Documentary Photography

Scenes from my St. Louis catalog

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I was in St. Louis a week ago for a family visit. I did not get a chance to explore the city like I normally do.

Still, I was inspired to dig up some of my pictures that I took between 2105 and late mid-2017. They show the city as it is.

The areas include the neighborhood surrounding the SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital, the Fox Park Neighborhood, and South Broadway, near the Annheuser-Busch factory. It remains one of the most interesting cities I know to explore block by block.

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South St. Louis County on a clear fall day

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Normally when I visit St. Louis, I spend part of my time exploring hidden neighborhoods that I know little about or where the city’s history, glory, and struggles are on full display. During the recent Thanksgiving holiday, I found myself travelling to communities I barely knew, located southwest of the city.

I drove along the corridor that parallels the River Des Peres, which long ago was turned into a partially buried and open air wastewater and sewage system that frequently floods. My route passed through the communities of Maplewood and then Shrewsbury, which border southwest St. Louis. It is a landscape dominated by this so-called “river” system, a major rail corridor, and industry. The presence of retail outlets like Dollar Tree, Shop ‘n Save, and Wal-Mart reveal the income levels of those who live nearby. You will not find a Whole Foods or Starbucks or trendy coffee shop in this area. In fact, those who are affluent can live their whole lives in St. Louis and never come through here.

While taking some photographs at the end of a sunny day, I noticed a massive church tower in the distance and drove to it to investigate, because in St. Louis and the surrounding area, you will find some of the most amazing religious buildings anywhere in the United States. To my surprise, I discovered the Kenrick Glennon Seminary of the St. Louis Archdiocese, located in Shrewsbury. It is an enormous educational and religious facility, with a single-facility complex larger than any other university in the St. Louis area (a place that boasts many universities).

The seminary, with its brick and institutional design, resembled architecture I associate with public hospitals and mental institutions built in the 1920s and 1930s across the United States. Construction began during the Depression, in 1931. It also has an air of grandeur and confidence, built when the archdiocese could afford to invest the capital to train its future clergy. The seminary recently made news for a fundraising effort, signalling possible financial troubles keeping the massive facility afloat. According to press reports, only 133 seminarians train here, also signalling the church’s facility likely will need to find future uses.

 

Ostia Antica, Rome’s working port city

 

 

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Despite my misgivings about social media these days, I find it is one of the finest places to learn about ancient history and archaeology. I am now following multiple websites that showcase the civilizations of the Mediterranean from about 2,000 BC onward, particularly Rome. One of my favorites, run by Carole Raddato, covers the world of the Roman Empire in the era of Hadrian. On it, you can explore Roman life, history, and historic ruins, which can be found in Asia, Africa, and Europe.

These websites have inspired me to dig up some of my photos I took in 2006 of the ancient port city of Roman called Ostia Antica. I never published these as a series until now.

The city dates from 620 BC, lying at the mouth of the Tiber River. It was once a vital port, supplying critical goods like wheat to the mighty city of Rome. Today, it is a beloved archaeological treasure, a short trip from modern Rome by subway. It is well documented in travel guides, such as those published by Lonely Planet and Rick Steves. If you want to really work up an appetite for a trip, see this drone footage from the regional tourist agency.

I recommend using the links I just referenced to learn about its past and take a walking tour of the great Roman ruins there, reportedly the finest in Italy outside of Pompeii. You will find remnants of a great bathhouse, apartments, the market of the guilds, public bathrooms, tombs, and more. Mosaics are still intact that capture startling realistic renditions of the natural world and charismatic fauna like tigers, bears, and dolphins.

The city is referenced in the HBO miniseries Rome, which is well worth watching to catch a surprisingly accurate view of life in the once mighty empire at the time of Julius Caesar. If you do go to Rome, by all means put this on your list. Of all of the Roman ruins I have seen on three continents, it is among the best to give one a feeling for the lives of ordinary people in a working city more than 2,000 years ago.

What city is this that rises like the River Nile

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I just visited Seattle for the first time in about a year, and I came away disoriented by the massive developments underway on the south end of Lake Union.

If you are not familiar with this location, Amazon.com has its world headquarters located here, without any identifiable corporate identifier telling you that you are in the center of its global and growing empire. Multi-billionaire, real-estate mogul, and Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul Allen was the big bucks developer who brought his personal vision of a techie, corporate Seattle to this once under-developed area of warehouses and retail.

My alma mater, the University of Washington, itself a corporate institution that is focused on real-estate acquisition and business partnerships, has developed the UW at South Lake Union complex here to promote biotechnology and medical research, with a vision of developing profitable revenue streams. One of its new buildings is well under construction too, as seen in the photo essay.

Good, Bad, or Unknown?

I left Seattle in 2014. Since that time, construction has taken off even more intensely in this area. The success of Amazon has also fueled the city’s runaway and skyrocketing housing costs. These also have driven many lower-income and now middle-income residents outside of the city, which some say is a larger reflection of growing income inequality. That is one reason I left.

The Stranger, the city’s alternative weekly, noted in April 2017 that the tech bubble is not the only driver—out-of-state and out-of-country investors, including hedge fund dollars and Chinese-source foreign capital, are helping to fuel real-estate speculation. “We do know that 38 [percent] of purchases in Seattle real estate are done with cash, which is a red flag suggesting something is out of whack,” reports The Stranger.

However, Amazon is having an outsized role in the rapid changes underway. In its Aug. 23, 2017 piece, “Thanks to Amazon, Seattle is now America’s biggest company town,” the Seattle Times described Amazon’s role in Seattle this way: “Amazon so dominates Seattle that it has as much office space as the city’s next 40 biggest employers combined. And the growth continues: Amazon’s Seattle footprint of 8.1 million square feet is expected to soar to more than 12 million square feet within five years.”

Fisher Auto Body Plant

The once state of the art Fisher Auto Body Plant in Detroit is now a crumbling ruin.

Historic Parallels? 

Seeing the multiple building cranes and stacks of bland, new office towers in the South Lake Union area reminded me of the golden age of Detroit, my home city. Motown is now the poster child for urban failure in the minds of many planners in the United States and even internationally. From a peak population of nearly 1.8 million in 1950 and once the epicenter of the nation’s manufacturing sector, it entered into a long downward spiral in the 1960s and never recovered. It is now a shell of its former greatness, struggling to reinvent itself in a post-industrial, post-NAFTA world.

So, Seattle, plan well and know the party cannot last forever. All great things reach an apogee. Some great beacons of power and commerce collapse quickly, and others slowly. Rome or Beijing or Istanbul may be eternal cities, but their mighty and powerful empires came and went.

(Note from Author: Yes, the title of this article is a play on words from the Bible, from Jeremiah; I could not resist, and I am not a member of any religious denomination.)

Remembering my travels in Turkey, in and around Adana.

 

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Today I read another wonderful post about the Roman Emperor Hadrian’s travels in south central Turkey, near Tarsus, by Carole Raddato, a German-based ancient historian, classicist, and travel writer.

Her Following Hadrian website is one my favorites because it combines travel with history, archaeology, excellent photography, and creative scholarship. Like Raddato, I am a student of historic civilizations, including the Roman Empire.

Raddato’s descriptions of Hadrian’s journey near Tarsus, a historic city from the Hellenic period onward and the birthplace of the Apostle Paul, brought back memories of my own journeys to Tarsus, Adana, and historic Armenian communities in 2001.

Here are a couple of photos from my stopover in Adana.

One shows the Sanbanci Merkez Camii (mosque) at sunset. When this picture was taken in 2001, this mosque in Adana was Asia’s second largest. The other photos shows the ruins of  the fortress of Sis in the old Kingdom of Cilicia, a stronghold of the Armenian people in Anatolia that was conquered by the Egyptian Mamelukes in 1375. That conquest, like many others, was not kind to those killed and captured. The fortress is located in modern-day Kozan, about a two-hour local bus ride from Adana.

(Note: This post was updated on Oct. 14, 2017, after I learned Carole Raddato’s surname.)

The wolves of Rome

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This week, various media agencies reported that the most iconic of all predators, the wolf, had returned to areas surrounding the ancient and still great city of Rome.

Two wolf pups were photographed frolicking in a reserve area for birds. For centuries, the predators were hunted to near extinction in Italy. The iconic predator also is celebrated in Italy’s history in the myth of Rome’s founding.

Capitoline Wolf statue, Sienna, Italy

The Romans credited the creation of their city to the kindness of a mother she-wolf, who nursed the infants Romulus and Remus, who had been left to die in the wild. According to the legend, the pair would go on to establish Rome. The wolf also is celebrated in many other cultures, through art, myth, and folklore.

Rome’s founding story is celebrated in statues called the Capitoline Wolf, first erected in Italy in the 11th and 12th centuries. I saw several such statues, in Sienna and Florence.

At the most basic level, Rome’s creation myth is literally connected to sucking the breast of a feared carnivore. The almost primal connection to something feared and revered is woven into Roman identity. For anyone familiar with that history, Rome went on to conquer and absorb all other cultures and civilizations surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, stretching from the highlands of England to the hot sands of modern-day Iraq to the Nile valley, as far south as southern Egypt.

I photographed these statues in 2006 during my travels in Italy, mainly because I feel a strong personal connection with wolves. I had some of the most memorable encounters with wolves in the wild in Alaska, when I lived there between 2004 and 2010.

During one spring mountain run, I met a wolf mom and her pups. They approached me, curious as pups are. Their mom whimpered, trying to signal them back to safety. She was a loving mother. Humans fear them because they have, I think, more dignity than us in many ways in how they care for each other.

 

 

A year of exploration and surfing on the Oregon coast

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Rudy Owens on the southern Oregon Coast, August 2017

A year ago this weekend, I became an Oregon surfer. I now feel confident enough to be in the lineup with every other surfer who shares my passion.

In September 2016, I bought a beginner board, the right wet suit, and other gear, and I began the long journey of mastering the art and sport of surfing by travelling from Portland to nearly all surfing spots on the Oregon Coast and even California and Washington.

The journey far exceeded all of my expectations.

I learned how to understand surf forecasting and paid close attention to the storm systems in the Pacific Ocean that control the weather from Alaska all the way down to the tip of Tierra del Fuego. I met people who shared my passion for the ocean and this highly alluring sport. Many of them have lived and surfed all over the world and country, and we all speak the language of surfing. Some are visitors, and others are residents who now call Oregon home. We all come together in the water, waiting for the wave, patiently sitting on our boards and scanning out for the next set rolling in.

I have learned how to read waves and practice the craft of positioning myself at the right place at the right time. In Oregon’s tough, stormy waters, this involves punching through feisty breaks that pound you as you try to reach to lineup in the water, where the waves give you that window of opportunity to tap their energy and capture moments of transcendence.

I have surfed during snowfalls and blinding rainstorms.

I have seen sea otters, harbor seals, humpback whales, and signs warning me of great white sharks that are common in these waters.

I have made new friends who love to wake up at crazy morning hours and meet at the ocean, just to capture the magic of the ocean in the morning, as the smell of saltwater fills your nostrils and the sound of the wares creates a feeling of calm in morning’s first light.

I have also learned how to ride waves during this time. When I started, I could barely get any. Now, when I go out, I can catch sometimes 20 or 30 rides, if the conditions are perfect or near perfect. Even on bad days, I am mastering the art of riding our very common cheeky waves. These can be fun.

Yesterday, on Sept. 16, 2017, I rode perhaps one of the best waves of my life. I started in the lineup at Seaside, near the rocky shore, and grabbed an overhead that took me almost 100 yards to the beach, riding its face and seeing the translucent water carry me on a pulse of energy. My grin grew wider with every second I was steering my 9-foot Stewart longboard.

Now, a year into this journey, I capture each outing with a surf diary, describing the ocean color and smells, currents, sets, wave patterns, colorful characters, my memorable experiences with wildlife and aquatic life, and my memories of the day. As a lifelong writer and journal writer, I can say this is perhaps the funnest journal I have ever kept.

 

The arch druids of North America: California’s redwoods

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In early August, I briefly visited northern California, coming south from Oregon on Highway 101. Though the goal of my trip was to explore surfing spots on the southern Oregon coast, I tacked onto my road trip a stop in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, outside of Crescent City, California.

The park is home to some of the remaining groves of redwoods left in the world. According to the state park’s website, the park “contains seven percent of all the old-growth redwoods left in the world.” The website also describes the reserve as “pure, primeval majesty.” I could not agree more.

The redwood species in the park (Sequoia sempervirens) can only be found in coastal ecological zones from southern Oregon to Monterey, California. These are the tallest standing trees on the planet.

Of course California transportation planners in their unbridled vanity plowed a road through the majestic forest, Highway 199, from Crescent City to Hiouchi. I drove that and parked my car to marvel at the ancient organisms that towered above me. There are natural trails found at a stop on this road, and they take a visitor on some lovely walking trails that capture the magic of a redwood forest ecosystem.

I had not felt so humbled by nature in a long time. I could almost feel the forest alive with some spirit force, even if that is not a sensory event grounded in empirical science.

If you visit, there are some camping sites off of Highway 101 and in the park itself, and in Hiouchi and the nearby national forest. Take some time here, unlike me. I only spent a few hours, but those were some of the best hours I spent in a long time. For those who want to try photography, a sturdy tripod is a necessity. All of these shots were at least one-second exposures.

Above all, enjoy your stay and respect the special place when you come.

Finding hidden treasures in St. Louis

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I love exploring St. Louis and its neighborhoods. Many are hurting, and my blog posts about the city’s struggles never hide that fact.

What I like the most about my journeys of discovery in St. Louis is taking side streets.

Without fail, I find new art work (check out the gargoyle on the factory corner), businesses, factories, and sadly buildings and homes in decay and various stages of abandonment. The old Columbia Iron Works facility, which I photographed, is a symbol of the changing economy from manufacturing to information and health care, which do not produce any goods or good blue-collar jobs. A health care foundation was reportedly moving into the abandoned factory site.

Outside of distressed areas, one can find breathtaking works of architecture and homes that would fetch a fortune in “hot” real-estate market cities like Washington, DC, or San Francisco.

On an upbeat note, St. Louis remains a beautiful, historic place. Here are some of the homes, local businesses, artwork, and surprises I found driving through Forest Park East, Botanical Heights, Shaw, Tower Grove East, and Dutchtown neighborhoods.

St. Louis is a city worth discovering, even if you have lived there for decades.

Happy 150th Birthday, Canada

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To all of my Canadian neighbors to the north, I wish all of you a very warm happy birthday.

Canada is more than just a neighbor to me and my country. It is my former employer. I worked for more than eight years with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (now called Global Affairs Canada). I served “queen and country” (the head of state is the Queen of England, FYI) at the Consulate General of Canada Seattle and the Consulate of Canada Anchorage, which has now closed.

In my work as a political affairs and information officer, I helped to promote Canada’s foreign policy and trade activities in the United States. The two countries, during my employment, were the world’s largest trading partners. They share the longest un-militarized border in the world. Canadian men and women serve side by side with American men and women in joint military activities. In Anchorage, where I worked, Canadian Air Force personnel served on AWACs planes that were deployed in the arctic to monitor for Russian military incursions and other possible threats. The list of our common interests could run pages.

I also had the good fortune of traveling widely in Canada. I visit the Yukon Territory, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Alberta, Ontario, and Quebec. I loved every province and territory and have wonderful memories, even during my winter trips.

I learned to appreciate the “Canadian way” of governing. They have managed to create a single-payer healthcare system, started in 1966 through the Medical Care Act, that makes America’s overpriced and inefficient system look like the failed system that all data show it is. They do not allow the mass sale and widespread distribution of firearms (Canada has a national gun registry), like their American neighbors. Canada has affordable and world-class universities that enable their lower- and middle-class youth to climb ladders to success, compared to their debt-burdened student counterparts south of the border. I could go on how they do it right.

So while not every Canadian may be happy today, including many First Nations residents who see independence as a reminder of lost rights and colonialism, I think most of us can share in the happiness that comes with 150 years of providing the world with a model how to co-exist and lead in an era of conflict. Bon anniversaire, amis!