Saturday, July 09, 2016

Photos, Photos and More Photos

Photos, Photos and More Photos

In 2000, perhaps the zenith of film photography, Kodak proudly announced that 80 billion photographs had been taken that year, many of them on Kodak film. Since then, photographic imagery has grown exponentially. Last year, it's been estimated that 1 trillion photographs were taken, most of them on camera phones -- an idea that would have seemed absurd in 2000. How can a phone take a picture?

A world awash in trillions of images raises interesting questions about creativity, originality, and what photography means to our culture. For example, out of billions and billions and billions of photographs out there of sunsets alone, many are bound to be virtually identical. That's what Penelope Umbrico's show, Future Perfect, that runs through August 7th at the Milwaukee Art Museum is all about. What to make of the collective, worldwide networked matrix of images we're all embedded in?

"Embracing the flood of images available in the Internet age, contemporary artist Penelope Umbrico sifts through millions of images shared on Craigslist, Flickr, and other social media sites and appropriates them as source material for her work. She seizes upon popular subjects such as sunsets and televisions and creates large-scale installations that reveal contemporary society’s collective photographic habits and the underlying desires that shape them."

If you haven't seen the show yet, check it out. You may never look at photography quite the same way again.

Wimbledon. Williams Sisters. Wow.


The two oldest women in Wimbledon had a great day. Serena won the women's singles title, tying Steffi Graf's record of 22 grand slam singles titles. She and sister Venus won the doubles title, despite having played very little doubles in the last two years. Venus made it all the way to the semis, before losing to Angelique Kerber, but she's playing the best she has since being diagnosed with a debilitating auto-immune disease, Sjogren's Syndrome, in 2011. It seems to have stabilized (Venus credits a vegan diet and exercise). Although she seemed tight and anxious in the semi, she looked happy and relaxed playing doubles with her sister, her reflexes seemingly undiminished by time. They were a joy to watch.

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

The Casual Tennis Fan's Nostalgia for an Earlier, Curated and Timeshifted Wimbledon

What Does One 5x Wimbledon Winner Do When She Knocks Another 5x Winner Out of the Tournament?

Once upon a time, Wimbledon was broadcast in the US by over-the-air networks on a tape-delay basis. The time difference between the US and Wimbledon gave them plenty of time to select the best matches in the early rounds, so you could be assured of good tennis most days of the tournament. It was just the right amount of tennis -- enough to make you wish for more, but not enough to burn you out. News media cooperated with the networks and did not broadcast results in the US until the matches had been aired. The internet changed all that, but even well into the internet era, news anchors would give spoiler alerts -- "now's the time to turn down the sound if you don't want to know the results" -- to those who wanted to preserve their tape delay suspense. That's long gone; we live in a real-time world.

Back then I used to fantasize how great it would be if I could select for myself among all the matches, and get replays of the ones I missed because of schedule conflicts. Be careful what you wish for. Streaming ESPN3 brought me exactly what I wished for, with the result that now I'm "all tennissed out," suffering from extreme tennis fatigue, and we're just to the women's semifinals. Whether focusing intently on the matches I'm watching, or trying to multitask at the same time, the result is the same, a numb, exhausted brainfog, combined with the wish this would all be over soon. The idea of someone curating the best matches and broadcasting them later at a reasonable hour now seems positively civilized.

The only thing keeping me going this year is the remarkable saga of the Williams sister. Both Serena and Venus have made it to the semifinals. It's the first time Venus has gotten past the early rounds since she was diagnosed  five years ago with Sjogren's Syndrome, a debilitating, incurable autoimmune disorder that limits her playing and practice time. Nevertheless, aided by a vegan diet, she has battled her way back, the oldest woman in this year's women's field.

Serena has the less challenging semifinal opponent; Venus has to make it past #4 seed Angelieque Kerber to get to the final. But the way she's been playing, I wouldn't bet against an all-Williams final. The two oldest women in the tournament battling it out for the championship. That would be a match for the record books.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Photo Assistant

Photo Assistant
TBT: It's been more than four years since Templeton passed away, and I still miss him terribly. We've had many cats over the years, and I've loved them all, but I had a special bond with Templeton. Maybe it was all the hours we spent playing baseball -- Templeton sitting on the exercise bike, batting back the glitter balls I pitched at him, batting most of them straight back at me. Or the many hours reading together, Templeton on my lap. Or rambling in the moonlight in Wingra Park. A great, soulful companion, sorely missed.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Mystery to Me

Mystery to Me
One of the photographic limitations of the iPhone is that it has limited dynamic range compared to film or even a digital camera with a larger sensor. That's OK with relatively even lighting, but in bright sunlight with strong shadows, it leaves you in a difficult place: Either you expose for the highlights and risk losing shadow detail, or you expose for the shadows and risk blowing out the highlights. You can compensate for this in post processing, but for a quick shot on a sunny day it can be a drag.

One of the cool things about photography is that technical limitations can often be flipped so that they're features, rather than bugs. Sometimes it's a good idea to let shadows go black, even cranking up the contrast a bit, in order to to give dramatic impact to an image. Especially in black and white street photography, there's a long tradition of photographers going this route, of using shadows to set up strong contrasts between light and dark.

If you want to experiment with this, a good time is on a bright, sunny day, late in the afternoon when shadows are longer. I did some experimenting late this afternoon on Monroe Street. This was the result.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Brexit: "Bit of a dog's dinner, innit?"

I was glued to the computer last night, watching the BBC's streaming special on the Brexit vote, seeing reactions unfold in real time as the scope of the UK's reckless flying leap into the unknown unfolded. One of my favorite reactions was from a phlegmatic Brit who uttered the immortal words, "Bit of a dog's dinner, innit?"
On this side of the pond, I liked my FB friend Greg Fallis's use of a science fiction metaphor to describe the way the world we thought we knew seems suddenly to be turning upside down and backwards. Wait till you get to the giant underground insects waking up after a sleep of centuries...
There's much to be said for giant underground insects, but I prefer to blame sunspots. The Russian biologist Aleksandr Leonidovich Chizhevsky hypothesized years ago that massive, intense disruptions in normal human behavior such as wars, revolutions and sudden cultural changes were caused by solar maximums, those periods of intense solar activity and the proliferation of sunspots that take place about every 11 years.
This is usually dismissed as crackpot science, but could Chizhevsky be right? Hard to tell. The trouble is that sunspot cycles are roughly periodic, but the periods vary, and historical data is spotty until we get to modern times. So it's easy to fit the solar peaks to just about any series of events you want to explain. And, as we all know, correlation doesn't prove causation in any event.
Maybe it's just that the human species has a deep-seated, genetic predisposition to really shake things up now and then and start all over again -- especially when many people are miserable and think their leaders don't understand them and don't give a damn about them.
It's a real wakeup call to elites everywhere.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Trash-picking with a Lexus SUV

This is a picture I didn't take (not for lack of trying, but because I had left my go-to camera, the iPhone, home in the charger): Visualize a big black Lexus SUV parked next to an off-white sofa and matching lounge chair, which had been set out at the curb, the chair piled up on top of the sofa for easy pickup by the city's large-item trash truck.
A middle aged couple with what might be their adult daughter, all impeccably dressed in upscale leisurewear, are carefully assessing the chair. They open the tailgate and measure with their hands whether the big chair would fit. It seems to. Then they turn the chair up, remove the cushion and methodically inspect every nook and cranny of the chair for flaws or stains. They are about to load it into the SUV when they discover the dark stain on the armrest I could see all along. That's a deal-breaker. They close the tailgate and drive off.
In a student town like Madison, trash picking is an art form, but these were unusual practitioners. I wondered, has it come to this for the American upper middle class? Or were they just looking for something for the cottage?
As I sat watching, camera-less, from my car, I was reminded of photographer Michael David Murphy's wonderful blog, Unphotographable -- all the posts are beautifully written short vignettes describing photographs he did not take, for one reason or another -- "Unphotographable is a catalog of exceptional mistakes. Photos never taken that weren't meant to be forgotten. Opportunities missed. Simple failures. Occasions when I wished I'd taken the picture, or not forgotten the camera, or had been brave enough to click the shutter."
If you've never visited his blog, check it out. The verbal "pictures" are vivid and touching:

Friday, June 17, 2016

Moon and Mars and Wingra Park

Moon and Mars and Wingra Park

The Moon and Mars looked so pretty over the darkness of Wingra Park tonight that I did what I'm often tempted to do when walking at night, which is pushing my little companion devised by Steve Jobs beyond its limit -- that is, shooting handheld with iPhone in near darkness. I know it will scarcely register an image. It will take a lot of post-processing to bring out any sort of image at all, and it will be noisy as hell. Usually it doesn't work (the number of nocturnal iPhone shots I've deleted runs to the thousands). But sometimes I get something that seems to capture the magic of the moment, at least for me.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Star Light, Star Bright

When T and I were inside the starry vastness of the infinity chamber at the Milwaukee Art Museum recently, I asked if she could recite a poem about stars. The result was magical.
("Walk-in Infinity Chamber," Stanley Landsman, 1968.)

Today this isn't about the 2nd Amendment. It's about national security.

As American as Mom, the Flag and Apple Pie and Guns.

I took this several years ago at a "Gun Appreciation Day" rally on the Capitol Square, as several hundred people once again demonstrated their determination to fight for their 2nd Amendment right to keep and bear arms. The nationwide Gun Appreciation Day rallies around the country was the gun lobby's response to another gun control proposal that went nowhere.

That's the problem: Whenever people try to enact reasonable gun control proposals, the political right uses the occasion to fire people up about a perceived threat to their 2nd Amendment freedoms. But today this isn't about the right to bear arms. It's about national security.

A terrible, tragic hate crime and act of terrorism took place this morning in Orlando. I'm not holding my breath, but maybe this time the country will begin to see the easy availability of automatic weapons as more of a national security issue than a 2nd amendment issue.

Until we find an effective way to get these weapons off the street, we're doing half the terrorists' job -- making the tools of their trade easily available. This madness has to end.

Wingra Moment

Wingra Moment

Lake Wingra, Wingra Park, Madison, WI.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Political disinformation and how it slips into the media

Whether you call it disinformation, propaganda or just plain fake news, it's all around us -- provocative, unsourced or unverified stories that give a veneer of plausibility to an assertion that comes with an agenda but no basis in fact. The Planned Parenthood body parts video was an example that went viral before it was discredited.

Many other stories never achieve enough notoriety to get get fact-checked and investigated. They just slip into the general chatter of media and social media. Sometimes they piggyback on vague fears of something that's real, but poorly understood and frightening. Something like the so-called "Dark Web," where most of us have heard that a variety of evil-doers traffic in contraband of all sorts.

I came across this example last night on our local news, Channel 15, Madison WI. (Since Channel 15 did not post the story on the Web, the link is to another station that ran the same story.) The story claimed that in 2008 Barrack Obama absentee votes were bought for $1,400 each on the "dark web" (cue up the spooky music). What slanderous bs. In 2012 the presidential candidates spent $22 per voter on TV advertising. Why would anybody ante up 70 times that much per vote? They wouldn't. The figure was chosen purely for its scandalous impact.

The story seems to be personalized by the voter demographics of where it's going to air. In the story at the link, Trump votes were going for $400 each. In Channel 15's otherwise identical story, Hillary votes were going for $400. Again, do the math -- it makes no sense. The only thing this story is designed to do is to implant the notion "Hillary is buying votes" in the casual viewers' mind and encourage them to share it with their friends.

What the hell are you doing, Channel 15? And why? Please stop it.

Monday, May 16, 2016



Remains of old stone farmhouse at Halfway Prairie Dane County Wildlife Area (across Hwy 19 from Indian Lake County Park).

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Garden Kaleidoscope at Olbrich Botanical Gardens

Garden Kaleidoscope

One of my favorite things to visit at Olbrich Gardens. Give it a whirl, and watch the patterns twirl -- a miniature rotating garden viewed through an optical kaleidoscope. Click here for more information.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

I hope the Democrats get it together before Trump sucks all the media air out of the room

The media now seem to be 100% Trump 100% of the time, shamelessly whoring after the clickbait he so irresistibly provides. The Democrats are disappearing from the news cycle altogether -- while still arguing about whether Hillary is a tool of Wall Street, a useless controversy if there ever was one, because it's so devoid of context.

Yes, there was a Democratic presidential candidate who got twice as much money from Wall Street as the Republican opponent. His name was Barrack Obama in 2008. That didn't make him the pawn of Wall Street either. The Democrats passed Dodd-Frank, and Wall Street turned against them big time. Look at the chart. Hedge funds gave three times as much to Republicans as to the Democrats in 2012. Since then, the ratio has held steady or even worsened.

Donald Trump has already said he won't self-fund his billion-dollar presidential campaign. If recent history is any guide, he'll get a lot of it from Wall Street. It's time for the Democrats to unite against the GOP and Wall Street.

(btw, Trump boasts about being a "master of debt," and it's true that his real estate and casino empires were built almost entirely on debt, much of which he successfully walked away from. Banks were his enablers.)

We're going to be seeing some really lurid red sunsets the next few weeks.

We're going to be seeing some really lurid red sunsets the next few weeks.

Like this one in Marshall Park, Middleton, Sunday night. Sunlight passing through dust, haze or smoke shifts toward the red -- but not all red sunsets are created equal. What we're seeing now is due to the jet stream sweeping smoke from Canada's Fort McMurray fire across the atmosphere of the upper Midwest and as far south as Florida.

Monday, May 09, 2016

Natural Bridge State Park

Natural Bridge State Park

This sandstone natural bridge is the largest in the state. The natural rock shelter underneath the arch was excavated by archeologists in 1957. Their findings showed that people they called Paleo-Indians lived in the shelter 12,000 years ago and apparently hunted megafauna like mastodons and woolly mammoths in the shadow of the retreating glaciers. (The park is about 10 miles west of Hwy. 12 on County Highway C in Sauk County.

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

The Last Park Designed by Landscape Architect Jens Jensen, and the Only One in Madison

The Last Park that Jens Jensen Designed, and the Only One in Madison Glenwood Children's Park: "This park, transformed from a former quarry, is significant as the last major project of nationally renowned landscape architect Jens Jensen. Designed for children to experience nature through unstructured play, the park features open meadows interspersed with forest, playing fields and trails. The park's native plantings and council ring are particular hallmarks of Jensen's designs."

The park was created in 1949, but the elderly Jensen wasn't able to see it all the way to completion of his planned design. Over the years it fell into disrepair, but in recent years the neighborhood has been working to restore it. They hold a wonderful Winter Solstice ceremony in December, with luminaria illuminating the path up to a bonfire at the council ring.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

As a photographer I didn't have any problem giving JFK directions, but I was too shy to shake his hand

I've taken pictures of two, maybe three, American presidents. JFK I photographed for my high school newspaper. Bill Clinton I photographed for the heck of it. Same with Hillary.

About 6 weeks before the 1960 Wisconsin presidential primary JFK made a campaign stop in Madison and spoke about the importance of primary elections and Wisconsin's role in the history of primaries. This was still the tail end of the "smoke filled room" era, and former President Truman had recently dismissed primaries as "eyewash." JFK said eyewash would be the drink that made Wisconsin famous. It certainly put him on the map -- his upset victory over Minnesota Sen. Hubert Humphrey in his own backyard really shifted his campaign into high gear.

Three of us from The Madison Mirror, Madison Central High School's student newspaper, decided to do a story. When we approached the senator, he was incredibly patient and gracious. (Maybe he was thinking we would be voters by the time he ran for reelection.) Jean Nelson and Marilyn Mitchell handled the story. I had tagged along as the photographer, which is why I'm mentioned in the story but not pictured.

"Senator, would you please move to your right," I said, trying to maneuver him closer to our intrepid journalists. With a politician's automatic response to a camera, he did as he was told, and I snapped the photo. I had no problem telling the future leader of the free world what to do, but that was only because I had a role to play. Later, when Jean and Marilyn went through the receiving line to shake the hands of Jack and Jackie, I didn't join them. I had some misbegotten idea that photographers should be neutral, but really, I was just shy.

The photo is really dark and muddy, because it was badly processed and exposed (back then I rarely used flash, even when I needed it). The original negative and 3x5 print were lost long ago. So all I have now is a low-res copy of a copy from a microfilm of a bad halftone in an old high school newspaper. But memories are like that. They don't always come in high resolution.

Friday, April 22, 2016

"What will I do with them anyway?" "Throw them out, dear."

Forget about DSLRs or digital point-and-shoots. These days, anyone with a smart phone can easily shoot dozens of pictures a day. They keep piling up at a rate unprecedented in human history -- let alone the history of photography, which is less than two centuries old, and which for about half that time was amostly confined to specialists. But even in the heyday of amateur film photography there were those who wondered where it was all heading:
Long ago a picture must have been an event. Capturing a living image has become too ordinary a miracle, perhaps. They go about with their automatic-drive Nikons and OM-2's and their Leicaflexes, and put their finger on the button, and the hand-held machinery makes a noise like a big toy cricket. Reep, reep, reep, reep. A billion billion slides, projected once, labeled, and filed forever. Windrows of empty yellow boxes blow across the Gobi, the Peruvian highlands, the temple steps at Chichicastenango. The clicking and whirring and clacking is the background sound at the Acropolis, at the beach at Cannes, on the slopes at Villefranche. All the bright people, stopped in the midst of life, looking with forced smile into the lenses, then to be filed away, their colors fading as the years pass, caught there in slide trays, stack loads, view cubes, until one day the person dies and the grandchild says, "Mom, I don't know any of these people. or where they were taken even. There are jillions of them here in this big box and more in the closet. What will I do with them anyway?" 
 "Throw them out, dear."
-- John D. MacDonald, The Empty Copper Sea, 1978

What will happen to the photographic detritus of our time? Who knows? Considering how long it takes to even glance at the contents of a multi-gigabyte memory card, the answer may well be, "Throw them out, dear."

Earth Day Remembrance of Jens Jensen, Wisconsin's poet of the natural landscape

Jens Jensen The Living Green: CLIPS from Viva Lundin Productions on Vimeo.

A couple days ago we saw a wonderful documentary, "The Living Green," on Wisconsin Public Television about Danish-American landscape architect Jens Jensen. It's showing again tonight, on Earth Day, on Channel 21 in Madison (11:00pm). If you can't catch it, this 10-minute series of clips on Vimeo captures many of the highlights and much of the spirit of this extraordinary man.

Jensen and his wife landed in Chicago in 1884 as penniless immigrants from Denmark. He began working for the Chicago Parks Department as a laborer but soon worked his way up and became the system's self-taught landscape architect, starting as superintendent of Humboldt Park in 1895. He was ahead of his time as a passionate advocate of natural, urban green space, and his design work for the city can be seen in such parks as garfield Park, Humboldt Park, Douglas Park and Columbus Park. He was instrumental in helping save the Indiana Dunes near Chicago. He retired from the park system in 1920 and began private practice, with influential projects around the country, including major projects for Henry Ford and his son Edsel.

After his wife died in 1935 he left the Chicago area and moved to Ellison Bay, in Door County, Wisconsin, where he established "Wisconsin's other Taliesin," The Clearing. Like his friend and contemporary, Frank Lloyd Wright, he was known for his prairie style. Like Taliesin, he designed The Clearing as his home and school, as a way of passing on his vision. He also designed this lovely winding road between Gill's Rock and Rockport. He died in 1951 at the age of 91.

There are two Jens Jensen projects in Madison -- the Council Ring in the sliver of the UW-Madison Arboretum near Monroe Street and the nearby Glenwood Children's Park near Glenway Street. They're fitting memorials to this pioneer landscape architect and visionary, who was so far ahead of his time, and who spent the last 16 years of his long life in Wisconsin.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

A Vanishing Pleasure

A Vanishing Pleasure

I'm talking about book page design and typography. I've been reading some of my favorite mysteries -- James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux mysteries set in Louisiana bayou country, in hardcover editions published by Doubleday. Most were ho-hum in their design. But a few pages into Purple Cane Road I knew I was holding something special. Not only is it one of the best of the Robicheaux series, in which Dave finds out the mother who abandoned him as a child was actually murdered. The other thing that was unusual was that the pages were physically gorgeous, hearkening back to a time when books were precious objects worthy of a craftsman's care and devotion.

The pages were laid out with wide margins, and the lines of crisp text were laid out with generous leading between the lines. My eye flowed easily down the page. Subtle signposts helped lead you through the book without being obtrusive -- chapter numbers were set off in light gray, screened back cursive. The first page of each chapter was set with even wider margins. The first line of each chapter started with a large initial cap, nicely kerned so it didn't look out of place. Chapter sections had their own, smaller initial caps. Taken as a whole, these subtle cues helped orient the reader in the book in a way that's unique to print books.

These days publishers usually don't bother, because most folks do their reading on screens and devices with type set on computers working on autopilot, or the modern equivalent, HTML cascading style sheets. Since the other books didn't look like this at all, I wondered why the publisher bothered. Then I saw a note on the copyright page: "A signed limited edition of this book has been published by B. E. Trice Publishing, New Orleans." I imagine Doubleday arranged to use the same files to print their edition.

They say e-books seem to have reached their peak and that print books are making a comeback. Maybe it's because there's just nothing like being able to page through a well-designed book.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Friday, April 01, 2016



One of my favorite works at the Milwaukee Art Museum, partly because this outdoor sculpture has so many moods, depending on the lighting and the time of day. It was created in 1974 by Alexander Liberman. The Russian born artist had worked in Europe as a graphic designer and editor; he immigrated to the US in 1941 and began working for Conde Nast. From 1962-1994 he was the hugely influential editorial director of Conde Nast. He took up painting, and later, sculpture in the 1950s.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Thank You, Madison Police Department!

Thank you, Madison Police Department!

There's something especially sickening and dispiriting about the theft of a well-loved bike. That's what happened to T a couple of weeks ago. We never expected to see the bike again, a Raleigh Detour that would be especially hard to replace. The frame fit perfectly, but it also had some features that don't usually come together as a package -- internal gears and brakes, generator hub and lights, chain guard and rack. But mostly, T just really loved that bike.

It was really gloomy this morning, but I decided to take a walk in the rain. Suddenly my phone rang. Juggling phone and umbrella, I took the call -- and it was as if the sun had suddenly come out. It was the police, and they had recovered the bike, none the worse for wear.

I was glad I had filed a police report. (You only need the serial number -- or a bike license -- and a description.) They told me when I went to pick up the bike that they actually recover a surprisingly high percentage of the bikes that are reported missing, but that many people never file because they wrongly think there's no point. But there is. Thanks again, Madison Police Department!

Thursday, March 17, 2016

My "Hidden Madison" Cover Photo

A view of the Annie C. Stewart Memorial Fountain seen through the trees in Vilas Park where it abuts the end of Erin Street. A closeup of the fountain is in the story inside the April issue of Madison magazine. More information (and a version of the photo without headlines).

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Probably my favorite camera these days

Favorite Camera?

I leave my DSLR home so much these days I guess I'd have to call this my favorite camera.

Cell phone cameras used to be a joke, but that was then and this is now. In addition to the constant availability, I like the intimacy and unobtrusiveness of shooting. When I shoot people, they're much less intimidated than with "real" photographic gear. I usually shoot square format because it reminds me of the days when I used to compose in medium format. I throw away a lot of pixels that way, but since I don't make big prints, I don't care. I love being able to process with Snapseed, on the spot, when my impressions of what I visualized are fresh. It almost combines shooting and processing in one fluid, intuitive process. What's not to like?

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Sometimes I don't even notice my better photographs until a few days after I take them.

Mounds Not Money

A few days ago I took a lot of photos and videos of the rally at the Capitol protesting Assembly Bill 620 that would have stripped some of the protections against development from Native American effigy mounds. (For the time being, the protest seemed to stop the bill in its tracks, although with this legislature, you never know.)

Most of the photos and videos were more dramatic and colorful. But looking back a few days later, this quiet photograph is the one that haunts me.