In the Shadow of the Owl Mountains

I fell in love with Poland years ago. . . but first I fell in love with my wife. Ever since that first trip to meet her family for the first time, we have been following a pretty reliable travel schedule where we pass the winter holidays with her family every other year.

The peaceful forest above tunnel complex Osówka near Głuszyca in the Owl Mountains.

The peaceful forest above tunnel complex Osówka near Głuszyca in the Owl Mountains.

Every time we are there I discover something else that is visually beautiful and often historically important.

One of the most impressive space at Osówka, long open space reminiscent of a nave with a ceiling nearly three stories tall.  The wooden structure rising up the walls into the ceiling is actually the formwork for the actual ceiling, which is made of concrete.

One of the most impressive space at Osówka, long open space reminiscent of a nave with a ceiling nearly three stories tall.  The wooden structure rising up the walls into the ceiling is actually the formwork for the actual ceiling, which is made of concrete.

Recently during one of our trips we spent some time in the Owl Mountains in Lower Silesia, where both of her parents grew up. Toward the end of WWII, below those mountains the Nazis were busy creating a network of tunnels. Project Riese (German for giant) was a network of tunnels that may have been intended as an escape route, but the details are unclear and some of the tunnels and their secrets have yet to be unearthed.

An incomplete portion of the tunnel network at Complex Osówka. This portion of tunnel overlooks a space more than two stories tall that stretches in a long corridor.

An incomplete portion of the tunnel network at Complex Osówka. This portion of tunnel overlooks a space more than two stories tall that stretches in a long corridor.

We toured two of the tunnel complexes Osówka, and Włodarz. Being underground always carries a somewhat otherworldly quality. I have toured a couple of mines here in the United States and also in Poland, I am not claustrophobic but it usually takes a few minutes for the mind to accept the many tonnes of earth above your head. But the historical context makes these passages even more strange and alien.

Portions of the Włodarz complex are partially submerged and can only be traveled by boat. 

Portions of the Włodarz complex are partially submerged and can only be traveled by boat. 

A literal river Styx has to be traveled through part of Complex Włodarz. Some of the tunnels are partially filled with water and our tour guide packed us into a tiny boat and pulled us through increasingly tight passages -- all hands were to be kept on the boat, to lazily rest them on the edge of the boat would be to guarantee the loss of some skin as the boat bumped rocky walls through some tighter stretches.

Passing through some narrow areas in the small boat required us to crouch down while we sat in our small boat.

Passing through some narrow areas in the small boat required us to crouch down while we sat in our small boat.

The real function of the tunnels may not have been an escape route. The underground areas are large enough to suggest that once completed it could have housed a city's worth of people. The tunnels were likely not a means to escape through to another place, but rather a place to escape to. As with much of history the specifics are fuzzy and the human mind fills in many blanks. The theories revolving what may or may not be hidden in some yet unearthed portion of the network include a train car filled with stollen gold.

Some small passages that connect larger chambers are braced with wooden supports.

Some small passages that connect larger chambers are braced with wooden supports.

More images from these tunnels can be seen through the link below:

Recognizing Achievement

Dean Eduardo Glandt welcomes students, family members, and faculty to Penn Engineering's awards ceremony. Last month Penn's School of Engineering held their yearly ceremony recognizing the achievements their graduate and undergraduate students.

Professor Composto accepts an award and shows off his "Proud Penn Parent" button.

The atmosphere of the room was very warm and you could genuinely feel that all the students, faculty, and administrators present felt proud to recognize each other's achievements.

Engineering students reading the award ceremony's program.

Just two weeks later some of these students also picked up their diplomas at Penn's Commencement.

Dr. Winkelstein, Associate Dean of Undergraduate Education, congratulates all the award winners.

Easter Traditions

Highly experienced Easter Egg hunters. My brother Alberto knows how to celebrate a holiday.

He goes more than a little overboard for Christmas (his ceiling is permanently marked by branch scrapes directly above the spot where every year he decorates an impossibly oversized live tree); every year he is in competition with himself to outdo last Halloween's display (he will soon need to rent storage space to keep all the decorations and props he obsessively collects every year at the after Halloween sales); and, for Easter. . . well, I doubt any individual homeowner organizes a larger or more intricate Easter Egg hunt.

The satisfied ring leader.

We are a large family, I am the youngest of six and I have 13 nieces and nephews, so any holiday get-together is a production. The guest list for Easter Sunday now hovers around 32 depending on who can make it. This has been my brother's holiday to host for more than 15 years, and the egg hunt in his yard has been part of that tradition the entire time.

Gosia and Victoria, Easter 2003

Easter 2003 was the first time I brought a guest to Easter dinner. Gosia was more used to family celebrations with a guest list of about half a dozen, but we didn't manage to scare her off and two years later she became my wife and permanent part of our family events.

Victoria waiting for the signal to join the egg hunt.

My brother is very serious about the egg hunt and he has developed a number of rules over the years to make the competition fair for all the age groups. The kids are released with their basket in hand in order of age, with the youngest going first. Based on age, there is a certain amount of time each of them needs to wait before joining the hunt -- the specifics are arcane and best left to him to arbiter.

Surveying the spoils.

Initially all the eggs only contained candy and chocolate, but as the kids have grown older the prizes needed to get more interesting. Some eggs have coins in them, and some are "special eggs" that can be redeemed for a chance to answer a question and win money. All the questions are family trivia and the kids are allowed to ask the appropriate family member for the answer. It's always fun and we all end up learning more about each other.

Katrina listens closely to her uncle's question.

In previous years the big prize "special egg" was the first clue in a long and intricate scavenger hunt that culminated in a large money prize. This year Alberto had something more interesting planned.

Cory finds out what he needs to do to claim his cash prize.

This year Alberto's son, Cory, got the big prize egg and found out that he needed to call his step-sister, ask her what she named her pet fish, and then write and perform a song about it. The result was pretty funny and it was a nice reminder to Natalie that even though she couldn't be there with us on Sunday that we were thinking about her.

Gear Bag. The Boring, Important Stuff: #1 A Car

When there is talk of photography gear usually it revolves around the sexy stuff -- the brand new cameras, the fastest glass, some european strobe or light modifier. They're easy to overlook, but there are plenty of "boring" things that I consider part of my critical gear as a photographer that are not specific to the field but that are either essential for me to work, or at least make my life a little easier. I plan to keep a running list of these pieces of gear, in no particular order of importance -- just in the order that they pop into my mind.

#1: A Car

2011 VW Diesel Wagon

I want to start my list with what I would argue is my most important piece of gear aside from the cameras and lenses. A location photographer without a reliable car, just wouldn't be able to work.

I spend many thousands of miles on the road every year, and over all those hours at the wheel I grow very attached to my car. I took my time through most of last year to look for the perfect replacement for my 2008 Golf.

2008 VW Hatchback

The Golf had given me five years of faithful service, but it had two major problems. First was overall size: it was a bit small to comfortably carry all the gear, me, an assistant, and leave room for anyone else. Second was fuel economy: the same thing that made the car fun made it less fun at the gas pump.

Golf engine bay with 2.5L 5-cylinder engine

For the US market VW chose to shoehorn in a 2.5L 5-cylinder engine that in Europe they don't offer on this car. On the Golf I averaged about 22 mpg on normal driving and on long highway trips the best I ever managed was 31 mpg. Trudging through heavy traffic I could expect at best about 18 mpg.

TDI engine bay with 4-cylinder turbo

I was not specifically looking for another VW, but in some ways the choice felt predetermined. We just don't have a lot of choices in the US for station wagons. The choices for diesel powered anything that isn't a truck? Well, they're even slimmer. Luckily, I already knew that I like the Jetta wagon. My wife has been driving the gas version for a bit over a year now and going with diesel means much better fuel efficiency.

A medium amount of gear loaded into the Golf, leaving barely enough space for a photographer and an assistant

With the TDI wagon, I am seeing much better fuel consumption. On the highway I have no problem getting 42 mpg. And most important, my average for normal driving around is 36 mpg and when I have to crawl through traffic the worst I've seen is 28 mpg.

Just like with my previous car, I am hoping for 5 years of good, uneventful service from the TDI wagon.

A Beautiful Place for Worship

Trinity's grand sanctuary can seat 1,250 worshipers. I first came to Trinity Lutheran Church last year, while on assignment for the ELCA and I fell in love with the congregation's beautiful, 178-year-old historic building. I asked for permission to return and photograph the building and a couple of weeks ago I was able to do just that.

Trinity's 181-foot steeple was erected in 1957.

Like a lot of churches recently, the congregation's numbers have shrunk and most Sundays the grand sanctuary is empty while the congregation has service in a smaller chapel on the ground level.

Sunday service is held in Trinity's smaller chapel.

It would be a cliche to point out that buildings aren't made like they used to; but, they really aren't. The stairwell leading up to the choir balcony wouldn't ever have been used by more than a small percentage of the congregation. Still, the trim work around the window, door, and baseboard were given the same attention as in the rest of the building.

Beauty waits to be discovered at every corner.

I really enjoyed the time I spent at Trinity, both the Sunday I was happy to share service with the congregation and the morning I spent in silent reflection photographing the building. I felt that both the people and the spaces welcomed me graciously. I hope that the building can be preserved for many more generations.

The ceiling's massive rosette is in perfect balance with the size of the grand sanctuary.

You can find more images from Trinity on my website.

Eating Well Locally

Kristin and Scott, owners of Breezy's Cafe The best business ideas are born from realizing that there is something you yourself want and there is no one out there providing it yet. My friends, Kristin Wolak and Scott Harnish, were frustrated with the food choices in their neighborhood and decided to do something about it.

Kristin and Scott were also looking to make a career change, so it made sense to bring the kind of food they wanted to eat to Point Breeze, Philadelphia. And it seems to be a hit with their neighbors, the cafe has already moved to a much larger and better location a few blocks from its original spot!

Fred Muser, cook at Breezy's Cafe

Breezy's Cafe serves up local and all natural ingredients in responsible, biodegradable packaging, all in a colorful and quirky setting -- my personally favorite touch are the board game table tops.

Breezy's Cafe is located at 1200 Point Breeze Ave in Philadelphia. Check them out on their website, and on Facebook.

Making it Through the Winter

Washington's guard, Valley Forge Park It's been hard to get through this winter. It feels like no sooner do we get ourselves dug out from one storm the next one comes in directly behind it.

George Washington surveying the wintery scene at Valley Forge Park

To get my mind off of all the plans that this week's weather is ruining, I decided to drive out to Valley Forge Park yesterday and have a short walk.

Washington's Headquarters, Valley Forge Park

All in all, there have been worst winters -- It was nice to get some perspective.


At Work

Props help create a purpose and direct action. Prospective clients visit your website not just to find a way to contact you, but to learn about you and your staff. Many times it will be the first impression your business makes on that client.

Good head shots are important, but they don't have to be your company's only face.

Traditionally a company's website might have a scrolling page of head shots with a short blurb with each person's bio. This is very useful and efficient way of showing every member of staff. Presenting your staff only as a mosaic of smiling faces misses an important opportunity to communicate with current and prospective clients.

Let your clients put a face to the voice on the telephone.

Showing the "Team At Work" on your website communicates more than just competence, it can show your organization's personality.

Reviewing paper work.

The trick to making these photographs successful is to make them feel as natural as possible. For these images I use minimal lighting that looks natural and allows the camera to move around the action, and ask the subjects to pretend it is a normal day and I am not there.

An improptu meeting on the street.

This last part can naturally be the largest hurdle because the normal work day usually doesn't include a photographer, a photographer's assistant, and flash bulbs firing. But, if I take my time, give them some props, some minimal direction, and let them talk about their work, people will fall into their normal banter and I can get the best images.

Always Looking Up

Clock tower ceiling of The Palace of Culture, Warsaw, Poland. Sometimes it's easy to ignore the ceiling. It's always a good idea to look up when sightseeing, there might be a special visual treat the architects want you to notice.

Philadelphia ceiling.

Whether it's a large landmark, store, restaurant, or someone's home, somebody gave that oft ignored ceiling some thought.

Ceiling at a private residence, Poland.

Those small, or large details sometimes make for just as interesting a photograph as the front facade might.

Department store ceiling, The Hague, Neatherlands.


The Dresden Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) Dresden is a city that lived at the edge of my imagination, but without distinct shape. A fuzzy blob shape created from history book and Vonnegut pages.

The reality is a beautiful city of breathtaking architecture made even more remarkable by the fact that so much of it was destroyed in February of 1945.

The Procession of Princes (Fürstenzug)

The Procession of Princes mural, 102 meters of porcelain tiles, survived the bombing largely undamaged.

The Fürstenzug on Augustusstraße

More photos from our, all too brief, trip to Dresden can be seen on my Flickr feed.

The Dresden Zwinger


Working all the Angles

wpid-fg_111028_1536.jpg If you drop in on a photography critique you might hear a mantra repeated over and over, a directive to simplify a composition. Photography is the art of exclusion, or leaving out of the frame things that are not important to tell that story.

It is the reason that advertising images are careful orchestrated and artfully retouched to remove any distracting objects that dilute that campaign's message. And also the reason that a lot of catalog photography is done on completely white or simplified backgrounds.


But rules are not universal and there are reasons to add things to a composition. Context is very powerful, and when photographing events like conferences, lectures, banquets, etc I try to give my images depth by showing the subject in the context of the event.

Finding a better angle by showing more members of the audience.

Conferences are often held in larger rooms so audience members can have empty seats around them and more comfortably set up their computers, notebooks, coffee cups, etc. The two images above were shot within a minute of each other -- I shot the image on the right first and then worked to find a better angle.


The more useful image to my client shows that the event had a healthy turnout and because of that the discussions were more vibrant.


Photographs of the speaker also have more depth when we see at least a hint of the audience. It no longer is a solitary person standing at a podium, they are now in a room filled with an attentive audience.


These sort of events will often include breakout sessions, or a break for lunch or coffee. This is another chance to show people interacting.

A Swell Day to be Outdoors

Fred Ritter from SWELL taking the opportunity of a cooler day to work outdoors. Right now in Philadelphia we are "enjoying" an Excessive Heat Warning, but a few weeks ago the weather was much more comfortable and I was able to meet Fred Ritter, of SWELL, for a short portrait shoot outdoors in University City.

We wanted to match the feel of photographs I had done earlier of SWELL's Principal, Greg O'Loughlin.

Greg O'Loughlin, SWELL.

The images needed to feel relaxed and speak to the fact that both Greg and Fred spend much of their time out of the office meeting and working with their clients. In the interest of keeping with that theme but not being too strictly tied to it, we decided to avoid coffee shops and shoot outdoors.

A relaxed outdoor portrait is a great choice for a website's bio page.

Taking advantage of open shade to control the light falling on Fred, I was able to find three distinct locations within one block of each other and work efficiently with a minimal amount of equipment.

Props can give a photograph a feeling of purpose.

SWELL is working on a new website slated to launch later this summer. I am looking forward to seeing the new site's design and their use of my images.

Dinner and a Show

Alfio and his Caesar salad. Is it common for most people to think their Dad as a rock star? Mine definitely has earned that status in his industry.

My father's restaurant career spans five decades and two separate countries. When he first set foot in a Philadelphia dining room he didn't speak the language and was starting again at the very bottom, as a bus boy. By the time he officially retired and closed the doors of the restaurant in Glenside that bore his name, there were a lot of regulars and friends that knew they would miss his table-side showmanship.

But my father is part of a generation that doesn't seem to know the meaning of retirement.

I can't be sure whose idea it was. Maybe it was my sister who asked, maybe it was my father who offered, but I can be very sure that he signed on more than willingly to appear at my sister's shop twice a month and bring his Caesar salad show.

The Caesar salad experience includes Alfio's show.

Alfio's Caesar salad was the winner of the Philadelphia Magazine's Best of Philly award for years not just because my father was one of a few that continued making the salad following the original recipe, but because of his table-side showmanship. His routine always included lots of playful banter, a bit of pepper mill juggling, sleight of hand, jokes, lots of charm. . . and an exceedingly large custom made wooden salad bowl.

I brought Dad into the studio to make some promotional photographs for my sister's store, and had him make his salad while I photographed some of the steps. There are lots of image options she can use for social media.

It's definitely worth short ride for anyone living in the Philadelphia area to come get some Caesar salad, meet the man, and taste what a Caesar salad should be.

Alfio is at Ana's Corner Shop on the last Friday and Saturday of every month from 11AM to 7PM. 3310 North Wales Road , East Norriton, Pennsylvania 19403

Google Glass, Another Vision

My alternate vision of smart eyewear before Google Glass. A few weeks ago The Verge got a hands on preview of what the first shipping version of Google Glass actually looks like -- the shocking bit is that it doesn't really look like a pair of eye glasses.

(I really recommend checking out the video that's part of The Verge's website, Glass seems to work just like promised.)

Another shocker is that this first version does not support corrective lenses. If you wear glasses already, you can't use Google's eyeglasses at the moment.

Wearable computers and eyeglasses that enhance your perception of the world around you are not Google's invention, nor are they a new idea. Wearable devices have been the next thing for years, but it looks like finally the idea and technology will converge with the present. There are a few smart watches in the market right now, and the rumor mill is going being stirred up into a frenzy about Apple having a pseudo wristwatch device in the works. Between Apple's probably entry (whatever it might be) and Google Glass, 2013 is for sure when wearable devices go mainstream.

A few years ago I was inspired by Wired Magazine's excellent feature, FOUND: Artifacts from the Future, that at the back of each issue prints a photoillustration of a futurist product in an every day setting. The very first idea I wanted to tackle was (of course) smart eye glasses. Apparently the Google's designers were not as bound by the convention of traditional eyewear.

If Your Camera Falls, You're Going to Have a Bad Time. . .

Years ago I found some advice online about attaching a strap to a camera that makes it virtually impossible for the strap to come off, I have been attaching my camera straps this way for at least six years and I wouldn't dream of doing it any different. I had to reattach a strap to one of my cameras because Canon repair prefers if you remove any accessories when you send gear in for repair, and I figured it was a good time to share this technique. I prefer the Domke Gripper strap because they are small, grippy, don't get tangled, and have a simple design. This technique should work with any strap that has an adjustable plastic buckle.

Domke strap attached with the "never fail" technique.

First unravel the end of the strap. The Domke straps have two rubbery keeper loops and an adjustable plastic buckle.

Pass the end of the strap through your camera's eyelet, then through the keeper loop.

Then pass the end of the strap through the buckle as normal.

Next the end of the strap can (optionally) go through the keeper loop on the inside of the strap.

In the next step we thread the strap end back through both parts of the buckle. This is what secures the strap and keeps it from working itself loose.

Next is what I consider to be double insurance. It's a bit tricky, but if you hold down the end of the strap with your thumb, you should be able to force the rubber keeper loop toward the buckle and over the strap end.

Et voilà! This strap will not work itself loose.

Gnocchi on the 29th

Gnocchi A bit more than a week ago, with the 29th of May looming ahead in the calendar, I had absolutely nutty idea that I should make gnocchi and observe a tradition from my childhood in Argentina: eating gnocchi on the 29th of the month.

Depending on who you ask, the tradition either stems from stretching grocery money as far as possible the day before payday or from an even older Italian tradition having to do with a saint. The way I remember it, you eat gnocchi on the 29th, put money under your dish, and prosperity will come to you. I am not much for superstition, but the tradition is a good excuse for spending a few hours cooking with family and then enjoying the fruits of your labor together.

So, how about making this an ongoing tradition? I think I might do this again next month. All it really requires is a few hours and a handful of cheap ingredients. I looked through a few of my cookbooks and found most recipes call for eggs. My copy of the CIA cookbook (Culinary Institute of America, not the intelligence agency) had an even sillier recipe that called for eggs, extra egg yolks, nutmeg, etc. My attitude is to keep things simple and basic. The most basic recipe is below:

Gnocchi Recipe

makes enough for 4

  • 1lb russet potatoes
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup of all purpose flour

I did say keep it simple, but ideally you need one semi special tool: a potato ricer. A sort of overgrown garlic press that mashes potatoes a nice even soft texture that will make for nicer dough.

Potato Ricer

Boil your pealed potatoes until they are just tender, pass them through the ricer while they are still hot (if you let them cool you will have a heck of a time doing this, as they'll get harder).

Riced Potatoes

Go ahead and pour out your mound of (now warm) riced potatoes onto your clean kitchen table. Knead the salt and the flour into the potatoes. More or less flour might be needed depending on the moisture of the potatoes, add the flour in slowly until the dough no longer sticks to your hands.

Cutting the gnocchi

Take a little bit of dough and roll it into a snake shape and then cut it into pieces about an inch long. A little bit of flour can be used to keep it from sticking to your hand, table, knife, etc.

Rolling the gnocchi

Now take the small pieces of dough and roll them with your thumb against a fork. This will give the gnocchi a curved, shell shape and a ridge decoration on the outside. Flour helps here also to keep the dough from sticking. I used a wooden tool that I believe is actually meant for grating ginger, but worked for my purposes really well.

Lay out your gnocchi on a clean towel directly on your table or on a cookie sheet. It helps to enlist help for the cutting and rolling steps, this is where most of the preparation time goes.

Drop the gnocchi into salted boiling water. When the pasta rises to the top the gnocchi are fully cooked. Scoop them up with a slotted spoon and into your favorite serving dish, add the sauce of your choice, toss together, and enjoy.

Oh. . . and don't forget to put some money under your dish!

Gnocchi in Rosa Sauce



From Toynbee to Robot in the City

In August of this year it will be five years since my wife and I moved out to the far suburbs of Philadelphia. It was a big transition, I had been living and working in the city for more than eight years. Some things about the city I identified and missed immediately. Not the least of which being able to run out at almost any hour of any day and find a shop open that sold that one thing I needed. Where I live now, if you find yourself needing anything you can not buy at a grocery store on a Sunday after 9PM. . . you will wait until Monday morning to get it. The biggest bonus of living and working in the city by far was being in walking distance and of and having the ability to stop at Reading Terminal Market on the way home from work and buy any type of meat, fix, produce, cheese, charcuterie, etc.

I was recently in the city to hear a talk at University of the Arts and found myself actually thankful that I had mistakenly parked at a garage farther away than I should have. The night had already mellowed the city's heat, and the electric light had transformed daylight spaces to romantic nighttime ones.

I was annoyed that I opted to leave my camera kit at home in the interest of convenience. The best camera is the one you have with you, and suddenly my terribly deficient cellphone camera got an undeserved promotion.

I had accidentally stumbled over another thing about the city that I had forgotten I missed: the random little oddities.

Detail of Robot at Broad and Spruce

Just outside the Kimmel Center, looking up at me from the asphalt was a small (about a foot tall) figure of a robot .

Robot at Broad and Spruce

Suddenly a memory of the Toynbee Plaques rushed into my mind. How could I have ever forgotten those quirky, and mysterious artifacts?

The Toynbee Plaques (or Toynbee Tiles if you prefer) sprang up in the 1980s in numerous US cities and some South American ones (including Buenos Aires coincidentally) and cryptically denounced some possible shadowy governmental conspiracy. Whatever they were really meant to be, they were fascinating. By the time I became aware of them, most of the ones still left in Philadelphia were either wearing away or had been paved over. I was able to photograph a couple of them.

Detail of Toynbee plaque on the West side of City Hall, Philadelphia, PA

Toynbee plaque on the West side of City Hall, Philadelphia, PA

Detail of Toynbee plaque near Love Park, Philadelphia, PA

Toynbee plaque near Love Park, Philadelphia, PA

Is Mr Robot a Toynbee Plaque copycat, a tribute, totally unrelated? Either way, I hope I see more of him.


Uncovered for Cover-Up Makeup

The trend is to buck the trend, and always has been. After decades of ambivalence over retouching in advertising photography, regular folks are beginning to get clued in to some of the effort that goes into idealizing advertising images. Now that the thesis has been identified, it is time for the antithesis. Ads without retouching, that want you to know they haven't been retouched.

Sephora's Unretouched Advertising

Sephora claims to be the first to go to print without the aid of photoshop, but not so many years ago Dove ran a campaign that drew attention to how beauty is manufactured. The television ad drew a lot of attention, it was well made and made its point loudly.

The Dove ad can be seen on YouTube.

One thing that keeps drawing my attention on the Sephora ad: she is holding the camera upside down. Funny, I am not bothered by the lack of retouching, I am not bothered by the shape of her locked elbow. But that camera. . .

Thanks to Greg for drawing my attention to the Sephora ad.