Monday, March 30, 2015


The Yerkes Observatory, located in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, adjacent to Lake Geneva, is very much an anachronism.  It was built at the end of the 19th century at a time when the major telescopes were refractors rather than reflectors, when observatory location was  more driven by convenience (read near metropolitan areas) than by the "seeing" conditions, and when construction may have been driven more by architecture than by technology.

As a youngster I read a good deal of layman astronomy, including the more recent history of astronomy, and the Yerkes observatory had a significant role in that history.  So I had been familiar with some of the early discoveries that came out of that observatory.  But, even though I have lived only about an hour away from the observatory for nearly 40 years, I had never paid it a visit--until last Saturday.  The observatory is open to visitors on Saturdays and offers 45-minute tours that are "free" but for which they request a suggested $5 donation.  The tour was well worth the donation.

I had done a little homework and as a result my visit was pretty much what I expected.  The tour guide was engaging and his remarks were as much or more about the facility's history and architecture as it was about astronomy.

I got to the observatory a little early, and even though the weather was unseasonably cold, it was clear and I got in a few photos of the exterior, including the dome housing the observatory's "famed" 40-inch refractor.

This photo is a bit weird, as it looks like the dome is a stand-alone structure, but it is really simply attached (on the other side) to one end of the main building.   Here are a few shots that reflect the ornate quality of the facility's architectural detail.

On the interior there is a modest octagonal reception area that has been fairly well maintained, but is, nevertheless, uninspiring.

It includes a bust of Yerkes, a Chicago philanthropist (as well as a convicted felon), who provided major funding for the facility.

During the tour, the guide pointed out and explained much of the symbolism embedded in the architectural detail, including satyrs, caricatures, astrological signs, and backward swastikas.  Here are a few examples.

The tour did include a visit to the dome for the 40-inch refractor.

This shot doesn't really do justice to the dimensions of the dome and telescope, other than the spiral staircase on the left.  Oh, and there is a spiderman (that I think was life-size--whatever that means) located at the top of the image just to the right of center.

Sadly, the 40-inch refractor is no longer used for active astronomical research, for a number of reasons:  Larger reflectors are easier to build and have much greater light gathering power.  Plus serious astronomy is now done at much higher altitudes and much further from metropolitan light pollution, which is inescapable at Yerkes.  Even so, it was great finally to see this monument to astronomical history.

John M. Phillips

Monday, March 23, 2015


I admit that I am a secret fan of graffiti.  Not the graffiti that defaces public buildings but the graffiti that is limited to venues that are no longer part of the public landscape.  There is no place for the defacement of public spaces.  That simply represents vandalism and destruction of property.  But some spaces have otherwise been abandoned, and there can be an unstated understanding that such spaces are acceptable for graffiti-ists to express their art without being destructive.  One such place is the Solvay coke plant on Milwaukee's south side, which has been abandoned for some 30 years and has served as an acceptable venue for graffiti for some time.  I paid another visit to the property last weekend.

Some graffiti can be appreciated for the specialized representational artistry that it can entail.  An example is the following recent graffito on the exterior of one of the Solvay buildings.

I know that the above graffito is saying something.  I'm just not sure what.  But I do know that this work, which might have been 15-20 feet across, took a good deal of flair for design--and planning--to pull off.

In other cases the design is a bit more abstract, as in the following that I liked for its combination of bright colors and for the "alligatoring" that the paint had undergone over time.

In yet others, the piece is even more abstract but may include a "tag," a stylized signature by the artist, as in the following photo.

Actually, I think this was a double tagging--one tag over another--which raises questions about respect or lack of respect by one artist toward another.

But on this visit what caught my eye was a translucent corrugated plastic window covering that had been painted from the exterior.  (Keep in mind that this place is a complete shambles.)  The sunlight coming through the plastic was bright, creating a nicely backlit scene.  It also meant that I could keep the ISO rating at a lower level than would have been available otherwise for a handheld shot.  Here are the shots that I got.

I liked these in part for the texture in the plastic visible upon close inspection.

Maybe this is just an example of the notion that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder."  Or maybe not.


Saturday, March 21, 2015


I've wanted to spend some time photographing Wisconsin's State Capitol building with my new camera.  However, recent events have led to a great deal of demonstration activity in Madison.  Things finally settled down this past week, so I took the 1-1/2 hour drive on Tuesday to shoot some photos in the Capitol.  I knew from past experience that tripods were not an issue, and I felt it made a significant difference in the resolution of the images that I got.

I don't do much exterior architectural photography, but for the record here is an exterior shot of the capitol.

This shot reflects the fact that the morning was cloudless with bright sunshine.  I thought that might be an advantage for interior shots.  But that was not the case.  Instead, the sunlight steaming through the windows surrounding the base of the dome was creating "hotspots" on the building's interior surfaces.  Something I found I had to work around.

Here is an early shot that I took in one of the four main corridors leading toward the central rotunda.

Below is a wide angle shot that features two of the four structures supporting the central dome.

A careful look at the above shot reveals a bright sunlight spot on the the mural in the upper left.

The amount of ornate architectural detail in this building is phenomenal, as is apparent in this shot of the boundary between the base of the dome and the corridor arch beneath.

Following are shots of one of the corridors, zooming in on one of the sculptures of Wisconsin's state mascot, the badger.

I did visit one of the Capitol's hearing rooms and took this shot of its ornate ceiling.

There was an individual sitting in the room at the time for some unknown reason.  He asked me if I was a professional photographer.  He then speculated that my camera must be expensive, costing maybe as much as $300.  I just laughed.

The real star of this show is the dome.  Early in the session I tried getting a shot of the dome by placing the camera on the rotunda floor directly under the center of the dome.  However, the sunlight continued to be a problem, creating bright spots on the interior surface.  So I took a detail shot of just a portion of the dome.

I also found myself taking shots of the dome from the side under where the bright spots were occurring.  I really liked the abstract quality that the following shot projected.

And here is a similar shot that does include a "sunspot" in the lower right, but I didn't think it was so severe to spoil the overall effect.

Note how in these two shots the lines of rectangles radiating from the center of the dome appear to be curved.  This is either a function of the camera's perspective or of the optics of the lens.  I say that because when I finally was able to get a nice shot of the dome from directly underneath at the end of the session, it is apparent that the lines of rectangles are straight and not curved.

I was really happy with this shot after number of my earlier attempts had been disappointing primarily because of the problems with sunlight.  Even though this photo came out really well, it is not flawless.  There is a light area in the dome's dark outer ring at around 11:30, caused, I think by sunlight that was "leaking" through the windows on that side of the dome.

The staff at the Capitol were conducting tours throughout the session, and among the visitors were a group of Mennonites, including a number of teenage girls, all wearing matching bonnets.  They were on the second level and were posing for a photographer on the first level.  I was on the third level and caught the following shot.

I loved how they all had their arms around one another.

Overall, I was very happy with how my camera performed in this session.


Friday, March 20, 2015


On our recent trip to the Twin Cities I paid another visit to the Minnesota State Capitol and discovered that it was undergoing extensive renovation, and much of the interior, including the central dome and rotunda, was closed to visitors.  Even so, I tried to take advantage of what was available.

One of the first things that strikes the visitor (who bothers to look up) is that the corridor ceilings are decoratively painted.

My guess is that these rosemaling patterns reflect the state's strong immigrant Norwegian influence.

Here's another detail shot of a more complex ceiling feature.

I was able to visit the Senate chamber and took this ceiling detail shot.

And the the House chamber where I got this wider angle shot.

Later I found myself on a staircase leading to the lower level (hoping to get a glimpse of the rotunda) in the construction zone and spotted a wrought iron railing that had been covered in what I took to be construction dust.

For the record, I shot this at f/4 for 1/25th second at an ISO of 3200.  This was at a significantly higher level than I could have shot with my prior camera.

Nothing great, though I did like this semi-abstract shot of a skylight above one of the side corridors.

The most interesting shots were of the stone pillars lining one of the main stairways.

The first shot has, I think, a majestic feel.  The second, with its seeming jumble of lines, has more of a surreal feel.  This second shot, particularly, also has an HDR (high dynamic range) feel, though this was an unblended, single shot.


Monday, March 16, 2015


I first got to photograph the interior of the Cathedral of St. Paul, located in St. Paul, Minnesota, last summer and had another opportunity this last weekend with my new camera.  As with most religious venues, the cathedral was relatively dimly lit, despite the bright sunny day.  I didn't have my tripod, so essentially everything was handheld, and I needed to rely on my camera's low-light capabilities.  And I will say that my new camera did a better job than its predecessor in the low light.  The other, and more significant, difference with this session was the wider angled shots that the new camera was able to capture.  As a result, I found myself favoring such wider angle compositions, which created more unusual looks.

Here, for example, is a traditional first shot from the rear of the nave looking toward the sanctuary.

This clearly includes more of the side features, as well as a portion of the cathedral's central dome.  And here is a complementary shot from just in front of the sanctuary looking toward the back of the nave, centering on the cathedral's main rose window situated behind the pipe organ.

Note the evident "tumble house" effect in these shots.  Note also the vignetting in the upper right and lower left of these two shots.  Embarrassingly, it took me about 25 shots to realize that the reason for this vignetting was not a problem with the lens or camera but with the fact that I had left the lens hood on the lens--totally unnecessary in the cathedral's low light interior.

At one point during my visit I tried to shoot the central dome with the camera on the floor pointing directly up. 

This was a little disappointing, and for the most part I only have myself to blame.  First, although I was able to place the camera fairly precisely directly beneath the center of the dome, I failed to have the camera point straight up and as a result lost a little of the periphery in balancing out the image in post processing.  Worse, I failed to keep my own head out of the shot and as a result had to crop the shot further to eliminate the unintended selfie.  Lesson learned.

I should also point out that the lights in the center of the shot were extremely bright, creating an extreme range of illumination.  In addition, the star-shaped light fixture actually hung down considerably from the actual dome, creating a depth of field issue.

I did like the semicircular roman arches which created some interesting abstracts, as in the following shots.

This latter shot features the apse on the lower left and a side rose window on the lower right.

One issue I noted was the fact that the interior surfaces are still undergoing repair and renovation, as indicated by white patches of plaster that are apparent here and there.

Although I am still enamored by my camera's wide angle capabilities, I did take some "smaller" shots, including the following, a black & white of a pair of sculptures (twins, I think), one of a number of similar such sculptures in alcoves situated in an area behind the apse.

And speaking of the apse, here is a shot of its ceiling.

I believe the bird is intended to represent the Holy Spirit, a symbol I have seen in other apse ceilings.

I also took some detail shots of the artwork in the arch areas, including the following.

I liked the following "vertical" image of the dome and related arch areas seen beyond some foreground support structures.

I like this shot for its unusual perspective and because it seems to do a good job of conveying depth and dimension.  It might be noted that this shot gives the impression of a great deal of light in the interior.  That was simply not the case.

On my prior visit I was able to get some very good shots of the ceilings in a couple of side prayer areas.  I had less success this time, I think because of very bright ceiling lights in these chapels, making for a very tricky dynamic range.

The cathedral featured a large wooden cross in the center aisle at the rear of the nave.  I don't know if this cross is permanent.  My guess is that it has been placed there in conjunction with upcoming Easter celebrations.  At first I found the cross to be an obstruction but in the end decided to incorporate it in one of my wide angle shots from the very rear of the nave.

I liked how this created both foreground and background interest, even if the cross was not quite centered on the aisle.

But my favorite shots were the following that featured the dome from an oblique perspective, creating very stylized images.

I spent about 1-1/2 hours photographing the cathedral's interior, taking a total of 100 images.  I have retained about 20, which is pretty typical for me.