www.luisykes.com - Portrait, Fine Art and Nature Photography

American West & Kaua'i, Mar 20, 2012

American West & Kaua’i highlights some of America’s most dramatic winterscapes with material from two recent trips. The first took my wife Kim and me to Yellowstone, the Colorado Plateau and Kaua’i (See Kim’s post below). On the second, my good friend Barry and I cross-country skied and hiked Yosemite for a long weekend and the gallery includes a few wintry shots from this iconic national park as well.


American Beauty

By Kim Sykes

After Lui’s numerous recent trips to tropical wonderlands, I “suggested” that it was time for a vacation together. It had been two years since our last adventure, and in mid-January we left New York for what we deemed our “American Beauty” tour, which ironically caused Lui to miss his first appointment to become an American citizen. 

Our first stop is Yellowstone, which I confess I was less than enthusiastic about initially due to the prospect of flash-freezing temperatures. But, if you love snow, have had it with being vertically spooned by strangers on the subway, and think geothermal action is way cool, then look no further for your paradise. Yellowstone sits on top of an ancient super volcano (possibly the world’s largest), which fuels more geysers, hot springs and steam vents than anywhere else on the planet. Winter repels the crowds but drives bison to the warm geothermal features, creating an unbeatable steamy, hissing, animal-laden landscape for snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and exploring in snowcoaches, which traverse roads closed to cars. We watch Old Faithful erupt alone at night with only a coyote for company.

Then of course there is the side bonus of finally discovering something I can whoop Lui at – a great triumph after the grave disappointment accompanying the 2004 revelation that Lui competed in one of Berlin’s youth ping pong clubs. Many of you have likely seen the photo exposé on Lui’s Facebook page from our day trip out to the Lone Star Geyser, but let me recap it here just to be sure. This is a stunning, 7 mile ski through snow-laden pines out to the geyser first on a broad, groomed trail, which Lui handles with grace, and then on a hilly, un-groomed trail that has tracks. Has tracks until Lui passes through, cratering them out every few yards and spraying the pristine snowscape with foul words at each majestic wipe out. I face challenges on the trip as well, as Mother Nature’s restroom features nearly chest-deep snow. (Ladies, digging holes is essential.)

Utah brings the next round of geological superlatives. Within a 100-mile radius on the Western Colorado Plateau’s Grand Staircase, nearly 2 billion years of rock record are exposed through a succession of stunning national parks colored in reds, oranges, pinks, greys and browns. We explore the hoodoos in Bryce Canyon, slender, white and orange stone spires representing the most recently eroded layers in the Staircase. At Zion, we go further back in geologic time and live to journey on by avoiding the infamous Angel’s Landing hike, which we are ill-equipped for given our lack of crampons and courage.

Descending into older layers still, we canyoneer into Buckskin Gulch, one of the world’s standout slot canyons, proving ourselves only mildly neurotic in the face of heights. The journey to and from the Gulch’s undulating, striated walls is a day in the life of Indiana Jones, complete with spotting pottery shards and petroglyphs, and hunting for the tracks of a newly discovered 3-toed dinosaur. To cap our time on the Colorado Plateau, we stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon, stunned by its vast reaches and epic display of Earth’s history. Looking down at the Colorado River a mile below, we see rocks that have existed for close to 2 billion years, nearly half Earth’s existence.

By now I am developing serious nationalistic tendencies, and we have yet to reach our final destination – Kaua’i, Hawai’i’s Garden Island. On Kaua’i, we benefit tremendously from prior sleuthing by our friends Amanda and Dave Bowker. After nearly two weeks of hiking and skiing, we kick back, beach hop, swim, spot local birds, whales and seals, and eat as much fish as possible. We become enamored with a local fish called walu, savoring its luxurious, flavorful flesh in a string of meals until I start to feel wrong. As if I would never eat again wrong. Which is seriously threatening my ability to take down as many coconut/macadamia cookies as possible during our stay. Lui, in the course of hunting for the English translation of our delicious fish discovery, learns that walu is escolar, and it is illegal in Italy and Japan due to its digestive “effects,” which I will leave to your googling. Yes, even paradise has its perils. In spite of our digestive woes, we make it to the island’s other sides to Waimea Canyon (making this the most canyon-rific vacation we will ever take); to laid-back Hanapepe’s Friday night street fair (which, unlike NYC’s, features more than socks and funnel cake); and up to Ke’e Beach, where we meet trekkers coming in from the Na Pali Coast’s infamous Kalalau trail with tales of naked hippies running down the slippery, foot-wide trail, cliffs to the side.

While we’re not quite so brave (or idiotic), we could not have had a better adventure. Without ever needing a passport, we reached remote wilderness, saw iconic animals in their habitats, challenged the elasticity of our sense of time, touched objects thousands of years old, learned “foreign” words, and flew across the ocean into a different climate. Not too shabby, these United States. 


Portraits, Mar 20, 2012

I’ve become increasingly focused on portrait photography. I enjoy it tremendously, particularly when the subjects are kids, who always bring spontaneity and unfiltered emotions to the shoot. Portraits showcases some of this work, both old and new.






Panama, Jan 20, 2012

Five days into the New Year I took off for Panama, the first of a string of big nature trips I’ve lined up for early 2012. While Costa Rica and Belize have long been darlings of Central American tourism, Panama has much to offer: first class rainforests; secluded islands off the Pacific and Caribbean coasts; and a large, skyscraper-filled city whose historic quarter still retains much of time’s patina. An easy flight from New York, these are reasons enough to visit, but the real draw was seeing my dear friends Jan & Cecile and finally meeting their adorable son Rafael. Click here for an eclectic mix of pictures featuring wild, urban and family life in Panama. 



159 Umbrellas Selected for Art From the Heart 2011, Nov 4, 2011

159 Umbrellas was selected for the exhibition Art from the Heart at 25CPW on November 12th! Click here for more information.






The Discovery of the Goliath Amazonian Sykes Moth, Aug 22, 2011

I have added a new gallery with material from my recent trip to the Achuar Territory, which is in a remote corner of the Ecuadorian Amazon. Ecuador, while relatively small, is one of the world’s 17 “megadiverse” countries, with more bird species than in all of North America and Europe combined and apparently more bugs than there are neurotic people in New York. My cousin Michael Sykes* organized the trip and he gets props for crafting an itinerary that featured not only child-size insects, but also 3-way translation, multi-day jungle hikes, slippery log crossings above piranha-filled waters and an audience before the local Achuar chief.

Michael, my other cousin Steven and I arrive in a 4-seater plane on a thin mud strip in Yutsuntsa, a village so remote that it has never seen tourists before. Without a plane, it takes 10 days by boat to reach this place from where the nearest road ends. Three pale giants land here and are greeted by the locals with what appears to be a complete lack of interest. This, it turns out, is in keeping with local custom. The Achuar have a notoriously violent past - until just a few decades ago half of all adult men were killed by other Achuar men - and looking strangers in the eye is considered the equivalent of “bring it on!”.

By nightfall word comes that Hukam is inviting us to his hut for dinner. Hukam means “night monkey” and he is the village chief. We start our dinner with drinking some chicha, the immensely popular home-brewed manioc beer. We are seated 15 ft / 5 m away from the chief and, as there is no electricity and it’s pitch black, we don’t actually see him. We only hear his voice. We converse through our two guides/interpreters, who translate everything from English to Spanish to Achuar and back. We are asked to “talk about our feelings.” I answer this question like an American: “I feel great and I’m excited to be here”, which is true but leaves out some other important feelings. For example, my doubts about the chicha’s hygienic pedigree. Dinner is fish, which was caught in a little stream three hours away on foot with a poisonous plant that suffocates the fish (but is harmless to humans), as well as some manioc and plantains, all cooked in a banana leaf.

The next morning, we visit Hukam again and for the first time actually see him. He demonstrates his blowpipes and curare poison darts. While he also has a rifle hanging in his hut, he uses the poison darts to silently kill monkeys and other animals in the forest canopy 100 ft / 30m above. Michael and Steven each buy a blowpipe and some darts. I wonder what airport security will make of these souvenirs.

We start our “10 hour” jungle hike, which turns out to be a 3 day hike with a total of 21 hours of walking. As we quickly learn, the 10 hour estimate refers to “Achuar speed”, i.e. the gazelleian pace, with which an Achuar effortlessly dances down these forest paths. Achuar speed is distinct from “Tortuga speed,” which is what we’re clocking even after off-loading almost all of our gear to our Achuar porters. We also deliberate extensively each time we find a stream to cross on a slippery rotten log, which happens about 20 times a day. I hand my camera to a more sure-footed Achuar. Michael invents the Fallbrook slide, a log-crossing technique that is named after Michael’s hometown and forgoes all elegance for maximum safety. Steven is fished out of a muddy pool at some point.

On our second night we sleep in another village but on our third night we camp in the wild. In the time it takes you and me to put up a tent, we watch our Achuar hosts transform, with nothing more than a machete, a small patch of virgin forest into a campsite, replete with a simmering pot of dinner. We sleep in tents. The Achuar sleep under elegant covers woven quickly out of the surrounding vegetation.

During our day hikes, we see fresh jaguar footprints, different monkey species, magical blue morpho butterflies (just one of 6,000 butterfly species in Ecuador), the occasional snake and highways of leafcutter ants.

But the real show happens at night, when we go on excursions with our flashlights and discover an insane variety of bizarrely-shaped creatures: palm-sized tarantulas with long mammal-like fur; a huge variety of katydids, some bright red and thick like a cigar, some camouflaged perfectly to look like rotten leaves and some appearing to have been taken over by large fungi, yet still alive and moving; bullet ants, which boast the most painful sting in the insect world and are the size of large wasps; a pair of scorpions engaged in a fight; a large venomous wolf spider caught in the act of molting; beautiful colorful frogs; stick insects; “walking stick” insects, etc. etc. I sleep surprisingly well after these night walks. Judging from the frequent slaps and curses in the neighboring tent, Michael occasionally pays for his lack of insect paranoia and nonchalant stance on tent security during the day.

After our hike, we switch to a long narrow boat with an outboard for three days. We sort through a bunch of floating fallen trees blocking the mouth of the Bobonanza river. This takes some time, as the river hasn’t been navigated by humans in months. We are rewarded for our efforts when we observe a river dolphin and her calf, spot two species of sloth high up in the canopy and watch a herd of optimistic monkeys jump across the river and often land well short with a dramatic splash.

After a few more nights of wild jungle camping, we head to the relative comfort of the Kapawi Lodge. We do more hikes and river trips and Michael goes to the neighboring village to drink ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic, in a ceremony with the local shaman. Despite drinking a double dose, Michael proves 100% immune and is consequently dubbed “El Diablo” by the locals.

After returning home to New York, I contact Giovanni Onore, a retired professor and entomologist from a university in Quito. He helps me identify many of the mysterious species in my pictures. I also show him a photo of an enormous 12-inch / 30-cm wingspan moth that crossed our path at some point during the hike. None of our local guides had ever seen one like it, so naturally we started fantasizing about this giant being new to science and us narcissistically naming it the “Sykes moth” (though “behemoth” would have been more fitting). Professor Onore irreversibly crushes our dreams however. The moth in question is a Thysania agrippina. It has the longest wingspan of any moth in the world but we didn’t actually have to go to the Amazon to see it: It wanders as far north as Texas.

But you don’t have to even go that far to see what could have been the enduring legacy of the Sykes name, or any of its jungle neighbors. Click here to see my favorite shots from the trip. If that’s not enough and you want to see the extended gallery with even more bugs (including the behemoth), more Achuar and more sweaty Sykeses (a total of 167 images in chronological order), then click here.

Also, if you haven’t checked out the site since my last email update, you’ll find more new photos in some of the other galleries: shots taken in New York in the Featured Works and Central Park Safari galleries and new pictures in the Lake Louise gallery, including proof of an epic tubing wipeout by my brother-in-law Josh.

* Michael puts together high-end, custom-designed tours for a living through his tour operator business (www.artquestintl.com)


Where Roads Flood and Animals Rule: Australia’s Top End, Feb 20, 2011

I spent the better part of January visiting the wetlands in the tropical north of Australia, the area around Darwin, with my good friend Viral. Here the alternating seasonal floods and bushfires have kept most humans away, humans that were clearly smarter then we were. However, the relative lack of human settlement is great for the local ecosystems and the national parks in Australia’s Top End, in particular Kakadu National Park, share a reputation for rich wildlife with other large wetlands such as the Okavango Delta in Africa or the Pantanal in Brazil. Wildlife was what we were after, so Viral and I happily braved the floods, crocodiles, torrential downpours, heat, deadly snakes, spiders and whatever else the Northern Territory could throw at us and our little 4WD camper. (How strange that Kim was not dying to go on this trip…) The snapshot on the left was taken with my iPhone on the main highway while passing oncoming traffic. I’m not sure what was more irresponsible, driving through water 2 feet deep and full of man-eating crocodiles or taking pictures at the wheel. Anyway, Viral and I were rewarded for this and other mildly idiotic acts with sightings of some truly remarkable creatures. The best shots of these I posted in the Australia 2011 gallery, along with some photos of Viral and his wonderful kids Kieran & Celine taken in Canberra.


Winter Wonderland, Jan 7, 2011

During the holiday season, Kim and I traveled to Switzerland and Germany for a whirlwind of family visits. This year's trip had two special treats for us. The first was to join our nephew Arthur during his first Christmas. The second was the most beautiful winter I've ever seen in Germany, which made up for missing the huge, and surely photogenic blizzard back home in New York. Deep cold, lots of snow, and trees with such an abundance of ice crystals they put Swarovski to shame. As this was more of a family visit and less of a photography trip, I took along minimal gear. I still managed to take at least a few shots, which you'll find in the Christmas 2010 gallery.  


Central Park Safari, Dec 19, 2010

Photography is inherently nerdy, but shooting birds is the pinnacle of dorkdom. Thankfully, Im already married to a hot wife so I can shamelessly pursue my inner dork. With a couple of exciting trips to photograph wildlife in remote corners of the world coming up in early 2011, I was itching to use all of that new camera gear before I leave. Where better to practice then a few steps from our home in Central Park? While this was news to me despite 12 years of Manhattan residency, it turns out that Central Park is considered by many as one of the nation's top bird-watching spots, situated in a major migratory path on the Eastern Seaboard. There are around 300 species of birds present for at least some part of the year, out of a total of 800 or so in all of the U.S. So I was far from the only dork running around the park with a tripod and a very long lens. While I know I didnt shoot any rare breeds, I was pleasantly surprised with the results of this walk in the park. I expect to be adding images over time as we move through the seasons. Check it out in the Central Park Safari gallery.


Lake Louise, Dec 17, 2010

As we do most years, Kim and I spent Thanksgiving at Kims parents cozy cottage on a beautiful secluded lake in the northern part of Michigans Lower Peninsula. I had just gone through a major upgrade of my camera equipment, so I took it along, knowing I would have some time for the associated exciting reading (what could be more riveting than hundreds of pages of consumer electronics manuals?). I posted the pictures in the Lake Louise gallery.

When I wasn't torturing myself with Nikon manuals, I provided much better entertainment for Kim and her family with my endless but always futile efforts to capture the healthy population of bald eagles that makes the lake its home. The eagles, both juveniles and adults  I swear, they were there!  taunted me with their repeated visits to a sandbar in the lake, right across from the cottages living room window. I had to get closer to get a decent shot, so every time they landed, I put on some warm layers and boots, jumped in the car, drove to the other side of the lake, assembled camera, lens and tripod and  watched the eagles fly off. Invariably this was followed by a helpful text message from the couch potatoes back in the cottage across the lake: They left!


Featured Works, Dec 15, 2010

Sometimes things come together in a way that defies planning. While Im shooting a sunrise on an Australian Island, a curious bird hovers a few feet in front of me. An oblivious Tokyo pedestrian walks past a shop window lined with outrageously intricate and colorful tarts. A beautiful Fiordland waterfall in dense forest is perfectly spot-lit with a soft glow. Similar circumstances have led to most of the images in the Featured Works gallery, which Ive started putting together with select photographs from wherever I stumbled across them in the world. If you're looking for a large print, you may find these great candidates. 


White Rim, Dec 15, 2010

When my brother-in-law Josh asked whether I wanted to come along on a mountain biking & camping trip to the White Rim trail in Utahs Canyonlands National Park in May 2010, I didnt hesitate. Apart from a few short trips to California, I had never been to the West, and this was a fantastic way to start. With an altitude of 5,000 feet, fingernail-cracking and nose-bleed-inducing dryness, a merciless sun in the daytime, freezing temperatures at night and only enough water to shower off the cycling sweat and sunscreen once every two days, this 100 mile, 5 day trail isnt for sissies. But who needs comfort when you have nature like this? Joshs parents are the unofficial Mr. and Mrs. White Rim, having completed this trip five times a year for decades now. If there were ever any doubt about their commitment, all you need do is check out the White Rim license plate on their truck. Joshs parents know the best campsites on the trail and book them a full year in advance. We were rewarded for their foresight by two nights as the only group at the spectacular White Crack campsite, which is situated on a rocky outcrop offering 360 views of literally hundreds of square miles of completely uninhabited Canyonlands landscape. As Josh proclaimed at regular intervals: Its epic, man.


The Gates, Dec 15, 2010

I took these pictures of Christo and Jeanne-Claude's Gates in Central Park back in 2005 but I recently had a chance to edit them properly. They were taken with my first digital SLR, a Nikon D70. Enjoy!