I often ride my bike along Ballona Creek which has a wonderful bike path that takes you down to the beach at Playa Del Rey. If I am lucky I will see a Great Blue Heron or an Egret along its banks. At certain spots, you can watch Brown Pelicans trying their luck as they dive for fish at places where the salt water from the sea finds its way a bit inland. There are many things about Ballona that remind you it is still a creek even though its natural shores have been replaced by concrete ones.Read More
Sometimes your life can change with a clunk! Last spring, Donna Johnson, 72, of East Porterville, a small community at the eastern edge of the Central Valley, ran out of water. She hoped it was a problem with the pump or something a few feet of digging would fix, “it’s a hard issue to admit to yourself that your well has gone dry” Donna told me. She brought out someone to look at the well, but when the pipes went down and Donna heard that clunk, she knew the awful truth.Read More
A few weeks ago I was up in the Central Valley shooting some drought stories and from all the parched earth and empty fields I saw it seemed like we might never have rain again. This current storm here in LA is a very welcome relief, but long term we need a helluva lot more and most importantly we need it in the mountains of the north and the Sierra to seriously replenish the reservoirs and water system that provides for California agriculture and cities. But I’m not complaining! Yet!Read More
A few weeks ago I went to shoot some fill-in material for a story on the drought I was doing for Landscape Architecture magazine. I thought the juxtaposition of the two subjects really told the story of how bad it is and how far we need to go before all of us out here in the southland start to take some responsibility ourselves for improving the situation.It is pretty clear that we may be in this for a while. A report last week from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center indicates a poor forecast for rain and more importantly the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada for this winter.Read More
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.Read More
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.Read More
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.Read More
Last July I wrote about the start of construction of Ed and Rachelle Begley’s new home in their attempt to build one of the Greenest homes in North America. The steel framing had just begun and now these months later the sheathing is being laid over that frame. Recently two new water systems started to be installed that will help Ed and Rachelle save on water bills as well as recycle much needed water back to the aquifer.Read More
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
The LA River is a River. As obvious as that may sound, the truth is most people don’t really think of the Los Angeles River as an actual river. They are probably more familiar with the river’s movie roles such as the Governator barreling down its corridor on a motorcycle in Terminator 2 or the cast of Grease singing, dancing and racing along its flat bed and beveled sides.Read More
Spending a week in New York I had a chance to visit a couple of Manhattan’s ‘off the beaten path’ parks. High Line Park opened last year, and has quickly become one of the the city’s more popular destinations. It is built on an old elevated railroad freight line that operated from the 1930s to 1980. I grew up right near it and remember looking up at the old tracks which ran a block parallel to the Hudson River, and wondered what mysteries were up there and how far those tracks might be able to take me (my hobo fantasies as a child were slightly delusional). Now I get to walk along this extraordinary greenway and look down upon the adjoining streets and avenues, and feel the cool breezes blow off the Hudson while enjoying the great views of the surrounding cityscape and river.
When I went there the other day, I was instantly amazed at how much growth had taken place since my last visit, shortly after it opened. Talking to a nearby groundskeeper, I found out that the park’s plant designer, Piet Oudolf, has been trying to evoke the look of a prairie, using as little trimming and pruning as possible. And so the long grasses sway with the winds and the overgrown shrubs and plants grow over the rusted train tracks and peek through the slits in the pavement that try to resemble them, and give the park a truly wild look. It is helped by the fact that over 60% of the plants are native to the area and many are drought tolerant as well.
The park runs from Gansevoort Street, located in the center of the trendy and grotesque Meat Packing district, to 20th street in Chelsea. This is just the first segment, which when completed will extend the linear parkway up to 34th Street. Go early on weekends or on weekdays as it gets very crowded, which really can distract from the beauty and serenity of the park.
The other park is not so much a park, but rather a garden within a park, it is the Conservatory Garden, located in Central Park at 105th Street and 5th Avenue. Built originally in 1898, it was restored to its present state in 1981. There is only one entrance, a large wrought iron gate that opens up to an expansive green lawn and fountain. In contrast to the wild growth of the High Line Park, the Conservatory Garden is an orderly assortment of manicured hedges and carefully designed walkways, bringing a small scale European garden feeling to Manhattan. Seasonal flowers bloom and an assortment of tended trees shade you along the paths. Several sculptures and fountains are placed at the two ends of the park, most notably the Three Dancing Maidens fountain by German sculptor Walter Schott.
This part of Central Park was not a place I spent a lot of time during my hanging out in Central park years, so I was almost shocked that this very un-New York like garden existed when I stumbled upon it ten years ago. Just North of it is the Harlem Meer a beautiful and tranquil lake (Meer means lake in Dutch), in the NE part of the park, with shoreline walkways, quacking ducks and a Queen Anne boathouse. It has since become one of my favorite places to eat lunch, which I get from a strange little concession stand just off its shore called the Knish Nosh, which sells amazingly good Kosher knishes and franks. Sadly to say I was informed that they have lost their lease and will shut their doors. But their knishes are so good, I would be remiss not to inform you that they still have another location at the boat pond at 74th Street and 5th Avenue.
I woke up this morning to the news the California State Senate failed to pass a ban on plastic bags, really sad news and a disgusting example of our government for sale. The havoc these bags cause to our oceans and waterways is devastating to fish, wildlife and ultimately us. Toxins such as Phthalates, that leach from the plastic, as well as pollutants that adhere themselves to the macro plastic particles, get into the food chain as more and more of the fish we eat mistake these macro particles for their food.
A lot of people are aware of the problems with plastic bags, but many may not know that another culprit is a benignly named little bugger called the nurdle. Nurdles are pre-production plastic pellets and resin materials typically under 5mm in diameter, that are used in the production and manufacturing of thousands of the products we use. Over 250 billion pounds of nurdles are shipped each year, and many, many of them fall off of railroad cars and ships, and then find their way to our oceans and beaches.
It is estimated that about 10% of the litter found on beaches worldwide are nurdles. I roamed a beach in Seal Beach, just south of Long Beach, to find hundreds of them lying around the beach, I can tell you the story is the same on most any other beach you might find yourself beach-combing on. Nurdles are just part of the family of plastic trash that is caught in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the North Pacific Gyre that wash up on our beaches and get ingested by birds and fish. Atolls in the Hawaiian archipelago like Kure and Midway are littered with plastic debris and the carcasses of albatrosses that migrate there and eat the plastic particles, and either suffocate or starve to death. The graphic example of what was found inside the belly of an albatross is courtesy of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, an organization that is doing extraordinary work in the areas of research and education concerning plastic in our oceans.
There is no easy way to wrap this up I’m afraid, passage of the plastic bag ban would have been a good start. This leaves it up to local cities and towns to institute bans, which has already started to happen in towns like San Francisco and Palo Alto, with other cities like Santa Monica and Manhattan Beach soon to follow. As long as the chemistry and petroleum industry has millions of dollars to spend swaying the votes of our legislators, it will be a long hard fought battle each time.
Continuing with August’s one photo posts, I went out last night to shoot the LA River at sunset, something I have wanted to do for a few weeks. I remembered there was a spot along the bike path where the downtown skyline is visible and I thought that would make a nice juxtaposition with the tranquility of the river. If you saw last weeks photo, you might remember I like my juxtapositions. I picked a spot I thought would work (with the help of Joe Linton), the northern point of a straight stretch of the river that runs parallel with I-5, not far from the LA Zoo.
The result was a good photo, but maybe not a great one, I think there is perhaps a little too much juxtaposition in the image, the freeway lights and the wires across the river are things I could do without. But that is the story of the LA River, it fights for its right to breathe and flow amidst all the urban obstacles and barriers that exist in the large metropolis. It flows past train yards and factories; I have seen abandoned cars and more shopping carts than I can count in it as well. But these days there are more parks being built and bike paths extended and they are slowly but surely changing the aesthetic and the utilization of the river.
It also has its secrets! I remembered that I was on a river clean up a few years ago just a bit down river from where this picture was taken. I came upon a young very pregnant woman who had set up a little camp for herself in the middle of a cropping of trees. Her partner was out getting food and whatever else they needed. We spoke for a little while and she was perfectly nice, it was just that they had decided to call this little part of the river their home. Now I always look inside these clumps of trees and bushes and wonder what else might be in there.
It’s August and I am slowing down with Summer’s end approaching, so I thought I would just run some one shot posts for a few weeks. I went out last night to shoot the Ballona Wetlands, a beautiful area south of Marina Del Rey and just west of the Playa Vista housing development. For a number of years, and continuing to this day, there has been a battle to save the Ballona Wetlands from further development. The wetlands once extended north to Venice and further inland, and has been slowly built on over the years, the latest foray was the massive housing complex of Playa Vista, which you can see on the right side of the photo. What remains of the wetlands was saved by the acquisition of the land by the state, and the efforts of groups like Friends of Ballona Wetlands. Wetlands, besides their pristine beauty and home to numerous species of birds and other wildlife, are a very complex eco-system as well as nature’s natural wastewater purification filter. The wetlands are located at the mouth of the Ballona Creek, which was once a natural flowing waterway, but is now a paved channel for rain and wastewater runoff.
I wanted to juxtapose the wetlands with the encroaching Playa Vista development. I thought a dusk shot would more dramatically make the point with the lights from the buildings and traffic along Lincoln Blvd., contrasted with the quiet serenity of the wetlands. The problem was that all that quiet serenity was going to be very dark compared to the lights, sky and the setting sun. I used a trick that every printer learns to do when making their B&W prints on an enlarger, a little dodging and burning. In this case, I waved my appointment book with its straight edge up and down, right in front of the top half of my lens while I was exposing the image. The exposure was about 20 seconds and I dodged the book for about 15 seconds, which kept the upper part of the exposure dark and from burning out the sky and mountains too much. A little tweaking in Photoshop didn’t hurt either.
I love the Los Angeles River. I honestly have to say that I wasn’t exactly sure what is was the first few times I saw it, but I found it to be a fascinating place to explore and photograph. On July 8, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson told me what it is, something many people had already known, that the LA River is a “traditional navigable water,” in other words, it’s a river.
Jackson made the announcement at Compton Creek, one of the LA Rivers tributaries, to a crowd of applauding supporters. This was a great day for many of the people I know who have worked so hard to bring this day to fruition, among them: Lewis MacAdams, Shelly Backlar, Ramona Marks and Alicia Katano, the folks at, and formerly at FoLAR (Friends of the Los Angeles River); Joe Linton of LA Creek Freak; and George Wolfe, LA’s own Vasco de Gama, who led a three day kayak expedition in 2008 down the length of the 51 mile long river, to prove that it was indeed navigable. He succeeded, not only in completing the trip, but by proving to the Army Corp of Engineers that the river was deserving of the term and the protection it afforded under the Clean Water Protection Act. Now the EPA has made it official. This will mean cleaner water in the river and higher restrictions for development along and near the river’s banks.
The day I started to understand how beautiful and complicated the LA River was, was during a tour of it sponsored by FoLAR and led by naturalist Jenny Price. We started off at the Sepulveda Basin, one of two stretches of the river that is still soft bottomed, just North of the Sepulveda Dam. I stood on the river’s edge and looked up river and saw nothing but lush green growth lining its banks, and ducks, egrets, stilts and other waterfowl seemed to be everywhere. This was not the cement lined flood channel that I had seen in movies or from above when flying in and out of LAX. This looked like a river.
I also saw for the first time, the ubiquitous plastic bags that I would get to know so well. They were hanging from trees, leftover from past rains and rising waters, some fluttering in the wind like tattered flags, others knotted up in thick plastic balls that looked permanently adhered to whatever tree limb they had formed around. A sad juxtaposition to natural beauty I had just discovered.
That same morning would be the first time I saw a boat go down the river as well. Emerging from the up river greenery came a small yellow ocean kayak that then beached itself on the river bank. George Wolfe, the aforementioned leader of the LA River expedition, popped out and joined our merry tour to give us a brief talk about boating on the river. George would later ask me to help photograph the 2008 expedition, something I was able to do for about a day and a half before succumbing to a dastardly flu that sidelined me quite definitively for the weekend. I have always regretted not following the whole trip, but I was able to witness a bit of history being made and the beginning of some new found respect and recognition for the LA River.
I grew up in lower Manhattan, and spent much of my youth playing along the banks and piers of the Hudson River. The Hudson back then was viewed as a disgusting, toxic brew that you wouldn’t consider getting close to, let alone swimming in. Years later, through the efforts of many, the river was cleaned up quite remarkably. I had the chance to noodle around in a kayak off the Canal Street Pier one day, and as I bounced along with the small waves around me, I realized that I had never actually been that close to the River. I was even getting wet, something that would have required a major decontamination years earlier. I loved it, and that experience enabled me to see the Hudson as a real river. I hope that the new classification of the LA River allows others to have that same awakening, and that we can all start to not only appreciate the beauty of the river, but to get in it and enjoy it as well.
A few weeks ago I talked about the idea of converting urban rooftops into urban farms. The benefits go beyond just having more locally grown food, a reduction in transportation costs and mitigating the urban heat island effect, it helps people understand how food is grown, something too many of us have lost in a world of packaged foods, fast foods and ready to eat everything. But learning to grow a garden, let alone an urban farm can be a big jump for people. There is the issue of working in small, sometimes confined spaces, and how do you set up irrigation systems and get the energy to run them. These are challenges that got some people thinking a few years ago at an organization called New York Sun Works, and so they set out to create some prototypes for urban gardening that would help them and others understand how to create agricultural systems that work in an urban environment. They created the Science Barge.
The Science Barge was launched in May, 2007, and over the course of the next year or so, was moored at several spots along the Westside of Manhattan on the Hudson River. It is now run by Groundwork Hudson Valley and has found a permanent home in Yonkers. Visitors and schoolchildren are welcome to visit and learn about urban farming and sustainability, enabling them to create a vision for urban living that so far had been reserved for their rural neighbors, namely growing their own food. The barge is powered by two raised solar panel arrays, some micro wind turbines on the roof and bio-fuels. Water for irrigation is gotten from rainwater collected in a 1,200 gallon cistern, and Hudson River water that is run through a reverse Osmosis filter that purifies it for use.
The day I visited, I saw greens, lettuce, tomatoes and melons growing from a variety of Hydroponic and Aquaponic systems along with a few examples of vertical farming. Aquaponics is a bio-integrated food production system that is a combination of Aquaculture and Hydroponics, which basically means that the waste products of one biological system serve as nutrients for a second biological system. The first bio-system contain fish, the feces of which are broken down by algae in a second tank which then distributes the nutrients to the plants, the second bio-system. The plant system filters, cleans and recycles the clean water back to the fish in the first tank. The fish and algae create the nutrients the plants need, and the plants prevent a toxic build up of nutrients that would eventually harm the fish, essentially recreating a nutrient cycle normally found in nature.
Nearby was a table of greens being grown using the Nutrient Film Technique, a hydroponic system using a shallow stream of water containing nutrients that continually recirculates past the bare roots of the plants which are held in channels or gullies. There were also a series of plastic pots containing cucumber plants using another hydroponic system, a drip process call the Dutch Bucket system.
The Science Barge had over 3100 students visit last year as part of the barge’s formal education program. They also have a High School internship program that employs students from Yonkers. The general public can visit on weekends, here are their hours. Educating others on the benefits of urban farming is going on in many places around the country, including a number of Master Gardener Programs that bring this information directly to communities, but the Science Barge is a particularly assessable way to witness and explore this growing trend. The systems employed on the barge also happen to be high yield, and low impact as far as it’s carbon footprint, and maybe most importantly because it utilizes greenhouses, it is climate independent in that it can yield crops all year round. I keep saying it, but imagine a city of green roofs and greenhouses feeding the residents of the apartment complexes below them, what a site and what a step forward that would be.
Not only is water becoming scarcer, but it is becoming more toxic and polluted, and not just from major catastrophes like oil spills, but by the daily dumping of garbage, plastic, industrial waste and sewage. The fact is we all have choices we can make on a daily basis, and it is up to each of us to take responsibility for the things within our power to change. I'm feeling preachy today, but there really are so many things we can all do to help - water conservation, using natural non toxic products, and our use of plastic. Consider the fact that every piece of plastic ever created still exists somewhere, and will do so for years and years to come. Do you really need to buy disposable plastic water bottles, or could you use a re-usable bottle and filter your tap water? Think about how much money you would save, as well as the damage you would be preventing. If you do use plastic, recycle it as well as all the other items that your city or town will let you. I once heard a woman say that she doesn't feel like recycling, I didn't realize it was about feelings.
I get angry when I see things get to the point where it is too late, like it may be for the Gulf. That tipping point is being fast approached on many fronts and there is no one other than ourselves who can do anything about it. Are we willing to make at least small changes to our lifestyle, to make small sacrifices, to change our buying habits? There is a lot to blame big oil for, good reason to point the finger at government regulators, but we are the consumers, and as long we support and buy their products, they will continue to produce those products that pollute and endanger our planet and environment. End of sermon!
Last Winter's rains here in Los Angeles provided an opportunity for me to photograph something I have been interested in for a while, the difference between the normal river flow and the urban runoff created by major rainstorms. The contrast can be quite dramatic.
First a little background. The Los Angeles River is probably most famous for being in movies like Terminator, Them and a host of other films that made use of its paved banks for dramatic car chases and such. Some people don’t even realize that it is a real river, but the first settlers to Los Angeles made their encampments along the banks of the river, that is until the first rainy season, when the river flooded their camp and the rising waters of the river did what they have always done, drain the Los Angeles Basin after a rainstorm and charge down the river to empty into the sea at what is now Long Beach and Playa Del Rey. In the thirties, the floods got so bad they destroyed many homes and buildings near the river, which eventually led the Army Corps of Engineers to pave the river in order to help the waters rush out to the sea faster with less risk of flooding. A good idea for the thirties perhaps, but in a time when we spend untold amounts of money and energy to pump water over hills and valleys all the way from the Sacramento Delta for drinking and irrigation, it makes little to no sense. So much of our rainwater could be captured and used for irrigation and other greywater uses.
Although the before and after shots of the Ballona Creek were taken on different days, I watched over a 45 minute rainy span, the waters go from a gentle flow to the raging waters that you see in the picture.
I have seen images of the LA River during rains on television, usually involving a dog being rescued or such, but I was unprepared to see it up close. Paths along the banks that I had strolled along were completely covered by the torrent, and although the color of the LA River is not what I would normally call crystal clear, after the rains it is brown, mucky, sludgy brown.
Did I mention the garbage? If you stand on a bridge above the river, you can see a steady stream of plastic bags, styrofoam cups and an assortment of nasty looking debris that only minutes before had been lying peacefully on some Los Angles street minding its own business. They don’t call it urban runoff for nothing! If you ever wondered why the Pacific Ocean is filled with so much garbage, plastic and other junk, it all starts on some street in LA, Tokyo or other populated Pacific rim location, where the litter that humanity lazily disposes of, waits patiently for the rains to come and send it along its merry way down the storm drains and pipes, and eventually to the river or some other channel that leads to the ocean.
I went down to the mouth of the LA River in Long Beach after the first rain of the season last October where there is a garbage boom that attempts to collect as much floating debris as it can before it heads out to sea. After the first major storm of the season, the boom may collect over 50,000 pounds of trash. But if that is what it catches, one can only imagine how much it doesn’t catch.
As a photographer I am attracted to power and beauty, the LA River and Ballona Creek have an abundance of both despite some of the ugliness. But that ugliness is not theirs, the rivers are simply the repositories of our neglect and short-term thinking. There are many efforts to clean up the LA River and some long range plans to revitalize it. In future posts I will show some of the places where the LA River is still in its unpaved natural state. If we can someday bring the rest of the river back to this state, never again will anyone wonder if the LA River is in a fact a real river, it will be evident to all.