Friday, February 13, 2009

Trying to jump start the economy with rusty jumper cables that are too short

It was probably too much to expect that the new guy could sweep into office, hook up the jumper cables and the economy would crank right up and restart. The same deeply compromised political system, fragmented by special interests and ideology, that helped give us the mess in the first place have given us a flawed and compromised stimulus bill and a bank bailout that raised more skepticism than hope when it was announced. Paul Krugman summed it up today:
Over all, the effect was to kick the can down the road. And that’s not good enough. So far the Obama administration’s response to the economic crisis is all too reminiscent of Japan in the 1990s: a fiscal expansion large enough to avert the worst, but not enough to kick-start recovery; support for the banking system, but a reluctance to force banks to face up to their losses. It’s early days yet, but we’re falling behind the curve.

And I don’t know about you, but I’ve got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach — a feeling that America just isn’t rising to the greatest economic challenge in 70 years. The best may not lack all conviction, but they seem alarmingly willing to settle for half-measures. And the worst are, as ever, full of passionate intensity, oblivious to the grotesque failure of their doctrine in practice.
Time for President Obama to buy some new jumper cables?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Great big birthday shout-out to Charles Darwin on Regent Street

Birthday Shout-Out to Charles Darwin on Madison's Regent Street
Charles Darwin was born two hundred years ago today, and On the Origin of Species was published 150 years ago this year. When I first saw this sign the other day, I thought, "Cool -- somebody actually spent money to put up a billboard honoring Darwin."

Then I saw it was promoting an agenda that didn't necessarily have a lot to do with Darwin or evolution, but made use of the language for a catchy slogan: "Evolve beyond belief." The Freedom from Religion Foundation has done some good work in support of the constitutional separation of church and state, but this hardly seems to be designed to promote healthy dialog with the faithful. And while I know they're just trying to be catchy, the idea of evolving "beyond" anything has more to do with the 19th century idea of progress than contemporary evolutionary thinking. Evolution is not about a relentless progression from lower to higher states of being. Evolution is about process, not progress.

Evolution happens. It just is, like gravity. It's accepted in most parts of the world, where religion and evolution coexist without much of a hassle. In America, we just go on wrangling. Believers and nonbelievers brandish Darwin like a club, the better to beat up straw men consisting of oversimplified and distorted caricatures of religion and Darwinism alike. Get a life, people. And let's teach some science in the schools.

Note: Heet Myser in My Flickr comments brought up Carl Safina's piece in the New York Times Feb. 9. It's a marvelous essay celebrating Darwin's genius, but also all the things we have learned since his time, when the tools just didn't exist. He explores in much more detail the things I just tried to hint at. Take a look: Darwinism Must Die So That Evolution May Live.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Did I infringe on someone's intellectual property with this photo taken on the streets of Madison?

Am I in Trouble for Taking This Photograph?
I took this photo just off State Street last year right before the election. Now it seems that I may have violated the intellectual property rights of the artist who allegedly infringed on the Associated Press intellectual property rights to a photograph that appears to have been taken by a photographer who never actually signed the rights over to them. Should I be worried?

Obviously this is absurd. It's also only a slight exaggeration of the issues raised by the lawsuit and countersuit between Associated press and artist Shepard Fairey. AP alleges that Fairey infringed on their copyrighted photo of Barack Obama, taken by photographer Mannie Garcia. Fairey countersued, claiming "fair use" rights to the image he used as a starting point for his famous Obama poster.

I have mixed feelings about the case. In general, I think it's not in the public interest to enforce overly rigid definitions of intellectual property. But I also think photographers deserve reasonable protection in the age of digital reproduction. (Case in point: Fairey found the Obama photo on Google Image Search and subsequently wasn't even sure whose photo he had used.)

The lawsuits are a tangled mess and will, I suppose, be settled long before going to trial. Again, I have mixed feelings about all the parties and their stances, except the photographer, Mannie Garcia. AP is an intellectual property hawk that often overreaches (they've even gone after bloggers who quote a few words from an AP story). Shepard Fairey definitely tests the limits of fair use in his art, which is usually based on appropriation, not just in the case of Obama, and he rarely acknowledges his original sources, which I'm not wild about. On the other hand, he's an artist who transformed a competent but fairly pedestrian photo into an iconic image that will live on for years as the image of this time in a way no news photo ever could.

The only person who seems to have an admirable stance in all this is Mannie Garcia himself (ironically, he seems to own the photo rights rather than AP), who doesn't seem to begrudge Fairey the use of the image and acknowledges its special historical significance.
“ I don’t condone people taking things, just because they can, off the Internet,” Mr. Garcia said. “But in this case I think it’s a very unique situation.”

He added, “If you put all the legal stuff away, I’m so proud of the photograph and that Fairey did what he did artistically with it, and the effect it’s had.”
Would have been nice if AP had showed as much historical awareness and common sense as Mannie Garcia. And if Fairey had been graceful enough to at least acknowledge the source of his image.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Colorful postcard Americana and the black and white photography of Walker Evans

Austere Vision of Walker Evans Has Roots in Postcard Americana
The stark, black and white vision of photographer Walker Evans -- especially the photos he took for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) during the Depression -- is the last thing I would have associated with the almost sureally colorized picture postcards of the first three decades of the 20th Century. But Evans was a lifelong collector, beginning in childhood, and eventually amassed and cataloged some 9,000 of them -- and they were a major influence on his photography, to the point where he rephotographed some from the same vantage point.

Now New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art has a major exhibit documenting the connection and they've also published a catalog. Roberta Smith reviews the exhibit in the New York Times, and they also have a slide show. The postcard above shows Main Street cheerfully lined with cars in Lenoir, S.C.; the slide show offers a similar view in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. with a very different mood.

Why would an artist who disliked color photography most of his life (although he did some very interesting Polaroid work late in life) find such fascination in the faded pastels of these early postcards? The answer, I think, may lie in the difference between what the cards show and what they imply. The cards were made from black and white photographs that were retouched to take out fussy, extraneous detail and then hand-tinted, since direct color photography was not yet practical and Kodachrome lay years in the future.

Look at these early color postcards long enough, study their details carefully enough, and you'll begin to develop a sense for the black and white forms that are their foundation. Deciphering these images is not that different from the way a B&W photographer learns to decipher the underlying forms that are hidden by the tantalizing surfaces that dazzle our color vision. In this sense, the color postcards could almost have served as teaching aids for learning to see in black and white, made simpler by the fact that the underlying photographs had already been simplified to prepare them to survive the soft, colorful overlay they would acquire in the printing process.

The postcards also embody something else. Color is the language of everyday American optimism, the sense that things are pretty damn good, and getting better. Tragedy speaks in a more monochrome language. Implicit in each card was a darker side, in the form of a clean B&W image that provided the card's visual framework. This dual vision persisted right into the Great Depression -- people still mailed these cheerful tokens to each other, no matter how sad the message on the back might have been.

It was as if the FSA photographers, including Evans were determined to make the implicit explicit, to show people the reality of the dark underside of American capitalism at its lowest point. They primarily worked in black and white, and as a result, we still tend to think of the Depression era in shades of gray. (Some did shoot with the new Kodachrome, but those images were not published for many years -- you can see them on the Library of Congress Flickr site -- and it's easy to see why. The color images of Depression misery now seem surprisingly cheerful.)

I think our minds process color and black and white images in different parts of the brain, because color is the sense with which we perceive daylight and everyday life. Black and white is the visual language of night vision, of dreaming, of the dreamlike acquired skill we call reading, and nightmares. It just makes sense that we read color images and black and white images differently.

Makes you wonder what the long-term impact will be of color reproduction having so thoroughly saturated the modern world. Would the Great Depression have seemed as tragic viewed in 1080p high-definition color television? And what would the world seem like today if high-def only broadcast in black and white?