Monday, May 27, 2013


On Sunday, May 26, I spent some time in downtown Milwaukee, doing a little architectural photography.  One of the nice things about architecture is that doesn't move on you like wildlife or plants in the wind can.

Milwaukee's roots extend back comfortably into the 19th century, and a lot of its distinctive architecture reaches back a hundred years or more.  On the other hand, as with many of the Midwestern cities in the so-call rustbelt, it has not seen the growth in recent decades that cities in the sunbelt have, and is therefore somewhat lacking in examples of contemporary architectural style.  Even so, I caught a few.

To begin, here are a couple of shots of the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts (more familiarly known as the PAC).

I know that I have a problem failing to provide an overall perspective on these things, but I do like to capture some of these clean but complex lines, especially as in the second image.

Here are a couple of shots of another relatively recent (in the last 15 years) addition to Milwaukee's collection of modern architecture, the 1000 N. Water Street building.

I increased the contrast on this shot a bit, and I like the result, which has a feel of HDR to it, even though it's not.  Here is a close-up.

Going a little further back in time, here is a photo of the Milwaukee Center, in this case the commercial office tower portion of what also includes several theater venues and a hotel.  Again, I liked the complicated lines that the architecture features.

Next up, Milwaukee City Hall.  The interior of City Hall is stunning, and so is the exterior.  Unfortunately, the extensive renovation the exterior underwent several years ago proved to have problems which are now being corrected, necessitating scaffolding being extended around the entire perimeter of the building.  So my shots for this post were confined to the building's upper reaches.  Here are a couple of those.

I am always amazed at the amount of architectural detail that these older buildings feature.  The detail in the first shot is probably a good 150 feet above street level.

And here are a couple of older buildings along East Wisconsin Avenue, Milwaukee's "main street."  First up, the Milwaukee Club building.  I always thought this building's exterior was badly in need of restoration.  However, unless that was done in the last few years without my noticing, this deep red sandstone exterior appears to to in very good condition for a building that is well into its second century.

And here is another example of 19th century architecture, a close-up of the the former Northwestern National Insurance building, now housing a branch office of Northern Trust Company.

But the real star of this post is the Federal Building, also on Wisconsin Avenue.

I especially like the way the small trees complement the romanesque architecture.  I also felt that the couple walking by helped to provide perspective on a quiet Sunday morning.  The pillars and arches convey that governmental look, and I decided to get a few more shots featuring them.

I liked how the black railings create additional interest for the composition.

And here, finally, is a closer shot of the arches.

As I have said before, the labor cost for this kind of detail would be unheard of in contemporary architecture.  I am just thankful that we've been able to preserve the examples that we have.



The John Michael Kohler Arts Center, located in Sheboygan Wisconsin, is perhaps more a source of support for the visual and performing arts than it is a dedicated art museum.  It does house a number contemporary art pieces, as well as maintain two outdoor sculpture gardens.   However, its real attractions are its public washrooms (as the facility refers to them).  That's right, washrooms.  Kohler, the name sponsor for the arts center, is associated with high end plumbing fixtures and the washrooms in the building do not disappoint.  In fact, they hold the only artwork in the building for which photography is allowed (provided no one else is using the washroom at the time).

I got to the Kohler Center shortly after it opened in the morning, and the receptionist, after explaining the center's policy on photography, escorted me to one of the women's washrooms.

Given the washroom's relatively tight quarters, a true wide-angle lens would have helped here, but I think you get the idea.  Here are a few close-ups of individual stalls.

It is apparent that the tiles in the washroom, though individually created, collectively create coherent murals.  Here is a shot of the wall opposite the sinks.

Many of the tiles have a bas relief quality.

And then it was on to the men's washroom--much more masculine but, like the women's, tastefully done.

The decor in this room was quite a bit darker and, because I didn't have the courage to ask to use my tripod for the occasion, light was a bit of an issue.

Here are a couple of the sinks.

And, of course, the urinals.

Bull's eye.

Here is a straight-on shot of some of the tile work . . .

including some detail.

Of these two washrooms, I preferred the women's (for the art, of course) because it had more of an airy feel.  The men's was a bit heavy, but amazing nevertheless.

The facility had three other washrooms--men's, women's, and family.

However, when I knocked on the women's it was occupied.  And the family washroom was nice but not as ornate as the two main washrooms.  I did get a few photos in the other men's washroom, but again it was not as interesting as the one off the main entrance.  Here is a shot of one of its urinals.

The Kohler Center building itself is nicely laid out.

Here is a shot of the entrance lobby shot from the inside.

The limited number of pieces of art, all contemporary, were interesting but a bit disappointing in terms of quantity.  The exterior sculpture garden was also just OK, as was an ancillary sculpture garden located a few miles to the south that had been donated to the center several years ago.

If you find yourself in Sheboygan the Kohler Center is worth the visit, if only for the washrooms.  Make sure you visit both men's and women's, if that can be arranged.


Wednesday, May 22, 2013


Sometimes when I am photographing architecture or abstract art (or nature macro, for that matter), my goal is not simply to capture the art or the architecture.  Rather, it is to create a pleasing abstract (or what I think is pleasing), by taking advantage of the art or architecture.  And I found myself doing that--in varying degree--on my most recent visit to the Museum of Wisconsin Art (MOWA) in West Bend.

Here are a few architectural details of the museum building.  The first is a shot of the interior of the building's sharply acute north corner.

Strong morning sunlight was streaming through the slotted windows and I felt that converting to a black & white would accentuate the contrast, creating a confusion of light and shade.

The second is of metal pegs on a plain white wall, serving as a coat rack.  (Here I cheated, rotating the photo 90 degrees clockwise.)

The third is of the top of a stairway on the building's south side.

There was glass paneling on the outside of the handrail, and I liked the way the light reflecting off the glass was, in turn, reflecting off the landing at the top of the stairs, creating a nearly symmetrical abstract.

On the art side, the following are roughly in order of abstraction, beginning with a portion of a very stylized painting of human figures . . .

followed by a portion of a chest of drawers that was painted in stark black and white stripes.

And here is a portion of one of the components of a sculpture hanging in the museum's "triangular" area.

The image below is of a collection of glass plates.

The following are close-ups of a portion of a glass vase . . .

and of a portion of another piece of art glass hanging on one of the gallery walls.

I liked the way the light filtering through the glass's internal cross-hatched "webbing" was reflected off the wall beneath the glass.

Finally is a close-up of a compelling tapestry that was abstract and remarkable in its detail.


In compiling these I have realized that in most cases I have created the abstract by photographing only a portion of the object, obscuring it overall character.  For some reason that fits my sensibilities.



Earlier this week I returned to the Museum of Wisconsin Art in West Bend to do a little more photography.  It was a brighter day and I spent some time trying to capture the building's exterior and interior architecture.  I also took photos of some of the artwork that I had not shot on my first visit.  I also found myself taking photos of some of the abstract artwork not as art per se but simply for its abstract quality.  The same can be said for some of the interior architectural detail.  I plan to show these abstract shots in a subsequent post.

Here is a photo of the main entrance, which incorporates the sign for the museum, something I should have done the first time.

And here's a photo of the building's most distinctive architectural feature, the very acutely angled corner  at the north end.

I took essentially this same shot on my first visit.  The sun was out this time, providing more contrast, but I 'm not sure this represents an improvement overall.

Here is another attempt to capture a sculpture hanging on the interior of this triangular space.

I was in a bit of a hurry to take the following photo of the museum's lobby area, as I wanted to include the visitor in the shot.  As it was, I took the shot without much thought or preparation.  The bright light streaming through the window deceived the camera's light meter, and the shot was significantly underexposed for the walls, as well as for the visitor.  However, in post processing I was able to bring out the walls and visitor without blowing out the light from the window.  The result, I think, gives a nice sense of the space.  The low benches add to that sense.

The following is a small section of a much larger piece of folk art.  The entire piece included a number of bird "families" positioned on different levels of the overall framework of the piece.

A major challenge was the artwork behind this sculpture.  If I had positioned the camera far enough from the bird sculpture to include the entire work, this would have brought into play the artwork behind.  By getting much closer to the subject work and opening up the aperture, I was able to make the depth of field much shallower, effectively blurring out the art behind the birds.  In short, this was the best I could do.

In my first post I included the following very large painting (15-20 feet across), and I made the comment that the some of the figures had a zombie-like aspect.

Here are a couple of close-ups to support that comment.

This really is a remarkable piece of art, not just for its sheer size, but for the emotion it conveys.

And, speaking of emotion, here is a detail from another highly charged piece.

This person is in deep trouble.


Friday, May 17, 2013


Earlier this week I traveled to Port Washington, Wisconsin, a quaint town on Lake Michigan about 15 miles north of our home.  I was hoping to get some pictures of the town's harbor and historic downtown.  In that I was a bit disappointed.  However, before leaving, I noticed a prominent church on a hill at the north end of the downtown area, St. Mary's.  I took a few shots of the exterior and then checked to see if the church was open.  I was bit surprised to find that it was.  I had my tripod along but, even though no one was around, I was not comfortable bringing it in.

The church featured ample stained glass windows on each side.  Even so, the ambient light in the sanctuary was really quite low.  So I took a number of hand-held shots using a relatively high ISO rating (1000) and a relatively wide-open aperture to compensate for the lack of light and to keep exposures to under 1/10th second.  I was really encouraged by the interior architecture, so the following morning I phoned the church and asked if I could come back to take additional photos.  The representative I spoke with was very gracious and welcomed me to come at a time when I would not interfere with any church activities.  I returned that afternoon with my tripod and spent perhaps another 1 to 1-1/2 hours taking more photos.

Here is a shot of the front of the church.

I had limited room in front of the church to get this shot.  Just beyond where I was standing the hill began to drop sharply down toward the town.  Fortunately, my lens had just enough wide-angle capabilities to get in the entire exterior, including the cross atop the steeple.

Usually, among the first interior photos I take are wide-angle shots of the front of the church, both horizontal and vertical.

Because of the low-light situation, I had decided to set the aperture at a medium f/9 and with an ISO setting of 200.  These were both shot at those settings, and the resulting shutter times were 1.0 and 1.6 seconds, respectively.  (Later I moved to narrower apertures to gain more depth of field.)  The apparent brightness of these shots is deceiving, as it was really quite dark in the church.

As I have lamented previously, churches pose serious lighting challenges.  One of those is white balance.  If there are incandescent interior lights, they can "over-warm" the overall color.  The light coming through the stained glass windows can also create some white balance issues. I usually resort to an Automatic setting to get a rough approximation of the proper color and then work on the files in post processing.  I always shoot in raw, which means that the camera takes exactly what's there and I can then tweak things once the files have been downloaded to my computer.  My options would be much more limited if I were to shoot in jpeg.  (Perhaps that's a bit too much technical information.)

A more serious lighting problem stems from the fact that there can be an enormous difference in overall illumination between the bright windows and some of the dark interior surfaces, a difference that exceeds the camera's capabilities.  For example, in the shot above, the area above the altar was quite dark and I simply could not brighten it up without substantially overexposing other parts of the image, especially the windows.

And here is a shot of the back of the sanctuary, showing off the church's impressive pipe organ.

After I had been taking shots for about 15-20 minutes, a couple of custodians came in.  They asked if I would like them to turn on the altar lights.  I really couldn't say no, even though that additional lighting posed its own problems.  Here is the front of the church with the altar lights on.

Better I think, though now that area was perhaps over-illuminated and with incandescent light.  Here is a closer shot of the altar area.

With many church interiors, the real architectural "action" is with the corridors on either side of the sanctuary.  St. Mary's is no different.  Here is a shot looking up one of the sides.

I liked the way the early afternoon sun was streaming through the side windows.  Here's another shot taken on the first day when morning light was illuminating the east side of the sanctuary.

Here are a couple of photos of windows to either side of the choir loft at the back of the sanctuary (the windows actually being at the front of the church as seen from the exterior).

These two shots point up a significant difference between the photos from the first day and those from the second.  Frankly, the light was better the first day than it was on the second.  For example, the first of the above shots was taken on the first day, while the second was taken on the second day.  To my eye the surfaces in the first shot seemed to have a glow to them that was simply lacking in the second, despite my best efforts in post processing.  I noticed this in a number of other shots as well.  Of course, in some ways the technical quality of the second's days shots was superior, as I had the luxury of longer exposures and a lower ISO (meaning less "noise").  The photo above of the side of the sanctuary showing three of the stained glass windows was also taken on the first day, and I feel that it has more depth than similar shots that I took on the second day.

I realize that I seem to have a fetish for arches, but I thought the gothic-style arches in this church were particularly attractive.  Here are a couple of shots that I think reflect their beauty.

And here is one centered on a supporting pillar.

I also feel that I have a bit of an obsession for symmetry, as is reflected in the above shots.  However, in the end I thought the best shots I got of the arches were taken obliquely.

Because of their clean lines, I thought these worked well also as B&Ws.

Finally, here is a shot of the front entrance doors taken from the interior.

I liked how the angled light was reflected off the floor.  I also liked the simple colors of the concrete steps, lawn, and sky, giving the photo the appearance of having been painted.

Here are a few more facts about this beautiful church:
The cornerstone for the church was laid in 1882, and the building was completed in 1884.
The church can seat approximately 700 people.
The steeple rises nearly 170 feet above the foundation.  The dials of its four-sided clock are each seven feet in diameter.
The steeple holds three functioning bells, the largest of which weighs over 2,800 pounds.
In 1977 the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Since its construction, the church has witnessed over 11,000 baptisms, 3,000 weddings, and 4,600 funerals.