Wednesday, January 25, 2017
Just a few short days into his administration, Donald Trump has turned Orwell's 1984 into a surprise best-seller, #6 on Amazon. What's next on the cultural radar? As the image sinks in of Trump spending his mornings in front of the TV free-associating on Twitter like a deranged Surrealist on speed, I suspect we'll see more of Paul Klee's 1922 watercolor and pen and ink oil transfer on paper, Twittering Machine.
Saturday, July 09, 2016
In 2000, perhaps the zenith of film photography, Kodak proudly announced that 80 billion photographs had been taken that year, many of them on Kodak film. Since then, photographic imagery has grown exponentially. Last year, it's been estimated that 1 trillion photographs were taken, most of them on camera phones -- an idea that would have seemed absurd in 2000. How can a phone take a picture?
A world awash in trillions of images raises interesting questions about creativity, originality, and what photography means to our culture. For example, out of billions and billions and billions of photographs out there of sunsets alone, many are bound to be virtually identical. That's what Penelope Umbrico's show, Future Perfect, that runs through August 7th at the Milwaukee Art Museum is all about. What to make of the collective, worldwide networked matrix of images we're all embedded in?
"Embracing the flood of images available in the Internet age, contemporary artist Penelope Umbrico sifts through millions of images shared on Craigslist, Flickr, and other social media sites and appropriates them as source material for her work. She seizes upon popular subjects such as sunsets and televisions and creates large-scale installations that reveal contemporary society’s collective photographic habits and the underlying desires that shape them."
If you haven't seen the show yet, check it out. You may never look at photography quite the same way again.
The two oldest women in Wimbledon had a great day. Serena won the women's singles title, tying Steffi Graf's record of 22 grand slam singles titles. She and sister Venus won the doubles title, despite having played very little doubles in the last two years. Venus made it all the way to the semis, before losing to Angelique Kerber, but she's playing the best she has since being diagnosed with a debilitating auto-immune disease, Sjogren's Syndrome, in 2011. It seems to have stabilized (Venus credits a vegan diet and exercise). Although she seemed tight and anxious in the semi, she looked happy and relaxed playing doubles with her sister, her reflexes seemingly undiminished by time. They were a joy to watch.
Tuesday, July 05, 2016
Once upon a time, Wimbledon was broadcast in the US by over-the-air networks on a tape-delay basis. The time difference between the US and Wimbledon gave them plenty of time to select the best matches in the early rounds, so you could be assured of good tennis most days of the tournament. It was just the right amount of tennis -- enough to make you wish for more, but not enough to burn you out. News media cooperated with the networks and did not broadcast results in the US until the matches had been aired. The internet changed all that, but even well into the internet era, news anchors would give spoiler alerts -- "now's the time to turn down the sound if you don't want to know the results" -- to those who wanted to preserve their tape delay suspense. That's long gone; we live in a real-time world.
Back then I used to fantasize how great it would be if I could select for myself among all the matches, and get replays of the ones I missed because of schedule conflicts. Be careful what you wish for. Streaming ESPN3 brought me exactly what I wished for, with the result that now I'm "all tennissed out," suffering from extreme tennis fatigue, and we're just to the women's semifinals. Whether focusing intently on the matches I'm watching, or trying to multitask at the same time, the result is the same, a numb, exhausted brainfog, combined with the wish this would all be over soon. The idea of someone curating the best matches and broadcasting them later at a reasonable hour now seems positively civilized.
The only thing keeping me going this year is the remarkable saga of the Williams sister. Both Serena and Venus have made it to the semifinals. It's the first time Venus has gotten past the early rounds since she was diagnosed five years ago with Sjogren's Syndrome, a debilitating, incurable autoimmune disorder that limits her playing and practice time. Nevertheless, aided by a vegan diet, she has battled her way back, the oldest woman in this year's women's field.
Serena has the less challenging semifinal opponent; Venus has to make it past #4 seed Angelieque Kerber to get to the final. But the way she's been playing, I wouldn't bet against an all-Williams final. The two oldest women in the tournament battling it out for the championship. That would be a match for the record books.
Thursday, June 30, 2016
TBT: It's been more than four years since Templeton passed away, and I still miss him terribly. We've had many cats over the years, and I've loved them all, but I had a special bond with Templeton. Maybe it was all the hours we spent playing baseball -- Templeton sitting on the exercise bike, batting back the glitter balls I pitched at him, batting most of them straight back at me. Or the many hours reading together, Templeton on my lap. Or rambling in the moonlight in Wingra Park. A great, soulful companion, sorely missed.
Wednesday, June 29, 2016
One of the photographic limitations of the iPhone is that it has limited dynamic range compared to film or even a digital camera with a larger sensor. That's OK with relatively even lighting, but in bright sunlight with strong shadows, it leaves you in a difficult place: Either you expose for the highlights and risk losing shadow detail, or you expose for the shadows and risk blowing out the highlights. You can compensate for this in post processing, but for a quick shot on a sunny day it can be a drag.
One of the cool things about photography is that technical limitations can often be flipped so that they're features, rather than bugs. Sometimes it's a good idea to let shadows go black, even cranking up the contrast a bit, in order to to give dramatic impact to an image. Especially in black and white street photography, there's a long tradition of photographers going this route, of using shadows to set up strong contrasts between light and dark.
If you want to experiment with this, a good time is on a bright, sunny day, late in the afternoon when shadows are longer. I did some experimenting late this afternoon on Monroe Street. This was the result.
Saturday, June 25, 2016
I was glued to the computer last night, watching the BBC's streaming special on the Brexit vote, seeing reactions unfold in real time as the scope of the UK's reckless flying leap into the unknown unfolded. One of my favorite reactions was from a phlegmatic Brit who uttered the immortal words, "Bit of a dog's dinner, innit?"
On this side of the pond, I liked my FB friend Greg Fallis's use of a science fiction metaphor to describe the way the world we thought we knew seems suddenly to be turning upside down and backwards. Wait till you get to the giant underground insects waking up after a sleep of centuries...
There's much to be said for giant underground insects, but I prefer to blame sunspots. The Russian biologist Aleksandr Leonidovich Chizhevsky hypothesized years ago that massive, intense disruptions in normal human behavior such as wars, revolutions and sudden cultural changes were caused by solar maximums, those periods of intense solar activity and the proliferation of sunspots that take place about every 11 years.
This is usually dismissed as crackpot science, but could Chizhevsky be right? Hard to tell. The trouble is that sunspot cycles are roughly periodic, but the periods vary, and historical data is spotty until we get to modern times. So it's easy to fit the solar peaks to just about any series of events you want to explain. And, as we all know, correlation doesn't prove causation in any event.
Maybe it's just that the human species has a deep-seated, genetic predisposition to really shake things up now and then and start all over again -- especially when many people are miserable and think their leaders don't understand them and don't give a damn about them.
It's a real wakeup call to elites everywhere.
Saturday, June 18, 2016
This is a picture I didn't take (not for lack of trying, but because I had left my go-to camera, the iPhone, home in the charger): Visualize a big black Lexus SUV parked next to an off-white sofa and matching lounge chair, which had been set out at the curb, the chair piled up on top of the sofa for easy pickup by the city's large-item trash truck.
A middle aged couple with what might be their adult daughter, all impeccably dressed in upscale leisurewear, are carefully assessing the chair. They open the tailgate and measure with their hands whether the big chair would fit. It seems to. Then they turn the chair up, remove the cushion and methodically inspect every nook and cranny of the chair for flaws or stains. They are about to load it into the SUV when they discover the dark stain on the armrest I could see all along. That's a deal-breaker. They close the tailgate and drive off.
In a student town like Madison, trash picking is an art form, but these were unusual practitioners. I wondered, has it come to this for the American upper middle class? Or were they just looking for something for the cottage?
As I sat watching, camera-less, from my car, I was reminded of photographer Michael David Murphy's wonderful blog, Unphotographable -- all the posts are beautifully written short vignettes describing photographs he did not take, for one reason or another -- "Unphotographable is a catalog of exceptional mistakes. Photos never taken that weren't meant to be forgotten. Opportunities missed. Simple failures. Occasions when I wished I'd taken the picture, or not forgotten the camera, or had been brave enough to click the shutter."
If you've never visited his blog, check it out. The verbal "pictures" are vivid and touching: Unphotographable.com.
Friday, June 17, 2016
The Moon and Mars looked so pretty over the darkness of Wingra Park tonight that I did what I'm often tempted to do when walking at night, which is pushing my little companion devised by Steve Jobs beyond its limit -- that is, shooting handheld with iPhone in near darkness. I know it will scarcely register an image. It will take a lot of post-processing to bring out any sort of image at all, and it will be noisy as hell. Usually it doesn't work (the number of nocturnal iPhone shots I've deleted runs to the thousands). But sometimes I get something that seems to capture the magic of the moment, at least for me.
Sunday, June 12, 2016
I took this several years ago at a "Gun Appreciation Day" rally on the Capitol Square, as several hundred people once again demonstrated their determination to fight for their 2nd Amendment right to keep and bear arms. The nationwide Gun Appreciation Day rallies around the country was the gun lobby's response to another gun control proposal that went nowhere.
That's the problem: Whenever people try to enact reasonable gun control proposals, the political right uses the occasion to fire people up about a perceived threat to their 2nd Amendment freedoms. But today this isn't about the right to bear arms. It's about national security.
A terrible, tragic hate crime and act of terrorism took place this morning in Orlando. I'm not holding my breath, but maybe this time the country will begin to see the easy availability of automatic weapons as more of a national security issue than a 2nd amendment issue.
Until we find an effective way to get these weapons off the street, we're doing half the terrorists' job -- making the tools of their trade easily available. This madness has to end.
Thursday, May 26, 2016
Whether you call it disinformation, propaganda or just plain fake news, it's all around us -- provocative, unsourced or unverified stories that give a veneer of plausibility to an assertion that comes with an agenda but no basis in fact. The Planned Parenthood body parts video was an example that went viral before it was discredited.
Many other stories never achieve enough notoriety to get get fact-checked and investigated. They just slip into the general chatter of media and social media. Sometimes they piggyback on vague fears of something that's real, but poorly understood and frightening. Something like the so-called "Dark Web," where most of us have heard that a variety of evil-doers traffic in contraband of all sorts.
I came across this example last night on our local news, Channel 15, Madison WI. (Since Channel 15 did not post the story on the Web, the link is to another station that ran the same story.) The story claimed that in 2008 Barrack Obama absentee votes were bought for $1,400 each on the "dark web" (cue up the spooky music). What slanderous bs. In 2012 the presidential candidates spent $22 per voter on TV advertising. Why would anybody ante up 70 times that much per vote? They wouldn't. The figure was chosen purely for its scandalous impact.
The story seems to be personalized by the voter demographics of where it's going to air. In the story at the link, Trump votes were going for $400 each. In Channel 15's otherwise identical story, Hillary votes were going for $400. Again, do the math -- it makes no sense. The only thing this story is designed to do is to implant the notion "Hillary is buying votes" in the casual viewers' mind and encourage them to share it with their friends.
What the hell are you doing, Channel 15? And why? Please stop it.