The Autumn Lights Festival’s Evolution

Last month’s 12th Annual Autumn Lights Festival (ALF) was once again a huge success — generating tens of thousands of dollars for upgrades and to help support the volunteers who maintain the Gardens at Lake Merritt. Post-pandemic (or nearly so), it was especially gratifying to hear that all three nights sold out and see that the festival grounds were packed with folks of all ages, ethnicities, and sexual identities —  out late at night having a marvelous, care-free evening.

A superb Splash Pad article by C. J.Hirschfield has already documented the history of the festival from 2012 to 2019 with a focus on the event’s creator and organizer, Tora Rocha (AKA: Toranado). This follow-up will do much the same but with a focus on the quality of the exhibits and the technology used to produce them, with a nod to the cameras used to record them. Since its launch in 2012, ALF has evolved tremendously. Moore’s Law states that “the number of transistors in an integrated circuit  doubles about every two years.” Under Tora Rocha’s stewardship, the ALF equivalent (Tora’s Law) states that all aspects of the event, including its size, initially doubled every two years; now, it’s the quality of the electronics and artistry that is increasing exponentially. If a picture is worth a thousand words, the 238 photos in my Flickr Autumn Lights Festival album from 2012 to the present will graphically illustrate that point.

The photos above were all taken in 2012. Among the most ambitious of  the presentations that year (on the left), was  painstakingly assembled from small origami boxes by Diane Matusumoto, Marianne Hane, and Annie Labe. For the center display, my older son, Adam, simply ran LED light strips around the fountain. I added sunflowers donated by Ryoji & Kiyoko Sakaus — one of the earliest vendors at the Grand Lake Farmers Market. For the luminarias (on right), Brooke Levin pressed flowers picked in the Gardens at Lake Merritt into wax on the interior of the container.

By comparison, the photos above are my picks for some of the best displays in 2023. The installation on the left by Sydney Parcell and Paul Savage is titled “Secret Society of the Palms.” Cameron Kephart & Ashley Terry created “Ramshackle.” The one on the right — “Found Objects” by Brooke Levin — won the Waste Management Innovator Award. Clearly, a lot more work and thought went into this piece compared to her (albeit lovely) luminarias in 2012. That may be due to her being Asst. Public Works Director back then and subsequently the PWA Director. Now that Brooke has retired, she obviously has a lot more time to devote to her craft.

A similar progression over the same period can be seen in the vehicles created by Jon Sarriugarte and his Empire of Dirt crew. His snail car was almost certainly the big hit at the 2012 event, as it was mobile and belched fire, but it couldn’t hold a candle (pun intended) to his “Project Empire” (on the far right) eleven years later. If you didn’t attend this year’s festival, it’s a vehicle that mimics a spacecraft being launched accompanied by a soundtrack and belching smoke — almost on a par with a Hollywood production.

As for the photographs, for years I used a Nikon D90, which is bulky and weighs over three pounds, and (until ALF banned them as a tripping hazard) a tripod. I switched to using a cell phone, most recently a Google Pixel 7 that weighs just eight ounces. Skimming my Flickr album, the improvement in quality from year to year is apparent. And here’s the rub. It’s not because my skill level has improved that much or I have more time to devote to my craft. The difference is the technology that’s embedded in these phones/cameras that calculate exposure and adjust contrast, and include features such as “Night Sight,” which I used for almost all of this year’s photos.

With this in mind, when Brooke Levin thanked me for a “great picture of her installation,” I responded by saying, “It was a good picture of a great installation.” I figure my response, deep down, was prompted by all the current discussion about AI already beginning to encroach on the realm of artists, authors, musicians, etc. When it comes to my images, I’ve long been saying that Mother Nature gets most of the credit for my landscape photos; the same applies to all the talented individuals who make magic every year at the Autumn Lights Festival. And that’s also why this articles concludes with a photo montage of some of those wonder-full artists.




3 responses to “The Autumn Lights Festival’s Evolution”

  1. Bruce Cobbledick Avatar
    Bruce Cobbledick

    Ken, great pictures, it is wonderful to watch the changes over the years. Tora your idea and inspiration certainly show.

  2. Great ALF event and great photos.

  3. Brooke Levin Avatar
    Brooke Levin

    Ken, I am taken back by this article! Thank you for all the wonderful photographs over the 12-years, it has been a journey for all of us involved with Autumn Lights and you are part of that family!