Chamber of secrets

There are things that, on the face of them, may appear ordinary even though they carry a sobering connotation beyond their bland appearance.

The new lethal injection chamber at San Quentin State Prison is an example. Some 20 representatives of the news media, from newspapers to television to radio, were on hand at its media unveiling about two weeks ago. Once the doors were unlocked, we all proceeded to photograph and record every inch of the facility. At times it was tough to get a shot without another journalist in the picture, whether directly in the camera’s frame or reflected in a mirrored window. In the smaller areas, we were almost stepping on each other.

It was probably due to natural competition between reporters, but I think it was also because photography of an execution chamber is a rare thing. We all wanted to make sure we got pictures from every conceivable angle, because we all knew that we probably wouldn’t get a second chance to shoot it.

The facility was nondescript and sterile. White antiseptic walls gave the place a vague medical feeling. One could mistake it for a doctor’s or a dentist’s office. Indeed the pale mint green gurney, which was the only color in the room, was formerly a dentist’s chair. If you could remove the context of its use, the San Quentin facility could be described as rather an ordinary, or even a boring-looking place.

But the chamber was one of those places that’s difficult to separate from its serious purpose. Despite the number of people in the room it seemed quieter than a place with linoleum floor tiles and no sound-deadening materials on the walls or ceiling should have been. It was as if an emotional gravity absorbed the sound in the room or perhaps kept us from making much noise. Even the dark humor that journalists tend to use to ease tensions was nearly absent.

Whether you believe in the death penalty or not, the solemn weight of the room’s grim purpose seemed to be an unspoken presence.

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Wrong way

Where Park Street in Stockton ends to become an onramp to northbound I-5 at Pershing Avenue, the offramp from the same freeway crosses Park Street overhead. I never noticed until recently, but viewed from Pershing, there is a bright yellow sign warning any eastbound truckers that the ramp is only 14-feet, 8-inches tall. The problem is that Park is a one way street, westbound.

Any truck with a load, say 15-feet tall, traveling on Park Street will find the top four inches of its load sheared off and laying on the pavement 20-yards behind before the driver would even begin to notice the sign.

Fortunately there’s another identical sign on the opposite side to warn drivers traveling west. But it begs the question why spend the money and effort of putting up the useless eastbound sign in the first place?

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The long and short of it

Laurie and Wayne Hallquist of Sockton are easy to spot in a crowd. At 6′-5″ and 6′-11″ respectively, the Hallquists are literally head and shoulders above those around them. They are hoping to set a Guiness record for the world’s tallest living couple. Reporter Jennie Rodriguez and I were sent out to cover one of the couple’s measurement sessions (rules state that their height had to be recorded three times in a day — morning, midday and evening).

Their height makes them a bit of a spectacle, especially when they’re together. Laurie Hallquist says that they’re used to the stares, and as long as people are polite about it, they don’t mind. At 5′-10″ I’m of average height, but Laurie was a head taller than I and Wayne stood a full foot above me.

But it was Jennie who exhibited the greatest difference in height. In her bare feet, she stands 4′-11.” Her stature is something that I hadn’t paid too much attention to until she stood next to the Hallquists. In fact, on his knees, Wayne was still taller than Jennie, by 2 to 3 inches.

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Unreal reality

Take a close look at these pictures. They are shots of a common house fan, but its blades appear wildly misshaped. No, they aren’t made out of Silly Putty, nor has an abstract artist molded them into weird shapes. I know what you’re probably thinking, but no, they haven’t been manipulated in Photoshop, either. They were shot with an ordinary iPhone 3, and they’re pretty much straight out of the camera.

“How is this so?,” you may be wondering. It’s the effect of what’s known as a “rolling shutter.” It’s used in most cellular phone cameras and some point-and-shoot digital cameras as well as digital video cameras.  Unlike DSLR cameras, which have mechanical shutters, these cameras use an electronic one. When a picture is taken, the camera doesn’t record the whole scene at exactly the same time. Rather, it is scanned across the sensor either horizontally or vertically. In normal circumstances, it’s not an issue, but when a picture is taken of a fast-moving subject, especially a repetitive one, the distortion can appear.

Another visual aberration can occur when the camera is panned from side to side. Mostly evident on digital video, when the camera is in motion objects can be skewed to one side or the other, almost cartoon like. But it’s the “floating blades” effect that is the most dramatic. What’s perhaps the most mind-blowing is that, because the cellphones use the electronic sensor not only take the picture but to view it as well, you can see it happen in front of your eyes on your phone’s screen.

Since the late 1950s, master photographer Jerry Uelsmann has created unbelievable surreal images. The fantastic Dali-esque prints are head scratching with their subtle complexity and enigmatic dream-like images. Trees hang in midair, tree roots wind upwards and become an old mansion and hands cup a stones ripple in a serene lake. One wonders how he does it, and indeed they would be hard to recreate with the same virtuosity even in this digital era. His technique involves using multiple black and white negatives and enlargers and hours upon hours of hard work.

The latest version of Photoshop will set you back about $700. A pretty pricey piece of software for your average person. But if you want this specific effect, you may already have it in your own cell phone, no extra charge, and no extra work.

To see the rolling shutter effect in action, check out my video below (it was shot with a Nikon D3s which uses a mechanical shutter for still photos but an electronic one for video).

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Secondary art

Sometimes great pictures happen in the least likely places, and when they do, whether it was the reason that you were there or not, you just can’t pass them up.

I recently covered a news conference at the new San Joaquin County Administration Building in downtown Stockton. Events like these are usually held in small rooms, often without windows and with poor light. They’re usually aren’t about visuals, but rather what the people participating in them have to say. In a large training room on the fourth floor the San Joaquin Emergency Medical Services (EMS) Agency held a press conference to address questions regarding the delivery of services in the city of Stockton.

EMS administrator Dan Burch stood at a podium before a small gathering of media representatives and introduced Dr. Richard Buys, MD., EMS Medical Director. As Buys rose from his seat and approached the lectern, Burch stood off to the side as light came through several large windows that lined the room. That light bounced around the room provided some nice soft illumination to the speaker at the podium. It wasn’t dramatic light, but still nicer than most press conferences.

Burch, now out of the picture, stood in front of one of the windows was boldly silhouetted against the light coming in through it. The partially open slats of the window’s mini blinds, also silhouetted, combined with the blue of the sky and the puffy white clouds floating by, to help create a strong graphic image. A small bottle of water placed on the windowsill to the left of Burch gave the scene a counterpoint to help balance the image. Although not part of the story, it was such a great picture, that I had to shoot it anyway.

News conference photos are mainly pictures of someone speaking, what we call “talking heads.” I worked the room to get the best shot I could of Dr. Buys speaking. I walked around to the left and to the right. I shot up close and from the back of the room. I even used the TV camera operators as a foreground. I documented the event well but like the event it self, the pictures weren’t what one would call the most exciting photos. There was a creative shot to be had – and I got it – but it just wasn’t the reason I was sent there for.

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Dust bowl

With artificial turf football fields becoming more and more prevalent, one can almost forget that how much abuse a real grass field can take.

With the prep football season not quite half over, Franklin High’s natural turf is showing signs of heavy wear and tear. Additional lines painted in red on the ground indicated that the field was also used for the school’s soccer games as well. Starting from the north goal line to about the south 10-yard marker was a 5-yard-wide dusty swath of loose dirt down the center of the field. Around the south 35-yard-line, the grassless patch grew to about 15 yards in width.

After almost every play in Friday night’s game against Turlock, a veil of dust rose like a mist to be gently carried off to the southeast by a soft breeze. If there was an extended play, it looked like the athletes were running through a light fog. One can only wonder what the field will be like after the first rain.

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Sometimes a bone crunching hit can happen in a blink of an eye and all you can do is react as quickly as possible to get the shot. Other times you can see it coming and all you can do is hope that no one is going to get seriously hurt.

In Friday’s game between Turlock at Franklin, the Yellowjacket’s Jose Gascon-Romero, who, in addition to his running back duties, also plays outside linebacker for the defense, had Bulldog quarterback Kevin Kramer cornered. Kramer seemed dead to rights tackled, but managed to scramble out of the situation. But Gascon-Romero, right on his tail, made a twisting, stabbing dive and grabbed a hold of Kramer’s shirttail. Unable to escape, Kramer struggled with Gascon-Romero’s added weight and his feet spread apart in the loose dirt at the center of the field and he did the splits.

At that moment Gascon-Romero’s teammate Marc Reyes homed in on the vulnerable Kramer. The quarterback still hadn’t touch a knee to the ground and thus the play was still alive. Reyes’ impending hit looked like it was going to hurt — badly. I envisioned a turkey wishbone being pulled apart and snapped in two. Football is a physical game, but no one wants to see anyone be permanently injured. I grimaced as Reyes laid into Kramer, his legs still in the split position.

The force of Reye’s’ hit pushed Kramer onto his back but didn’t cause him to spread his legs further. The play done, the Turlock QB got up, seeming none the worse for wear and I breathed a sigh of relief.

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In a varsity football game last Friday night, Turlock dominated the contest at Franklin in Stockton. In the first half (all I could stay for due to deadline considerations) the Bulldogs offense proved nearly unstoppable for the Yellowjacket defense. The Franklin offense was rendered mostly ineffective by Turlock’s defense.

One shining star for Franklin was running back Jose Gascon-Romero. He had a no-nonsense, no-frills style of running that was reminiscent of famed Miami Dolphin fullback Larry Csonka (1968-74,1979). Although much smaller than the 6-ft,. 3 in., 237 lb. Csonka, Gascon-Romero (listed on the Franklin roaster as 5′-7″, 175, lbs.) proved to be just as unstoppable.

With the ball securely tucked in his grasp, Gascon-Romero ball-carrying wasn’t very showy, just simple straight-ahead running. Most of the single would-be tacklers were run down by his freight train-like rushing.

And forget about those trying to arm-tackle him. Those who did manage to hold on, were dragged several yards until help arrived. It often took two, three or four defenders to bring Gascon-Romero down. He absorbed bone-crushing hits only to shake them off like a duck shedding water.

Football is a team sport and one great performance does not a win make. Franklin lost 28-7, but in that loss Gascon-Romero’s individual effort was singularly impressive.

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Coming and going

I did a Hail Mary shot of the West High cheerleaders during the varsity football game between Tracy at West and saw that my shadow was in the picture. I went around to get a shot from the other side. I thought, “Surely, my shadow won’t be in the photo from that angle.” Yes, it still was, and don’t call me Shirley.

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Vuvuzela light

The vuvuzela was introduced to the American soccer fans during the FIFA World Cup soccer tournament held in South Africa earlier this year. Thousands of in-stadium fans displayed their enthusiasm by blowing on the 2-foot plastic horn. However, the instrument, with its constant droning buzz, became an annoyance to TV audiences.

In the home stands at the varsity football game between Tracy and West, a number of fans had what looked like mini vuvzelas. About half the size of the World Cup horn, the noise makers made a higher-pitched, kazoo-like sound rather than the vuvuzela’s deeper bellow.

At some points during the planet’s premier soccer tourney, it seemed that every fan had a vuvzela. Not nearly as many had the smaller horn at the West/Tracy game. Combined with half the size, it made them, though still noticeable, about half as annoying.

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    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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