Friday, December 24, 2010

The Two Americas at Christmas Time

Happy Holidays for Some but Not for All
There are some who are in darkness
And the others are in light
And you see the ones in brightness
Those in darkness drop from sight

-- Bertholt Brecht

I've always been somewhat ambivalent about sculptor George Segal's Depression Bread Line in the lobby of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA). The sculpture is hauntingly evocative of its subject, but it seems oddly out of context in its elegant, Cesar Pelli-designed surroundings. And since the space is often used for receptions and other public gatherings, there's something surreal, almost verging on decadent, about guests cheerfully mingling and socializing alongside these sad figures without seeming to see them, or to feel their pain.

Walking along State Street last night I looked thrugh the window and saw these still, silent figures lined up for a handout they will never get. Their solemn forms blended in the window with the festive reflections of holiday lights across the street. It was a poignant reminder of the two Americas, different economic worlds, which this Christmas are further apart than they've been for many decades. The ones in brightness we see all too well. The others, all too often, slip out of sight.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Holiday magic on Lake Wingra: Pickup hockey under a string of lights on an improvised rink.

Holiday Lights and Night Hockey  on Lake Wingra
If you drove along Monroe Street last night and looked down Knickerbocker toward Lake Wingra, you would have seen these lights that appeared magically on the lake along Wingra Park. A group of friends have been doing this for several years now. They get together during the holidays, set up lights and a generator, shovel out a rink, and play several pickup hockey games over the course of the holidays on frozen Lake Wingra. With benches along the shore and a fire in the grill, it all has a magical, improvised, old-fashioned quality. When the holidays are over, the lights -- like holiday lights everywhere -- are packed up and put away until next year.

Holiday Lights and Night Hockey  on Lake WingraThe full moon last night added a special touch, a natural counterpoint to the string of manmade lights lighting up a little patch of ice. The sounds were wonderful in the night air, skates cutting the ice, sticks siding along the frozen surface, and the puck's solid thwack. It all sounded different than on an artificial rink. The entire frozen lake seemed to resonate with the sounds. Hockey the way it was originally played, buddies getting together just for fun on a frozen lake.

I also shot a bit of video, which didn't capture the light the same way as the stills -- or the sounds. What you hear is mainly the generator in the foreground. (Note to self: Don't shoot video next to a generator.) But it does give some idea of the action. And I like the dog entering from the left and fetching its master, shepherding him home for dinner perhaps.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Celebrating the Solstice with candles, a magical ice lantern and edible ornaments for the critters

Winter Solstice 2010We celebrated the Winter Solstice at Tiedeman's Pond with candles and homemade ornaments. T again "baked" one of her magical ice lanterns in an antique cake tin. We made biodegradable (and edible) ornaments for the critters, who always can use a bit of nourishment this time of year (for more detailed pictures of the ornaments see this Flickr set).

Winter Solstice 2010The the flickering candles provided a a bit of visual warmth alongside the frozen pond as night fell. When we left, the candles were still holding out against the encroaching darkness, and the sunburst form of the ice lantern was like a promise of renewal, the return of the sun, and better times ahead.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Monday, December 20, 2010

Computational photography replaces or supplements optics with computer power

Computational Photography
This abstract diptych consists of the right side of two pictures I took with my point-and-shoot of a white door.

The lines on the right show the curved "barrel distortion" (only slightly exaggerated for illustrative effect in Photoshop) you normally get near the edge of the frame with most zoom lenses at the wide setting (at the tele setting they normally produce some "pincushion distortion"). The straight lines on the left are straight out of the camera. The photo on the left was taken with distortion control set to on.

The distortion control was done, not optically, but by the camera's computer in processing the image. It had the effect of making the lens of my relatively inexpensive point-and-shoot the functional equivalent of a lens costing many times what the entire camera did.

It's a part of something called computational photography that constitutes what might be called the second phase of digital photography, one that is rapidly changing what we can do with our cameras. In the first phase, digital cameras used their computers to render the images produced by electronic sensors in a form that roughly mimicked what film could do. Now the computers in our cameras are adding a host of functions that could never be performed with film, or only performed awkwardly and expensively.

Computational photography is about replacing or supplenting optics with computers. Distortion and perspective control (eliminating slanting lines when a camera is pointed upward) are two examples. Another is automatically compensating for lens flaws that are always present to a greater or lesser degree. Designing a lens is always a matter of trade-offs between various kinds of aberrations and distortions. The better the trade-offs are managed, the more expensive the lens. But now manufacturers can optimize lenses for inexpensive production and correct the results in software, which is much cheaper.

Another example is the High Dynamic Range (HDR) capability that's being built into more and more cameras. By shooting two or more pictures in quick succession and combining them in software, the camera can render pleasing shadow detail without blowing out the highlights.

This is just the beginning. As this article about computational photography in the NYT points out, experimenters are already doing things that seem straight out of science fiction, such as cameras without lenses and cameras that can shoot around corners using lasers.

In other words, a lot of today's equipment will become obsolete as we change our ideas of what digital photography can and should do -- just the way manufacturers like it.