Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Santa Claus holds Madison press conference to announce his retirement effective immediately

SantaConf-sm
Gesturing expressively for emphasis, a tired and ticked-off Christmas father figure said that he was hanging it up for good. He held his press conference right here in Madison on Monroe Street -- in the doorway of Paragon Video & Stereo, known as a soapbox for celebrities to sound off and air their grievances.

Why now? "I couldn't stand it anymore. People are just too rotten," he said. "I just couldn't face the futility of going on for another year and nothing changing."

Journalists from around the world crowded in front of the store and asked him to clarify his sudden new year's Eve announcement.

"I've been doing this forever, and it hasn't done any good," he said more in sorrow than anger. "Year after year, I promise to bring toys to children who say they'll be good. I thought it was helping make the world a better place, but for all I can see, it just stimulated a corrupt, debt-ridden consumer culture that now has collapsed of its own weight.

"But that's not all," said the weary holiday magician. "Worst of all, year after year, the kids say they'll be good. Then they grow up, and year after year, they kill each other. Afghanistan, Iraq -- and now Gaza. That's the last straw. I mean, what's the point? I've had it. Mrs. Claus and I are going to move to Hawaii and we're going to put the sleigh up for sale on eBay."

Was this his final decision? Any chance he would reconsider and change his mind? What if people learn their lesson? What if peace breaks out?

"Fat chance!" he said before realizing this sounded too harsh for an icon like him. "I suppose there's always hope. Never say never, and all that... Maybe if the world stops fighting and people become less greedy, then yes, I might reconsider. But I'm not sure what that would accomplish. After all, look at what happened when Brett Favre un-retired.

"Maybe people should think about celebrating Festivus instead."

Friday, December 26, 2008

Good day to stay in and read one of the cool books Santa brought for Christmas

Good Day to Stay In and Read One of the Cool Books Santa Brought
Like Measuring the World, by the Austrian novelist Daniel Kehlmann -- a smart historical novel about the German contemporaries, Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Friedrich Gauss. It's a stunning evocation of the interplay between the realms of observation and theory, exemplified by the naturalist, geographer and explorer Humboldt -- much admired by Darwin -- and the mathematician and physicist Gauss who invented big chunks of modern mathematics and whose insights about space were far ahead of his time. The book begins with their meeting in Berlin in 1828 as middle-aged men, but then continues via flashback to chronicle their explorations of inner and outer space, much of it during the chaos of the Napoleonic wars that redefined the space of Europe itself. A marvelous meditation on two titans of intellectual history with roots in the 18th century Enlightment who helped give birth to the modern age.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas!

Where There Are Shepherds You Gotta Have Sheep -- Lots of Them
Where there are shepherds you have to have sheep -- and lots of them... Every year, we look forward to one of our favorite Christmas displays in Madison -- this one on Tokay Blvd. It's sweet and gentle and totally breathtaking. Wiring the lights in this year's snow must really have been something. I'm so glad they made the effort.

Best holiday wishes to everyone!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

It just won't stop, but at least we'll have a white Christmas

It Just Won't Stop
If I'm reading the news stories right, today's snowfall will put us above the all-time snowfall record for December -- and we still have a week to go.
On Tuesday only 3.1 inches of snow fell at the Dane County Regional Airport, bringing the December total up to 33.2 inches, or 0.8 of an inch shy of the record 34 inches for December, set in 2000.

Through Tuesday, Madison had received 37.5 inches of snow so far this winter of 2008-09 (4.3 inches fell in November), 9.6 inches more than the 27.9 inches that fell through Dec. 23 during the record snowfall of the winter of 2007-08.
Things average out in the end, I guess. We've had plenty of Christmases when there was no snow on the ground, just fog, rain, of if were lucky, a bone-chilling, mocking sunlight. At least this year, as T says, nobody will have to put up a "Pray for Snow!" sign.

So where does all that snow go? The Capital Times explained the other day that the city carts it off to sites on the south and east sides. The snow mounds piling up all over town are hauled off by city workers.
[They] drive giant dump trucks hauling snow from around the city to snow storage sites behind Bowman Field on the south side and behind the former Garver Feed Mill by Olbrich Gardens on the east side.

"I guess there are pretty impressive piles down there," said streets spokesman George Dreckmann, who hasn't seen them personally. "I said, 'Big enough to put a chair lift on?' And they said, 'Well, almost.' "
It's almost as much work for them to haul it away, as it is to plow it in the first place. Here's hoping they'll be able to get a break to enjoy Christmas with their families.

Only one door left on my demented Santa "chocolated" Advent calendar

Only One Window Left on My Demented Santa Advent Calendar
T found this on sale (understandably) at Trader Joe's and thought it had my name on it. Which it did. It's made for a uniquely goofy holiday experience.

Full View of the Demented Santa "Chocolated" Advent CalendarThe pictures behind the doors are mere tokens. The real treasure behind every door is a tiny little wafer of chocolate, scarcely big enough to taste, especially as it's relatively bland and tasteless. The real treat is the exuberantly silly holiday art.

"24 Chocolated Days Til Christmas" -- I looked to see where Trader Joe's had these made. I figured it was probably China, and that something got lost in the translation. But no, it was another "C" country -- Canada.

Not exactly the magical glitter of the German Advent calendars of my childhood. More of a modern, amped-up version, complete with over-the-top cartoon art, but it's been a cheerful presence on my desk.

Penitents at Borders atoning for having missed Amazon's Christmas shipping deadline

Penitents at Borders Atoning for Having Missed Amazon Deadline
Including me. But I had plenty of company.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!

Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!
Oh the weather outside is frightful
But the book is so delightful
And since we've no place to go
Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!


One way to cope with the weather: Curl up with a good book in the bookstore of your choice while the snow comes down outside. You can call it Christmas shopping. Borders, University Avenue.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Lighting our Solstice candles in Wingra Park at sunset in the subzero windchill

Lighting Our Solstice Candles at Sunset in the Subzero Windchill
It's hard to believe that two years ago our Solstice celebration involved umbrellas. Today, with subzero wind chills in the afternoon, our celebration was somewhat abbreviated. We drove down to the Wingra Boathouse in hopes of finding some shelter from the wind five minutes before sunset. We were out there not long after. The customary harvesting of ice shards for T's ice lantern was abandoned (besides, the ice on Lake Wingra was covered under all that snow), and a plastic cup had to suffice. We were soon out of there. The candles, however, were still burning a couple hours later, a warm flickering light in the darkness of the longest night of the year. Happy Solstice! Here's hoping yours has been warmer than ours.

Not too many dials spinning on these Monroe Commons gas meters

Not Too Many Wheels Spinning on These Monroe Commons Meters
Monroe Commons was the first condo development I focused on in the Condos After Dark series in Letter from Here and in this Flickr set. The series was meant to be an ironic commentary on the condo overbuilding taking place in Madison, but as the market began to slow and then tank entirely, there no longer seemed to be much point.

I passed these gas meters for the Monroe Commons condos in the basement garage of Trader Joe's the other day. What caught my eye at first was the pattern they made -- like the wiring for some sort of electric circuit, with pipes instead of wires.

But then I recalled the old Monroe Commons post and wondered how many of them were actually in use. I checked the small dial on each that meters out the individual cubic feet of gas as they go flowing by -- the one that you can see actually moving when gas is being used. Only eight were moving. Maybe that's why the building looks so dark when you drive by on Monroe Street.

Of course, a snapshot of gas consumption at one moment in time doesn't necessarily correlate directly to occupancy rates. When I got home I checked the Monroe Commons website. Turns out that, as of October, 29 out of 51 units, or 57%, were sold. Some were probably bought as investments and aren't necessarily owner-occupied. That, combined with the fact that most of the units that did sell are on the upper floors facing away from Monroe Street, explains why, now, some two years after it opened, the complex still seems mostly deserted when you drive by on Monroe.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Helping the University Avenue Holiday Lights become a permanent institution

University Avenue Holiday Lights Through a Rainy Windshield
They look great in any weather but were especially beautiful in the rain the other night. Dr. Jack Kammer's University Avenue Holiday Lights are a Madison institution that seems to have been there forever, brightening the winter darkness for thousands of people. But in reality it's only been 15 years since the now retired Madison dentist first started stringing lights on the couple hundred arbor vitae trees he bought for $8.50 apiece in the early eighties and planted along the railroad tracks that ran by his office. Over the years he has invested some $100,000 to keep the lights shining every holiday season. He tells the story in a new book available at University Bookstores, The Story of the University Avenue Holiday Lights: Madison, Wisconsin USA.
The first chapter — called, with a nod to the Pentateuch, "In the Beginning" — tells how Kammer acquired the land occupied by the trees from the Wisconsin and Southern Railroad, how he bought the trees from an Eau Claire nursery, how he planted them and "watered them profusely." Elsewhere he recounts the project's early years, when he bought incandescent lights at Menards, and he describes in some technical detail the switch to LEDs.

So what's it all about? Kammer writes that the display is a thank you to his foster mother (described movingly in a prologue), to his wife, to a childhood friend and, essentially, everyone — "every ethnic background and every religion."
To help make sure the lights outlast him, Kammer has also started a trust fund, the Shorewood Hills Trust Tree Fund. Contributions are tax deductible.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Madison dodges a weather bullet as effortlessly as Bush ducking a shoe

December Rain on State Street
The warm temperture and steady December rain Sunday afternoon and evening resulted in many beautiful scenes -- if you're a camera, or maybe the weatherproof "Forward" statue on the State Street corner of the Square. For humans, not so much, though the intrepid bicyclist seemed to be managing.

A few hours later, we could have had a real disaster. Temper- atures dropped some 40 degrees Fahrenheit in just a few hours. The weather reports predicted the rain would continue and turn into snow as the cold front moved in. We had one of those last year. Rainwater mixed with snow and pooled on our street, paving it with a layer of ice that lasted for weeks. Eventually part of it melted in spots, only to give us ice potholes that were hell on suspensions and almost impossible to drive out of if a wheel happened to fall into one while you were backing out of the driveway.

It didn't happen. Instead, the rain melted most of the remaining snow on the streets and then stopped while it was still warm. Gusty winds then dried off the streets before the subzero windchills moved in. Perfect timing.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Alone in the office at night, everything starts to look strange

Working Late in the Office
Things get strange when you're alone in the office at night. It's quiet except for the occasional odd noise you don't want to think about, the lights are out in the background, and objects your coworkers put up to make their cubes more like home -- the things you hardly notice in the daytime -- glow with a kind of hyper-reality under the spotlight of the overhead fluorescent fixture, highlighted against the dark background. They seem alive with a life of their own.

Working Late in the OfficeIn the stillness, everything feels a bit weird. You pick up the pace and maybe cut a corner or two so you can get finished and be able to leave. You crank up the iPod to drown out the sound of silence. And sometimes it feels like somebody is watching you. Poking your head up above the partition, you see that somebody is. He's pastel and furry and strangely threatening. That's when you know you've had too much coffee.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Dazzling holiday lights and news of layoffs and budget cuts at the Overture Center for the Arts

Overture Center for the Arts
The ebullient enthusiasm with which Madison rushed into the construction of the Overture Center for the Arts without a lot of thinking about the underlying economics was part of the bubble economy that tanked so recently.

Overture Center for the ArtsThere was a manic rush to rebuild the downtown on a massive scale without seeming limit. There was business to be done, condos to be built, and the "condo magnet" was at the heart of it all. Now the consequences are all too clear. Now there is news of layoffs, declining budgets and reduced revenues. Overture president Tom Carto sketched out the new realities:
"It's a perfect storm in the demise of the trust fund and the financial crisis everyone is feeling right now," Carto said. "The 2009 budget is looking pretty dire. We have to respond. We're compelled to have a balanced budget. We're going to do that."

Overture expects to end the current year with a $380,000 shortfall, which will be covered with a surplus from 2007 and about $100,000 from the private 201 State Foundation, Carto said.

Carto said he and managers combed through the budget to find savings for next year, but it became clear that layoffs were unavoidable.
But, man, they sure do put on a gorgeous light show for the holidays.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Separated at birth?


I finally figured out how to pronounce Blagojevich. It's pronounced Big Boy, same as his long separated twin. Where is Mike Royko when we need him?

Test-driving the Nikon D90 video with 10-20mm lens through Madison's Holiday Fantasy in Lights

video
The D90 is the first SLR also to shoot video -- including HD video (followed soon after by a Canon DSLR for more than twice the price). Many photographers see it as a cool camera with great features for the money, in a package that happens to include an interesting toy -- one that they may or may not ever use. The camera's HD video is probably a bigger deal in the media and filmmaking worlds.

Print media that are under increasing pressure to put video up on their websites are snapping up the cameras as a relatively inexpensive tool for journalists who are already shooting stills and might as well shoot some video while they are at it: still photos of local newsmakers along with talking heads, sports action clips along with stills, video clips of auto accidents or other disasters along with still photos. The D90 only records mono sound and there's no input for an auxiliary mike. But you don't always need stereo, and if you do, it's easy enough to sync with a digital recorder in post production.

Filmmakers who shoot HD are excited about the availability of a relatively low-cost platform for shooting pro-quality, 24fps footage with Nikon lenses instead of spending $30,000 for special equipment to do so. It won't replace high-end video cameras anytime soon -- there are way too many compromises and shortcomings -- but it's great little piece of equipment for shooting B-roll footage.

The thing about the Nikon lenses is that they allow journalists and HD videographers to easily create looks they can't get with conventional video cameras -- like the superwide effect you can get with Nikon's 12-24mm or Sigma's 10-20mm zooms. I was curious what that would look like, and so I decided to give my D90 with the Sigma superwide a test drive through the 2008 Holiday Fantasy in Lights in Olin Park Friday night. I assumed my position in the videographer's (passenger's) seat while T was the dolly operator, driving us through the park at a stately 2 or 3mph.

The result was a mixed bag. First of all, I didn't shoot HD. It generates enormous files (600 megs for 5 minutes) that I don't want to process or store until a time when I really need them. It's overkill for the web, since it will usually get downsampled so much anyhow. So I shot in the 640x424 mode, comparable to many point and shoots. The colors are still good, coming from the same sensor, and it illustrates the effect of the wide angle lens just as well. Since the camera doesn't autofocus while shooting video and is hard to focus in the best of circumstances, I preset the focus at about 20 feet and set the lens to the widest focal length -- 10mm. It was overkill for the most part. The wide angle spread things out too much and there was too much pitch black in most of the frames. I should have come in a lot tighter for the most part. But this setting did work for one part of the ride, the tunnel of lights shown here. The wide angle really did offer a unique, edge-to-edge exaggerated perspective.

As you enter the park, there's a sign telling you to turn your radio to AM 1610, so you can listen to the soundtrack. About the sound -- sorry, I should have turned up the radio and turned off the heater. But it does catch something that bothered me: The incessant droning of commercials for all the sponsors, with just a bit of holiday music underneath. It was sort of like listening to the worst of AM radio -- my only quibble with the otherwise delightful display, now celebrating its 20th anniverary.

The display runs through the weekend after New Year's, till Jan. 4. If you go, you may want to turn off the radio and bring your own mix tape of favorite holiday music. It took us about 6 minutes to drive through, and it takes somewhat longer when there's a line.

Friday, December 12, 2008

If you say so

If You Say So
As I drive down the hill on Glenway Street on Madison's near West side, this sign on Monoe Street always makes me smile -- especially in the winter. Where did they say that bike route was? Shot while stopped at the red light on Glenway.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Notes on shooting the Moon

Full Moon
I took this photo (or rather, photos) of the Moon tonight with a Nikon D90. As you've no doubt noticed, the Moon is much brighter than anything else in the night sky, including clouds -- so much so that a photograph exposed for the clouds would just produce a featureless white blob for the Moon.

In fact, it would look like this -- the first photo I shot. Talk about blown-out highlights! That's why this is a Photoshop composite of two handheld images, shot one after the other, one exposed for the Moon, one for the clouds. I've read that the moon has the same brightness as a plowed field on a sunny day, so I manually exposed at ISO 800, f/8, 1/1600. The clouds were shot on Program, auto ISO -- which figured out to ISO 2500, f/5.6, 1/125. In addition, I put a lightly tinted fill layer over the background layer of the moon to try to match the clouds and also to cover up some of the imperfections of my Photoshop work. A sudden experimental impulse. I'm sure there are better ways to do this for people who know what they are doing. (Like this, for example.)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

So far, we're keeping up nicely with last year's record snowfall pace

Madison's First Big Winter Storm of the Season
The snow that stared Monday night with sleet and icy rain (a good time to put windshield wipers up to keep them from becoming icebound) dropped 6.5 inches of white stuff in Madison and almost twice as much further north.

Snow DaySchools closed, and it was a welcome snow day for students -- except at UW-Madison, where they are in the midst of finals. For everyone else it was a hassle, made worse by the feeling of déjà vu:
The storm puts the total for this snow season at 16.3 inches. During the record snows of 2007-08, when 101.4 inches of snow came down, Madison had 16.7 inches of snow through Dec. 9.
In other words, we're just about on track to keep pace with last year's depressing record. It worked out to almost one snowfall every other day.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Stefan Drössler presents restored Lola Montez and Loves of a Pharaoh at UW Cinematheque

Stefan Drössler, Director, Munich Filmmuseum, at UW Cinematheque
Stefan Drössler, director of the Munich Filmmuseum, presented two restorations over the weekend: On Friday night, the German version of Max Ophuls' Lola Montez and, Saturday night, Ernst Lubitsch's 1922 silent Das Weib des Pharao (which translates as "Wife of the Pharaoh" but was released in English as "Loves of a Pharaoh.") The latter was accompanied by another one of David Drazin's marvelous live, improvisatory piano scores.

Stefan Drössler, Director, Munich Filmmuseum, at UW CinemathequeDrössler prefaced each film with an informative and humorous multimedia presentation about the film, the director and the restoration. And he demonstrated a real flair for the English vernacular when confronted by technical glitches. Some notes on both films:

Lola Montez
This 1955 European production starring Martine Carol and Peter Ustinov (and a young Oscar Werner, prefiguring his role as Jules in Jules and Jim) was Max Ophuls' last film -- and his first in color and cinemascope. ("Everything good in Lola happened because of my inexperience with color and cinemascope -- when I looked through the camera's viewfinder, it was as if I'd just been born," he told Rivette and Truffaut in Cahiers.)

A story about a woman who lives by her beauty and in the end is victimized by it, the movie may revel a bit too lovingly in the humiliation of her decline, but it's known in film history for Ophuls' elaborate framing device involving the aging Lola playing herself in a circus while the story unfolds in flashback, Ophuls' innovative use of color, and his trademark tracking shots that evoke the poignance and circularity of time and fate. (The real Lola Montez, born Eliza Gilbert in Ireland in 1821, never ended up in a circus and may have had an even more interesting life than the fictional one. Much of her final decade was spent in the U.S. A reconstruction of her home in Grass valley, CA is a state historic landmark, and she died and was buried in Brooklyn.)

Lola was a European art film made on the scale of an out-of-control Hollywood epic and filmed in three languages. There is no one "authentic" Lola Montez, and there still isn't. As Drössler explained in his entertaining presentation, the different versions posed problems for the German restoration, which had to incorporate film from all three versions. An early resource was Ophuls' son Marcel, who had served as an assistant on the film, but then decamped to the side of the French version, which premiered at Cannes earlier this year and is now showing in the U.S. in limited theatrical release.

Drössler provided lots of production details and photographs. For example, Ophuls built a gigantic circus tent, big enough to seat 2,000 people, but he did not fill the seats with extras but with cardboard cutout photographs of people, interspersed with a few live actors. This cost much more than hiring extras, but the result, when you look at the audience in the background of the circus scenes, is hypnotic. Ophuls used different color schemes for different seasons, shot on different locations, which in one case required him to paint a house red. When the owner objected, Ophuls wrapped the house in red tulle fabric. In another scene, white fabric covered rooftops, mimicking snow rather badly, so Ophuls mad eit a night scene and the illusion worked. More details of his presentation were captured in this blog post when he delivered it earlier San Francisco.

Loves of a Pharoh
Although Drazin's accompaniment made this very enjoyable experience, the 1922 film itself is pretty much of purely historical interest: The brooding Emil Jannings plays a lovestruck Pharaoh who triggers a war and destroys everything when he can't win the love of an escaped slave girl he forces to become his queen. A huge epic, with gigantic sets on the outskirts of Berlin, and a cast of thousands -- including literally 25,000 extras. Special effects have progressed a lot since then, and the film is notable for the laughable stoning scene at the end, in which the victims are stoned to death by what are so obviously rubber rocks bouncing off harmlessly. This was Ernst Lubitsch's last silent before leaving Germany for Hollywood. While it certainly demonstrates his talent for organizing and directing vast film projects, it hardly shows the lightnes of touch we associate with the director of The Shop Around the Corner.

Drössler's presentation was at least as interesting as the film itself, probably more so. He showed slides of the set construction, which included such marvels as a Sphinx about 100 feet high. Journalists and celebrities came from all over the world to visit the set. At the same time, the 25,000 extras were affordable because of massive unemployment and escalating inflation made their labor dirt cheap. At one point they actually went on strike for higher wages and succeeded, because the production could not afford any delay. They continued to be upset about working conditions, and there were fears during the stoning scene that some might use real rocks, and police were stationed to prevent it. Drössler was amusing about the restoration of the movie's red, green and blue tinted sections. It took three years for the digital restorers to get the color tints to perfectly match the nitrate stock. However, the dyes had faded over the years, so Drössler wasn't sure what they accomplished, really.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Walking by Wingra Creek in the snow

Walking by Wingra Creek in the Snow
As I drove through Vilas Park this morning, I only saw one person -- though that might have been a matter of timing. Usually there are lots of snow bunnies out walking or running. This woman had the entire white world to herself.

A moment of equine exuberance in the snow



At least someone seems to be enjoying today's snow. Of course, he doesn't have to drive in it. Highway 12 east of Cambridge, Wisconsin, not far from Madison.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Typical Madison resident on the first day of December, 2008

Typical madison Resident on the First Day of December 2008
This nothing. What's a little snow?

They helped make history at 1709 Monroe Street, and now everyone has moved on

It's Been a Month Since They Helped Make History Here
It's been a month now. Not long ago they helped make history here, and now everyone's gone -- the Obama Campaign for Change headquarters at 1709 Monroe Street here in Madison. The action has moved elsewhere. Although it's more than seven weeks until Barack Obama takes office, it already feels as if we have a new president. Empty as it is, the storefront where they helped make it happen now resonates with the kind of nostalgic, Hopperesque aura possessed by empty places with a history.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The sun sets on some of the first ice fishers to venture out on a newly frozen Lake Wingra

Some of Lake Wingra's First Ice Fishing of the Season
This was the scene late Friday afternoon: The sun had already set, and the ice fishers were still running out there. The ice looked solid, but I'm not sure I'm quite ready to trust it yet. I mean, it's only November... But then, I'm not an ice fisherman. I'm not going to risk falling through the ice for the fun of sitting in icy solitude, hour after hour, alone with my thoughts and the possibility of an occasional encounter with a fish dumb enough to investigate that funny little hole in the ice.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Traces of analog image editing in the archives of Life magazine's files

Analog Image Editing from the Files of Life MagazineI came across this photo of artist Aaron Bohrod surrounded by a patch of gray while browsing the Life magazine archives in Google Image Search. Bohrod was commissioned by Life to cover World War II, the last time Life routinely used artists as well as photographers to cover a war.

The image provoked an intense pang of nostalgia for the media's earlier, analog way of working with photos. The tweaks that today are done routinely in Photoshop were done in the darkroom, or by retouching the photo itself, or both. What seems to have happened here is that the magazine needed a headshot of Bohrod (something that comes up a lot more often than using a complete photograph) and a photo retoucher was assigned to paint the gray box around Bohrod's head and shoulders. He seems to have used a brush first and then an airbrush to blend the background into a flat, neutral gray, leaving that ghostly halo around the outside of the box. Then a halftone was made of just the head and shoulders, and the photo was returned to the files, the only way to preserve it for future use. Today that would all be accomplished by simply selecting the head and shoulders on a screen and pasting it onto a neutral background.

The idea that all those millions of Life photographs could someday be stored in a few boxes known as hard drives would have seemed like pure science fiction -- not to mention the idea that any of them could be called up by a few keystrokes by anyone, anywhere.

When I started in journalism, newspapers everywhere still had physical file cabinets filled with artifacts like this. The more an image had been used, the more marks of use it would have, ranging from grease pencil crop marks in the margins to traces of the retoucher's brush, which always looked so artificial on the glossy print, but which usually looked perfectly natural in the final halftone. In other words, each image showed traces of its movement through the collaborative enterprise that was involved in its transformation into print and mass reproduction.

Today, the only traces are ghosts in a machine. We've gained a lot, but we've lost something, too.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Channeling Edward Hopper while driving home on Thanksgiving Eve

Channeling Edward Hopper While Driving Home Thanksgiving Eve
I never take pictures like this, through windows and into the privacy of people's own homes. Even the idea made me feel a bit like a voyeur. But as I sat idling at the red light last evening something about this scene in the middle of the block to my left caught my eye, even though I couldn't really make it out very well, and I instinctively reached for my camera. I knew I'd regret it if I didn't, although I doubted I'd get anything worth keeping and figured I'd probably delete the image later.

What originally caught my eye was just the warmth of the scene in the window, surrounded by November darkness. The stillness of the couple. The "picture in the picture window." Only when reviewing my photos later did I realize some of the other things that I might have registered unconsciously: The fact that the couple's backs are turned against the outside. They're in their own world, looking in the same direction, but not at each other. They're together, but alone. They had been frozen in this position when I first saw them, and they never moved. They were isolated against a simple pattern of flat, colored planes with little detail. And the colors, warm and beckoning at first, were more complicated than they seemed -- the hint of a cold, fluorescent green eroded the warmth and made it unsettling.

Last year I wrote of the "dreamlike, incandescent glow of urban alienation set against the encroaching darkness" in a post about Edward Hopper. And now I almost seemed to be channeling Hopper.

It certainly was a strange experience, because so many things had to go right to get the photograph -- I was only going to get one shot, and there was no time to set up. Normally I have my point and shoot beside me when I drive. It would have been useless. But I had been shooting holiday lights with my DSLR, it was set to ISO 400 with -1.0 EV compensation, and the lens was the 55-200mm Nikkor with image stabilization. The handheld 1/2-second exposure at 200mm could have been terribly blurry, especially with the car idling, but it wasn't. Instead, the photo was just soft enough to look a bit less photographic. And finally -- the light didn't change until I had a chance to take the picture.

Now that I look at the image again, the white-haired man somewhat resembles the older Edward Hopper. And, from a distance, the woman standing beside him could even be a stand-in for his wife Jo, who was also a painter. No wonder I felt as if I were channeling Hopper.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Coming during Thanksgiving week, the first real snow of the season was right on schedule

Front Row Seat on Winter
Although the only rule about Wisconsin weather is that there are no rules, the first real snow of the season -- a light one -- came right on schedule. We frequently get our first snowfall about a month before winter officially starts, often during Thanksgiving week. Last year it came a few days earlier, but so did Thanksgiving.

Now They All Have White HatsThis was the scene in Wingra Park Monday morning. An empty bench in front of the boathouse had a front row seat on a frozen lake and the white woods of the UW Arboretum beyond. The park itself underwent a fashion change, and suddenly the plants all were wearing white hats.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Lake Wingra freezes over

Lake Wingra Freezes in Black and White

Lake Wingra Freezes in Black and WhiteBecause it's so small, Lake Wingra responds more quickly to falling temperatures than the other, larger Madison lakes. Sometimes it freezes, melts, and freezes again before Lake Mendota freezes over at all. It's the ice canary of Madison lakes. This was the view from Wingra Park Saturday as a thin sheet of ice covered the lake, trapping oak leaves and other debris along the shore. Not quite ready to walk on yet, but unless we get a big thaw, soon ice boats will be flying across the sleek surface. More photos at this Flickr set.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Check out the retro mod Tomten holiday window display on South Park Street

Retro Mod Tomten
There are overproduced and assertive holiday decorations in malls all over town, but I'm fond of the more modest displays in the windows of individual shops that are content to charm, provoke a smile, or just provide a bit of warmth in the face of approaching winter. Like this display at Atomic Interiors on Madison's South Park Street.

That upside-down traffic sign? Turns out it really was a leading indicator after all.

Turns Out It Really Was a Leading Indicator After All
Photographic crystal ball? I posted a color version of this photo nearly a year ago. Someone had removed the top screw and let the sign flip so it pointed down and to the left. I wondered whether it was a leading political and economic indicator, pointing toward a a leftward turn in our politics and a downward turn in the economy. I'm always seeing these little omens in everyday things, and usually they mean absolutely nothing. Not so this time.

At the time, I thought the Junior Senator from Illinois was really running for Vice president on a Clinton ticket. I thought That she had a lock on the nomination and that she would have a good chance to be elected. The picture was a light-hearted way of finding omens and portents that reinforced my view. The housing bubble had started to break, but we were many months from seeing the real impact. What a year! I guess I'll pay more attention to unusual traffic signs from now on.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Warning to Vilas Park skaters. Or should it be directed at Wall Street investors?

Warning to Vilas Park Skaters, or to Wall Street Investors?
Thin ice is dangerous because it offers the illusion of solidity. It looks as if you could just step out and glide forever. This week, Wall Street demonstrated (once again) that the idea that we're anywhere near a stable floor in the stock market is just as illusory, and that relying on the recent past in today's market can be as treacherous as skating on thin ice.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Alfred Eisenstaedt's "Good Life in Madison, Wisconsin" circa 1948 on Google Image


Sixty years ago this year, Life magazine did a cover story about Madison, with photography by their great photojournalist Alfred Eisenstaedt. It was about Madison, but it was about more than Madison.

It was the postwar American Dream in pictures. The war was over, the midcentury boom was starting, and here was a Kodachrome vision of what life in America could be, an essentially suburban vision of the idyllic life in a city big enough to have cultural amenities and a major university, but small enough to have trees, parks, lakes and beaches -- and seemingly infinite green space. (And when, judging from the photo above, Madison Gas & Electric apparently didn't have to worry about air quality standards.)

Now that Google is scanning the entire 10-million image Life magazine photograpic archive and making it available through Google Image search, Eisenstaedt is among those Life staff photographers whose images will now be available online in much larger numbers. With a little judicious experimenting with search words, the search can even bring up specific assignments -- like the Madison story. Type these words into the Google Image search window: Madison Alfred Eisenstaedt source:life. You'll not only save a trip to the library to look up the old bound volume of Life, but you'll find a fascinating online visual experience.

What's cool is that the several hundred images include not only the photos that were published in Life, but also the outtakes. The color of the photos that were published (or perhaps considered for publication, there seem to be a few I never saw before) is -- all things considered -- pretty decent. Not so the outtakes like the one on the right. They're horribly faded and color-shifted. I imagine the former were kept in dark, humidity and temperature-controlled archival storage, while the latter were lucky to survive at all.

The scans are not very crisp, as is true of most photos scanned in high-speed batch mode (Google has scanned about 2 million images from the archives, and has about 8 million to go). But it hardly matters. While these images may be as softly blurred as memory itself, they also possess the evocative power of those moments when, with a sharp pang, you recover a long-forgotten memory that had seemed to be gone forever.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Nothing like a bit of snow to really put the blue in the autumn blues

Nothing Like a Bit of Snow to Put the Blue in the Autumn Blues
What a shock. Madison's light dusting of snow yesterday was like a cold slap in the face. "I'm not ready!" I wanted to shut. "There must be a mistake! Make it stop!" Which it did soon enough, obligingly. Did you notice how blue sthe snow was? (Well, actually it wasn't -- that was me, leaving the color balance on the wrong setting when I stepped outside. But the result seemed to describe the way it felt.)

Make It Stop!At least it was more colorful earlier in the day. Every year I seem to forget that there will be snow, and every year it takes me by surprise. Where did autumn go? Can't it continue a bit longer? Why not? Why why why?

Monday, November 17, 2008

Caution: MBA program ahead?

Caution: MBA Program Ahead?
The new $40.5 million UW School of Business east wing of Grainger Hall opened this fall just in time for our financial system to collapse. The four-story addition is designed to foster interaction and collaboration among Wisconsin MBA students. These warning signs were on one of the doors this weekend. Something about the glass doors? Or a warning that investing in an MBA in today's troubled economy may be hazardous to your financial health?

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The tree lights on University Avenue are back!

They're Back!
The reason to drive to and from work by way of 2700 Universty Avenue from now until the end of the year: Dr. Jack Kammer's Annual University Avenue Tree Lights Display. Just a quick grab shot the other night. Have to go back with a tripod one of these days.

Curtain rising on another classic at the UW Cinematheque, Le Plaisir by Max Ophuls

Curtain Rising on Another Classic at the Cinematheque
I love the UW Cinematheque, and last night we saw another classic, Le Plaisir by Max Ophuls. That gorgeous curtain rose creakily ("We're going to have that fixed," said Tom Yoshikami, who introduced the showing).

The silver screen came alive, and we were transported to a magical world of sparkling black and white imagery (a print flown in from France) and fluid cinematography that seemed all the more amazing for having been filmed in 1952. No wonder that filmmakers as different as Todd Haynes (who introduces the Criterion DVD) and Martin Scorsese revere Ophuls, one of the great masters of the tracking shot.

The action begins with a tour de force of camera movement and film editing, as we follow a strange masked figure and what seems like all of 19th century Paris streaming through the city streets to a ballroom filled with revelers, who are joined by the mysterious masked man, who throws himself into the dance with demonic energy until he finally collapses.

The film is made up of three Guy de Maupassant stories beautifully reinterpreted by Ophuls at the height of his powers. I usually don't like anthology movies. Their parts often make an awkward fit that doesn't hang together. Here it works -- partly because there's one longer story in the middle that's framed by two shorter stories, and all three are complementary in theme and tone.

I could go on and on, but I'll defer to this essay about Le Plaisir by Jamie S. Rich. You'll also find a number of stills at the link. But stills alone can't capture the tempo and movement of the film, or some of the grace notes it contains -- a transcendent coming together of the sacred and the profane in an old Norman country church, and an unexpected stop to gather flowers in a meadow that could have been photographed in paradise itself.

There's a wry wisdom, a tone both lyrical and ironic, in Ophuls' take on life and lust, love and loss. I can't help but think that it influenced two of my favorite directors in two of my favorite movies made just a few years later -- Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night and Truffaut's Jules and Jim. It was a great film experience, one that remains as vivid in my mind the day after, unlike so many movies that start fading away the minute you leave the theater.