The Signal Room: 360 Panoramas of an Underground Art Space on Yerba Buena Island

A  360 panorama of The Signal Room  on San Francisco's Yerba Buena Island

A 360 panorama of The Signal Room on San Francisco's Yerba Buena Island

Back in February I heard that a group of artists was throwing underground events in The Signal Room -- an old naval signal tower on top of San Francisco's Yerba Buena Island. A friend knew the way in, and we spent an evening watching the sunset and taking photos. I've never met Eugene Ashton-Gonzalez, who was the ringleader behind these efforts. I really appreciate the magical transformation of this unique space with amazing views. Being able to turn around and see both spans of the Bay Bridge, the San Francisco skyline, and the Golden Gate off in the distance was fantastic.

I shot some 360 panoramas to remember how the place looked. The San Francisco Chronicle did a short documentary video on the space that's worth watching. There are no longer events taking place at The Signal Room. The tower now has security, and is slated for demolition this summer.

Update: The Signal Room was knocked down in early July.

Technical Details: Each of the 3 panoramas is composed of 6 shots around and 1 shot down using a Nikon D750 with a Samyang 12mm fisheye lens. I used a Nodal Ninja R1 panoramic head on a Sirui N-2204X carbon tripod. Bracketing at 2.0 stop intervals, 5 shots were taken at each camera position. The resulting images were processed in Lightroom, blended in Photomatix Pro, stitched in PTGui Pro, and output using krpano. Enjoy the panoramas!


Stalker, Zona, Roadside Picnic, and down the Tarkovsky wormhole

Tarkovsky on the set of Stalker
Tarkovsky on the set of Stalker

Since discovering Stalker in early 2012, I've taken a much deeper dive into the world of Andrei Tarkovsky, and have now seen 6 of his 7 films. If you enjoy exploring abandoned places, and are open to taking a meditative look into what it all means, then Stalker is essential viewing.

In the near future, an unseen alien force has taken possession of an area of Russian wilderness that authorities have dubbed The Zone. The only thing known for sure about the region is that few who enter it ever return. Led by a Stalker, one of a small group of outlaws able to safely navigate the Zone, a renegade scientist and a cynical, burnt-out writer penetrate the dangers outside in search of the power and transcendence rumored to exist inside. The Stalker longs to un-do a mysterious physical transformation the Zone has performed on his young daughter. The scientist will risk anything to see that reason triumphs over faith. The writer seeks a germ of inspiration that the crumbling and corrupt world beyond the Zone no longer provides.
Together, these three men become desperate pilgrims walking a desolate trail leading to one of the most enigmatic and tantalizing endings in the history of cinema. A haunting and honest meditation on the intersection of science, feeling, and faith, Stalker is both profoundly unsettling and deeply moving. - Kino Video

Stalker becomes more rewarding with multiple viewings. Tarkovsky is a master of the long take, and many of his films are light on traditional narrative. This isn't easy viewing. That's OK. Like a lot of great art, the viewer needs to do a little bit of work to get the most out of the experience. The four books and two documentaries below will help you explore the world of Tarkovsky:

Geoff Dyer's Zona is theoretically about Stalker, but it's also about how our relationship with art changes over time. Wonderful, light hearted ramblings on a difficult, heavy film.

Roadside Picnic - Stalker is based on the Russian science fiction novel Roadside Picnic. Beyond being a big fan of Philip K. Dick, I don't usually read a lot of sci-fi. Roadside Picnic was a fast, fun read. Reading the book before seeing Stalker won't ruin the movie for you. Tarkovsky's film jettisons the narrative in favor of spiritual and philosophical explorations.


The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue - After watching Stalker, I watched Solaris again, and then saw Andrei Rublev, Mirror, Nostalghia, and The Sacrifice. Johnson and Petrie's book was a really helpful guide to understanding Tarkovsky's history, themes, influences, cultural context, working methods, and critical reception. I was initially concerned that this book might be too academic, but it's got an easy to read style, and is very insightful.

Sculpting in Time - I haven't finished Tarkovsky's essays on filmmaking yet. I'm taking this book a little bit at a time, but it's certainly essential reading for understanding Tarkovsky's universe.


One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich - Chris Marker's (La Jetée) documentary has a mix of clips from all 7 films, Tarkovsky directing, and Tarkovsky re-united with his family during his final illness. Recommended.

Voyage in Time - If you're going down the rabbit hole (or perhaps wormhole), the documentary Voyage in Time follows an exiled Tarkovsky scouting locations in Italy with Antonioni's screenwriter Tonino Guerra. This one is slow going, and for the completist only. Probably works best if you've seen Nostalghia.


Bobbie's Buckeye Bar: Abandoned Nevada Brothel 360 Tour

Bobbie's Buckeye Bar Brothel 360 Tour
Bobbie's Buckeye Bar Brothel 360 Tour

Bobbie's Buckeye Bar is an abandoned brothel in Tonopah, Nevada. This remote town in the Nevada desert is the home of the Tonopah Test Range where the F-117 Stealth fighter was tested back in the 1980's. The Pahrump Valley Times ran a short biography of the madam of this brothel back in 2005. A New York Times profile of Tonopah back in 1982 is also quite entertaining. My friend Troy Paiva photographed Bobbie's brothel in 2004. I've visited Bobbie's on a few photo trips through the Tonopah area to find it locked up tight.

Last month the door was open, so I took a look inside. The place was pretty cleaned out, and the roof is caving in. Take a look around the bar and the living room in the 360 tour of Bobbie's Bar.


Abandoned ski resort 360 night panorama: Breaking the star trail barrier

Abandoned ski resort 360 night tour

Abandoned ski resort 360 night tour

During the supermoon I photographed an abandoned ski resort in the Lake Tahoe area. While we were scouting the location, photographer David Dasinger mentioned that he'd seen a 360 pano with reasonably long star trails. The full moon 360 night panos I've been shooting have typically been four exposures of 90 seconds, in order to keep the stars and shadows aligned when stitching. As an experiment, I shot a 360 night pano with four 6-minute exposures. The longer star trails stitched perfectly in PTGui. The ground required a little bit of extra retouching because the tree shadows moved during the long exposures. Other than that, I'm excited to report that it IS possible to have longer star trails in a 360 panorama.

Check out the night tour, and you'll see the stars circle around Polaris over the wood house. The star trails are diagonal to the east and west, and almost horizontal to the south. Zoom in just to the right of the supermoon, and you'll see our tents in the trees.

Update 7/7/2013: Three additional panoramas have been added to create a virtual tour.

Update 7/10/15: Updated the panorama viewer and added map navigation.


360 night tour of an abandoned cement plant

Long exposures at night with moving clouds can make stitching 360 panoramas difficult. The 6 panos in this virtual tour of an abandoned cement plant were shot some time ago. Over the last 6 months I've finally developed a reasonably efficient post-processing technique to get the clouds to stitch smoothly. Enjoy the panos!


A short interview with night photographer Joe Reifer

Palm Readings Open -- by Joe Reifer
Palm Readings Open -- by Joe Reifer

Sometimes I get emails from students who have an assignment to interview a photographer. These interviews are often a good reminder to re-examine how I tell the story of my photographs. Recently I received some questions from Emily Chiverton, a photography student on the Isle of Wight:

1) What inspired you to do the style of art you do?

My inspirations evolve every day. In addition to photography, I’m also inspired by film, music, and design. I’m a firm believer in the idea that paying attention to a wide range of artistic inputs helps your artistic output immeasurably. This could be the clean lines in the design of a chair. Or how an album sounds on a new pair of headphones. Everything can have a subtle influence on your art if you pay attention.

Ten years ago, photography and lighting workshops led me to the desert and I fell in love. From old ghost towns to more modern day ruins, there is a special feeling when you stand in a place where humans have come and gone. Visiting these places under the light of the full moon intensifies the energy. I hope I can capture a little bit of that feeling with my camera.

2) Have you always been interested in photography?

I’ve been interested in photography since high school, but music was my primary artistic outlet for 15 years. I started on piano, then guitar, and finally upright bass. A series of events around 1999 led to my slow transition from music to photography. By 2003 I didn’t own any musical instruments, just cameras.

3) Who bought you your first camera?

First camera stories are the stuff that bad artists’ statements are made of. Equipment needs to be easy to operate, reliable, and produce the intended results. Cameras come and go – it’s the photographs that count.

That being said, here’s my first camera story: My dad gave me a Petri 7 rangefinder camera that he had purchased while in the Army. The Petri had a fixed 45mm lens, and also included wide and telephoto screw-on lenses. When you used the screw-on lenses you had to use an auxiliary viewfinder and compensate on the focus scale. I would not call it easy to operate, but it was fun.

4) Did you take art or photography at school?

I studied electronic music and jazz in school, and somehow got a degree in literature. I lived near the college darkroom, and a friend who was a photo major taught me to develop and print. I also worked in a black and white lab for a short time. We used to buy old 620 cameras at thrift stores and jam 120 film into them. Photography was something fun to do when I wasn’t playing music.

5) What gave you the idea of taking photos of abandoned places?

I’ve always been fascinated with ghost towns and ruins. There is a rich photographic history of this type of work back to the 19th century. We live in an interesting time. A lot of what was built after World War II has come and gone. Photographs are a way to record the last gasp of these places before they’ve disappeared. There’s a line from a song that says: “how strange it is to be anything at all.” Examining ruins under the moonlight is a way to tap into the mystery of being alive.


360 panorama of an abandoned wooden library in the forest

A secret location found in a library book, investigated on a 20 year old map, and accessed through extensive and humorously unnecessary bushwhacking. This beautiful circular wooden library is in quite good condition. I'd like to fill up the bookshelves, dust off the mattress, and move in. Click the image to see the 360 degree panorama.