Sunday, April 26, 2009

Flower power

With bouts of summer heat and winter cold covering the valley Alice and I decided on a hike at the Morgan territory to see if we could catch a glimpse of spring wild flowers on the hills.

Cold winds greeted our arrival as we headed out on the Coyote trail. The sparse rains has left the once lush emerald green covered rocks and trees bare as we made our way along the trail.

Wild flowers in hues of blue and purple sprouted up along the trail along with flashes of yellow and green. Leaves have not withered yet and they stood out backlit by the occasional shafts of light breaking through the canyon.

We are hoping to see more color in the Diablo area hills before we head to the coast for our hikes to beat the summer heat.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Air power

The Tracy Municipal Airport celebrated 80 years of aviation today with a party and fly in at the airport just south of the city. A variety of airplanes were from jets to hang gliders were on hand for static display and rides. Here are some of the highlights.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A moment of grief

Some stories don’t have a happy ending. Some assignments you wish never happened. For those of us who had covered the Sandra Cantu story from the first day she was reported missing we had one last assignment for closure.

Plans for a public memorial for Sandra Cantu had been in the works for almost a week. Her service was to be held at the west High school gymnasium. A few weeks earlier I had photographed the memorial service for a Marine that was killed in Afghanistan there. But this was different. This was the funeral service for an 8-year-old girl. Kidnapped, raped and murdered this would be the town’s final goodbye to Sandra.

With the state wide and national media attention the story has been given a crush of media were expected to be at the memorial service. To keep the event respectful for the family it was decided the media inside the gym would work as pool coverage. Three video cameras and three still photographers would be the only cameras allowed in and would supply video and still images to any press who requested. Many newspapers requested to be one of the three pool photographers. It was finally decided that based on the amount of news coverage that the three papers would be the Stockton record, The Sacramento bee and the Tracy Press. Each pool photographer was given a single location and select responsibility of coverage. My spot was simply described as Tracy Press-back wall. My shooting location was to photograph the family in their moment of grief.

The choice to give me a pool photographer position was not a popular one. Other papers, larger papers felt they were more capable of covering the memorial service. They did not understand why a small 2-day-a week newspaper was being given what they considered the most important shooting position. I was told more than once that people were taking a chance on placing me there and I had to produce. The instructions were pretty simple, produce images and don’t f___k up the assignment. No pressure at all. It’s just the biggest assignment of your career and the biggest story you have covered.

So you might wonder why I would want or fight for the right to photograph a little girl’s funeral service. Honestly on one hand I dreaded the assignment the moment I heard there would be a public memorial. How could anyone want to go to a funeral, let alone bring a camera? On the other hand it is the biggest story I have worked on and from that first Saturday morning search to the announcement of her death I had worked every day on the story. I felt I had given enough to see the story through to the end. And even as important this is my town; Sandra was a member of my community. For those who may felt this was just a story those in Tracy could feel the loss. We went to bed with it, we woke up with it. It occupied most of our thoughts. I had to see the story through to the end.

I will tell you this was hard assignment. Not hard as in technical skill required as some thought but hard on the heart. I have photographed my fair share of grief and sorrow, too much lately it seems. From candlelight vigils to military funerals I have seen too much suffering and it never, never gets any easier to watch. My shooting position at Sandra’s memorial gave me a clear view of the parents. My sole mission was to capture images of the family as they grieved their murdered daughter.

The memorial service was scheduled to last about an hour. I would watch Sandra’s mother Maria Chavez and father Daniel Cantu for an hour as they cried along with other family members. I was at a discrete distance from the family, shooting with medium and long telephoto lenses. I can’t blend into the scenery as I photograph so I work as quietly as I can. Most of the crowd around me was police and school district officials so it was a little easier to shoot than having strangers around. But even then I could still hear the quiet sobs of audience members all around me.

There was a great deal of pressure to produce pictures fast. I was asked to get something of the family members reacting to the services quickly. I shot for about 10 minutes and rushed a memory card of a few dozen images to a waiting Associated Press photographer who began transmitting photos while the service was still happening. I returned to the service and kept shooting looking for just the right moment.

It can weigh on you just sitting there watching someone cry for an hour. You can’t look away, you can’t express your condolences to the family, and you can’t do anything but press the shutter release as they sob. At times I would pause and take a deep breath as things got sad. Rule number one is show no emotion, be professional. As the tears fell I watched as the family members leaned on one another in their sadness. Things got sadder as they played the song “Somewhere Out There” which had become the anthem during the search for the girl.

And then with a short video and more tears the service was over. Family members filed out of the gymnasium and then the crowd left to heal their wounds from the past weeks. I was too stressed and too busy to feel the full impact of the memorial service. I think I will feel this loss sometime soon. It’s time for our town to heal after its loss and breathe again. The memorial was closure for me; the main part of this tragic story has come to an end. Sometime soon I will have a moment of grief and mourn the loss of a little girl I never met but like so many others have come to know. Rest in peace Sandra.

Blast from the past

This was one of those assignments that just wouldn’t end. A vintage steam locomotive was due to pass through Tracy on its way from Oakland to Stockton. What was supposed to be a quick half hour assignment turned into an almost three-hour-wait.

The Union Pacific 844 steam locomotive on the western Heritage tour was scheduled to arrive in Stockton at about 11:00 am. Arriving at the ACE train station on Linne Road I met several railroad enthusiasts who gathered to get a glimpse of the last steam train built for Union Pacific.

Delays pushed the train’s arrival in Tracy back time and again. 11:00 am passed and the heat grew as the crowd found shelter in the ACE platform shade. Finally word came the train was at the Vasco road station and was due in Tracy within an hour.

Nearing 1:00 pm we saw our first glimpse of the train with a headlight in the distance on the track. I leveled a 70-20 mm with a 1.4 extender and got the train heading into town. As it neared the ACE station I switched to a 16-35mm lens and crouched close to the tracks. I think I was a little too close as I could feel the rush of air as the train barreled by without stopping on its way to Stockton. It was worth the wait to watch a piece of history pass by.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The joys of spring

The weather turned foul today as I made my way across town shooting sports. The West High baseball game was halted for a few minutes when the sideways rain turned to hail.

Driving home to grab a rain jacket I found a tree branch snapped by the high winds on Holly Drive.

And for those who forget a rain jacket a plastic bag makes due in a pinch during the rain.

Hot times

I heard a call of police and fire crews closing the roadway off at Lincoln Blvd and Duncan Drive this morning so I thought I would roll by and see what was up. Arriving on the scene I found the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s bomb squad getting ready to blow up a hang grenade found in a vacant home. A small stockpile of old gunpowder and black powders had to be destroyed as well. Not very loud explosions but the fire made for some pretty pictures.

6th Street sunrise

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Heavenly view

It had been about a month since Alice and I hit the trail and we were both itching to get out and hike. We pondered what would be a good Saturday adventure and then settled on a hike we had been thinking about tackling. We planned to return to the rugged slopes of Mount Diablo State Park for a trip to the top of Mount Olympia.

There are five major peaks in Mount Diablo, the Summit, North Peak, Eagle Peak, Twin peaks and Mount Olympia. We had scaled all of them with the exception of Mount Olympia. It stands just under 3,000 feet high with a narrow one-man-wide trail guarded by think brush and poison oak. Our hike would start from a trailhead just off Marsh Creek Road so we were looking at a climb of just about 2,400 feet to reach the top.

This would turn out to be one of our more difficult hikes. The narrow trail of dirt and loose gravel wound steadily up the slope at a fairly steep angle. We had to watch our footing and the patches of poison oak that grew along side and across the trail. The scenery was what I have come to know from Diablo, jagged rocks straining to reach skyward from grassland and brush.

We walked for some time as the trail lead us to the base of the mountain where we got our first glimpse of the mountain. Jutting up before us on the Olympia trail it looked like a massive wall before us. Spring wildflower dotted the trail as we began our climb up Olympia.

The path up was strenuous to say the least. The trail dropped off steeply beside us as we trudged up the dirt trail. We reached a small plateau where we could finally see the summit with its marker. Storm clouds rolled above us as we watched them cast shadows on the valley down below.

With one final push we reached the top and were rewarded with a gorgeous 360-degree view of the park and communities neighboring the park. North Peak loomed next to us across a small saddle gap while the Summit and Eagle Peak stood off in the distance. At 2,946 feet the view was spectacular as we took turn taking each other’s picture at the summit marker. A few poppies growing among the rocks were our last photo opportunities.

With a steep descent we packed our camera gear away as we made our way down the trail in case of a fall. We picked a less poison oak infested loop to rejoin the trail to the road as we finished our 7-hour hike. It was a long hike but those views from atop Olympia were well worth the effort.