some of which were nothing short of brilliant in celebrating “The Land of Pleasant Living” - he made a damn fine troubadour -  see below!), print ads, and, most certainly, neon signs adorning the city’s neighborhood taverns and package goods stores.

Another fondly remembered trademark in Baltimore was the Utz Potato Chips Girl, with her wide eyes, the big bow in her hair, and her hand (where else?) in a bag of Utz potato chips.

Thus, what a stroke of genius to add the stick figure and diamond ring to Mr. Boh, as he proposes to “Miss Utz,” to represent Baltimore, tradition, and love in one simple, eloquent statement. Bravo, Smyth and your ad agency!

So, how did I come to see – and shoot – this smile-maker of a billboard?

Earlier this month, I produced a program on my old home town for the Voice of America’s English teaching service (known both as VOA Special English and VOA Learning English). It was a lovely experience, as well as wicked good fun, as I was also asked to do a lesson in “Bawlmerese,” a unique dialect spoken (to greater or lesser extent) by many Baltimoreans. 

But another wonderful part of this project was being asked to illustrate the program’s web pages with my photos of Baltimore, taken over several decades, as well as producing a slide show.  

The “sidebar” feature, “An Extended Lesson in Bawlmerese” was illustrated by my editor, who put up some of the photos I hadn’t used in the slide show.  I decided there needed to be some more “specific” photos illustrating some of the Baltimore places and institutions of which I spoke, so I planned another trip over there yesterday to shoot such images. 

Prominent on my shooting list were Baltimore’s row houses and marble steps.  But a recent Baltimore shoot to capture the Inner Harbor at twilight, seen at the top of the VOA story and here, combined with the excitement I felt in turning up, for that presentation, several slides I’d taken in my earliest years behind a camera, reawakened my interest in capturing more of the rich urban tapestry of my old stompin’ grounds.

A serendipitous juxtaposition ©Steve Ember
And, as I had great fun in mentioning Natty-Boh, both as a Baltimore tradition and in examples of the distinctive “O” sound heard in full-out Bawlmerese, I absolutely had to include a photo of the beer’s longtime print and TV “spokesman,” Mr. Boh.  And that meant including Brewer’s Hill (site of the erstwhile National Brewing Company – the beer is now brewed elsewhere, but remains a Balto tradition, alongside of steamed crabs!). Brewer’s Hill is located in East Baltimore’s Canton, and the plan was to hit that neighborhood sometime after dark, to shoot the Natty Boh Tower and – of course – the big red neon sign of…Mr. Boh, looking out over the city that loves him.

But that left a lot of shooting to be done in daylight.  And the perfect sunny afternoon conditions  made for some great photo opportunities.

After shooting in Druid Hill Park and then capturing some brightly colored row houses nearby, along with those marble steps, the next destination was the old Mount Royal Station to capture the tall clock tower mentioned in the “Extended Bawlmerese Lesson.”

©2011 Steve Ember
Mount Royal station was, in my early years, the uptown terminus for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad’s premiere passenger trains to New York, Washington, Chicago, and other destinations. It’s now a part of the Maryland Institute College of Art.  But passenger train service is alive and well over at the Pennsylvania Station, just across town, and that’s where we headed so I could photo illustrate my references to “llaocaomaotives” as an example of both the Bawlmerese guttural L and diphthonged O.

We parked on North Charles Street, just across from this impressive Beaux-Arts terminal, serving both Amtrak and the regional MARC Rail, as well as Baltimore's Light Rail system  No sooner had we gotten out of the car than we spotted the sign, just north of the station. The fence in the foreground is along the bridge that carries Charles Street over the tracks leading into Penn Station.

I’ll show you some more Baltimore scenes, or provide links to them, soon.  But for now, I just wanted to share this simple but eloquent statement of a cherished bit of Baltimore.

Ciao, Hons.

©2011 Steve Ember

And with sincere thanks to the guys at Atomic TV, I offer you...

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Saturday, March 12, 2011

I was young and she was beautiful...

     ...from a photographer's notebook

I have owned a lot of automobiles, as my decades on the planet might suggest.  But not that many cars.  Not quite as many as would be the mean for someone with this many years on his odometer.

The reason is simple: I tend to get attached to my cars.  Well the good ones at least, and there have been many good ones. One of my two current cars is a 1990 Ford Thunderbird Super Coupe.  I bought it new, which means it will be 21 in October, as I bought it toward the end of the model year.

But this little story is not about my longest owned car.  It’s about my first new car, and, oh, was she a honey.  And oh, was I young.

I’ve thought of her over the years.  Wondered who might be loving her now, keeping her garaged, lovingly maintained, and driven only in fair weather…polished to a fare-the-well…and pampered.

More romantic to think of her that way, rather than the more likely scenario that twenty years later, guys in tee shirts were probably chugging beer out of frosty cans that once were part of her sleek body panels.

But what triggered this little stroll down memory lane was actually a bit of serendipity involving my photography...which goes back to even before I held my first car keys.

Earlier this month, I worked on a program about my home town, Baltimore, Maryland for the Voice of America. I was invited to work up a slide show of some of my photographs of Baltimore for my broadcast organization's web site.. While I took some new photos for the story, I got to thinking it might be fun to plumb my image bank for some real “legacy” photos of the ol’ home town, before all the modernizing that came with such projects as the Inner Harbor. And, as Baltimore was represented in some of the earliest efforts with my cameras, I just knew that, lurking amidst boxes and boxes of hopefully not faded color slides from the ‘60s might be some images showing the Baltimore in which I grew up.  Maybe they’d even be good!

Now, this has proved to be a somewhat helter-skelter search, as I only developed a serious filing modality more recently.  And, truthfully, I’d not done all that much with my Baltimore images in the past several years.

But I knew of a couple boxes of slide trays from the early ‘60s, whose depths I had plumbed a couple years ago for some photos of New York taken in 1963.

So into that first box I delved. No, I didn’t find my stealthy teen rookie photos of Baltimore's infamous “entertainment” district, The Block.

But I did come upon a tray of slides taken of that first new car.  Taken with all the pride that anyone who loves cars and cameras knows so well.  Funny how that new car smell also triggers a keen photographic response!

Guess it’s time I told you what “she” was…

She was also a Ford. No, she wasn’t a Thunderbird, although she wore the T-Bird badges on her front fenders to signify that purring under her broad, sleek hood was the big 390 cubic inch displacement Thunderbird V-8 that also powered the primo Ford Luxo-machine of that name.

Taken with pride in the summer of '63  ©Steve Ember
She was my 1963 Galaxie 500 convertible. My first “new” car.

A source of automotive pride.  An emblem of an era of optimism…and Camelot.  Yes, she came home with me in the early summer of 1963.  John F. Kennedy was our President, with the lovely Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy as First Lady.  They brought a special aura to Washington.  The situation in Viet Nam had not become the morass it soon would.  Cuba was worrisome, but the era was called “Camelot,” after the Lerner and Loewe musical play of that name.  King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, Sir Lancelot, the Round Table, where might served right.  At least that was how it began. And how could one not feel optimism, mixed with glamour. 

And, yes, the better cars being turned out by Detroit’s “Big Three” automakers, GM, Chrysler, and Ford were emblems of that optimism mixed with glamour.  And why not? Gasoline was less than a quarter for a gallon of premium.

You could lower the top, turn up the radio and hear Vic Damone, George Shearing, Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra, Nelson Riddle, Ella, Rosie Clooney, Percy Faith, Bert Kaempfert. 

Times were good.  And she...was beautiful.

©2011 Steve Ember

Monday, March 7, 2011

Those Sundays at the Airport...

    from a photographer's notebook...

The original Baltimore Friendship International Airport ©Steve Ember

A few years back, I wrote a story for Airliners magazine about my lifelong love affair with airplanes.  It was called “Confessions of an Airplane Lover.”  Perhaps you read it or maybe you’ve listened to the CD.

Early in the narrative, I mentioned how that love affair began, with Sunday morning visits with my Dad to “a sleepy little airport called Friendship.”

Recently I was asked to collaborate on a program about Baltimore, the city in which I grew up, for The Voice of America.  The person who undertook the project learned from our mutual colleagues that I was from Baltimore, and as the program was to delve into the very quirky “Bawlmerese” dialect that many Baltimoreans speak and I can do a pretty wicked Bawlmerese…well, one “fing” led to the next there, Bunky. (For the uninitiated, you’ve just read some Bawlmerese.)

I was also invited to illustrate the story with some of my photos of Baltimore, both recent and “vintage.”

As I started toting around a camera before I even had a driver’s license, I was pretty certain I could document the Baltimore of well before the showplace Inner Harbor and revitalized downtown.  The only question was: Was there any remote chance of locating my slides from roughly 50 years ago?

Now, over the last decade or so, I’ve been fairly organized in terms of classifying and filing slides and negatives.  I wrote, in another post, of my “kid on Christmas Morning” glee in rediscovering scores of “legacy” images when I finally purchased a slide scanner in 2009 to begin integrating my film images into a digital workflow.  Lots of happy rediscoveries there, but they didn’t include any of the “old” Baltimore.  Guess I just wasn’t digging quite deep enough.

But the VOA story was, well, motivation.  I once interviewed the legendary Boston Pops conductor Arthur Fiedler.  I marveled at his energy for an octogenarian.  He matter-of-factly said, “You want something done?  Ask a busy man.  He’ll always find the time.”

That advice struck me as sounding a bit paradoxical, but I guess it stuck in one of those little “nooks and crannies” of gray matter.  And I am surprised at how often I find myself recalling it, as I burn the candle at both ends while scrambling on multiple projects.  And while I was, indeed, on multiple projects, I could not keep from rummaging deeper and deeper into the past on this quest to unearth my old Baltimore slides.

Did I mention they were all over creation?  Goodness, does any photographer sans assistant ever manage to file all of his images? Somehow, I think that would mean forsaking shooting.  And that, we camera-toters know, is an absolute impossibility.

So, with dogged determination I find two boxes full of Ansco (does that tell you how old?) slide trays.  I mean, folks, this was pre-Carousel!  Yep, straight, rectangular Ansco trays of the type that hold forty slides. 

Now, let’s see…I bought my first Kodak Carousel projector in 1964.  So the slides in those Ansco trays are…OK, not to put too fine a point on this, I learned to drive in a five year old 1955 Chrysler and remember watching a lot of black and white TV. I think that makes me what we call “seasoned.”

And so are some of the slides I hoped to find of my old home town to illustrate that Baltimore story on the VOA web site.

I knew I was getting warm when I found the tray containing slides proudly taken of my first “new” car, my 1963 Ford Galaxie 500 convertible gleaming in the summer sunshine on the driveway of the house in which I grew up.  I’ll tell you about her in another ramble and show you my first automotive “object of desire.”

But, now, the hunter had the scent. Hmm, Ford Galaxie…First airplane trip, to Niagara Falls – in 1963…Aha! Baltimore in the early 60s!

Pay dirt, including the “old” Baltimore downtown skyline, rising behind the dingy docks, sheds, and warehouses of the original Inner Harbor, long before we even called it the “inner” harbor, a place my Dad warned me to stay away from when my teen buddies and I would go out prowling in the car on Friday nights.  Yes, it was grim down there after dark.  But no worse than any other big industrial city in need of revitalizing.  They all have their underbellies and skid rows.  That was Baltimore’s Inner Harbor in the ‘50s and ‘60s…

But this little story started out talking about “a sleepy little airport called Friendship,” didn’t it?

Loves and passions always start at some fondly remembered event.  And the brighter they burn, the more vividly we remember how they started.  Sometimes, we’re even lucky enough to possess visual mementos. My passion for airplanes started with those Sunday morning trips “out to Friendship.” Friendship was Baltimore’s “new” airport, undertaken with great civic pride a few years after the Second World War ended.  It opened in 1950, dedicated by President Harry S. Truman, and was named for the area in Anne Arundel County, just south of the city, where it was built. 

I’m guessing I first visited Friendship sometime in 1955 or ’56, as I recall riding shotgun down the Baltimore Washington Parkway with my Dad in our then-new ’55 Chrysler with its big V-8 engine.

It was a gem of an airport.  Clean, modern, friendly, and back when I was a ten year old with my first camera, a Brownie Hawkeye, not very busy.  That would come a few years later. 

When I was first visiting Friendship with my Dad, it was still playing second fiddle to the more established Washington National Airport.  Indeed, it was not uncommon, if one was flying across the country, to hop a connecting flight out of Friendship on a “feeder” airline’s DC-3 or Martin 4-0-4 for the 12 minute flight over to DCA to rendezvous with a major airline’s DC-6 or -7 or Constellation. Not always, of course, but Friendship had some catch-up ball to play back then.

But then came the Jet Age, and Friendship truly spread her wings.  Those big shiny 707s and DC-8s that ushered in the age of jet travel needed much longer runways than National provided.  And Washington-Dulles wasn’t yet in operation.  So, by default, Friendship, with its nice long runways, became the jetport for the Washington Baltimore area, and the “International” in her name took on real meaning as the sleek 707s of Pan American and TWA boarded passengers in Baltimore for overseas destinations. But that’s getting way, way ahead of this nostalgic little journey…

You know what was wonderful about Friendship?  There was a long, broad, open promenade running the entire length of the roof of Friendship’s Pier B.  Well, what would you expect a concourse to be called at an airport serving a seaport city?  Friendship had three “piers,” A,B, and C.  Pier B, being in the middle, was a great place for that open promenade, as it allowed visitors to look out on the tarmac areas serving most of the airport’s real estate. 

From that wonderful open promenade, one looked down at Capital Airlines DC-3s and DC-4s, Eastern Airlines Martin 4-0-4’s, the occasional TWA Constellation (there was glamour!).  This was before enclosed jet-ways.  Passengers would walk out from the gates below, across the tarmac, sometimes along a red carpet, and up the stairs to their plane, where they were greeted by graciously smiling, attractive stewardesses in tailored uniforms, often wearing white gloves. Back then, if you loved airplanes and air travel, you could truly get up close and personal with your aluminum clad radial-engined magic carpet. 

Well, there’s more about those saner days of air travel in “Confessions of an Airplane Lover.”  But the slide I turned up with such glee, while certainly not one of my more “glamorous” images was evocative in ways I’m not even sure I could describe.  You see, Friendship International Airport – is no longer there.  Oh, the nice long runways are still there, but the neat post-war modern airport building was razed to make way for a huge BWI mega-terminal, and the original airport’s modest but forward-looking heart and soul got swallowed up by the inevitable march of progress.  That’s why my photo is, to me – I’ll say it boldly – an all-out gem.

I suppose if I were interested in hiding my “seasoned” age, I would not have posted the image.  Friendship’s clean-lined terminal looked that way for several years after the photo was taken, but the cars out front, speak to the slide’s age. And no, I wouldn’t think of cropping or air-brushing or cloning them away. Couldn’t find a date on the slide, not even the lab’s processing date stamp, but I’m guessing I took it in 1959 or ’60.

They say a picture’s worth a thousand words.  I suspect I may have written a bit more than the proverbial thousand.  But that little slice of silver coated celluloid surrounded by a cardboard mount is, well, almost as powerful to me as finding that photo you took of your first flame and being overwhelmed at how beautiful she was in her wool sweater and skirt on that very special sunny autumn afternoon.

Now, I have a splendid visual token of the handsome, inviting portal that transported me to the delights of a life long love affair with airplanes.

Oh, yes, thank you, City of Baltimore and Maryland Port Authority. Thank you, VOA Special English.

And thank you, Dad.

©2011 Steve Ember 

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