Saturday, May 31, 2014


We have been blessed, finally, with warm, sunny weather, and the other evening that made me think about the Granville Petroleum Terminal in the northwest corner of Milwaukee County.  The terminal is populated with a large number of cylindrical petroleum tanks many of which have stairways spiraling up their sides.  Most of the tanks are painted white, and I thought the evening light might create interesting shadows on the tanks' curved sides.

Even though the terminal is blessed with literally dozens of white tanks with curved stairways, there are significant challenges to photographing them.   First, the terminal is huge but the only public streets are on the facility's perimeter.  Second, the terminal is surrounded by a high--like nine feet high--chain link fence that is topped by an extra foot of barbed wire.  So to get a clear shot I was limited to opportunities above the fence.  My only other option would have been to place the lens right in the gaps between the chain links, something I was not brave enough to do, considering the nature of the facility and the fact that I would have to walk onto the property itself.  Despite the challenges, I thought the session was a success.

It was sunny again the next day, and I decided to return midday to get some more shadow shots.  And that's when things fell apart.  I had just taken my sixth shot when an individual from the facility drove up.  He asked if I was working for the government, and when I said no, he advised me to put my camera away and leave--now.  I said that I was just a hobbyist and thought it should be OK so long as I was on public land (a side street).  He stated that the street was actually private and was owned by the terminal facility.  Moreover, he said, it wouldn't matter whether I was on public or private land.  The problem was taking pictures of the facility, period.  He stated that the standard procedure would have been not even to ask me to leave but simply to call 911 and let the police take over.  So, maybe I was lucky.  I apologized and left, and that was that.  But again, I was happy with the few shots that I did get, though it looks like I will not be returning.

Here is one of the early shots I got on the first evening that I converted to a black & white.

I liked the long sweep of the evening shadows, but overall the shot is a little difficult to interpret and just OK.

Below is another shot that includes a patch of stairs viewed nearly straight on.  There is another, darker colored tank in the background behind the stairs.

A nothing shot, really, and a little weird, but I somehow kept it for its simplicity.

Here is another shot that incorporates another structure in the foreground.

It's a little challenging to interpret, but I like it anyway, even though the foreground structure is somewhat out of focus.

Here are a couple of shots from the aborted second session that illustrate the nearly vertical shadows that the stairways were casting at midday.

Both of these shots, particularly the second, nicely illustrate an optical illusion.  It appears that the camera is looking at the top sides of the stairs and that the railing is on the side away from the camera.  But in fact the stairs are above the camera (because I had to shoot over the top of the fence), so the view is of the undersides of the stairs rather than the top sides.  And the railing is actually on the camera side of the stairs (and away from the side of the tank, which makes sense).  The bold dark curved line is actually the shadow cast by the railing.  The illusion is especially effective in the lower portion of the image.  Here is a close-up crop that might illustrate the illusion better.

It appears that you are viewing the steps from above, but you need to concentrate on thinking that you are looking from underneath the step grids and that the white railing is on the side of the steps closest to the camera.

Here two more more shots from the second day that feature yellow railings.  The second shot is pretty close to a black & white except for the yellow railing.

At one point on the first evening, I was so frustrated about the chain link fencing that I took a couple of shots through the fence, focusing on the stairway of the tank and letting the fence go out of focus.

This was shot at f/11.  It might have been better to have set the aperture more wide open to allow the fencing to go even more out of focus, thought I liked the effect that the fencing created.

Although the few shots that I got on the second day featured some nice shadowing, the midday light simply couldn't compare with the light from the evening before.  Here, finally, are a couple of shots from the first evening that I especially liked.

I was OK with letting the right side of the above image go quite dark to accentuate the light reflecting off the descending stairway.

I particularly liked the following shot that I converted to a black & white.

Again I didn't mind that a portion of the image, this time on the left, was dark, as it allowed some of the vertical elements of the railing to be highlighted.  I also liked the streaky texture of the side of the tank.  I thought it worked to put the stair landing off-center in the image.  I'm not quite sure how it happened, but this shot has a much different character than the other shots that I took.

I had visited the petroleum terminal a couple of years ago, and, thinking about it, had gotten kicked off that time as well.  I had posted those other photos on 2/22/12.  I would like to think that these show a bit more complexity than my shots from a couple of years ago.


Monday, May 26, 2014


In late spring and early summer, especially when the weather is warm, I like to wander around the city in the evening with my camera taking advantage of the warm sunlight.  And that is what I did one day last week.

The warm sunlight can have a profound effect on architectural subjects, as illustrated in the following couple of shots.

Milwaukee's City Hall has been undergoing exterior repair work--again--and the associated scaffolding really hampers any photography of the exterior.  This first is a shot of the east side of the building that was, of course, in the shade with the late May evening sun in the west.

My goal was to feature both the fire escape stairs and the window arches.  However, because I was on the shaded side, the color was dull and the contrast was muted.  So I decided to convert the shot into a black & white and to increase the contrast.  It worked just OK.

But what was amazing was the next shot that I took, less than two minutes later, featuring the northwest corner of the building.

Now the building is bathed in the warm sunlight, showing off its architectural detail.

I then wandered over to the nearby Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, another building with some architectural distinction but of a very different (modern) nature.  The building's multifaceted, non-rectilinear exterior invites detail shots that feature those surfaces, especially those on the sunny side.  Here is one of those.

I have been using my newly acquired circular polarizing filter, which in this case served to darken significantly the blue of the sky.  I took another, more symmetrical shot of the building that I thought might work as a black & white.

Just mildly interesting, I thought.  But the filter did serve to further darken the cloudless sky, which I thought helped the overall composition a little.

The MGIC building complex is also nearby, and I got this shot.

The multiple lines separating dark and light areas seemed to beg for conversion to a black & white.  But it didn't work.  There was just too much confusion in trying to sort out the foreground building from the background one.  The warm evening light serves much better to separate the two.

There is an outdoor entertainment venue on the south side of the Marcus Center that includes permanent seating arranged in a semicircular rows.  I probably took a dozen shots before I settled on this one.

Finally, I also spotted this spidery white graffiti "tag" on a very dark background (on a derelict building).

I'm always impressed with the artistry of graffiti-ests.  In post processing I was able to convert the background to nearly black.  I could have cropped the shot to exclude the miscellaneous stuff on the right but thought it actually added to the overall composition.



Anyone who has browsed my blog knows that I seem to have a fetish for abandoned warehouses.  Maybe it's because I like architecture and Milwaukee simply doesn't have much diversity in modern architecture.  More likely it is because the city, given its industrial roots, is "blessed" with a goodly number of abandoned and deteriorating buildings.  One of those is an abandoned warehouse that I believe was originally part of a former tannery campus in Walker's Point that is undergoing a gradual renovation.  It's obvious that that process hasn't yet reached this building.

A couple of weeks ago I took a shot of the building on a cloudy, shadowless day.

It is evident that I was not attracted to this building for its distinctive architectural detail.  I liked how the shot looked as converted to a black & white.  Even though the lack of shadows made for a "flat" appearance and a lack of contrast, the photo was very crisp for handheld.  My one complaint was that the shot did not include any part of the ground in front of the building, and that bothered me aesthetically.

So more recently I returned for another try, this time armed with my latest "toy," a circular polarizing filter.  It was a sunny day, and I thought it would give me a chance to play around with the filter.  Here is one of the first shots that I took.

At least this time I included the ground at the base of the building and came to understand why I had excluded it in the prior shot--the frumpy looking loading dock in the lower right corner.

On a sunny day the polarizing filter gives me a choice on how to handle the sunlight reflecting off the windows.  I can either accentuate that reflection or reduce it, darkening the windows.  In the above shot I essentially deactivated the polarizing filter, but in the shot below I used the filter to reduce the amount of reflection.

And this provided for more detail in some of the windows, particularly in the lower portion of the image.  This is perhaps shown better in the following shot that I left in color.

And I love the way the building looks beat up.  But note that I had conceded not including the ground because of that unattractive loading dock.

Here, finally, is more of a detail shot that shows off the windows in the lower left of the above shot.


Sunday, May 25, 2014


Early last December, just before an extremely harsh winter descended, I had some success with my camera at a tree farm south of West Bend and also took some interesting shots at a horse farm in western Mequon.  I hadn't been back since the weather improved and thought I would see what these spots had to offer.  It was pretty disappointing, to be honest.  The trees had already started to leaf out, and the sun was too high in the sky (another way of saying that I should have gotten there a lot earlier in the day).  Even so, having driven all the way to the tree farm, I took some shots, visiting the horse farm on the way back.

Even though the shots were disappointing, I decided to do what I could with them in post processing. In the first couple of shots below I modified both their contrast and sharpness to produce images that look like pseudo-HDR, even though they actually represented a single, unblended shot.

 This gives them the appearance of drawings, especially in the look of the grass.

I converted the next couple of shots to black & whites and then, not satisfied with that look, selectively brightened what the camera had recorded as green.

This tactic not only provided more contrast with the dark tree trunks, it gave the grass the appearance of snow or frost.  Not realistic, but an interesting effect, I thought.  I also liked the balance in the first of these shots.

As I said, I stopped at the Oldenburg horse farm in western Mequon on my way back.  Again, conditions simply weren't as good as they had been in the fall when conditions had included a dense fog to provide depth to the shots.  Because I was disappointed with conditions, I again fooled around with the images in post processing.

In this first shot, that I converted to black & white, I again selectively brightened the green shades to create the following somewhat surreal image.

Weird and almost with the appearance of infrared photography.

Here is a second shot, which included in the foreground a grass field in which the dandelions were in full bloom.  In this case I darkened, rather than lightened, the green but lightened the yellow (dandelions), creating a polka dot effect in the foreground.

I'm not sure I like the foreground effect, but I do like how the false shading of the colors affected the woods in the background.

Just trying to make the best of a less than ideal situation.


Saturday, May 24, 2014


Two subjects that I find myself returning to are scenes of decrepitude and recognizable abstracts, and sometimes I am able to combine the two, as in the following.

The first is of an ancient grain elevator on the old Pabst Brewery campus northwest of downtown Milwaukee.  The elevators are built out of individual ceramic tiles, each perhaps a foot and a half square and slightly curved.  What caught my eye was the fact that the tiles were different colors and exhibited different levels of deterioration.  I also liked the silvery patina covering some of the tiles.

Here is another photo from the same area, which shows a foundational crack at the base of those grain elevators.

Across a narrow alley from the grain elevators was a small building exhibiting a good deal of paint failure, as illustrated in the following shots.

This area is undergoing extensive renovation and I probably should have not been there.  But I visited after work hours and wasn't getting in anyone's way.  There was not a lot of light in the alley and I took these with the help of a tripod.  Because paint failure occurs in a more or less random fashion, one of my choices was the image's composition.  In the first shot I wanted to be sure I included all four coats of paint.  In the second I wanted to position the darkest area toward the upper right corner of the image.

Below is a shot from the interior of one of my other favorite locations, the Solvay Coke Plant on the south side of Milwaukee.  This is a shot of a plastered wall.  The one recognizable item in the shot is the light switch in the lower right corner.  Again, there was little light, and I was using a tripod to ensure adequate exposure time without worrying about camera shake.  This was taken at f/5.6 for 1/10 second at a 200 ISO.

I'm confident that the switch has not been operational for at least 25 years.

Another case of paint failure was actually a graffiti site in Milwaukee's Walker's Point area on the former grounds of the Sprecher brewery (before it moved to Glendale).  Here are a couple of the shots that I took at that location.

Again, I was most concerned with color and overall composition.  The primary warehouse for the former brewery is pretty much totally derelict.  The large (locked) double-entry doors to the building were in a serious failing state, and I chose to take a shot of the bases of doors, which were in particularly poor condition.

The upper portions of the doors had been painted a brilliant blue, and I liked the overall look of the graffitied doors, handles, and lock.

When I returned to this area a few days later, I found that the doors had been painted black to cover up the blue paint.  Perhaps a subsequent graffiti artist had painted something that the property's overseers objected to.  In any event, while I was busy shooting some of the graffiti, I was approached by a young man with the word "Security" on his shirt.  Nice guy who had been watching me on surveillance cameras and had mistaken my camera equipment for a graffiti spray gun.

© 2014 John M. Phillips

Tuesday, May 13, 2014


Last weekend we were up in Minnesota, and I decided to get up early Saturday morning to visit a nearby wildlife refuge with my camera, the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, which is just east of the Mall of America.  It was a calm morning and there was a good deal of fog hanging above any open water.  I missed a number of opportunities on my way to the wildlife refuge, about 10 miles from where we were staying.  Later I regretted that, as by the time I was returning much of the fog had dissipated.

I did get a few landscape shots in the early morning sun.  I'm still learning my way around panoramic landscape opportunities, and it shows, I'm afraid.  I took about 40 shots that morning but kept only four.  That wouldn't be all bad if they were really good, but that's not the case.

Here is one of the early shots that I took.

I've learned that it often helps to incorporate something of interest in the foreground.  That would the tree in the above shot.  Doesn't work well here.  The only saving grace in this shot is the Minneapolis skyline in the background.

I tried again in the following shot, featuring the tree on the left.

Actually a little better, I thought.  I cropped all of these shots horizontally because I felt that would emphasize the panoramic quality of the scenes.  Besides, the sky didn't really have anything to offer.

In the following shot I thought I wanted to take advantage of a layering feature--a more saturated foreground and a foggier background.

In retrospect, it might have been better to have incorporated the sky, if only to establish some sort of context.

That is what I attempted to do in the following shot.

I thought this was the best of the bunch.  But I really should have included more of the sky in the image.  The little sliver of sky just doesn't make it, but that's all I had when I got to post processing.

In the last three shots, although I increased the contrast a bit in post processing, the early morning sun was providing the nicely saturated colors.


Monday, May 12, 2014


As I have stated before, Milwaukee's Walker's Point is an older neighborhood of an older industrial Midwestern city.  It includes sections that are undergoing a rejuvenation and sections that aren't.  And both offer photographic opportunities.  Here are a few.

This first is of an antique shop.

In the past when I have tried to shoot this building, there has generally been one or more cars parked in front.  This time the street was clear, except for an orange traffic cone positioned in front that I was able to partially crop out.

What were more interesting were the store's antique posters.  Here are portions of a couple of those.

And then there was the paintwork above the entrance.

I thought it worked better to treat these as abstract opportunities rather than trying to capture the entire entryway.  The resolution on these shots was actually quite good.

And here is another storefront that caught my eye for its colors.

One of my favorite Walker's Point spots is on the campus of an old tannery that has been converted to a combination of housing and office space.  For me the more attractive portions are actually those that still looking for renovation.

Here, for example, is an entryway for what I believe is an apartment building.

This is the second time I have shot this same entryway, and both times the same motorcycle was parked in front.  I think the motorcycle makes this composition, but I wish the motorcycle had been facing into the shot rather than out.

And a couple of more shots from the same neighborhood: a building plaque that I liked for its corruption . . .

and a doorway for its obsolescence.

The archway over the door creates an imbalance in the composition, but otherwise the shot held a lot of interest for me.  Again, the resolution on these shots was really good for handheld, I thought.  Shutter speed was 1/25 second and 1/80th second, respectively.  Having a camera lens that is capable of compensating electronically for camera shake helps a lot.

The following photo isn't really much of shot, but I liked it anyway.  I think the light striking the brick wall contrasted nicely with the dark window openings.

I decided that the tree actually helped the composition providing some perspective.

One of the places I like is a thoroughly neglected area situated next to an abandoned building in the same neighborhood.  The location has been a site for graffiti artists in the past.  But what attracted me were the older graffiti that had weathered away and that offered opportunities in abstraction, including the following.

This area adjoins a railroad spur leading to a switching yard.

Note the track--not exactly a high speed rail.

Finally, the Walker's Point area is in the shadow of the Allen-Bradley (now Rockwell International) clock tower.  

For nearly 50 years this was the largest four-sided clock in the world, with clock faces more than 40 feet in diameter.  But then in 2010 the Saudis built a four-sided clock with faces more than 140 feet in diameter . . . just a tad larger.