A room with a view

January 4, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

The Malecon is a stretch of sea wall running from Old Havana, past the city centre, and out to the more  modern area of Miramar. It’s where Habaneros go to stroll, hang out, fish, or where young lovers go to share the moment.

My hotel, the Deauville, is a former mafia den right on the Malecon just west of Old Havana. It’s an out-of-place-looking building, a bit gaudy with its 1950s architecture, among its neo-colonial surroundings. And it has long balconies overlooking the Malecon.

I asked when I checked in for a room with a view, and I got one. It’s on the fifth floor, so not  too high up, but from my long corner balcony I can look down the Malecon towards Miramar, and also look the other way to the castle of Los Tres Reyes del Morro, a stone fortification across the water. And of course I can look out over the relatively calm waters of the Strait of Florida, just like the Habaneros who imagine relatives in Miami across the strait.

The flight down was relatively uneventful. I had two seats to spread out over, and though a little girl kept climbing up the seat back to interact with her father who had moved back to the third seat next to me, it was a tolerable flight. As it was from Montreal, the flight service was in French, just as I’m trying to think in Spanish.

The wait at customs and immigration was long and hot, but certainly nothing as bad as I’ve experienced in Miami and elsewhere. They scanned hand luggage coming in, which was a new one, and they photographed everyone. When the people at the scanner saw my cameras on the X-ray, they asked if I was a journalist. I assured them truthfully that I was not, and the cameras were for “uso personal,” which satisfied them. I don’t think a blogger with a very small following counts as a journalist.

It was a long taxi ride in from the airport, but I was able to chat with the driver in Spanish, and view all the billboards. Instead of ads for products, they were revolutionary slogans about the continuation of the revolution. Many were about “el bloqueo” — the U.S. embargo and the cost of it and damage it’s doing to Cuba. Pictures of Che Guevarra were abundant as a revolutionary symbol, but perhaps surprisingly, I saw few of Castro. You can’t judge a country’s infrastructure with just a trip from the airport, but first impressions were that Cuba is more developed than most other Latin American countries, but it’s definitely a third world country facing difficulties.

I was hot, exhausted and had a splitting headache, so only managed a stroll both ways on the Malecon and a walk around the hotel. As the sun set over Miramar at the end of the Malecon, but out of view behind buildings, I shot some time exposures of the traffic and lights of the Malecon from my room.

Your carrion weighs too much

January 3, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

I once saw a cartoon of a couple vultures at an airport clutching suitcases bulging with animal carcasses.

“Only the carrion,” one tells the woman at the check-in.

And so it was that I arrived at Dorval Airport (Now P.E. Trudeau Airport) with a carry-on bag loaded with camera gear and a netbook — stuff I don’t want to let out of my site as checked baggage.

I had read that airlines are pretty fussy about the size and dimensions of carry-on, but they don’t usually fuss about weight. Alas, I was asked to weigh it, and the woman told me I was a kilo over.

At the last minute I had squeezed a second pair of walking shoes into my carry-on, as that was the only place I could fit it. I now had to open my bags at the check-in and try to juggle contents to get the shoes into my checked luggage. I was flustered and sweating, but the woman told me take my time and not worry. Several times I thought I would have to leave the shoes behind, but at last I managed to zip the bag closed.

I’m now waiting to board for a flight that doesn’t leave for an hour and a half. So far, Dorval seems a less crazy airport than others — carry-on incident aside — and the worst part of the airport experience, security screening, was relatively painless.

I drove to Montreal last night and stayed at the Days Inn, not getting a lot of sleep. I’m too excited.

Now I just want to get into the air.

Take me to Havana

January 2, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Back in the 1960s, the first airplane hijackings started. Havana was a popular hijacking destination because there were no regular flights from the U.S. and because some people sought asylum in Cuba.

As a result, the phrase “Take me to Havana” entered popular language.

The irony is there were other hijackers in Cuba trying to go the other way, especially in later years. There was even an unsuccessful attempt to hijack a Havana harbour ferry to Miami. It never made it out of Cuban waters.

The U.S. embargo of Cuba has made travel between the two countries inconvenient at best, and at times almost impossible. Fortunately, for Canadians wanting to travel to Cuba, there have always existed other safter options.

Cuba is a popular vacation destination for Canadians (and Europeans), many of whom travel to Varadero or Cayo Coco for all-expenses included resort vacations on the beach and in the sun. Even many Americans vacation in Cuba illegally by going through Canada, Mexico or the Caribbean.

At times the U.S. hatred of Cuba has been visceral — especially among Miami’s Cuban expatriate community for whom Castro is worse than the devil. I’ve never quite understood why the U.S. was so rabidly anti-Cuba when it has been willing since the 1970s to make peace with the repressive regime in Communist China. I understand that many American properties — many controlled by the mafia — were confiscated by the Cubans after the revolution, but that was more than 50 years ago! Probably it has more to do with Cuba’s proximity to the U.S., and remnants of the Monroe Doctrine than with the nature of the Cuban regime itself.

While the embargo has hurt Cuba, and has only succeeded (ironically) in keeping the Castro brothers in power longer than ever, it has also kept Cuba from being globally homogenized like so many other parts of the world. The only McDonald’s in Cuba is at the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay.

I have long wanted to see Cuba for myself, though I find the idea of a resort vacation incredibly boring. The 1990s film Buena Vista Social Club, and other glimpses of Cuba have made me want to visit Havana — to see all the old 1950s classic cars, the Afro-Latin culture and music, and the relatively unspoiled colonial architecture.

And so, tomorrow I set out from Montreal on a chartered flight to Havana. I will be very careful though not to make any hijacking jokes.

Take me to Havana.

Changing seasons, changing perspectives

January 2, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

One of the things I especially like about the Ottawa area is the changing seasons. They offer lots of opportunities to photograph the same subject with sharply different seasonal moods.

I admit though that Ottawa has far too much winter, and not enough of the other seasons. Spring is short, and the tulips bloom for a week or two, and then you’re into the hot, humid summer. Autumn colours are spectacular, but they disappear as quickly as they appear, leaving the trees bare. And then there are months on end of cold, bleak, snowy winter.

This year there was little snow in November and December, and as I write this on January 2, the snow is almost gone after a bit of a warm spell. Still, there are several more months of winter, and if history is any guide, there will be lots of snow before it’s over. Ottawa never lacks humidity.

This year was a challenge for shooting winter scenes. I wanted to refresh my Christmas card shots of the Parliament buildings, but had to leave it until a couple weeks before Christmas for lack of snow. Even then, the snow was light.

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One of my favourite local places to shoot the changing seasons is the rapids at Blakeney, just west of Ottawa. Here the Mississippi River (no, not that Mississippi) tumbles over rocks and twists through forests. Setting my camera on a tripod, and using a slow shutter speed creates a smooth effect with the flowing water. Coloured autumn leaves, or ice on the shores create very different seasonal moods.

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It’s good to revisit the same locations and see how they change with the seasons. As I curse the seemingly endless Ottawa winters, I try to appreciate the variety of perspectives that our changing seasons bring.

My very brief career as a glamour photographer

November 21, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

There’s a lot to be said for shaking things up and photographing new kinds of subjects. So when one of my Flickr contacts announced that in late September there would be a model shoot in Gatineau, I decided to show up. The event was a fundraiser for the local SPCA, and was billed as a chance for local photographers to meet local models and shoot pictures on a boat.

I’ve had very little experience with this kind of photography. Many years ago I shot a couple rolls of film of a co-worker who had aspirations of being a model, but we did it outdoors entirely with available light. This time I wanted to get some practice shooting human subjects with my Nikon SB-900 flash unit and a diffuser.

It was a fairly informal event, and people were friendly. I chatted with a few of the models. One girl told me she tried to sign on with an agency, but they rejected her because of a cheek piercing. I was a bit surprised that in this day of Photoshop and many different fashion tastes that it would be an issue, but I guess the fashion business is pretty competitive and ruthless. All in all, there were about eight or nine models and a few more photographers — some who seemed to be fairly experienced.

Sometimes several photographers shot the same model or models at once, taking turns shooting, and announcing by counting down so that the models knew where to look. The models all seemed to be experienced, and were adept at changing their poses.

It’s definitely tougher than landscape photography, where you can take a lot of time to set up the shot. Here you have to work quickly, paying attention at the same time to the camera and its settings and also to directing or responding to the model. And the added dimension of flash complicated it more.

After taking a number of shots on the boat and outside it, we headed over to a nearby gym just as it was starting to rain. Here, it was even more challenging because of the tight indoor space and the presence of gym equipment and mirrors everywhere. The mirrors made for some interesting reflections, but it was a challenge to keep photographers and flashes out of the shots.

Together with another photographer, Graeme, we worked with two different models, Isabelle and then Jessica as they used the gym equipment. Sometimes male model, Yan, also posed with them. Graeme was great at coming up with posing ideas, and several times he loaned me his SB-800 so that I could get a few shots using multiple lights, which he helped me set up.

I don’t know that I’m ready to become a glamour photographer, but it was lots of fun and I learned a lot.

Model shoot for SPCA de l'Outaouais

Model shoot for SPCA de l'Outaouais

Model shoot for SPCA de l'Outaouais

Model shoot for SPCA de l'Outaouais

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