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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Ed Begley Jr's new green home - part 2

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.

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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!

New solar array at Culver City elementary school

I did double duty today as a father and photographer at my son’s elementary school when at a ribbon cutting ceremony this morning the switch was turned on at Culver City Unified School District's new photovoltaic power system. The giant solar array is located at Farragut Elementary School and spreads out over the parking lot next to Ballona Creek and the back playground on the east side of the school.

Solar power at elementary schoolSolar power at elementary schoolConstruction was started over last summer and was completed a few weeks into the school year. The Sunpower 750kw solar array is expected to provide $400,000 a year to the district’s general fund.

It will also serve as an education tool to help teach students about alternative energies, sustainability and climate change. Much like the many school gardens I have photographed, the new solar array will introduce these new ideas to the students by allowing them to interact with it, as tours and lectures are already being introduced into the curriculum.

Solar power at elementary schoolOn 2/4/2014, a ribbon cutting ceremony was held at Farragut Elementary School in Culver City for the switching on of the school district's new 750kw solar array built at the school. In addition to providing an expected $400,000 back to the school district, it will also serve as an education tool to help teach students about alternative energies, sustainability and climate change.

Solar power at elementary schoolHundreds of kids from the school attended holding up their home-made signs. Parents and teachers milled about, as did many of the town’s dignitaries. At the ribbon cutting ceremony was the mayor - Jeff Cooper, the vice mayor - Meghan Sahli-Wells, many city council members as well as school board members were present along with representatives of Sunpower and Todd Johnson, the co-chair of Culver City’s Environmental Sustainability Committee.

 The thing I love about living Culver City is that in spite of being in the middle of one of the largest urban centers in the country, it still manages to feel like a small town. It feels good to be in a place that is being proactive on many sustainability issues, where the city’s leaders are working closely with the community and schools to make our city a progressive and greener place to live.

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.

Kayaking the mighty LA River

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.

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Ed Begley Jr.’s Green Home

Ed Begley Jr.. On 2/13/2013 the steel framing continues to be assembled over the foundation on the Begley's new home. Ed Begley Jr. (noted actor and environmentalist) and his wife Rachelle Carson-Begley are building their new home under LEED Platinum Certified standards in an attempt to become North America's greenest, most sustainable home. It is also being filmed for their web series "On Begley Street." Studio City, California, USA

Venice Community Garden - From the Ground Up

Not long ago, an empty lot in Venice, California, just a few blocks from the Pacific Ocean, was overgrown with weeds. In it there was an old jet ski that was left to rust along with old auto parts scattered around on soil mounds. Years before that, railroad tracks ran through the center of this plot of land on Mildred Ave. Freight cars transporting their goods and perhaps tanker cars carrying oil from the surrounding wells, made their way along these tracks in what is now a peaceful and typical Venice residential community. The story of a garden is the story of its soil, and those of us living in urban environments are surrounded by land and soil that has had many and multiple uses. The soil can tell us the history of that land, something that is imperative to know if we want to plant our gardens and eat our food with surety and safety. The Venice Community Garden that is now on that plot of land on Mildred Ave. was started by some residents who had the simple idea of starting a garden, where members of the community could grow and eat the food they planted. What they discovered along the way was a little about history, a lot about soil, and ultimately a deeper understanding of what it means to grow.

Starting

Kip Wood has lived in Venice for about nine years and had developed an interest in gardening, mostly from working in his own front yard, noting he “liked getting his hands in the ground.” Inspired by some classes he took from David King at Venice High School’s Learning Garden, and surprised that there were no community gardens in Venice, he decided that to start one himself. His intention was to design a beautiful space, with trees and art - a place where people could come together, plant food and get their hands dirty. In January, 2010 he noticed a ‘for lease’ sign at an empty lot around the corner from his home. The property had been sitting vacant for some time, so when Kip inquired about it, the landlord was only too happy to lease it to Kip for a garden.

Kip initially worried about getting enough interested people. Unlike some community gardens that are on donated or city property and who only charge their members a low yearly fee, a minimum of about 48 people were going to be needed to pay the $25 a month for rent and expenses. Flyers were distributed and emails to a gardening list brought in some interest, but a post on Yo! Venice!, a neighborhood web forum, elicited a tremendous response and there was soon a waiting list of about 200 people.

Norma Bonilla was one of the first to respond. Norma had also taken some classes at the Learning Garden and was inspired to move her life in a new direction. She had owned several businesses over the years, in architecture, remodeling and design, and with those skills and her management abilities, immediately got involved in the planning of the garden along with Kip. Working together, things started to progress.

Preparation

One of the first things Kip and Norma did was to download a copy of the Community Garden Start-up Guide from the University of California Cooperative Extension’s website (see sidebar), and used it to help create their own to do list. They started to hold meetings to help garden members get to know each other and to take on needed tasks. Plot assignments were given out and members signed a Plot Holder Agreement with the garden’s rules put forth. Liability Insurance was obtained to protect the landowner. Permits were not needed as residential zoning in Los Angeles allows for the growing and selling of fruits and vegetables.

Kip’s Initial schematic called for 48 plots in the six thousand square foot lot, most of them 12 by 4 feet. New trees and shrubs, donated by a local environmental group, Tree People, would line the back wall as well as a central interior space to be used for meetings and workshops. A fence was also planned for, a suggestion the start-up guide recommended to cut down on vandalism. Money was raised for the needed hardware, plumbing, lumber and other supplies through donations by members and the contributions from local merchants.

Getting a water meter installed would have been the best method of water access, fees are generally pretty low if there are pipes already installed, however the lot had no pipes and installing them was going to be too expensive, around $3,000. Eventually it was determined that sharing water with the gardens’ neighbor, who happened to have the same landlord, was the easiest and cheapest recourse.

Irrigation expert Deni Friese from UCCE Common Ground Master Program helped design the new watering system. She recommended a water line straight down the center of the garden with four hose bibs on risers for manual watering. A drip or any other kind of irrigation system was not considered, as it was decided that it was important for everyone to learn how to tend and water his or her own garden. As Norma put it, “we are growers, it is about the connection with our own land and plants, not about putting it on a timer.”

Breaking Ground.

Initial soil testing revealed high levels of lead and arsenic, so it was decided to remove the top layer of soil. Lead can be found in many urban and suburban environments as the result of automotive parts and emissions, pesticides, paint chips and plumbing. Even though the use of lead in many of these products has been outlawed for decades, the residue can linger in soil for many years after it has been exposed.

The arsenic was attributed to an old rail line that was found to have run directly through the lot. It was common to spray massive amounts of herbicide, which contained arsenic, next to the rail ties to prevent weeds from obstructing the train tracks.

On April 13, 2010 the garden broke ground and a loader began removing the soil from the garden. With each pass, the contaminated soil, rocks and debris gave way to smooth hardened clay which was then tilled with additional passes by the tractor. The huge pile of dirt was carted away and what was an empty lot was now on its way to becoming a garden.

With construction of the planting beds about to begin, Kip and Norma called on the LA Conservation Corps for help, an organization that helps at-risk youth by providing education and job skills training through neighborhood service and conservation projects. The lot was staked out and the LACC troops got to work. A local market even donated sandwiches for the hard workers. The beds were finished in a few days, it was the end of May.

There was still some glass and asphalt on the top surface, so as a precautionary measure, garden members were advised to dig an additional one-foot deeper in their beds. It was also suggested that members take one last soil sample for testing from three different areas in their planting beds. The last mounds of removed soil were carted away, spirits were high and planting was about to begin.

Then one night, Kip and Norma got a call. Some of the new soil tests came back with high levels of lead and arsenic, after all the work and digging, the toxins were still present in the soil. According to Garn Wallace of Wallace Labs “It is not recommended to grow leafy green vegetables in soils that contain lead above 30 parts per million (ppm) or arsenic with over 2 ppm.” Over half the plots had come back with high levels of one or both.

Setbacks and solutions

Kip and Norma were devastated and several members even left the garden. The project was put on hold and things seemed bleak. Then “something very special happened” said Norma, “emails started to come in from members urging us to keep going. The letters were so supportive and just what we needed to move forward on this beautiful space.” They encouraged research and many offered their assistance to seek the necessary solutions. A multi-tiered solution was decided on, and by Mid-July activity began again.

Digging deeper would probably bring similar results, so it was decided to bring in new soil and then use multiple layers to keep the plants protected from the toxins. First a bed of rocks, three inches deep, would be placed at the bottom of the planting beds. This would keep roots from reaching the contaminated soil, but would allow for water drainage. Sprinkling gypsum power over the rocks and then lightly watering it would break down the hard clay soil below the rocks, further enhancing drainage and allowing for micro organisms and worms to thrive.

Next a one-foot wide 3.5 mil sheet of plastic would be stapled around the circumference of the raised planting beds, which would prevent the toxins leaching in to the beds during rainfall and watering. Lastly, a slightly wider sheet of weed cloth would be stapled over the plastic sheeting to keep the roots from tearing holes in it and reaching the toxic soil. Woodchips are placed around the walkways to keep lead dust from spreading and to help eventually amend the soil.

Finally the new soil could be added. Several mounds of sandy loam soil were delivered and members used it to fill half their beds. Soon after, compost, available for free from the city, was brought in and the other half of the planters were filled and mixed together with the soil.

Planting and Harvest

Planting finally began in August. A moment many thought would never come had finally arrived after what seemed an eternity. Los Angeles is of course fortunate to have year round growing, the question for many was whether or not to plant seeds or seedlings. Some opted for just seeds, but many planted a combination of both.

Denise and Frank are a young couple who work in advertising. Both had experience with gardening and were on the waiting list of other community gardens when the Venice Garden plot became available. On their first day of planting, Frank was carefully placing small snow pea seeds around the berms they had built in their bed. About 70% of their plantings were seedlings, amongst them, cucumbers, radishes and cherry tomatoes.

Jennifer is an experienced farmer from Oregon, recently arrived in  Los Angeles. The garden helped her find an attachment to the community through gardening. Facing some health challenges, she has found gardening helps reduce stress and is meditative. Her physical therapist has even given her exercises and stretches based on garden activities such as watering and planting.

Aeryn and Isabel share a plot and are both studying landscape architecture While being members of the garden is relevant to their work, according to Isabel, it is also a place to “meet your neighbors and learn from everyone else.” The care in which they approached their planting bed was evident, their plantings were intentionally a diverse selection of low, medium and high growth seedlings. Aeryn said they also tried to be mindful of the color palette when they chose their flowers and vegetables.

They were one of the first to plant and so were one of the first to harvest their crop. By mid October, their bed was a robust display of colorful vegetables. Aeryn began clipping off zucchinis as large as footballs along with bright yellow squash, swiss chard and cucumbers. She held up her bounty and she smiled at what was their obvious success.

On a Saturday morning, a group of people gathers around to hear Norma give the first of the workshops she has planned. Passerby’s continually walk by the garden and peer in curiously. There is now so much activity and growth in a place that for years residents had ignored as an ugly vacant lot. The garden is now beautiful, but just as importantly, the work everyone did will ultimately leave the soil in better shape than when they found it. Both land and people will be transformed from a community coming together, learning together and growing together.