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.