Old Shoe, New Shoe – Two years with the LOWA Innox Pro GTX Low

17 September 2022

I don’t normally strive to review every product that comes into my life, but once in a while I want to spread the word about a great the experience I have had with a product. Much like keeping one’s mouth shut if one doesn’t have anything nice to say, I only review products that have impressed me, for the most part.

Exactly two years to the week since I began wearing a pair of LOWA Innox Pro GTX Low-rise all-terrain shoes, I am the proud owner of a brand new pair once again. That should tell you most of what I am about to say regarding the two years I have spent with them.

I have odd feet. Yes, odd feet. They are big, flat and one of them underwent considerable reconstruction back when I was a teenager. My toes are also angled outward due to pronation. Thus, the shape of shoes which are designed to fit ‘normal’ feet often will not conform to my oddly-shaped feet. So, the answer is to pick out shoes which are supportive, yet somewhat malleable and which will eventually adjust to their accommodate their inhabitants.

LOWA is a hundred-year-old company of Austrian origin that today claims to produce nearly 3 million pairs of shoes each year and to be the market leader in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. LOWA’s manufacturing is still entirely done in Europe and many of their signature products – serious hiking and mountaineering boots used by serious adventurers – have been in continuous production for more than two decades. They apparently have a strong reputation. I now understand why.

These particular shoes are used by me as every day, all-purpose footwear. Most of the time they are helping me navigate the streets of Irish towns, but they also go deep into the woods, across boggy peatlands, and up granite mountainsides on a regular basis. They are also right at home on the big platform pedals of my mountain bike – the soles have just the right amount of rigidity to properly support my feet on an hours-long ride.

"Don't be cold, show me your sole" - As new and after two years of hard use

Two years of nearly day-to-day use has definitely shown effect, but the shoes have not failed in any way. They are still entirely waterproof. There are no tears in the fabric at any point, all of the stitching is still in place, the shoe laces are still original, the insoles – while smashed flat and nearly devoid of the print that originally graced them – are still in one piece and not worn through. The soles, while compressed and obviously worn in places, are still in fairly good shape. Overall, though they are definitely worn, I estimate that I will probably get another year out of them if I relegate them largely to MTB and ‘really crap weather only’ use.

So, all in all, I am impressed. LOWA shoes may not be cheap, but on a cost-per-use basis, I think they are a great value. Totally recommended.

Bite and Sting – The risk of ticks vs the myth of scorpions and other venomous critters

27 August 2022

People often talk about the risks of living in a place like Arizona (or Australia) because of the dangerous, venomous creatures that also live there. Arizona is home to a bunch of venomous critters including scorpions, black widow spiders, and rattlesnakes among others. Interestingly, throughout my life of living in the midst of such an array of living things with such high level of perceived danger associated with them, the only serious injuries I ever heard about were due to people handling snakes. There were no certainly no deaths in my family or among acquaintances due to venomous creatures. Yeah, it’s true that if you live in a scorpion-heavy area, you should shake out your shoes and not put your hands anyplace you cannot see clearly into, but if you do get stung you’re still not likely to die from it.

"I'm just misunderstood"  -Bark scorpion under UV light - Photo by Shana Heeg

In reality, ticks are far more likely to cause significant harm to humans without even noticing them in the act. I’ve just watched photographer Thomas Heaton walk around in Scotland wearing a midge net on his head. At the same time he was constantly talking about why it’s such a pain being out in the sticks of the UK as a landscape photographer. He wasn’t just referring to the midges, it was ticks that really concerned him. I knew exactly what he meant because it’s the same in Ireland. Ticks are quite widespread – just about anywhere you can find deer or sheep you’ll find ticks. Braving ticks, unlike the annoying midges, is a real concern because of Lyme disease.

Coming from Arizona, I hardly ever saw ticks growing up despite being outside and in remote places for much of that time. I lived in the desert and they just don’t hang out there, even when there is livestock around. On the other hand, since I have been living in Ireland, I have encountered loads of ticks. I now liberally apply DEET to my legs and socks whenever I go out into the woods or grasslands of Ireland because, almost invariably, I will encounter the little biting bastards.

Lyme disease is caused by Borrelia bacteria species carried and transferred by infected ticks. Deaths from Lyme disease are very rare, but cases are quite common. In the US alone, there are about 30,000 cases of Lyme disease reported each year according to the CDC. There are often long-lasting, secondary complications associated with Lyme disease. Mayo Clinic describes the most common of these as chronic joint inflammation (commonly called “Lyme arthritis”, particularly of the knee joint), facial palsy, neuropathy, cognitive impairment and irregular heart rhythm.

The next time someone tells you how dangerous the common black widow spider or bark scorpion is, ask them if they would have any issue walking through a sheep pasture. I’ll bet they never even mention the risk of ticks.

Inconsistent Output – Single subject photography vs eclecticism

17 July 2022

In the descriptions of the careers of prestigious photography award winners (a la Cartier-Bresson) or those who are recognized as the ‘greats’ of photography, I often see the words “consistent output”.

As a self-described ‘generalist’ photographer who has interests ranging across many different genres of the ‘art’, I wrestle with the concept of consistent output as an attribute of skill and/or mastery.

Wet Chicory - Probably not what I'm good at, but definitely of interest.

It’s true that most of us cannot be masters of everything, and within the vast range of subjects that may turn the eyes of those who want to capture images, that’s undoubtedly true. Amongst the most famous photographers, there are those who appear to have simply concentrated on portraiture or landscapes or abstracts for their entire careers. But that may not always be the case.

For example, Ansel Adams, who is known for his iconic landscapes printed with meticulous detail, also photographed people – and he did so with terrific skill, in my opinion. I dare say that most people don’t know that about Adams. Although I very much like his landscapes, his candid images of his close friend, Georgia O’Keeffe, are amongst my favorite portraits produced by anyone.

My feeling is that what we become known for – if we are ever able to be known at all – may be slightly outside of our control. That’s likely to raise eyebrows, but I do think that is the case. I took my first baby steps in photography looking at things in my everyday life in a very general way – snapshots of friends, my family’s pets, family members, cars, rockets, motorcycles, skateboards and places we visited when I was a kid. That last item, travel, was the one that by and large got me interested in landscape photography. I was interested in capturing not only look of places like Capitol Reef and Monument Valley, but also the feeling of being there. That’s not an easy thing to do, for sure, and it has been something that has driven my photographic growth in every possible way.

A bit more like it, perhaps, but maybe still not my main subject matter.

As time has gone on, and I have continued to take pictures and ruminate on subjects of all kinds, I have re-explored just about every element of my life at one time or another. While I'm still interested in landscape photography, I am also interested in the 'grit' of rundown urban areas and the little details which occupy my most mundane days. Some will argue that it's damaged my ability to have a particular style or artistic identity (whatever that is).

However, when I look at the images I have produced and I see them carefully selected and assembled in themed collections, such as I have done in my book, Connemara Mono, I find that it’s possible that I can continue to be interested in a variety of subject matter, capture media, and processing techniques, and still be quite capable of assembling a collection of consistent outputs that represent a particular idea or story. Critics will argue with me, I’m sure.

Right now, I’m loading up a couple of my cameras, grabbing my bicycle, and heading off down the road to photograph something or a collection of different somethings. Consistency be damned.

Water on the Brain – Population boom, climate change and the desert

9 July 2022

I was raised in the Phoenix metro area of Arizona. In 1970, the city of Phoenix had a population of ~600000 people. The population of Phoenix is now over 1.7 million. That number doesn’t account for the combined cities of the metropolitan area (Scottsdale, Tempe, Mesa, Chandler, Gilbert, etc.). If we look at the whole metro area, the population numbers are ~900000 for 1970 and 4.9 million for the current date. So, in 50 years, the metropolitan area population has expanded more than 5-fold and is on-track to exceed 5 million people very shortly.

The Valley of the Sun (VoS), where the Phoenix metropolitan area resides, was once home to a massive citrus and cotton farming machine. Today, it’s difficult to believe that was the case; almost all of the citrus groves and nearly all of the cotton fields are now gone. The outlying areas of the city – particularly those which are on the Native American reservations, still grow cotton and other crops, but by and large, farming has nearly ceased in comparison to historical highs. Most of the farmland has been paved and cleared to make way for urban development which continues to sprawl in every direction from the center of the VoS.

The VoS, like the rest of the southwestern United States, is currently experiencing a severe drought. The drought is the combined effect of a cyclic phenomenon that has historically hit the region (believed to have contributed to the disappearance of the sedentary Hohokam civilization centuries ago) periodically and the added amplification from global climate change. The massive amount of paving and concrete structures has also contributed to the “heat island effect” which creates a permanent high pressure atmospheric zone over the VoS.

Land that I love - the Sonoran desert just outside of Phoenix

I think about this a lot because I want to return to the region I love which is, specifically, the Sonoran Desert. Where will the masses who have, and continue to, flock to the VoS get their water and their power from in the future if there is nothing in the reservoirs, rivers and ground table? It’s the kind of question that literally keeps me awake at night.

Open desert just outside of Las Vegas

The man-made lakes and reservoirs of Arizona are running low and there is very little water in the southern-most end of the Colorado river. If you haven’t seen the news, Lake Mead, which is a source of both agricultural irrigation and drinking water as well as a source of electrical energy for Las Vegas and surrounding areas, is now less than 30% full. For the first time in the man-made lake’s nearly 100-year history, it may not be able to supply enough water to run the hydroelectric turbines which feed the air conditioners of the ‘Vegas region. It’s a code-red alarm that many don’t seem to be heeding.

To be continued.

Let's Go! – Back in the air and across borders once again

18 June 2022

After the necessary hiatus, I’m back in full-on travel mode.

At the beginning of the year (actually the end of 2021 and beginning of 2022), I was able to spend a month in my home country for the first time in a full two years. Freshly-boosted and with the power of on-demand PCR-based testing at my disposal, I braved the buses, the planes, and the potential for getting stuck somewhere due to governmental changes of policy to see my mom, some good friends, and to take in a bit of Arizona sun. It was practically therapeutic.

Settling Down for the Night – a pair of saguaros just outside of Scottsdale

Since all of that went much better than expected, I gained enough confidence to go ahead and continue looking for travel opportunities both as a vacationer and a delegate. So far, in the first six months of 2022, I’ve managed to escape Ireland’s confines three times and I’m really hoping it will continue into and through the latter half of the year.

Definitely not Kansas – on the Spanish Mediterranean coast

I’m keenly aware that many who read this will instantly see this as a betrayal of the environment and carbon conservation. Yes, I’m aware that flight is dirty business, but I live on an island – and a small-ish one, at that. Maybe after I get a little bit of the wanderlust under control, I won’t want to use any more of the carbon credits I’ve built up by being under quarantine. But, for the time being, I’m going to travel if I can. Life’s too short not to!

Deeply Looking – Mark Cousins’ journey through our human visual experience

17 April 2022

I didn’t know anything about author and film maker Mark Cousins when I purchased his book, The Story of Looking, in January of this year. Neither did I know that he also had a 1.5-hour documentary film released with the same title during 2021. I still have yet to read the last 30 pages or so of Cousins’ book, in fact, but I am putting this blog entry together anyway since I won’t have time to do it later on this week. I will aim to finish the last chapter tonight, however.

Untitled photo

What we see and how we see it, as humans, is complex. I already knew that from my own lifetime of observations and experiences. What I did not appreciate before reading Cousins’ book is how our perception and thought processes have changed – and also in some ways, remained the same – throughout time since we humans and our pre-human ancestors began to visualize the world around us.

Our perceptions are ever-changing and the changes are brought about by events and the inventions around us. Cousins meanders through centuries of visual-cultural human living in an artful way which is best absorbed in small increments to allow rumination on details. Cousins takes us back to the earliest visual experiences we all have, such as when we first see our parents or care-takers, and also back to a time before modern humans had invented so much of what we know today. He then works forward in time and stops to examine a wide variety of elements and concepts which shape how we visualize our world today. Our physical sight and the arrangement between baby and parent probably have not changed too much in the past couple hundred thousand (or more) years, but so much else has.

I buy books by picking them up, if the title and cover look interesting enough, and having a read of a few random pages at random points within. If I am absorbed, I usually buy the book. This one was no exception.

However, this was not a book I could not put down. In fact, I needed to put it down a lot because it stimulated so much thought as I was working my way through it that I often found it exhausting. No, it’s not deep philosophical narrative, but The Story of Looking is filled with content that got me thinking about my experiences with my visual world in a very deep way.

Well after I finish reading the last few pages, I am sure that this book will continue to resonate with me each time I see an image of Earth taken from afar or through some new tool or device. I will continue to appreciate the differences in understanding how the visual experience of being human is affected by each new development or event around us. Judging by the reviews I have seen of the film production, I am glad that I read the book and didn’t try to take away the many messages in it from the cinematic adaptation. I can’t imagine that I would have gotten as much out of it that way.

If I were teaching a photography class, I would use this book as a text book. I don’t think a book can get a much stronger recommendation from me than that. It’s well worth a read.

Playing Catch-Up Once More – Concepts and techniques

3 April 2022

The conflict at the eastern edge of Europe stopped me cold. It has left me with a combination of anger, fear, and guilt which have simultaneously acted to make me at once much less productive and much less willing to engage in conversation with those who are focused on the ‘who’s right’ and less on the tragedy and risk it has brought to this world. That’s the reason why I skipped over the rest of February and all of March and didn’t even attempt to put words into this blog space.

With that said, and despite no improvement in the situation I alluded to above, I will attempt to restore the course of the momentum (I thought) I had back at the end of January.

The first element of this blog entry is my rumination on the so-called portfolio image. I’m sure I’m not alone when I confess to watching far more YouTube than I should. The concept of the portfolio-worthy image keeps coming up in videos presented by a number of photographers.

At this point in my life and my photographic journey(s), I try to be selective about what I show to the world and also in my photographic habits. What’s interesting is that I have a bunch of images that I am very proud of that most others find dull/poorly executed/crap. At the same time, I have a bunch of images that I’m not too thrilled about that get a lot of attention. This paradox brings into question the concept of the portfolio image – presumably those images which are representative of my best and most indicative work. What are they, really?

Should I bother to curate my own images at all or leave that to others? The photo below is an example of an image that, while I like it and obviously captured it because I like the subject matter, doesn’t really strike me as 1) my best and 2) clearly indicative of my style (whatever that is…). However, people who view this image tend to really like it and I have gotten some serious feedback on it across a number of channels.

Galway Bay Hotel and an Ominous Sky

Does that mean my opinion really shouldn’t be trusted with respect to my own work? It’s something I’m going to explore in more detail as the year continues.

The other item up for consideration in this blog entry is resting on my laurels. It dawned on me yesterday while out on the streets of Galway that, most of the time, I pretty much use the same photographic techniques that I developed back in the days of film SLR photography.

I am a single-point focus, aperture priority sort of guy who is happy to use the center focus point on nearly all of my cameras all of the time and happy to use single-shot capture (as opposed to burst capture) for just about every subject. I can hear the sports and wildlife (and photojournalists) crying as I write this.

What got me to thinking about it was chasing ducks. Quite honestly, it took me several minutes of missing multiple shots of two fighting mallards for the brain cells to ‘click’ and tell me to switch on continuous autofocus and let the camera decide which points to lock onto. A few minutes later, I actually engaged burst mode.

Not Mallards – a pair of cormorants on Christmas Day

I think I need to mix up my techniques a bit more to keep my skills sharp and improving. It’s important to realize this and I’m happy that two mallards were able to get me to think about it in a deeper sense than just being told what I should do by photographic ‘expert’ X. We’ll see what I get up to next. Hopefully I can keep keep the number of blurry duck photos to a minimum going forward.

Right Place, Right Time – Being there is the key

5 February 2022

I suddenly have so much to write about that I just don’t know where to begin. We’ll see if that persists throughout the year ahead!

Since the beginning of the pandemic, I have been saturated with information in much the same way most of us have. It comes in through the airwaves – on our phones, computer screens and televisions. It has often been overwhelming, especially in combination with isolation.

I didn’t make any ‘resolutions’ for 2022, but I am making a conscious effort to breath in and breath out without screaming for the rest of the year. What profound negative energy the world brings to me, often against my will, is not what this short life is about (at least entirely). My goal for 2022 is to keep my mind in check against the tide of dark information and sadness which has held me pinned to the wall for the last two years. It's bad, indeed, but the world is not all bad, right?

Where am I going with this? We’ll start with this image:

Pact in Progress - Sony A7 and Samyang 45mm f/1.8

Serendipity; that’s what this image represents. I got this image, like a gift from some deity, just because I was there at that moment to observe this couple at the edge of the water. And I was really there, not just physically present.

The world had not changed around me – the pandemic was still there, the conflicts between nations were still there, climate, poverty, etc – at the moment I took this pic. In order to see this scene at all, I had to shut out the wall of negative energy – coming in on my phone, my computer and the radio (I don’t often watch television, actually) – just long enough to be receptive to something else, something more positive.

During the year ahead, I want this sort of opportunity to present itself more and I want to be ready to actually see and feel it when it happens. Work is work. Pain is pain. But neither of these things should be so overwhelming every single day that we cannot work around them well enough to have a life that matters.

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