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Petaluma Around the Clock: Waiting for the light

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PETALUMA AROUND THE CLOCK

This story is the final installment of a ten-part series. We started out at 6 a.m., with the residents waking up at the Mary Isaak Center, and each week since, we’ve skipped ahead a few hours, moving from place to place and person to person, moving around the clock to capture the colorful details, conversations, and activities that make up an average day in Petaluma. If you’ve enjoyed this series, and have ideas of where we can spend an hour, day or night, when we bring Petaluma Around the Clock back in 2019, please send your ideas to David Templeton, at david.templeton@arguscourier.com.

It’s just after 5 a.m. on a cold Tuesday morning, more than an hour before dawn, and Michael Funk is wide awake, all packed up, and ready to go shoot the sunrise. But first, he needs some coffee.

“I got a really nice picture Sunday, out by the river, at Steamer Landing,” Funk says, shortly after picking up his Grande-sized brew at the Starbucks on Washington Blvd. For the last few years, at least once a week, Funk rises early, and chooses a spot to set up his camera and wait for the sun to show itself over Petaluma. “This morning, I’m thinking of doing something different,” he says, “maybe go find a place to shoot up in the hills, just outside of town.”

This morning, according to a smartphone app called The Photographer’s Ephemeris, the sun will rise at 6:14 a.m. By then, Funk will be waiting and ready.

“I like to get in place early, because the sun changes so fast once it starts coming up,” Funk explains, climbing into his car, with his equipment in the back and his coffee cup at his side. There are few other drivers on the road as Funk aims west, and heads out in the general direction of Helen Putnam Park. “I like to get there about an hour before the sun peaks, to watch the colors change,” he points out. “This is my favorite time of day, sunrise. Some people like sunsets, but that’s tougher, for me. To go out there at dinner time, or after a cocktail and a look at the news, that’s not something I want to do. I’m really more of a sunrise person.”

Funk is evidently not alone.

There are a number of other Petaluma photographers who also rise at the crack of dawn to capture the early morning light, choosing to shoot downtown, or on the river, out at Shollenberger Park, or wherever the clouds, the fog or the sunrise seem likely to put on a good show. Many of the resulting shots end up being posted on the “I Love Petaluma!” Facebook page, which has become a popular virtual art gallery for local camera jockeys to show off their work.

“I ran into Eric Tobias not too long ago, over at Ellis Creek,” says Funk, mentioning another regular poster to “I Love Petaluma!” “He looks at me and he says, ‘You Mike?’ I say, ‘Yeah. You Eric?’ Every once in a while, I see someone else out there taking pictures somewhere. It’s kind of fun.”

Funk grew up in New York, and in the 60s, while serving in the Air Force, he became interested in black-and-white photography. The hobby grew more serious in the early 70s, when he spent time in Taiwan.

“There was nothing to do, so I started developing my own film,” he says. “On the base, there was a dark room, so I would develop shots of the markets downtown, and that was a lot of fun. I really enjoyed that. But I kind of let it go for a number of years.”

After leaving the military, Funk got involved in Hospital Food Service industry, working in Buffalo, New York, and Boston, Massachusetts. He eventually got tired of it, and relocated to Northern California, where he joined the Novato Police Department, staying on for 28 years. A Petaluma resident since 1983, Funk retired from the police department as a sergeant in 2001.

PETALUMA AROUND THE CLOCK

This story is the final installment of a ten-part series. We started out at 6 a.m., with the residents waking up at the Mary Isaak Center, and each week since, we’ve skipped ahead a few hours, moving from place to place and person to person, moving around the clock to capture the colorful details, conversations, and activities that make up an average day in Petaluma. If you’ve enjoyed this series, and have ideas of where we can spend an hour, day or night, when we bring Petaluma Around the Clock back in 2019, please send your ideas to David Templeton, at david.templeton@arguscourier.com.

“It was a good career,” he remarks, turning from Western Ave. onto Chileno Valley Rd. “I got out alive and unhurt, anyway, so that’s good.”

A few years after his retirement, Funk and his wife moved briefly to Roseburg, Oregon, where he threw himself into the hobby of building and flying radio-controlled airplanes and helicopters. The Funks eventually returned to Petaluma six years ago, and after a while, he says he lost interest in radio-controlled aircraft, sold all of his equipment, and soon found himself becoming interested in photography again. He spent some time researching various photographic techniques, often turning to YouTube videos for tips.

“This looks like a good place to get some shots,” Funk says, pulling over to the side of the road. He’s chosen a spot on Wilson Hill Rd., overlooking Petaluma. As he climbs out of his car and opens the back to retrieve his equipment, a bright moon hangs low in the sky over a hill just behind him.

It’s now 5:31 a.m.

Consulting the Photographer’s Ephemeris, Funk determines exactly where, out on the still dark horizon, the sun can be expected to show its face. He sets up his tripod, adjusts its height, and snaps his camera into place, aiming it across the valley to where a faint hint of clouds can be seen swirling across the silhouetted mountains.

“Clouds can be good or bad for a photographer,” he says. “Mostly good, but you have to get lucky.”

Luck, he’s learned, is a crucial part of getting a good shot. That, and patience, not to mention good old fashioned hard work.

“If you want to get good photographs, you have to really work at it,” Funk says. “You can’t just get up at 10 in the morning, walk outside, and grab a good photograph. Occasionally you can, but most of the time, you have to have the right light, you have to do your homework. And you really do have to get up in the morning or go out in the evening. The middle of the day is not good for taking pictures, unless you plan to turn it into a black and white photo.”

It’s cold up on the ridge, with a gentle but bracing breeze blowing down from over the hill. Funk takes a few test shots in the direction of where the sun will be rising. The clouds are now a definite concern.

“I’m not sure we’re going to get much of a sunrise, but you never know,” he says. “We might at least get some nice color.”

After twenty minutes or so, watching as the darkness gives way to various materializing shapes - proving to be trees or rocks or geologic folds in the landscape - Funk glances behind him, and notices an attractively uneven fence now visible at the crest of the hill. He goes to his car to grab the other camera, walks acros the road, and begins taking some pictures of the fence, with the moon behind it.

“I like to take something that’s ordinary, and make it look extraordinary,” he says. He checks his display, and smiles. “When I started thinking about photography again,” he says, stepping back across the road, “I’d be concentrating on this,” he indicates the tripod and camera, and the view in front of it, “and never really look around me. But then I learned that you have to constantly turn around and see what’s happening behind you. Because things will suddenly light up and surprise you. Like that fence line there. That could turn out to be the shot we came out her for.”

After another fifteen minutes, the sound of birds is added to the gradually lightening landscape. At 6:14 a.m., technically sunrise, the clouds - now abloom with color, red and yellow and gold – are still hiding the sun itself. Funk stands close to the camera, watching patiently, waiting. And waiting.

“It’s interesting to think that, while I’m up here, there are thousands of people at home asleep, people who will never see this, ever,” he says with a chuckle. “But here I am, doing it. I get to see this, whenever I make the effort. I get to enjoy all this beauty, and feel this calm, just standing here waiting for the light. I kind of think that’s pretty cool.”

[To see the sunrise shot Funk eventually took, find this story in A&E on Petaluma360.com]