At 30,000 feet: in 1/100th of a second

July 13, 2011

I find business travel of any sort disorienting.  Why am I here?  Just what am I doing in this place with these people?  Unmoored, my mind floats free of Earth’s gravitational pull and looses itself in philosophical maundering and pessimism.

I am in Carlsbad, CA, for the ESRI International Users Conference.  No clue?  Look here.  Yes, that’s what I do for a living, sort of.  And along with 1o,ooo members of the sometimes cultish fans cum users of ESRI software, I am here to try to learn something useful.  I’m even making a presentation.

On the flight out, I made sure to have a window seat, and my foresight was rewarded with some views of the Missouri River that looked like these below.  Floods, gotta love ‘em, they’re so grand.

I passed over arid hillscapes that were pricked here and there with giant white toothpicks – wind turbines – that seemed puny in comparison to the huge urban energy-suckers I saw.  I arrive in a new city, San Diego, and observe trucks, trains, planes, industrial zones, and crowds of people going to work – the human beehive.  It all seems so utterly pointless.  Why don’t they all just stay in their rooms, read a good book?  Is what they’re doing so great?

I recall a letter by V.I. Lenin in which he deplored the unplanned, chaotic and wasteful nature of capitalism.  Perhaps he and I share a similar visceral disgust with the nature of modern society.  Of course, his solution wasn’t as good as mine.  (Of course, I stole it from Pascal.)

On the flight, I read Freefall, an analysis of the financial debacle of 2007 by Stiglitz.  Perhaps he should read my post on the thieving state.  Well, he won a Nobel, but he is an economist after all…  I also finished reading River of Shadows, by Rebecca Solnit, which is a biography, sort of, of Eadweard Muybridge, the man who is famous for motion studies like these of horses:

and who also did many others of people which are not so widely known, such as this one of a woman simply getting into and out of bed:Obviously, Muybridge was onto something with his instantaneous photos of moving objects, and his work was an important precursor to the development of motion pictures.  Today, you can buy amusing flip-books of some of his studies that work wonderfully well.  In fact, he created an early zoetrope that combined magic lanterns with his motion studies to produce projected animations, and he was involved with Edison in creating the early kinetoscopes.  He was also an accomplished landscape photographer, and a bit of an eccentric.

Solnit’s book, however, indulges in much breathless metaphysical word-spinning at every possible opportunity, and is built on the conceit that Muybridge and Leland Stanford (it was his horse, and he paid for the initial work photographing it in those famous sequences) founded the modern world in the previously Wild West.  After all, the basis of modern civilization is Hollywood (Muybridge’s part) and Silicone Valley ([Leland] Stanford University’s part).  It’s pretty tiresome after a while, but the book rewards judicious skimming.

One of the most interesting parts to me was the connection with Ernest Meissonier, the successful French salon painter known for his large canvasses showing Napoleon in what appeared at the time to be photo-realistic detail.  (He was a favorite painter of Salvador Dali.)


Meissonier exerted tremendous effort in studying the movements of horses, trying to get the legs right.  Muybridge’s sequences of Stanford’s racer, Occident, laid to rest the momentous question of whether or not a horse ever had all four feet off the ground at once – they do – but it also showed how complex was the movement of the legs.  Messonier was upset: he’d got them all wrong, but he was a good sport about it.  In his portrait of Stanford, a photo sequence by Muybridge is just barely visible on the table at the right.

Panorama Banal

June 28, 2011

By clicking on the image above, and then using the ‘magnify image’ function in your browser, you can pan the image from one side to the other, and see my backyard in 360 from my favorite vantage point – prone in my hammock.


November 3, 2010

 The Renaissance humanists found beauty in ruins.   They took what they could dig up.  They thought the best was behind them, and they sought to live up to the ancient ideals.  Was this the first example of stylistic revivalism?


Later on, archaeologists got to work on those beautiful ruins.  Enlightenment artists like Piranesi took a methodical interest in the remnants of Classical Civilization, and produced views of it that were part postcard, part scientific document, and part aesthetic reverie.

Finally, the Romantics found ruins beautiful, but only certain kinds of ruins.

Today, the aesthetic back and forth between beauty and ugliness, the sordid and the sublime, the natural and the artificial continues, as always.

Now, there are a bunch of photographers who love to take pictures of industrial decay.  Some call it industrial decay pornHaving spent lots of time in Detroit, I can understand the frustration of the person in this link.  Others are clearly entranced by the aesthetic possibilities of magnificent abandoned sites, as in these pictures on Flickr.  Not sure how they would feel about their subjects if they were simply unemployed with no propsects, after working on the factory line…

This color image is almost over the top, but it looks very much like factories I visited on Doremus Avenue, NJ, which is shown in the B&W image at the top.  Doremus was the center of the chemical industry in the USA during the late 19th and early 20th century. (More images here.)

Is it the romance of industry that draws them?  The Ozymandias outlook?  Fascination with decadence?  Purely aesthetic possibilities of texture, space, tone?  The image at the bottom left looks positively Piranesian, while the one on the right is simply depressing in its presentation of utter decreptitude.  Would these subjects be interesting to anyone but engineers if they were functioning and in good repair?  (I know there are photographers of contemporary industry too…)

Plowden was making a statement, a plea, with his photographs of American wastelands, but these images seem contemplative and a bit voyeuristic.  At least on the Web, I find very little interest in what the subjects actually are, what they were for,  only how they look.


Coming full circle, sort of, we have the image below which shows not ruins, but a functioning geothermal plant in Iceland.  No ice to be seen; bathers and boaters frolic in this Edenic scene from Dante’s Inferno.  An absolutely mind-bending union of thematic opposites.

The ‘airbrush’ lives on!

July 6, 2010

Just in case you thought that airbrushing the past away was a dead art form associated with the USSR, guess again.  It lives on in the news of our free press.  The Economist created a new image that packed more of a punch for their headline than mundane reality, but they did it for our own good, of course (see below – italics mine).  I don’t have a big problem with the crop, but zapping away the woman is over the top.

In a statement to the New York Times, deputy editor Emma Duncan (who made the decision), said Admiral Allen was removed by the crop and that the local parish president was removed “not to make a political point, but because the presence of an unknown woman would have been puzzling to readers.”

Night thoughts

May 8, 2009

“Hence, so far as their form is concerned, much can be said a priori about these objects, but nothing can ever be said about the thing in itself which may underlie these appearances”

Immanuel Kant, General Observations on the Transcendental Aesthetic

Didn’t Heinrich von Kleist remark, after reading Kant, that he was “disgusted by all that we call knowledge?”

night_5 night_3

night_2 night_4

night_1 night_7


Koons Roof People Pictures

May 26, 2008

Today, a holiday, was a beautiful day. Or at least, I think so. A friend of mine demurs – too much sun! Courtesy of Mayor-Midas Bloomberg, the Metropolitan Museum of Art was open, while it is usually closed on Monday. So I took myself in to see the Comics and Fashion exhibit (dumb) and the Jeff Koons sculptures on the roof garden.

One of the things I like about going to a museum often is that I can take the time to observe the other people, instead of devoting all my attention the art that I may not have the chance to see again in a long time. I love to look at people looking at art. What are they thinking? Do they like it? Does it move them, impress them, bore them? Are they just enjoying the thrill of being here?

Lately, I’ve become more and more aware of people and their phones and their cameras – who hasn’t? Since they are so cheap and easy to use now, people use them everywhere, and often. I particularly like to watch people taking pictures of “attractions” and events. Here are a few from my rooftop visit to the Met. Voyeurism? Voyez vous!

Dog and Pony Show —- ——– Reflections in a Candy Apple Heart

Which Way is It? ————– Why I Prefer a Viewfinder

Paying Homage ————- Creative

The Classic Group Shot ————— Art, Monument, Idol?

Looking at..?

Color Me Clueless

October 20, 2006

(click to enlarge the image)

When it comes to past ages, we live in a dog’s world, that is, black and white. We are so accustomed to seeing everything that way, outside of the movies, that it is a shock to come across images from before the 1950s that are in living, vivid color. Outside of the studio, it was very uncommon to take color photographs, although the technologies for it existed even before 1900.The strip of images at the top is of an emir in the Russian Empire, c. 1911. Will the real emir please step forward? That one third from the left seems just too vivid to be real? Fourth from the left? More like what we’re used to.

Here’s a snap of some Russian peasant girls outside their cabin, somewhere in the vast territory of the Tsar. The image is hard to believe – surely those are young 21st century girls in costume, posing for our camera in a period piece shot.

Oh yes, and here’s one of my favorites from another collection, this time of WWI photos in vivid color. (These were actually shot with color film, while the others were created by taking three black and white shots, each through a different color filter. They were digitally recombined, but in 1911, they would have been printed in some other way.) This one shows a soldier peering through a hole cut in a steel plate at the top of his trench. Periscopes were often used as well. Those snipers were deadly accurate!

You can view the collections yourself at these links that I found:

Color Photos of Russia, c. 1911

Color Photos of French Troops, WWI

Dots, Secrets of the Universe…

February 1, 2005

These are printer’s dots, also known as Benday Dots. You can see them in paintings by Roy Lichtenstein, who was obsessed with them, or you can take out your trusty magnifier (you have one, don’t you?) and look at your newspaper photographs. Best to look at black and white, rather than color. These little dots hold the secret of the universe, and they are responsible for one of the most wide ranging transformations of human conciousness ever…and they are also one of the most neglected, ignored, and unsung elements of the modern world. I’m on a quest to change that!

In William Ivins’ heroic and too little known epic, Prints as Visual Communication, this former curator of prints at the Metropolitan Museum lays out the history of mankind’s efforts to convey information visually over the last 600 years in Europe. The quest was for a repeatable, mechanical (and presumably objective) pictorial statement of … anything. First, there was only drawing. Each effort was one of a kind, not to mention the fact that the image shown was refracted through the mind of the artist.  Then there were woodcuts, which allowed people to produce the same image over and over, within the limits of the technology available, but the initial image was still created by an artist who drew, and then carved a design.  Repeatable, but not mechanical.  Then there was metal plate engraving, which simply increased the detail and longevity available from the individual incised images while the basic process was unchanged.  Then, ta da!, there was “light drawing,” photography.  At last, a means of creating images that was mechanical – perhaps not objective, for there is always style, artistic choice at work – but a darn shot closer than anything else ever seen short of brass rubbings.

The problem with photography was that there was no way to reproduce the images except to print them one at a time in a darkroom.  Early publications with photos had to specially bind them into the book, and they were expensive, and had limited editions.  Photography existed for generations before popular magazines and newspapers could use it, for there was no way to transfer the image to a printing medium analogous to that used for type and engravings.  In fact, publications hired artists to transform photographs, e.g. those by Matthew Brady, into line-cuts, i.e. two-color (binary) engravings, that could be easily printed on the same page as columns of text.  Pretty incredible!  What to do?

Imagine the world as it was. There were photographs, but they weren’t distributed widely – only seen in expensive books and galleries.  Imagine trying to study art history and having to use engravings of famous paintings for your source!  (Ivins reproduces some of them in his book. The difference between the original – shown in photographic prints – and the engraving is staggering. And scholars were trained with this?!)  Or internal anatomy, or botany…etc.  (Some of the earliest books of woodblocks were botannicals, by the way.)  And think of the present day torrent of visual images in print we have now, on shopping bags, sides of buses, book covers, inside textbooks of all kinds, posters, newspapers, pens, mousepads – all because of dots.

Dots came to the rescue. Dots, the quantum principle.

By taking the photographic image and ‘screening’ it, i.e. projecting the image through a plate with a grid of very tiny holes, the information in the photograph is broken up, quantized, into bits that can be printed.  The photographic grain is nearly molecular – it is a chemical matrix – but the metal screen transforms it to the level of a mechanical matrix.  The amount of light passing through each hole determines the size of the dot that is chemically sensitized on a plate.  From that, a more or less traditional plate of recessed and raised surfaces can be created, and from that a print can be made over and over again.  Similar to how an etching plate is produced.  A gray-scale photograph can be printed using two colors, black and white!  The smaller the dots, the less black, the more gray they look on a white ground, and from two colors you get a full gray-scale range of tones! Known as half-tones. (Why? I don’t know.  I guess, because they’re not whole, i.e., fully black or white.)

And here we see the mechanical analog of the mind at work in the universe. Taking the unitary and indivisible fact of the world, its energy and physicality, and breaking it into discrete bits that convey information.  Information is conveyed only by a difference: ON – OFF; BLACK – WHITE; GO -STOP; YES – NO; ONE – ZERO.  PRESENT – ABSENT.  Our computers all work with binary math; from great streams of ones and zeroes we get…everything. Consider Thomas Pynchon’s take on this in Gravity’s Rainbow:

Back around 1920, Dr. Laszlo Jamf opined that if Watson and Rayner could successfully condition their “Infant Albert” into a reflex horror of everything furry, even of his own Mother in a fur boa, then Jamf could certainly do the same thing for his Infant Tyrone, and the baby’s sexual reflex. … Shoestring funding may have been why Jamf, for his target reflex, chose an infant hardon…A hardon, that’s either there, or it isn’t.  Binary, elegant.  The job of observing it can even be done by a student.

Dots?  Think of your retina with its rods and cones.  Taste buds.  Quanta everywhere, biting the big cheese of the world into bite, byte, size bits we can manipulate to create meaning.  To learn and to know, you must ignore much, simplify much.  Everything is connected to everything else, all things flow together in a continuum, but if we are to mentally progress beyond the all enveloping womb of Being, we must create distinctions.  So says the Bible, for in the beginning, there was the word.  The word, that allows a distinction to be made between light and not-light, sea and land, being and nothingness?

But, are these distinctions real? Of course not, but that’s all there is.

Blown Up

December 26, 2004

Yes, she is very pretty, and she looks a bit cold. Get her wrap, why don’t you? Of course, it’s Vanessa Redgrave in the most famous pose of her career, and of the movie by Antonioni, “Blow Up.” I watched it today, for the second time in about 25 years. I think I saw it in college in a film class, and at that time, I took it moderately seriously. On this viewing, I could only regard the film as preposterous. I wonder, did anyone take it seriously at the time it was produced? A quick look at some reviews online shows that people still do, and so, I assume, did then.Well, Redgrave and Hemmings are fun to look at, and the period styles and mood of Swingin’ London are moderately diverting. Of course the drug use and ‘orgies’ are so tame by today’s standards that one could almost miss them, but that’s not the fault of the film. Problem is, it’s boring and obvious. The protagonist is a self-involved, alienated, artist, and the intelligence behind the film is preoccupied with making rather obvious points about “we see what we wish to see,” and “who knows what is real and what is illusion…?” Were these points not obvious in 1966? If not, we can only say that the film has not weathered the decades well.

Still, watching it, I get a whiff of the stale miasma of the avante garde. That stilted, self-referential intellectualism that leads artists to publish manifestos and make grand pronouncements about subverting traditional conventions of narrative, structure, expectation, yada yada yada. Time and popular culture subvert them instead. And ideas are never an excuse for being boring. And so we have minimal art of the 60s and 70s, which is art, of course, but only minimally interesting. And we have its descendants today, covering gallery walls with text and message, but nothing to look at. I wish they’d all go read Jean Gimpel’s masterly tirade, “Against Artists,” in which he traces what he calls the decadence of modern art to a centuries-long progression down the road of too much philosophizing. Well, it’s one point of view.

Does the avante garde have any currency today? Does it mean anything to anyone outside of the tiny art world, and inside it, is it anything but commercial? I hope not! I’d rather have a lot of sold-out avante gardists than a vigorous Mario Marinetti and his fascist futurist thugs. Lenin was always talking about the vanguard of the revolution, the political wing of the avante garde. Same idea – a small class leads, and receives from on high the nectar of final truth.


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