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2013 In Review: Top 30

Posted on December 29, 2013

For the third year in a row I’m sitting in my bed on my laptop while the weather outside quietly dips below freezing and my dog dozes, peacefully twitching in his sleep on the bed beside me. The house is warm and dark, my parents have long since gone to bed, and I’m writing this one year nearly to the minute since I did the previous top 30. Normally I’d be heading to bed about now, but I couldn’t resist the opportunity to match the time by one year so closely.

To say that this past year was the most emotionally and physically difficult year of my life would be an understatement. The entirety of 2013 was overwhelming for me in a multitude of ways; in addition to the pressures of composing, organizing, practicing, and rehearsing a senior thesis recital replete with a twenty-five minute piano concerto involving a full chamber orchestra and choir and having to learn the (rather technical) piano part with a still-recovering fractured wrist, and with school ramping up in general difficulty in my senior year of college, I went through a rather miserable depression in the initial months of the fall semester due to aforementioned, personal, and family reasons. I underwent therapy and briefly thought about dropping out of school for a semester to get myself together, something I never thought I’d ever consider doing. On top of that, I spent the majority of the spring semester saving up for an abhorrently expensive mountain bike, bought it the first week of summer, and then rode it for a week before crashing gloriously and fracturing my wrist, bringing my summer mountain biking plans to a grinding halt and thrusting me into a dimension of stir-crazy I had never experienced before.

Part of what helped me through a very difficult time in my life was the realization that many of my close friends and family were experiencing very similar emotions, albeit all for different and individual reasons (none of them any less valid or rational than another), and that my situation wasn’t unique. A few weeks ago I was reading an article that held a variety of advice for freshmen about to embark on their college experiences, and one of the bits that stuck out to me was this:

“Everyone is probably telling you right now that these will be the happiest four years of your life. What they probably aren’t telling you is that these will also be some of the worst years of your life. In college you will feel on top of the world and utterly defeated (sometimes in the same day). So just try to remember that you’re not doing anything wrong if you’re having a hard time. And before you jump to any conclusions about how much happier everyone else is, and how much more fun they’re having than you, go sit down and talk to a friend. You’d be surprised by how many people feel lost and directionless at least some point in their college careers.”

If I could have read this advice as a freshman, perhaps I would have been more prepared for the absolute (for lack of a better term) shit-storm that awaited me in my final year of college. I offer this quote to any of my friends and family who have undergone similar emotional tests this year; I struggle to name any of my close friends who didn’t have a rough time at some point this year. One of the most important things I learned in my own therapy sessions is that hardships, though seemingly insurmountable in their immediacy, will eventually pass. Life does return to some semblance of normalcy when given adequate time.

But I digress. The purpose of this post isn’t to go on a diatribe on stress and emotions, but a few words on the outcome of the preceding year are usually in order to provide some context to why the top 30 were picked. In addition it seems necessary that I write these things down, as this will be the final “Top 30” review of my college career (which is a sobering thought in and of itself).

Admittedly, there were a surprisingly frequent number of times where the photo project became cumbersome rather than enjoyable this year (September stands out in particular…), and there were quite a few days where I started to actually run out of things to photograph. When you spend ninety-five percent of your time between two or three locations, you begin to run out of creativity fairly rapidly. And at 2am when the only thing I’m thinking about is sleep and I realize I haven’t taken a photo, it can be very easy to say “I’ll just take it tomorrow.” That’s a bad habit that resulted in a lot of missed days (I promise I’ll stop doing that).

But the photos that were good this year were some of my favorites I’ve taken yet. I put a lot of emphasis on post-work and Photoshop this year, and the general result is that I posted fewer photos, but the ones that were posted were generally of much cleaner, polished, and high-quality.

Disregarding the events of summer and the emotional stagnation that followed, this was, on the whole, an amazing year full of more adventure than I was prepared for; Joshua Tree, Arizona, Mt. Pilchuck, and tons and tons of rural and urban exploring throughout Washington and California, all capped off by me discovering the coolest hobby I’ve had in a long time in the form of mountain biking, which allowed me to explore a side of California I never even knew existed until this year.

On that note then, the photos.


30) Last week I spent the day before Christmas Eve at the river with my parents, one of the first times this year we were able to get out there and enjoy some time away from home. Around sunset of the last day we were there, we went out to the fields and I shot this a few minutes before the sun hit the edge of the mountains.

No. 30

29) Opening night of the Britten War Requiem, an astounding performance that I had to sneak my camera into in order to get this shot, something I’ve been wanting to do for a few years now. Fortunately this was the first time the ushers decided not to check my backpack; the last three times I did this they found my camera and promptly told me to leave (including once at the Rachmaninov 3rd Piano Concerto, to my everlasting shame).

No. 29

28) The poster art for Cycle, the AP film at Chapman I scored this semester; following the absolutely horrible flood of scores (nine in total) I did last semester, I decided to take it down a notch and score a grand total of two films this semester, which was vastly more manageable. Far more compositing and painting work than actual photography, this was still an achievement that took me several days to color correct and paint to perfection. The original photograph was Jacob on a greenscreen, composited onto a space-art background.

No. 28

27) In August, I was hired to photograph the new Dean of Phamarcology at Chapman. Instead of doing the usual quick portrait and leaving, we opted to painstakingly set up an elaborate lighting system to make the photo look almost surreal, comprised of two flashes on either side of the dean, one of them inside a soft box and the other bouncing off a white wall, and the entire setup in front of a large picture window close to sunrise. It wound up looking far better than I could have hoped for.

No. 27

26) Following a summer of sitting indoors with a fractured wrist while the weather consistently mocked me with temperatures in the mid 70’s, I finally had my final surgery to remove the pins from my arm and went home a week later. Two days after arriving at home, my friends and I piled into a car and drove out to Thousand Steps at Laguna Beach and stayed there taking pictures and screwing around until 3am, and that night stands as one of the best nights of my entire summer vacation. Finally having time to spend with my friends after a miserably long time indoors was a welcome change.

No. 26

25) In the fall semester I got very tired of paying eighteen to twenty dollars per haircut every month given the fact that my hair grows obnoxiously fast. I got the clippers and shaved it down to a 4, then a 3, then a 2, and then I just took the blade guard off completely and shaved it as close as the clippers would allow. At that point I figured, “Well shit, I’ve already gone this far”, and grabbed a safety razor and finished the job off.

No. 25

24) Another job for Chapman Magazine, this was an experiment that sort of succeeded and mostly failed; I wanted to do something extra-awesome for the shoot when I heard that it was going to be Grace Fong and Arsen Jamkotchian in the studio, and so I grabbed a bunch of paper lanterns from IKEA and lit up the inside of the piano and shot most of it from that vantage point. On one hand, the lighting looked ridiculously cool and the inside of the piano seemed alien and otherworldly in muted grey tones. On the other hand, I completely forgot to check and see whether Arsen and Grace were making weird faces in every single shot. Which they were. Whoops.

No. 24

23) When Casey moved back into our apartment following a short sojourn into frat-house territory, he brought his adorable cat Oreo with him. One of Oreo’s “things” is that she hates being held in virtually any position except for the one pictured; she won’t let you put her over your shoulder, she won’t let you hold her stomach down, but she becomes utterly complacent when she’s cradled like an infant about to be breastfed.

No. 23

22) With nothing to do all summer long, I often turned to taking trippy shots of my awesome new mountain bike since I wasn’t able to do LITERALLY ANYTHING ELSE with it. So basically I spent nearly three grand on a mountain bike (not including upgrades) to have it sit in the garage for most of summer. So that was great.

No. 22

21) Thunderstorms in Orange County are a rarity, and when they do move through the city they usually blanket the entire place with the marine layer and shut down any possibility of sunset photography. This was the exception; three separate storm cells moving in independent directions eventually produced this scene and I jumped in my car just before sunset and found the highest location to shoot it from. For most of this, the sun was behind a huge set of anvil clouds; but about ten minutes before setting, the clouds parted and the sun blazed momentarily through, and this happened.

No. 21

20) At least this summer I got to do a lot of sight-seeing around Seattle; my cousin David took me to this apparently very famous location just outside of the city overlooking the Space Needle and most of downtown Seattle. I have a bad habit of defaulting to the widest lens I own, so this was a nice change to actually have to think about composition and framing for a while.

No. 20

19) Once our group of friends discovered Thousand Steps, we probably went there more than three times a week for a solid month with cameras and flashes and lights and other various photographic equipment. On one particular night, Kevin, Jack, and I decided to go night-surfing there; however, despite the warm summer air the water was absolutely frigid and there was zero moonlight to see the waves (which were approaching 4-5 feet) by, making the entire endeavor a bit too dangerous for comfort. Instead, we took speedo shots with the milky way in the background, which proved to be far more fun anyways. It’s nights like these that I wind up remembering the most, where my friends and I just take every chance to screw around without worrying about obligations and responsibilities.

No. 19

18) A good portrait of Oakley will always, always be in the top 30. This was one of my favorites throughout the year; I still need to do a few more self-portraits with him, but I’ve been running dry on ideas lately. And he’s not exactly helping with the fact that he enjoys sleeping literally every single chance he gets.

No. 18

17) Another example of compositing work; this original shot was brown, ugly, and had an awkward tree in one half of the photo. Color correction on the fireworks, deepening the green and turning up the vibrancy of the grass, and completely removing the tree from the side proved to be very effective in making it look like a presentable image instead of something I snapped randomly at a fireworks show. Patience is the key with Photoshop, and there are no shortcuts to make something look convincing and realistic, which I think is something that discourages a lot of people from trying something like this.

No. 17

16) After a year of reflection on what I want to do with my life, the most likely course of action is that I will be moving up to Washington following the conclusion of my undergraduate education and getting a masters and doctorate in music at the University of Washington (for which I incidentally just bought a Huskies jacket today) while spending time with my parents and enjoying the mountain biking, scenery, and weather up here. Pictured here is the massive, Gothic reading room in the library on the main campus. I will likely be spending a lot of time here.

No. 16

15) While I didn’t technically take this photo, it represents a very important marker this year. When my mom grabbed my camera and shot this photo, I was nauseatingly high on a Ketamine and Propofol drug combo to have my broken hand reset, as the shattered bones were putting immense pressure on the nerve in my wrist and causing an excruciating amount of pain that slowly ramped up over the course of six hours until it bordered on unbearable when I was finally put out. This photo was the start of the decline of my summer (with small, glorious breaks in between with my family, my cousin, and his friends), and the first of three surgeries by a renowned hand specialist to fix my primary career-making tool. Piano kind of relies on it.

No. 15

14) When I got hired to photograph Chapman University’s Singers group, Rick Christopherson and Peter Atherton quietly walked up to me before the shoot and asked, “Is there any way you can take a photo of Dr. Coker in between the Memorial Hall pillars and photoshop it to look like he’s tearing them apart?”

This is what I live for.

No. 14

13) The first of my cousins got married this Fall, and my entire family got to go to a destination wedding in San Francisco completely with far too much alcohol and public transportation. It was probably one of the most fun weekends of the entire year. I don’t remember laughing as hard as I laughed on the bus ride to our hotel back from the wedding. I’ll spare the entire world the details, but those of you who were there know. We’re all thinking it.

No. 13

12) Liquid physics never ceases to amaze me. This was a late-night experiment involving coffee, way too much food coloring, and a water-filled ping pong ball on a black t-shirt. To Amber: gone are the days of dropping D-cell batteries into coffee mugs. No glasses were harmed in the making of this shot. I’ve come such a long way.

No. 12

11) When I first decided to take up mountain biking, two of the first challenges I set for myself were to bike to the top of 1) Sierra Peak, which my friends and I had twice attempted unsuccessfully, and 2) to the top of Santiago Peak, the highest mountain in Orange County at nearly 6,000 feet of vertical elevation. I achieved Sierra Peak about a week into owning my first bike. Santiago Peak came nearly a year later. The entire bike ride took over four hours, and reaching the summit was absolutely brutal on account of the last four miles being comprised of primarily loose gravel and shale which was nearly impossible to ride through. After nearly three hours of climbing, I reached the top and achieved a goal nearly a year in the making by shooting this panorama from the summit. On the far left is Lake Elsinore and Temecula bit further beyond that, with Laguna Beach barely visible in the distance, Catalina Island on the horizon, and Irvine and Orange in the foreground with Mission Viejo just over the ridgeline.

No. 11

10) A huge storm cell over rural farmlands in Snohomish, Washington. This photo is not HDR; this is literally what the clouds and scenery looked when I shot this.

No. 10

9) Self portraits between Oakley and I took a dive in frequency as I ran out of clever ideas to use, but I saw something similar to this shot on 500px a while back and decided to give it a try. Even in his old age, Oakley will still leap up from wherever he’s currently sleeping to go for a car ride.

No. 9

8) Early in the year, I took a trip to Joshua Tree with my friend Josh (ha!). The entire trip was a bit of an impulse; we decided the day before to do it, and then loaded up the car the day of the planned trip with tons of photography gear, two blankets, sandwiches, and water, and drove out into the desert as the sun began to set. We stayed out all night shooting the stars until the moon eventually set, and went to bed somewhere around 2am, sleeping most uncomfortably in the car. When I eventually awoke some four hours later, I crawled to the top of the rock formations we were camped under and saw the sunrise throwing brilliant red hues across the sky. We spent the next hour photographing the sunrise and then the next few hours shooting the rest of the park before eventually heading home by noon; the entire trip had taken less than 24 hours, but produced many of the best photos of the entire year.

No. 8

7) When I broke my wrist, I was absolutely and utterly determined not to let my summer get shot to hell, so much to the point that I may have overdone it with the enthusiasm a bit. Barely five days after my initial two hand surgeries, I decided it would be a fantastic idea to climb Mt. Pilchuck with David. I discovered two things on this adventure: 1) mountain hikes with virtually one functioning arm are not a good idea, and 2) I am not a mountaineer. Cliff edges with drops exceeding 30 feet were relatively common, with some of the higher ones posting 50 feet and the overlook itself at some 300 feet above the valley below. The entire hike was barely 5 miles out and back, but two of those miles involved gaining over 1500 feet of elevation, which wasn’t fun when I had one hand to grab onto trees and ledges with.

Having said that, the view from the top was far better than any of the views I ever had from hikes or bike rides in California. Snow-capped peaks and clear skies stretched for miles and miles in all directions, with Mt. Baker and Mt. Rainier clearly visible to the north and south. As far as accomplishments, this was probably one of the top ones.

No. 7

6) I had passed by this abandoned dump truck many times driving to my parents house in Washington, but accessing it proved to be trickier than I had expected; I had to scale a fence, crawl under barbed wire, and then walk along a cement barrier to get to it. The color combinations in this along with the vibrancy of the milky way put it solidly in the top ten for me; this photo is framed and hanging in my bedroom in California.

No. 6

5) Kyle Chattleton asked me what we were planning to do for his senior recital photos and on a whim I said we should try to make it look like there were pieces of sheet music fluttering in the wind surrounding him while he stands in the middle.

And now I have to top this for my own senior recital, so great.

No. 5

4) When stress starts to mount in school, I usually find that going for a bike ride or doing some form of exercise helps me to clear my mind. On this particular day I went for a walk at a park close to my apartment, and found this little path. There are beautiful places in California, you just have to know where to look.

No. 4

3) In January my aunts visited my parents in Seattle and we spent some time in downtown Seattle at the fish market. This really shows how much alike they all look. And this as far as memories go is one of my favorites.

No. 3

2) With absolutely nothing to do all summer I started taking a ton of self portraits in Seattle (note the cast on my left arm). One particular night, I noticed that the moon had completely faded off the horizon and the stars were insanely bright even with the street lights glaring in the camera.  It’s a good view into the bit of “self-reflection” I had while recovering.

No. 2

1) The entire countdown wouldn’t be complete without a mountain biking self-portrait. Anybody who’s familiar with the photo of the day will know that there were a countless amount of these throughout the year (and there will probably be quite a few more next year); this hobby has been my primary source of entertainment and stress relief (and a big factor in what pulled me out of the funk in fall semester). And on top of that, come on. Look how awesome that picture is. Composite of two shots at the top of Santiago Oaks, a trail network which basically became my second home this semester.  If time commitment were the deciding factor in these photos, it would still be at the top; an hour of biking to reach the summit, an hour of camera work to get an angle I liked and then filling in the rest of the panorama, and then some three hours in Photoshop to stitch everything together and color correct the entire thing. In terms of what this represents, how it looks, and how much fun it was to do, this is easily my favorite photo of the year.

No. 1



So this is the last “Top 30” while I’m still at Chapman University then. Needless to say, this is not the end of the project, but after May flies by, I’ll be moving up to Washington sometime in the summer and continuing my life for the next few years at grad school, and there will likely be a whole new chapter in the entire photo of the day when that happens. When I began this project in January of 2011, I never anticipated the fact that it would likely become my career for the first few years out of college while I pay for tuition, and in that vein it will be pertinent to keep the project running to keep myself sharp. On that note then, I am continuing the project for the foreseeable future; I have no intention of stopping when school stops, when grad school is over, or when my career eventually starts. This is by far the largest thing I’ve ever done, and to stop at any time would feel like cutting it short of its full potential. The people who have been involved in this, the people who tolerate me shoving a camera in their faces on a daily basis, and the people who continue to keep the project alive by visiting the site (usually as a result of boredom in class….Casey) keep me motivated to do this, and for that I am grateful. I never really had any intention of stopping the project when college ended, but to say it aloud excites me and motives me to continue. I cannot wait to see what 2014 brings; I’m always surprised at where my life has taken me when I look back through these photos and see how far I’ve come.

Here’s to another year of adventures.



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