With the evolution of phone cameras and other technology, taking great photos isn't just for those with expensive equipment anymore. More people than ever are capturing images of the world around them. And so after a four-year break, the Palo Alto Weekly collaborated with the Palo Alto Art Center to revive and revamp the newspaper's annual photo contest to bring exposure to a greater variety of works from more participants.
The Peninsula Photo Contest now includes entries from anyone who works, lives or attends school in or near the 650 area code, which stretches from Daly City to Mountain View. The categories have expanded from three to six: Abstract, Portraits, Moments, the Natural World, Travel and Life in the 650 — the lattermost for images of compelling moments captured along the Peninsula.
The judges reviewed more than 740 entries submitted by adults and youth. Each of this year's 12 winning images captures everyday life from a unique perspective — from sunlight on the bare branches of a corkscrew willow tree to a baby clownfish resting in an anemone's tentacles to a garbage man waving to a little boy on pickup day.
The winning photographs will be on display, along with 20 honorable-mention images selected for exhibition, at the Palo Alto Art Center, 1313 Newell Road through June 17.
Read on to learn more about the photographers and the ideas and feelings they hoped to convey through their work.
— Linda Taaffe
• Watch Weekly journalists discuss the contest and winning images with Palo Alto Art Center Director Karen Kienzle on an episode of "Behind the Headlines".
Adult winner: Ken Fowkes
"The Shaman's Horse"
Ken Fowkes, 59, is a software engineer who lives in Mountain View. He has been fascinated by photography since he was a little boy but didn't pursue it as an adult until seven years ago, when a friend gave him an old digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera.
Fowkes created "The Shaman's Horse" from a series of photographs made from ever-changing sunlight on the bare branches of a corkscrew willow tree, using long exposure. The piece is a negative image with the strokes of light depicted as strokes of dark, much like ink applied to paper. The photograph is one of 553 images taken one morning in June 2017. Fowkes said he likes this photo because it "explores the notion that order can emerge from chaos if that chaos is vast enough."
Youth winner: Molly Christman
Molly Christman, 12, is a student at Jordan Middle School and lives in Palo Alto. To create "Nightside 10," Molly used a negative filter on an iPad but did not change the photos after they were taken. She shot the image through the window of the house next door while it was being remodeled. "I intentionally was trying to get more of the staircase from the window above the door (which I had to use a foot stool to get to), but the reflection blocked most of it," she said, adding that she likes the photo because "it gives me the feeling that people can interpret in different ways."
In reviewing the submissions for the abstract category, I considered abstraction as an interpretation of reality that could lead our imagination beyond the mere subject of the image. If experimental techniques were used, I looked for stylistic renditions that would enhance the image and not merely transform it. The winners in each category illustrate this creative search. "The Shaman's Horse" is an elegant, surreal image, unique in its simplicity that leaves us to wonder about its origins and how it was created. "Nightshade 10" artfully combines everyday objects producing a complex, intriguing new image.
— Federica Armstrong
Life in the 650
Adult winner: Kay Luo
"The Wednesday Morning Love Affair"
Kay Luo, 45, is a photographer who lives in Palo Alto. After a successful career in the tech world, she became a mother in 2013 and began her path toward becoming a photographer. Luo put a lot of practice into "The Wednesday Morning Love Affair" after trying for more than a year to capture her son Milo's excitement when he would hear the rumbling of a distant garbage truck coming down the street. This particular time, she thought she had missed another shot until the driver reached his arm out the window with an enthusiastic wave goodbye to Milo, who waved back. "It wasn't what I had planned, but it was perfect. What I love about the photo is it's a reminder that everyone has the power to make someone's day."
Youth winner: Sofie Kamangar
Sofie Kamangar, 17, attends Los Altos High School and lives in Los Altos. She used her digital camera to photograph two friends looking inexpressive while sitting inside of a Bobcat tractor for "Young Women." Through the composition, she wanted to show that there is not much for teenagers to do in the 650 area code. To fight boredom, she and her friends go on hikes, paint and take photos. She edited the photo using Photoshop skills that she learned in her digital photography class at school. To give the overall composition more emotion, she added a blue and magenta hue to the photograph. "I love photography because in art, there is never one 'right' answer. Any person can use their own inspirations and imagination to capture and create a photo that gives off its own unique message or emotion," she said.
As the landscape of the Peninsula rapidly changes before our eyes, it was a breath of fresh air to see the winning entries in this year's contest embrace the themes of community and connection. "The Wednesday Morning Love Affair" by Kay Luo reflects a child's sense of wonderment and honesty captured in a friendly wave and shows us that community bonds exist in the mundane of the everyday work week. "Young Women" by Sofie Kamangar gives us a wonderful example of the imagination and creative process that can happen when we turn off our devices and seek inspiration beyond the digital realm.
— John Todd
Adult winner: Paige Parsons
Paige Parsons, 50, is a live-music/event photographer who lives in Palo Alto. She is always searching for moments of vulnerability and authenticity when she's behind the camera. "Reunited" captures one such moment between her sister Thorley and her sister's oldest son, Adam, who were reunited the day before his graduation from basic training at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego. This was the first time in four months that they had seen one another. "My goal was to capture both the love and admiration that exists between my godson and my sister, as well as the joy of being reunited after a difficult separation," she said.
Youth winner: Stella Berliocchi
Stella Berliocchi, 10, is a student at Bubb Elementary School and lives in Mountain View. She took "Mexico" while looking for a restaurant for dinner during a vacation in Valladolid, Mexico. Finding the perfect shot while on vacation has become a family competition between her, her brother and her father. Each of them challenges the others to find the best photo, she said: "I like the final result."
I was drawn to Paige Parsons' "Reunited" instantly because of the way it captured such strong emotions in her subject. I was moved by how Parsons chose to get so close. As I look at the expression on this woman's face, I get a glimpse of her months of worry and concern and also the relief of seeing her child after a long time away. The heartwarming image reveals the raw emotions of a mother reuniting with her child.
Stella Berliocchi's "Mexico" reveals the hustle and bustle of what looks to be a typical afternoon commute in a small town. Three cyclists pass through the frame with bags of groceries in tow and a pedestrian walks past the closed windows of a tortilleria. I'm not sure if Berliocchi planned it, but I also loved how the bold red, white and green colors of the Mexican flag on the buildings' exteriors are the backdrop to the scene. It is a wonderful little slice of life in Mexico.
— Veronica Weber
Adult winner: Robert Eugene Johnson
"Desert Bighorns, Papago Butte, Arizona"
Robert Eugene Johnson, 77, is a retired editor and teacher who lives in Palo Alto. As a former editor, he is intrigued with the idea of taking photos that capture how he might describe something in words. On New Year's Eve 2017, he unexpectedly captured the shot of a lifetime with "Desert Bighorns, Papago Butte, Arizona." He was at the Phoenix Zoo in the evening when his wife spotted animals in the distance on the Papago Butte just east of the zoo's boundary. He scrambled for his camera, propped it on a fence post and reeled off a dozen or more shots, hoping one or two animals would stop moving long enough to permit a sharp image in front of the beautiful full moon. He recently learned that the desert bighorn is an endangered species. "Sometimes you get lucky," he said.
Youth winner: Natasha Thompson
Natasha Thompson, 16, attends Pinewood High School and lives in Los Altos Hills. Last year, she decided to follow in her father's footsteps and began shooting underwater photography. "Shooting underwater is a lot more technically challenging because of the availability of light, the variable clarity of the water,and the extra equipment needed," she said. For "Baby Clown," she was trying to capture both the contrast in colors of the anemone and the baby clownfish while trying to show some of the personality of the fish as it moved in and out of the anemone's tentacles. "I think what makes this picture special is the color contrast, behavior and the fact that I had to work hard to capture this particular moment," she said.
Robert Eugene Johnson's captivating night exposure "Desert Bighorns, Pagago Butte, Arizona" is remarkable for its perfect timing and brilliant light. The two desert bighorn sheep perch on top of a butte as a bright full moon rises in the distance, illuminating an ethereal fog, which seems to emanate from the ground, swirling around the landscape. I particularly loved how Johnson framed the sheep against the moon and how his use of light conjured a mysterious and somewhat moody scene that left me wanting to know more about the habits of these animals.
In Natasha Thompson's delightful "Baby Clown," a tiny clownfish peeks out from its home among the tendrils of a sea anemone. I loved how Thompson framed the orange fish against the backdrop of the green and blueish tentacles and how she chose a moment in which the fish almost seems to be checking out who is at its front door disturbing its peace and quiet. It is a wonderful photo revealing the many worlds unseen underwater.
— Veronica Weber
Adult winner: Dan Fenstermacher
Dan Fenstermacher, 33, is a photographer, artist and photography teacher at Eastside College Preparatory High School who lives in Menlo Park. He became interested in photography while borrowing his stepdad's camera on trips. "I love being able to capture a moment in time, a split second, that can never be repeated." He captured "Futbol Shadows" while visiting Havana last February.
Youth winner: Rebecca Mak
Rebecca Mak, 17, attends Castilleja School and lives in Saratoga. For a school project, she was asked to take a self-portrait that would express something important to her. Mak wanted to reflect her feelings about race, and the portrayal of Asian Americans in the country. "The goal of my portrait is to increase the visibility of Asian-Americans in the U.S. The Chinese character on my hand, kàn, means to see. As I shield my face with my hand, leaving kàn as the most visible part of the photo, I am telling the world to see Asian-Americans for who we truly are because we are not our race or our stereotypes. ...I love the intensity of the image and the message it sends without needing words."
What immediately drew my eye to "Fútbol Shadows" was Dan Fenstermacher's intriguing use of framing, light and layers in his portrait of a young man playing soccer in Cuba. I loved how he chose to frame the subject and the background through the black lines of the soccer net. The net's diamond shapes cast a gridlike pattern across the young man's face, his eyes perfectly framed by the lines of the net's shadow. The abundant layers in this image offer a superb vignette of life in Cuba.
Rebecca Mak's striking "See Me" self-portrait also captured my full attention. Mak stands in a dark room, the only thing visible is her face and hand with the Chinese character for "see me" written in ink across her palm. Mak seems to step out of the darkness into the light, boldly commanding the viewer to notice her and pay attention to what she has to say. The way Mak used light and contrast in the black-and-white portrait is compelling and audacious.
— Veronica Weber
Adult winner | Best in Show: Dan Fenstermacher
For his street scene "Beautiful Chaos," Dan Fenstermacher had stopped with friends for a drink at a restaurant with outdoor seating on the corner of a busy street in Havana. "Usually I am looking or hunting for a great scene to photograph, and this scene happened to come to me, which was serendipitous," he said. See full biography under "Portraits, Adult winner."
Youth winner: Kiley O'Brien
"The Silent Pairing"
Kiley O'Brien, 17, attends Mercy High School and lives in San Mateo. She said it took a long hike through a forest and cave to get to this small lake in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam, where "The Silent Pairing" was shot. Kiley said it looked as if the lake had never been touched, as if the two boats had been there together since the beginning of time and as if all the elements of this scene had a silent agreement of harmony and balance. "I attempted to capture this stillness and balance in my photo through the symmetry."
Developing a unique voice in travel photography is hard to accomplish because we all live with certain standard images representing the countries we journey to. The challenge for the artist/photographer is to move beyond those by creating fine images that express our special perspectives ... not what we have seen so many times before.
"Beautiful Chaos" is definitely one of the most amazing photographs I have seen in all of my years of teaching photography and judging contests. Why? The chosen title and the photo's composition reveal an idea of chaos in the streets of Havana, albeit with perfect balance and harmony within this "chaos." It is this instant of magic synchronicity that is captivating. One just wants to keep looking at the juxtapositions of forms, light, figures, shadows, buildings and cars. There is no element in the photograph that interrupts the symmetry of the image. It's wonderful movement of street photography at its best. Out of 750 photographs, all four judges independently chose "Beautiful Chaos" as the very best in show — verification of its special qualities.
"The Silent Pairing" by Kiley O'Brien also is an extraordinary photograph. Kiley avoids the usual cliches that so many travel photographs fall prey to — images unconsciously driven by all the postcard icons and glossy posters in the media. The image is peaceful, simple and harmoniously envisioned. It fills in the many stories that can be imagined about the lives lived there.
— Margo Davis
Peninsula Photo Contest judges
Federica Armstrong is an editorial and commercial photographer working with many nonprofit organizations in the Bay Area. Her skills include traditional documentary photography, environmental portraiture and event photography. She is the founder of the Palo Alto Photography Forum, a lecture series that features prominent photographers and promotes conversations on current issues through visual storytelling.
Margo Davis is a fine art photographer with many published books and a long teaching career. Currently, she is teaching "Building a Photographic Portfolio" for Stanford Continuing Studies. Her work is represented in individual as well as major museum collections, including Cantor Art Museum, Stanford University, San Francisco MOMA, Bibliotheque Nationale and Brooklyn Museum.
John Freeman Todd has been a professional photographer for more than 25 years. Since 1996, he has been the team photographer for Major League Soccer's San Jose Earthquakes. He also owns International Sports Images (isiphotos.com), the official photography supplier to the U.S. Men and Women's soccer teams, Stanford Athletics and the former Maverick's Big Wave Surfing contest.
Veronica Weber is a staff photographer and videographer at the Palo Alto Weekly where she has spent more than 10 years covering communities along the Midpeninsula. In her spare time, Veronica enjoys taking long hikes and photographing the Bay Area's abundant nature. Her work has been recognized by the California Newspaper Publisher's Association and the Peninsula Press Club.
Peninsula Photo Contest sponsors
The Palo Alto Weekly, Palo Alto Online Palo Alto Art Center, The Six Fifty and Palo Alto Photo Forum sponsored this year's Peninsula Photo Contest. Adult winners were awarded $100 each and received vouchers to a lecture series by the Palo Alto Photo Forum. Youth winners received $50 each. All winners received memberships to the Palo Alto Art Center.