Terra Galleria Photography

The steepest ratings drop

The rollout of the third edition of Treasured Lands possibly established a new record for the steepest drop in Amazon ratings ever, an unfortunate development not warranted by any reasonable standard. To explain what happened, this post elaborates on two seemingly disparate subjects: the workings of the Amazon rating system, and book binding.

Amazon ratings and reviews

The previous editions had accumulated 578 ratings. A rating on Amazon consists of a number of stars, with one being the worse, and five the best. The total (more on that later) broke down to 203 ratings for the first edition and 375 ratings for the second edition. Each of the two editions had the same size, 3 printings of 5,000 each, so why the difference?

Counterintuitively, it was quite remarkable (and not accidental) that the first edition got more than 203 ratings, which at the time, was the same as 203 reviews. I am grateful for any of you who wrote one. For comparison, according to publishing industry data, Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan’s companion book to their popular series The National Parks: America’s Best Idea has sold over 200,000 copies since its publication in 2009. Yet the book has received “only” 229 reviews. A review means that the customer writes comments about the product, which only a very small percentage are willing to do. As part of writing a review, they also assign a rating.

The second edition was released in the summer of 2019. In late 2019, Amazon launched a new “one tap review” system. Previously, in order to leave a rating, customers needed to write a review, which is why I wrote that previously ratings and reviews were the same. With the new system, to leave a rating, customers need to only tap or click the corresponding number of stars provided that they had bought the product from Amazon. Writing a review is optional. Naturally, the new ease of providing ratings led to the fast growth of their numbers, although at the expense of quality, since ratings with comments are more informative than ratings without.

Customers who have not bought the product from Amazon can still leave a rating, but they are required to write a review like before. Reviews by customers who bought the product from Amazon are labelled as “verified” and carry more weight. In the past, it was possible to post a comment as a response to a review, making it possible for other customers to rebut unfair reviews, or for the publisher to directly address issues, but that feature was removed in 2021.

In terms of rating values, the two previous editions had obtained an average rating 4.9 out of 5, which is about the practical maximum for any product with significant sales, as there will be always a few outlier negative ratings to prevent a perfect 5. At the beginning of this month, the average rating for the third edition was 1 out of 5, which is the absolute minimum – in some reviews, customers write that they wish they could give a zero-star rating, but they can’t. That is a drop from the almost highest rating to the absolute lowest. It was only possible because the previous ratings were so stellar, and the new ratings so dismal, probably setting a record for largest drop ever. So what happened?

Book binding

The first customer to write a review received a copy with some pages bound in an incorrect order. Although they noted that the issue affected only a small number of pages (16 out of 492), they gave a 1-star review.

That review was particularly damaging because its early date and the accompanying image are more likely to make it stick and be the first review that customers see. However, it is still fairer than some abusive reviews I have seen where the customer left a 1-star review because the product was damaged in transit due to improper packaging from Amazon! When I ship books, I package them in bubble wrap or with crumbled paper and double boxes, and I always make sure they are not loose nor that impact to the box would dent them. However, Amazon just throws books in a box with maybe some less than useful air packs.

When pages are mixed up, customers tend to assume it is a printing error that affects the entire edition. See for example this review from the second edition from a customer of Amazon Germany, whose choice of rating was, in my opinion, more adequate:

In fact, in book printing, there are so many checks at different points in the process that such a printing mistake would be almost impossible. However, books are mass-produced, at a remarkably low cost for what they represent, and not all copies are perfect. There are some lemons.

In that particular case, most likely the issue was caused by misfeed occurring when the book was bound. The feeding is done manually, so mistakes are possible. It can happen that the machine fails to grab one of the multiple booklets that make up the book. You can see the process in the video below (more here)

That is why 16 of the pages of the books were affected. That is exactly one such booklet, called a signature. What is a signature? Books are not printed page-by-page – this would be too inefficient, but rather on larger sheets of paper that include 8 pages on each side. After folding and trimming, you get a booklet of 16 pages. This was illustrated in that video, scroll to 2:15 (more here)

As an aside, that customer of Amazon Germany eventually contacted me, and I determined that his book had exactly two signatures messed up. I offered to provide a replacement book, but he preferred to keep his copy because of the annotations he made. Although ripping a book apart and sending the two signatures across the Atlantic Ocean ended up costing more than replacing a book, that’s what I did. It would have been nice if he revised his misleading review. If you have a production issue with your book, I will replace it for you even after the retailer return period has passed. Since seeing that May 26, 2022 review, I made sure to check the books that I am sending out directly. None of the more than two dozen copies had any issue.

Selling on Amazon

I wish it wasn’t the case, but nowadays, the vast majority of book sales take place on Amazon, and even more so for relatively expensive books like Treasured Lands. There is no realistic alternative marketplace for mass distribution. The company does live up to its motto of being exceptionally customer-friendly. For sellers and publishers, they are not so friendly. To begin with, they buy books at a wholesale discount of 55%. Adding other hidden fees results in a split of 40/60 in favor of the retailer. If you need them, publisher communications are the exact opposite of customer communications: the channels are obscure and it takes a surprising amount of back and forth to get anything done. They also appear to suspend seller accounts for seemingly arbitrary reasons, and it takes many hoops to get them reinstated.

It took months to get them to group the first and second editions of Treasured Lands together. My distributor representatives have been at it for months already, but they still have not done so for the third edition. As a result, I’ve observed that customers still buy copies of the second edition, although the out-of-print book is offered way above list price, rather than the up-to-date third edition, which is offered at a discount. This is despite a presence of a link. Sales are much slower than they were for the second edition at the same time of the year.

The main reason is that the second edition has 578 ratings with an average of 4.9, whereas the third had 1 rating with an average of 1! Amazon reviews and ratings are currently one of the most important factors in book sales. As of this writing, the customer with the defective book had the diligence to update his review with the mention that he received a flawless replacement copy, however, his rating is unchanged. Two 5-star reviews came in, but an average rating of 3.5 is still very poor on Amazon (the average product rating is 4.4). Since it is unclear if Amazon will ever group the third edition with the previous ones, the only thing that can improve the current situation is new ratings. If you bought a third edition copy on Amazon – or even if you didn’t, I would be grateful for your help in adding a rating!

Treasured Lands Third Edition

The third edition of Treasured Lands has just arrived (order your copy). Although differences are not as many as between the first and the second edition, they were still enough for my distributor to request a new edition rather than another printing – overall the seventh.

The New River Gorge chapter

The main difference is the addition of a new chapter for New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, the 63rd national park. In a previous series of posts, I discussed at length the selection of the main image of that chapter using input from readers. As nice as individual pictures are, they feel short in telling a story about a place when compared to a series of images. A series is not only a carefully selected set of images, it also has a sequence where the order of the photographs contributes to their meaning. One of the reasons why books are such a great medium to present photography is that they lend themselves naturally to sequencing and grouping images.

The way the eleven images were chosen, besides their individual merit, is that each of them had to represent one of the eleven locations that I selected to be representative of the park. They also had to complement each other on the page, so that quite a few constraints to satisfy.

Treasured Lands obviously doesn’t have the same ambition as The Americans, but still, I put thought in sequencing images. Here are some of the considerations I took into account to organize the four spreads of the new chapter.

  1. The chapter opens with three images that are each of a different size, photographed at three different times of the day (midday, midmorning, dawn), and show the gorge from three levels: river, rim, and intermediate mid-valley.
  2. The first spread signals a scenic park with significant human history artifacts. Even in the river bend view, a railroad is visible. It contributed much to opening this region in the 19th century and is one of only few active railroads within a national park. The first image is a roadside view, the second a short stroll to an overlook. The format of the opening spread is identical for each park. It is important to maintain consistency for those things through a book.
  3. The second spread is about the human footprint in the gorge. It juxtaposes historic and modern structures – the New River Gorge Bridge was built in 1974. In the grid of four, the upper rows include rails small (a coal cart at Keymoor) and large (the railway curiously close to the facades of Thurmond), the lower row includes conveying devices long (the 1,400-foot Nattalbug conveyor) and short (the water flume of the Gristmill in Babcock State Park). Locations here are a mix of roadside and hiking. The left column shows structures related to mining – the main historic activity in the area, the right column shows the facade of buildings that are not mining structures. From a design point of view, I placed the two more colorful images diagonally, with the swath of red from the conveyor linking them. On any spread, the right page catches more attention than the left one, so I put the more intricate content there. Wanting to emphasize the similarity in the subjects rather than their contrasts, I aligned the left image with the grid on the right rather than making it a full bleed.
  4. In the third spread, we immerse ourselves into nature, without a trace of man, and we get deeper in the park. Unlike for the initial spread, those are more concealed locations, and getting there requires more hiking. Because of the diagonals and position of the greens at opposite positions, the two vertical images complement each other. Their quietness contrasts with the spectacular sight of Sandstone Falls, amplified by the full-bleed presentation. Although as a standalone image I liked the sunset version of Sandstone Falls (below), the color clashed too much with the greens, so I chose this more muted version. Since the full page image was previously on the left, it was natural to move it back to the right for variety.
  5. Last, my favorite image of Kaymoor was of the forest reclaiming the powerhouse in an eerily evocative ghost town. For the conceptual symmetry mentioned above, I used the image of the coal cart in the grid of four instead. I snuck that image in the information page to complete the cycle of natural and man-made.

More data

The information spread for each park opens with data about that park. I’ve added three pieces of data that quickly convey significant information.
  1. For areas that received protections before being designated a national park, some argue that the date when they first received protections is more significant than the date when they were (re) designated a national park. When applicable, I now provide both: the initial establishment year and initial name are listed in addition to the year of designation as a national park. For instance, for White Sands National Park, that line reads “Established: 1933 (National Monument), 2019” meaning that the area was first protected as White Sands National Monument in 1933 and became White Sands National Park in 2019. Besides being a small piece of history, it is a useful reminder of the central role of the Antiquities Act in American conservation: about half of our national parks started as national monuments.
  2. Each park is located in relation with a nearby city to help pinpoint it at a glance and also indicate the closest major airport. All the cities have international airports except Jackson WY, even though the Jackson Hole Airport is the busiest in Wyoming – it has the distinction of being the only airport inside a national park.
  3. The highest point in each park, and its elevation are listed. Elevation varies wildly between parks, with the three highest in Alaska (Denali, Wrangell-St Elias, Glacier Bay; resp. 20,310 feet, 18,008 feet, 15,300 feet) and the three lowest in Florida (Biscayne, Dry Tortugas, Everglades; resp. 9 feet, 10 feet, 20 feet).

Other minor changes

I’ve tried to keep the information in the book current. As record-setting numbers of people continue to visit our parks, crowded conditions have led to a degraded visitor experience, including traffic jams, overflowing parking lots, and some people even turned away at entrance gates. Among other updates, it is mentioned in the relevant chapters that some of the popular parks have started requesting reservations for entry, for instance:
  • Yosemite National Park. From late May to September, a day-use reservation or lodging/camping booking is required for entry.
  • Glacier National Park. A reservation or service booking is required to drive Going-to-the-Sun Road from 6 am to 5 pm in the summer.
  • Rocky Mountain National Park. From late May to mid-October, entry from 9 am to 3 pm requires a reservation. For the Bear Lake area, from late May to Mid-October, a specific reservation is required from 5 am to 6 pm.
  • Acadia National Park. From late May to late October, a reservation is required to drive the Cadillac Summit Road from 4 am to 8 pm.
Besides keeping information current, there are a few minor updates or improvements here and there. Although I liked the Promenade image in Hot Springs National Park quite a bit, I split that page to add two photos that illustrate other aspects of the park. By splitting the map with an inset, I can now show the entire extent of the park and at the same time a detail of the main sites at Bathhouse Row.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the price. The inflation calculator indicates that an item costing $65 in 2016 (first edition of Treasured Lands) costs $78 in 2022. The book has gone from 456 pages to 492 pages, a 8% increase, so that would be $85. Largely due to Covid, the cost of shipping a container from Asia to the U.S. warehouse have increased from less than $7,000 to more than $24,000. Even in 2016, Treasured Lands was an incredible value compared to other photography books. The price remains $65, a bargain for readers, but clearly not sustainable. If you haven’t done so yet, get the book at a great price before the inevitable increase!

Grinnell: Hiking to Glacier National Park’s only accessible glacier

Glacier National Park, which celebrated its anniversary this week (established May 11, 1910) pays homage in its name to glaciation. However, although the work of past glaciers can be seen everywhere in a landscape that owes its shape to ice, its present glaciers are quite elusive. Follow me on the trail that is by far the best option to see one of them at a close distance.

The park’s glaciers are quickly vanishing due to climate change. In 1850, there were 150 glaciers; today, there are 25. Glaciologists have predicted that if current climate trends continue, all the glaciers in the park may disappear by the year 2030, so you may want to see them while you can!

Ironically for a park named that way, Glacier National Park isn’t the easiest place to see a glacier. Places further north such as Alaska and the Canadian Rockies, especially the Columbia Ice Fields in Banff/Jasper not that far away, offer massive glaciers at low elevations. In the continental United States, Mount Rainier National Park, Olympic National Park, and North Cascades National Park have more prominent glaciers. In Glacier National Park, if you know what to look for, you can view a few glaciers from the road with binoculars, the easiest to spot being Jackson Glacier from Jackson Glacier Overlook on the east side of Going-to-the-Sun Road, 5 miles east of Logan Pass.

Looking for a closer view? Over a century ago, when the park was first established, glaciers were much more accessible. They have since retreated dramatically, and only three in the park remain readily accessible to the day hiker: Grinnell Glacier, Jackson Glacier, and Sperry Glacier. The latter two are tough hikes (16 miles and 20 miles round-trip respectively). To get as close to the glaciers as possible, Grinnell Glacier is by far your best bet. Relatively strenuous, but still accessible to many, it is my favorite trail in the park, offering much more than the glacier: lakes, waterfalls, wildlife.

The trail gains 1,600 feet over 11.6 miles round-trip, but during the months of July and August, you can cross Swiftcurrent Lake via shuttle boat, walk a short, paved path to Lake Josephine and board another boat to its western end, saving you 4 miles round-trip. The higher portions of the trail remain snow-covered until the end of June and usually are clear of snow in mid-July. However, on years of high snowpack, the trail may not be entirely clear of snow until the end of July.

From Lake Josephine, I made a 2.6-mile round-trip detour on a flat trail to check out Grinnell Lake. I thought the view I would get later from above would be more special if I had dipped my toes in the lake. From its shore, its turquoise hue is visible in the distance, whereas in the clear water the color of the pebbles typical of the park’s lakes dominate. After making wide-angle photographs, I looked at details.

Along the trail, there are great views from above of Grinnell Lake, and the higher perspective and distance reveals the turquoise jewel that it is. For that, direct sunlight has to reach the water’s surface. I was glad that knowing that the hours close to midday can work better for some subjects, I did not wait until later. On my way back, during the supposed “golden hour”, the water lacked that striking color. If you pass something that you think you might want to photograph and say to yourself “I’ll do it later”, stop now and photograph it because when you get back, it won’t be the same.

Grinnell Glacier used to cover the point where the trail ends, but as I stood at the trail’s end, the glacier, which was quite a distance away, appeared tiny, and a new lake, Upper Grinnell Lake, was taking its place. It was as if the glacier was melting before my eyes. Since 1966, it lost almost half of its surface area.

Walking unroped on a snow-covered glacier is dangerous because a snow bridge may collapse, leading to a deadly fall into a crevasse beneath. I didn’t attempt to go further, not that reaching the glacier appeared straighforward. Up until half a decade prior to my hike, in the early 2000s, park rangers led hikes onto the glacier, but one year, a person hiking independently died from a fall into a crevasse. Since then, no guided hikes have taken place.

Resting on a northeast face, the light on the glacier and mountain face is tricky most of the day for a photograph of the whole scene. They are well lit only from sunrise to early morning, but you’d have to start hiking very early (well before the 8:30 AM first boat departure) to be there in time. After that time, the mountain face is partly lit, and the shadows break the shape. I framed a wide view in a way that minimized the shaded area, then for a stark play of light and shadow, timed a moment when icebergs stood out against the shadow (opening photograph). But for much of my time, I concentrated on smaller scenes where it is always easier to find favorable light. Framing the icebergs released by the glacier into the lake, I used the contrast of the partly sunlit walls and lake in the shade to my advantage, as sunlit water would not have given rise to those reflections.

In the afternoon, the best bet for a wide view would be a moment when clouds would reduce the contrast, but the day was mostly clear. I still wanted to create a more complex picture including all the components of the scene: the glacier, waterfall, lake, icebergs, and wildflowers. I waited for the sunlight to disappear from a larger portion of the scene, large enough to include all those elements in the unified light of open shade.

Although the light might have improved further by sunset with lower contrast, enabling me to photograph an even larger scene, I did not feel like waiting because I had read that many grizzly bears frequent the area, and I was hiking alone. I was worried about surprising one at each bend in the trail, but instead, I saw several bighorn sheep.

As much as I would have loved to spend more time with the sheep, I needed to minimize my time hiking in the dark. Still, I could not avoid hiking in the thick forest around Josephine and Grinnell Lakes in pitch-black darkness. I talked loudly to myself so that any bears would hear and avoid me. I had rarely felt as much relief when I reached the trailhead parking!

Steps behind the image: Mt Shuksan

As the light progressed towards the evening, I improved the composition of a most iconic scene through foreground refinement. This installment in the series “Steps behind the image” differs from the previous ones as it was made of published images of an icon rather than digging into archives. I had released the images that led to the final, prefered image because they show the scene in a different light.

Despite preserving some of America’s most beautiful mountain landscapes, North Cascades National Park is the second least-visited national park in the continental U.S., behind the remote and roadless Isle Royale National Park. This is because the park itself is managed as a wilderness without facilities and almost no road access, accessible only to hikers, backpackers, and mountaineers. However, there are excellent views from developed and accessible areas adjacent to the park. None in the entire North Cascades National Park Service Complex is as iconic as the view from Picture Lake, located in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. Near the end of Mount Baker Highway (SR 542), on the west side of the park, a one-way loop circles a pond. The mountain reflected in the pond is Mount Shuksan, sometimes said to be the most photographed mountain in North America – there are other more plausible candidates.

From any point on the east shore of the lake, the view looks similar, and that may lead one to think that all photographs of the reflected mountain are essentially the same. However as is often the case, there are small details in craft that differentiate images. In particular, while the background remains essentially the same, every foot of shoreline offers something a bit different. It is often remarked that when you made an “intimate” photograph of a smaller scene, it is more personal because more unique. In a larger scene, the foreground component is that smaller scene, and you are presented with the additional challenge to connect it to the distant elements.

I first came to the site at midday. Technically, the picture was straightforward as everything was well-lit. Photographing with my large-format camera, instead of pointing the camera down, I shifted the image down to keep the trees parallel, and as usual, a bit of tilt helped render both foreground and mountain sharply. Feeling uninspired by the light, I didn’t work hard in selecting the foreground. I settled early for something with a lot of detail and color. It had several issues: quite busy, distracting bright areas in the left corner, some overlap with the mountain reflection, and a weak connection with the mountain in the background. However, it does capture the feel of midday with pleasant greens and blues.

There is more than Picture Lake in the area. Continuing a few miles to Artist Point at the end of SR 542 and hiking a short trail to the east toward Huntoon Point along the Kulshan Ridge leads to less common views of Mt Shuksan. After scouting around, I still returned to Picture Lake in the late afternoon because I felt there was more potential. Besides the ease of access, it is not iconic for nothing! By that time, the contrast between the sunlit mountain and the lake in the shade necessitated a few technical tricks. First, I had to use a graduated neutral density filter to balance the exposure. Then, as I suspected that the flowers might still turn out too dark, to bring out their color, I used a flash that I had to synchronize manually since like for the three other photos on that page, I was photographing with my large format camera. In metering the flash, I made sure to keep it dim enough that it would not look obvious or unnatural.

Most of my work was in improving the composition with a more deliberate choice of the foreground. After walking along the shoreline, I found one that was not only simpler but also connected with the mountain better, providing visual unity to the photograph. The tips of the flowers form a triangular shape that rises steeply from the left and more gradually from the right. This shape echoes the shape of the mountain. The vertical lines of the flowers, well detached against the water, echo that of the spruce trees, well detached against the brighter mountain. Having disparate image elements that visually relate to each rather than being simply juxtaposed brings cohesion to the photograph.

In the previous photograph, the shade in the lake area help bring out the reflection on the mountain, and also creates a separation in tone between the distant line of trees and the mountain, adding depth to the image thanks to another layer. However, the light on the mountain is so bright that those shaded areas appear dark. As the sunlight gets dimmer, the contrast is reduced. While I was waiting for that to happen, I refined the composition further by moving the camera by less than one foot. Small changes in camera placement can make a big difference! I included a little more of the flowers so that their visual mass balances the mountain better, and also echoed its shape more. I also reduced the overlap between the flowers and the rocks in the lake. By having the flowers and the mountain reflection create a frame around the middle rock, I transformed it into a unifying focal point for the entire image. I was now satisfied with the composition. The Treasured Lands exhibit project is horizontal. You could argue that a vertical composition cropping out the right might be stronger. However the shape of the flower tips wouldn’t complement the mountain’s as well, and there are also lines there that lead to the mountain.

The sunset light had illuminated the mountain beautifully in warm tones, but instead of calling it done, I decided to wait until dark to see if the light would not improve further past sunset time. Sometimes it does, and that was the case that evening. Fifteen minutes after sunset, the color is better. The overall softer contrast reveals the hues of the vegetation more vividly. The lake beautifully reflects the more saturated color in the sky. The reddish color of the alpenglow on the mountain matches that of the flowers better, contributing further to the cohesiveness of the photograph. I walked out satisfied that although there are countless images of the scene, I had applied myself enough to make maybe one of the more finely crafted examplars, and certainly the one I liked the best.

Why America’s National Parks Are (Still) Great

Almost thirty years ago, what drew me personally to America’s national parks was its diversity of natural environments. On the occasion of this year’s National Parks Week, I reflect on what generally made America’s national parks so special and if contemporary changes, especially in visitation, have affected any of that.

The first national parks

To begin with, America’s national parks were the first fully realized expression of an idea as uniquely American as the Declaration of Independence and just as radical: that the most special places in the nation should be preserved, not for royalty or the rich, but for everyone and for all time.

Nature reserves had been maintained in Europe for centuries to protect hunting grounds for use by kings, nobles, and later the rich and well-connected. By contrast, national parks are a fundamentally democratic idea. They are administered by the government but belong to all citizens. The 20th century even saw many examples of wealthy people donating land to the government for the purpose of establishing or expanding a national park. The establishment of the first national parks was a pivotal moment in the story of how we, the American people, made the decision to keep nearly one-third of our land in our collective ownership as public lands. Yet, the vast majority of the public lands could use stronger protections.

While the idea of resource protection – be it wildlife or even hot waters – predates the national parks, the protection of Yosemite and Yellowstone marks the recognition that there is value in preserving the land itself in its natural state instead of developing it. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the establishment of Yellowstone as the first national park. However, it was an accident of history that made Yosemite a state park in 1864 and Yellowstone a national park in 1872. Those public land protections mark the start of the modern conservation movement. Today, as the world is urbanizing at an accelerating pace, we need breathing spaces and nature more than ever. We also need to keep lands and waters in their natural state to combat climate change.

The best national parks?

The national parks may or may not be “America’s Best Idea” depending on one’s perspective, but there is no doubt that they were a very good idea that has been adopted worldwide. More than a hundred countries have national parks. What makes the system of national parks of America so special among the world’s offerings? There are three factors.

Timing. Europe had cathedrals and castles, but America was a blank slate. National parks would become America’s national landmarks and provide its citizens with a sense of pride. They are a focus of domestic tourism, and especially of that quintessentially American experience, the road trip. When the first national parks were established, the continent was still being explored and largely unsettled. We still had the historic opportunity to set large wild areas apart. The longer nature is left alone, the more it thrives. Yellowstone was preserved for the hydrothermal features, but wildlife is now very abundant, more than when the park was established. In the 1930s, when few lands were available in the East compared to the West, parks were made of reclaimed lands. They have now reverted to wilderness. A park unit established as late as Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area (1974) has seen a drastic transformation from an environmental disaster area to a vibrant restored landscape.

Geography. America’s Park system is at a scale of a continent. All the landforms you can imagine are there: coastlines, mountains, canyons, plains. The geological diversity is tremendous. All climate zones are represented: from tropics to arctic, from rainforest to desert (even in the same park). This leads to great biological diversity. Each park is a unique ecosystem, yet they are all interrelated. All the national parks established prior to Acadia National Park (1919) were in the West. Over the course of the 20th century, they would encompass more of the continent and include more samples of each of its corners, but there are still major ecoregions missing among the designed national parks.

Management. Those two natural advantages alone would not have been enough. The example of Yosemite had shown that back in the 19th the state of California was not a very good caretaker. Activists such as John Muir urged the conversion of Yosemite into a national park (1890) with the promise that the federal government would be a better caretaker. Yet, at first, enforcement of national park protections was rather inconsistent. To remedy that situation, the National Park Service (NPS) was established (1916) as a government agency with the mission: to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and…leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” It is a dual mission with contradictory objectives: conservation and providing access, but the NPS has done a very good job. Protections are strong, with no high-impact activities allowed. Most areas are maintained as wilderness. In other areas, there is excellent visitor infrastructure for mass tourism. The National Park Service pioneered concepts now taken for granted and copied anywhere else such as visitor center, park ranger (professional, knowledgeable, friendly), official park brochure (looking at their design history gives an idea of the sophistication), interpretive programs, scenic drive, overlooks with interpretive signs. As a result, the parks have this rare combination: they are mostly pristine but quite accessible. It is partly because everybody can easily visit that the parks have developed a constituency. The resulting wide popular support across the political spectrum is what keeps them funded and protected.

Are the national parks loved to death?

Maybe the most significant change from the early days of the national parks is the growth in visitation – from 5,000 annual visits at the beginning of the 20th century to 5 million in 2016 for Yosemite alone. National Park Week not only highlights our well-deserved appreciation for the National Park Service but also encourages people to connect with their national parks. Is that a good idea, at a time when the press and social media are filled with stories about overcrowded parks?

First, we have to ask what is negatively impacted. For the developed areas of the parks, despoilation has already taken place irremediably when the park infrastructure was built. More infrastructure built for mass tourism actually mitigates global impact. Official trails reduce the impact of cross-country travel and user trail networks; restrooms and garbage cans prevent toilet paper from flying everywhere and waste from littering the landscape. Past a million visitors, it isn’t clear that another half-million is going to harm the environment that much more. What is most degraded, rather than the park, is the visitor experience. However, are visitors really concerned about crowding? They certainly keep coming to the more popular parks despite the well-publicized visitation numbers, and despite the fact that less popular national parks and other public lands are available to them. For the most popular areas, the NPS is extending the practice of requiring advance reservations for entry, and while inside the park, of using shuttles rather than private cars – another example of infrastructure reducing global impact. While this removes the spontaneity of trips, I think the overall improvement in visitor experience makes it a sustainable compromise. Other measures in the same vein can be taken to mitigate adverse consequences of visitation, but what we need for them to happen is above all increased funding.

When I see crowds, part of me is pleased to see that people are loving and visiting their parks. I do not feel frustrated because in most parks, I could find ways to avoid the crowds, be it by timing, hiking, or going to less popular areas. There are many parks that do not suffer from over-visitation, and even within popular parks, there are often quiet parts. More importantly, a place of great power almost by definition cannot be easily stripped of its power. If you feel that sharing the beauty of a landscape with a mass of people diminishes its beauty, doesn’t it imply that such beauty wasn’t that powerful in the first place? On the other hand, doesn’t the fact that you can appreciate the beauty of a landscape through a photograph indicate that you can separate the experience of taking in the landscape with that of standing alongside many? Even on that most popular of walks, the Lower Yosemite Falls Trail, standing on the bridge in the wet mist of the spring runoff still feels raw and wild. The increase in visitation of our national parks does require some mitigation measures, but rather than threatening their core mission, it is a measure of their success, and something worth celebrating this week.

Are Composite Photographs Truthful?

Assembling parts of two or more images into a photograph is a long-established technique that I have occasionally used for technical purposes. This piece looks at the history of composite photographs and details my own approach to composites. Finding my own finished photographs composited into a new one in a USA Pavilion Expo exhibit was something different and led me to wonder about the truthfulness of the result.

Composites are nearly as old as photography

In popular culture, the practice of compositing images is associated with digital techniques (“she photoshopped him into the picture”), but many photographers are familiar with the work of Jerry Ueslmann which was created entirely in the traditional darkroom starting from the 1960s. Its surrealistic imagery is powerful, yet it is hardly technically pioneering. Composite photography had already reached a sophisticated stage of development in the 1850s, just a few decades after the invention of photography, so it is a practice rooted in the traditions of the medium.


Carleton Watkins, Yosemite Valley from Inspiration Point, 1865

Most modern black-and-white films are panchromatic, meaning that they are sensitive to all wavelengths of visible light, reproducing a scene close to what it appears to the eye, obviously minus the color. The film’s primary sensitive components, silver halide crystals, are naturally sensitive to the blue portion of the spectrum. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that dyes were added to extend the silver halide crystal sensitivity into the green and red portions of the spectrum. Before, 19th-century emulsions were orthochromatic – overly sensitive to blue and less sensitive to colors like yellow and red. The extra sensitivity to blue resulted in skies being overexposed compared to the landscape. As a result, photographs made on the survey expeditions of the 1860s and 1870s had a recognizable esthetic. Gustave Le Gray is credited with making two different exposures on two different negatives and then printing them together on a single sheet in order to create a realistic rendering of the sky. Through the 19th century, most landscape photographers, including Eadweard Muybridge and Peter Henry Emerson, have resorted to compositing in order to expose properly both the land and sky.


Eadweard Muybridge, Valley of the Yosemite from Mariposa Trail, 1873

From there, it was a short matter of time before photographers used a different sky. As Henry Peach Robinson writes in Pictorial Effect in Photography (1869):

It rarely happens that a sky quite suitable to the landscape occurs in the right place at the time it is taken […] These difficulties are got over by combination printing […] the result will depend, to a very great degree, upon the art knowledge of the photographer in selecting a suitable sky…
In landscape photography, only two photographs needed to be joined in a fairly simple way, at the horizon, but composites in people photography are more complicated. Even today, when I make a group photograph, obtaining a consistent good pose and pleasant expression for each individual remains a challenge, when a single blink can marr the entire photograph. Imagine how hard it must have been in the days when slow film required sitters to remain still during the long exposure times, not to mention the depth of field issues associated with large format cameras. What started first as a way to alleviate those technical problems turned for photographers such as William Notman, Henry Peach Robinson, and Oscar Gustave Rejlander into a new creative endeavor, as exemplified by Rejlander’s Two Ways of Life, a photograph that combined over thirty captures to create a complex allegorical tableau. Naturally, at that time, heated debates rose about manipulation and truthfulness. This article on Artform offers a thorough discussion of composite imagery in the 19th century.


Oscar Gustave Rejlander, Two Ways of Life, 1857

In the early 20th century, Surrealists used photo montages to create disturbing images that clearly didn’t represent reality. Starting at the end of that century, digital technology enabled more complex compositing. In photomosaics, a great number of images are assembled by software to create a new pattern when viewed globally, while the component images remain identifiable in a close-up view. The technique is often used for commercial imagery, but Chris Jordan’s Running the Numbers is maybe the best-known art project using it. Another favorite innovative use of digital compositing is the Day to Night series of Stephen Wilkes, which seamlessly juxtaposes moments from 24 hours. In all those images, the compositing is obvious to the viewer. The rest of the article is about composite photographs crafted to make them appear as realistic images. Photographers such as Marc Adamus popularized the approach in nature landscape photography. For the past few years, mainstream photo-editing software such as Photoshop offer the option to replace the sky with a stock image by a single click, therefore automating a technique discovered more than a century and half ago.

Technical composites

A first category of composites aims to overcome the technical limitations of cameras in order to produce a higher-quality picture. While the resulting image shows more detail than a single shot, it could have been created as a single shot of technically lower quality. I consider them to be a part of the evolving photographic process. Yet, in the context of photojournalism, they are not considered acceptable, even though black and white photography, despite purposely erasing content by removing information, is. In this section, I am surveying each of the main techniques and my approach to it.

Exposure composites capture a range of light that is too large for a single exposure by merging the best-exposed parts of a series of photographs where the only variation is exposure. High Dynamic Range (HDR) is one algorithmic way to do it by creating an HDR file with more bits than the standard eight representing colors on digital devices, then “tone mapping” it back to an eight-bit file. For some photographers, the effect resulting from tone mapping is part of the technique’s appeal, but their unrealistic appearance never resonated with me. Instead, I made frequent use of exposure blending, which instead relies on manual local selections to get the best-exposed parts, and when done carefully, achieves a more natural appearance. With the advent of high-dynamic-range sensors pioneered by Sony, a single exposure is sufficient to capture the entire range of light except maybe in some situations with the light source included in the image. However, brightening the shadows can introduce noise, so if the goal is the best possible tonal quality in a print, exposures composites are still a useful tool.

Focus stacks extend the depth of field beyond what is possible with a single exposure. Images otherwise identical but focused at different depths in the scene are merged by selecting the best-focused parts of each. Modern high-resolution sensors reveal imperfectly focussed areas more than earlier, lower-resolution sensors. The higher resolving power also means that the loss of resolution caused by diffraction when stopping down lenses occurs at larger apertures. In the 2000s, I rarely resorted to focus stacking, with the exception of my Sand Grains series, but nowadays I find it essential in order to take advantage of the full resolution modern sensors have to offer. However, this is not to say that the resulting photograph is not possible without focus stacking. You’d be able to make the same picture, but you couldn’t enlarge it as much before the viewer would notice that some parts are out of focus.

Panoramas merge images taken consecutively from the same viewpoint to create a wider view. As implied by the name, they are usually in an elongated, panoramic format, not only for esthetic reasons but also because it is technically easier to create panoramas made of a single row of images. Images with extreme angle of views (from 180 degrees up to 360 degrees) must be rendered with a non-planar projection such as a cylindrical or spherical projection, in which some lines in the scene will be rendered as curves in the image. Those could not be created with single-shot cameras and lenses. However, most of the panoramas have a smaller field of view and could be captured by photographing with a rectilinear wide-angle lens (angle of view up to 135 degrees for a 9mm lens) or fish-eye lens (angle of view up to 180 degrees) and then cropping to a panoramic format. For instance the foremost competition dedicated to panoramas, the Epson Pano Awards, accepts anything with an aspect ratio exceeding 2:1. Cropping an image doesn’t feel as satisfying as extending it, since panoramic images feel inherently more complex. The reason they are assembled by merging longer focal length images is to increase the resolution – up to so-called gigapixel images. Although tedious compared to large-format photography, the technique has the potential to produce even more detailed images. If mere resolution is what I am after, given the savings in costs, impact, and burden, I find it a workable alternative.

Sometimes, what appears to the user as single captures are in fact image composites because cameras implement compositing without user intervention. Many phone cameras (including Apple iPhone and Google Pixel) automatically create an exposure composite from a quick burst of images when they sense a high-contrast scene. They are also capable of creating a panorama in real-time by scanning the scene. Frame averaging is a lesser-known type of composite, in which almost-identical images are combined pixel by pixel in order to reduce high-ISO noise. The technique is most often deployed by astrophotographers in order to allow shutter speeds fast enough to capture point stars, with a bit of realignment to compensate for Earth’s motion between frames. However, the Google Pixel phones implement it automatically in a sophisticated way with their “Night Sight” technology. As computational photography’s capabilities grow, we can expect an increasing number of single captures to be in-camera composites.

Compositing across places: the Dry Tortugas image

I find it useful to make a distinction between the composites discussed above, and the second category of composites where elements of images captured at different times or viewpoints are merged together. Such creations circumvent a fundamental attribute of photography: that an exposure captures a specific place at a specific point in time. The goal goes beyond creating a simply technically better picture. Let me illustrate the discussion with a particular example. The image of Dry Tortugas National Park that was displayed in the Expo USA Pavilion definitively belonged in that category. It was assembled out of three images made during a trip detailed here.

Upon arriving at Loggerhead Key at midday, we anchored the boat a few hundred yards from the pier on the south side of the islet, and I immediately photographed the Loggerhead Light, well lit with the sun in my back. I framed the striking lighthouse with the 24-105mm zoom set to a short telephoto focal length (75mm).

We landed at the pier with a dinghy, walked across the island to the north side, and snorkeled at the Little Africa Reef, which had the densest density of corals at a shallow depth I’ve seen so far. My underwater housing doesn’t let me adjust the focal length of the lens, and by default, I had set it at 24mm.

After returning to the boat, while the others relaxed, I got back in the water with my housing and lens still set to 24mm to experiment with under/over water images. By then, it was mid-afternoon. The sun was illuminating the lighthouse from the side – Note its size in the picture. It didn’t penetrate into the water as much as before, and at the spot where we had safely anchored, the water was deep, both factors resulting in no visible corals.

At the time I had licensed the images to the USA Pavilion designers, I was a bit puzzled that they had picked three views from Dry Tortugas National Park, as it is the third less-visited national park in the continental US. When I saw the exhibit panel, past the initial surprise, it made perfect sense from a design viewpoint. Combining two vertical frames and a transition section achieves a vertical resolution roughly equivalent to that of the highest megapixel medium format cameras. Moreover, the composite image holds visual interest from the very bottom to the top. This matters because it is the only image in the exhibit where visitors can have a close look at the bottom, from the base of the staircase, and at the top, from the second floor of the room.

Fiction or Truth?

While I have made many composites, they are almost all “technical” and very few are of the second category. One way their degree of manipulation could be characterized is by how much time has elapsed between the exposures, and how disparate their locations are. In my continued pursuit of truthfulness, I have limited myself to composites with a stationary camera and exposures separated by a short amount of time.

The composite Dry Tortugas image used photographs that were taken at three separate points in time, over the course of three hours, at two distinct locations on each side of the island, and using two different focal lengths. There is no location on Loggerhead Key from which you could see exactly what it depicts, so it does not correspond to a real experience. It is therefore a fiction.

However, I thought that the composite image did a better job at representing what that national park is about than any of the single-capture images alone. Dry Tortugas National Park is an unusual national park, as it is 99% underwater (100 square miles). At the junction of the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea, and the Gulf of Mexico, its corals are particularly diverse and vibrant. The tiny islets (100 acres) called “keys” are home to remarkable structures. Most of Garden Key is occupied by Fort Jefferson, the largest brick structure in Western Hemisphere. Loggerhead Light is inactive, but was said to be “a greater distance from the mainland than any other light in the world” and once housed the brightest light in America. Although the park is biologically rich, the structures are the primary reason why the national park (initially Fort Jefferson National Monument) was established.

Human visual perception does not work like a simple camera, but is inherently computational, creating effortlessly “technical composites”. The brain can merge seamlessly and dynamically a vast dynamic range of light, far and near objects, minute details and broad field of view. Could it be the case that the same could be said of memories and places? We don’t take in everything in one glance. We absorb parts at a time and build the whole in our mind. Time and time again, great literature shows that fiction can get at the truth even when stories are all made up, that it can convey a greater sense of truth than the truth itself.

As a photographer, I can happily rely on multiple images in a sequence to tell a place’s story, but the exhibit – among other use scenarios – called for a single image per park, and a composite made ample sense. Yet unanswered questions arise. Should such composites be labeled so? Do viewers even expect the image not to be a composite? If they learned so, would they feel deceived? Would a visitor who, inspired by the composite image has made the arduous trip to Loggerhead Key, be disappointed not to be able to observe exactly the scene depicted even though they experience each of its components? Can composites be truthful?

I’d appreciate to hear your thoughts, but if you prefer, you can also answer a multiple-choice poll.

Thank you to Cecilia for the picture of the Dry Tortugas panel

QT Luong’s Work in the USA Expo Pavilion

As national pavilions are how each of the countries at Expo 2020 presents itself to the world, I am so honored that the USA Pavilion featured nine of my national park photographs as one of the exhibits and invited me to talk about my work there.

Exhibit 5 (“America the Beautiful”) may appear at odds with the rest of a pavilion that emphasizes American innovations until you remember that national parks were also a most consequential American innovation.

Thomas Jefferson’s personal copy of the Quran was one of the pavilion’s special artifacts. I learned during a Expo 2020 lecture by scholar Andrew O’Shaughnessy that America’s Founding Father and third President, a talented self-taught architect, was fascinated by octagons and built a house based on an octagonal plan at Poplar Forest. That house was an inspiration for the room housing the mural-size panels that form the exhibit. I believe the previous entry depicted that exhibit as well as I could do with four photographs. However, capturing the entirety of such a space with regular photography is challenging, as a super-wide-angle lens (the opening image was photographed at 13mm) introduces wild distortions, yet includes only a small portion of the space. Because the center of the space is occupied by the elevator, no viewpoint conveyes that the octagon has equal sides. With this caveat, here is another attempt to depict the space using non-planar projections:

At the center of the pavilion, the room serves as a transition space between the first floor and the second floor. Since the room is two-story-tall and the panels fit each of the equal octagonal sides, five of them are cropped to a banner-like aspect ratio of 2.5: 13 feet wide (4m) by 33 feet tall (10m). They feel well-proportioned because the ratio between the room’s width and its sides is almost the same – making it almost a cube, like Poplar Forest. The staircase and upper floor divide the room vertically. Because of that, rather than splitting images, on two of the eight sides, four panels of approximately square dimensions cover half of the height of the room. The two remaining half-sides are the entrance and exit – the latter with a quarter-side panel above.

Even though two of my images have been reproduced larger (50 feet wide) before in an airport, this time I was stunned by the immersive effect of the wall-to-wall towering panels. The 5×7 transparencies held up well to the enlargements. By default, I have them drum-scanned to a file size of 300MB (about 12,000 pixels in the largest dimension), but for mural reproduction, they are generally rescanned to a 2GB file (approximately 30,000 pixels in the largest dimension). As it climbs up, the staircase partly hides some of the panels. The one at its beginning is visible at its full height. For it, the designers from Thinkwell created a composite out of three photographs made in the same location, the Loggerhead Key of Dry Tortugas National Park.

The choice of images conveyed the geographic extent of the national park system from east to west and north to south (Acadia/Joshua) as well as its diversity of natural environments. It was also a nice mix of iconic locations (the most popular trail in Yosemite, three well-known parks on the Colorado Plateau: Grand Canyon, Bryce, Arches) and lesser-known areas conducive to adventure, like Voyageurs, Glacier Bay, and Dry Tortugas, which are all explored on water.

The US Department of State invited me to Expo 2020 to speak about my work in the national parks. The visit was initially planned for early January, but my heart sank when it was canceled due to the Omicron surge. Fortunately, it eventually took place in mid-February. I did a quick book signing. Given the venue’s extreme distance to the national parks and that any buyer would have to walk around with the 9 lbs book, it was not a given that copies of Treasured Lands at the Rocket Store would sell, so I was pleased to see that even there they were a best-selling book and only a few of them were left to sign. The main goal of the visit was to deliver talks about the national parks and my work in them. Below is a photo with Commisioner General Bob Clark in front of the Arches National Park panel.

The first talk was a non-technical introduction to landscape photography as an event for a group of Youth Ambassadors. Those friendly and enthusiastic college-age men and women are the human faces of the USA pavilion. They serve in different roles that include greeting visitors, guiding them through exhibits, and also assisting official guests like me through the day. I am grateful to all, but particularly to Katrina, Salsabila, Cecilia, and Taty for helping me in various ways to make the most of my short time at Expo 2020.

The second talk took place at the Rocket Garden of the USA Pavilion, right after Andrew O’Shaughnessy’s talk. I discussed the idea of national parks and what makes those in America special before commenting on my photographs in the pavilion with a small print of each as a visual aid. The event continued with a Q&A session moderated by Katrina.

The third talk took place at the Terra Auditorium of the Sustainability Pavilion and was a visual presentation introducing the incredible diversity and beauty of America’s national park system through photographs of each of them. I am thankful to Adel Dekinesh, Nadia Ziyadeh, Maya Nadao-Fall and the rest of the team at the US Consulate General in Dubai for this opportunity to present my work to a global audience, and for all the excellent arrangements during this visit.

I often start my talks by pointing out that I was an unlikely person to have photographed the US national parks. I suppose that I am no longer an unlikely person to turn to for photographs of them. The past photographers seen below happen to be the four mentioned by Dayton Duncan in the foreword to Treasured Lands.

I am grateful to the US Department of State and Thinkwell for selecting my work for the USA Pavilion and displaying it so beautifully in such a high-profile venue. I am so proud that it was deemed worthy of representing the best of what America can offer to the world.

Part 4 of 4: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

A Tour of the USA Pavilion at Expo 2020 in Photos

The previous entry took you on a quick tour of Expo 2020. This one concentrates on a particular building, the USA pavilion, showing you all of its public spaces. Most Expo pavilions are ephemeral, so my hope is that this series of photographs will help memorialize the USA Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai. The construction was going to be done in six months, but the postponement due to the pandemic afforded a welcome additional year. Although the final cost has not been published, it has been reported that the UAE contributed $60 million.

With a large number of pavilions present, the visitor’s attention span is necessarily short. I spent many hours photographing the pavilion, but prior to that, to appreciate the quality of the experience, I did a quick walkthrough at the pace of a regular visitor, which took less than half an hour. I found the exhibits cohesive, enjoyable, educational, and effective at conveying the theme of world-changing innovation thriving in an environment enabled by freedom.

Entrance

The pavilion’s facade is covered by an overhanging roof screen for shade during hot days. It is decorated with interlocking metal stars that evoke the American flag and form a leitmotif through the pavilion. At night, the space between the stars and the wall makes possible a light show with colors shifting from white, red, and blue to create dynamic patterns. Past the pavilion’s motto “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of the Future” and a welcome video featuring Vice-President Harris, visitors step onto the “travellator”, a people mover similar to those found at airports winding around the first three exhibits. That approach provides a perfect flow, as the exhibits are perfectly synchronized with the pace of motion.

Exhibit 1: Foundations of Freedom

Following a quote from the Declaration of Independence, a model of the Statue of Liberty’s torch is surrounded by a media show that recounts from sunrise to sunset America’s history with iconic images: pioneer settlements, Liberty Bell, Lincoln Memorial, NYC skyline. The key is a quote from Benjamin Franklin linking freedom and innovation. Past the show, a copy of the Quran belonging to Thomas Jefferson, displayed abroad for the first time, is a reminder of religious freedom values.

Exhibit 2: American Innovation

Bookended by one of Alexander Graham Bell’s first telephone prototypes and by Steve Jobs’s first iPhone, a long curved wall made of stars is the stage for projected media showcasing iconic American inventions: the lightbulb, phone, automobile industry, airline industry, the internet, space travel.

Exhibit 3: The Innovation Generation

Displayed in a dazzling array of rotating cubes surrounded by mirrors, media points the visitor to a new generation of innovators, young and diverse people whose start-up companies are starting to make an impact on our lives.

Exhibit 4: The Sky Is No Longer the Limit

Visitors disembark the moving walkway and stare at the ceiling where an 8-minute booming horizontal theater show takes place. Moving objects, most notably a massive sphere, are animated by mapped media projection. Featured are big technological ideas of the future: quantum computing, nuclear fusion, space exploration.

Exhibit 5: America the Beautiful

After the overload of media and technology, two-story-tall photographs immerse the visitor into the natural beauty of America’s national parks as they walk upstairs to the second floor where signs are about the National Park Service and a message from President Biden on climate change.

Exhibit 6: Explore

The final indoor exhibit has two faces. On one hand, the space theme continues with the Mars Opportunity Rover, a panorama it captured, and two special rocks, one collected on the moon (that visitors can touch for the first time), the other a meteorite from Mars. On the other hand, the on-screen media take visitors on a tour of the states, letting them meet people that exemplify American opportunity and inviting them to travel or study in the USA.

Exhibit 7/8: Lift-off

Exiting the building, as they walk down a ramp, visitors come face-to-face with a replica of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket booster, stationed on its landing legs. I may have missed the explanation of its significance as the first reusable orbital rocket and the most-flown in the United States. Even though, it is an impressive display, as its 137 feet (14 stories) make it the tallest structure in a national pavilion at Expo 2020 (overall second tallest) and an apt conclusion for a pavilion that heavily showcases US leadership in space exploration. Because the replica is life-size and has even a patina of soot to make it look like it’s been on a flight, I initially thought it was the real thing. At night, the rocket is a canvas for a one-minute projection telling the story of American space travel. Beneath the rocket is a patio called the Rocket Garden where visitors can dine on American fast food bought at the Rocket Dinner while enjoying performances taking place on the Rocket Stage before maybe purchasing souvenirs at the Rocket Store.

Photographing the pavilion

The observant reader may have noticed that many of the photos above are devoid of visitors. It was not for lack of popularity. Between its opening hours from 10 am to 10 pm, there was consistently a long line to get inside the pavilion, sometimes exceeding an hour – another element of expos reminiscent of theme parks.

I was grateful for the opportunity to photograph the pavilion on assignment for Thinkwell Group, the firm that had designed and produced it as a turnkey solution for the US State Department (read an interview with the designers). Because they wanted from me mostly “clean” shots of the designs without people, I did most of the work before opening hours, from 6 am to 10 am. I am thankful to all the staff at the USA Pavilion for making me feel welcome and for their great job in facilitating the architectural photoshoot. They provided me full access, including to the “attic” above exhibit 4 and to private VIP areas not pictured in this article. The opening photograph was made at dawn. The night before, the staff had removed the blue queue stanchions in front of the building.

Did you notice connections between the pavilion and my work? Stay tuned for the next installment in this series.

Part 3 of 4: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

A Glimpse of Expo 2020

Expo 2020 is what brought me to Dubai in 2022. My first time at a world fair was enjoyable. What does a world fair have to offer?

World fairs also referred to as Universal Expositions or Expos for brevity, have taken place since the 19th century. The Eiffel Tower was built as a temporary structure for the Exposition Universelle of 1889 in Paris. Closer to home, the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco and the Space Needle in Seattle are legacies of Expos for which they were built. The interval between Expos has fluctuated, but as of late they are held every 5 years. Cities bid to become hosts, like for the Olympics. Due to their duration, which is now typically six months, Expos are the most attended international events, with the record set by Expo 2010 in Shanghai at more than 70 million visitors.

Expos are a global showcase of human achievement and a great opportunity to improve your understanding of the world. While the first Expos were focused on industrialization and technological innovations, they are nowadays a platform for participating countries to project a favorable image through their pavilions. The bulk of the fair is made of a collection of national pavilions. In the past, joint pavilions have provided space to countries that can’t afford to participate in an Expo. At Expo 2020, for the first time, each of the countries had its own. Showcasing the country’s sights, culture, and achievements, they often feature striking architecture, original art and historic pieces, and quirky features that make them a delight to visit and be surprised.

Expo 2020 was to begin in October 2020 (hence the name), avoiding the Dubai hot season from May to September when average high temperatures top 100F, but was postponed one year due to the pandemic. Not surprisingly given the host city, Expo 2020 is the largest ever, with 192 countries represented and three times the acreage of Expo 2015. Consistent with its policy to build bold attractions to secure its status as the newest world city and boost tourism, Dubai spent $7 billion on this project. When they won the bid in 2013, the site was nothing but bare desert. It now has its own metro station and 80% of the infrastructure is intended to be converted into a sustainable city. Due to lack of space, Expo 2025 in Osaka, Japan will scale down to 150 countries, comparable to Expo 2015 in Milan with 145 countries.

Saudi Arabia Pavilion

Switzerland Pavilion

Pakistan Pavilion

The closest experience I had to visit an Expo is the Disney EPCOT theme park, part of Disney World near Orlando, Florida, where one can also see national pavilions and technology exhibits. This is no coincidence, as Disney had contributed many exhibits and rides to Expo 1964 in New York City, then moved them to Disneyland and duplicated several at Disney World. However, a real Expo is more fun to visit. Cultural diversity and sensitivity is higher, and not only because you see more visitors from around the world. Since the national pavilions are each built and staffed by their respective nations, they offer cultural authenticity and opportunities to taste different cuisines. However, the food is quite expensive, like in a theme park, and there can be long lines for popular pavilions. Because nations compete to offer the most memorable visitor experiences, you can see a lot of different cutting-edge and extravagant designs within a walkable space. I didn’t have much free time at Expo 2020, but I’ve included photos from three of my favorite pavilions above. All of them can be visited virtually through interactive 360 panoramas. The Saudi Arabia pavilion was the largest, at 141,000 square feet. Although I am partial, despite its modest size of 36,000 square feet, USA was no slouch, but that will be the subject of the next post. Like in downtown Dubai, photography at Expo 2020 was regulated, with tripods quickly drawing security’s attention. All bags were x-rayed, and on one occasion, I was asked if I had permission to bring in what they dubbed to be professional equipment, even though I had official credentials. However, with one exception, I didn’t try to photograph Expo 2020, instead, I tried to enjoy myself and just made those images along the way.

In addition to the national pavilions, Expo 2020 featured three thematic pavilions built by the host, and corresponding to its three subthemes of opportunity, mobility, and sustainability, linked by a central plaza called Al Wasl’s. Rising at 220 feet, its steel trellis, designed by the firm responsible for the Burj Khalifa, is the world’s largest free-standing dome and doubles as the largest 360-degree theater, where images projected by lasers are visible both from within and outside the dome, making it a great outdoor venue for performances.

I felt that Expo provided an international experience full of ideas and solutions from around the globe. Expo 2020 was historic not only as the largest Expo ever , but also as the first held in the Arabic World. However, that made it a long trip from California. The time difference was exactly 12 hours, meaning that it is the opposite northern hemisphere location on the globe – the flight route was straight north over the pole.

My trip also took place during the pandemic. It was safer than it would appear. First, contrary to widespread opinion, chances of catching the virus on a plane are low. There is no statistical evidence that airline crews have gotten more infections than other occupations. Masks are worn most of the time. In the cabin, the air does not circulate around, but instead enters the cabin from vents above the seats and exits from vents below the seats in a laminar pattern. The ventilation is strong enough that the entire volume of air inside a plane is completely replaced every few minutes by air that is either fresh from outside or filtered to HEPA standards (99.97% of all particles). On international flights, all passengers need to present a negative PCR test taken within 2 to 3 days of boarding. Second, the UAE had one of the lowest rates of COVID-19 in the world. Maybe, there is a correlation with strict public health measures: at Expo 2020, almost everybody wore masks, even outdoors, something I never saw in the San Francisco Bay Area. Staff needed to take PCR tests every two days. Yet, there was the risk of testing positive and being stuck abroad. In addition, I was told that if I extended my stay beyond my official programmed time and I was to test positive, I’d be entirely on my own. In the next post, we’ll see why I visited this particular Expo under those circumstances. Stay tuned!

Part 2 of 4: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

A Photo Tour of Dubai in a Day

Besides my impressions from a whirlwind trip to Dubai, this article serves as a tour guide to ten of the city’s most famous and photogenic locations that one could see and photograph in a single long day.

It was my first time in the Arabic world, and despite my short stay, I could understand why Dubai has been rising as a top international travel destination. The city is as futuristic as any on earth. It is a place of superlatives, with the tallest building in the world (Burj Khalifa), the largest shopping center (Dubai Mall), the largest Ferris wheel (Ain Dubai), the tallest hotel (Burj Al Arab), and a few others that I have missed. It is home to some of the most remarkable contemporary architecture. High-rises can sometimes look all the same, but in Dubai, most feature a distinctive design. At the same time, Dubai has retained an unmistakable Arabic flair, visible not only in the numerous mosques, prayer calls more melodious than I imagined, and building designs but also in the everyday dress of some. All of this makes Dubai a city that defines modern sophistication with an exotic touch.

As Dubai aimed to become a tourist destination, the first-rate Emirates airlines initially enticed travelers to stop-overs. Thanks to its location at the crossroads of Asia, Europe, and Africa, its hub at Dubai International Airport is at the time of this writing the busiest airport in the world in terms of passenger traffic. From a practical point of view, Dubai is an easy destination thanks excellent touristic infrastructure and one of the best safety records of any large city – violent crime is extremely rare. Covid-19 PCR tests results were delivered by SMS in less than five hours. The shopping and dining are some of the best in the world. The latter can be explained by the city’s population, which is 80% immigrant, resulting in a rich melting pot of cultures that contribute to a cosmopolitan character. I was surprised by the diversity of city’s mix of attractions.

Jumeirah

My first destination was Palm Jumeirah, a set of artificial islands that from the air take the shape of a palm tree – there is another set of offshore artifical islands shaped like the world. A promenade near the eastern tip on the external shore offers a distant view of the city over the Persian Gulf waters. It is the only place from which one can include Dubai’s two most famous buildings, Burj Khalifa and Burj Al Arab in the same frame. Designed to be Dubai’s landmark and put the city on the global map in 1999, Burj Al Arab was once the tallest hotel in the world (321 meters, four other hotels in Dubai are now taller) and according to some, the only 7-star hotel. At dawn, buildings are dark, so the evening would have been preferable, but I had another destination in mind. On the mainland, nearby Sunset Beach, one of the public beaches near Burj Al Arab, used to have some of the best views of the iconic hotel, but it is now blocked by a new building under construction – seen on the first picture. Things change fast in Dubai! However, there are still two spots with an excellent view. The first is Madina Jumeirah, a lush resort village whose landscaped garden and waterways make you forget you are in one of the aridest deserts on earth, with only about 1 to 2 days of rain per year. The palatial hotels and souk recreate an Arabic atmosphere with traditional wind towers. The second is the Jumeira Beach Hotel. From afar, it resembles a wave complementing the famous sail-like shape of Burj Al Arab. A rooftop bar with an outdoor terrace provides a great view extending from the landmark hotel to downtown Dubai. The Jumeira Mosque, a fine midday destination, is one of the few in this part of the world to be open to non-muslim people through two daily guided tours.

Downtown

The star of downtown is no doubt the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building (half a mile high, 828m), which was completed in 2010 and amazingly built in six years. Due to limited time, I skipped the trip to the world’s highest outdoor observation deck (148th floor) and instead looked for views from the ground. In the morning, I found distant views with reflections in Dubai Creek at two waterside promenades: Business Bay and Al Jaddaft Walk where the farther point of view lent to a better relative sense of scale of the towers. For close views, it is hard to beat the fountain pool within Souk Al Bahar at the base of the tower even though the fountains do not play in the morning. However, the Palace Reflecting Pool provides an attractive alternative. You will need a very wide lens to capture Burj Khalifa from near. The widest perspective-control lens, the Canon 17mm TS-E, was barely enough to include it all. Instead of visiting the nearby Dubai Mall, I strolled the Mall of the Emirates. I was hoping for a glimpse of the largest indoor ski area (in the middle of the desert!) but instead spent much time looking for water to stay energized, not a given in a maze of luxury shops. Note that I’ve been strongly advised that deploying a tripod in those places is a quick way to get in trouble with security. Permits for professional photography (which are very hard to come by) will be asked for, and photographers have reported being summarily escorted out from premises. Some even wrote that mere professional-looking cameras triggered the same reactions, but I experienced such difficulties only once and it was not downtown.

Deira

One of the oldest neighborhoods of Dubai, Deira is a world away from the slick skyscrapers of downtown. The narrow streets and alleys are crowded, chaotic, and felt like a meeting of the Mediterranean and India – which they are since the area’s souqs have long been venues for the trade of traditional goods ranging from gold to spices. You’d need hours to get lost in that maze (there are no no-go areas) near the mouth of Dubai Creek, but here are some photos all made within half an hour. As a street photography destination, it works all day, even though the lights of the early evening would be a bonus. Prior to my trip, I was under the impression that Dubai is a very restrictive place for photography. Besides the tripod limitations, drones are now strictly prohibited. In theory, one needs to ask permission before photographing anybody, but in practice, nobody seemed to care. Compared to the norms in this part of the world, Dubai is pretty much an open society.

Marina

Dubai Marina is one of the newest neighborhoods of Dubai and the wealthiest. Bars and eateries make it a popular evening destination. On Dubai’s main thoroughfare, the Sheikh Zayed Road bordered on both sides by impressive skyscrapers, the traffic is always moving, but it slowed to a crawl in the Dubai Marina access roads. Its array of residential towers rising from water reminded me of Miami, but a mosque bordered the canal which is plied by a multitude of restaurant boats. My hotel, the Sheraton Jumeirah Beach Resort was close to the start of three pleasant night walks, the Marina Promenade along a canal, The Walk at JBR (Jumeirah Beach Residence), a sprawling outdoor shopping and dining promenade, and the JBR Beach boardwalk. Towering above it, Ain Dubai is the world’s tallest observation wheel, rising 210 meters, and built with more metal than the Eiffel Tower.

Summary: one-day itinerary with top ten Dubai locations

  • Palm Island
  • Business Bay
  • Al Jaddaft Walk
  • Souk Al Bahar
  • Mail of the Emirates
  • Jumeirah Mosque
  • Deira Souks
  • Madina Jumeirah
  • Jumeirah Beach Hotel
  • Dubai Marina
Dubai has an excellent metro system, but it doesn’t reach all locations. If you are trying to visit all the above in a day, you’ll want a car, ideally with a driver.

Sharjah

Sharjah is not a district of Dubai, but a different Emirate – Dubai designates both a city and an emirate, sort of like New York City and New York State. Sharjah and Dubai are two of seven emirates that in 1971 came together to form the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a nation only 50 years old. Although in theory, I could have visited all the locations above in a single day – I did it in a cumulated 14 hours, this did not happen. On my first day in the UAE, in the afternoon I traveled to Sharjah to participate in a discussion panel at the Xposure international photography festival and afterward to a PCR test location. With my 12-hour jet lag – the maximum possible, the difficult acoustics, and the impromptu questions, I initially did not feel at ease in the setting. However, the moderator Elia Locardi, an online acquaintance since the days of Google+ that I was delighted to meet in person, told me I’d done OK and Xposure included me in that video recap:

I was glad to have come as visiting the festival provided me with another measure of the UAE’s achievement. Cities, however impressive they are, can be difficult to definitively compare because each of them is so individual. On the other hand, I’ve been to many photography festivals and fairs, and Xposure was definitively at a scale above anything I’d seen. The photography exhibition consisted of several dozen booths, most of them dedicated to a single photographer. Each of the booths was in itself an exhibit comparable to those put up by best galleries anywhere, with several dozen prints of average print size maybe 30×45 inches (often more), all impeccably lighted and framed. They even recreated a landscaped jungle environment around an exhibit of primate portraits by Mogens Trolle. There were extensive retrospectives by photographers like Steve McCurry, David Doubilet, or James Natchwey. Like at so many locations on that trip, I could have easily spent the day.

Visiting Xposure drove home the point that in the UAE, they dream of big things and make them happen. Standing in the futuristic city, it is amazing to think that less than a century ago, people there still lived in tents. Some will cite easy oil money, but oil currently represents less than 5% of Dubai’s economy. Vision and embrace of the future has to count for something.

My day of touring Dubai was on what was initially supposed to be my “rest day” from air travel – a 16-hour direct flight from San Francisco. It was such a whirlwind tour because visiting the city was not my reason for traveling half-across the globe from California to Dubai, but yet because of the pandemic, it didn’t feel right to extend my stay beyond “essential travel”. In the next post, we’ll come closer to what brought me to Dubai. Stay tuned!

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