Feature story: Connecting with a camera

Sheldon Breiner knows a striking scene when he sees one

Geophysicist, inventor and world traveler Sheldon Breiner informed a relaxed gathering of about 100 people at Portola Valley's Community Hall on Nov. 10 that he has at least two serious hobbies: finding things and photography.

Some of what he finds, he photographs, and on that night he conducted a slide show with around 400 of his photos of outdoor scenes from every continent except Australia. Mr. Breiner, who is a fellow of The Explorers Club in Manhattan, says he picked the photos at random from his electronically archived collection of 130,000 images.

His talk was the first in a new series of free talks sponsored by the Portola Valley Cultural Arts Committee.

His kind of art

When taking a picture with his aging single-lens-reflex camera, Mr. Breiner says he usually finds a single zoom lens to be sufficient. When he's using his camera. Since about 2007, he says he's also been satisfied with the photos from his smart phone. The phone also has the benefit of being uncomplicated and small. "I want to be practical and I want (the photo) to be good," he says.

Mr. Breiner says he does not examine his photos immediately after taking them, but leaves that for his laptop review. If touching up is called for, he will do that. When asked if he uses Adobe PhotoShop, he replies: "Oh yeah, a lot. I don't fake things. I clean up. I enhance. ... None of this stuff I'm doing has anything to do with publication or journalistic purposes."

A shot familiar in Portola Valley circles shows a black-and-white photo of a standing man, hands on hips, surveying the damage to Alpine Road after the 1906 earthquake. Alongside that photo is another from 2001 showing a man dressed similarly and standing in the same spot with a similar stance. The hat on the man in the 2001 shot was added later with PhotoShop, Mr. Breiner said. "It's my art," he said. "It's my kind of art."

His photos tend to capture physical or cultural experiences that really impress him, but they're not meant for his own enjoyment, he says. "I'm trying to convey to someone else some interesting things that I've done," he says. "The picture is a link to that experience."

Depth of field

Composition, including finding compelling ways to present a three-dimensional scene via a two-dimensional medium, is Mr. Breiner's primary concern, he says. To that end, his photos tend to be well composed and often have depth of field and/or a frame in the foreground, like a fence railing or foliage.

A scene on Easter Island, for example, shows a foreground shot of a totemic head carved in stone, and three more heads lying at intervals in a grassy meadow as the eye travels up to the skyline. It's still a mystery as to how the colossal heads were moved from the quarry, where an unfinished head can be seen still attached to its base of rock, he says.

Mr. Breiner's photo of windmills in Holland, while it has no foreground frame, does have depth of field. Along a road about 30 minutes east of Amsterdam, a row of tall pylons fades into the distance, each pylon topped with a white two-bladed rotor, and each pair of pylons painted a different pastel color.

He took that shot for its charm, he says. Public works officials didn't have to paint the pylons different colors, but they did, and such artistic touches are not unusual in Holland, he says. "It was so interesting, I had to get out of my car," he says. If it doesn't cost more money, why not add touches such as color for the public to appreciate, he asks. "There's no reason you can't."

A nice smile

Some of Mr. Breiner's images are simply lovely. His photo of Dal Lake in Srinigar in the state of Jammu and Kashmir catches a woman in a small boat with a cargo of leafy vegetables. From his temporary home on a houseboat, he watched the woman paddle from houseboat to houseboat offering her vegetables. He didn't buy any, he says, when she came by his boat.

He has images of Morocco, but most do not include close-ups of Moroccans. They tend to not take kindly to be photographed, Mr. Breiner says. He does have one, however, an elderly woman wearing what appears to be traditional dress and standing in front of a painted wall inside her earthen-walled home.

A guide did the talking, asking her if she would be OK with a portrait, Mr. Breiner says. "Just to look at her was really special," he says. "She was very friendly to us, a nice smile."

The Cuban people, by contrast, loved being photographed, Mr. Breiner says. His trip there, illegal at the time, includes an image of an elderly man, his face wrinkled to an extent that surely embodies stories.

Mr. Breiner's shot of fireworks at Tiananmen Square in Beijing is not one available to the typical tourist. He took it from a VIP location in the square for an Independence Day celebration. In his capacity as the chief executive of an oil and mineral exploration company, he goes way back in his dealings with Chinese authorities, he says.

In the 1970s, he says NASA used him as an ambassador of sorts to provide China with data, including what at the time were exclusive satellite photos of the country and useful in analysis of mineral and agricultural resources. "They never forgot that," he says.

At one point, he was given the right to go anywhere in the country with his camera, including Xinjiang. The province has been in the news in recent years over its minority population of Muslim inhabitants, known as Uighurs, who are resisting the government's resettling of majority Han Chinese in the region. "It's a dictatorship," Mr. Breiner says. "They do that."

Go to for Mr. Breiner's photo albums, and for more on his many accomplishments.

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