What’s This?

I’ve had a serious interest in photography ever since I was in junior high school, when I had such a good time in the 8th grade photography class that the next year I actually signed up to be a teacher’s aide for the class so that I could get ongoing access to the darkroom (one major difference between then and now is that, for some reason that I must have repressed the memory of, the idea of supervising a bunch of 8th graders in the dark did not absolutely terrify me back then). I’ve been taking pictures with quasi-serious artistic intent ever since.

Shortly after the turn of the millennium, the bursting of the dotcom bubble left me without an income but with an inventory of fairly high-end (for the day) computer equipment, remnants of the defunct Communities.com, including a top of the line (for the day) Polaroid film scanner. So I began doing what any sensible person in such circumstances would do while sitting around waiting for the phone to ring: I digitized my back catalog and put some of the best pictures on my website. In those days a digital camera good enough to satisfy a serious photo snob cost as much as a new car, but thanks to the scanner I could still shoot on film and get very satisfactory results with digital post-processing. Eventually, the relentless Darwinian leviathan known as Moore’s Law brought us affordable digital cameras that are quite suitable, even for photo snobs, and indeed are now beginning to pull way ahead of film on many dimensions. Of course, once you start shooting digitally, the vastly decreased marginal cost per frame means you can (and I do) take vastly more pictures, which leads to all kinds of interesting new phenomena and challenges — quantity, as Uncle Joe said, has a quality all its own.

The fact that I won’t be bankrupted by the cost of film and processing means that I’m now getting out with my camera a lot more, which is good for the soul and the waistline if perhaps not for the artistic sensitivities of the world. But there’s really not much point in taking all these pictures if they’re just going to sit on some disk drive, and numerous friends who have been following my adventures with what I’m now calling The Coast Line Project (see below) have been badgering me to publish some of the resulting pictures. I considered a major update of the photo section of my website to add more pictures, but the open-ended nature of the process that is producing these images argued for a photoblog. And I like to imagine that a photoblog won’t do any harm to my street cred in the social media guru community either.

Two of the recurring themes you’ll no doubt notice here are night photography and trains. And, inevitably, night photography of trains. I love taking pictures at night because even the most ordinary scenes acquire an air of surrealism and a sense of the fantastic. I love taking pictures of trains because, well, they’re trains. Duh. But there’s also a lot of other things that will be appearing here too. I hope you enjoy looking at the images as much as I’ve enjoyed making them.

Why Unexpected Image?

I should first explain that my friend and perennial collaborator, Randy Farmer, and I have a long history together of successful, productive, creative meetings in places other than the traditional office or conference room (though we’ve done a lot of those too). We’ve bemused any number of investors, employees, and other business associates over the years who’ve found themselves in discussions held at city park picnic tables, or on long meandering walks through downtown, or even the odd nature hike. (You can read more about our adventures in the world of business and technology at our joint blog, Habitat Chronicles, if that sort of thing interests you.) One evening near the end of last August I had been planning on going out and shooting some pictures, and Randy and I had some strategizing to do, so given our history it was perfectly normal to do those two things at the same time. Really. So we were walking around and talking and stopping frequently as I set up my tripod and camera taking various photographs. Naturally we talked about the agenda at hand, which was all the usual chatter about the online games business and virtual worlds and social networking and venture capital and all that stuff, but inevitably we also ended up talking about night photography and digital cameras and trains and matters that had more to do with the artistic activity at hand rather than business. And so it came about that I was explaining how a lot of my photography, and particularly my night photography, was often very experimental, in the sense that I’ve never been very good at doing the Ansel Adams visualize-what-you-want-and-then-figure-out-how-to-shoot-it thing (not to dis Ansel Adams, whose work I adore, nor his teachings on photography, which I deeply respect and from which I’ve learned much). Instead, I just developed a set of intuitions about what might be interesting, take lots of pictures following those intuitions (though sometimes with foolishly long exposure times), and see what comes out the other end, which actually ends up being interesting remarkably often. But I never really know what the picture is going to look like until I see it, and I’m frequently surprised to find that things I just knew were going to be awesome pretty much suck, but conversely, things that I guessed were going to be so-so end up being amazing. And as I was explaining this, I was taking pictures of the San Francisquito Creek railroad bridge from the adjacent pedestrian bridge, fiddling with the angle and the tripod trying to get it so that the pedestrian bridge railing wasn’t in the frame blowing out the image with reflected light from nearby streetlamps. And the last Caltrain of the evening came by and so I had to set the focus in a hurry, manually timed the exposure, and out came a wonderful picture. I remarked to Randy that often my best work showed up in an unexpected image. I fuss a lot over the names of things, and at that point had been fussing for several days over the title for this photoblog, and there it was, unexpectedly.

The Coast Line Project

Just a few months after it was published in 1995, I read John Signor’s marvelous book, Southern Pacific’s Coast Line, a history of the SP line that ran down the California coast from San Francisco to the outskirts of Los Angeles (and still does, though now the line belongs to the Union Pacific, which absorbed the SP in 1996). The thing that really struck me was how the whole history of the California central coast can be read in the the history of the railroad. Before there were any significant highways connecting the various towns, there was the rail line. The development of the region and that of the railroad are deeply intertwined. Much of the human geography of the area is a direct reflection of how and where the SP built things. Today, the line is not so much the regional lifeline it once was as it is just the way low-value heavy stuff gets moved around, but the echoes of the past remain in the placement of towns and the layout of streets and roads and the distribution of population. The region is a vast geographic palimpsest, and the key to understanding it is the railroad, a puzzle that I find endlessly fascinating.

Though Signor’s book is richly illustrated, he had far more top-notch photographic material than the book had room for, which lead to a follow on book, Southern Pacific’s Coast Line Pictorial, collecting several hundred of the best and most interesting historical photographs that didn’t fit the narrative template of the first volume. The second book is almost entirely pictures, and as I was looking at these I became curious about what a lot of these places look like today. And so I started looking, and exploring, and then making pictures of my own, some artistic, many simply documentary. The San Francisco Peninsula portion of the Coast Line is now the route of the Caltrain commuter line that runs up and down the peninsula. Those tracks pass less than half a mile from my house, so I eventually just went over there and began walking along the tracks and taking pictures. Thus began a project that continues to this day, as I have been obsessively visiting and photographing sites along the Coast Line route. In particular, as of this writing (September 2009), I have walked and photographed the entire Caltrain line between San Francisco and Gilroy (well, except for the insides of the tunnels and some of the major operational facilities, though if I could arrange some kind of official sanction for it I’d love to go into those as well).

My goal is to eventually do the entire line down to LA, as well as taking pictures of the many small and mid-size towns along the way, both the picturesque and the working class. There are, of course, numerous practical issues, both logistical (principally, the increasing distance from home) and legal (most of the line is on private property, and a goodly stretch south of San Luis Obispo runs through Vandenberg Air Force Base), but it’s an incremental project and at least I’ll never lack for things to do. Many of the pictures posted here are the fruits of this effort, and will be so tagged.

Photo Geek Stuff

Pictures prior to 2002 were taken with a Minolta XG-M, shooting mostly Ektachrome 400, using the stock 50mm f1.7 lens or a 200mm tele whose specs are now lost. I really loved that camera, but it eventually succumbed to light meter failure and a nasty light leak that left vertical streaks on the film. I would have been perfectly happy to buy another of the same thing, but it was 20 years old at that point and apparently the light meters in that model all die after 15 or 20 years. I replaced it with a Pentax ZX-5N (with the kit 28-80mm f3.5 zoom lens) that I wanted to love but never quite could, though you’ll see pictures shot with it here. In 2005 I bought a Nikon D70s and have been very happy with it. At the moment I’ve only got the kit 18-70mm f3.5 zoom lens that it came with. I’m contemplating investing in some additional lenses, but I fear that carrying around all the extra glass would be a pain and swapping lenses would cramp my shooting style, so it’s just contemplation for now. Opinions on this are welcome. I’m also seriously considering upgrading to the Nikon D700, mainly for its superior low-light performance; opinions on that are welcome also. There are a few other random things in the mix, including some bits taken with my wife’s Canon PowerShot S230, which is remarkably good for a cheap point-and-shoot camera (and a living demonstration of the principle that the best camera is the one you have with you and actually take pictures with).

Photos shot on film were scanned with a Polaroid SprintScan 35 Plus. The scanner is, sadly, now dependent on an old Mac G4 running MacOS 9 that I keep around just so I’ll have something with a SCSI interface that can run the appropriate driver software. Firing things up to do a round of scanning is quite a production, so it’s fortunate that I’ve now scanned essentially everything I’ve ever shot on film, though no doubt one of these days I’ll come across some new scanner that’s sufficiently better and sufficiently cheap that I’ll feel obsessively compelled to buy one and rescan everything, even though there’s probably little point.

Post-processing is done on a Mac using Aperture 2.1 (to allow me to sort through vast numbers of images) and Adobe Photoshop CS4 (for fiddling with the pixels). I also keep extensive metadata in a FileMaker database that predates the addition of Aperture to the mix; I’m still pondering the best way to reconcile those two worlds.

The blog is run on WordPress 2.8 with a custom theme that I coded myself (though liberally stealing design ideas from several other photoblogs whose layouts appealed to me). I use the PhotoQ plugin for getting the images in. After converting Habitat Chronicles from Movable Type to WordPress a couple of months ago, I felt sufficiently up to speed on the WordPress API that producing my own theme was only a moderately insane thing to contemplate. I remain persuaded that PHP is The World’s Worst Programming Language (and you can quote me on that) but damn useful.

Copyright and Usage

While I’m not a professional photographer, these pictures do represent my serious creative effort. They are owned and copyrighted by me. These images are for your personal use. You can link to them or add them to your screen saver or print them out to hang over your desk, etc., but you cannot redistribute or republish them in any form. You cannot give nor sell them to other people. If you want to redistribute this work for some reason, email me and we’ll talk; I’m pretty reasonable. I do not, at present, have plans to sell prints. However, that would happily change if actual interest were to develop, as I’m certainly as egotistical as the next artist. Contact me directly if you’re interested.


There are a couple of people I’d like to publicly acknowledge as major influences that lead to this.

One is Ctein, a remarkable photographer whose own website helped inspire me to put my first online gallery together. Ctein is a true artist (that is to say, the real deal, in contrast to a mere enthusiast like me) whose photographic work I admire utterly. He has also been a good friend whose generous and patient advice has made my art rather better than it would otherwise be. Go buy some of his pictures.

The other is Kathleen Connally, whose wonderful A Walk Through Durham Township, Pennsylvania has been a daily joy and inspiration to my photo efforts since I first ran across it five or six years ago. I think it was her continuous stream of amazing pictures (especially the skies — nobody does skies better) that really planted the seed in the back of my mind that a regular photoblog was the thing to do, which seed has now sprouted.

VFXY Photos