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The official photo blog of J. David Buerk Photography.

The New York City Empty Sky Memorial

All photos from this post, and more, can be viewed fullscreen here.

View photos of my 2015 visit to The National September 11th Memorial & Museum here.

September, 2000

In September, 2000 my family had gone on a trip making its way North along the Eastern seaboard.  One of the stops was in Liberty, New Jersey to see The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island - we never went into Manhattan proper much to my disappointment.

This was WAY before I knew anything about photography - I just liked taking pictures on my little Kodak Advantix.

This is a picture I shot at age 12 in the year 2000 from the Northern side of Liberty State Park, Jersey City, New Jersey - now the current site of the Empty Sky Memorial.  I remember my parents bickering over whether "those two tall buildings are the Twin Towers or the World Trade Center."  I said I thought they were both; the same thing.  Fast forward a year, and everyone in the World knew the answer without a doubt.

It's incredible to me that I even have this picture, that I shot it myself.  I was 12.  The majority of my life has been post-9/11, working at IAD and DCA.  My entire aviation related career arc has directly resulted from that day in 2001.  This photo is a relic of a time before that; before the TSA and DHS existed, before all the post-9/11 security and societal changes that resulted.

Here is that photo I unwittingly took at age 12.

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September, 2018

This August I travelled to Rhode Island to visit my friend Alyssa on her birthday, however due to a need for flexible scheduling, I made the journey by car rather than flying this time. It occurred to me by doing this I could make a quick stop at Liberty State Park in Liberty, New Jersey and see the Empty Sky memorial, which I’d only learned of its existence about a year prior thanks to my friend Natalie (who happens to live just 5mi away in Weehawken - I got to visit her on my stop as well :-D). I knew it was the same spot I’d taken that photo as a 12 year old, but it wasn’t until the night before leaving I realized I could try and replicate that photo and compare the New York City skyline across 18 years of history. Before going to bed, I printed a scale copy of my 18 year old photo of the New York skyline (the original print would stay safely at home).

Remarkably, the weather was visually similar to that day in 2000. Textured overcast, but no fog obscuring skyscrapers’ upper floors. Inspecting the original picture, I counted 12 light poles visible, which would give me a good starting point to get me close to the same spot for that matching perspective. To my surprise, the park benches and even the trash cans hadn’t changed in all this time. In order to fit all 12 light posts in-frame, I walked back parallel to 13th light post from the end, and incredibly the perspective aligned almost perfectly - even the park benches lined up, though some trash cans moved, as you’d expect they would over the course of 18 years.

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I’d come here with a purpose, and to my surprise it took me longer to walk to this spot from my car than it did to fight the wind in correctly lining up my photograph in the shot. Next, I wanted to capture a modern view of the same angle. Taking these photos even required me a lower my camera a little bit to account for my shorter 12 year old stature.

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And here are the photos, 2000 and 2018, side-by-side. History in both pictures; the Twin Towers visible in 2000, and One World Trade Center erected adjacent to the empty sky where they once stood. Many other buildings have also sprung up across the skyline, and the freshly planted trees in my original picture are all grown up today.

Continue reading for more views of the New York City skyline later in this post.

Empty Sky

Next stop was the Empty Sky memorial, just steps away, visible in the righthand side of the photos above. Empty Sky was dedicated on September 10, 2011, the day before 9/11’s 10th anniversary. Designed by Jessica Jamroz and Frederic Schwartz, Empty Sky is comprised of twin 30ft tall walls spanning 208ft 10in engraved with the names of all 746 victims of the September 11th attacks; on one side, I beams from the Twin Towers stand solemnly - on the other, directly across the Hudson, lies Ground Zero, and the empty sky in the New York skyline where the Twin Towers had stood. The memorial is impressive at all times of day.

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New York City

New York’s sky today is still beautiful, just different. New buildings have sprung up, and One World Trade Center now watches over the city, with the Empire State Building, Chrysler Building, and 432 Park Avenue all overlooking the city uptown. The last five times I’ve been to this city, I’ve been in the city, so this was also happened to be my first opportunity to photograph New York’s cityscape since I was here at age 12.

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DCA Planespotting - May 25th, 2018 - Summer Sunset Planespotting

I've been sitting on a huge backlog of personal photos I've been working through; this set of plane spotting photos from Gravelly Point were edited and completed within a week of me shooting them, but somehow I forgot to get them online.  So here are some highlights for you to enjoy - some Summer sunset planespotting for you.

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Katie's Cars and Coffee: April 28th, 2018

It's been almost two years since I visited Katie's (though I thought I went last Summer, however don't have any pictures from it).  It was nice to get out to a car show again; I went to the Ferrari Club of America Spring Thaw last week, but Katie's has offerings from every make, model, era, and style, so I find it more enjoyable.

A friend of mine is borrowing a tilt-shift lens for fun to learn how they work, so this time I brought along my under-loved TS-E 90mm f/2.8; Canon's first tilt-shift lens ever, first introduced in 1991, and the world's first telephoto length 35mm tilt-shift lens - at 90mm, this lens is designed for tabletop product photography, such as foods, but I've found use for it as a portrait lens, and in my wedding photography for capturing wedding rings.  As it turns out, the lens my friend was borrowing was Nikon's 28mm f/3.5 PC, which only features a shift adjustment; no tilt - the PC stands for Perspective Correction.  Perspective adjustments via shift are useful for architectural photography; any focus plane effects you see in the photos below are tilt only, as I don't have use for shift in these types of images, plus the effect of shift on this focal length has very few useful applications.

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The RTR Mustang was a spot I almost missed.

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The heavily modified 350Z got a lot of attention.  While it's not my taste, it was well built.  I gathered that this is an example build for a local performance garage (there was a matching Ford truck also at the show).

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Algonkian Regional Park

After Katie's, we met up with Imran and decided to go to Algonkian Regional Park to at least enjoy some of the nice weather, and play with the 28mm f/3.5 PC (Great Falls was too packed).  I still have not been hiking since reconstructive knee surgery in October, and this was also a good warm-up / test, since Algonkian is just a simple dirt path.  There happened to be a 50 mile / 50K / 10K / 5K race sponsored by The North Face going on while we were there, and the thought of such a distance alone makes my knee ache.  I had pushed myself running a 5K the day before (my limit right now seems to be two 5Ks per week), so my knee was already hurting before we even got there.  Though for day-to-day I am 100%, athletically my knee is still recovering.

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Alyssa in DC: 2016

I must admit to having an (arguably) bad habit; I place my personal photography behind my work photography.  That's not a bad thing; the bad thing is how far behind I place my own work.  In something that's become almost as much a tradition as a Summer vacation with Alyssa, this is the second time in a row I've taken more than 8 months to edit the photos I shot on Alyssa's trip to DC.

This time around I insisted that we take things a little slower than the previous year; doing something every single day for a week in 2015 really wore me out, so 2016 was a more relaxed trip.  Plus, that allowed us to catch some of the Rio Olympic Games!

We didn't do anything worthy of photos the first two days (it was mostly spent fixing her computer), so this blog starts on Day 3!

Day 3: Luray Caverns • Skyline Drive • Stony Man Mountain

Luray Caverns, Luray, Virginia

Alyssa is always jealous of my hiking pictures when she sees them, so we always plan at least one hike when she's here; since I thought Luray Caverns would be something she'd enjoy, I planned our entire day in the Shenandoah Valley, starting with Luray Caverns.

It'd been a few years since I'd been to Luray Caverns, but of course Alyssa had never been.  Things have clearly changed since the last time I'd visited; of all the times I've visited, I've never actually been given a tour before.  Actually, I've never even had to stand in line to get in.  Every time I've been you've just paid for entry and you're given free reign to walk around the cavern at your own pace.  Not this time though; we actually had to wait in line, and once inside we were part of a guided tour with around 30 people.

A very different experience than my previous visits, but still enjoyable.  I've previously taken the audio tour, but I found the guided tour more educational and much more enjoyable.  The only reason I can guess for getting a guided tour this time and not my other visits is this is the only time I've been to Luray Caverns during Summer, which is of course peak tourism season, plus all those students are out of school and available to intern at the Caverns.

Something that really, REALLY bothered me was that the intern bringing up the caboose of the group had a serious disrespect for the nature and longevity of Luray's formations.  On several occasions I spotted him touching the stalagmites and stalactites with his bare hands.  He clearly knew he wasn't supposed to be doing it because he stopped when he noticed me watching him and our eyes met.  Incredibly disrespectful to the 64 acre underground natural phenomenon.  Just touching the mineral deposits that compose the stalagmites and stalactites leaves skin oil and other contaminants that halts their growth.  Currently most of the formations in Luray Caverns grow at a rate of 1" every 120 years, but that permanently stops when contaminants destroy the fragile conditions required for the formations to grow.  It has been argued that it's bad that (a small) part of the caverns has been opened to the public - I mostly disagree with this because I think more-or-less sacrificing only a small portion of the cavern is the best way to display and educate the public about the natural phenomonon.  That being said, it makes me angry that Luray Caverns staff themselves can be found palming the formations and at one point even dragging his palm against the wall while walking.

But let's get back to some positive.  Luray Caverns is home to The Great Stalagpipe Organ.  Although it's called an organ, the instrument is actually a lithophone; that is, a percussion instrument using rock to create tones.  The "organ" was designed and installed by Leland W. Sprinkle, who found two in-tune formations, and shaved down an additional 35, to create the instrument with 37 notes spread across 3.5 acres, making it the world's largest musical instrument.  Each limestone formation is fitted with an electrically actuated rubber mallet and electric pickup (similar to an acoustic-electric guitar pickup), and the tones are amplified through a PA system.  Performances of the organ are live, but automated / pre-arranged just like a player piano.  The organ keyboard itself is locked-out except for special occasions such as weddings and other events.  The Great Stalagpipe Organ can be heard on Pepe Deluxé's album Queen of the Wave played by Paul Malmström.

The organ has a playlist of songs it can play at random; here is my video of the organ playing during our visit.  If you know the name and composer of the song, please let me know in the comments!

Stony Man Mountain

Next stop was Stony Man Mountain.  You of course have to take Skyline Drive to get there, so I hopped on at the Thorton Gap entrance, and more or less drove South to the trailhead, stopping here and there for the occasional overlook; I've seen pretty much all of them, but Alyssa of course hasn't seen any.

Years ago I hiked Little Stony Man, so when we went up Stony Man I was very surprised how much shorter and easier the trail was to get to the summit.  Stony Man's summit trail is pretty much a straight shot up the mountain, taking very little effort or time from the parking lot.  The trail is lightyears easier than the Maryland Heights Trail in Harper's Ferry I took Alyssa to in 2015 - that one's difficulty, despite my warning her, really caught her off-guard.  This one was much easier than I'd planned on.  Beautiful overlook at the top, and by chance we found some cool rocks on the edge of the trail that made for some awesome outdoorsy portraits as the fog began to roll into the valley below us.

And thanks to Alyssa for catching this photo of me.  (Edits are mine.)

Skyline Drive

We still had a few hours of daylight left, and before continuing South on Skyline drive, we dropped in on the nearby Skyland Lodge to check out the gift shop if anything caught Alyssa's eye - I eyeballed a marbled coffee mug that I ended up getting a few months later during my annual Fall trip along Skyline Drive.

We went for a leisurely drive as the fog got thicker, running through the gears with the windows down in the beautiful, and surprisingly dry, weather that day.  I've never seen fog on Skyline Drive before (maybe because I've only visited in Fall before this?), and between that, the thick tree cover, and golden setting sun, it was a very surreal drive back by time we decided to turn around and head back.  I insisted on stopping at one overlook just after sunset to catch a cool toned photo of my car - it's much easier to do this sort of thing in the Summer when there are practically no other people and cars to contend with.

Day 4: International Spy Museum • National Portrait Gallery • PostSecret: The Power of a Postcard at The National Postal Museum • Washington Nationals vs San Francisco Giants

International Spy Museum

Oh, the International Spy Museum.  A museum I've walked past more times than I can count, yet had never visited.  I'd even been to the now-closed-for-relocation Crime & Punishment museum, which, by the way, I can't recommend enough.  Day 4 was the longest day of our adventures because we squeezed the most in, beginning with a reservation to Operation Spy at the International Spy Museum... unfortunately we arrived 2 minutes late, and they wouldn't let us into that or rebook us to a later time even being 2 minutes late!  With a little, um, prompting... they at least refunded us.  The day didn't start off very well, but that was the only hiccup for the rest of the day.  We did get into the rest of the museum, and frankly I'd like to go back, because even after spending hours exploring, I'm pretty sure I still didn't see everything or get to read and learn as much as I'd like since it was packed with Summer tourism.

The second half of the museum is whatever rotating exhibit they have visiting; it was the spy tech from the James Bond universe.  Really cool stuff, being a Bond fan as most people are.  The only suggestion I'd make is better separation between fact and fiction; all of the "artifacts" are fictional, and I'd have enjoyed seeing more explanation of how the fictional items tie into factual technologies; there was a little bit of that, but I was still left with a little unease knowing that a lot of the people visiting probably thought some of the movie props were real-world artifacts.  Awesome Bond collection exhibit nonetheless.

National Portrait Gallery

Next we went a few blocks over to what has always been my favorite museum in DC; the National Portrait Gallery.  I unfortunately missed the portrait of Colbert over the water fountain a few years back, but one of my couples was fortunate enough to see it; that's actually where James popped Danielle the question!

PostSecret: The Power of a Postcard at The National Postal Museum

We spent a good portion of time in the National Portrait Gallery, but we didn't dilly dally too much since I was making sure we had enough time to make it to the National Postal Museum.  Visiting here was a complete surprise for Alyssa, because I'd eagerly been awaiting the exhibit's opening, and I had purposely never mentioned it, waiting for Alyssa to get into town before seeing it.

I've followed PostSecret since Frank Warren began the project from his Germantown home in 2005.  I don't look up the newest secrets every Sunday they are posted, but I do read them once or twice a month; Feedly catches everything for me to read later on.

For the uninitiated, PostSecret doesn't need much more introduction than this: people across the World anonymously send in handmade postcards bearing their secrets and their souls.  Usually the cards have original artwork or photographs, other times they're relevant imagery that highlights location or timing.  And on some occasions, entire items are mailed, such as wedding rings, dolls, and other mementos leftover from past relationships and events.  (Full Disclosure: The Museum of Broken Relationships in LA is in my top five of locations I want to visit on the West Coast.)  Mailing a secret is an outlet to creatively share your secret when you may not have the strength or ability to share it with anyone else.  PostSecret quickly amassed a worldwide following and subsequent support community, as it unites everyone with their own personal struggles through shared humanity.

Fun fact: every single postcard Frank has ever received, all 500,000, was present at the exhibit.  So, if you've ever sent in a secret, you can rest assured it is somewhere in the photograph below...

I captured most of the secrets on display, and I've included a small gallery of some select secrets you can scroll through and read below.

Washington Nationals vs San Francisco Giants

After a long day of museum hopping, it was time to sit back and relax with some half-smokes and "doughboys" at Nats Park.  I neglected to tell Alyssa that I'd gotten us seats in the N-A-T-S-NATS-NATS-NATS-WOO! section.  The Nats beat the Giants 5-1, so section 313's reaction caught her off guard the first run or two.  Those were pretty great seats, right on the rail.  That said, the only seats I've had at Nats park I didn't like were in the outfield; Nats Park provides a great view of the game pretty much anywhere you sit, regardless of level.

After the game we went over to check out who was playing at The Bullpen on Half Street.  People were playing soccer, inspired by the Rio Olympics, in front of Jeff from Accounting performing.

Day 6: Imran and Hina's Wedding • Brine Oyster Bar

Imran and Hina's Wedding

The next morning was Imran and Hina's wedding in Virginia; the weekend before I'd been in Houston for their wedding based there.  The wedding here was much smaller as usual.  I just relaxed and enjoyed with Jake and Alyssa; I'd referred Imran to Eddie early that year to shoot his wedding.

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Brine Oyster Bar

After the wedding, Jake, Alyssa, Eddie, and I head over to Brine in Mosaic District and met up with Loreal for our own little wedding after-party.  I ended up trying raw oysters for the first time, and found that I love them.  I'd had steamed oysters plenty of times, but never found a raw bar I trusted and been in the mood to try it at the same time until then.  I'm looking forward to next time I get them; maybe the next time Natalie is in town we'll have to go back to the oyster bar in National Harbor since that's the place we first met each other.

Dramophone: Summer of 2016

Some fun backstory here is that at this point Eddie had been brainstorming his proposal to Loreal with me.  He pretty much had it planned out at this point, and just an hour earlier while shooting the wedding, he pulled me aside to show me a picture of the ring he had for her.  He popped the question a few weeks later on a trip to Hawaii, and the rest is history!  Now I’m hearing all the wedding planning brainstorming lol.

Day 7: Stone Tower Winery • Departure

Stone Tower Winery

For Alyssa's last day, I *had* to take her to a winery.  She'd been begging me the entire trip, and we kept putting it off and putting it off.  So with just a few hours before her flight, we made it happen; I took her to my favorite winery around here, which also happens to be probably the classiest and closest to a Napa vineyard in the Northern Virginia Region (Potomac Point Winery is a very, very close second in my book, if you're curious).  Alyssa's the biggest lightweight I've ever met, so after just a tasting she's tipsy in all these pictures.

But give her just one glass of wine on top of the tasting and she was... super-tipsy?  Tipsy enough that she zapped herself on an electric fence while petting the horses in a neighboring pasture.  At least she wasn't naming them like Patrick famously named the goats at Aspen Dale Winery at the Barn...

Departure

I did a stupid on the way to the airport.  Alyssa had gotten a wine glass from Stone Tower to take home with her; it was wrapped up, placed "safely" on the back floorboard where nothing could get to it.  Well, after Alyssa was done scrolling through the pictures on my camera, I reached back and dropped my camera onto the back floorboard... where "nothing can get to it!"  *CLINK!*  Well at least it sounded pretty when I shattered it!

Stone Tower's wineglasses are oversized, laser cut and engraved, and most importantly for this story, they're crystal.  I don't know of any other vineyard that uses crystal wine glasses.  The winery was closed; there was no time to go back even if they were open.  I told her to relax; I had one of their glasses at home and I ended up mailing it to her... along with the bag of broken wine glass shards, just to screw with her.

The sun set as we arrived to the airport.  We got there early enough to get dinner before her flight began boarding - I think I've turned her on to Five Guys - I'm a bad influence I guess.

Alyssa has a bit of a granola obsession, which I learned the first time she came (I was finding granola wrappers and crumbs in my car a month after she'd left 2015!) but this year wasn't as bad.  I still found granola!... but at least everything I found was unopened, and the crumbs were relegated to the passenger side leg bolster.  Improvement!

Who knows what our next set of adventures will be, but I'm looking forward to them!

Leo and Chelsea: The Proposal

Leo and Chelsea have been dating since 2008.  The two met each other through friends at George Mason, and in the early times of their relationship, including their first date, they spent hours standing by the Reston Town Center skating rink talking into the wee hours of morning.  The two have been inseparable since they met and got together.  They graduated together; Leo watched Chelsea start her career with the Fairfax County Park Authority, and Chelsea watched Leo become a Fairfax County Police Officer.

Leo and I have known each other since high school; we had a math class together, and I always admired his car since we parked right by each other.  Incidentally, I met Chelsea in a psychology class at Mason.  So when Leo contacted me and told me he's popping the question, of course I was going to be there for them!

Because their relationship began in the plaza by the skating rink, it's only natural that that's the spot Leo had chosen to drop to one knee and pop the question.  The plan was simple; take Chelsea on a little date before Leo's family's weekly dinner... little did Chelsea know that it was just a ruse to get her back to the spot where it all began.  But that wasn't the biggest surprise Leo had in store for her; he had both their families and friends standing by waiting so they could all be witness to this big moment in their life together.

Leo had been giving me updates all afternoon, and when I spotted them, I hid behind some columns alongside the skating rink, just across from where they'd stopped.  Leo and Chelsea's longtime friends Emily and Ted had positioned themselves just across from me behind a directory to secretly film.  Finally it was time; Leo pointed out their family and friends, and even their dogs Calvin and Ollie, hidden in plain sight across the street, and dropped to one knee.

She said yes!

Some of the skaters had noticed what was going on the instant Leo dropped to one knee, and when he slipped on the ring and the kissed, the entire skating rink cheered for newly engaged Leo and Chelsea along with their family and friends.

Weddings

Coincidentally, while waiting for Leo and Chelsea to arrive, I spotted another couple get engaged; you never know if a couple has a photographer for marriage proposals, so I snapped away when I spotted the gentleman dropping to one knee, and got them my contact information before they walked away.  If you are this couple, please contact me so I can deliver your pictures.