August 2013

Turn around

by Steve Brock on August 28, 2013

Want to see the familiar in a new way? Turn around.

“What?” you ask, “how can I see something if I’m looking the other way?”

You can’t.

And that’s the whole point.

View from the Arc de TriompheI’m sticking with the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, France for this example as well. When you climb to the top of the Arc via that wonderful spiral staircase, you get a 360 degree view of Paris.

You could see any part of Paris you wanted. But where do most people look or take pictures? One of two places.

Either they try to get a shot with the Eiffel Tower in it or, even more popular, they try to get a shot of the Avenue des Champs Elysees. The above photo is a panorama that captures both with the famous street right smack dab in the middle. To view the details of that image, click on the photo above and then again on the smaller photo that will appear.

But why look where everyone else looks? Turn around. And when you do, you might see something you didn’t expect. In my case, turning around meant going to the other side of the Arc from the Champs Elysees. And this is what I saw:

Avenue de la Grande Armee from the Arc de TriompheThe street, the Avenue de la Grande Armee, leads toward the Place de la Porte Maillot, sort of the downtown business center of the city where you see all those buildings. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen, or at least paid attention to them before. But I think they are more interesting than the Champ Elysees, at least photographically. Granted, adding the texture to the photo as I did also helps enhance this image. But I still find the subject as or more visually rewarding than the more traditional look down the Champs Elysees.

I remember once in central Taiwan ascending a famous mountain in the dark of pre-dawn morning so that I and several hundred other visitors could witness the sun rise over the clouds beneath the summit. I don’t have the photo handy (it was taken on slide film and is buried somewhere in a file), but while several hundred people gawked at the sun and took photos of its rise over the horizon, I turned the other way. I ended up with a great shot of myriad sunglass-clad faces all mesmerized and focused on the same thing. It was a much better image than the sunrise.

Sometimes what you seek isn’t in front of you but behind you in a place you’ll never find unless you do one simple thing.

Turn around.

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Looking on the inside

by Steve Brock on August 20, 2013

Arc de Triomph Panorama“The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” 1 Samuel 16:7

I thought I’d throw that verse in (completely out of context, of course) just to add some biblical weight to today’s entry on seeing the old or familiar in a new way.

When we look at a familiar building or scene, we tend to do what the verse above suggests: we look at the outward appearance. But if you want to see it in a fresh manner, look beyond that.  Look inside.

That’s rather obvious with some place like, say, Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. After all, most people go there as much or more for the inside than the outside.

But take someplace like the Arc de Triomphe a few miles away from Notre Dame. If it were up to me on this recent trip to France, I wouldn’t have bothered to do anything other than to drive around it. But my family wanted to see Napoleon’s famous monument and so we went.

Why didn’t I care to see it? Because I’ve already seen it – or thought I had – too many times in photos and posters, movies and magazines, even on previous trips. But in each of these instances, I saw the outside. In fact, I don’t think I even knew there was an inside until this trip. Once there this time, however, my focus shifted and in many ways, the inside became more interesting than the outside simply because I didn’t know it existed.

I started with the inside of the outside as you can see above or here:

Arc de Triomph

And of course, I had to have at least one external shot just like everyone else to provide context (and a sense of the crowds):

Arc de Triomph crowds

Not bad, but as with my original shots of the Eiffel Tower, all overly familiar.

But then I stepped inside.

First, you have to walk through a tunnel that goes under the crazy traffic overhead.

Arc de Triomph tunnel

Then you get to ascend a metal spiral staircase. You might just ignore it on your way to the top. But pausing long enough to appreciate it made all the difference:

Arc de Triomph staircase

If you click on the image a few times you can see the enlarged version and you’ll see more clearly the hands holding onto the railing in the center of the photo. I have some other inside shots I’ll share in another entry, but this one for me is memorable because it shows a very different perspective on the Arc de Triomphe.

Would you know this was taken at the Arc? You likely wouldn’t without captions. But I know and my family knows and since discovery is personal, in many ways that is all that matters. It’s our little less obvious view of a very obvious icon of Paris.

Next time you’re confronted with a place you’ve seen too many times, go deeper. Look beyond the obvious and the external. Literally and figuratively look at the heart of the place and you may be surprised at what you see.

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Looking beyond what you see

by Steve Brock on August 14, 2013

Eiffel TowerIf you want to see the familiar in a new light, a good starting place is to look beyond what the normal light reveals.

On our trip to Paris last month, we decided to spend our first evening there at the city’s most famous landmark, the Eiffel Tower.

I can be as cynical and jaded as the next weary traveler when it comes to over-hyped, over-crowded tourist sites. But here’s my advice to you if you ever go to Paris: visit the Eiffel Tower.

Yes, unless you get your tickets in advance (highly recommended and you can do it online) to ascend the tower you could be waiting in line for hours. Hours. And yes, you already know what it looks like. Yes, there are other sights in Paris that are greater discoveries, lest infested with mobs of tourists and more personal.

But even given all those factors, I still say it: visit the Eiffel Tower.

The size is a surprise. It’s always a surprise. The details of the ironwork are a delight. And the crowds? It’s like one big – but not too boisterous –  party all the time.

You expect this big hunk of metal and instead you find poetry ascending into the heavens. Magic. And everyone around is equally enraptured.

If you do go, how do you capture an image of it that is fresh, that isn’t just the same shot or view you’ve already seen dozens or hundreds of times?

One way is to look beyond what you see, what the light itself reveals. Here were my attempts:

The photo above is pretty typical of what most of us see and take. I added the “miniaturization” filter to make it a bit different, but it’s still the same old image taken from the bridge over the Seine.

Eiffel TowerThis photo is similar. I added some texture to the background for a bit of novelty, but otherwise you’ve likely seen similar images before.

I thought I’d go for the social, human element so I tried this shot of some picnickers in the park:

Eiffel Tower

Again, this feels familiar (and a bit off in color, but the color was odd that evening). So I thought, what if I concentrate on the details you don’t normally see in photos like all the African vendors who swarm the area offering miniature versions of the tower? I think the idea has possibilities, but it still isn’t quite what I was hoping for.

Eiffel Tower vendor

I have other shots I won’t bore you with of the underside of the tower or of people taking pictures of each other in front of the tower or even details of people high up on the tower. But all seem familiar.

Then, I noticed as we walked around the tower near sunset that a group of workers were erecting portable bleachers for upcoming Bastille Day festivities, or so I surmised. When I focused on them, I saw the light. Literally.

I stopped seeing the tower as the tower and instead saw only the shadows it produced. And that’s when I knew I had my shot.

The following images look like they’ve been radically altered into their purest black and white forms. In reality, with the evening sun directly behind the tower, all I saw were silhouettes. I merely increased the whites and darkened the shadows a bit to produce these images.

This first one appealed to me since it shows the workers best. I like the guy with the hammer:

Eiffel Tower

In this second photo I tried to capture more of the rounded arch that provides a better clue as to the image’s location.

Eiffel Tower

Finally, I liked this last image since it encompasses more of the tower including tiny people up on the second level. If you click on the image several times you’ll get to a larger view if you want to see the details.

Eiffel Tower

My wife thinks the workers look like Cirque du Soleil acrobats. What you think?

By not seeing or at least focusing on the tower itself, I saw it in a new way. As they teach you in drawing, often the best way to really see an object is to concentrate on the negative space (e.g. the white space in these images) around it.

With icons like the Eiffel Tower or with life in general, sometimes you have to look beyond what you see in order for you to actually see it.

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Start before you leave

by Steve Brock August 6, 2013

Why wait until your destination to start looking for wonder on a trip? It may be closer than you think but you have to be present and prepared to see it.

Read the full article →