Friday, June 26, 2009

Walk Your Bike

Here in DC we're fortunate to have several excellent blogs devoted to bicycling as transportation. This might sound like a pretty geeky subject, but the ultimate goal is far-reaching: to make the nation's urban and suburban areas more people-friendly by designing for "active transportation" -- a category that ranges from kids (or adults) on skateboards to cyclists to pedestrians of every type. If you've stepped outside of a car lately you may have noticed: A lot of places are only friendly to autos. It's no wonder Americans drive everywhere.

Thanks to a confluence of factors -- gas prices, environmental awareness, enlightened urban planning, even stimulus money -- a lot of people feel we've reached a critical mass on this subject. Blogs like The WashCycle and the DC Bicycle Transportation Examiner do a great job tracking developments. And they're fun reading besides, particularly for someone who often gets around by bicycle.

The first blog, sponsored by the Washington Area Bicyclists Association, provides detailed coverage of transportation and bike planning in the region. The second, by Adam Voiland, is a bit more personal, and wide-ranging. A former reporter for U.S. News and World Report, Adam (whom I've never met) will summarize complex health studies on air pollution and biking, then go on to feature pieces of local bike culture. His "Politicycle" analyses of politicians' records on cycling are a lot of fun. Who would've guessed that New York Sen. Charles Schumer, riding a $75 department store bike, would outscore DC Mayor Adrian Fenty, a triathlete with a $4,000 rig? (On second thought, maybe that's not so surprising.)

Yesterday Adam noted the increasing number of "Walk Your Bike" and similar signs around the DC area. I'd taken photos of a bunch of these signs on a long ride back from a photo assignment a few weeks ago, and turned the still images into a YouTube movie. Adam used it on his blog. You can read the blog, and see the movie (all of 30 seconds), by clicking on the image below.

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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Farewell to the Bald Guy

"The Bald Guy" — that's how my sons refer to Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, whom I've been assigned to photograph often over the last 2 1/2 years, first in relative obscurity, then in anything but (see "Page 1" from this past fall).

Economists and politicians will debate whether Mr. Paulson responded appropriately to the economy's sudden unraveling, though he certainly moved quickly and modified his views on the free market in the process. But I can say for certain his range of facial expressions was well-suited to a time of economic crisis.

Yesterday, probably the last time I'll photograph Mr. Paulson as Treasury secretary, he was speaking not about troubled assets and frozen credit but about climate change. That's only the second time I remember hearing a cabinet-level Bush administration official talk on the subject. (The other time the secretary of the interior, Dirk Kempthorne, was discussing the decision to list polar bears as threatened because polar ice is melting - but he insisted there is no causal link between the melting ice and CO2 emissions in the lower 48 states. I found this a little hard to follow.)

So it might seem an odd subject for Time magazine's runner-up as Person of the Year to give a valedictory on. But not for Mr. Paulson - a dedicated birder, his enviro credentials include chairing the board of the Nature Conservancy and leading Goldman Sachs (where he was chairman before moving to Treasury) to take environmental positions that are well ahead of most businesses, and certainly ahead of the administration he's served.

Yesterday Mr. Paulson refused to be drawn into any criticism of the administration's record on climate change, joking he'd made it 2 1/2 years without going off-message and that he was not about to derail with only eight days left. So here's hoping the "Bald Guy" does well in his next gig, hopefully one where he can speak his mind more freely.

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Fuel Efficient, Low Emissions

A few days ago I had an assignment to photograph the three American auto-industry CEOs at the Capitol. This was their second trip — the one where they left the corporate jets at home — and so they also thought to bring along some electric car prototypes, of the type they might manufacture if the companies are still around in the coming years.

The cars were interesting and I took a few photos. They'd even charged one up using a wind-powered generator that's by the Capitol at the U.S. Botanic Gardens. Still, none of these cars are for sale anytime soon, and at the end of the day I left on my own fuel-efficient, low-emissions (depending on what I had for lunch) vehicle. Thanks to Roger L. Wollenberg, chief photographer at United Press International, for the photo.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

New Wheels

I came downtown early this morning to photograph the Fed chairman as he arrived for work. That's not news - I suppose Mr. Bernanke shows up for work most days - but the way I got here was new.

DC is now the first city in this country to have self-service public bike rentals. Called "Smartbikes," there are racks of the bikes set up around downtown. You go to a rack, wave your electronic Smartbike card, and the machine releases a bike for you. You're supposed to return it to any of the Smartbike racks within three hours.

The cost of this? A whole year of unlimited rentals for only $40. (You order the Smartbike card at

I've had my card for several weeks and been dying to use it, but this morning was my first chance. I rode the Metro to the Farragut North subway stop, went up to street level and checked out a bike, riding it to the Federal Reserve building. The bikes are well-suited for downtown biking - comfortable, upright position, a holder for briefcases or purses or whatever (though my photo backpack didn't fit), automatic lights, chain guard to prevent grease on pants or skirts, mud guard, etc. Very comfortable and they handle surprisingly well for a three-speed.

By this afternoon I've used the bikes for three trips around downtown, with one or two more coming up shortly. The only downside is you have to bring your own helmet, and if you need to park away from one of the racks, your own lock. That should become less of an issue if, as promised, more and more Smartbike racks are installed around the city.

And what a great way to get around on a day like this. Right now I'm sitting in a Cosi, having filed my photos, snacking and using the free WiFi. Out one window is a Metro entrance. Outside the door is a Smartbike rack.

I think I've found my new downtown office.

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Monday, July 28, 2008

In the woods, downtown

Occasionally we fantasize about moving to a place where the outdoors is closer and the snow guaranteed. But the truth is that Washington has amazing access to all sorts of outdoors possibilities. Take Mather Gorge in Great Falls Park - just 10-15 minutes from the Beltway, but it offers a spectacular vista, challenging hiking, some mountain biking, Olympic-class kayaking, and lots and lots of rock-climbing.

So when a magazine this month asked for a cover shoot of two staffers who work for a nonprofit that deals with conservation issues, it made sense to do it somewhere other than the nonprofit's Crystal City offices. Rachel, one of my two subjects, mentioned the group is involved with deforestation, and said she lives in Dupont Circle, right by the heart of downtown DC.

Bingo - that's also a couple of blocks from Rock Creek Park, a giant green swath of national parkland that cuts through DC. A short walk and she and her colleague Vinnie had left the city and were seated on a log in a lovely piece of woods. The trail was a little steep for Rachel's platform shoes, but the photos looked great.

Now, if we could just do something about the lack of snow around here...

Update: Outside magazine's August issues lists its picks of "The 20 Best Towns in America." Coming in at #1: Washington, DC. I wonder who "outed" us?

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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Visual borrowing

Recently I had the chance to talk with photographer Bert Stephani, based in Belgium. Bert has become something of a YouTube star, posting videos of his working methods on the video-sharing service. His father criticized him for this, complaining his son was giving away his secrets! (You can search for Bert by name on YouTube, or see his site at

In any case, before talking with him I needed to check out a couple of the videos. And like any working photographer, I'm always looking for ideas to "borrow" - whether from other photographers, painters, designers, or just about any other type of artist that may give me a different approach to use on the next assignment.

Bert photographs people outdoors, with a simple strobe on a stand, the background often a dark tunnel or passage that puts a splash of color or light behind his subject. That was the perfect approach today when I needed to photograph environmentalist Dan Becker in the yard of his Chevy Chase home. For an environmentalist I wanted green. The shady passage by the side of Dan's house made the ideal background. And traveling by bike (appropriate when photographing an environmentalist!), I was using a single, small strobe.
Thanks for the help on this, Bert!!

By the way, Bert's work is typical of what you could call the "light(weight) light movement" - photographers who are doing sophisticated location lighting using simple lightweight strobes. Perhaps the dean of this movement is known as The Strobist, It's an appealing approach for me, a photographer who often gets around by bicycle - and who recently had a bunch of equipment (including a big monolight) stolen!

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