Saturday, November 30, 2013

My Favorite Wildlife Photo of All Time

My Favorite Wildlife Photo
I've always been fascinated by the Arctic, and with the kind of weather we've been having it often comes to mind, but I would rather dream and read about it than be there.

That's when I get out my copy of White Wolf, former National Geographic photographer Jim Brandenburg's study of Arctic wolves. I love this photo, which he took while on another assignment on Ellesmere Island, the northernmost part of Canada, a few hundred miles from the North Pole -- a photo that literally changed his life. It's my favorite wildlife photo of all time.

Partly its the forlorn Arctic bleakness of the image and the perfect decisive-moment composition showing the wolf and its shadow at the height of its  jump. But there are so many photos of wild animals showing amazing moments. What makes this so special to me is how it was taken.
I was using the same equipment as I had for most of the trip: basically a Nikon F3, a Nikon 20mm lens and Kodachrome film. The lens becomes important because most people assume that I shot this photograph from a boat, but actually I was standing on the shore. I composed the shot so the shoreline was just outside the frame. As I was using a 20mm lens, it stretched the scene out slightly and made it appear wider than it is in reality. That's the great virtue of using a wide angle lens - it gives a scene scope and drama.
Most wildlife images, especially those of large predators, are shot with very long telephoto lenses. Many are amazing, but they put the viewer at a distance. It's like looking at something very far away through a telescope. The viewer -- and the photographer -- is a voyeur at a safe distance.

When shooting with a 20mm lens you have to be very close to the subject for it even to register as anything but a tiny spot, and the perspective draws you right into the photo and provides a dramatic perspective. That Brandenburg could be close enough to wild Arctic wolves to record this magical moment -- and that the animals would trust him enough to let him be there --  was amazing. The result is this iconic image.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Getting acquainted with My iPhone 5s and Its Camera

Getting Acquainted with My iPhone 5s and Its Camera
Photo taken in Badger Prairie Park, Verona, WI, slightly enhanced in Snapseed -- but the capture is all iPhone 5s. The lens is fast enough (f/2.2) to create a bit of bokeh in the background. It was very windy when I took the photo, but shooting wide open at ISO 40, the exposure was for 1/1786 sec., freezing the milkweed.

Something else I like: You can now shoot square format within the camera app, rather than having to open up another app like Instagram or Hipstamatic. Cool! I've had a lingering fondness for square format ever since shooting for a time with a twin lens reflex back in my film days.

Yesterday I upgraded from the iPhone 4, which I've had for three years. Haven't had much time to take photos, though -- I've been too busy pursuing my 24-hour crash course in advanced battery management.

With iOS7, the phone does many amazing things involving wifi, cellular data and gps to better serve the user, Apple, corporate advertisers and, who knows, probably the NSA. After a couple hours of intensive use you're likely to have used up a major part of your battery charge. I'm resigned to living in a surveillance state and have pretty much given up on the notion of privacy, but I do care about battery life. A lot. So I've been spending a lot of time finding out what features and settings to disable. Think I've finally got it figured out -- battery life seems back about where it was with my old phone.

I long ago started leaving my DSLR home most days in favor of a Nikon Coolpix. Now maybe I'll start leaving the Coolpix home in favor of the iPhone.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Madison's Elegant New Gallery Space

Diane Endres Ballweg Art Gallery
Downtown Madison has an elegant new gallery space, the Diane Endres Ballweg Art Gallery -- and it's on the third floor of the new Central Library. The opening exhibit was curated by artist, librarian and Central Library gallery coordinator Trent Miller. In the future, there are plans for juried shows there as well. Congratulations to Trent on a great job with the gallery and all the art and art installations throughout the new library. Art has been integrated throughout the library, and it's one of the most visible differences between the new and the old facility.

Sandhill Cranes in the Epic Oak Grove

Sandhill Cranes in the Epic Oak Grove
This pair of sandhill cranes has been gleaning the acorn harvest in the Epic Systems oak grove in Verona recently. They wander contentedly  with their heads to the ground, pecking and foraging in the grass, stopping now and then to groom their feathers. Usually one keeps a watchful eye on their surroundings while the other feeds, though sometimes they both have their heads down. Occasionally both look up and look around carefully. Their wariness has served them well. Sandhills have many predators but are also the oldest living birds. They go back at least 9 million years in their current form, and close relatives existed 60 million years ago, when dinosaurs still roamed the earth. They were here long before we were.

I love watching them and their graceful beauty. The best moment came a few days ago and was unphotographable because of the background vegetation. The two cranes, which had been slowly grazing side by side, stood up and turned to face each other. They seemed to be looking directly into each other's eyes. Their heads moved a bit closer and their beaks touched. It was like a kiss. I could only think as I watched them, "They're in love!" These magnificent creatures bond for life, and one couldn't help but feel how devoted to each other they are.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Living with art in Madison's new Central Library

Kicked Upstairs
I love the way art has been integrated into the new Madison Central Public Library. That includes Hieroglyph, one of my favorite works of public art in Madison. It has been kicked upstairs, where it keeps a watchful eye on  the roof garden of the new Central Library. The iconic abstract sculpture stood at the entrance of the old library, but there's no room at ground level for the sculpture, which a lot of folks hated and a smaller band of admirers, myself included, loved. I still do, and it's great to see it on public display again.

Public Art Then and Now
Two works of public art that are separated by nearly five decades can be seen side by side in the new Central Library. In the roof garden there's the 1964 sculpture, Hieroglyph, by artist O. V. Shaffer. The abstract work occasioned a lot of negative commentary by shocked Madisonians at the time. A typical comment:
"Yesiree. I'm glad to see the good taste of Madisonians again comes to the fore. I’m speaking of course of the controversy aroused by the proposed city library sculpture. Now, I'm no artist, but like many of my neighbors if I don't know art I sure do know what I want in front of my new library, and this incomprehensible blob of metal isn't it."
On the Madison Public Library's website there's are stories about the history of MPL. If you scroll down to the bottom of this page, you'll find more about the Hieroglyph sculpture and people's reactions at the time. I love it, and the work now has more friends, but at the time it was created, it had many detractors

On the inside to the right, there's Stacked, a 2013 work by Niki Johnson, a sculpture installation made of book ends from the old shelves in the Madison Public Library. In contrast to the polarizing reactions that greeted the Shaffer sculpture, everybody seems to like Johnson's recent work. What's not to like? It's colorful, cheerful and fun. Many of us remember wandering the stacks and finding these book ends at the end of a row of books we were looking at. It speaks of history in a playful way.  And it has a marvelous tactile quality that is hard to convey in a photo.

History Repurposed

Attitudes toward public art seem to have changed quite a bit in the last 50 years. In 1964, in the heyday of abstract art, there seemed to be a wider gulf separating the art world and the general public. The Internet and other media have opened up the world. It's much harder to shock people today. Pretty hard to shock anyone these days without extreme violence, death or explicit sex being involved -- and sometimes not even then.

At the same time, artists seem to have found ways of meeting the public halfway without compromising their art or cloaking it in deliberate obscurity. Stacked is a beautiful work of art that works on many levels -- color, form, abstraction, symbolism being just a few. At the same time, it speaks to everyone about the library and its history in ways that everyone understands.

I'm glad the two works are so close together in their beautiful new home. And that's not all. Art is integrated throughout the renovated building. There's a wonderful new gallery space with great lighting, and there are wonderful visual surprises to delight the eye wherever you turn. All that, and books too!

Congratulations to everyone who made it happen.


Saturday, September 21, 2013

Stopped by Thursday's Downpour

Full Stop
Tail end of the rush hour, and the skies just opened. Just guessing, but it felt like we got about 2" of rain in 45 minutes or so. This is at Regent and Speedway, but I soon found myself on University Avenue between University Bay Drive and Midvale, and traffic was crawling in water that was mostly 6 to 8 inches deep, and deeper in a few places. Cars were leaving impressive wakes. A few stalled. Although I was grateful that the Avalon rides pretty high off the road, it still was white-knuckle time.

I finally got off to higher ground and looked for a good place to cross University Ave. and get back home. Drove the back road to Walgreens at Hilldale to check the Midvale intersection. That's when I saw all the cars stalled in the access road, which was totally under water more than a foot deep, with several cars stalled in the high water. A couple Good Samaritans helped push some of the stalled cars out of the high water. See how the car in the foreground got out of there.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Newly renovated and re-imagined Central Library opens Saturday

The Question Place
The central branch of the Madison Public Library reopens a week from today. Find answers to your questions. Find answers to questions you didn't even know you had. Find more questions. And maybe a book or two. They still have them.

Monday, September 02, 2013

The Fading Ghost of the American Middle Class

The Fading Ghost of the American Middle Class

I've posted different versions of this photo before (usually in color, but color now seems too pretty for the reality it depicts).What it means to me has changed over time, as has the figure in the window.

I took the photograph in 1981, at the beginning of the Reagan Revolution. It shows a window display at Tiffany's on New York's 5th Avenue. The display pivots on the irony that the two "bag ladies" seated on the park bench -- one poor, one rich -- are carrying bags from the same upscale 5th Avenue stores. At the time, the gap between rich and poor in America could still be symbolized by an empty space on a park bench. Today it's more like the Grand Canyon.

Back then, we still had a middle class. The woman reflected in the window seemed to be a middle class American, looking on in bemusement at the extremes of rich and poor from a vantage point in the reasonably comfortable middle. Today the middle class is a ghost of its former self. So many blue collar, white collar and professional jobs have gone away. No wonder the face in the window seems so faint and haunted.

If you see any politicians today getting in touch with the grassroots on Labor Day, shaking hands and kissing babies, you might want to ask them what they propose doing to restore the middle class. Ask them to be specific. You might even want to help them connect the dots by reminding them that one cruise missile costs $1 million. You can probably think of lots of ways to share with them that $1 million could help people in your community.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Kid tree

Kid Tree
This tree on the Pinckney Street side of the Capitol Square may be the best single piece of playground equipment in the city. From the beginning to the end of the Dane County Farmers' Market, it's filled with kids. There's a kind of primal connection between children and trees, one that not all of them have a chance to explore. Here they do.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Smiles of a Summer Night

Smiles of a Summer Night

Sipping our drinks, waiting for our shrimp pizza on Paisan's outdoor patio under the full moon overlooking Monona Terrace we were smiling because we were still caught up in the magic of the movie we had just seen at UW Cinematheque -- a movie T and I first saw together when I was 16 and she was 15. It's long been one of my favorite movies of all time, a movie Pauline Kael called "a nearly perfect work" -- Ingmar Bergman's "Smiles of a Summer Night."

We've seen it many times, but it's been at least ten years and probably more like rwenty since I last saw it. I always wonder how an old movie I loved long ago will hold up when I see it now, but I needn't have worried. The film, shown in a glowing new 35mm black and white print, was as magically beguiling as ever. Bergman's bittersweet comedy about youth and age, life and love still weaves the same spell, transporting us to a midsummer's night in a distant, enchanted Scandinavian past.

T alluded to the changing relationship we have with movies we love for a long period of time when she said, "We laughed at all the same things back then, but for different reasons."

NOTES
A magical moment, the great Eva Dahlbeck singing "Freut euch des Lebens" to a silent ensemble by candlelight: www.youtube.com/watch?v=jBWM0GEG6io

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Sleeping Swans

The Sleeping Swans

There's magic in the dark, sleepy stillness of Lake Wingra at night, especially with a bit of moonlight filtering down on Wingra Boats. Another in a series of explorations of the night with my Coolpix 7100 and a tripod.

(I have an old lightweight tripod that has a cheap Joby ball head. Was clunky to use with a DSLR, which is why I never used it unless I absolutely had to. But it's a dream to use with a smaller camera, which is what it was designed for. A whole new world.)

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Life vs. Photography and My Faux Perseid Picture

Life vs. Photography and My Faux Perseid Picture

We found a dark place and took another shot at checking out the Perseids Monday night and after a lot of fiddling with my D90 and the 10-20mm Sigma for maximum sky coverage all I got was this fake meteor track. Meanwhile, my astronomical companions T and M lounged back in their folding chairs, wrapped in blankets against the night chill and enjoyed the light show in the night sky. While I stomped around my camera and tripod swearing, they exclaimed at the beauty of more than a half dozen meteor tracks, some quite spectacular. Once they were following the tiny lights of an airplane high above slowly crawling across the sky when a meteor blazed right across its path and broke up into two separate tracks, a truly spectacular sight. I, of course, saw nothing. I was adjusting the camera for the umpteenth time, trying to get the best exposure I could given the glow of the city lights. The closest I came to the experience was hearing their excited exclamations.

Served me right. There are times when photographers need to let go of their compulsive picture-making and just experience life directly. All too often, we're left with memories, not of an event, but of the process of photographing it. Next time I'll set up my camera with an intervalometer -- my Coolpix P7100 has one built in, while the D90 does not -- and let it do its own thing while I join the audience.

PS: There was a brief flurry of excitement when I got home and downloaded my pictures. When I looked at them frame by frame, I saw one that had this track that looked like a faint meteor. Aha, I thought, got one after all! Then I looked more closely. There were two faint tracks side by side, greenish-blue and reddish (everything was shifted to the blue by my white balance, set to compensate for the glow of sodium vapor lights in the sky). At first I tried to tell myself that the meteor had left a trail of reddish ionized air in its wake, but I knew that was nonsense. It was clearly the twin tracks of the airplane lights that had led T and M to their best sighting of the night, the one I missed and only heard about.

Lesson learned. Next time I'll relax and enjoy the show and let the intervalometer do its work. If nothing else, I'll end up with a nice little movie of the stars moving across the sky. And maybe there will be a meteor track as an added bonus. Or not.

Friday, August 09, 2013

Golden Hour with the Sun at My Back

Golden Hour with the Sun at My Back
When the sun gets low on the horizon and the shadows get longer, one of the best times of day to ride on the wonderful Military Ridge Trail -- and to take photographs. Just east of Riley, WI.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Lanterns for Peace tonight in Tenney Park Lagoon

Lanterns for Peace Tonight in Tenney Park On this day in 1945 the first atomic bomb used in warfare was dropped on Hiroshima and several days later another one devastated Nagasaki. One of the great miracles of the intervening decades has been that it has never happened again, although we have teetered on the brink many times. The Cuban Missile Crisis was only one of the many times that civilization as we know it was on the verge of being extinguished.

 The best memorial to the events of 1945 would be to get rid of all nuclear weapons. They do not increase our security; they imperil it. The only way to ensure it never happens again is to radically reduce the number of nuclear weapons, with the goal of eventually eliminating them entirely. Otherwise, it's only a matter of time until fallible human beings stumble into a nuclear war the same way they stumbled into the devastation of World War I.

 Tonight is the annual Lanterns for Peace observance at the Tenney Park lagoon commemorating Hiroshima and Nagasaki, remembering those who died, and reflecting on visions of a more peaceful world. A beautiful, haunting observance. Don't miss it.

Monday, July 08, 2013

On the 4th of July -- just this one time -- I turned all my creative decisions over to "the mind of Nikon"

Point-and-shoot on Autopilot
Over the years I've tried many different ways of shooting fireworks, with many different approaches (usually involving a DSLR and a tripod) and different camera settings, with various degrees of success. Often the fireworks are secondary, because I tend to focus more on people frozen in the strange, unearthly light.

But this year was different. On the Fourth we went on a long bike ride in the afternoon. I was tired and didn't feel like lugging a lot of gear, and decided to limit myself to what I could do with my Nikon Coolpix P7100. As a fireworks documentary machine, it has its limitations -- most of the settings I would normally use are not accessible through the auto or manual metering modes. But it did have something called a "fireworks" scene mode, in which the camera calls all the shots.

I'm not fond of "scene" modes. In fact, until the other night I never used any of the automatic "scene" settings. I like to have more control over my photography. By the same token, when shooting fireworks I usually use a DSLR and set it on a tripod. But I had already ruled that out. That left the scene mode. What the heck, I thought, why not try it out?

As it turned out, it worked pretty well (if you're curious what settings the "fireworks" mode selected, it made sure the flash was off, set the ISO to 100, and shot at 4 sec. and f/7.1). This setting was perfect for capturing the puffs of smoke in the bright light of the bursting shells and then following through with the flower-like light trails as they spread outward. If I'd had brought a tripod, the trails would be smoother, but I sort of like the impressionistic effect of the jagged light trails due to my hand-holding the camera for the 4-sec. exposure. It made me wonder momentarily if I should just start delegating all my creative decisions to "the mind of Nikon," but the notion soon passed -- I'm way too much of a control freak to make this a general practice.

By a strange coincidence, I ended up shooting with settings very similar to those used by a very talented New York photographer who also shot the fireworks in a new way this year. His name is Vincent Mounier. He blogged about his experience, and his photos of fireworks stretched out along the Hudson River with the New York skyline in the background are truly spectacular. The titles are also whimsical and poetic. Be sure to check them out.

Interesting how we arrived at almost exactly the same place by very different routes:  He used a Canon DSLR, a tripod and a "Bulb" shutter setting. I left the tripod at home, used a Nikon point-and-shoot and relied totally on the camera's automatic fireworks scene mode. Yet our exposure settings were virtually identical.

I'm not about to turn over my decision making to my camera on a regular basis, but this does give me a new respect for the practical intelligence -- or at least a good simulation of practical intelligence -- built into modern cameras.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Wake Up Wisconsin

Wake Up Wisconsin
The Overhead Light Brigade held a "Wake for Wisconsin" to mourn the ongoing dismantling of Wisconsin -- the job losses, the voucherization of education, the corporate giveaways, the destruction of the environment, the list goes on and on. Then they replaced the letters "FOR" with "UP" to send this message.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Fascinating Sequoya Library exhibit of pinhole photographs kids made with coffee cans

Photography Uncanned

As a kid with I started taking photos with a simple, fixed-focus box camera. Eventually I developed my own film and made my own contact prints, absorbing a hands-on understanding on how negative and positive related to each other. In high school I moved on to smaller negatives and an enlarger. Watching images emerge in the developer under the dim red glow of the safelight never stopped seeming magical. And I loved the perfect yin and yang relationship between a negative and the positive image that emerged from it. The process heightened the act of making a photo; since you had to wait for the result, you concentrated more on the act of shooting, because there was no way to reshoot it if it didn't turn out.

Kids rarely have a chance to experience this now.  See a picture, point, shoot and share -- not much mystique to that. But one group of 7th-grade students at Cherokee Heights Middle School did have a chance recently to experience the analog roots of photography. They made pinhole cameras out of coffee cans donated by Trader Joe's and processed their images in a wet darkroom. The result is "Photography Uncanned," an exhibit at the Madison Public Library's Sequoya branch (through June 23).  From the exhibit notes:

From this rudimentary camera, they experienced the long exposures typical of the early daguerrotypes, the distortion created by a curved plane and the mysteries of a wet darkroom. The long exposures allowed them to make ghosted image and strange scenes.

Forty-five of the results are on display in the library. In each case, the original paper negative is mounted directly above the final positive print, and the pairing draws the viewer into the relationship between the two, which is at the heart of analog's magic.

It's a fascinating show -- stop by if you get a chance. Who knows? Maybe you'll feel like picking up a film camera again. Or you might even start looking for a coffee can.

(Click here for a larger view of the text and photos on the right.)

Monday, May 27, 2013

Reflections on Memorial Day

Memorial Day 2013

We may in nobler aims excel, 
And, like men waking from a spell,
Grow stronger, worthier than before,
When there is peace.
        -- Austin Dobson

Forest Hill Cemetery, Madison.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

"1934: A New Deal for Artists" -- what about the art?

Agnes Tait, "Skating in Central Park," 1934, Smithsonian American Art Museum
I had never heard of the American painter Agnes Tait, who was born in New York in 1894 and who died in Santa Fe in 1981. Few people have. "Skating in Central Park" is her best known painting, and the only reason it's known is that it's in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. And the only reason it's in the Smithsonian is that it was paid for by the federal government.
Agnes Tait had long wanted to make a large, festive painting of winter revelers in Central Park, but without a patron she could not take on this project. When the Public Works of Art Project gave her support in the winter of 1933–1934, the artist had her opportunity. As skaters and sledders flocked to the frozen lake and snowy slopes of Central Park, Tait joined them to sketch the winter fun. Then she retreated to her studio to make her painting.
1934: A New Deal for Artists is a Smithsonian American Art Museum exhibit of works from its collection marking 2009's 75th anniversary of the New Deal's short-lived Public Works of Art Project. It's been traveling the country, and today it completed its run at the Chazen Museum of Art in Madison. "Skating in Central Park"  was probably my favorite work in the show. You can see it on the Smithsonian's website, which also contains more information about the painting as well as a bio of the artist, who moved to Santa Fe in 1941, became a regional painter and also an accomplished children's book illustrator.

The government sponsored art during the Great Depression is often mocked for mixing art and politics in the style of "socialist realism." Sure, if you hunted for examples of overly idealized portrayals of workers and farm laborers you could find them. But few of the works in the exhibit conform to this old stereotype. Most are refreshingly free of overt political messages. Agnes Tait, for example, seems to be influenced more by Bruegel than some faceless Soviet cultural commissar.

If there's a message it seems to be, "Look! This is beautiful."

Monday, April 01, 2013

Easter Sunday: The horizon is burning

Fire and Ice

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
        -- Robert Frost, "Fire and Ice"

Easter Sunday in Madison started out sunny, clouded over, and then a brief snow shower passed through. When the sun came out again, it looked like the horizon was on fire. Lake Wingra, Madison.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Spring Equinox: Spring is sprung but the thermometer is leaking

Spring Equinox Southwest Bike Path, Madison. A year ago the high was 81°F. Today it's 21°F. That's a swing of 60 degrees. The temperature has plummeted more than the sales of J. C. Penney, and that's saying something.

 Global warming doesn't mean it gets steadily warmer year by year. Rather, the extra energy trapped in the atmosphere makes the weather more variable -- wilder swings in temperature, stronger and weirder winds, bigger storms. Along with a warming trend in average global temperatures, an average that smooths out wild swings here and there. Right now the Jet Stream has turned into a superhighway running straight from the Canadian Arctic right to our backyards. Never a dull moment.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Celebrating the Ides of March the Canadian Way with Bloody Caesars

Celebrating the Ides of March the Canadian Way with Bloody Caesars
We were looking for an appropriate way to celebrate the Ides of March, drink a toast to the late Julius Caesar and welcome the approach of spring next week, when T discovered  the Canadian answer -- the Bloody Caesar cocktail.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Woohoo! We Made It Through the Winter Without a Single Alternate-side Parking Ticket!

Woohoo! We Made It Through the Winter Without a Single Alternate-side Parking Ticket!

Today's the last day (one thing to celebrate about the Ides of March). First winter I can remember that we didn't get a single parking ticket during the period of winter alternate-side parking restrictions, otherwise known as the memory tax -- you forget, you pay. And there's a lot to remember. First you have to decide whether the date is odd-numbered or even numbered. Then you have to figure which tomorrow's date will be, since what counts is where the car is parked after 1:00am of the day in question. You also have to remember which side of the street is which, although your address definitely makes a good starting point. And finally, you have to remember to actually park the damn car in the proper place (and if you wait too long, the neighbors will have taken all the nearby spaces and you may have to park far from the house). There's a lot to remember, and it's easy to get distracted.

Most winters I've gotten one or two tickets. Sometimes I'd park the car on what I thought was the right side, but it turned out I was mixed up. Other times I just plain forgot. It's always irritating to pay the memory tax. You just want to kick yourself, especially since the tickets started getting more and more expensive. It's a pretty effective way for the city to collect revenues from some of its citizens, since they can't really complain and only have themselves to blame.

But this year, with focus and discipline, we emerged unscathed. (Setting a daily iPhone reminder for shortly before bedtime also helped.)

Thursday, March 14, 2013

My Plan B Faux Comet Pan-STARRS Photograph

My Plan B Faux Comet Pan-STARRS Photograph

We set off on a family walk at sunset tonight to look for Comet Pan-STARRS, probably our one weather window for viewing it this week. The idea was to spot the comet on our way back, when we'd be facing west about 40 minutes after sunset. We were well equipped with binoculars, cameras, tripod and -- most important -- instructions and a diagram of where to spot the little space traveler, i.e., a little above the crescent moon and a little to the left.

I've learned from experience that, when it comes to amateur astrophotography, things seldom go as planned and it's always best to have a robust, easily executed Plan B. This was it -- a target of opportunity that presented itself, a jet contrail photographed just after sunset and later tweaked a bit in Photoshop.

We tried hard to see the comet, we really did. If wishful thinking could have done the job, it would have been there above and to the left of the moon, just as the diagram showed. But it wasn't. We were about to give up (no big deal, there's a supposedly much more spectacular comet due to arrive in late autumn) and head back to the car.

Then we saw some people looking up, holding binoculars and exclaiming, "There it is!" And it was. They showed us where to look -- not up and to the left, but rather down and to the right. (So much for my instructions.) It was closer to the horizon than the moon and at the upper edge of a haze layer, which made it fade in and out of view. But we saw it -- a tiny, underwhelming faded orange ball with an even dimmer tail. It could only be seen with the binoculars.

I could have set up the tripod and tried to get a shot, but from our vantage point there was no detail on the horizon that would make for an interesting photo. Plus, my fingers were getting cold, and I was suffering from a severe sense of anticlimax. Besides, I had my Plan B photo that would help preserve the memory of our outing.

Just one thing: Next time I try to photograph an astronomical event, I'll make a point of not relying on just a single source found on the Internet. Nobody's perfect, not even on the Internet.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Deregulatory Wayback Machine

Deregulatory Wayback Machine
Capitol Square, Madison, 1976. Deregulation was big that year -- deregulation, "unshakled" free enterprise, was going to solve everything from airline ticket prices to banking reform.  Reaganism was picking up steam with the California governor's unsuccessful run against Gerald Ford. Although Carter won that year, Reganism was on a roll and triumphed four years later. Three decades of laissez faire capitalist excesses have brought us to where we are today. Probably time for some shackling again, especially on Wall Street.

Madison's BB Clarke Beach in 1982 -- Mobile-free Zone

Mobile-free ZoneBB Clarke Beach, Madison, 1982 -- years before the Mobile Singularity. Nobody talking to themselves, or into a little thingie the size of a small coin purse. Nobody is tapping on a little metal and glass slab. Nobody is aiming a little box smaller than a cigarette pack at their friends, pretending to take their picture. How ever did they amuse themselves? Clearly, they had nothing to do but lie around in the sun.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

The Topology of Knots in Everyday Life: Shoelaces

The Topology of Knots in Everyday Life: Shoelaces I thought I knew how to tie my shoelaces, but I was wrong. They seemed to work just fine. They never came undone. Granted, that was because I tied a double knot. That just seemed a reasonable precaution if I didn't want to trip over a loose shoelace or get it caught in my bike chain. (I didn't realize that if I had tied the laces properly, they wouldn't need a double knot and would pretty much keep themselves tight.)

 One thing puzzled me, though. When I put on dress shoes and tied a single knot, my bows tended to sit vertically, rather than positioning themselves across the shoe, as in the photo, which looks nicer. I wondered how other guys got their laces to look so cool, but finding out was low on my list of priorities. It was one of those file and forget things. It wasn't until I saw this short little TED Talk video that I realized that my unbalanced, north-south knot was a symptom of the dreaded "granny knot." I had been doing it wrong all my life.

 The video explained the problem and showed the right way to tie the laces, but I had a hard time following the details in real time. I wanted a diagram I could study.and searched online until I found Ian's Shoelace Site. It had a diagram that made sense to me. Basically, it's a matter of going under rather than over with one of the loops.

I've been doing it for the better part of a year now. My bows look good, and the knots never come undone. Thank you, Ian!

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Wayback Machine: A rare case of a campign promise being fulfilled (1979)

Wayback Machine 1979: A Rare Case of a Campaign Promise Being Fulfilled In Feb., 1979 the head and torch of the Statue of Liberty appeared on frozen Lake Mendota, looking as if Lady Liberty had been entombed in ice up to her chin. It fulfilled the campaign promise by student government candidates Jim Mallon and Leon Varjian, heads of the Pail and Shovel Party, who had promised to bring the Statue of Liberty to Madison. The original was torched by an unknown arsonist. Different iterations of Lady Liberty appeared on Lake Mendota several more times. A simplified version without a hand went up in 2009, the 30th anniversary of her first appearance. And once she appeared on Lake Monona, in front of the Monona Terrace, as part of the Kites on Ice festival in 2001. Here's hoping she pays us a return visit one of these days.

Friday, February 08, 2013

From the Time Machine: Asheville 1984

Wayback Machine: Asheville 1984
“. . . a stone, a leaf, an unfound door; a stone, a leaf, a door." -- Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel

These lines were probably what inspired my old habit of picking up little souvenir stones from the homes of famous authors I visited, including the childhood home of Thomas Wolfe in Asheville. My little collection of touchstones gradually blended with other pebbles, shells and stones from various trips, and in a kind of entropy of fading memory I eventually lost track of what was what.

This photo is a different sort of touchstone. It's a picture of one of the weirdest cars I ever owned -- a 1977 Dodge Aspen Special Edition with glass T-tops and no air conditioner, so in the summer it got so hot inside you pretty much had to drive it with the tops in the trunk and with a regular glance at the sky for changing weather. The car was strange, but I've always associated it with fond memories, because it was the car we drove on a memorable trip to the Southeast in the summer of 1984. I had bought the car used on an uncharacteristic impulse, and its garishness always embarrassed T, and I can't say I blame her. It looked like a performance car but wasn't. Under the hood was the reliable old Dodge slant-six I had good experiences with earlier in more sedate versions. I suppose that's what I liked about it. Also, until I quickly got sick of it, the two-tone orange-red and white paint job briefly appealed to me. A sudden wild streak.

This was 30 years ago, and that's a long time for a Kodacolor print. It faded the same way that time and memory fade. Sure, it triggered memories, but it was a shabby, fading relic. Recently I decided to digitize the negative and see what resulted. I was blown away. It was as if I had stepped into a time machine. The colors were vibrant and real and saturated. Whites were white. Greens were green. Reds were red. It looked as if it had been photographed yesterday. I realized I was looking at a better version of the photo than the actual drugstore print I had made so many years ago.

Processing note: Since the negs were stored as casually as my old prints, they had also faded and changed color. But I had recently learned a simple, cool trick for handling the orange mask of color negatives in Photoshop. Simply invert the negative image in Photoshop, and use the Levels eyedropper to set the area of the mask between frames to white. Whites in the image will pop, and you'll be close enough to the color balance you want to be able to get there with just a bit of tweaking. And usually it will look better than your original average machine print from the negative.

What I like about this method of processing old digitized color negatives is that any color shift that affects the image has also affected the mask, so this method automatically compensates for it. Like magic.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Why Seeing "Jules and Jim" Always Makes Me Think of This Pink Mailbox in California

Why Seeing "Jules and Jim" Always Makes Me Think of This Pink Mailbox in California

Fracois Truffaut's beautiful, classic film, "Jules and Jim," is black and white and set in France, so it might seem odd that it would make me think of this quintessentially California scene, which I photographed in Ojai, California in 1994. It's because this is where the woman who is said to have inspired the novel and the film adapted from it lived for many years until her death in 1998 at the age of 105, vibrant and full of life to the end.

Her name was Beatrice Wood, and she was one of the inspirations for the heroines of  two of the 20th Century's most memorable movies, "Jules and Jim" and "Titanic." Truffaut's portrayal was the more artful, while James Cameron's was probably more realistic (though Wood was not on the Titanic).

The relationship of the capricious, independent free spirit, Catherine, who loves both Jules and Jim, was partly based on the relationship in New York during World War I of Beatrice Wood, Marcel Duchamp and his friend the French novelist Henri-Pierre Roché, who published "Jules and Jim" many years later, in 1953. Roché and Wood were lovers, and he broke her heart. Jeanne Moreau, in one of her most incandescent performances, plays Catherine in the movie, and Jim breaks her heart. She responds by asking Jules to watch her and Jim go for a ride in a car, which she drives off a broken bridge, killing herself and Jim.

"Jules and Jim" stands up remarkably well for a 60-year old film, still widely regarded as one of the all-time greats. But the ending has not fared as well. Catherine's suicidal impulse isn't really in keeping with her life-affirming character. In the context of the French New Wave, Catherine's death came off as an act of absurdist rebellion, a sudden jolt that ended the movie on a bittersweet note. Today, it seems more like a classic example of what Molly Haskell wrote in "From Reverence to Rape" about how independent women were almost always punished in the movies, especially back then.

James Cameron's creation of the indomitable Rose in "Titanic" much better evoked the spirit of Beatrice Wood (she was invited to the premier, but since she was ill at the time she couldn't make it, and Cameron gave her a private screening at home.) The real Beatrice Wood not only didn't kill herself when Roché broke her heart, but she went on to enjoy many more love affairs and a long, active career, first as an actress, and then as a world-renowned ceramic artist, famed for her unique luster glaze.

I had enjoyed her 1985 memoir, "I Shock Myself," and when we drove to her place in Ojai, I could barely resist the temptation to walk up to the house just to meet this incredible woman. But she was 101 years old at the time. It  seemed too intrusive. So I photographed her mailbox instead.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Demanding justice for Paul Heenan

Demanding Justice for Paul Heenan
Sam Stevenson speaking at the Justice for Paul Heenan rally at the City-County Building this noon, which he organized. A very drunk but unarmed Heenan was shot and killed by MPD Officer Stephen Heimsness Nov. 19 in an incident that had friends, neighbors and community members deeply concerned, despite the results of the MPD's investigation exonerating Heimsness. Read Stevenson's statement here, which details that night's tragic events, and which demands an independent investigation of what looks all too much like a cover-up. (Along the way, you'll learn about a novel term justifying killing of an unarmed suspect, "auditory exclusion.")

Paulie Deserves an Independent Investigation
Madison is unusual among cities its size for not having an independent review process for police shootings. Justice for Paul Heenan and the safety of our citizens demands an independent investigation of his killing, as well as a review of MPD's training and procedures.

Paul Is Dead
Madison lost a gentle young man who had many friends in his neighborhood and the Madison music community. He died needlessly before his time,and nothing will bring him back. The best thing we can do to remember him is to make sure nothing like this allowed to happen again in our community.