Semper Gumby

Some photographers say that you should come up with your photos on the spot without any preconceived ideas. But I think that having some sort of outline or framework of what you want to shoot can be a helpful just as longs you don’t go into a situation with a rigid plan without being able to shift gears if things don’t pan out.

Last week, my daughter, son and I took a day trip to San Francisco to get away from the valley heat and smoke from the norther California wildfires. I had a loose itinerary of places that we could go to photograph. Fort Point, the Hyatt Regency Hotel, The Palace of Fine Arts, The Palace of Legion of Honor and the Sutro Baths were on the list.

We arrived in the City about noon. Our first stop was Fort Point. Built in the mid-1800s the fort stood guard at the mouth of the bay. Inside features formidable stone arches and beautifully moody lighting, great for portraits. Unfortunately, we went mid-week and, unbeknownst to us, the fort is only open on weekends.

The fort is situated at the base of the southern end of the Golden Gate Bridge and you can get some great shots of the span. Fog started blowing in from the Marin Headlands across the strait. I climbed down onto the large rip rap boulders that lined to shore. I got down low and used some of the large rocks to help frame the foreground for my shot.

We stopped to regroup and have some lunch, then we went to the Hyatt Regency Hotel along the Embarcadero. Years ago, I saw a photo of the interior of the hotel in where the floor, which featured a mosaic-like pattern, was just an incidental part of the picture. I thought that if I could get a high enough vantage point, it could be used as the main compositional element for a picture. The hotel claims it has the world’s largest lobby. The hallways to its rooms of the 20-story structure look out onto it. I was able to go up to about the 9th floor and shoot down and get a shot of some people meeting within the geometric pattern.

The next stop was the Palace of Fine Arts. Built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition it features a large domed rotunda. The obvious choice of subject was the imposing and ornate structures of the palace itself, which I shot, but I wanted to get something a little different. I settled on a photo of a swan in the surrounding lagoon and a nice portrait of my son Christopher.

Driving around San Francisco is not like doing the same in Stockton. With traffic and street construction, it takes a long time to get from one place to another. By the time we got to the Palace Legion of Honor it was about 5:00 p.m. and it was closing. We went inside just to confirm and indeed and a guard told us that the museum was closed but to come back the next day. As we left, we managed to get a couple of shots of the grand courtyard featuring a bronze cast of Rodin’s “The Thinker” and an amusing picture of a tourist taking a selfie among the stately Romanesque columns of the museum.

Finally, we went to the Sutro Baths at the base of the bluffs where the famed Cliff House restaurant looks out onto the ocean. Built in 1896, it was billed as the world’s largest indoor swimming pool. It eventually burned down in 1966. All that remains are some concrete walls and foundations, They’re the closest things to ancient ruins that one can easily get to.

I wanted to get some sunset shots from the site which has a large pond/pool area that could make for some interesting reflections. Everything seemed to going as planned. The sun saw steady sinking in the west, growing more orange as it descended. But then, as it is wont to do in San Francisco, the fog rolled in from seemingly nowhere. In a few minutes the sun and it’s warm light was completely gone, replaced by a cold, grey mist. I turned my attention to a great blue heron hunting for some dinner, unperturbed by all the people. There was also a cave in the side of the bluff that I explored for some photos.

While all this was happening my daughter and I noticed a young photographer taking what seemed to be engagement photos of an equally young couple. Along with his camera he had an off-camera flash attached to a large soft box which is used to soften the harsh light of the flash. While the sun was out he seemed to be taking his time getting his equipment ready and by the time he started actually shooting, the fog had appeared and the light was gone. Now, he could have used the flash and created his own light on the couple while using the fog as a dark and moody background, but he never once touched the flash. From my vantage point it seemed as if he had an idea for his photos but wasn’t able or willing to deviate from his plan.

The U.S. military has an unofficial motto: Semper Gumby, meaning “always flexible.” If my daughter, son and I learned from our day in the City, it’s that it’s good to have a plan, but if things don’t go your way it’s even better to be flexible.

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  • Blog Author

    Clifford Oto

    Clifford Oto, an award-winning photographer, has been with The Record since 1984. Through the changes from black and white to digital photography, he’s kept his focus on covering the events, people and life of San Joaquin county. This blog deals ... Read Full
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