Brian's Photo Blog — Article 625
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Twelve Months at Portland’s Japanese Garden
Friday 17 February 2017   —   Category: Outings
As of Valentine’s Day earlier this week, I finally finished my project of visiting the Japanese Garden in Portland, Or­e­gon, once a month for each of the twelve months of the year.

When I had originally committed myself to this plan, I had no idea of all the ups and downs and twists and turns it would take.

As the Grateful Dead so famously sang: “Sometimes the light’s all shinin’ on me; other times I can barely see. Lately it occurs to me: what a long, strange trip it’s been.”  Here are the highlights:
As part of being positively passionate about Portland, I bought a annual mem­ber­ship to facilitate taking pictures at the Garden once a month for the next twelve months. Not only did the $75 family plan cover the $10-​per-​person entrance fee each month, but it also waived the $5-​per-​visit tripod fee! Furthermore, I could enter the Garden at 8:00 AM, a full two hours before it opens to the public.

That first visit was perhaps the best, at least emotionally, because everything was new and I was full of enthusiasm and wonder. Whether it resulted in the best photos is up for debate. I was also eager to try my new pocket camera (which had arrived just the day before) in addition to my primary camera. I roamed the Garden’s five-​and-​a-​half acres for about three hours that day, and took 227 pictures between my two camera, re­sult­ing in the best 49 from my primary camera and the 25 best from my pocket camera.
Because of scheduling conflicts and the lovely Oregon weather, an April trip to the Garden with my family took place on May 1st, which technically is not April. Yet, if you take the 30 from April 30th (the last day of the month), and add the 1 from May 1st, you get 31. So, in a sense, you could say that we went to the Jap­a­nese Garden on April 31st.

Because the weather and lighting were different than during the previous visit, I was able to find interesting shots which I had not taken before. However, it was more crowded during the members-only hours, which made photography more challenging. Out of the 122 total pictures I took, I was able to add the best 42 to my budding Japanese Garden collection.
By my third visit I was already running out of steam! Apparently my vow to pho­to­graph the Garden twelve months in a row was going to be harder to keep than I had imagined. Jaded by a strong sense of “been there, done that,” I was desperately seeking inspiration as I wan­dered around the cramped, already-​too-​familiar 5.5 acres.

Fortunately, two pieces of camera equip­ment came to my aid. Instead of taking wide shots I tried to focus on details which I might normally overlook, with the help of my Panasonic 100-​300​mm telephoto zoom lens. I also experimented with some remote wireless flash photography which resulted in a handful of interesting shots. Adjusting my tech­nique in these ways helped me to see the Garden in a new light. Out of the 86 pictures I took during the hour I was there, the best 22 joined the previous keepers.
Because of the summer heat, much of the Garden was being watered during the 8:00 to 10:00 AM members-only hours. This was very frustrating, because the already-​small Garden suddenly became a lot smaller, with spraying water blocking path after path. But as the saying goes, when life gives you lemons, make lem­on­ade! In one area I noticed that the sprinkles were creating a beautiful sunlit mist, so I stayed there for a while and took quite a few pictures as the scene changed second by second.

As always, the koi continued to fascinate me. After four months of photographing them, you would think that I would have lost interest. How many fish pictures did I need, anyway?! But each time the lighting was different, and I never seemed to tire of their colors, shapes and movements. As in May, I stayed for only one hour, during which I took 111 shots — but only 21 were worth sharing.
During this month the Garden offered special members-​only hours from 7:00 to 9:00 on Friday evenings. Because my four previous visits had been during their usual morning mem­bers-only hours, I knew that I had to take advantage of see­ing the Garden at the end of the day. Un­for­tu­nate­ly, it turned out to be a very dis­ap­point­ing evening.

From images I had seen by other pho­tog­ra­phers, like the one shown here, it was nat­u­ral to assume that the numerous stone lan­terns (tōrō) scattered around the Garden would be lit during the special members-only evening hours. But after walking around and waiting for 90 minutes, not one of the dozen or two lanterns were lit. In disgust I left the Garden without having taken a single photo, frustrated that I had driven all the way from Albany for nothing. It was a total waste of time, effort and money. But fortunately there was a sec­ond chance for illuminated stone lanterns the following month.
This month I made my second evening visit to the Garden to photograph their annual Japanese O-Bon Festival. I was happy to have a real opportunity to get shots of the illuminated stone lanterns, as well as dif­fer­ent aspects of the tra­di­tion­al ceremony. The members-only free event had completely filled up, so it was quite a gathering of over 350 attendees. Because of the crowd, and because tri­pods and flashes were for­bid­den, the shooting conditions were quite chal­leng­ing but interesting.

Despite some harrassment from the Gar­den staff, I managed to get some pretty cool shots. I was quite pleased with the low-light handling and image qual­i­ty of my Olympus OM-D E-M5 camera. I took 111 photos during my 90 minute stay and added the best 34 to my expanding Japanese Garden collection.
By this time I had gone on photo outings to the Japanese Garden six months in a row, and was looking forward to seeing what the place looked like in autumn and winter. I must confess that I was also looking for­ward to finishing this project and putting it behind me. The Garden’s limited 5.5 acres were definitely getting tedious to pho­to­graph over and over again. Once my mem­ber­ship expired at the end of February 2016, there was no way I would be re­new­ing it!

But my plans were suddenly changed when the Japanese Garden announced that they would be closing for six months for major renovations, starting the day after Labor Day 2015. That time period was exactly the last half of my one-year membership. Because they would be opening again in April 2016, and because I had already photographed the garden during the months of April through August, I asked them to extend my membership from September 2016 through February 2017. Thus it was with contentment and a sigh of relief that I embraced a 12-month gap in my Japanese Garden outings.
When the next autumn rolled around, I was pleased to learn that in September the Gar­den was putting on a traditional Japanese moon-​viewing event, known as O-Tsukimi. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to get back into the swing of monthly visits after my one-year hiatus.

There was a full moon rising over the 11,249-foot Mount Hood, the highest peak in the state, about 50 miles away. It was quite clear, and the pastel colors were delicate and lovely. Once it got a bit darker the evening continued with performances of traditional Japanese music, with Mitsuki Dazai playing a koto and Larry Tyrell playing a shakuhachi. I took 36 pictures during my 45-​minute stay, but only seven of them were good enough to add to the collection.
Out of all the photos I had taken at the Japanese Garden, I think the pictures from October were perhaps the best so far. I felt like I was in a photographic flow, totally unlike the time I was des­per­ate­ly seeking inspiration, or the time I had a very dis­ap­point­ing evening outing.

As I wandered along the Garden paths that mid-​October morning, I would come across the newly-​risen sun illuminating, like a spotlight, a particular tree or a cer­tain leaf, while the surroundings were still shrouded in shadows. In other plac­es, the sunlight would cast interesting shadows on a wall or on the ground. Such sights were a delight to my photographer’s eye. During my satisfying two-hour visit I took 155 photos, of which 47 were keepers.
In October the leaves on the trees were still mostly green, although a few trees had turned to their autumn colors. So when I returned a month later I was ex­pect­ing to see lots of trees with flaming leaves. In­stead, to my great dis­ap­point­ment, many of the trees had already lost most of their leaves. During the four weeks between outings, I had missed their autumn glory. Now, only the bare branches of winter remained. Bummer!

Despite the disappointment, I was ex­cit­ed to stumble upon, in an out-​of-​the-​way corner of the Garden, a patch of mush­rooms with the early-​morning sun beau­ti­ful­ly illuminating them. I crouched down and brought the camera down low so I could capture them in all their fungi glory.

For both the October and November outings, a clear sky and the light of the newly-​risen sun made all the dif­fer­ence between interesting and drab photos. It’s just not the same when the weather is overcast or foggy, as had of­ten been the case during previous visits. On this trip I took 111 pictures, with the best 26 making the cut.
This time I discovered a winter won­der­land of frosty leaves and ice-​encrusted fountains. By walking around the Gar­den numerous times during my stay, I found fleeting patches of sunlight and shadows which were a delight to pho­to­graph. With this being my tenth monthly photo outing to the Garden, you would think that it might be difficult for me to find photographic in­spi­ra­tion, especially since I had trouble with that during past visits. But the combination of the wintry conditions and the heavenly early-​morn­ing sunlight were actually very inspiring.

Although I had not intentionally planned to do so, it was fitting that I visited a Japanese Garden on the 75th an­ni­ver­sa­ry of the infamous Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. After so many tragic deaths on both sides of that point­less conflict, it brought satisfaction to be an American enjoying an Oregon Japanese Garden in peace, safety and friendship. During the 75 minutes I was snap­ping the shutter, I took a total of 62 photos, the best 26 of which were added to the ever-increasing collection.
After more than a foot of snow fell at the Garden, I was eagerly anticipating pho­to­graph­ing the same old locations with a new snowy outlook. I was quite dis­ap­point­ed to discover that the very snow which was going to be so awesome to photograph was also the very same snow which caused the Japanese Garden to close its doors for nearly two weeks.

Despite the end of the cold snap and the advent of warmer rain, when I visited the Garden two weeks later I was very de­light­ed and surprised to find that there were still some patches of snow here and there. By framing the scenes just right I was able to make it look like there was more snow than there actually was. In fact, the Garden was fairly snow-​free, which sometimes made it a challenge to compose a wintery-​looking image. I took a total of 75 photos during the 75 minutes I was there, which netted another 17 keepers.
It was ironic that my final outing was on Valentine’s Day. Over the past two years any love I had for the Garden — which wasn’t a whole lot to begin with — had worn more and more thin. To my sur­prise I discovered that the fact that it was my last visit was very inspiring.

Occasionally I found myself taking pic­tures I had shot before, but since this was my last visit to the Garden, I just had to take one more! I got some unique shots as well. Some of them were new angles on pre­vi­ous­ly-​pho­to­graphed sub­jects. But a couple shots were of a sub­ject I had never be­fore encountered in the Garden: a cute, chubby Douglas squirrel. By 9:30 the sun­shine was done and so was I. During my 90-minute stay I took a total of 86 photos, the best 37 of which completed my collection of Japanese Garden images.
Closure at last!

Even though it took me twenty-​four months instead of twelve, I had pressed on to see my project through to the end. As I men­tioned above, the one-year break was actually a big blessing, as it enabled me to rediscover my pho­to­graph­ic inspiration and enthusiasm for the second six months, which I had lost during the first half of the project.

And now, I have sweet, sweet closure at last! From this experience I have learned that I probably don’t want to make such a long-term commitment to a project in the future. For me, the whole point of pho­tog­ra­phy is to enjoy myself. I can do that a lot better by going with the flow of my current interests rather than by lock­ing myself into inspiration-​sapping ob­li­ga­tions.

Regarding the photos I took there, you could do the math but I’ve done it for you! During my twelve outings I took a total of 1,182 pictures. The best 353 can be seen in the individual monthly al­bums, but more conveniently all together in the con­glom­er­ate Portland Japanese Garden (All Years) super-album.

You might be surprised that I have two re­grets about this project. One is that I didn’t take any pictures in July. The oth­er is that I will not see the new additions to the Garden which they have been con­struct­ing for the past year and a half. My membership ex­pires at the end of this month, but the grand opening is not until the beginning of April.

Of course, I could kill two birds with one stone by visiting the Garden one last time this coming July. But during the summer the Garden is very crowded, and I wouldn’t have the membership priv­i­lege of going early before the public hours.

Perhaps I should skip the July pho­tog­ra­phy and visit the Garden on a sunny day next winter, when the lighting is more interesting and the crowds are nonexistent. That would give me another year to once again recover my pho­to­graph­ic inspiration and enthusiasm. We shall see!
Brian's Photo Blog — Article 625
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