Aminals and bad photography

30 08 2011

I had a lot of fun this weekend going through some photos from our honeymoon, especially the ones from the Galápagos. And it made me think about HDR. There’ll be a connection here, I promise. And I will get to the aminals.

There’s a ghastly trend in photography these days: HDR. It stands for “high dynamic range,” which basically means an image that has a full range of tonal values, all the way from light to dark, as opposed to a cluster of mostly dark or mostly light. Have you ever been frustrated trying to photograph a sunset? Your eyes and brain can see detail in the bright sky and the dark ground at the same time, but your camera can’t. You either get totally black foreground, or totally blown out white sky. Cameras don’t have neural pathways that fill in logical details, like our brains do. So along comes HDR, which is essentially a way of merging multiple exposures into one image. It’s meant to create images that are more like what we actually see in the world. Sounds great, right? Except that technology, for all its bells and whistles, isn’t as good as the human brain. HDR images look insanely fake. Take a look at some HDR sunsets.

But HDR is, for some reason, stupid popular these days. It’s even creeping into photojournalism. And it’s certainly tempting, when you’re editing an image that’s got really dark shadows and bright highlights, to use technology to even it out. But you can end up with a total monstrosity. Or at the very least, something that no longer resembles a photograph.

So lately I’ve been purposefully trying to go easier on my editing, and to think about how I can make choices when I take the original image that make editing less necessary. Taking the time to expose something properly, rather than assuming I’ll “fix it later.” Because every edit adds stress to an image and reduces the quality. I’m trying to be nicer to my files.

Sometimes that’s really easy. Like in the Galápagos. I’ve been looking at the photos I shot there last month, and the quality is so good, because the animals (see, aminals!) are so tame. Wait, no. Tame is not the right word, because “tame” suggests some kind of behavior in relation to humans. The animals in the Galápagos have not a thought in their brains about humans. They’ve never been hunted or disturbed. They’re totally protected and isolated on islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, so their ancestral memory doesn’t even contain traces of the fear of humans that we see in animals everywhere else in the world, and that has become normal to us. It’s not normal. Going to the Galápagos lets you glimpse what it’s like to be just another animal amongst all the animals. Sea lions don’t even look at you as you walk past them. You crouch down next to a bird and it looks at you and goes back to sleep. All of this makes it really, really easy to take beautiful photographs. You can be right up close. You can take the time to choose the right settings. You can move yourself so that there’s a nice background and no blown highlights. It’s like you’re in a Sears Portrait Studio. With fur seals.

Here are some photos I “edited” this week.

These are very close to the originals–I made few edits this week, which was nice. The Galápagos were the real hero here, not me. I need to take it as a lesson to be this careful every time I press the shutter, no matter where I am. Rather than relying on editing later. Because god knows I’m not tryna shoot HDR wildlife.

I like animals. I wish we (humans) lived in a horizontal relationship with animals everywhere in the world. It’s too bad that that’s a world where DSLRs wouldn’t exist. But on the plus side, neither would HDR.


Four reasons Donald Trump is an ass hat

27 04 2011

One should not have to lower oneself to responding to Donald Trump’s political statements. But I was moved to wrath today by Trump’s shameless self-congratulation as Obama released his birth certificate. So I’m ruining my nice lunch of strawberries and pita/hummus by writing this blog post, in the hopes that it will diffuse my anger.

Here’s a passage from the Fox news headline article:

“Trump, speaking in New Hampshire, took credit Wednesday for the president’s decision to release the document. He said his team would have to examine the birth certificate and questioned why the White House took so long, but indicated he wanted to move beyond the issue.

‘Today, I’m very proud of myself, because I’ve accomplished something that nobody else has been able to accomplish,’ Trump told reporters. ‘Why he didn’t do it when everybody else was asking for it, I don’t know. But I am really honored, frankly, to have played such a big role in hopefully, hopefully getting rid of this issue.'”

Where to begin. Oh, where to begin. Let’s just dive in, shall we.

First, “took credit”? I’m not disputing that this was Trump’s doing. Unquestionably Obama released his birth certificate because of The Donald’s recent antics. But why in the name of all that is reasonable would you want to take credit for this “accomplishment”? I suppose it’s because — and this is what really fires me up — birthers think that this move was politically important and necessary. (Actually, they really just want to keep finding ways to subtly undermine the President, but at least their outward claim is that it’s necessary.) Necessary? Sure, in DoubleStandardsVille. Obama has repeatedly released all the legal documents necessary to establish his birthplace. So the claim is essentially that his family has committed massive fraud amounting to treason, and duped not only the federal government, the passport office, and the American people, but also the officials in Hawaii who safeguard these documents. What evidence is there to incite such suspicion? None. Would any white president be subject to this suspicion? Have they carefully documented the birthplaces of all Republican senators? Double. Standards. Ville.

In other words, what Trump has “accomplished” here — what “nobody else has been able to accomplish” — is getting the President to do something entirely unnecessary and debasing. Why would you want to take credit for this? That would be like calling a press conference and congratulating yourself very soberly on being the only person who could get Hillary Clinton to agree to perform jumping jacks every time she goes through customs. Donald: You don’t get to take “credit” for pulling off a political stunt that debases the office of your president. Ass hat.

Second. You’re “proud” of yourself? Proud. Did I hear that right? Proud? For having trotted all over the mainstream media for the last month spouting what have now been revealed to be utter conspiracy theories firmly rooted in the all-to-fertile soil of tin-hat myth? You went on NBC and said that your team of investigators “couldn’t believe what they were finding” in Hawaii. You repeated the roundly debunked internet hoax that Obama spent $2 million covering up this story. You went on Anderson Cooper’s show and called President Obama’s grandmother a liar. You implied you had the proof to bring down the President. While Obama should never have had to release his birth certificate in the first place (c.f., first point above), now that he has, everything you’ve been saying has been proved (at best) wrong and (at worst) deliberately slanderous. But you’re proud of your actions. Good for you. Ass hat.

Third. You’re “honored to have played such a big role in hopefully, hopefully getting rid of this issue”? Oh yes, your crossed-fingers, doe-eyed expressions of hope are so believable! Gosh, golly. If only this whole silly issue had never been an issue at all! Isn’t it just the worst? I sure do hope it’s over now! OH WAIT, IT WAS ONLY EVER AN ISSUE BECAUSE YOU MADE IT ONE. Ass hat.

Fourth. Your team will need to examine the document? Oh, puh-lease. I just had to take a three-minute typing break due to my extended eye roll. Your team? Your team is the self-appointed board of experts in birth certificate vetting? Your team? The Gilligans of birth certificate research? Your team that supposedly went to Hawaii and uncovered shocking evidence that Obama’s birth certificate was “missing”? Your team that in two weeks couldn’t find the birth certificate that Obama was able to produce in a matter of hours? Your team that apparently failed to talk to any of the major officials or persons who knew anything about Obama’s birth? Your team that showed itself woefully insufficient to the task of understanding basic Hawaiian legal code? These guys who can’t find a birth certificate in a birth certificate office are the ones whose approval has to be attained before the rest of us can move on? Sure, the State of Hawaii, the Federal Government, the Passport Office, and every major media outlet including Fox News has accepted this document. But I’m just going to wait until The Donald’s team is satisfied. As I do with all my major decisions. I sure hope they get back to me soon on whether or not I did my taxes right. ASS HAT.

This is all the ugliness of the Tea Party culture writ billboard-large. Approaching the public discourse with the battering ram of speculation rather than the lock-pick of truth. Shameless manipulation of the media and stubborn allegiance to myths and rumors, hauling them from the shadowy corners into the spotlight, where, even if they’re not accepted as fact, they develop social force. Like this new claim that Obama got into Harvard via affirmative action. First: untrue. Don’t say it unless you can back it up. Second: if that were true, wouldn’t it be a pretty good defense of affirmative action? That he turned out to be smart enough to be top of his class, editor of the law review, and go on to a professorship at a major law school? Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, annoying shit the Tea Party does. Like blind refusal to be persuaded by evidence and logic — so blind that they cannot see when it is backfiring and actually discrediting themselves. Like the seizing of anything that will discredit an opponent. Oh yeah, and good old fashioned RACISM.

Ass hat. Ass hat. Ass hat.

Cooking: The new “do you suck?” litmus test?

26 04 2011

I don’t like to cook. There, I said it. It feels good to be honest.

Seriously, though, it feels like the kind of admission I’m supposed to be sheepish about. Liking cooking, being good at cooking, making a serious hobby of cooking, have all become such a pervasive fad that it’s not really a “fad” anymore at all. It’s a lifestyle change, at least for the leisure class. To be a well-rounded human, you now have to do yoga, love cooking, and voraciously read the news (or at least political blogs). Whole cable channels are dedicated to cooking, and most of the rest of the channels at least air regular shows. Blogs are filled with recipes and food-porn photos. Facebook and twitter are overrun with “look what I made” photos of fancy cous-couses and homemade ice cream.

I’m not saying these are bad things. Far from it. Food is awesome, and good food is even awesomer. I am a profound lover of food. Nor am I criticizing those who *do* love to cook. Good for them, I say! I, too, have hobbies I enjoy and am guilty of being proud of. This blog is a monument to the over-sharing of hobbies (in my case, photography).

My life without Kevin: grilled cheese and canned tomato soup

But as a person who does not love to cook — in fact, actively dislikes cooking — I feel like a bit of a loser. I feel shamed by this barrage of cultural messages telling me that I should love spending hours in my kitchen trying new and experimental recipes. I DO NOT LOVE THIS. I would rather do almost anything than cook. I would rather work on my dissertation. Yes, by a landslide margin. I would rather do the dishes. I would rather work out. I would rather return phone calls, which if you know me, is saying something.

If I lived alone, I would eat nothing but grilled cheese, canned soup, eggs, and the occasional salad. Maybe a quesadilla if I was feeling fancy. I would never make anything that took longer than twenty minutes or required me to follow a recipe. I’d order in or go out when I wanted a taste of the good stuff.

I constantly suspect that the world secretly judges me. Am I defective? I feel defective. More than that, I feel behind. Others in my age group have perfected signature dishes that they bring to potlucks and picnics. They chat about favorite cookbooks and cooking shows. How could I ever catch up, particularly when I don’t really want to? (Don’t tell me that I’d like it if I just got into it. I’ll come back at you with a list of my favorite hobbies that I think you should love. Got time to learn yoga and take four years of photo classes? I didn’t think so. No, no, really, you’ll like 800-page Victorian novels if you just try reading 16 or 17 of them.)

My life with Kevin: steak with homemade chimichurri, and sweet potato pancakes with seared cherry tomatoes.

But, you’ll say, you reap the benefits of others’ efforts. Don’t I know it. I lucked into marrying a man who loves to cook. And I love to eat! Win! His food is incredible, and I’m happy to tell him so, and to do all the dishes afterwards. But this only increases the guilt I feel when it’s my turn to cook and all I can make is grilled cheese. Maybe I should have to “pay” for this bounty by learning how to cook. Should I? I don’t know.

At least I was able to take this artsy fartsy photo of Kevin’s delicious Valentine’s Day dinner. That’s something, right?

365.2 – 365.5

24 04 2011

Here are the edits I did in the second half of this week. It was all penguins and beach scenes. Hmm, I wonder if I’ve got vacation on the brain.

4.20 // 365.2 [see it on flickr]

4.21 // 365.3 [see it on flickr]

These first two are from a trip Kevin and I took to Península Váldez on the coast of Argentina. We had been through most of Patagonia and somehow not seen any penguins. I was starting to feel panicky that we would not see any penguins at all (!). But luckily there was a flock (herd? school?) still loitering around Península Váldez in the mid fall (April). I was so excited that I think the only sentence I uttered the entire time was “OhmygodIamtakingonehome.” The late season explains their awkward mostly-molted appearance. And my excitement explains the extreme closeups. (Also, we really were close enough to touch them, so penguin kidnapping was a real possibility).

4.22 // 365.4 [see it on flickr]

4.23 // 365.5 [see it on flickr]

The second two are from a beach town early in our trip. A sleepy place called Curanipe that seems to attract more Chilean tourists than international ones. There’s a little tiny carnival, a thriving fisherman culture, and a lot of seafood restaurants that sell things like giant bowls of crab meat for almost nothing. After three weeks in big urban areas, this was just a breath of fresh, Pacific air. We did almost nothing, and saw nothing of note. But it’s one of the places in South America I remember most fondly. A year later Curanipe and the neighboring town were devastated by post-earthquake flooding. Hopefully they’re rebuilding.

4.19 [365.1]

19 04 2011

So, this is cheating a little bit, since my first 365 entry is something I edited last week, not today. But I really wanted to use this photo to kick things off.

[see it on flickr]

The technicals: I didn’t do much to the original file–I straightened it out and trimmed the side so that it was perfectly symmetrical, and I smoothed out some noise in the sky sections. And I made the blacks blacker.

The memory: Kevin and I had been in South America for about 4 months, and we had been on the move the entire time: maximum 5 days per stop. Our visit to Rosario was to be even more curtailed: a mere overnight stopover to change buses on our way from Córdoba to Iguazú. Rosario doesn’t get a lot of guidebook attention; it’s a rather average city in most every respect. Some plazas and churches, a lot of symmetrical urban blocks, and a muddy, slow-moving river whose banks are a good place to run into local crime. But then there’s this monument: La Cuna de la Bandera, a monument to the national flag of Argentina, which was first hoisted in Rosario in 1812 at the turning point of Spanish colonial rule. I have a strange  soft spot for large, inhabitable monuments where people can hang out of an evening. There’s something about the confluence of casual youth and marble patriotism, about reappropriating the nationalist space into a kind of public hangout, while also allowing the sense of community the monument evokes to filter into your daily living. Plus I really dig symmetry. And fire.

I enjoyed editing this photo because it captures my memory of Rosario: sterile, symmetrical, strangely pretty. I like the casual poses of the silhouettes, contrasting the hard lines and symmetry of the monument, and all using the space differently on a warm evening. The perspective also reminds me of how we arrived in Rosario late at night and were taken, not to a backpacker hostel, but to a renovated hotel, all gleaming marble and vaulted ceilings. And how we stood outside in the dark for a few minutes before being seduced, by travel weariness, an eager bellhop, and the promise of down pillows, into going into the bright inside.

I enjoyed reliving that for twenty minutes while I did this work.


17 04 2011

In the photo world, “365”s are very popular. A 365 is a pledge to take at least one (good) photo every day for a year. It’s sort of like what NaNoWriMo is to novelists, or NaBloPoMo is to bloggers. The idea is to force otherwise slacking or uninspired photographers to adopt the habit of taking pictures more regularly, and also to forcibly inspire creative new subjects, since one’s pets and favorite everyday sights will be used up in a week or two. Other people use it as a kind of visual diary, trying to take a picture that best represents how they spent each day.

I’ve often thought about doing a 365. I’m attracted to the challenge of seeing my local world more photographically (I tend to be that kind of photographer who only grabs the camera when I’m going on a trip, never taking it on my daily rounds), as well as to the idea of having a kind of tangible product at the end that would represent a year of my life. It’d be like keeping a journal, without all that pesky writing. A slideshow journal that you might actually want to show people. Plus they make great kickstarts for blogging or twittering, since most people post their daily photo as they go. I still might do one someday.

But what I’ve decided to do instead is a 365 of photo editing. I have so, so many photograph files on my hard drive, 99% of which have never been edited. So I’m going to edit one every day for a year (except on my honeymoon). It’ll be like a 365 of digging up old memories. I’ll post them on my blog and/or on twitter, as a way of keeping myself honest.

I really like editing. I tend to remember a lot of my favorite experiences through the way I saw them, so editing a photo is a lot like reliving a memory. Some people think that the person who is always taking a million photographs is dysfunctional in one or more ways: he’s missing a “real” experience of the moment, or he’s only interested in consuming the experience and outputting a product, or he’s distancing himself from the people/place. Especially when I’m traveling, I am self-conscious about being perceived this way, as some kind of rabid tourist. For me, though, photography is about having a more intimate experience of a moment. It’s about approaching a moment with all of your senses open. You won’t really capture a place through photography if you haven’t seen, smelled, and heard it, through the details. Having my camera in my hands means I see/hear/smell more, not less, while I assess how a place is making me feel and then look for the elements that will allow me to record that feeling.

It’s a kind of enhanced seeing, I guess: to see the world in compositions, and to look for the ones that mean more than just the combination of their visual elements. But photography is also like a mnemonic device that imprints experience on my memory. Not because I have the photos to go back to, but because I took them in the first place. The times in my life when I took tons of photos are the times I remember with crystalline clarity. Because in those moments I was kind of hyper-seeing the world around me.

So editing is a lot like re-seeing something just the way I saw it then. It’s as close as I come to being there again. And there’s the added bonus of working to craft the image to best represent that memory, and to maybe convey it, intact, to someone else.

I’m hopeful this project, a 365edit, will spur me into doing some more local gallery displays, and also get me back into blogging. Don’t worry, not every blog post is going to be a 365edit. I also have some regular old posts that have been percolating for awhile, about weddings, cooking, and other errata. But this blog is about how I see the world, and, frankly, I see it in photos.

Things I haven’t done since before I started studying for prelims*

20 08 2010
  1. cleaned my office
  2. taken books back to the library [those fines are really mounting. also the angry emails]
  3. checked my google reader [i’m so, so scared]
  4. gotten a haircut [this one goes back to way before prelims, actually]
  5. done any wedding planning
  6. really gotten drunk
  7. gotten any sun
  8. read a book that wasn’t on my reading list
  9. exercised with any kind of regularity
  10. had an empty email inbox
  11. written a blog post

* pre*lims [‘pree-limz]: n. hell; death; psychosis; see also: graduate school exams.