Archive for June 2010

The Great (Gum) Wall of Seattle

June 14, 2010

A typically colorful detail of Seattle’s Great Gum Wall

“Abby and Ethan, do you know what’s on that wall?”

Stepping closer, the kids say in unison:  “It’s gum!”  And they run up to it.

Mommy, panicked, shouts “Don’t touch that, it’s germy!”

This conversation and countless variations on it are repeated daily in grungy Post Alley, just below Seattle’s famous Pike Place Market.  The market has a huge sign over it that proclaims “Sanitary Market,” but the details of life around it are anything but sanitary, as the Great Gum Wall illustrates.

I first learned about the Great Gum Wall in a recent issue of National Geographic, where a two page photo spread showed the wall in all its 26 megapixel detail and glory. As a regional resident, I should have known about the wall earlier, but I’m usually out of the loop on Seattle pop culture, having just learned to appreciate Nirvana and Kurt Cobain nearly 20 years too late. Now I dress daily in Seattle grunge style which, come to think of it, also puts me nearly 20 years behind the times. But I’ll catch up; I’m considering a big nose ring, except during allergy season, and a fierce tatoo of a chickadee on the back of my shaved head!

Anyway, it seems that in the early 1990s, patrons of the Market Theatre in Post Alley started to stick their gum on the old brick wall while waiting in line to enter. The theatre first tried to clean it off, but gave up and the tradition stuck.  To the wall.  One gob led to another, and pretty soon tens of thousands of gum wads were deposited on the wall, spotting and dripping and smelling and reeking in all their wondrous glory.  I mean, what more can you say about a wall of pre-chewed gum?

Actually, TripAdvisor recently named the Great Gum Wall as one of the world’s five top germiest attractions–second behind the Blarney Stone.  For that reason alone it is worth jetting halfway around the world to see it; I recommend a stay at the nearby Four Seasons Seattle. Or, if you are on a budget, you can carry your sleeping bag over your shoulder and ask a photographer–as one young man, homeless in Seattle, recently asked me–”where can I take a nap?”

To answer the question starting to form in your mind, “Is Seattle still a yuppie Mecca?” Yup! The great gum wall is plastered with only the finest gum from the tooth-whitened mouths of sterling and sophisticated young men and women. Nothing but the best in this town, I say!

Box office for the theatre

Personally, I have never chewed gum, so I don’t have a reason to visit the Great Gum Wall again, since I can’t add to the “art.” Aside from that, the sight and stench made me gag.  But if you’ve got a strong stomach and are looking for something creative to do with the kids this weekend, they would love a visit to Seattle’s Great Gum Wall. Bring your antibacterial wipes …

If the city provided a ladder, the gum line could be much higher

Up the alley, there is a wall of grungy and torn posters; I think this photograph belongs in an art museum

The lower alley entrance can be a dark and lonely place at night

A gummer, writing the name of his love, Sarah, shows a strong work ethic and persistence–just the kind of guy employers are dying to hire

An ongoing art project: the Gum Mona Lisa

At least the gum smell overwhelms the other stenches in the alley

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com.

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website.

MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRD: A Slice of Western Sky

June 9, 2010


Sublime beauty in a small bird

The color is startling: a pure cerulean blue that mirrors the vast dome of sky stretching over the sagebrush.  A color so achingly intense, when the light illuminates it just right, that it renews my appreciation for the wild palette every time. That is the powerful attraction of the male Mountain Bluebird.

I photographed these bluebirds near a pair of nest boxes along a fence bordering Washington State wildlife lands on Whiskey Dick Mountain. This is hot, dry country in the sagebrush-steppe lands near the Columbia River,

Sagebrush, barbed wire, and windmills in the land of the Mountain Bluebird

where Big Sagebrush and Bitterbrush dominate the landscape. In spring, the earth between the shrubs is filled with wildflowers, and the cooler temperatures of the early season make hiking bearable. During my visit, the Mountain Bluebirds had paired off and were defending their nest box, but no eggs had yet hatched so the adults were not incubating or carrying food.

An interesting fact: the Mountain Bluebird has NO blue pigment in its feathers; the intense blue is created by the structure of the feathers themselves, which scatter light in the same way that the deep blue western sky scatters light. I find that the bluebird blue is most intense when the sun is at a low angle, directly behind my back. But these birds are breathtakingly beautiful anywhere, anytime.

Female Mountain Bluebird on Bitterbrush

Defending its nest box against swallows and other invaders

Male on Big Sagebrush, the dominant plant of the shrub-steppe ecosystem

Female staring intently at the intruder

Alert male on Bitterbrush

Master of his domain

The cerulean blue is a perfect match for the vast western sky

An impressionistic view of the Mountain Bluebird near its nest box

Female Mountain Bluebird on Bitterbrush

Mountain Bluebirds are relatives of robins and thrushes

For more information about Mountain Bluebirds, the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology is a good place to start.  Go to All About Birds.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com.

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website.

THE BLACK ANGELS: Ravens Practicing Aerial Maneuvers

June 9, 2010

Perfect synchronization of Common Ravens in flight

Six of them blazed by, wingtip to wingtip, making constant loud noise as they practiced intricate aerial acrobatics. Climbing rapidly, then hurtling into steep dives, coming within feet of the ground, only to pull up into the heavens again. This air show went on for about five minutes, at which point the fliers were running low on fuel and sped off to replenish themselves.

We were hiking on Whiskey Dick Mountain in central Washington State, when we came upon this spectacle. Given the time of year (mid-May), it seemed too late for Common Raven pair bonding and too early for this year’s young with their parents. So the reason for the spectacular flight will remain a mystery, unless a knowledgeable reader can help.

Flying wingtip to wingtip in an aerial ballet

We have seen Common Ravens in the mountains and the deserts over much of North America, and it is always amazing to see them–even when they are scavenging in a national park parking lot. But this is the first time I have been so thrilled to observe these incredible birds in flight. I saw a stick being dropped by one of the birds, but it happened so fast and so close to the ground that I can’t provide an accurate description. Other naturalists have observed these incredible flights, and one person described a raven flying upside-down for half a mile! These bulky black birds are truly masters of flight.

Unexpectedly graceful in flight together

Masters of precision flight

For more information about Common Ravens, go to the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology’s excellent website: All About Birds.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com.

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website.

BRIDAL VEIL FALLS: Peace and Thunder

June 9, 2010

Spring runoff rages over Bridal Veil Falls

Waterfalls are often portrayed by photographers as peaceful places; we use long exposures that smooth out the rough water, lending a serene look that is entirely appropriate to a contemplative subject. That is what I expected to do when I approached Bridal Veil Falls (located on a side trail about a half mile long) along the trail to Lake Serene in Washington’s Cascade Range. But the thundering, drenching, roaring waterfall that greeted me and my companions was anything but serene. I quickly decided to embrace the nature of the subject rather than fight it, and worked my mind and camera quickly to capture the tumultuous nature of the falls. Using a high ISO of 400 enabled me to use extremely fast shutter speeds with the polarizing filter that I used to darken the blue sky. The sky was scattered with fast-moving clouds, and I urged my companions to “wait for the light” with me. It worked. The last pictures were the best, showing the waterfall above me, as if emerging from the tattered clouds in the sky above.

Then, satisfied, we hiked farther along the trail, soon coming upon a lower part of Bridal Vell Falls. The lower falls were better served by the contemplative approach, since much of the area was in the shade and quite dark. I used exposures of up to half a second, which rendered the water as smooth and soft. In this area we also enjoyed watching an American Dipper carrying food to its hidden young, and listened to the impossibly melodious and endless song of the utterly tiny and inconspicuous Winter Wren.

After that, we trudged up the rest of the 2,000 vertical feet we needed to climb to reach Lake Serene. The lake, located in a beautiful cirque below Mount Index, was a glacial blue-green color and was dramatic in its own right. We ate lunch and photographed the lake, sharing this early summer hike with perhaps 150 other hikers out for the first mountain hike of the year. Lake Serene is a dramatic mountain lake at a low elevation, making it a popular hike with Seattlites. For me, the highlight was the waterfall, with its Yin-Yang of moods, but it felt good to be out on the trail–despite the weak ankle I sprained (again) on the way down. As I photographed the peaceful lower falls in late afternoon light, I commiserated with a young man who had also sprained his ankle and was soaking it in the frigid meltwaters of the waterfall’s plunge pool. Rough trail, satisfying day.

The sun illuminated the tumbling water from behind

The more peaceful drop of the lower falls, with a long exposure

An extremely short exposure “freezes” the water drops

A longer exposure shows streaks of water

I had to frequently wipe the spray off my camera and lens

A small flow in the deep shade required a long exposure

A chaos of fast-falling water, with ferns & other leaves clinging to cliff

A detail of the lower falls, where I saw an American Dipper

After the falls, we visited Lake Serene, in its cirque below Mount Index

Grace of an old tree at the outlet to Lake Serene

The hike to Bridal Veil Falls and Lake Serene is described by the Washington Trails Association.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website