Category Archives: Featured

Kiwi Springtime: Queenstown, New Zealand

New Zealanders refer to themselves as “Kiwis.”  And of course most Americans are aware of the brown, furry fruit of the same name.  But if you’re tracing the original source of the term “kiwi,” be aware that the chicken-sized bird came before that egg-sized fruit.

A Polynesian tribe known as the Maori are considered the aboriginal people of New Zealand.  Apparently, they arrived by seagoing canoes (from Tahiti, perhaps) around the year 1300 — about 350 years before Dutchman Abel Tasman first arrived on New Zealand shores.  “Kiwi” is the Maori name for a brown, round, furry-looking chicken-sized flightless bird that’s native to the islands and which has become the national symbol and namesake.   The fruit originally known as a Chinese Gooseberry first became a popular agricultural crop in New Zealand in the early 20th century, and was renamed “kiwi fruit” about 50 years ago.

The first leg of my Kiwi adventure has centered around Queenstown — a smallish town on New Zealand’s larger, southern island.  The nearby mountains  (the ones beneath those pink sunrises) are aptly named The Remarkables; my late spring (October/November) arrival is too late for skiing.

I know all too well that photographers can use Photoshop or similar tools to make some fairly ordinary scenes look spectacularly wacky.  That’s not what’s happened here — and not really my ‘thing’:  the light and the colors really do look this way.  I use some of the same tools to try to get a realistic image that does justice to this spectacular scenery.

Queenstown was my first stop in a country roughly the size of Colorado (if you stretched Colorado out and pulled it into two parts).  Onward.

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Most of these shots are around Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu — almost all in the early morning or late evening.  The ones that look like a golf course are a golf course called The Hills — apparently a famous one and one that’s covered with modern-ish art sculptures.  The two long skinny horizontal pictures with water in the foreground and the tree-in-water and sailboat pictures are at at Lake Wanaka — about an hour northeast of Queenstown.

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Photographers:  3 or 4 of these pictures are “HDR” shots that use 3-4 different images (same scene, different exposures) and crunch that down so you can see both the deep shadows and the bright skies and sun.  Hopefully you can’t tell which ones.   Mostly I get the same results with the D800 + Lightroom.  I tried to force myself to use a tripod, especially on scenes where I’m ‘bracketing’ multiple images for HDR.  But I hate it — it slows me down and cramps my (literal) style.  It’s amazing how well the software can align handheld shots.  I’m putting that damn tripod back in the suitcases.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Superheroes Saving Kids in Houston

At any given time in Houston, there are over 5,000 kids in the custody of Child Protective Services (CPS), having been taken from their homes based on suspected severe abuse or neglect.  Just try to picture what a group of 5,000 kids would look like.  Child Advocates is a charity dedicated to helping those kids.

{Note: The kids in these pictures are NOT kids in CPS custody — these are just cute Houston kids whose parents brought them to participate in a fundraiser that benefits abused kidsFor obvious reasons, pictures of the kids being served by Child Advocates are not made public.}

Saturday morning, hundreds of runners — many dressed like their favorite comic book superhero — came out to CityCentre to raise money for Child Advocates of Houston.  I was proud and honored to be the chairman of the first (hopefully annual) Child Advocates Superheroes Run, presented by MRE Consulting.

Child Advocates recruits, trains and supports a small army of about 750 volunteer Advocates, each one generally assigned to one or two kids in CPS custody.  The Advocates’ primary role is to roll up their sleeves, talk to and work with the kids, parents, relatives, neighbors, and counselors, and to help CPS and the Courts to figure out how to resolve each child’s unique situation and get them — somehow — safely out of CPS custody.  The mission is to break the “cycle” of child abuse — whereby abused kids too often grow up to be abusive parents.  Child Advocates is almost thirty years old, so there are now many thousands of heartwarming stories of how Advocates have changed (and even saved) lives.

My being “chairman” of an event means that other dedicated, smart, and generous people do tons of work and give lots of money to make the event successful, and then at the end, I’m the guy who gets a plaque.  For my friends, it meant they got their arms twisted to sponsor, donate, volunteer and/or run in the event — so THANKS to all those who did (including especially my buddies at MRE — the title sponsor).  I spent most of the morning glamorously hauling food and fence panels, setting up tents, taking people’s money, handing out T-shirts and bossing around other (wonderful!) volunteers.  But of course I brought my camera along — and shooting cute pictures at such an event is like shooting fish in a barrel.  Lots of cute kids in cute, colorful costumes.  Thanks to everyone who was a part of it.

 

I was lucky enough to have the absolute best and perfect parents, and have enjoyed the benefits of that my entire life.  It’s hard for me to even comprehend the lives of some of those abused or neglected kids, and maybe that’s why Child Advocates is the charity I most support.  Disease charities (like cancer and MS) are true lifesavers, but they get tons of support from wealthy folks whose families have personal risks and experiences with the disease.  Cultural charities (like the symphony) almost by definition have an affluent base of donor/patrons who like to attend.  And churches or colleges always have a built-in base of members and alumni to sustain them.  Abused kids don’t have much of a constituency, which is why Child Advocates exists, and why Child Advocates needs financial support.  A relatively-small expenditure at such critical points in those kids’ lives can truly change everything for them.  It’s a great cause.

Saturday’s Superheroes Run was a huge success — especially for a first-year event.  We netted about $70,000, which should allow Child Advocates to help an extra 40 or so kids this year.  If you were there (as sponsor, runner or volunteer):  Thanks!!  If not, we’ll see you next year.    Or go here to see how you can help Child Advocates now.

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Even more pictures are here.

 The last photo in the grid above is the group of Katy School Runners, who together were a huge part of the event’s success.  The man in blue crossing the finish line just above is Dru Neikirk — one of the three partners in MRE Consulting, the title sponsor of the event (the “Child Advocates Superheroes Run – Powered by MRE Consulting”).  Regular visitors to jeffcotner.com already know the other two founder/partners of MRE:  Shane Merz and Mike Short

 

Turquoise Midway: The State Fair of New Mexico

I went to the fair in Albuquerque on a photo project.  I’d missed the pig races and the calf scramble, so I was left to wander around the vendors and games and midway.

Regular followers of this blog will recall my post from a few weeks back about the police department raffle of an assault rifle I saw in northern Texas.  Thus I was especially amused to see that even in New Mexico, your five-year old can play a carnival game and win an inflatable AK-47 in the colors of the American flag.  Stating the obvious:  New Mexico isn’t very far from Texas.

I wound up spending so much time at the “Spin Out” ride (below) I forgot to get myself a corndog.  The efficient, solo ride operator was moving loads of passengers safely onto and off of the ride like clockwork.  I watched about 15 cycles, so I had the whole process memorized.  Predictably, he was way too busy to stop and let me take a real ‘portrait.’

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I ran across this guy on the way back to my car as the night was winding down.  He was sitting there counting money.  He said his name was George Jones.  When I asked if he could sing, he said everybody always asks him that.  He also said that he coudn’t sing worth a damn.

Switzerland 2013: Jungfrau

More pictures from the “Jungfrau” region of Switzerland.  The area — south of Interlaken — is named for its tallest, snowiest peak.

A few times during the past couple of weeks, I was on a bike, just laughing aloud – seemingly for no good reason.  I think it sometimes just struck me how ridiculously great it was that I’d somehow found my way onto some of the most beautiful hillsides in the world, coasting my bike in zigzags down the path like a 12-year-old.

My friend (and riding buddy on this week’s rides), Scott Humphries, reported that he’d heard me singing a couple of times as we descended.  I’m sure he did.  Much like normal people do in the shower, on a bike I often sing whatever song pops into (or sticks in) my head.  So this time “Edelweiss” (the Sound of Music song about alpine flowers), and 38 Special’s “Hold on Loosely” were in my repertoire – the latter being a pretty decent ‘80s Rock primer on how to manage the handlebars of a mountainbike during a bumpy, difficult descent (“hold on loosely; don’t let go; if you cling too tightly, you’re going to lose control”).

Admittedly, the long, steep uphill climbs are not nearly as lighthearted.  Those usually involve me monitoring my heart rate and trying to manage my breathing in synch with my pedal strokes.  But the already-stunning views from the mountaintops are twice as satisfying when you know you earned it by getting up there under your own power.

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Scott’s and my last (very long) Swiss bike ride involved a couple of significant navigational errors and a steady afternoon rain, the combination of which resulted in our decision to call it a day and load ourselves and our bikes up for a train ride back to Grindelwald.  A very sweet, very talkative 70-year-old lady – a native of the area — asked to sit with us.  The train car was practically empty; she sat with us because she wanted to talk.  Her monologue brushed on weather, geology, politics, sports…you name it.

At one point, she lamented the tour groups that come through her town for a one-day, prescribed visit to the single most famous tourist sight in each region, then pile back on their bus to do that again in the next city.  She thought they short-changed themselves – and her country:  “They don’t even see it.”  Having spent the prior two weeks covering just about every trail and path in the area, I was delighted and contented to know that I had avoided that mistake.

 

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Lest anyone think I’ve totally lost my mind (or that I lost it in ways that were not previously obvious), rest assured that the craziest-looking trails in these pictures were from HIKES – not bike rides.  Neither my nerve or my bike-handling skill is sufficient to attempt those paths on wheels.  Many of the destinations can be reached by train, gondola, hike or bike.  Most of the hikers (not us) take a train to the top and then just walk down.

And our treks on foot were hikes — not real mountain climbing (e.g., with ropes or picks).  Scott and I wondered why we didn’t see any climbers attempting the impressive rocky north face of Mt. Eiger — the one that looms directly over Grindelwald.  It’s been done, apparently, but the statistics on the number of folks that had died trying explained why we didn’t spot any brave souls up there last week.

In the grid of pictures above, the ferry boat is on Brienzersee, one of the lakes surrounding Interlaken.  The flowery bridge is the famous, ancient one in Lucerne (halfway to the Zurich airport).  In the second big picture from the top, that little clump of buildings on the green hillside with all those roads going to it is Klein Sheidig – at the top of a 3,000 foot climb I did three times on the bike and once on foot.  The snowiest pictures are of the Eiger glacier – part of the UNESCO World Heritage site that covers much of this area.  That’s Scott Humphries in several of the pictures.  Believe it or not, he swung by Grindelwald on his way home from Croatia – where he’d been on a biking trip with his wife, Stacy.  He was a reluctant but cooperative model:  mountain pictures can be a little ‘blah’ without something in the foreground, and often he was the only choice available! 

Completed Passes

In the Alps, there are lots of very-long tunnels and lots of very-high mountain passes.  Sometimes you get to choose between the two.  Tunnels usually make lousy pictures.  And sometimes you learn a thing or two by taking the high road.

  

The winding road you see in the picture just above is Stelvio Pass — where you leave the Tirol (i.e., Italy’s piece of the Tirolian Alps) and enter Lombardy (the Italian Lakes Region). The picture shows — above those clouds — only the last dozen or so of the 48 switchbacks it takes to get to the top.  You become incredulous that it can just keep going on and on.  Making things a little more interesting, I wound up following a Rolls Royce convertible — circa 1930 — most of the way up the pass.  Its drivers were wearing hooded fur coats and having even more fun than I was, though my Volvo handled the climb better than their 80-year-old Rolls.

In Tirol, they speak German; in Lombardy, they speak Italian like the rest of Italy. The underlying history is that the pass (or, rather, the nearly impassable mountain) was the 19th century border between the Tirol region of Austria-Hungarian Empire (to the east) and the Kingdom of Italy (to the west). It’s easier to defend a border if nobody can realistically cross it anyway. The now-Italian Tirol region was promised (and given) to Italy in exchange for their agreement to fight against the Germans and Austria-Hungarians in World War I, and Stelvio pass was the site of some nasty hillside battles.  The pass persists as a literal ‘language barrier,’ helping to keep the German-speakers to the east separated from the Italian-speakers to the west.

To help assimilate the former Austrians into the Italian way of life, the government gave new parallel Italian-sounding names to all the towns.  Apparently this largely consisted of changing the Ks to Cs, then adding a vowel to the end of every word.  Who knew it really was that easy to translate into Italian?!  Kastelruth is now Castelrotto.  Bruneck is now Brunico (Be sure sure to roll the R).

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A few miles further up the road, after you head north into Switzerland, the Autostrada goes through the ten-mile-long St. Gotthard road tunnel.  It’s cool to know you’re five miles inside a tunnel with a mile or so of granite on top of you, but inside it really just looks like a tunnel.  So this time I opted for the road (less traveled) over the top instead:  a series of three mountain passes took me north and west toward Interlaken.

The first seemed impressive enough, with a nice view back down the valley to the town of Airolo (the picture just above).  The view from the second pass (pictures at the top and bottom of this post) was a little more surreal, with those clouds pouring down into the valley like a waterfall and disappearing as their altitude dropped.  There are no pictures from the third pass — which was essentially inside that waterfall of clouds — I drove those switchbacks with about 50 feet of visibility.  Certainly more exciting than the tunnel.

Operating post-camera-theft, I was (temporarily) working with just one camera and one lens, which was not my favorite ultra-wide angle.  The Stelvio Pass picture with all the switchbacks is a computer ‘stitched’ panarama, made from about five original photos.