A Digital Journal

Photography by Tony Triolo

The Dismals

Recently, I took my grandson on a visit to the Dismals Canyon in northwest Alabama. I have been there many times, going back at least thirty years, but this was my grandson’s first visit. I’ve never really known why the place was given such an unlikely name as it is anything but a “dismal” place. In fact, it is one of my favorite places to visit in the entire state and I feel fortunate that I live only ninety minutes away. Located in Franklin County, near the town of Phil Campbell, the Dismals is a limestone gorge which exhibits a topography quite unlike any other place in north Alabama. There are towering rock cliffs, caves, grottos, a meandering stream and a stunning waterfall which empties into a shallow pool, perfect for cooling hot summer feet. The canyon is also the home to the insects known as “dismalites”. The larval forms of these flies emit a bright blue-green light to attract food and mates. They cover the canyon walls and are quite a sight to see on a warm summer evening. The bugs have been the subject of a Discovery Channel documentary as they are quite rare and can be found in only a couple of places. Nightly torchlight tours are conducted in order to view the dismalites up close and personal.

Dismal Canyon was declared a National Natural Landmark in May 1974. The history of the canyon is quite interesting. Over 10,000 years ago cavemen inhabited a bluff shelter on the canyon floor. Several Indian tribes like the Chickasaw and Cherokee followed making the Dismals home, but in 1832 they were forced from these ancestral lands as part of the Trail of Tears migration westward.

Unfortunately, the Dismals has become a very popular place to visit, especially during this time of COVID-19 and our need to social distance. Getting out in nature is one activity most people seem to think comes with minimal risk. The day I took my grandson there, it was very busy, and although the property comprises over 85 acres, it still seemed crowded. It was a far cry from visits years ago, when often I would be the only person in the park. Nevertheless, my grandson and I had a good time just exploring and taking photos. Following the map that we received when we arrived, my grandson blazed the trail, although I could probably have hiked the 1.5-mile trail blindfolded. He got into the history of the place, which was recounted in great detail on the opposite side of the map. He enjoyed learning about the few bandits and desperados who used the canyon as their hideout after a bank robbery or worse. I’m not sure how many of those stories are based in fact or are just the fanciful dreams of some tourism promoter.

If you plan a visit to the Dismal Canyon, please be aware that it is located on private property and there is an entrance fee. There is a gift shop, soda fountain (closed during COVID-19), rental cabins and rest rooms on site.

Here are a few images from my most recent visit to the Dismals Canyon.


Rainbow Falls at the Dismals


Entrance to Pulpit Rock


Indian Head Rock


Dismals Branch


Rainbow Falls Bathers


The “Impossible Tree”


Rainbow Falls and Swinging Bridge

August 16, 2020 Posted by | Alabama, Franklin County, Historic Alabama, Landscape, Nature, Phil Campbell, Photography, Travel | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Peace and Justice

A few weeks ago, I went on a tour of some of the monuments, memorials and museums commemorating Alabama’s civil rights struggle. One stop was at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery. The memorial, which opened in April 2018, is this nation’s first dedicated to the legacy of enslaved black people, and specifically to the over 4000 African American men, women and children who were lynched between 1877 and 1950 in this country. The 805 steel suspended monuments represent each county where lynchings took place, engraved with the names of the victims. A matching set of monuments lie outside, waiting to be claimed and installed in the counties they represent as a way to show which parts of the country have confronted the truth. Sadly, most remain on site.

The Peace and Justice Memorial sits atop a six-acre site near downtown Montgomery.


A visitor reads the inscriptions on the over 800 suspended steel monuments.


Madison County, Alabama’s memorial to lynching victims.


The monuments play against a constant cascade of water around the perimeter of the monument.


Over 800 suspended steel monuments represent the counties in the United States where lynchings took place.


Over 800 suspended steel monuments represent the counties in the United States where lynchings took place.


Replicated monuments lie flat outside waiting to be claimed by the counties where the lynchings occurred. Most remain unclaimed.


Students take notes on a school visit to the memorial.


A multi-figure monument to the transatlantic slave trade by artist Kwame Akoto-Bamfo.

March 18, 2020 Posted by | Alabama, Architecture, Historic Alabama, Photography | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Glade Creek Grist Mill – Mill Tour Part 2



Glade Creek Mill at Babcock State Park in Virginia

Glade Creek Grist Mill, often called Babcock Mill because it lies within Babcock State Park near Clifftop, West Virginia was the second mill on our recent tour. From Mabry Mill (part 1) on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia, we drove north on Interstate 77 for about three hours. The weather began to turn sour, and our clear, sunny skies gave way to clouds and even a few sprinkles. The conditions, however, proved to be ideal for me. The overcast skies softened the shadows, deepened the colors and eliminated the dappled light which I try to avoid whenever possible. Having bright highlights on leaves, rocks and sky really messes with the dynamic range. That isn’t much of a problem if you’re posting an image to Facebook or Instagram, but it makes printing the image a real headache. So, although it was raining and I along with my gear was getting wet, I was still loving it. An added benefit to the weather, was that it kept the tourists down to a number that I could deal with. The way the mill is situated, right on the edge of the creek, did not allow for people to walk all around it as they did at the Mabry Mill. At Babcock, visitors could poke themselves in and out the mill door, but really couldn’t go any further. Once I was done shooting the mill up close, I moved downstream where people and other distractions became less of an issue.

This shot was  literally made from the parking lot.

All the mills I photographed this particular weekend were very accessible. They were either right off the road of within walking distance from the parking lot. Usually, no long trek through the woods is required. Maybe that’s why I like photographing mills so much. That, and the fact that they are quickly disappearing from the rural American scene and need to be recorded while they’re still here. Glade Creek Mill represents over 500 mills that were once thriving in the state of West Virginia. It was constructed of three older mills which outlasted their original usefulness. The earliest original parts of the mill date back to the 1850’s while other parts date to the 1890’s. The basic structure is from Stoney Creek Mill and the mill deck and other workings are from the Onego Grist Mill, originally located near Seneca. The mill was rebuilt in 1976, so what you see today is actually only 43 years old.


Parts of the mill are scattered about the site


The fall colors were just beginning to peak when I was there

Apparently, West Virginia has been experiencing the same drought that we have been dealing with all summer back here in Alabama. The low water levels at Babcock State Park prevented the mill from operating the day I was there. I believe the mill operator told me that Glade Creek was two feet below normal, so there would be no milling until the areas received substantial rainfall. Perhaps, the rain I was experiencing was the beginning of just that. I would have liked to have seen the creek flowing better for photographic reasons. I could have used a bit more water cascading over the rocks, especially in the downstream shots. I also would have preferred to have the water wheel turning to provide some motion to the static image. Water spilling over the wheel off the sluice is always something I try to capture in a mill photo. Unfortunately, that would not be possible this time.

A view of the mill from downstream


Unfortunately, the low water levels prevented the mill from operating this day

The Glade Creek Grist Mill and the Mabry Mill (part 1) are both wonderful examples of early mill construction. They remind us of another time, one less rushed and complicated. They both represent an era when mills dotted the American landscape, much like the covered bridge which has all but disappeared.  I actually visited a third mill on our tour of the Virginias. It was the Tinger Mill located near the town of Paint Bank, Virginia. We found it totally by accident, but I’m glad we did. While it doesn’t have the old-time charm of the Mabry and Glade Creek mills, it is a wonderful example of a working mill and a reminder of why mills were so vital to the surrounding community.

Despite the fact that the Tinger Mill is not as photogenic as the Mabry and Babcock mills, it is a very nice example of a working mill, and I may post some photos of it in a few days. Stay tuned.


November 12, 2019 Posted by | Architecture, Mills, Photography, Travel, Virginia, West Virginia | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Down By The Old Mill Stream

Sometimes I enjoy things that are spontaneous, like going on a trip without much forethought or planning. I took such was a trip recently to the states of Virginia and West Virginia to photograph a couple of grist mills. I had seen photographs of these two particular mills, and I knew that I had to drive up there and try my luck at capturing these amazingly beautiful structures. I decided to make the trip right in the midst of fall color season, but I feared that I might be too early for peak color based on the fall color maps I had seen. My wife agreed to join me on my mill tour, although she only has a passing interest in mills or photography for that matter. I think she considered it a good chance to just get away for a few days and to see a part of the country that we don’t normally get to see. This was Appalachia we were heading to, and it soon became apparent that some of the most scenic parts of this country are also among the most depressed. Even in this time of relative prosperity, we saw towns and villages that seem to really be struggling, and have been for a long time.

Our first stop was at Mabry Mill in Floyd County, Virginia. The mill is located right on the Blue Ridge Parkway at mile marker 176. We got there a bit late just as the sun was going down, but I did want to see it’s orientation to determine if it would make a better morning or afternoon shot. As it turned out, it definitely favored the afternoon, but I was just a bit late. Part of the mill was in bright sunlight and part was already in shade. The dynamic range was too great to hope to get good tonality across the entire structure. Although it was late, I decided to try getting a few shots anyway. I played around with HDR (high dynamic range) techniques to try to equal out the shadows and highlights, but that made things only marginally better.

Mabry Mill on the Blue Ridge Parkway

I realized that my best bet was to wait until the sun completely set, placing the mill in total shadow. I would have to adjust my exposure settings somewhat, but since the camera was on a tripod I didn’t have to worry much about the shutter speed. I could maintain my small aperture and thus, depth of field. My shutter speed slowed way down, but that provided a benefit by blurring the water wheel to give a sense of motion. I was lucky that the mill was working and the wheel was still turning. I found out that the sluice had just recently been rebuilt. The old one had rotted out a while ago, and the water had to be channeled through to an iron pipe in order to keep the mill in operation. For photographic considerations, having an operating waterwheel is almost essential. Another visitor told me that the sluice had just been put back in operation this summer, so my timing was uncharacteristically good. With the sun setting, my light was fading fast and I had to decide quick, if I wanted to return the next morning and try again.


West facade of Mabry Mill

The Mabry Mill is located about forty minutes from the town of Hillsville, the nearest town of any size. We decided to spend the night there and if the weather held, I planned to drive back to the Mabry very early the following morning. Unlike the evening before, when I arrived I was the only person on the scene. Gotta love it. I knew my luck would not last long however. The fact that I was there on a weekend during “almost peak” fall color season, guaranteed that tourists would soon be arriving in droves. I was not wrong. Now, I have nothing against tourists. One or two help to add interest and scale to a photograph. It’s when the number of people climb into the dozens, that I begin to have a problem. At a certain point, too many people in a photo creates a distraction and all you see are the people. Plus, when you’re shooting with very slow shutter speeds like I am, you run the risk of blurring the people since they are usually moving around. I know there are software programs that eliminate such distractions, but I don’t like using them.


Mabry Mill is a favorite of tourists driving the Blue Ridge Parkway


The water wheel powers the grist mill.

So, I had to work fast. I concentrated of getting photos of the mill itself from several vantage points and then planned to move to other parts of the site. Near the mill is Matthews Cabin, an excellent example of mountain architecture and workmanship. A working blacksmith shop, a whiskey still and a sorghum mill demonstrate to visitors and school children what it was like to live in this part of the country in the late 1800’s. The mill was built by Edwin Boston Mabry in 1903 and was in operation by 1908. Considered a “slow mill” due to the lack of sufficient water power, it eventually developed a reputation for producing some of the finest tasting corn meal in the area. Apparently, a fast mill runs the risk of grinding too fast and scorching the grain.

After a couple of hours, I began to realize that I reached to point where the number of visitors had reached critical mass. It was time to call it a day. I did take a few minutes to go inside the mill and I even took a few shots of the pulleys, belts and internal workings that transform the movement of the wheel into a means of grinding grain.


Mabry Mill on the Blue Ridge Parkway – late afternoon


The recently rebuilt sluice once again channels water to the water wheel to power the mill

In a few days, I will post some photos from the second mill we visited, the Glade Creek Grist Mill near Clifftop, West Virginia.


Matthews Cabin is an excellent example of mountain architecture, circa 1900


November 1, 2019 Posted by | Photography, Travel, Virginia | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Desert Architecture

Recently, I had the good fortune of being able to accompany my wife to the United Arab Emirates. She goes to the Middle East once a year for business meetings, but this was the first time that I was able to join her. Ever since she returned from her first trip there, with stories of the country and its people, I’ve been eager to join her on a subsequent visit. I especially wanted to see the architecture of this relatively new country, a country of great wealth due to its vast oil reserves. Money from oil has allowed the U.A.E. to embark on an aggressive and perhaps unprecedented building plan.


The Corniche in Abu Dhabi which includes the Etihad Towers and the Emirates Palace

The cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi are where every global Fortune 500 company wants to have a presence. To that end, new skyscrapers, hotels, condominiums seem to rise up overnight. Construction cranes fill the sky, and a large portion of the population seem to be construction workers, often expatriates from neighboring Arab states. Building never stops and it sometimes extends far into the night, but I suspect that has to do with the oppressive heat during the daytime hours. The average high daytime temperature we experienced during our visit in late September was 110 degrees. You would think that living in Alabama, as I do, would prepare you for this kind of heat, but it was not the case. It is not a dry heat either, like the kind you might experience in the American southwest. This is a humid, sticky, draining sort of heat. It really saps your energy. What is amazing though, it that most everyone is well covered up. The Muslim faith dictates that both men and women display little, if any skin, which I guess, acts to protect them to a degree as well. But when you see construction workers toiling all day, in long sleeved shirts and long trousers, it makes you wonder. You know they cannot be comfortable. My wife says, it’s all a matter of what you are used to. Maybe so.


The Grand Hyatt and the Bab Al Qasr Hotels on the Corniche in Abu Dhabi

As I said, one of the main reasons that I wanted to visit U.A.E. was the architecture. My major in college was architecture, and although I only practiced in that profession for a short time, I have always admired those who design and build these modern-day structures where we live, work, go to school and shop. It seems with today’s building materials and computer-aided designs, anything is possible. The more spectacular and innovative you can design a building the better. Dubai and Abu Dhabi have become the places where architects can let their imaginations run wild it seems, and where anything goes. Everyone wants to outdo the other guy, and their building has to be more spectacular than the one that came before it. Nothing seems off-limits here. We saw round buildings, cylindrical buildings, pyramid shaped towers including the Burj Khalifa, presently the tallest building in the world. We briefly got a glimpse of the famous Burj Al Arab Hotel which somewhat resembles a sailboat. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get too close to it since only guests and VIPs are permitted onto the property.

The Dubai Mall and the Emaar Office Complex

The Gates Residential Towers in Abu Dhabi

For the the past several years, U.A.E. has been moving away from an oil-based economy, to one of finance and tourism. At some point, all that oil will play out and I suppose they want to be positioned so that there will be alternative industries in place to supplant oil production. That’s the prime motivation for this incredible building boom. A real effort is being made to become the world’s financial and business capital as well as the world’s playground. Billions of dollars have gone into constructing some of the most amazing facilities to lure visitors to the emirates. Already constructed is the world’s only totally enclosed theme park called Ferrari World, an indoor ski slope complete with a chairlift, their own Louvre and planned Guggenheim museums, more shopping malls than you could ever want, and golf courses that rival the world’s best. Mix in the planet’s only eight-star hotel and a man-made island in the shape of a palm tree, and you get a picture of the lengths the country is going to in order to entice well-heeled travellers to visit the Persian Gulf Coast.

Buildings along the Corniche in Abu Dhabi.

Another method in getting cities like Dubai and Abu Dhabi on the map, so to speak, is to employ the help of Hollywood. Having an flashy, action-packed movie filmed in your city certainly helps to draw attention to it. In the last few years several movies have been filmed in the U.A.E. You might remember Tom Cruise rappelling off the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building in Mission Impossible, or how about the scene in Fast and Furious 7 where a super-expensive sports car sails from one tower to another of the Etihad Towers in downtown Abu Dhabi. Star Wars and Independence Day also used U.A.E as a backdrop, along with many other films. A couple of seasons ago, the Amazing Race TV show chose Dubai as a major location for one of their stops along the race.

The Plaza of the Louvre Museum in Abu Dhabi

The exterior of the new Louvre Museum in Abu Dhabi

The architecture of U.A.E. is all designed to impress. Seemingly, no expense is spared in acquiring the most talented architects and engineers to create these modern masterpieces. One example is the new Louvre Museum. The museum is a collaboration between Abu Dhabi and France. It was designed by Jean Nouvel to showcase the elaborate web-patterned “floating” dome which consists of eight layers of steel webbing. Sun filters through it resembling the sun shining through date palm fronds. The dome roof weighs as much as the Eiffel Tower. The entire building is surrounded by water to give the illusion that the museum is floating on the sea. The collections are gathered from museums throughout France. Another art museum planned, is the new Guggenheim Museum. Designed by Frank Gehry, the museum is expected to also incorporate water into its theme when it is built. Today, the project is on hold for a number of reasons, not the least of which are fears of terrorism. Concerns about an American museum with a Jewish name  in a country which doesn’t even recognize Israel have led to several years of delays. Time will tell if it ever becomes a reality.

Prayer Hall of the Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi

The modern skyscrapers which stand like sentinels along the Corniche in Abu Dhabi or the Jumeirah in Dubai are marvels of innovation and technology. They test the laws of physics by their very form. Shapes that defy gravity and reason are everywhere. Structures that somehow stretch out at unimaginable angles, giving the viewer the uneasy feeling that they might topple over at any second, somehow remain upright. It’s all quite amazing. That’s not to say that there isn’t practiced a more traditional style of architecture in the U.A.E., however. The country becomes a bit more conservative when it comes to their spiritual needs. Their mosques, of which there is one in practically every neighborhood, are designed more with an eye towards tradition and practicality. But dispel the idea that a mosque can’t be extravagant or opulent at the same time. Quite the opposite. Seemingly, no expense is spared on their religious structures, again, owing to  the great wealth of the nation. These designs take on a much more measured approach. Modern 21st century designs give way to a much more traditional treatment.

A gallery at the Sheikh Zayed Mosque

My wife and I had the good fortune of being able to stay at a hotel within walking distance of the Sheikh Zayed Mosque. It is the largest mosque in the U.A.E and the eighth largest in the world. It can accommodate 40,000 worshippers at one time. In a word, it is huge. Upon entering, you are required to remove your shoes and women must put on a loose-fitting robe called an abaya (provided) while men must wear long pants and a button-down shirt. Call to prayer is five times a day, so there’s a good chance you will witness at least one call during your visit. The structure is almost completely white and almost blindingly bright. Someone advised me to bring sunglasses, but of course I didn’t heed their good advice. I soon regretted it. It was so bright, the light meter on my camera was doing crazy things, jumping around and giving me  incomprehensible readings.

Entering the Prayer Hall

I visited the mosque with a colleague of my wife’s as she was still at a meeting on the day I went. We only stayed a couple of hours, but I could have stayed all day and promised myself I would return before leaving for home. Of course, I never did.  The place was just so fascinating, so much so that I didn’t even remember that it was still about 110 degrees inside the courtyard. Unfortunately, I picked perhaps the busiest time of the day to visit the mosque. I have never seen so many tourists in one place outside of Orlando. The fact that everyone had a cell phone and were all taking selfies, kind of spoiled the whole spiritual atmosphere of it for me though. I expected to see worshippers devotedly praying to Allah, but I saw little of that. Maybe that happens on specific days I’m not aware of. Regardless, the mosque was a beautiful sight, from the delicate gilded floor tiles to the soaring minarets poking up to the not-so azure Arabian sky. Yes, regrettably, the skies along the Arabian Peninsula are not so blue. During the nine days I was in the U.A.E. I seldom saw a blue sky. They are mostly gray with lots of haze, I suppose from all that sand that gets stirred up. It was a little upsetting at first, but I got used to it. Polarizers or haze filters were of basically no use here. So, you photographers out there planning a trip to U.A.E, you can leave your filters at home. You can also leave your tripod at home. It’s so darn bright everywhere, you can handhold just about every shot, even at f/22.

The Sheikh Zayed Mosque

All in all, it was a great trip even though I returned home with a terrible head cold for my efforts. I predicted it too. I knew that going back and forth from air-conditioning to 110 degrees was going to do me in, and it did. Oh well, it was worth it. I hope I get the opportunity to go back to U.A.E sometime. I learned some things on this trip that will better prepare me for the next time and I missed getting some shots I’d like to have another crack at. I never made it back inside the Zayed Mosque at night, and that I really regret. The lighting at night really transforms the building to something even more spectacular I’m told. Overall, I’m happy with what I got to see and photograph in the United Arab Emirates. For any lover of art and architecture U.A.E is a must place to visit. Just make sure to pack a bottle of water or two. You’re going to need it. Sunglasses too.

October 6, 2018 Posted by | Abu Dhabi, Architecture, Dubai, Middle East, Photography, Travel, United Arab Emirates, United Arab Emirates | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment