Friday, February 26, 2010

Looking through memory's enchanted window at different times and places, then and now

Looking Through Memory's Magic WindowEscape with me for a moment to another February, to another, warmer, place and another time. I photographed this window (click on photo to enlarge) in the Lummis House in Los Angeles in February of 2002. Already transported to an earlier time by the house itself, I was intrigued by the way the different panes of this window look out on different times and places. Some are clear glass, looking out into the courtyard. Others are filled with transparencies -- uncaptioned and mysterious -- taken in different locations. Some are still black and white, some have faded to sepia in the sun. A magical effect, a blend of memory and the present, intertwined.

Charles Lummis was a fascinating man, and so was the house he built in 1898 along the Arroyo Seco, back when it was a rock-filled stream, not a concrete channel. T found this link to a great piece about him on Yelp by someone who knows a lot about Lummis and knows how to share his enthusiasm. It gives more detail than the Wikipedia write-up, and it begins like this:
Where Ave 43 intersects with the oldest highway in Los Angeles, sits an acre or two of land that still looks like it did back in 1898. It is a bit of a miracle really. But Charles Lummis was all about miracles

Perhaps that's what happens when you drop out of Harvard; walk well over 3000 miles across the desolate country; escape the grips of death by scoundrel, weather, and beast many times over; have an awakening of spirit; find your calling; write a book by gas and campfire light; and then decide to build a house where you finally choose to rest for a while.

Or perhaps when next, you establish the very first museum in Los Angeles; dedicate it to preserving the objects of your passion - Native American textiles, Pueblo Indian culture, and American cowboy history, while simultaneously working as the first Editor of the Los Angeles times, and you've just turned 26, perhaps people want to preserve your home. (Did I mention he also worked as the City Librarian, was an archeologist, and a renowned photographer among many other things?)
Check out the whole piece. It's fascinating and also explains a bit more about the window.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Same cupcake but with one more candle

Same Cupcake but with One More Candle
It's Letter from Here's fourth blogiversary. T was going to make a celebratory cupcake, but we're still trying lose some of the baggage from living well over the holidays and neither of us really needs any cupcakes at this time, so I just added a virtual candle to last year's. Again, thanks for the cupcake, Cupcake.

Capitol looms soft and misty over downtown Madison on a snowy afternoon

Capitol Looms Over Downtown Madison on a Snowy Afternoon
A pretty little snow fell here yesterday afternoon. For the dirty gray accumulation on the streets, it was like getting a fresh coat of paint. I grabbed my camera and went out, despite just having said a couple days ago I was more in the mood to edit old pictures than take new ones. So it goes. I love the way the brooding presence of the Capitol looms soft and misty over downtown Madison in the snow.

Large and Soft on Black

For the life of me, I can't figure out how those plants are growing out of the ice to the right of the shack

Ice Fishing Shack in the Snow
Judging from the plants growing just to the right of this ice fishing shack, you'd think it's sitting on the shore. But it's not. The shack is well off shore on Monona Bay and was obviously dragged out there after the lake froze over. But it has those scraggly little things growing alongside it on the right. Your guess is as good as mine -- probably better, since I have no idea.

Go large on black to enter the white world.

Mysterious white shapes spread out on Lake Monona like marble ruins in the snow

Mysterious White Shapes Spread out Like Marble Ruins in the Snow
Yesterday afternoon I drove over to Olin Park to photograph the Capitol across Lake Monona through the falling snow, but something else caught my eye and I forgot all about the Capitol -- these spectral shapes emerging from the snow on the frozen lake. For a moment I had no idea what I was seeing. I seemed to be looking through the snow at broken marble columns scattered around an ancient ruin.

Mysterious White Shapes Spread out Like Marble Ruins in the SnowBut the snow fence and the patch of open water already starting to freeze over gave it away. I had seen this two years ago (as a spectator, not a participant) -- this was all that remained of this year's Polar Plunge, Madison's annual celebration of arctic craziness for charity that took place last Saturday at Olin Park. Sitting on the ice are the blocks of ice that were carved out of the frozen lake to create the icy "pool" for the plunge. Congratulations to all the hardy masochists who helped make this year's event a success.

Feel the cold and the ice and snow.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Sun sets on the outspread wings of the angel in Fred Smith's Concrete Park

Sun Sets on the Outspread Wings of the Concrete Angel
Fred Smith's Wisconsin Concrete Park, Phillips, WI.
Nobody knows why I made them, not even me. This work just came to me naturally. I started one day in 1948 and have been doing a few a year ever since. -- Fred Smith
From 1948 until a stroke forced him to stop in 1964, Fred Smith built dozens of large concrete sculptures of people and animals around his Rock garden Tavern in Phillips. The expressionistic concrete forms were ornamented with a dazzling variety of glass fragments, mirrors and other found objects. Whether you call it folk art or call it outsider art, it reflects a self-taught artist's unique vision. It's one of the most memorable and enchanted places in Wisconsin.

Unfortunately, it's hidden away in the northern part of the state, about 230 miles directly north of Madison (click through the photo to Flickr to see the map in sidebar). We stopped by in 2002, on the way back from a trip to Bayfield. It was late in the day, and I didn't get many decent pictures, but I like this image of the angel silhouetted against the sunset (the wings are not concrete). It catches some of the haunting pesence of the figures in the park at dusk. You can read more about it at the website and also view a B&W collection of photos of the sculptures. A Google Image search will turn up lots more in color.

Through a glass brightly

Through a Glass Brightly
Ever wonder what those refracted -- or reflected -- patterns of bright light cast by a curved surface (in this case a glass of Peroni at Villa Dolce in Middleton) are called? They're caustics, named after their ability to burn if a light source like the sun is bright enough. They're common in all sorts of natural settings, from rainbows to the ripples of sunlight on the bottom of a swimming pool. They're also important in computer graphics.

Try it large on black.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Feeling more like editing old photos than shooting new ones these days

Old photos like this 1998 abstraction I made with my Olympus XA film camera. It's not that the weather outside is particularly frightful. It's just that it's winter. February -- still dark and gray. There's enough snow on the ground to be a mildly irritating nuisance, not enough to be exciting. Snow photos start to seem like tiresome cliches. Visual opportunities shrink and shrivel up (or maybe I'm just a winter wimp). Whatever the reason, I'd rather sit here and go through boxes of old prints and sift through old folders of digital files to see what I overlooked the first time around. Processing some of these forgotten images shot in any season but winter is a welcome form of escape. If you're curious, you can see some of the results in my Flickr photostream the last few days.

Deconstruction of a meme: If it seems to be self-evident, chances are it probably isn't

Like a lot of the internet memes (this one dates back to 2003) that spread like wildfire and mostly disappear without a trace, except perhaps in folk memory and as entries on urban legend websites, this seems to make perfect sense when you think about it. Sure -- keep the first and last letters the same, scramble the ones in between, and it's still readable. It seems obvious. But what about this scrambled sentence?
The sprehas had ponits and patles
Among the possible interpretations, in order of obscurity:
The sherpas had pitons and plates.
The shapers had points and pleats.
The seraphs had pintos and petals.
The sphaers had pinots and palets.
The sphears had potins and peltas.
This is part of a fascinating deconstruction of the truths, half-truths and untruths scrambled together in the scrambled-word meme by Matt Davis, a neuroscientist who really did work in Cambridge when he wrote it -- unlike the probably apocryphal "rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy," who has never been identified.

Davis traces the spread of the meme around the world in a number of languages -- in some of which it is transformed into nonsense by the very structure of the written language, and in some of which it makes about as much sense as in the original. It's a great read, especially as Davis covers a lot of current research circa 2003 about the neuroscience of reading in the process of analyzing the meme. (If you want to scramble some web text yourself, you might want to check out this website for its scrambled-word generator, for which you just type in a URL.)

Knid of mkeas you wednor aobut oehtr mmees we cmoe asocrs on the itnenret.

Monday, February 22, 2010

NYT's Arts Beat blog gets tangled in the underbrush of sentence structure

Help! Competent copy editor needed for this correction:
An earlier version of this post misquoted Mr. Remnick on his comparison between the book and a New Yorker article he had previously written. He said the book would not be a “pumped up” version of the article; he did not say that it would not be a “pimped out” version of the article.
As I make my way through the double negatives, this correction seems to take 54 words to neither confirm nor deny that David Remnick's Obama book will be a pimped out version of his New Yorker article.

Why do I get the feeling that's not exactly what they meant?

Bloom Box: Too good to be true, or just plain great? Might find out Wednesday.

Every few years we get a hot new idea for efficient, clean energy, often -- like the excitement about cold fusion some time ago -- fueled by a potent mix of hope and hype and investor gullibility. Now the latest entry in the clean energy sweepstakes -- the "Bloom Box," a fuel cell from Bloom Energy-- will make its debut at the eBay corporate headquarters this Wednesday, reportedly with Colin Powell, an early backer and board member, and Arnold Schwarzenegger in attendance.
The anticipation can be gauged by a segment on the CBS network's flagship television programme, 60 Minutes, on Sunday which talked about the "holy grail" of clean energy technology. A clock on Bloom Energy's website – which contains little information bar an inspirational video of astronauts and of winning runners cresting the tape at the finish line – counts down the minutes until the launch.

Venture capitalists have reportedly poured $400m into Bloom Energy's project since founder KR Sridhar began his work eight years ago. Twenty companies, including Wal-Mart and Google, are trying out the device. Sridhar has also attracted the high-profile support of Powell, who proclaimed last year: "I have seen the technology and it works."
Hmm... I don't exactly equate the names eBay, Powell and Schwarzenegger with technology vision and leadership. And Powell, of course, seemed equally convinced there were WMDs in Iraq -- until there weren't. Stay tuned.

Easily digitizing old snapshots without a scanner

Art Deco at Sunset

These Art Deco buildings at sunset were shot in Miami Beach in 1985.

I'm escaping from winter by going through some of my favorite old drugstore prints from warmer climes, mostly shot with my trusty Olympus XA, amusing myself by looking for prints that are eligible for quick-and-dirty digitizing by reshooting the prints with my digital point and shoot, the Nikon Coolpix P50 -- which like most modern digital compacts, shoots amazing closeups. The files are comparable with inexpensive low-res scans, though they fall far short of high-res film scans.

It only makes sense for prints that have a decent tonal range. With drugstore prints that's a real minority, but you get lucky every once in a while -- or the loss of shadow detail may actually serve the image, as I think it does here. (In most cases, the machine prints lose the shadows and/or blow out the highlights. Those will have to await scanning, to get the most out of what's on the negative, as there's no way to bring the lost detail back from a bad print.)

Reshooting with the point and shoot is surprisingly quick and easy. Find a spot with bright but indirect daylight and have at it. Make sure there's no glare reflecting off the photo. If you come in tight enough, you don't need to do anything with the file (the old 3-1/2x5" prints have close to the same aspect ratio as the 4:3 of digital compacts; the larger, newer 4x6" prints have to be cropped to fill the frame.) I prefer leaving some space around the picture, in order to do my final cropping in an image editor -- and also a bit of touch-up. But that's the frosting, and you can skip it. In most cases, if you start with a clean print with decent tones, you can can have a file to share on the web or email in literally an instant. A scanner takes a bit longer.

Eventually I'll have to start scanning the old slides and negs. I'm put off, not by the work involved (I've also had a wonderful offer of help), but by the decisions. Which still seem good enough to bother saving digitally? What hidden gems are in the contact sheets and slides, overlooked the first time around? Why spend time with the old stuff, when you've moved on, your eye has changed and you could be shooting new images? They can't all be saved. The trouble is, in deciding not to scan an old photo, you're basically agreeing to forget a memory. I always thought I would deal with this someday, but as "someday" draws closer, it's enough to make my head spin.

For now, it's less stressful and more fun to take the occasional shot with the Coolpix when the mood strikes me, upload it to the computer and play with it there.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

2000 was a good year for ice boating on Lake Wingra

2000 Was a Good Year for Ice Boating on Lake Wingra
Haven't seen much this year. In 2000 they were out on the ice right after Thanksgiving. The lake froze early that year, creating these beautiful sheets of ice, and it didn't snow until later. This year the lake stayed ice-free all the way through November and didn't freeze over until the end of the first week of December. And then, before the ice had a chance to freeze to the point where it could support iceboats, we had heavy snows.