Friday, May 25, 2007

Monuments of the Four-Corners.

Roadtrip, Part 3
From the quiet, unusual beauty of the desert, Bordeaux and I traveled to the monumental wonders of the Four Corners.
The sky became dark as we approached Sedona, and it was raining by the time we found a place to have lunch. Outside, the red cliffs and pinnacles were alternately drowned in shade and caught in pools of light as the storm moved overhead. When the rain cleared we walked around town, which, as it turns out, is extremely tacky. Bordeaux and I wandered around town, and wondered what the correlation is between New Age culture and a lack of taste.
Bordeaux and I arrived at the Grand Canyon that evening, escaping a second storm. We set up camp, made dinner, and went to sleep without seeing the canyon. The next morning, we took the shuttle to the ridge. The Grand Canyon is always an odd sight to visit, since it's image is so common in books and magazines. It's still an incredible sight, but it's hard for it to be really outstanding, since it always has an element of familiarity. Still, I like the Grand Canyon- especially since the place has kind of a '50s family vacation feel.
I'd seen the Grand Canyon from the rim several times, but on this visit Bordeaux and I decided to hike down into it. We had hoped to sleep in the canyon for one night, setting up camp at Indian Garden, but found that they had given out all the backcountry camping passes already. We settled instead on simply taking a morning hike down Bright Angel Trail- about 3 miles down and back. On the way to Bright Angel Trail we passed the mule pen. I hadn't realized how many people came to the Grand Canyon to ride mules- the appeal of which is lost on me. I was fairly fascinated by the crowds of middle-aged men and women, dressed in cowboy hats and bandanas, that waited for their turn for a mule ride. We passed the mules throughout our hike. Aside from the mess they made of the trail, the mule trains were fun to watch- giant obese men in cowboy hats, and dozing off old ladies propped up on the sadly plodding animals.
Bordeaux and I camped, but we still found time to check out the Grand Canyon Lodges. I think my favorite is the Bright Angel Lodge- it's not as dramatic and grandiose as the El Tovar (which was modeled on European hunting lodges), but it has a funny 1930s Western theming that makes it much more charming. It has a soda fountain, a log-cabin giftshop, and a dark bar with smoke-stained murals of a Native American Pueblo. On our last night Bordeaux and I had drinks on the patio at El Tovar, and watched the sun set over the canyon.
Just outside of the park, we stopped at Chief Yellow Horse, an over the top souvenir stand. The exterior, with massive signs, and a giant boat-car (painted in the same yellow house paint as the signs), was far more interesting than the interior, which was filled with dusty turquoise and postcards. Leaving Chief Yellow Horse without purchase (which would have been hard if we ahd wanted anything, since the place seemed deserted), we continued on our way to Utah. As Bordeaux and I had noticed throughout our trip, if you drive for 30 minutes in the Southwest, the landscape will change dramatically. From the dry woody Grand Canyon, we passed into scrubby grassland, punctuated by strange mesas and multi-colored rock formations.
Just past the Utah border, Bordeaux and I entered Monument Valley. Compared to the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley has a strange sense of remoteness. It's not an unfamiliar place, as its dramatic buttes are featured in all sorts of adverts and movies. However, despite its use in the media as an icon for the West, not many people think to visit Monument Valley. There are no hotels nearby, and not many restaurants, making it seem like a distant outpost, even with the Dutch and French tourists milling around.
When I last visited Monument Valley, the scene was of a rugged desert landscape. Red buttes rising out of dusty red earth. But due to the recent rains, Monument Valley was in bloom this time. Green shrubs, purple flowers, and white yucca blossoms sprouted from the soil, giving the area the softer, less barren look of a grassland. Bordeaux and I made the driving circuit of the park- through a herd of skittish goats, under massive red clay walls, and to a windswept stand selling dream catchers. Completing the circuit, Bordeaux and I decided not to camp at Monument Valley- we'd seen the park, and the constant film of red dust was getting annoying. Instead, we continued to Southern Colorardo.
I have been to Southern Colorado many times, but I never realized how beautiful it is. There was still a fair amount of snow on the mountains, which contrasted with the lush green fields that skirted the highway around us. With the rolling forested hills, dramatic snowy purple peaks, and rushing frosty rivers, the scene looked perfectly American, like an ad for a pickup truck or a domestic beer.In the morning we backtracked a little to Mesa Verde, which sits almost right on the four corners. The park offices were designed in a pueblo-modern style, and contained such novelties as a taxidermy cougar and a practice-tunnel to prepare visitors for exploring the ruins. Bordeaux and I bought tickets to tour Cliff Palace, which is the biggest ruin site, and does not contain any tunnels. We drove out through burned forest to the site, and waited for the tour to start. Our tour guide was a scholar on Native American history, who seemed somewhat resigned to the jokey tour he recited.
We spent two nights at a cabin in Pagosa, Co, though we spent more time out in Durango, where New-Age devotees mixed with drunken college students. We passed through Pagosa proper as we left town, and decided to stop at the Malt Shoppe. The place was crowded, the orange formica booths full, so we got our malts to go and continued on the road.
Once again the landscape changed, flattening out into grassland. We had our second large wildlife setting an hour outside of Pagosa- a herd of bison. They were farmed bison, but beautiful none the less. As we approached Great Sand Dunes, we realized that we were heading into a storm. Caught in a sliver of light from between the dark clouds, the sand dunes themselves looked particularly strange: peaked golden hills, glowing in front of the dark, distant mountains.
I had expected the Great Sand Dunes to look something more like Namibia, but the setting was far stranger. The sand dunes were high but fairly sloping, rising from beyond a shallow stream. Just beyond them were a crest of snowy mountains, preventing any sense of being in a Saharan desert. We walked along the stream, our shoes making shallow grooves in the wet earth that filled up with water as soon as we raised our feet.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

In the Living Desert.

Roadtrip, Part 2
One of my goals in this trip was to catch a glimpse of some American wildlife. However, since Yellowstone and the Everglades were too far out of the way, I had to research some places in the Southwest where it would be possible to see some animals.
Our first night camping in the desert was spent in Joshua Tree. We got to the park offices after closing, put grabbed one of the maps of campsites left beside the locked door. Outside of the park offices a family of quails was running around the parking lot, terrified of us. The father bravely tried to lead us away, leaving his wife and a small flock of tiny quail chicks chirping fearfully. The mother managed to jump into a planter, but the chicks were too small- they hopped and leaped, but only managed to knock their bodies against the planter's concrete side. After terrorizing them with our cameras, we headed into the park. We got to the campsite just as the sun was setting, the mountainous boulder landscape fading to blue. We set up our tent in a hidden spot between rocks, and gathered kindling for a fire before the sun set. While heating the coals, Bordeaux looked over my shoulder, and saw a silhouette on the rock behind me. A kitfox was watching us, its thin body arched as it looked down at us.
The next morning, after walking through a carefully mapped out cholla garden, we drove south out of the park. We took minor roads, through rocky valleys and quiet desert passes. Somewhat abruptly, scrub desert was replaced with manicured green fields as we approached the town of Mecca. Beyond the fields of green, seeming a mirage, spread the Salton Sea. As we approached it, we found quiet seafront towns, where mobile homes far outnumbered permanent structures. The shoreline was littered with crumbling yacht clubs and boarded up motels, the perfect setting for enacting a post-apocalyptic fantasy. Bordeaux and I parked outside of a desolate motel, home now to abandoned appliances and a commune of pigeons.
The situation was not much different in Gila Bend, AZ, where we found the deserted Desert Gem Motel. A mod '60s motel, fenced up and emptied out (aside from a few squatter residents).
From Gila Bend we curved south, on the lonely highway to Organ Pipe. We passed through quiet towns, whose main source of income seemed to be selling insurance for travelers going to Mexico. We drove far south, nearly to the border of Mexico. Border Patrol trucks lumbered past us, in search of illegal crossings. Bordeaux spotted a coyote (not the kind the Border Patrol was looking for), standing at the side of the road. After a lonely drive through bizarre cactus forest, we finally reached quiet Organ Pipe, sanctuary for peccary Sonoran Pronghorn.
In contrast to the abandoned motels and past-primes towns that Bordeaux and I had seen, every inch of the desert seemed to be alive. Cacti and scrub brush grew from every inch of soil, in strange shapes and surprising colors. While we didn't see any larger mammals (no pronghorn of peccary, sadly), I was amazed by the amount of life we saw in the desert. I've never seen Disney's documentary The Living Desert, but it reminded me of that. While looking at a massive organ pipe cactus, we saw a mouse slipping into his nest, a woodpecker searching for a meal, and bees and wrens feeding at the blossoms. At night we were visited by a skittish kangaroo rat, and a fat surly toad.
From Organ Pipe we drove north, through the town of Why (along a highway sponsored by the group 'Why Senior Citizens'). The side of the highway was dotted by altars and crosses, colorful graves marked with portraits and memorabilia from the life of the dead. Skirting the southern border of Arizona, we eventually arrived in Tucson, where our car radio picked up an NPR affiliate, begging for donations in terms that its listeners would understand ("Just give up that one chai latte a week!"). Turning south, we entered the San Xavier reservation. Though the mission church at San Xavier was under restoration, it was still an impressive sight- a cool white adobe structure, decorate with terra cotta saints and carved wooden trim. Outside the garden was filled with strange purple prickly pear, and beautifully manicured cholla. Inside the chapel, we found an elaborate altar, populated by a town of Catholic kitsch: ceramic Jesuses and luridly painted Marys, lit by dozens of tiny candles.
Finally, the next day, I got my large mammal sighting. Under dark clouds and shuddering thunder, we drove north to the Grand Canyon. Just past Flagstaff, where pine forests gave way to flat grassland, Bordeaux spotted two animals galloping across a distant ridge. Realizing what they were, I hastily pulled the civic to the side of the road. A thin pronghorn antelope, the fastest North American mammal, was posing at some distance from us. It's silhouette, svelte form and stubby horns, stood out against the blue mountains beyond. Of course, as I got out my camera, the pronghorn went in front of some bushes and laid down to rest, and I was able in the end to produce only this sad, blurry photo of it tucked between wildflowers and pinon shrubs.

Monday, May 21, 2007

In Barren Lands.

Roadtrip, Part 1
Roy's Motel & Cafe, Amboy, CA

After picking up breakfast and coffee at Larchmont Farmer's Market, Bordeaux and I headed out of Los Angeles. Packed with all of our belongings into my Civic, we drove out of town on the 10, through exotic areas of LA that Bordeaux had never gotten to see. Eventually the urban thicket thinned out, giving way to the dusty suburbs and characterless shopping malls of the Inland Empire. We passed through towns where mid-level chain restaurants clustered against the highway; watching as Benihana and The Elephant Bar were replaced by obscure steakhouses with names like Beef and Beer and Cask and Cleaver. Eventually the city fell away completely, flickering out in sudden outlet shopping malls and fastfood drive-thrus as groves of joshua trees replaced houses. After stopping briefly in the town of Baker to pick water (and to stare up at the World's Tallest Thermometer), we continued on our way. We crossed over a sandy ridge, and exited from the desert wasteland of interior California...

...into the neon wasteland of Las Vegas, Nevada. I had tried to prepare Bordeaux for Las Vegas, but how could I? The lights were far brighter, the casinos much nosier, the cocktail waitresses far more haggard, and the people far more obese than I possibly could have put into words. We traveled to downtown Las Vegas, where we met up with friends who were enjoying cheap drinks and mingling with tattooed showgirls. Despite the alleged "revival" of Downtown Las Vegas, Fremont Street still had a sad pall of desperation. The casinos looked rundown, the showgirls even more so; a large screen flashed images of naked women, concealed with cartoon explosions featuring incongruous interjections, like "yikes!" and "gabzooks!" After losing three dollars playing blackjack at the Golden Nugget, we checked into our room at the Flamingo. The first hotel opened on the strip, and formerly the most expensive hotel in the world, the Flamingo is one of the last symbols of old-Vegas glitz still in operation. With its Miami-deco styling, palm-leafed tropical theming, and elderly clientele, the hotel has the feel of a retirement home loaded with slot machines. We passed our 24-hours in Vegas by trekking between casinos, playing nickel slots (through which I lost another three dollars, and Bordeaux won five), and searching out free drinks.

After stealing souvenirs from the Luxor's Pharoah's Pheast buffet, we refilled the gas tank and got out of town. Driving away from the noise of Las Vegas, we turned south from the 15, and entered the painfully quiet Mojave reserve. The Mojave was a stark landscape of sand, rock and joshua trees, interrupted by the occasional splintering ruin. As cotton-tails darted away from us, we walked around an abandoned corral, wondering why the ground was strewn with dirtied ladies' summer-wear.

Just out of the Mojave, we pulled into a service station in Amboy. Less a town than a series of abandoned businesses, Amboy offered a diner (non-functional), a motel (abandonded), a school (in ruins), a church (in disrepair) and a post-office (closed). We walked into the service station, and picked two bottles of water (Amboy Water, with self-printed labels) out of the fridge. Unsure of whether to just leave the money on the counter, we waited until the owner, a scrawny man with an untamed beard, arrived in his golf cart. He came with two small dogs; one of them immediately hopped up on the lunch counter, and reclined, panting, on the cool formica.

Monday, May 14, 2007

On leaving LA.

One final entry from LA on my last morning before I leave. I still have a few notes I want to write on LA, and some photos I want to share. But for now, some photo highlights of life in LA over these past few months.

101 Diner, Hollywood

Bordeaux, Hollywood

Alligator Pool, LA Zoo

Carwash, Beverly Blvd

Orange Home, Echo Park

Venice Canals

View of Downtown from Little Tokyo

LA River

Farmer's Market

I'm leaving LA for a two week trip around the Southwest Desert, ending in Albuquerque NM. Expect photos of Las Vegas, Joshua Tree, and Organ Pipe as soon as I have internet access again.

Saturday, May 12, 2007


Over the past week, Bordeaux and I have been trying to gather all of the supplies needed for our trip. This has been made somewhat complicated by the contrasting segments of the trip- first a roadtrip where we'll be camping around the desert Southwest, then a backpacking trip through Southeast Asia. We found the cheapest tent possible, bought the least offensive hiking shoes available, and have stockpiled enough marshmallows for a full week of smores. But of all the supplies that are currently stacked up in paper bags next to my closet, I think my favorite is the Auto Bingo game we found at the Farmer's Market.I actually played with the same game when I was a child. My grandmother had a set of Auto Bingo and Interstate Highway Bingo cards in the small wooden cupboard that she kept stocked with toys and games. I don't think that I ever took them with me on the road- I wasn't likely to see barns or horses in the Northwest Heights anyway- but I enjoyed sliding the little red doors closed.
If only they made a set of Southeast Asia Backpacking Bingo cards, I'd be totally prepared for this trip.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Wildlife Spotting: Griffith Park.

While hanging out at Griffith Park, Bordeaux noticed a surge of movement in a small hole in the grass. Thinking we were at the home of a mole, we camped out, and waited for it to return. Eventually we saw it again- a quick flash of big teeth and brown fur. While we sat outside the first hole, it started working on a new one- grass and clover began disappearing as if shrinking back into the soil. Eventually he popped his head out and looked around, and we realized that we were not looking at a mole. Later research would confirm that this was a pocket gopher. He continued to eat for awhile, grabbing grasses with his teeth and storing them in his cheeks. He never stuck more than his head out from the hole, only occasionally coming out enough to show us his long claws. Eventually, when he'd had his fill, he quickly went to work pushing loose dirt up from his burrow. In four quick pushes, he had covered up his hole completely with a mound of soft earth.

Friday, May 04, 2007


Cape Town, South Africa

I recently learned the Afrikaans word for jungle, and I really like it: oerwoud. Oer meaning primeval, and woud meaning forest.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Street Art.

When I was fifteen, I went to Europe with my parents. I remember arriving at a formal garden in Spain, and being so disappointed that all of the sculptures had been vandalized, and covered with graffiti. I had wanted to take photos, but I realized that I wouldn't be able to get a single shot of a pristine sculpture. Looking back on it, I wonder: why did I want to?

Much like I've learned to photograph billboards, I've also grown to like taking photos of street art. By street art, I mean graffiti, tagging, and sticker art (am I using the term a little too inclusively?). I mainly take photographs of street art for the same reason I photograph billboards- I like the combination of flat graphic elements in a real setting in a flat photograph, I like the way that graphic design interacts with the real world, etc. There are, of course, some questions that this photography practice raises (example: can a photograph of art also be art?).

The above photographs are from Los Angeles, and below are some photographs of street art in Copenhagen, Cape Town and Beirut. Part of the reason I take these photographs is out of an appreciation for the street art itself. Beyond that, there's a graphic element to the photographs I like- especially in the below photo of Copenhagen, in which the arrow on the street echoes the shapes on the wall. I think another thing about street art that draws me is its living quality. This may be a ridiculous comparison, but it reminds me of San rock art. I remember reading that in some sites and on some rocks, they would find rock paintings spanning from different centuries. Though done centuries apart, the pieces were set in conversation with eachother- one artist would respond to the work of another, and change the meaning of the original. In a similar way, street art is often layered, and often set in conversation- both with the work of other artists, and also the building and neighborhood in which its done.

Copenhagen, Denmark

Cape Town, South Africa

Beirut, Lebanon

Copenhagen, Denmark

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Billboard photography.

I've always struggled at photographing cities. In part, I had been trained that I should crop out all 'unsightly' elements when planning a photographic composition. I took this somewhat severely, and would attempt to photograph streets and buildings so that they did not contain crowds of distracting people, signs of traffic, telephone poles and their mess of wires, and advertising billboards- the elements of a city that make it a city, basically.

This generally created very dull photos. More recently, I've been trying to strategically include those elements in my photographs. I think working billboards into the compositions has been most challenging. I've tried a few methods, like using the structures of billboards for visual or thematic contrast with the scene, or to give a sense of time and place to the photograph.

Halab, Syria

Hollywood, CA

Beirut, Lebanon
West Hollywood, CA

Maputo, Mozambique

Downtown Los Angeles, CA

Bulawayo, Zimbabwe

I'm attempting to included billboards in my photographs for a few reasons. In part, I'm interested in the way that art and graphics interact with our lives, and the way that advertising creates a visual intrusion into the landscape of the city. I'm also interested in the flat, graphic nature of photographs- I try to emphasize this by including flat elements in the photograph against a shallow background, like the Air Zimbabwe billboard, which merges with the building below it against the backdrop of the sky.