Tuesday, May 03, 2016

The Last Park Designed by Landscape Architect Jens Jensen, and the Only One in Madison

The Last Park that Jens Jensen Designed, and the Only One in Madison Glenwood Children's Park: "This park, transformed from a former quarry, is significant as the last major project of nationally renowned landscape architect Jens Jensen. Designed for children to experience nature through unstructured play, the park features open meadows interspersed with forest, playing fields and trails. The park's native plantings and council ring are particular hallmarks of Jensen's designs."

The park was created in 1949, but the elderly Jensen wasn't able to see it all the way to completion of his planned design. Over the years it fell into disrepair, but in recent years the neighborhood has been working to restore it. They hold a wonderful Winter Solstice ceremony in December, with luminaria illuminating the path up to a bonfire at the council ring.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

As a photographer I didn't have any problem giving JFK directions, but I was too shy to shake his hand

I've taken pictures of two, maybe three, American presidents. JFK I photographed for my high school newspaper. Bill Clinton I photographed for the heck of it. Same with Hillary.

About 6 weeks before the 1960 Wisconsin presidential primary JFK made a campaign stop in Madison and spoke about the importance of primary elections and Wisconsin's role in the history of primaries. This was still the tail end of the "smoke filled room" era, and former President Truman had recently dismissed primaries as "eyewash." JFK said eyewash would be the drink that made Wisconsin famous. It certainly put him on the map -- his upset victory over Minnesota Sen. Hubert Humphrey in his own backyard really shifted his campaign into high gear.

Three of us from The Madison Mirror, Madison Central High School's student newspaper, decided to do a story. When we approached the senator, he was incredibly patient and gracious. (Maybe he was thinking we would be voters by the time he ran for reelection.) Jean Nelson and Marilyn Mitchell handled the story. I had tagged along as the photographer, which is why I'm mentioned in the story but not pictured.

"Senator, would you please move to your right," I said, trying to maneuver him closer to our intrepid journalists. With a politician's automatic response to a camera, he did as he was told, and I snapped the photo. I had no problem telling the future leader of the free world what to do, but that was only because I had a role to play. Later, when Jean and Marilyn went through the receiving line to shake the hands of Jack and Jackie, I didn't join them. I had some misbegotten idea that photographers should be neutral, but really, I was just shy.

The photo is really dark and muddy, because it was badly processed and exposed (back then I rarely used flash, even when I needed it). The original negative and 3x5 print were lost long ago. So all I have now is a low-res copy of a copy from a microfilm of a bad halftone in an old high school newspaper. But memories are like that. They don't always come in high resolution.

Friday, April 22, 2016

"What will I do with them anyway?" "Throw them out, dear."

Forget about DSLRs or digital point-and-shoots. These days, anyone with a smart phone can easily shoot dozens of pictures a day. They keep piling up at a rate unprecedented in human history -- let alone the history of photography, which is less than two centuries old, and which for about half that time was amostly confined to specialists. But even in the heyday of amateur film photography there were those who wondered where it was all heading:
Long ago a picture must have been an event. Capturing a living image has become too ordinary a miracle, perhaps. They go about with their automatic-drive Nikons and OM-2's and their Leicaflexes, and put their finger on the button, and the hand-held machinery makes a noise like a big toy cricket. Reep, reep, reep, reep. A billion billion slides, projected once, labeled, and filed forever. Windrows of empty yellow boxes blow across the Gobi, the Peruvian highlands, the temple steps at Chichicastenango. The clicking and whirring and clacking is the background sound at the Acropolis, at the beach at Cannes, on the slopes at Villefranche. All the bright people, stopped in the midst of life, looking with forced smile into the lenses, then to be filed away, their colors fading as the years pass, caught there in slide trays, stack loads, view cubes, until one day the person dies and the grandchild says, "Mom, I don't know any of these people. or where they were taken even. There are jillions of them here in this big box and more in the closet. What will I do with them anyway?" 
 "Throw them out, dear."
-- John D. MacDonald, The Empty Copper Sea, 1978

What will happen to the photographic detritus of our time? Who knows? Considering how long it takes to even glance at the contents of a multi-gigabyte memory card, the answer may well be, "Throw them out, dear."

Earth Day Remembrance of Jens Jensen, Wisconsin's poet of the natural landscape

Jens Jensen The Living Green: CLIPS from Viva Lundin Productions on Vimeo.

A couple days ago we saw a wonderful documentary, "The Living Green," on Wisconsin Public Television about Danish-American landscape architect Jens Jensen. It's showing again tonight, on Earth Day, on Channel 21 in Madison (11:00pm). If you can't catch it, this 10-minute series of clips on Vimeo captures many of the highlights and much of the spirit of this extraordinary man.

Jensen and his wife landed in Chicago in 1884 as penniless immigrants from Denmark. He began working for the Chicago Parks Department as a laborer but soon worked his way up and became the system's self-taught landscape architect, starting as superintendent of Humboldt Park in 1895. He was ahead of his time as a passionate advocate of natural, urban green space, and his design work for the city can be seen in such parks as garfield Park, Humboldt Park, Douglas Park and Columbus Park. He was instrumental in helping save the Indiana Dunes near Chicago. He retired from the park system in 1920 and began private practice, with influential projects around the country, including major projects for Henry Ford and his son Edsel.

After his wife died in 1935 he left the Chicago area and moved to Ellison Bay, in Door County, Wisconsin, where he established "Wisconsin's other Taliesin," The Clearing. Like his friend and contemporary, Frank Lloyd Wright, he was known for his prairie style. Like Taliesin, he designed The Clearing as his home and school, as a way of passing on his vision. He also designed this lovely winding road between Gill's Rock and Rockport. He died in 1951 at the age of 91.

There are two Jens Jensen projects in Madison -- the Council Ring in the sliver of the UW-Madison Arboretum near Monroe Street and the nearby Glenwood Children's Park near Glenway Street. They're fitting memorials to this pioneer landscape architect and visionary, who was so far ahead of his time, and who spent the last 16 years of his long life in Wisconsin.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

A Vanishing Pleasure

A Vanishing Pleasure

I'm talking about book page design and typography. I've been reading some of my favorite mysteries -- James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux mysteries set in Louisiana bayou country, in hardcover editions published by Doubleday. Most were ho-hum in their design. But a few pages into Purple Cane Road I knew I was holding something special. Not only is it one of the best of the Robicheaux series, in which Dave finds out the mother who abandoned him as a child was actually murdered. The other thing that was unusual was that the pages were physically gorgeous, hearkening back to a time when books were precious objects worthy of a craftsman's care and devotion.

The pages were laid out with wide margins, and the lines of crisp text were laid out with generous leading between the lines. My eye flowed easily down the page. Subtle signposts helped lead you through the book without being obtrusive -- chapter numbers were set off in light gray, screened back cursive. The first page of each chapter was set with even wider margins. The first line of each chapter started with a large initial cap, nicely kerned so it didn't look out of place. Chapter sections had their own, smaller initial caps. Taken as a whole, these subtle cues helped orient the reader in the book in a way that's unique to print books.

These days publishers usually don't bother, because most folks do their reading on screens and devices with type set on computers working on autopilot, or the modern equivalent, HTML cascading style sheets. Since the other books didn't look like this at all, I wondered why the publisher bothered. Then I saw a note on the copyright page: "A signed limited edition of this book has been published by B. E. Trice Publishing, New Orleans." I imagine Doubleday arranged to use the same files to print their edition.

They say e-books seem to have reached their peak and that print books are making a comeback. Maybe it's because there's just nothing like being able to page through a well-designed book.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Friday, April 01, 2016



One of my favorite works at the Milwaukee Art Museum, partly because this outdoor sculpture has so many moods, depending on the lighting and the time of day. It was created in 1974 by Alexander Liberman. The Russian born artist had worked in Europe as a graphic designer and editor; he immigrated to the US in 1941 and began working for Conde Nast. From 1962-1994 he was the hugely influential editorial director of Conde Nast. He took up painting, and later, sculpture in the 1950s.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Thank You, Madison Police Department!

Thank you, Madison Police Department!

There's something especially sickening and dispiriting about the theft of a well-loved bike. That's what happened to T a couple of weeks ago. We never expected to see the bike again, a Raleigh Detour that would be especially hard to replace. The frame fit perfectly, but it also had some features that don't usually come together as a package -- internal gears and brakes, generator hub and lights, chain guard and rack. But mostly, T just really loved that bike.

It was really gloomy this morning, but I decided to take a walk in the rain. Suddenly my phone rang. Juggling phone and umbrella, I took the call -- and it was as if the sun had suddenly come out. It was the police, and they had recovered the bike, none the worse for wear.

I was glad I had filed a police report. (You only need the serial number -- or a bike license -- and a description.) They told me when I went to pick up the bike that they actually recover a surprisingly high percentage of the bikes that are reported missing, but that many people never file because they wrongly think there's no point. But there is. Thanks again, Madison Police Department!

Thursday, March 17, 2016

My "Hidden Madison" Cover Photo

A view of the Annie C. Stewart Memorial Fountain seen through the trees in Vilas Park where it abuts the end of Erin Street. A closeup of the fountain is in the story inside the April issue of Madison magazine. More information (and a version of the photo without headlines).

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Probably my favorite camera these days

Favorite Camera?

I leave my DSLR home so much these days I guess I'd have to call this my favorite camera.

Cell phone cameras used to be a joke, but that was then and this is now. In addition to the constant availability, I like the intimacy and unobtrusiveness of shooting. When I shoot people, they're much less intimidated than with "real" photographic gear. I usually shoot square format because it reminds me of the days when I used to compose in medium format. I throw away a lot of pixels that way, but since I don't make big prints, I don't care. I love being able to process with Snapseed, on the spot, when my impressions of what I visualized are fresh. It almost combines shooting and processing in one fluid, intuitive process. What's not to like?

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Sometimes I don't even notice my better photographs until a few days after I take them.

Mounds Not Money

A few days ago I took a lot of photos and videos of the rally at the Capitol protesting Assembly Bill 620 that would have stripped some of the protections against development from Native American effigy mounds. (For the time being, the protest seemed to stop the bill in its tracks, although with this legislature, you never know.)

Most of the photos and videos were more dramatic and colorful. But looking back a few days later, this quiet photograph is the one that haunts me.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Accidental Geminid Fireball Photo?

Accidental Geminid Fireball Photo?

Tonight is the peak of the annual Geminid meteor shower. Did I accidentally get a photo of one of the early evening "earthgrazers"? (They're called that because they come in on more of a horizontal path, and with more atmosphere to fly through, are often longer and brighter.)

I might have. I was coasting to a stop at the light on a rainy evening in Madison, heading west at Mineral Point and Midvale  to capture the lights and reflections just after sunset. No cars around me so I clicked off three virtually identical shots with my iPhone. These are the last two in the sequence, taken within a fraction of a second of each other. The one on the right has a light streak in the upper left; the one on the left does not.

The streak could be a jet contrail if the sky were clear, but it's not, because there was a heavy overcast. It might be a light reflection on the windshield, but that seems unlikely since there's no reflection in the almost identical photo taken an instant before.

That's why I wonder whether it's a very bright fireball visible through the clouds, especially as it looks like one, getting brighter the further it goes. No way of knowing for sure, but I like to think it's a Geminid.

The weird thing is that, while driving I didn't notice anything. My attention was on the road and the upcoming intersection. Only noticed it when reviewing the photos.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Cass Gilbert Arch

Cass Gilbert Arch

Today is the 156th birthday of architect Cass Gilbert, who designed this arch in downtown Madison, which used to be the entrance to my old high school, Madison Central. Gilbert is better known as the architect of the US Supreme Court building. Today we're more into historic preservation and would probably have preserved and repurposed the building (which had an auditorium with great acoustics) rather than tearing it down, especially since all that has ever been built on the site is a low-density parking lot. But back in the eighties the building was just seen as old and outmoded and down it went. (I did salvage a small piece of blackboard from the rubble).

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Orion Rising

Orion Rising

Over Wingra Park, Madison. The stately hunter who dominates the winter sky. It's been one of my favorite constellations since I saw the Orion Nebula through my modest little reflector telescope when I was a kid (it's the second object from the bottom of Orion's sword).