Lori Carey Photography

Monday, December 30, 2013

Experimenting with Dstretch to enhance Alabama Hills petroglyph images

Alabama Hills petroglyphs enhanced using Dstretch

A few years ago while doing research for a trip to the Alabama Hills at the base of the Sierra Mountains, I came across a hand-drawn map that showed the locations of petroglyphs I had never before seen mentioned. One of the locations was along my planned route so I made a point to stop and search for them. We scrambled to the top of the rock formation and began searching, and searching, and searching. We didn't find anything so we began working our way back down and around the formation, searching as we went along. We still hadn't found anything when we were joined by a couple guys who were happy to join in the search. I was about to give up when they convinced me to climb back to the top with them. After another 20 minutes of searching my husband finally yelled out "Found it!" and sure enough, barely visible now that the sun was sinking and the light was hitting at angle we found the first dragonfly and spiral. Motivated by the finding we continued our search and eventually spotted three dragonflies on three separate rocks, each with a spiral or concentric circle. They were so old and faded that it was extremely difficult to get decent photos of them. They hardly showed in the photos at all, which wasn't surprising considering how difficult they are to see in real life. So the files were left sitting on my hard drive.

A few weeks ago a blog post by fellow desert explorer Daren Sefcik reminded me that several years ago I had obtained a copy of Dstretch, a specialized software for enhancing photos of pictographs. I never used the program much because it is intended for photos of pictographs, not petroglyphs, and I haven't found many pictographs. It does a decorrelation stretch (by applying Karhunen-Loeve transform, according to the website, mathematical computations that are beyond my knowledge level) to the colors of the digital image. It creates false colors to make the pictographs stand out from the background, making them easier to isolate. While it has a purpose for scientific research and documentation I struggled with the wild and crazy colors for my purposes. But Daren inspired me with his post showing how he uses layer masking to get rid of most of the wild colors and I decided to see what it could do with my photos of the Alabama Hills petroglyphs.

Alabama Hills petroglyphs enhanced using Dstretch

My results were a bit mixed. Dstretch worked better on some images than on others. The problem with using Dstretch on petroglyphs (rather than pictographs) is that there are no painted colors to enhance; petroglyphs are carved/etched/scratched into the rock so at best we see only lighter areas of rock. Relatively young petroglyphs carved into varnished rock are easier to see, but the petroglyphs I found at Alabama Hills were carved into unvarnished granite and were very faded.

Dstretch isn't an easy program to use and I think if I understood the advanced capabilities better I might be able to achieve better results. I am also using an old version of the program (I think I obtained it some time between 2006 and 2009) and I believe that there is a newer version with more advanced options.

Alabama Hills petroglyphs enhanced using Dstretch

In all but one case it definitely made the petroglyph easier to see. All of the examples in this post show the original photo, the photo after using Dstretch, and the final image using layer masking to remove most of the crazy colors from everything except the petroglyph.

Alabama Hills petroglyphs enhanced using Dstretch

Daren mentions on his blog that using layer masks this way means the images are subjective, subject to my interpretation of them. In fact I simplified his method of masking by simple stacking the Dstretched version on top of the original, adding a layer mask and manually masking out everything except what I interpreted to be the petroglyph. I think it's a workable solution to being able to visually share the petroglyphs, but it is by no means scientifically accurate.

The one image I had the most difficulty with was one of the dragonflies (for some reason I only photographed two of them!). This one was in bright sun and the guys tried to create enough shade with their hands and bodies so I could photograph it. The bright spots on the edges are the areas they couldn't block. This section of rock was the most exposed to the elements and you can see how much damage has been caused by erosion. Although we were all certain this was another dragonfly I had a very difficult time trying to isolate the petroglyph using Dstretch because there wasn't enough color variation between the carved petroglyph and the eroded rock surface. This was the best result I was able to achieve and as you can see I wasn't even sure what areas to mask out and what to leave in.

Alabama Hills petroglyphs enhanced using Dstretch

I also had a tougher time with this one. I believe we may have thought this was a third dragonfly, but Dstretch brought out what appears to be part of the engraving that we didn't originally notice with the naked eye. I can't say with any certainty that is an accurate depiction.

Even though Dstretch is not intended to use on photos of petroglyphs my results were good enough for my purposes that I will probably give Dstretch a try the next time I photograph old and faint petroglyphs. If you're interested in learning more about using Dstretch I recommend the tutorials on Daren's site as a great starting point.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Merry Christmas!

Holiday Joshua Tree in the eastern Mojave

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome,
dangerous, leading to the most amazing view.
May your rivers flow without end,
meandering through pastoral valleys tinkling with bells,
past temples and castles and poets’ towers
into a dark primeval forest where tigers belch and monkeys howl,
through miasmal and mysterious swamps and down into a desert of red rock,
blue mesas, domes and pinnacles and grottos of endless stone,
and down again into a deep vast ancient unknown chasm
where bars of sunlight blaze on profiled cliffs,
where deer walk across white sand beaches,
where storms come and go
as lightning clangs upon the high crags,
where something strange and more beautiful
and more full of wonder than your deepest dreams
waits for you –
beyond that next turning of the canyon walls.

– Edward Abbey

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Crusty Bunny Ranch - The Rest of the Story

Crusty Bunny Ranch

It's still a bit strange writing my stories and sharing my photos on another publication. My trail reports are mostly over there now instead of here on my blog. I have to honor a 90-day embargo period (on the story, not the photos), so I'm cautious about sharing my trail stories here on my blog or on social media. Keeping a story within the designated word limits can be a challenge, too. There's always so much more I want to say, to share. My first draft is consistently 500+ words over the limit and I start ruthlessly slashing anything that isn't essential. "Just the facts ma'am.". That takes all of the character out, everything that makes it an adventure, and I often wonder if I shouldn't instead leave in the little vignettes of life on the trail, throw in some drama and leave out all of the boring facts, especially after I read someone else's blog post or a magazine article describing the drama and danger that goes into someone's photography or desert adventures and I realize that the things they describe are the things I take for granted.

What prompted these thoughts was coming across the blog of a young man who decided to channel his inner Chris McCandless by driving his Range Rover down from Portland to homestead in an abandoned cabin in the Mojave. He lasted three days. The drama and adventure of those three days provided enough fodder for many blog posts, culminating in many more posts about how he was sure he had been exposed to Hantavirus and was going to die any minute. He was a good writer and I found his posts entertaining, but I knew exactly where he had stayed. I knew that not half a mile from the cabin was a location that saw a steady stream of visitors on the weekends. And so I just had a hard time taking his daring adventure as seriously as he wanted. But he sure was good at writing drama and drama makes for an entertaining read.

The thing is, if you're going to venture out into the unknown in desolate areas, sooner or later shit is going to happen. It might be big shit or it might be little shit, but it's going to happen. If you venture out into the desert unprepared when it happens you're going to be miserable or you're going to die. Or you're going to die a miserable death. When you're prepared, mentally/physically/supplies, it doesn't seem like such a big thing. That's why I live by two mottos: "The only difference between an ordeal and an adventure is your attitude." and "Improvise, Adapt, Overcome". But acting as if it's no big deal doesn't make for a good story, so I think that going forward I need to start playing up the drama a bit more and convince you of how fearless and adventurous I really am!

In a couple days the story of my visit to the Crusty Bunny Ranch will be published on DrivingLine. What's left out of the story is that it rained the day before we left and apparently our firewood got wet (which somebody failed to mention when he packed it). Anyone who has been married any length of time will recognize the ensuing conversation that took place over the smoking wood which began with "Why didn't tell you me the wood was wet so we could pick up some dry wood?" and deteriorated down to "We're miles from civilization in the middle of nowhere in the desert and it's cold and we have no wood ^&%$$*" until an hour had been wasted watching him attempt to start a fire with wet wood. When you try to burn wet wood the only thing it does is smoke, a lot.

Inside the Crusty Bunny Ranch

Inside the Crusty Bunny Ranch

Inside the Crusty Bunny Ranch

I didn't get to say that I then had the idea to check the cabin for firewood since there was a working fireplace inside and the cabin was somewhat cared for. Of course that job went to the person who packed the wet wood. By now it was pitch dark. There was a heavy cloud cover and no moon so it was really dark, desert dark. Off he went, flashlight in hand. I was certain that he would find dry wood somewhere near the cabin and our problem would be solved. He came back carrying one small piece and said he wasn't going near the cabin again. While he was inside something in the back room spooked him. This man has explored caves, mine shafts, abandoned cabins and ghost towns in the dark for years and has never once been spooked, but this time he got spooked. And he was so spooked that he got me spooked haha! We managed to get a small and very smokey fire going for a short while, it didn't last much longer than an hour, long enough to cook dinner, eat and clean up. The cloud cover was too heavy to see the Milky Way or many stars for night photography, so with nothing better to do we turned in early. And we promptly found out that his air mattress sprung a leak. A major leak. He spent a miserable night sleeping (trying to) on the ground.

It wasn't until the next morning that I took some time to read through the log books at the cabin.

cards and log book container, Crusty Bunny Ranch

Crusty Bunny Ranch log book contents

I found the log entry of another intrepid desert traveler who also got spooked one night in the cabin. There was some joking that it was probably one of the wild burros in the area but they thought for sure it was Sasquatch. I later found their online blog post about this same incident, something obviously had them very spooked. There are no rumors of the Crusty Bunny Ranch being haunted but then again there isn't much info online about the cabin (or the mine) all, and I thought it weird that two people who were very used to this type of environment both got spooked here.

I didn't get to say that I had planned to do my holiday card shoot here. We had originally thought to string the lights on the cabin but we couldn't figure out a way that would work with the supplies we had on hand (having a ladder would've helped!) and so we diligently sought out a fine looking Joshua Tree in a scenic location that was close enough to the trail where we could run an extension cord to the inverter in the Jeep. We carefully (not carefully enough) strung the lights and waited for sunset. It was a bit cloudier than I would have liked but still colorful and I continued shooting until twilight ended, not entirely happy but hoping that something would be close enough to my vision. When we tried to take the lights down the Joshua Tree refused to give up its hold, so we decided we would get them in the morning before we headed out rather than fight with them in the dark.

Except that we forgot about them the next morning (until we were twenty miles away) so they are still there. My home will have a few less strands of light this year but maybe somebody else can enjoy them. If you happen to visit the Crusty Bunny look from the cabin toward the beautiful scene of sand dunes and snow-topped mountains. Find the large Joshua Tree closest to the trail you took in, it's not very far, maybe a half mile. If you have an inverter go ahead and plug in the lights and enjoy. Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Happy New Year, Happy New Day, Happy Beautiful World!

I also didn't get to mention that our adventure was cut short when the shutter failed on my camera on the second day. After winding our way through the Kingston Range Wilderness, the North Mesquite Wilderness and then the Mesquite Wilderness and trying to decide where we wanted to spend the night, I decided I wanted to swing by to visit the Mojave Cross in the Cima region of the Mojave National Preserve. The last time I had visited it was still covered in plywood, and now with the legalities finally settled the cross was standing tall in all it's glory. I hadn't taken two shots before I got the error message and nothing I tried would clear it. I had my backup camera set up as Jeep Cam 1 for another project and hadn't intended to use it as my primary. With no dry wood for a campfire, a busted air mattress, little sleep the night before, the sun dropping low in the sky and now a non-functioning camera we decided it would probably be best to head for home. I don't mind a few challenges but sometimes you have to decide that it might not be smart to keep pressing your luck.

My final thoughts when I got back home and started going through my photos was how much damage seems to be taking place recently to places and properties in remote locations. Vandalism has always been a problem but lately it seems to be escalating. Blog posts and trail reports on the Crusty Bunny just a few years ago show it in much better shape. A friend had photographed this rocking horse a few years ago and I had hoped to use it as a subject for night photography, but I found it almost completely destroyed, smashed to pieces. I picked it up, put it back where it belonged and tried to piece it together the best I could. The log book in the cabin indicated that the windows had only recently been broken. A fellow traveler kindly took the time to board them up to prevent damage to the interior of the cabin from the elements. I was surprised at how many people cared enough to put some work into maintaining the place. So it's just an old abandoned miner's cabin...well it's stood in place unharmed for many (60+?) years, it's part of our cultural (mining) history and it provides safe haven for anyone traveling through the area who might need some shelter. I think about the recent tagging at remote locations in Joshua Tree in California and at Red Rock Canyon in Nevada, the damage at Death Valley's Racetrack from people walking on it when it's wet and stealing the stones, the toppling of a 200-million year old rock formation at Utah's Goblin State Park, and the graffiti I found on the tufa at Trona Pinnacles a few months ago. I don't understand people who damage and destroy just for the sake of doing so.

Photographers have notoriously been reluctant to share the exact location of special places and it's always disturbed me a bit because I think everyone should be able to enjoy special places. I think that my eight years of blog posts about these places is proof of how much I care about them. None of these places is truly secret, the information is there for those who are willing to seek it out. But I do believe that the internet and social media has made information more accessible, and that's a good thing and a bad thing. National Park Service records show that 9,000 landmarks have been vandalized since 2009, and that only accounts for park property. Media reports blame it on social media and people bragging about their "accomplishments" but I think that accessibility of location information plays a major role. I don't want to be part of the problem by making locations too easy to find for those who don't deserve the privilege. The Crusty Bunny Ranch is located in a wilderness area that is one of the most ecologically diverse regions of the Mojave and it is incredibly beautiful, easily one of my most favorite locations. I hate the thought that hoards of people in SUVs might travel out there with no respect for the environment. And I found myself reluctant to name to the trail in my article for DrivingLine or even name the specific area of the Mojave. There are enough hints that anyone could find the information if they wanted. The main trail is public information but it's not that easy to find when you're out there. The directions/coordinates to the spur trail that leads to the cabin is not quite as easy to find, but it's out there for those who know where to look. I've been thinking about exactly how much information I want to share and that maybe I'll just let others provide specific locations and directions if they are inclined to do so. Sadly it's even making me rethink my image keywording and captioning, as I often find myself thinking that I don't want specific location information in the metadata, especially when I'm sharing on social media. I have never and will never embed gps coordinates in my photos. I will always be eternally grateful to the people who do share and make it easier for me to find interesting places to visit, I love reading their blogs and trail reports and I hope they don't stop. But I think that enough people are sharing the info that maybe I don't need to add to it.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Mojave Cross Revisited

The Mojave Cross standing atop Sunrise Rock once again
The Mojave Cross Memorial in 2013

While in the eastern Mojave last week I had to stop by and see the Mojave Cross finally uncovered. The last time I visited this location in 2009 the cross was covered with plywood while a 13-year legal battle over its constitutionality played out in the federal court system.

After the first World War many veterans moved to the eastern Mojave to recover from the physical and psychological injuries of the war, becoming prospectors or ranchers. The Mojave Cross was originally erected in 1934 as memorial to WWI veterans by the local VFW and was cared for by J. Riley Bremby, a WWI veteran who had a mining camp nearby.The land was later acquired by the government in 1994 as part of the Mojave National Preserve. A retired park system employee who lived out of state filed a lawsuit in 1999 to have the cross removed. After the long drawn-out legal battle it was finally decided in 2010 that ownership of a one-acre parcel of land would be transferred to the VFW in a land swap for 5 acres elsewhere in the Mojave (donated by a private party) and the cross was allowed to stay. The cross was stolen within days of the verdict. It was found two years later tied to a fence post in the San Francisco Bay area. The veterans decided to start fresh and built a new white iron cross, this time filled with concrete to make it harder to steal. On Veterans Day in 2012 it was dedicated with much ceremony.

Now the location is cabled off, with signs clearly marking it as private property and as a war memorial, both at the entrance and embedded into the rock. When I visited in 2009 it was just a simple cross on a rocky outcropping (although boarded up) in the middle of nowhere with a few flags tucked into the crevices. Now it's fences and signs.

The Mojave Cross at Sunrise Rock in the Mojave National Preserve in California stood for 70 years to honor American lives lost at war. Placed in 1934 by members of the V.F.W. to honor those lost in WWI, it had become the subject of a Supreme Court battle with the ACLU over the right to have a Christian symbol on public land and in 2002 it was ordered that the cross be covered while the legal debate played out. After the Supreme Court ruling in May 2010 that permitted the cross to stay but remanded the case to district court to determine if it could be uncovered, vandals stole it in the middle of the night. As of this time the fate of a replacement is still undetermined.
The Mojave Cross Memorial in 2009

I came across a statue of Buddha somewhere in the desert along my travels. Who knows if it was on private or public land, the Mojave is such a patchwork of public and private ownership that the only way to know for sure is to check a parcel map. I wasn't offended that someone whose faith didn't exactly match mine had traveled the same ground I was traveling and had left something behind. I hope that some day we understand that tolerance is about understanding and appreciating each others' differences, not trying to squash them or fence them off.