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September 25, 2011

Turning the page to new adventures

Turning the page to new adventures

And so, my three month dream trip across the US has come to an end.

It is time to turn the page to new adventures. And I promise to keep you posted on that in the not to distant future..

In the meantime will be finishing and updating this blog quite a bit, so please come back to read the finished posts and see the photos from Charleston, Washington, New york and much more!

Here I am - turning the page to new adventures. This is the third monument of the great Danish fairytale writer, Hans Christian Andersen, I have come by on my road trip across the USA. This one is located in Central Park, New York. It was almost as if the monument of old Andersen came alive and whispered an encouragement in my ear to keep the adventures going...

September 9, 2011

President Obama (video) UPDATED

President Obama (video) UPDATED

Wohoo – I had the unexpected pleasure of attending a speech by president Barack Obama – live in person. Here is how it came about…

I just happened to be in Richmond. I had just (barely) woken up, checked out from my motel and was now sitting in my Jeep in front of “7 Eleven”. As I was having my modest breakfast consisting of a banana and trying to wake up, I flipped on the radio. It was mentioned right then that president Barack Obama would be appearing at Richmond University one and a half hour later to give a speech on the Jobs Act that he had just announced in his speech to congress a couple of days earlier.

Suddenly I was completely awake. Hey, I was in Richmond and the president was on his way here!

Maybe I would have a chance of catching a glimpse of the president or even take a snapshot at his arrival, if I was lucky?

Quickly swallowing the last bites of the banana I pondered whether it on the other hand would really be worth it to head towards the university, knowing that the security would be tight and I might just get caught up in traffic congestion and the security hassle without even seeing as much as the motorcade. It might not be worth it.

Well, what the heck – I took the chance, punched “Richmond University” into the GPS and went on my way.

Going down the highway, I noticed the increased police presence with a patrol car parked in the median every few miles, and as I turned off the highway and proceeded towards the university the security became really tight.

The first couple of rows of every parking lot next to the road were fenced off, and there would be a police car in the driveway of every single private property for the last few miles towards the university. Police and security forces were everywhere, on the streets, in the surrounding woods and not least in the air by helicopter.

As I arrived at the first gate to the university, I wondered if this was the place, where the president would arrive. The GPS suggested me to continue for several miles. But the presence of security forces, fire trucks and ambulances hinted that this was probably the right place.

There was a small parking lot in the woods just opposite the gate, and I managed to squeeze the Jeep in on an unauthorized spot between the trees. I hoped it would not be hauled off…

Considering the security situation, I decided to leave my photo backpack in the car and took just my camera with me. On my way towards the university buildings I met a nice young couple, who informed me that this was indeed the right place, and the auditorium, where Obama would give his speech, was just beyond the ballpark in front of us.

They also informed me that in order to attend the event I needed a preordered ticket.  What a bummer… Well, I might still have a chance to see the president arrive, so I went along with my new friends towards the auditorium.

As we passed a police officer I overheard instructions on the police radio: “Do not let any pedestrians pass by!” I quickly picked up my pace, while the officer luckily just responded: “I just did…”

At the auditorium people were standing in long lines around the building. My new friends quickly lined up.

Left by myself I tried to assess the situation. I noticed an elderly couple sitting on some stairs and I struck up a conversation with them. It turned out that they had given up standing in line, and I could have their tickets.

Wohoo – it seemed to be my lucky day. I thanked them and headed towards the lines, where my friends from earlier had advanced quite a bit in the meantime. So I sort of joined them not to far from the entrance.

Obviously there was a security procedure at the entrance. It was similar to that of an airport. But I did not even have to show any ID, and I was allowed to bring my camera after a security officer had checked it out.

Wohoo – I was starting to get excited!

All the best seats were obviously taken in the auditorium, but there seemed to be a few seats with a front view of the president in the corner far up behind. But I would have a better view if I could stay right on the platform in front of the entrance. A few disabled people had been assigned space there in their wheelchairs and on regular chairs.

So, I borrowed an extra chair from a security guard, and while this was certainly not the best seat in the house it was not that bad either as I would have a clear view of the president.

Wohoo – I was ready for the experience and getting more and more excited as the crowd cheered, made waves and acted as if we were about to experience a rock concert or a football match.

The energy kept building up in the crowd and I for one could not help being affected by it.

Then suddenly president Obama was introduced and came into to hall. As he entered the hall it was like the electricity that had charged in the air finally was released and struck all of us like a lightning bolt. The crowd let out a huge roar and gave the president an enthusiastic applause. It seemed like the roof might blow off!

The president was obviously among supporters. Several members of the crowd would interrupt the beginning of his speech by yelling: “I love you!” and the president would reply “I love you too!” to cheers and applause from the crowd.

Then the president went into his serious speech about the Jobs Act that according to president contained measures that democrats and republicans should be able to agree on. The president outlined that everything in his proposal would be paid for, that it would create much needed jobs and that congress should pass this bill right now!

The crowd went wild, and so did I!

Even though my camera (or rather the 24-105mm lens) has an image stabilizer I had to support it against a railing because with all the excitement my hands were literally trembling.

Unfortunately I was a bit too far from the president to get a tight shot, as I had only a 24-105mm lens on a full frame camera. How I wished I had the 100-400mm that I rented for Yellowstone. Well, the only thing I could do was to try to get closer. So after charming a secret service agent a little bit, she let me go down the stairs to the front row and take a few shots and a bit of video before she ordered me back on the platform. I was still not really happy with my photos though.

The president wound up his speech to another huge roar, and the national anthem came on as the president slowly made his way towards the exit shaking hands with crowd members on his way out. As the audience broke up I saw the chance to move closer to where the president had entered and would surely exit the auditorium.

As you can see below, I did manage to snap a few shots more up-close. They are not perfect, but I find them decent under the quite difficult circumstances of the available light, the excitement, the security hassle and not least a nutty lady next to me who started punching at my camera because I had taken enough photos, in her opinion…

Wohoo – it was one of the most exciting events I have ever experienced!

It took me quite a while to wind down in the parking lot afterwards. While I was waiting for the traffic congestion to dissolve, I reflected about the whole experience. I had finally come to witness and understand how a charismatic leader can affect a crowd.

Fortunately, Obama is one of the good guys and I hope that his balanced policies will prevail to the benefit of the American people and the world.

In between trying to capture a decent photograph of the president, I managed to capture excerpts of the speech on video with my (photo) camera. Again, I wish i was able to get closer, that I had my directional microphone with me etc. But hey this was a spur of the moment thing recorded under difficult circumstances. I think it holds up – do check it out!

The president in a thoughtful moment during his speech. This photo is heavily cropped as I was too far from the president to frame him tightly with my 24-105mm lens.

 

President Obama took his time to greet members of the crowd before leaving the building.

 

Hopefully this photo gives a sense of the excitement and the affection between the audience and the president.

 

In my opinion president Obama has genuinely reached out - if only congress would come together and "pass this bill!"

 

Here I happened to catch the president with a bit of a funny look on his face. I cropped this shot a bit and blurred the background in Photoshop in order to isolate him from distractive elements in the background.

 

Here I also blurred the fore- and background in Photoshop but a bit less than in the previous shot.

 

President Obama is leaving Richmond University.

 

August 27, 2011

New Orleans – a mixed bag

New Orleans – a mixed bag

I was disappointed and disgusted by New Orleans on the day of my arrival.

Well, actually I did not arrive in the day but at night. So I was ready for a bite of food and a beer after a long journey.

Since Bourbon Street – the party street of New Orleans – was nearby, it seemed like a sensible destination to go. And there was certainly something for my senses in Bourbon Street.

The first thing that struck me, as I entered the street, was the horrible stench of horse manure, garbage, urine and vomit that mixed in the hot and humid air. Oh boy…

At the same time my eyes were met with the flashing signs of the various establishments of Bourbon Street. And the first few establishments on the street were exactly “establishments” if you know, what I mean – and I think you do.

If the signs were not enough to get your attention, one or more girls of the said establishments would stand in the doorway “wearing nothing but a button and a bow” – to quote a song by Leiber and Stoller – while pointing at you and yelling: “come heeeeere!”

The girls had to yell pretty loud because the street was like a disco inferno. It seems that the loudspeakers were turned out the windows and doorways in another attempt to get your attention.

The crowd was as thick as the stench, and everybody seemed to be intoxicated to the point where they had lost any inhibition.

From the balconies “pearl” necklaces went flying though the air aimed at the ladies walking on the street. Some would pick them up and in turn flash something the other way. It is apparently a New Orleans tradition…

In the pubs I witnessed a way of “dancing” that I had not seen carried that far before. And I have to admit that I am not ashamed on a dance floor. Let’s give them something to talk about, right?

But hey, the “dry dancing” that I saw that night was a bit over the top. In one place the singer of a band put her big behind over the railing. A guy in the audience would then stick his whole face – well, you know where – and rub it in. His wife cheered him on…

If that was not enough, the big mamma on stage would then turn around, grab his head with one leg around his neck while standing on the other and rubbed his face in again. Meanwhile, another couple was “dry dancing” against the railing. I left…

In fact I left Bourbon Street after a couple of beers and walked back disgusted by the place.

I was thinking to myself – what is this place? Well, it was certainly dirty in every meaning of the word.

It really is a shame, because there is so much history, culture and cuisine in New Orleans, which is easily overshadowed by all the decadence and tacky touristic stuff.

Now, it is not as bad everywhere in Bourbon Street as described above. But being just by myself, being sober and unable to engage anyone in a normal conversation, I took a negative focus, I guess.

However, the next day I started to view New Orleans from a different perspectives. I received an email from my hiking buddy, Tania, who I had met in Yellowstone. She was in town with her colleagues for a convention and invited me to join them for lunch. How nice – I ran to the “Crazy Lobster” to join the group!

We had some nice seafood, and afterwards Tania and I went for smoothie (not smooching) and a chat on a bench overlooking the mighty Mississippi. As mentioned in other posts, the social experiences on my trip are really the best part of it. And it is really amazing how you sometimes can have a great conversation with someone that you have just met recently.

Tania was a bit stricken after a few days of attending the convention (and partying with her colleagues), so she went back to her hotel to get a nap, while I wandered on through town and looked at some of the nice galleries and antique shops in the French quarter.

In the evening I had the opportunity to hang out with Tania and her colleagues again. I really appreciated that. Suddenly, I saw Bourbon Street from another angle as I was now part of a group and could focus on my new friends instead of feeling alienated by the too-much behavior of some of the people.

We had a ball, and I was thankful that I did not have to go straight to the airport like my new friends from Texas.

In fact, I stayed a few more days exploring the Big Easy and trying to discover more of the genuine culture, cuisine and architecture.

It is there – actually, there is so much of it. But it is like grasping for gold nuggets in a muddy stream, if you do not come prepared: you do not know where to reach, the stream might lead you on a detour, you might grab something unintentional and get your hands dirty, if you are not careful…

So, during the next couple of days I tried to grasp those nuggets in the muddy stream and avoiding the cheap offers and the tricksters of the town.

Among other activities, I went for a nice historic walk in the garden district with a very educated guide, Nancy, and a couple of other tourists from New York.

We were just the four of us, so it was a real personal experience and I even had the time to do a bit of photography along the way, setting up my tripod etc.

We started at the historic Lafayette Cemetery, where Nancy explained how a Louisiana burial works.  A family tomb usually consists of a small mausoleum with two burial chambers – one above the other.

When somebody dies, the body is placed in the chamber below in a thin wooden casket. When the next family member passes – if at least one year and one day has passed – the burial chamber will be cleaned out and the remains moved to the “second floor” with the rest of the family. You see, after a year of “cooking” (as Nancy put it) in the Louisiana heat and humidity, the body and casket is broken down almost completely. Only the scull and pelvis may be left with the remaining dust…

We went on to see a lot of interesting homes in the beautiful garden district – a very nice break from dirty downtown. As we stopped at the home of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, where he in fact died, I had to ask Nancy how southerners feel about the civil war.

I had expected a rather complicated explanation, but almost before I finished the question, Nancy blurted out: “we should have won!”

Nancy went on to explain how Lincoln had not freed (all) the slaves; that the proclamation of emancipation was only directed at the Confederate States as a measure of war. The slaves of the rest of the country (Union states and various other areas) were only freed in 1865 when congress passed the 13th amendment, she informed me.

Well, I learn and experience something new every day. Hmmm…

Nancy could also tell a ghost story or two. In her house, the pictures would come off the wall. They would not fall down and break. No, the ghost of a young woman would gently pick them down and put them on the floor. Hmmm, Nancy, maybe you husband is playing tricks with you!

Anyway, it seemed like a fitting story, as we would soon pass the house not only of local residents Sandra Bullock and John Goodman, but also the birthplace of Ann Rice, who wrote “Interview with the Vampire” – which by the way was filmed in part at Oak Alley Plantation, which I would later visit.

I highly recommend such a walk in the garden district, if you visit New Orleans.

Back in dirty downtown I continued to explore and grasp for the golden nuggets in the muddy stream of New Orleans. One nugget was easy to locate: Preservation Hall just off Bourbon Street. The building truly looks dilapidated and the interior is even “worse” – but that is part of its charm! And every night it comes alive with original and acoustic New Orleans jazz without any amplification whatsoever. It is great – go there, if you are in N’awlins!

I also got to hear some great amplified music in another street – where you definitely have to go, if you are in town – Frenchmen Street. It is just off the French quarter, but more authentic than the tourist district. There are lots of places with live music on Frenchmen Street – and as opposed to Bourbon Street it is fortunately not a bunch of Bon Jovi cover bands. It is the real thing.

One night I heard the greatest blues-jazz-funk I have ever experienced. The band was smoking hot. In the middle of a set a blind gentleman, who looked like the ghost of Ray Charles, stepped up to the vintage Fender Rhodes and set the place on fire. Well, it looked like his fingers were on fire the way he played. And what music he/they made; man it rocked – or as a native son of Louisiana, Jerry Lee Lewis, once put it: “down in Louisiana, we call that boogie-woogie…”

By the way, in that pub I had the good fortune of meeting a nice young couple, Kim and Jason, from Chicago. They seemed to match each other perfectly like yin and yang. Kim had her 32nd birthday and probably had a drink or two to celebrate it. Or perhaps she just let all of her charisma and extrovert personality shine through on her birthday. Jason on the other hand was calm as a rock taking in the experience of the band in a cool relaxed fashion. I enjoyed hanging out with my new friends for a couple of drinks and enjoying the incredible band together. By the way, thanks guys, for the party photos – I really appreciate it! ;-)

As I walked home, I passed a couple of poetry writers on the street. They were typing away on old typewriters, writing poetry at demand. One of them was sitting on a chair. The other was sitting in a (clean) trashcan on a cushion. Hmm…

As I approached my hotel, I was approached myself by a working girl, but she was fortunately no hassle. Then next a fat rat crossed the street and literally ran over my feet as it headed for the basement of a luxury hotel, which I will leave unnamed.

Yes, New Orleans is a mixed bag indeed. But do go to the Big Easy to visit – especially if you have somebody to go with. Just prepare yourself so that you know in advance where to find the golden nuggets of your interest. Then you can have a great time spiced with some rather unusual impressions…

To my surprise, I was almost thrown out of Jackson Square for setting up my tripod to take a photo of the equestrian statue and the cathedral. Notice that this is one of the rare equestrian statues, where the horse is only resting on two legs. Usually, the statue is also resting on the tail for structural strength.

 

St. Louis Cathedral is a catholic church.

 

I met Giovanni just around the corner from Jackson Square. He was down on his luck and I gave him a buck or two. In turn he posed for a photo or two. I promised to tell everybody to go look for Giovanni, if you go to New Orleans!

 

Preservation Hall also looks like it has been through a lot. It is a great place to experience authentic New Orleans jazz.

 

There is a woodoo shop just across the street from Preservation Hall. Here is the shop's window display.

 

A waitress, Rita, was hanging out in the doorway waiting for guests. She kindly offered me a glass of water as she saw that I was dehydrated. In return I took her portrait and this silhouette as I cooled off inside.

 

Certain parts of Bourbon Street are quite dirty...

 

...in every sense of the word. I will spare you from pictures from this spot at night, when the "staff" started working...

 

Here is another shot from Bourbon Street before sunset, when the creatures of the night would really come out. I was heading back for my hotel as I did not want to get stranded there with all my photo equipment.

 

A residence in the French quarter a bit earlier in the day. I think somebody likes white here...

 

Here are a couple of garden cottages in the French quarter. I used the Canon TS-E 24mm II to blur the top and bottom of the photo - but it really only shows at the bottom as there is no detail in the sky. A nice effect, I think.

 

Now we are in the garden district, which is much nicer and cleaner. I just love the the Greek revival architecture and the columns.

 

Here is another set of columns. Former President of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis, died in this home in the garden district. He was first laid to rest in New Orleans. Later his remains were moved to Richmond, Virginia.

 

The members of a secret society are resting in these tombs. Nobody knows exactly what it was about, because the last member burned all the papers of the secret society before passing away. Your guess is as good as mine...

 

August 16, 2011

Elvis Week – Graceland UPDATED

Elvis Week – Graceland UPDATED

Memphis and Elvis Presley’s Graceland was originally not on my schedule for this trip.

I had been there and done that more than 20 years ago. But a good friend convinced me to go, and since I had the opportunity to visit coinciding with the events of “Elvis Week”, why not?

From a personal point of view, my visit to Memphis gave me the unexpected opportunity to reunite with a dear friend that I have known for 23 years, but with whom I had lost contact. Incidentally, as I drove towards Memphis I heard on the radio that Mr. Gordon Stoker of the Jordanaires – who backed Elvis from 1956-1970 – would appear at a charity dinner at the Peabody Hotel. I went straight there for a ticket to a reunion!

Our meeting has certainly been a highlight on my trip. I respect Gordon Stoker so much for all of his amazing accomplishments in the field of music, but most of all I respect him and treasure our friendship because he is a great human being!

Among the official events, I enjoyed the concert with Elvis appearing on a large video screen and backed by a real live band. It rocked and brought down the house. Go see “Elvis in Concert” if it comes near you – or go travel to see it. There will be a tour in Europe, March 2012.

At other events, people who had worked with Elvis appeared and shared some really great stories. There were also other concerts, including morning gospel with the “Imperials”.

Also the forthcoming box set: “Elvis – the young man with the big beat” containing all of Elvis masters and newly discovered live recordings from the crucial year of 1956 was presented. It will be released September 23rd.

But let me just get back to the whole Elvis phenomenon, because it is not really as portrayed in the general media that always focuses on a few nerds dressed up in jumpsuits.

But hey, nerds like that only represent perhaps 1 percent of the fans. In fact, the diversity among fans does not seize to amaze me. Fans come from all walks of life, spanning across generations, races, nationalities and other barriers.

Neither did I see a lot of fans crying at the candlelight vigil, where fans defile past the grave to show their respect. In fact, out of the several thousand people at the vigil I noticed only one lady shedding a tear. More probably did so, but the event is by no means a mass hysteria as it is often portrayed in the media. It is just a very cool social event – with a certain reverence to it – where a diverse crowd of people from all over the world come together over their common interest: Elvis and his music.

The real interesting story that the media is missing out on is really why Elvis Presley and his music continues to stay so popular attracting new legions of fans from all over the world?

I mean; during the Elvis Week the re-release of “The Great Performances” on DVD went straight to number 1 on Billboard. Elvis has 4.5 million friends on Facebook. Not bad for a guy that has been gone for 34 years…

Sure he was a handsome guy, he had a great voice, he had the moves, he revolutionized the music scene, he was the highest paid actor in Hollywood and he had lot of other talents and accomplishments on his CV. He also had human flaws that contributed to the end and the whole myth around him.

But there is more to it and it transcends all that. Somehow Elvis just touched people in a genuine way through his music and performances. And his legacy continues to do so. And what is wrong with that?

Do not hesitate to leave a comment or message on the Elvis phenomenon or your experience, if you took part in Elvis Week 2011. I always appreciate the feedback.

Thank-you-very-much, ladies-and-gentlemen!


PS: If you are an Elvis fan, be sure also to check out the following posts: “Bling for the King” which features exclusive videos clips with Elvis’ jeweler, Mr. Lowell Hays, who tells a couple of candid stories about Elvis, a cocktail waitress, jewelry and more; “Elvis’ birthplace & museum” about the interesting things I learned in Tupelo and “Sun Studio – my first recordings!

While in Memphis I had the unexpected opportunity to meet my good friend, Mr. Gordon Stoker of the Jordanaires. Here Gordon Stoker is surrounded by his wonderful wife, Jean, and his sons Brent and Alan (left to right).

 

Elvis Presley's Graceland in Memphis, TN. Thanks to Elvis Presley Enterprises for access.

 

The living room and the music room at Graceland.

 

Visitors admire a few of the costumes and awards on display at Graceland.

 

Fans leave flowers and some tacky stuff on the grave. In the early morning of August 16th when the candlelight vigil ended, the grave slab was covered with a huge heap of flowers. Elvis name was barely readable.

 

"The pride of Elvis Presley Airways" - the Lisa Marie jet - named after his daughter. It is a four engine Convair 880. There is also a smaller Jetstar on display. You may also want to see the car museum...

 

Photographer Alfred Wertheimer, who took the iconic photo in the background, talks to Tom Brown of Turner Classic Movies about how the photograph came about. The girl in the photo only identified herself this year and told the story from her perspective.

 

George Klein was a longtime friend of Elvis and wrote the book "Elvis: My Best Man". George hosts the annual "Memphis Mafia Reunion" at Alfred's on Beale Street. Here he is posing with a couple of Australian fans.

 

I "caught" these very young Elvis fans writing graffiti on the Graceland wall - but it is allowed! I found it so cute that the girl left the following message to the King on the wall: "Even though I did not get to see you, I still love you, Dannesha."

 

This sweet lady did get to meet Elvis and I am sure she also loves him still.

 

Young fans from Mexico visited with their parents. Yes, teenage girls sport Elvis sunglasses and it is cool!

 

Another cool young Elvis fan at the candlelight vigil.

 

And here's a whole bunch of young fans who declared that they were "hot". I will leave that undisputed.

 

Three generations of Elvis fans: grandmother, daughter and a grandchild. If you wonder about grandma's expression, I asked her to imagine, that I was Elvis...

 

The diversity among Elvis fans at the candlelight vigil is amazing. Elvis transcends all the usual boundaries. That is what makes the candlelight vigil so cool - people from all walks of life and from all over the world come together over Elvis and his music.

 

Graceland at the night of the candlelight vigil. Thanks to Elvis Presley Enterprises for access.

 

August 5, 2011

Crazy Horse Memorial

Crazy Horse Memorial

Sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski admired Gutzon Borglum and went to work for him at $1.25 an hour on Mount Rushmore in the summer of 1939. However, he would be fired after just three weeks on the mountain.

In his quite courteous termination letter to Ziolkowski, which is displayed at the Crazy Horse Memorial, Borglum implies that Mount Rushmore was not big enough for the two of them. Later Borglum would be less courteous though and denounce Ziolkowski and his talents. But Ziolkowski apparently continued to look up to Borglum, who is honored at the Crazy Horse Memorial visitor center.

Determined to make a name for him self, Ziokwsky went on to see if he could land the job to complete the Stone Mountain project that Borglum had quit in Georgia. It has been asserted that he presented himself as Borglum’s right hand man, but he was not successful in any case.

But later that year Ziolkowski’s luck would change. He won the first prize by popular vote for a sculpture at the New York World’s Fair. Then he got a letter from Lakota chief Henry Standing Bear, who in vain had tried to get war chief Crazy Horse represented on Mount Rushmore. He wrote to Ziolkowsky that, “my fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes, too.”

Back in the Black Hills Ziolkowski presented a model for the project that did not exactly look like Crazy Horse as remembered by those who knew him. Ziolkowski explained that he meant the sculpture to represent all Indians…

What the sculpture may lack in actual resemblance and artistic elegance as found in Borglum’s work at Rushmore, it certainly makes up for it in size. Thus the Crazy Horse Memorial is several times bigger than Mount Rushmore.

I cannot help thinking that Ziolkowski had a score to settle there with Borglum; mine is bigger than yours, or something.

Blasting eventually started in 1948. Ziolkowski started by himself with an old compressor and a jackhammer. Given the scale of the project one has to be impressed with Ziolkowski’s determination to carry on for years with what seemed an impossible mission.

Eventually former students of his came out to assist him and that is how he met his wife to be, Ruth, and mother of their no less than 10 children. I guess Ziolkowski was not completely exhausted each night after working on the mountain…

Korczak Ziolkowski died in 1982 when he had basically only managed to scratch the surface of the mountain. But unlike Mount Rushmore work continued after the artist’s death. Thus Ruth, many of their children and the non-profit foundation behind the project hammered on, and 16 years later the face would be completed. Ruth, now in her 80’s, continues to lead the project.

Ziolkowski and the foundation have declined federal funding and the project is entirely driven by private funding.

I was told at my visit that they receive three million visitors each year. The admittance fee is $10, and each visitor surely spends a bit of money on concessions. Thus the foundation must have an annual turnover of around $50 million, I would estimate. So it seems do be doing all right without federal support.

The day I was there, 800 tons of rock was blasted from the mountain, and I was told that completion was expected in 25 years or so…

I have to say that I am not that impressed with the sculpture itself as a piece of art. In my opinion it is opulent and lacks the elegance of Mount Rushmore. However, I am immensely impressed by the determination of Ziolkowski and his family.

I could have taken a stone with me from the mountain as a souvenir. I did not. In stead I took note of a quote by Ziolkowski, which is as great as it is simple:

“Always remember your dreams!”

I will, and I am living a small one right now traveling across the US on my three-month road. I may even have bigger things up my sleeve. Just you wait and see… ;-)

A thunder storm assembles over the Crazy Horse Memorial. It prevented me from going closer as the buss rides were terminated due to the danger of lightning strikes.

 

The study model and the mountain taking shape in the background.

 

The mountain sculpture seen again from the study model - this time through the bended leg of the horse. When completed the openings of the sculpture will be smaller than originally envisioned for structural reasons.

 

August 5, 2011

Mount Rushmore controversies

Mount Rushmore controversies

I had expected that my visit to the Mount Rushmore National Memorial would be a drive by shooting – in photographic terms. But it turned out to be quite interesting from different perspectives – photographically and metaphorically speaking.

The fairly new visitor center in polished granite provides a nice setting for admiring the iconic monument and sinking into the patriotic atmosphere of the place.

The center also provides a lot of interesting information, but the story told is as polished as the shiny granite – and politically correct of course. Thus it leaves out some interesting controversies that I will get into in this post.

First of all there are quite a quite a few controversies surrounding the artist behind Mount Rushmore, Gutzon Borglum.

I knew that Borglum was the son of Danish immigrants, and at the visitor center I learned that his parents were Mormons. But it was not mentioned that Gutzon apparently was a child of polygamy (according to Wikipedia). When his father eventually left the Mormon movement, he apparently cast Gutzon’s mother out of the family never to be spoken of again.

I wonder if and how it affected young Borglum? In any case, whatever may have affected him, he certainly developed a controversial character. Thus Wikipedia describes him as domineering, perfectionistic, irascible and authoritarian.

It is also interesting that the stepping stone for Borglum to do Mount Rushmore was his experience from working on a stone carving of confederate leaders on Stone Mountain, Georgia. According to Wikipedia he became involved with Ku Klux Klan during that endeavor. He eventually quit the project in rage over disputes with the association behind the project.

Borglum would then go on to do Mount Rushmore where he chose to depict four union presidents, Lincoln among them.

Finally, there is the controversy regarding the rightful ownership of the Black Hills, where Borglum carved the faces of the four “great white fathers”. Thus in the Treaty of Fort Laramie of 1868 the Black Hills where granted to the Sioux Lakota tribe in perpetuity. Yet in 1877 the United States seized the lands from the Lakota.

In 1980 the Sioux Nation won a victory in the United States Supreme Court that awarded the tribe $120 million. However, the Sioux Nation refused to take the money and demanded that their sacred lands be returned to them. In the meantime the money has apparently accrued significantly and it seems that at least some Lakota are now interested in taking the money. I wonder how it will turn out, and how the money will be distributed?

Speaking of money: I believe there is a great deal of controversy regarding the funding of the Mount Rushmore project, but I will leave that up to the reader to research further…

Regardless of the controversies, Mount Rushmore is definitely worth a visit. Perhaps it is even better to forget about the controversies and just enjoy the marvelous mountain carvings.

In fact, I spent a great deal of time thinking about how even an unfinished, can be more than good enough, when the vision is grand enough.

An alley of flags from alle the states and terrirories lead to the monument.

 

A film is screened at this arena accompanied by a patriotic program hosted by a ranger.

 

The classic perspective on Mount Rushmore.

 

You can view Mount Rushmore from many different perspectives. Here is the face of George Washington as seen from a crack between two boulders.

 

A bust of Gutzon Borglum by his son, Lincoln Borglum, and his life's work in the background.

 

 

The model study of Borglums vision with the mountain seen through the window. It would have been impossible to take this photo in one shot due to the differences in lighting outside and inside. It was my plan to create a high dynamic range (HDR) photo using Photomatix. But I gave up and combined the two photos manually. I hope that it is good enough...

 

July 26, 2011

Salt Lake City – the Mormon capital

Salt Lake City – the Mormon capital

I knew that the state of Utah was founded and still inhabited mainly by Mormons, but I learned a great deal more about the Mormon way of life while staying in Utah and the state capital, Salt Lake City.

My visit was a bit of a weird rollercoaster ride. Read on how it turned out.

In the morning on the first day I went to McDonald’s for breakfast. I was surprised to see people arriving on bicycles. There was even a bicycle rack at McDonald’s. Great!

The Nordic features of many of the locals made me feel even more at home. It turned out that a lot of them actually were of Danish descent and were able to say short sentences like “tak for mad” (thanks for the meal).  How nice!

I remembered that the Mormon movement had recruited a lot of followers in Denmark over a hundred years ago, and that they had immigrated to Utah.

Hmm…

As I left Mc Donald’s I had sort of forgotten where I came from (the location of my motel). A woman walking down the street seemed to recognize that I was bewildered. She stopped and offered me advice. Great – thanks for the courtesy! But then she proceeded to ask, if I wanted to hire her?

“Hire you for what”, I asked naively. She threw her head back and giggled with an intonation of a true sales woman: “Selling tickets, selling tickets!”

I instantly realized that she was not selling tickets to the Kate Perry concert that night, and that there was a reason why she knew where the motel was located.

What the… I was being solicited at 10:00 am just off Temple Street in Salt Lake City!

Hmm…

I politely declined the offer and went about my way and so did she. Then a van passed me by driven by a full-fledged clown. Yes, I guy with white make-up, red nose and hair!

What kind of place was this? Was I going mad, was there a circus in town or was he on his way to a bank heist?

It turned out that it was “Pioneer Day” – or “Pie-and-beer-day” as some humorous non-believers call it – a state holiday commemorating the arrival of the Mormon pioneers to the valley in 1847.

Thus there was a parade on a main street. I could hear the music, so I proceeded in that direction.

On my way there I noticed how order rules in Salt Lake City. The front lawns look like velvet, and there are absolutely no weeds in the beautiful flowerbeds. I did not see any graffiti either. Well, perhaps there had been some – but it had quickly been painted over.

I arrived to the parade just as it had finished. But then I got to see another spectacle. A small army of workers quickly moved in and started to blow every bit of trash or bubble gum paper out onto the street where it was collected by machines. No mess here – don’t even think about it!

I love a tight ship and good order, but for some reason the discipline it seemed a little too tight. And I like people to act think for themselves too…

Hmm…

At the parade there were a lot of “elders”; 18-year-old boys who were on or about to go on their mission somewhere in the world to spread the word of the Mormon faith. You have probably met some of them wherever you are in the world. The “elders” always wear black slacks, a white short-sleeved shirt and a black name tag.

As I came to the temple square, the ship was even tighter. Lots of “uniformed” devotees of the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) defiled in and out of the LDS Office Building. They were just as well groomed as the front lawns.

At the square I also realized that I was not the only one being naive in Salt Lake. I recognized a lot of sculptures of happy people as what I would determine as naive art.

Hmm…

By the way, the LDS Office Building is huge. It is probably the biggest building in Salt Lake and the State of Utah. And I guess it does require some office space, when you have about 15 million followers around the globe. And I guess it is not a problem to finance such a building when each follower is paying tithes.

Overseeing it all from somewhere in that building is the “president, prophet, seer and revelator” – the leader of the LDS. According to the Mormon beliefs he receives revelations from God directly, as I understood it.

Hmm…

I proceeded to the temple, which is quite a big structure but tiny compared to the office building. Tourists cannot enter, but there is a visitor center. Also there is a center of genealogy with birth records from all over the world. So it is a good place to start, if you are searching for your roots. And as Mormons can speak for their ancestors and enter them into the church, you may even discover that your ancestors have become Mormons after their death.

Hmm…

I did not make it as far as the visitor center, because already in front of it I was met by two “sisters” who solicited me in a quite different way than I experienced earlier in the day. I do not mean to compare the two incidents except for the fact that both made me feel awkward.

The sisters did not give up quite so easily as the woman earlier in the day, even though they were very courteous and subtle about their intentions.

One of them was Danish, and my mind started to spin, am I under surveillance here?

Of course not, but it was a bit weird how the Danish girl stared at me with fiery eyes without blinking. If I had not known that she was merely on her mission to convert me, I would have been nervous of her intentions.

After exchanging a couple of courtesies, I decided to bid them a quick farewell. I was about to meet with one of their other sisters, I informed them. The Danish girl’s eyes opened even wider than I thought possible and the stare became intense. “Is it someone with a name tag”, she wanted to know.

I had to disappoint her, she kind of deflated and the fire in her eyes died out, as I retreated from the scene.

Hmm…

All in all the Salt Lake City experience so far had been a bit much for me. But things would fortunately turn around in a more positive direction.

If you have read my post about my Colorado River Adventure, you will remember that I met three nice girls from Salt Lake City and that one of them, Katelin, had graciously offered to show me a bit around.

As it turned out, Katelin, invited me to meet with her and her friends in the evening to watch the fireworks.

Hmm…

The fireworks were fine, but I have to say that I appreciated the open talks with Katelin and her friends a great deal more than the show.

They were totally open and we exchanged viewpoints about faith, ways of life and personal stuff as if we had known each other for years. It was a very reassuring to engage in straight talk with this group of cool youngsters. We really had a great discussion going there.

Some were obedient Mormons. Some were less than obedient. Some did not really believe religiously but believed the cultural values such as keeping healthy, the importance of your family etc.

I asked about the biggest challenge in their way of life, and they seemed to agree that it was the expectations of them to live a life of sexual abstinence (of any kind) before marriage. Some told me that they had decided not to obey this particular commandment but to go about it in a responsible way. Well, good for them, I think.

I was also told that others (outside this group) took this commandment so seriously that they would cover their eyes if they went to the cinema and a bedroom scene would appear in an ordinary comedy. It had even happened that some took the sinfulness of sexual relations so seriously that they could not make this part of their life work, when they eventually got married. Not good for them!

Hmm…

I personally think such rules go against human nature. And it all seems a bit weird to me considering the behavior of the early LDS leaders. According to Wikipedia the founder of the LDS, Joseph Smith, took on 33 wives down to the age of 14! And his successor, Brigham young, took on 55 wives!

With all due respect it seems more like harems to me.

Hmmmmmmmmmm…

We also discussed that faith is exactly just that: faith. While some of the youngsters agreed that it was highly unlikely that Smith had received the Book of Mormon from an angel and translated it with his “seer stones”, you could basically say the same thing about Moses and the Ten Commandments. Sure.

I respect people’s beliefs and I do not wish to bash anyone – not the Mormons or anyone else. I have met many very kind, compassionate and great people among the Mormons in Utah.

But in general organized religion concerns me, especially if someone is leading an organization claiming to be directly connected to God and asking for your money in addition to your blind obedience. Maybe the money is spent on churches, education, charity work etc. But I find reason for concern when the books remain closed.

I also believe that it is good to have moral values and something to believe in. For some it is perhaps an advantage to have very strong values/rules to lean on, while others prefer making the difficult moral choices themselves.

Live the way you want to live, as Chuck Berry once said. But please do not be prejudice about others, whether they believe the same as you or not. Respect people for who they are.

And that is why my stay in Salt Lake City ended so pleasantly, because I met the youngsters with open minds, who were just themselves. We did not want anything from each other, try to convince each other of anything – but just exchanged our views in a respectful manner and enjoyed each others company.

Once again I conclude that the way a visit to a place turns out totally depends on your own behavior and the people you meet. I ended up meeting the very best in Salt Lake City, and I treasure the experience.

 

PS: You may have heard, seen or read in the news that Warren Jeffs – the leader of a Mormon sect – has just been convicted in August 2011 for sexual assaults on a 15-year-old as well as aggravated sexual assault on a 12-year-old. For the record, Warren Jeffs is not affiliated with the LDS. He is or was the leader of The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS). The FLDS broke off from the LDS about a hundred years ago, when the LDS stopped the practice of polygamy. Read more about the terrible case on Wikipedia or elsewhere.

In this photo of the Utah State Capitol I obviously used lot of tilt and some shift to have the lettering in focus. I fixed up a bit of converging lines in Photoshop using the PT Lens plug-in. You guessed it: I used the Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5 II.

 

In this photo of the official seat of power in Utah - the State Capitol - I only used a bit of shift to avoid converging lines.

 

Locals told me that The LDS Office Building (Mormon HQ) is the real seat of power in Utah. The building is so huge that I could not even get it all in with the TS-E 24mm without converging lines, from the square in front of it.

 

Workers constantly keep everything in an immaculate state on LDS property.

 

Typical sculpture in front of the LDS world HQ.

 

I had to go up a hill to get the LDS Office Building in the picture without converging lines. From this angle one also gets a good impression of its size relative to the temple.

 

The Mormon temple close-up in front of the reflection pool. Here it was easy to avoid converging lines using a bit of shift.

 

Statue of Joseph Smith, the founder of the LDS. Before he claimed to have received the Book of Mormon from the angel Moroni, he had a career as a treasure hunter using "seer stones". He was eventually killed by a mob while awaiting trial.

 

July 15, 2011

Oak Creek paradise

Oak Creek paradise

As mentioned in my previous post, I had to come back today for a swim in the pool on Oak Creek, where I had met Gabby yesterday afternoon.

After hiking down the dusty path I reached the pool again and went for a swim.

There was already a couple soothing in the pool. It turned out that the gentleman did psychic readings as a living. His spouse was a teacher. We started to chat about this and that.

The gentleman did not stay in the water for long, but I continued the chat with the lady, who also must have had some psychic powers, because she could tell me straightaway that I was probably a Virgo and the type of person who needed to have things a certain way.

I must say that I am not a great believer in astrology or any other alternative belief for that matter. I cling to facts! In fact I basically regard the whole alternative scene as mumbu-jumbo.  But I was quite baffled by her statement, because she was right on both counts.

Amazing – how could she tell?

I had not said anything to indicate my birth date or way of life…

Anyway, we had a rewarding chat about life as we soothed in the cool pool, and we agreed that this was a small piece of paradise to be enjoyed. By the way,  she informed me that Sedona attracted a lot of people with alternative beliefs. She also mentioned the vortexes and energy fields of the place, which Gabby actually had mentioned the day before.

As I left the pool and walked back to the car I felt more relaxed in body and mind than in a very long time – in total harmony.

No matter what you believe, you better believe that this pool was “magical”.

The magic pool on Oak Creek beneath the red rocks. A rope is dangling from the tree in the middle of the picture, if one would want to swing out over the pool and jump right in.

 

The "magical" pool is just below this little dam on Oak Creek.

 

I passed this rather unique chapel in Sedona on my way from Oak Creek heading north.

 

July 13, 2011

Lonely in Las Vegas

Lonely in Las Vegas

Yes – I know there is an obvious  contradiction between the headline and the photo. So, I ended up not feeling lonely after all.

Do you know how it is easier to feel lonely in a big city among millions of people than with a few people in the middle of nowhere?

That is exactly how I felt among all the happy partygoers during my stay in Las Vegas.

I definitely went looking at the “Strip” (Las Vegas Boulevard) for a place to socialize, but I was not really successful. I do not gamble (having worked in a casino myself) and most bars and clubs on the Strip were just too loud and rowdy for my mood/taste.

I entered a couple of lounges but they were at the opposite end of the scale; there was simply nobody there and I felt ripped off for the cover charge.

Perhaps I just did not know where to go, but it was like looking for a quiet corner in a (round) circus arena. And what a circus! Somebody will try to hustle you for something on every street corner. There is even a free limo to Larry Flynt’s Hustler’s Club. Not this boy. I will get into the details of Sin City in another post…

In the end I took a cab home without having had as much as a beer both of my nights in Vegas.

When I was about to check out in the morning I felt a bit discontent about my stay in the entertainment capital of the world. But then I happened to stumble into these beautiful ladies competing in Miss United States.

It was a perfect opportunity to take photo with the theme diversity, which is one of the themes I have been challenged to capture by my friend, Ole. And so I did.

Besides that these ladies really restored my mood; not because they were beautiful but because they were totally charming, classy and easy-going. Not least they had the patience to wait for me to get my photo equipment ready and pose for me.

Sometimes a smile and a little friendliness is all it takes to make you feel right at home.

Thank you ladies; break a leg in the competition (metaphorically speaking)!

I salute these ladies for being beautiful in looks and spirit!

 

July 6, 2011

Trying to take it easy

Trying to take it easy

I knew I would do it. Those of you, who know me well, knew it too.

I set too ambitious goals, I expect too much of myself and I set a furious pace.

I want to do, try, eat, drink and experience everything interesting on my way. And not least, every moment is a Kodak moment that I have to capture perfectly with my camera and post an intriguing story about it on my blog. After that I am going to relax in a hurry!

Yesterday I tried to find the perfect location to take the perfect photo of myself in front of the famous Hollywood sign. And even though I spent several hours at two different locations, the results ended up short of my expectations.

Why?

Well, the conditions (that I set in part myself) were not as easy as one might think.

It took some effort to find just the right location at the dead end of a narrow winding road in a residential area of the Hollywood hills, because there is no official viewpoint towards the sign.

When I finally got there, I was dehydrated from my 4th of July program of tasting the local beers. I was toasting under the baking California sun (which was in the wrong angle for my photography of course), I had no assistance (which made it difficult to photograph oneself), other tourists were in my way, the police kept the area under frequent surveillance by car and helicopter etc.

In other words: stressful!

But I pressed on with my task until I almost fainted and had to beg a juice box from another tourist to stay on my feet. Well, I did not exactly have to beg because I find Americans extremely helpful and courteous. But I felt begging and really stupid for not bringing water myself…

Despite the hassle and a giant effort, I was not satisfied at all, looking at the photos later.

Why did I not get there earlier when the light was right? Why did I have to stop at the Tesla dealership on my way there to enquire about my future Tesla model S? Why did I not use my polarizer to get a beautiful blue sky? And do I really look like that? Like a stressed-out newborn chicken with my short hair – and a fat one too with my Bart Simpson belly. And those white legs riddled with varicose veins are embarrassing!

Can I Photoshop myself out of this predicament? Probably not… Should I drive all the way back to L.A. and redo it – or press on according to my schedule? Yes, of course I have a schedule for my holiday road trip. Are you kidding?

Well, when I got up this morning and saw the frightful image in the mirror of myself looking like Nosferatu with my eyes hanging on the side of my cheeks, I realized that I have to lower the pace. So I have decided to stay one more day in one of my favorite California seaside cities, Santa Barbara.

Just went to McDonalds for some scrambled eggs, a roll and a cup of coffee. Recovery is in progress as I write this post in my room at Motel 6 by the beach.

A swim in the Pacific will probably do me good. If not today I am definitely getting one tomorrow morning before I leave. No skin diving though. I have to remember that I am in the US, and I do not want to get arrested.

So, I better take it easy in that regard as well!

Here I am relaxing for a few seconds on a TV set at Warner Studios in Burbank. Do you recognize it? (The photo was taken by the tour guide. The perspective have been corrected in Photoshop using the PT Lens plugin.)