A Day at the Races - from LA River Pix

I have witnessed and participated in many events along the LA River, but covering and photographing the 1st Annual LA River Boat Race this last Saturday was pretty special. It was historic, it was also loads of fun – the broad grins and/or determined looks on the competitor’s faces as they splashed and shot through the small whitewater rapids would attest to that.

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A Day of Mayors - from LA River Pix

Photographing political events and photos ops are pretty strange. It is always a challenge to try to distinguish the “op” from the real, and more often than not there ain’t much real. Last Saturday I found myself down at Marsh Park along the Elysian Valley surrounded by a large fuzzy Lion, a cadre of cheerleaders, a bunch of political handlers all buzzing about along with various groups of helpful citizens there for a river clean-up.

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Sunday on the River with a Kayak - from LA River Pix

I’ve been wanting to go kayaking down the LA River since about 2008. That was the year I stood on the shore of the river along the Sepulveda Basin and watched as kayaker George Wolfe emerged from upstream and the dense foliage and shore his craft just in front of me.

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Two Faces of the LA River - from LA River Pix

If you have spent any time exploring even a bit of the LA River, you have no doubt seen its many different landscapes and incarnations, I have found and stumbled upon many of these in my journeys to photograph it. Last week I was shooting for a client who needed some printed photos of the Sepulveda Basin to display in a nearby housing development. Most of the river throughout the Basin is pretty calm and flat-watered as it runs a fairly straight course to the Dam at the southeastern end of the Recreation area.

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Where it all begins - from LA River Pix

I have been photographing the LA River for about 6 years now and never in that time have I gone to see where it begins. That would be in Canoga Park where two channelized streams converge, Bell Creek from Simi Hills in the West and Arroyo Calabasas from the Santa Monica Mountains in the South. Their meeting forms a short flatiron shape with Canoga Park High School sitting atop it and laying back to the West.

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Islands and skylines - from LA River Pix

A few weeks ago I posted a picture of the river taken from Vernon with the downtown skyline in the background. This photo was taken upstream at the northern end of the Glendale Narrows and shows the skyline from the other direction. It was taken with a 200mm lens from the bike path along the river. There are several locations along the bike path where you can line up the river with the skyline and get quite a dramatic shot when the light is right. I never liked how the original looked and recently redid it to capture more of the mood I felt when looking at the river the evening I took the photo.

Glendale Narrows at the Los Angeles River with the downtown skyline

The vegetation you see in the river are islands that run along almost the whole stretch of the Glendale Narrows which is soft-bottomed. In these islands there are a good number of people who live there, at least part of the year, making their home in makeshift encampments amidst the privacy of the overgrown brush and trees. Several years ago during a FoLAR river cleanup, I stumbled upon one of these encampments and met a young and very pregnant woman who was sitting there waiting for her partner to return with food and supplies. She seemed quite comfortable living there and I think I was more taken aback with the situation than she was.

I’ve wondered what the dangers are of living on one of these islands during the rainy season. It’s one thing to feel the rain starting to come down and know the river may start rising soon, but what if the rain is much heavier further upstream and the river starts its dramatic rise before you know its coming. Just last week I saw on the news some people and their dogs being rescued from a tree they had scampered up to escape the onrushing river, so I guess the answer is you don’t ever really know when the water will rise and it is very dangerous.

Camping on the 6th Street Bridge - from LA River Pix

I was walking on the Sixth Street Bridge the other day to go shoot some pictures when I stumbled upon this tent with a homeless person living in it. I have seen many homeless living down in the riverbed, some under the bridge and others tucked away in the flood channel alcoves just above the river. They have bikes and protective tarps and even laundry hanging outside their abodes. They are semi-permanent homes for these people. The feel somewhat safe down there and the cops and other patrols generally leave them be. But I have never seen anyone living on top of the bridge before, right over the LA River, right there in the shadow of the downtown skyline.

Homeless tent with LA skyline

This guy isn’t hiding or even pretending to be subtle about living out in the middle of this public space, he has pitched his tent right out in the open where thousands of cars pass by daily on route between downtown and East LA. Many police cars and other official city vehicles also regularly drive by and there he is, quite the juxtaposition with the downtown skyscrapers and bank buildings. Kind of a remarkable photo to me!

My Philip Marlowe Bridge

I was going to write a longer post about my love affair with the historic bridges of downtown LA, but I decided to hold off until another time to bend your ear about their history and design. I really just wanted to post a photo I took a few years ago and recently updated, of my favorite bridge, the 6th Street Bridge.

All the downtown bridges evoke another time in this city, a time when the bridges were a central part of it and downtown was a vital centerpiece of life here. Things seem to be moving in that direction again, but that gritty and moody urban landscape, the city that served as a background for so many Raymond Chandler stories and film noir movies is long gone and never to return.

6th Street Bridge

I read all those novels and saw all those movies and loved every minute of them. When I took this photo a few years ago, I thought I might have captured a little of that mood – the distant car lights on the dark and deserted bridge might be Philip Marlow or Humphrey Bogart driving their ‘36 De Soto across the bridge in the middle of the night on the trail of a hot lead.

That’s the way I see it in my world, but I’m a sucker for this stuff, what can I say!

Vernon - from Los Angeles River Pix

I have recently started updating some older photos that I have taken, giving them a face-lift of sorts and seeing what I night have left out the first time. The shot below of the river flowing through the City of Vernon is one I just finished. Sometimes when I live with a photo for a while I start to see things I didn’t initially see when I first took the photo. I hope you like it.

I photographed in Vernon for a while as a personal project a few years ago. It is a strange place, as you might imagine from a city that boasts as its slogan: “Vernon – Exclusively Industrial.” Evenings and weekends the town is deserted and lends itself very nicely to moody, atmospheric industrial shots: old rail yards, water towers and other cool places.

vernon

That work has gotten a fair amount of attention, probably because no one else has ever taken many photos down there. Recently the French town of Vernon had a festival and celebrated by having a photo show and exhibit (including my work) of other towns around the world named Vernon. The Vernon Chamber of Commerce’s new directory will feature four of my images, including this one, on its cover.

You can see some of the previous work I did and what I wrote in a post on my Citizen of the Planet site – http://tinyurl.com/myltjea

Old Trestle Bridge - from LA River Pix

I’ve been exploring parts of the river a little further south than I have in the past and recently had the chance to shoot an old railroad trestle bridge down in South Gate. It is a wonderful looking bridge that is covered with graffiti and rust and cuts a diagonal swath across the river and bike path. On the east side is an old trailer park with manicured lawns and residents who look like they have been there a long time and like it.Train trestle bridge over Los Angeles River

The other side is more industrial and aside from an occasional cyclist or jogger, is pretty deserted. I was shooting there at sunset, something I have done at many locations over the years, but this place felt a little more sketchy than usual. I didn’t feel any better when I heard several gunshots coming from up the river a bit, right between the bridge where I was shooting and where my car was parked. Visions of my lifeless body splayed along the riverbank, a tangled mess of cameras and straps filled my mind as I wondered what to do.

I have to admit my heart was racing quite a bit as after what I hoped was a prudent period of time, I slowly crept back along the bike path to my waiting Prius, a great little car, but quite the sore thumb when it comes to empty industrial areas. All was well and I lived to shoot another day.

Water Fountains – from LA River Pix

If you have ever walked along the Glendale Narrows, one of the few soft-bottomed sections of the river, you might have noticed water gurgling up from the concrete banks that line this section of the river and forming slippery little puddles and patches of algae.

Groundwater bubbling up through paved banks of the Los Angeles River

These little water fountains are the reason the river bottom was left in a more natural state and not concreted over by the U.S Army Corps of Engineers back in the Thirties.

Along this stretch there is a very high water table and because of that it was determined that it would be impossible to seal the concrete over it, the groundwater, as we see, is forcing its way up and through the concrete banks. Lucky for us as we get to see a more natural river along with all the plant life and wildlife,

 Groundwater bubbling up through paved banks of the Los Angeles River

The squiggly white lines you see on the top of the bubbles is actually the light reflecting off the water over a ¼ of a second exposure which it gives it the look of an out of control doodle from a white pen. When shooting water it is always fun to play with either very fast exposures (1/1000th of a second) or in this case a longish exposure. Both portray the water in ways that our eyes are not accustomed and because of that make it more interesting to look at.

Winter Rains - from LA River Pix

If you have ever seen the LA River after a heavy rain you will never forget it. A few years ago I photographed it after a rainstorm and was lucky to get there just as the sun peeked out of the clouds and illuminated the banks of the river with a beautiful amber glow. The waters were still raging and some smart ducks waited patiently along the banks for the turbulent brown water to subside. Los Angeles River during rainstorm

To learn more about this image was taken, click here

Glendale Narrows, Los Angeles River

The LA basin is an alluvial floodplain, water cascades down mountains, hills and storm drains causing the waters to rise quickly and dramatically. It is an amazing site to watch, but make sure to keep a safe distance as each year there are local news stories of people and dogs being rescued from the torrential waters that flow swiftly down the channelized corridor to the sea.

I recently went back there to shoot a more tranquil view of the same scene to contrast with the rain scene. As you can see, quite a difference in water level and temperament.

Concrete River - from LA River Pix

The last few posts had several images from the soft-bottomed stretch of the river along the Glendale Narrows, so I thought I would go for major concrete this week. The first image was taken during last April’s LA River Photo Adventure tour from the Cesar Chavez Avenue Bridge. It overlooks an old auto scrap yard that never seems to change and makes a nice foreground to the river and mountains.

Auto parts yard near Cesar Chavez Ave along Los Angeles River,

The second image was taken in 2008 from under the 6th Street Bridge just at the entrance to the ramp the film crews use to access the river. Back then the downtown portion of the river was lined with Graffiti and seemingly covered every inch of the river’s banks. It has since been painted over. Just a couple of weeks ago one of the graffiti artists saw this photo and contacted me to see if I had taken a photo of his work which was just a bit to the right of where this photo was taken, but unfortunately I had not and his work is apparently lost for the ages.

FoLAR's Tour of the Los Angeles River

Los Angeles River Photo Adventure

_MG_4557 I got to spend last Sunday leading a merry group on the bi-annual LA River Photo Workshop I lead for the Julia Dean Photo Workshop (soon to be the Los Angeles Center of Photography). William Bowling from FoLAR (Friends of the Los Angeles River) joined us as our expert guide to river history and science and always we had a lot of fun, took a lot of great pictures and ended up exhausted after our ten hour journey. This year we had a little more adventure then we planned on when we almost got arrested for getting a little too close to the railroad tracks near the 7th Street Bridge, but we sweet talked our way out of incarceration or a hefty ticket and left unscathed but forewarned. Read more, see more pictures…

Great Blue Herons - from LA River Pix

I was very excited that I had the chance yesterday afternoon to photograph close up, not one, but two Great Blue Herons. Probably a pretty geeky thing to say, but I have been trying to for a long time to get some intimate photos of these skittish creatures. The Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) can grow up to 54 inches in height and has a wingspan of up to 79 inches, and when it flies it has an almost a prehistoric pterodactyl like look to it as it lumberingly spreads its massive wings and slowly launches itself into the air.

Great Blue Heron To learn more about how this image was taken, click on image

It has a graceful glide once airborne, and you can usually get some nice enough shots of it going up and down the river if you have a long lens and some patience, but I have always found them elusive when it comes to capturing them just hanging out. The two I came across let me get within 10 feet of them and I was able to get a good number of frames off before they got bored with me. These were along the Glendale Narrows and you can usually find them there or at the other soft-bottomed stretch at the Sepulveda Basin where I have read they have a nesting colony.

Great Blue Heron

Welcome to LA River Pix

Feed from LA River Pix

One of my favorite photos of the Los Angeles River was taken on one of my very first visits to it. It was shot just south of the Los Feliz Blvd. bridge and looks north up the river. A small hill in Griffith Park rises in the background and a deep blue sky and bright green foliage serve to make it a nice colorful photo, but it is certainly not a great photo. What makes it special to me was the wonder I felt at seeing this part of the LA River for the first time, an almost bucolic setting with Blue Herons, Cormorants and Mallards settled in amongst the wiry brush that juts up and out from the river’s islands and banks.

Los Angeles River, Glendale Narrows

Many photographers know you can form an emotional attachment to a photo based on the experience you felt at the time you took it. It might be from the obstacles and challenges you had to overcome in order to capture the image, or it could be the long journey you had to trek to find the location. For me, it was the feeling of excitement in knowing I had found a new and fantastic subject to photograph, a place I had never really known about before or ever had the chance to explore.

 One of the things I love about teaching photography is helping students capture that feeling of wonderment and translating it into a great photograph. But it can be so frustrating to look over a beautiful and moving scene, get all excited about taking a photo of it, and then experience the disappointment when it doesn’t live up to expectations.

The problem is not the lack of some innate ability to capture the feeling of the scene, it is the lack of understanding of the tools that enable one to do so. I don’t teach students how to take a great photo, I teach them how to make one. A big difference that was taught to me by some of the most talented photographers I have known and had the pleasure to work for.

For more info about how thi was taken, click on image
For more info about how this was taken, click on image

I recently went back in an attempt to capture a bit more mood and drama of that original photo, I always knew the location had more potential to it and wanted to see what I could do. This time I felt I was much better able to portray the serenity and calm of the location by shooting at dusk and with a long exposure that shows the movement of the water. The point is that I always have to be  learning too.

I launched this website to showcase photos of my favorite subject, a place where I consistently experience the inspiration and excitement that I want to put in my pictures. We tend to want to shoot the most in places where we feel the most when we shoot there. That is what the LA River is to me. The diversity of scenery and the extraordinary changes the river is undergoing make it the perfect place to photograph and visit time after time.

I also started this site to share my photographic experience and knowledge with others (getting old has to be good for something). I will share the stories of how I took the photos, the settings I used and why I think a photo works and in some cases why it didn’t work. I will take you with me to see the many faces and moods of the river and hopefully inspire you to visit there and make great and inspirational photos for yourself.