Weekly Photo Contest winners reveal the unseen in the ordinary


NOTE: All of the winning photos have been posted at

Something happens between a photograph and the real thing. A pedestrian footbridge becomes a study in symmetry. A campfire becomes a small sight compared to the star-speckled skies. A boy's look becomes an expression of raw emotion and thought.

The images captured by the winners of the Palo Alto Weekly's 22nd Annual Photo Contest all exhibit this enlightening quality. Whether their subject is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a wrinkled man lit from above, or a graffiti-covered bridge at the beach, each photograph asks its viewers to see the world around them in a new way.

The panel of judges — composed of Weekly photographer Veronica Weber, landscape photographers Angela Buenning Filo and David Hibbard, and fine art photographer Brigitte Carnochan — selected this year's winners from the many adult and youth submissions in the three categories of Portraits, Bay Area Images and Views Beyond the Bay.

The winners and runners-up will be celebrated at a reception on March 5 at the Palo Alto Art Center, 1313 Newell Road. The center will also host an exhibit of the photographs through April 6.

The adult first-place photographers will be awarded $300 and a $100 gift certificate to University Art. Second-place finishers will receive $200 and a $75 gift certificate, and third-place winners will receive $100 and a $50 gift certificate. Each are also receiving a one-year membership to the Palo Alto Art Center, one of the contest's sponsors.

The youth first-place winners will be awarded $100, the second-place winners $75 and the third-place winners $50. Each will also receive a $25 gift certificate to University Art, a contest co-sponsor.

Read on to learn more about the photographers and the ideas and feelings they hoped to convey through their work.

Adult: Portraits

First place

"Donald" - Yaniv Gur

It wasn't the wild shock of white hair, or the stoic — almost regal — carriage that struck Yaniv Gur as he pointed a camera at Donald.

It wasn't the impish spark in the model's eyes or Donald's prominent cheek bones, which gave the rest of the face the gaunt, confident look of an ancient prophet.

It was the hands — massive and leathery, the right one cradling a black, wide-rimmed hat; the left one hanging by the side, long fingers half-curled into a semicircle that could enfold a grapefruit.

"In my frame, I can see his big gnarly arm and his hand and it just had so much texture," said Gur, a Palo Alto resident whose portrait, "Donald," took first place in the portraits category for adults in the Palo Alto Weekly Photo Contest. "For the whole session, to be honest, all I was looking at was the hand."

Donald isn't exactly what we think of when we think of male models. There is no Botox, bulging bicep or fake tan here. He is a thin man in his 80s and he wears a buttoned long-sleeve shirt and black pants held up by a leather belt. His splotched and wrinkled face is framed from the north by a sweeping mane and from the south by a wispy sphere of a beard that fully obscures his mouth. He doesn't have the perfect skin of GQ model, but he looks perfectly comfortable, even proud, to be in his own skin.

Which, for Gur, made him a perfect subject.

An Apple executive by day, Gur spends his time away from work following his passion — photography. Gur has been shooting photos for the past three decades, ever since he was an 11-year-old boy in Israel and his uncle gave him his first camera. He hasn't stopped since, doing everything from street photography (his main passion) to landscapes and portraits, a form that allows him to experiment with lighting.

Gur discovered his model at a photography workshop in Santa Fe, N.M. He said he was struck by Donald's "amazing presence" ("He is the definition of cool," Gur said) and made it his personal challenge to create "something that looks like nothing I've ever seen."

To make it happen, Gur positioned a strobe light over Donald's head and a ring light by his feet. He watched Donald shake his shoulders and assume his position. Then, lying on the floor near Donald's feet, Gur fixated on the subject's hand as he pointed the camera up and clicked away.

At one point in the shoot, Gur tried to move a fan that stood behind Donald when, in a happy accident, he turned the fan on. Donald's unkempt locks washed over his face, covering his eyes, and enabling Gur to create "Hair," a photo that is also exhibited as part of the photo contest.

The day ended happily. After Donald saw the photos, he told Gur that it was his birthday and invited him to a bar for a celebration.

"We went dancing at a bar and he was drinking like a madman," Gur recalled. "He brought his wife and they were dancing and making out and the way he was dancing was so cool — sort of like the way he was standing in the picture."

Judge's comments

One compelling aspect of a good portrait is the story it tells. Here, in first-place winner "Donald," the story is staged as a small drama with lighting, costume and mystery. That the subject is thinking back in time shows in his eyes and mouth, with the costume heightening the effect.

The distorted perspective of his hand — as large as his face — keeps the eye traveling back and forth between the two focal points. Our eyes aren't allowed to leave the frame — a powerful, dramatic portrait.

I have been to Ngorongoro Crater and seen some of the Masai people, but I certainly didn't come home with a portrait as full of drama and poignancy as Stan Chism's "Masai Man in Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania," which took second place and seems to tell the story of a whole family of people in the representation of this sole individual, whose vulnerability and isolation are heightened by the dramatic color and contrast of his clothing and face against the blurred, muted background empty of other

people. Portraits that last make the viewer want more. I want to know more about this man's story.

In third-place winner "Baba," Paige Parsons has captured a moment that makes the viewer want to know, "What was she thinking?" Even though the eyes are not looking out at the viewer (or perhaps especially because they aren't), our attention is drawn to them and invite us to imagine all they have seen. The beautiful lighting and shallow depth of field allow us to focus without distraction on this face rich with history.

"Untitled Portrait 2," which received an honorable mention, is a photograph that illustrates Cartier Bresson's dictum of "the decisive moment." The tension of this particular moment is exaggerated by the tilted camera angle. The eye, lit by the glow of a lighter, focuses our attention. Clearly there's a story here, and the photograph makes us wonder what it is.

Adult: Bay Area Images

First place

"101 Pedestrian Overpass" - Kyu Kim

Who would've thought that leading a double life could be a beneficial practice? For Kyu Kim, that is exactly what he has done. Architect by day, amateur photographer by night, he has seen his two seemingly disparate worlds colliding more and more.

Kim is a graduate of Palo Alto High and California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. It wasn't until college that he began photography as a hobby. It was in high school, however, when he was able to intern at ACS Architects where he now works. ACS would be the nexus for his ability to capture uncanny beauty.

"I'm always pretty aware of what I'm surrounded by and what I'm looking at," he said of seeing the beauty in things others don't, a quality he credits architecture for giving him. "Sometimes the best pictures come out of the things that aren't necessarily the best to look at."

That was the case for Kim as he prepared to cross the U.S. Highway 101 pedestrian overpass one day. The 29-year-old Palo Alto native looked at the bridge as a piece of architecture. Calling on his tendency to notice how light filters through a building or a room, he noticed "some nice contrast and the amount of light and shade, a certain aspect of symmetry that is there, but not there" on the overpass.

And so he shot the photo without hesitation. With a little editing to the image's color saturation and a quick crop job, Kim's winning image was created.

"It's about pulling something out of a place that's always there, but many don't see."

Judge's comments

The winning images in this category demonstrate that one does not have to travel far to take evocative photographs.

First-place winner Kyu Kim's "101 Pedestrian Overpass" leads us to a mysterious place, symbolized by the small blaze of white light at the far end of the walkway. I like how this image combines strong graphic elements — lines converging to a vanishing point — with soft, middle gray tones. Too much tonal contrast would destroy the sense of atmosphere.

Second-place winner Peche Turner's image "Bliss Dance" is also a strong composition. I like how the off-center placement of the dancer gives her room to cavort. Notice, too, how the form of the dancer is isolated against the night sky and how only the body of the dancer is rendered in vibrant color (all the other color is muted). These simplifications enhance the power of the image.

Deborah Plumley's "Speeding from Oakland to San Francisco," which took third place, also achieves power through simplification. Only the important elements — the tracks, the cityscape beyond — are shown in detail. I especially like how the stream of car headlights and the two sets of tracks all curve in toward the same vanishing point, just below the City, a distant goal in the evening haze.

An honorable mention, Jamshid Varza's image "Sidewalk Art" grabs our attention through its upside-down point of view. We hardly notice the sidewalk artist — it is almost as if he has drawn himself into the picture. His creation, on the other hand, stares directly at us with wide open eyes. She has assumed a life of her own.

Adult: Views Beyond the Bay

First place

"Campfire Under the Stars" - Timothy Aiken

Eighteen-year-old Timothy Aiken, a Stanford University freshman who grew up on campus where both of his parents teach, was on a four-day backpack trip in Baja California with his family when he began framing his winning "Campfire Under the Stars" shot.

They were crossing the Sierra de la Laguna mountains, a wooded range.

"At the highest point is an open expanse that used to be a lake. We camped in a huge meadow.

"We were 7,000 feet up, away from any cities. There were amazing, amazing stars," he recalled.

But when he looked through his lens, the light from the campfire was overwhelming. So, first he positioned his mother and sister to block out the fire, then he used filters to cut down on light from the fire area and bring up light in the sky.

With a 30-second exposure, he asked his family "to sit very, very still," he said.

Aiken, who's been seriously taking photographs since he was in the seventh grade and spent a year on a round-the-world trip with his family, said he "feels privileged to have been able to do that kind of travel."

His other strong interest is cycling. He combines his two passions by keeping an eye out for interesting landscapes while on his bike, then returning to identified locations to capture the California scenery.

Judge's comments

Each year when I view the entries in the Views Beyond the Bay Area category, I am transported to the beautiful places around the world our readers get to see. From Venetian canals to African savannahs to lush hiking trails just a state or two away, I always enjoy living vicariously through the photos of these travels for a brief moment.

This year's winning entries impressed me and the fellow judges because the photos not only show a place but they tell a story, capture a mood and call attention to the overlooked beauty of seemingly everyday objects.

Tim Aiken's winning "Campfire Under the Stars" caught our attention immediately. In this long exposure, three figures gather around a fire, faces illuminated by the glowing flames and draped under a huge canopy of the seemingly infinite stars and light bands of the Milky Way galaxy. One can almost feel the warmth of the fire on their faces and imagine staring up at the stars by looking at this image. Aiken's use of light, exposure and framing has brilliantly captured the mood and feeling of this place that would be difficult to express in words.

One of the great things about photography is that it can bring our attention to design and form in ways we have not noticed before. This is the case in Paige Parsons' second-place "Power Lines, Beijing, China" image. Though the subject matter may be just an ordinary power structure in China, in Parsons' photo, it becomes a study of converging lines, shapes and symmetry. The image asks us to appreciate the artistic design of otherwise ordinary objects and invites us to study other objects with such detail.

We also loved the dreamy, storytelling quality of Tony Williams' third-place "Going to Work by the Disney Concert Hall." A lone figure of a woman holding shopping bags stands in front of the sculptural, industrial shapes of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles shrouded in fog and soft blue tones. The soft light adds an ethereal quality to the image and the isolation of the lone figure adds drama and mystery to the scene. The storytelling quality of this image makes us wonder about this woman and where she is headed. I believe that memorable images not only capture a sense of place and being but also leave us curious and wanting to know more about the story behind it.

Youth: Portraits

First place

"Noam" - Hanna Oberman

Palo Alto teenager Hanna Oberman started taking pictures seriously when she was in eighth grade, after getting a camera as a gift.

"I started playing around with it and really liked it, and my friends liked getting nice pictures of themselves," the 17-year-old said. Another reason: "I don't like being in front of the camera, so I stepped behind it."

In "Noam," a family friend who was playing in the Obermans' hot tub began to cry when he ran out of apple juice — and Oberman began to shoot.

"I always take a lot of pictures. He's a really photogenic kid, and I got lucky with this one," she said.

Always on the lookout for photo opportunities, the junior at Kehillah Jewish High School carries her Nikon DSLR around with her. She enjoys incorporating her photography into mixed-media art projects and journaling — and some of her work hangs on the walls of Kehillah.

Oberman took up street photography — shooting people she sees around a city and making up stories about them — after seeing an exhibit of street photographer Bruce Gilden's work in New York City. She's tried it in New York and also in Palo Alto.

"But I have to be careful when I'm taking pictures here because sometimes I'll write a story for somebody that one of my friends knows, and it's awkward."

As for Noam, he's thrilled to be part of winning a contest — and excited that his picture will be in the paper, the photographer said.

Judge's comments

The winning photographers in the Youth: Portraits category all took young people as their subject matter, each demonstrating a compelling connection between camera and subject.

Choosing to photograph in black and white, first-place winner Hanna Oberman creates a moody portrait of a young boy, "Noam." Pared down and effectively composed, the details of this photograph — the droplets of water on the boy's cheek and mysterious textures in the background — captured our attention.

Second-place winner Alisha Nayak used color to her advantage, effectively capturing her subject's intense focus. In "Dance With the Sun," the dancer's outstretched arms helped frame and contain this composition.

In a similar way, Jillian Li leads us into her photograph "Looking Down at My Brother" through reaching arms. In this portrait we were engaged by the textures and reflections in the surrounding environment, which give the viewer a reason to take a second look.

Youth: Bay Area Images

First place

"Reflection" - Zachary Weiss

Zachary Weiss had one thing on his mind while walking down a long, vacant stretch of beach along the Northern California coast last June: He had to go to the bathroom.

But all of a sudden, something else stole his attention.

"It's hard to describe — occasionally, I will just get this feeling," the Gunn High School freshman said. "I know there's a photo to be had here — I just can't tell what."

He continued along the beach until he stumbled upon a huge pile of rocks that stretched to the top of a bridge above the beach. He clambered to the top of the rocks, balancing his feet in order to keep his Nikon D5100 stable, and found his shot.

The photo, titled "Reflection," won first place in the photo contest's Youth: Bay Area Images category. On the right-hand side is the bridge, with graffiti-covered arches open underneath standing in a body of water. In the distance is more beach and sky.

He said he took two shots with different exposures and used a high-dynamic-range technique, or HDR, to merge the two exposures in order to better capture "both the highs and lows" in the photo.

Weiss is a self-taught photographer who picked up the craft in seventh grade, in conjunction with his love of filmmaking. Weiss and his good friend, Mihir Juvvadi, who won first place in the contest's Views Beyond the Bay category, started playing around with his camera together.

"Soon enough he has his own camera, and we're going out on photo walks every other day," Weiss said.

This is reflected in his approach to photography — "walk around until something hits you" — and camera subjects, which is anything from his beach shot to portraits to abstract photos.

Weiss said he's also passionate about psychology, film, coding and Web design. He recently launched his own website,, where he's showcasing and selling his prints.

Judge's comments

The weather was right when Zachary Weiss headed out to shoot his winning landscape, "Reflection." Painted in the muted palette of an overcast sky, this image brings natural and human-made elements into harmony. At the same time, the clashing energy of graffiti and construction fencing against a serene beach landscape and monumental sky bring tension and interest to the image.

In her second-place image, Hannah Oberman finds a way to isolate this couple's passionate kiss against what could have been a distracting background. Her manipulated toning gives this image a cinematic quality, and her title, "In Defense of Marriage," makes the viewer want to know more about the moment she has captured.

Mihir Juvvadi's photograph, "Flight," had enough strength and focus that the judges were willing to overlook small distractions at the edges of the composition. The shapes and fine details found within these outstretched wings made this image successful.

Youth: Views Beyond the Bay

First place

"Patriot" - Mihir Juvvadi

When Mihir Juvvadi pressed the shutter-release button on his Canon EOS Rebel T3i while visiting Washington, D.C., in April 2013, he had no idea that his shot would win a photo contest almost a year later.

"Patriot" captures one small portion of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in early evening. Reflected in the polished black granite is the Washington Monument, illuminated by the sinking sun.

"It shows a lot of the nationalism and patriotism presented in Washington, D.C.," the 14-year old freshman at Gunn High School said.

He admitted that he didn't see that particular shot initially. He started by capturing the memorial as a whole, from farther away.

"I noticed that the trees were reflecting onto the stone, and I thought I might try to clarify that effect by coming at a 3/4 angle," he said. "This worked (and) toward the end of the memorial, I found that the Washington Monument was positioned behind me, so I set up to take the shot, with the Washington Monument reflected into the war memorial."

Juvvadi is part of an interesting twist in this year's photo contest: His good friend Zachary Weiss, who went to Washington, D.C., with him and first introduced him to photography about two years ago when they were playing around with his SLR camera, won first place in the Bay Area Images category.

"I look at pictures that other people like Zachary have taken, and seeing what they have done makes me want to try that as well," Juvvadi said. "I don't like to take a photography class to learn it."

Besides playing the piano since he was 6 years old, Juvvadi leads a busy life as the senior patrol leader for his Boy Scout troop and is learning jazz. He also created his own website to showcase his photographs,

Judge's comments

Mihir Juvvadi's winning image sets the Vietnam Memorial beautifully in the landscape. With a careful composition captured at an ideal time of day, Mihir gives us another view from which to reflect on two of our country's most iconic monuments. Even in the murky areas of the photo, interesting pops of color emerge, bringing those standing alongside Mihir into the frame as well.

This judge, for one, particularly enjoyed the black and white images in the youth category this year. Hanna Oberman took second place for her image "At the Cuzco Orphanage," a portrait of a boy whose eyes meet the camera with a direct and open gaze. He seems about to speak, and this photograph gives us a chance to get to know him, even if we can't hear his words.

Elise Most, like other youth winners this year, shows us a keen sense of timing and quality of light in her third-place image, "Beach Fence." She takes an everyday subject and gives us a reason to consider it much longer than we might have if we had been standing in front of it ourselves. Rather than photograph the beach, she has brought us up to its edge where we can get lost in the blades of grass and winding layers of fence.


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