Tuesday, December 31, 2013


Good for Henry Allen, a great writer posting for a great magazine, with an artful piece on his grandparents.

"This chronicle may mean little to [the next generations]; history stops at your grandparents. And when my sister and I die, along with a few cousins, there will be no one to remember our 407, no one to honor its tutelary deities, which is to say that there will be no 407 at all by our lights, just an old house in an exhausted city in New Jersey."

 It may mean little to those children now, but a grand piece like this is just what I was talking about ...

Monday, December 30, 2013

Random Thoughts ...

"What have you done for the first time lately?"

The new year and its vows to improve our lives are upon us, and Facebook is full of helpful lists posted by people linking to various blogs and news aggregation sites hoping to make their numbers jump with headlines like: 25 New Year’s Resolutions Every Person Should Actually Make For 2014.

Usually these lists are full of tough-ish love demands to rid yourself of people and things that drag you down, while trying the things you've been putting off because of embarrassment or uncertainty.  (My favorite in the above: "If you hate your job, quit your job. Repeat after me: THE MONEY IS NOT WORTH IT."  Great, I'll jump of the cliff and build the parachute on the way down.  Oh, but wait:  "Food and shelter are clutch though, so make sure you have another job lined up."  So the money's not worth it ... unless you need the money for rent and stuff?  Then I should keep the awful job?)

Lately, I've been looking at not just these lists, but all the various feel-better-about-yourself, do-the-deeply-meaningful-"right"-thing type advice on the internet and posters and bumper stickers and even music.

"Said no more counting dollars
We'll be counting stars"

As I rise every morning at 2 am to do a job I at least consider superior to the vast majority of possible professions (though I wouldn't mind a little more sleep), I begin to think at best with amusement and at worst with disgust on the many little anti-negativity self-challenges these people are offering.

I can't just dispose of people because I feel like they take me down, especially if they're taking me down because they have real, serious problems and could use my help.  Sure, my life would be happier without taking on some of their burden (especially since there seem no real termination date on it), but what about them?  And what if I feel some sense of obligation?  "Sorry, Dad, thanks for all the years of sacrifice and care, but you're old and boring.  Bye."

And what if that thing I think will give me true fulfillment is, well, stupid?  Not embarrassing, like asking the prettiest girl in high school to the prom and getting shot down, but really, really misguided, like quitting my job and abandoning my family to go on a personal journey to awareness?  (I'm looking at you, Eat, Pray, Love.  Honestly, where did the money for that come from?  Couldn't it have been put to better use?  And why wasn't she completely begging-on-the-street broke at the end of that grand, world-circling tour?)

Which comes to the subject of money.  I mean, we all would like to think we're above that, and I think no one will argue that there's a point when one can ask, "Isn't that enough?"  (Though we might, and will, argue over exactly where that point falls.)  But these pursue-your-dreams sentiments are the path to bankruptcy and ruin.  I know.  I did it.  And I'm here to tell you: Nothing sucks the joy out of everything in life quite like having to worry about money.

 "Money can't buy you happiness, but it's more comfortable to cry in a Mercedes than on a bicycle"

But in the end, I guess, my chatter on this -- dreary and workaday, full of envy and greed though it is -- has no more value than theirs.  I think of one of my very favorite quotes in recent years:

"We’ve all heard that a million monkeys banging on a million typewriters will eventually reproduce the entire works of Shakespeare. Now, thanks to the Internet, we know this is not true." 


Thursday, December 19, 2013

Remarkable Things

I've been to some exotic places, and covered some interesting and exciting events -- some could be called History, with a capital H -- but there have been a number of sights, little visual marvels squeezed in to the quiet moments, that are truly remarkable.

The sight of a fire truck with all its lights ablaze running down a frontage road, silently from within my car on the main highway, on a foggy night.  It glows like a magical UFO, all reds and yellows and blues and whites, surrounded by a broad, soft halo.

A full moon, setting and huge, hidden by heavy overcast before it slowly pushes through a thin spot, totally visible, then fades away again into the white darkness.

A meteor (a couple of times), bright and sudden in a clear, starry, early morning sky, so quick and there that it actually made me physically jump, as if a stranger had leaped out of the bushes and yelled, "Boo!"  And then it was as quickly gone, only present long enough for me to realize what it was and remember its streaking track against the blackness.

It's moments like these that make one pause and wait, hoping for another even as you know that they are random little gifts, not to be expected or predicted.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

All I Want for Christmas ...

It's a plea that sometimes is played for humor ("... is my two front teeth") and sometimes for heartwarming pathos ("... is my Daddy home from war"), but sometimes it's a bit of a palate cleaner in the bacchanalic greedfest that Christmas can become.  And sometimes it is something that you just can't get out of your head.

All I want for Christmas is my camera and lens back.

Some time ago, a very nice man -- a retired professor of biology here in Lexington -- stopped by to show me a camera he had bought new some years ago.  He knew of my book, and had seen me carrying, now infallibly, a Leica as I went about life in town.  He had an M4-2 that he had bought when it was new in the 70s and wondered if I would like to buy it from him along with a 135mm f/2.8 lens.  The offer took my breath away.

The M4-2 and its mate, the M4-P were unusual (perhaps unique -- though I think that word overused, and I guess if there are two they can hardly be unique) cameras in the Leica inventory.  When they were built, Leica's leadership had seen the writing on the wall.  Nikon and Canon were rising out of the ashes of post-war Japan, and had begun to totally command the camera market with single lens reflex cameras (SLRs), having switched to them in the late 1950s and early 1960s after a decade of producing Leica M imitations.  Leica decided to change with the times, disposing with the iconic (another overused word) M rangefinders to concentrate on the R-series SLRs.  (Also, the disasterous M5, the most unloved Leica M this side of the M8, didn't help their attitude any.)

Walter Kluck, the Leica executive in charge of its Canada facilities (where some lenses were produced) thought stopping the M line was an incredibly bad idea, and asked to be allowed to make Ms in Canada.  Leica reluctantly agreed, and it can be argued that not only the M but Leica itself was saved.  The M4-2 and M4-P were the cameras Kluck's factory produced.

Anyway, I did some quick EBay research and told my new friend that he deserved at least $1000 for his camera and lens, if not significantly more (the lens, for example, was still in its box).  I didn't have $1000.  Not by a long shot.  I might, for four years, send him $20 a month to get near that amount, but he could do significantly better on EBay.

He wasn't concerned, he said.  $20 a month was okay.  He was happy to know I loved the camera, and I did.  I loyally sent him my money -- sometimes a month or more late, with a $40 or more check, to make up the difference, but he was never cross.  Sainthood is made by such as he.

Then came a rainy evening, when I climbed out of our minivan.  I had the camera with me as usual -- it made many a great picture -- with a Zeiss 21 f/2.8 lens on it.  The lens was my wife's last extravagant Christmas gift before our total financial collapse, a thing of beauty that made images with gray values beyond belief.  It produced pictures the way I saw life; it was no accident that I was traveling with that combination.

But what happened as I got our of the car was an accident: the shoulder strap -- itself a thing of beauty, a soft, black, leather strap produced by Luigi Crescenzi of Leicatime -- caught on my knee, and in one of those moments when reality seems to drop into slow motion, I watched the camera arc past me and onto the hard pavement of our driveway, landing with a painful smack.

Leicas are tough cameras -- when the M4-2 was made, they were commonly carried by war photographers into Vietnam and other rough, dangerous places -- but they can only take so much.  Both the body and lens were damaged.  

I did some internet research, where I was depressingly told at one point to just throw the M4-2 away -- it would cost more to fix it than to just find another -- until I came to the legendary Sherry Krauter, beloved of Leica enthusiasts everywhere.  Sure, she could fix it, she said, but it might take a while.  She was busy.  I told her that was okay, as it would take me a while to find the money to pay her.  Little did either of us know ...

Dance rehearsal, shot with the M4-2 and Zeiss 21

She took the poor camera and lens in, and I put my mind to rest.  I had told her to take her time, and thought surely the money would come in one way or another.  But when she called to say it was ready, I wasn't.  I sent a portion of the bill, assuring her that Christmas bonuses were coming, and she was again more than patient.  That was roughly three years ago.  How's that for patient?

Each year -- each month of each year -- I look at payments for extra work, windfalls from jobs that come my way, and that eagerly anticipated Christmas bonus, thinking: This is it.  Now I can pay Sherry.  And every time, like the cruel torture when a prisoner is told he will be released, then sent back to his cell at the last minute, the money has to go to something else.  I'm sure she gumbles under her breath, and she should.

So what do I want for Christmas?  I could list a lot of little things: Some film, some random fascinations of late, even the money to process the film I've already shot.  And, mind you, I'm not losing sight of the big things: I'm happy that my family is housed and fed and more or less healthy.  It's not by chance that my money gets allocated to things before it comes to my camera.  But really the thing I want -- the self-indulgent gift I'd automatically ask for if you asked me without warning -- is my camera and lens back.

Maybe next month ...

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

What Fragile, Short-Lived Things Are Humans

In 1938, on the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, they had a reunion of surviving veterans on the battlefield ...

All I can think of as I watch this is: Imagine, meeting living people with active memories of the Civil War.

It's sort of like the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game or the equivalent in life (more or less debunked since, as best articulated by Malcolm Gladwell in his fascinating book The Tipping Point, where he explains that the whole small world aspect of it is ruined by the fact that a certain, smallish number of people create nodes by knowing A LOT of people), the idea of being just one step away from the actual experience of the Civil War.  Or maybe the Gettysburg Address:

But then it makes me think: Something like the Civil War or the American Revolution seem so distant and out of reach at 150 or 200-some-odd years away, but it's really not that far.  My father could have had a conversation with those men when he was nearly an adult (he was 16 in 1938), and now he is older, at 91, than many of them were at that reunion.

Which leads to a second thought: This coming June (2014) is the 70th anniversary of D-Day.  Our World War II veterans (my father served in the Army Air Corps after being drafted) are as old now as those men were then.  World War II, though something I didn't experience, is still something with which I am familiar, the last Big War, the thing that all my friends' parents and grandparents talked about.  It was still close enough to touch.

Is that how my parents saw the Civil War?  I mean, James Thurber, for example, often references his grandfather as a Civil War vet, but I took that sort of distantly -- I read Thurber's work as an artifact itself from the 30s, and it was after all his grandfather, and old man in a past time.  But this makes it all much more immediate, like I walked into a room just after the old guy stepped out.

The scene from Thurber's story about "The Day the Dam Broke."

And here's the thing: we haven't been around that long.  Put simply, it's only been about 200,000 years.  Yeah, that's a pretty big number, but considering the earth itself is about 4.5 billion years old ... well not much.  I mean, the dinosaurs were here for over 100 million years.  That's about five-hundred times longer than we've been so far.  And we can reach back with any reasonable certainty only, what, about 3,000 or 4,000 years?  What's that: a millisecond relatively?

Now in human terms, it's an eternity.  Figuring the Biblical three-score ten as an easy lifespan, that's around 43 generations, laid end to end.  (Probably twice that, if you figure reproduction between 20 and 35 years old for each one, but one could expect to be able to talk directly to one's grandparents, so this seems a simple way to do the math.)  Michael Barone figures that you can divide US history at least into 76-year increments, as a friend pointed out in his blog.  "We are as far away in time today from passage of the Social Security in 1935," Barone explains, "as Americans then were from the launching of post-Civil War Reconstruction."  Each 76-year period, he says, represents the development of a mode of governing or approaching societal organization, its effective use, and then its dissolution.

Forty-three generations then, and we lose contact with actual experience in around four generations (can you summon up the experiences of your great grandfather?) and start to lose any information about things not long after (in around 300 years or so?)  We have archeologists to figure out what the Egyptians did because we forgot, and no one asked grandpa.

Which brings me back to the idea of being able to actually converse with a veteran of the Civil War, and how that compares with our veterans today.  I often tell people that they need to save their stories, and they dismiss the thought by saying they're "nobody," but that's the very thing.  Letting these simple stories go, losing the actual experience is how we forget what a time was like ...

Thursday, November 28, 2013

... And I Cried

Maybe it's the stress lately, but I heard this (Go to track 4) on the radio and literally cried.  It was on a public radio show for Thanksgiving, and they played it starting at track 3 and running through track 5 -- and in context it's even more interesting -- but it was track 4 that really got me.  And with the silky, conversational tones of Charles Laughton (what a brilliant actor and fascinating man) speaking ... no wonder the album won a Grammy in its day.

Just listen and wish, as I did, that you had had the chance to hear this in one-to-one conversation with him, and that you had had the experience he did.  I would be envious, if the experience of simply hearing the tale hadn't been so moving ...

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

And in Yet Other Blogs ...

In a blog on one of my favorite pet peeves -- wanted something for nothing, and failing to value the work that goes into making something seem effortless -- there is the British musician Whitey, who reacted unhappily to a request to use his music for free.  Frankly, I do love his reaction, even as it echoes several other similar rants -- one most notably by Harlan Ellison.

His epilog, however, is interesting:
I don’t want payment for everything. I don’t even care that much about money, I give away my music all the time. You and I live in a society where filesharing is the norm. I’m fine with that.
But i don’t give my music away to large, affluent companies who wish to use it to make themselves more money. Who can afford to pay, but who smell the filesharing buffet and want to grab themselves a free plate. That is a different scenario.
Now, I'm no absolutist about this.  I've often said that if, for example, there's a cause you're really into, and you want to contribute your work, more power to you.  I've done it and will happily do it again.  But, like Whitey and so many others, I am sick to death with people thinking that creative work -- work made up not of some tangible raw product, but years of hard training and experience -- like photography is something anyone can do and should just be given for free, especially to a commercial enterprise.

However, I do back away from the faint smell of crypto-socialism there.  I'm sure he's proud of that, and more power to him -- that's his right -- but the fact that it's a large, affluent company as opposed to a small company or even a charity is, to me, only a question of rates and usage.  As someone once told me years ago, when that charity comes to you asking you to shoot their giant fundraiser for free "for the cause," ask: Are you paying for the room, the food, the waiters?  Who printed the programs?  Did they do that on their own dime "for the cause?"  The answer usually comes that you're the only one who is not considered a professional producing something with value.

The fact that it's an affluent company is neither here nor there in the moral question (though an understandable consideration in a practical sense).  It reminds me of the priest a few years ago, who as part of his Christmas sermon said it was okay to shoplift from large stores.

Also in the moral realm comes this from PetaPixel about "White Guy Photography."  That, according to author Nick Vossbrink, "is the approach which entails traveling, or moving, someplace with the intent of documenting and photographing so as to 'explain' or 'capture' it for others. And the amount of privilege required to start such a project and make those kinds of claims is generally limited to (but not exclusively the domain of) white guys."  This I think is a variant on a long held complaint (by me as well as others) that the prizes and other accolades that drive the desire to do these projects all seem to go to stories about the same sort of tragic Third Worlders, preferably of some sort of fashionable minority.  The styles of the times may change (slightly) the specifics, but it is often the same through the years.

"I’m done with it, " Vossbrink says, and I've got to agree with him.  As he ably puts it: "I’m tired of the outsider view which treats cities as urban jungles full of diversity which have to be tamed. I’m tired of the idea that you can just drive through a culture snapping photos and claim to be presenting it to the rest of us. I’m tired of the idea that non-white or native people are exotic objects. I’m tired of the lack of context which results in the photos providing little to no information about the actual culture being depicted."

So what's the alternative?  Frankly, there are tons of interesting stories out there -- a few people have undertaken projects to prove that literally everyone has an interesting story to tell, CBS' Steve Hartman being perhaps the most visible example.  But in the end, only two things will bring about change: a public willing to pay to see certain stories, and a shift in the fickle fashion trends of the media elite.  In other words: we'll stop getting White Guy Photography when it becomes trendy and rewarding to do something else.  So basically, never.

And finally, there's this:

It is perhaps the perfect blog post: Catchy headline with an au courant technobabble term in it, an unexpected pairing of the modern with the historic, and a text that not only relates to both the picture and the hed but actually segues from old to new and back again well while actually teaching you something.  Pretty cool.

I'm jealous.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Value of Things

I had a dream the other night.

I was with a travel group from Washington and Lee University, though I wasn't part of the group.  Rather, I was photographing the tour, and we we were in a large church.  The Pope came to meet the group, and as I made pictures we began to chat.

He was taken with me and asked me to come with him as he left, which I did.  (The group continued on in the church, though I had some anxiety about rejoining them before they left later.)  We talked, and he asked about my cameras.  I handed him one -- a Canon DSLR with a small zoom lens -- and he looked through it gently, handling it uncertainly before passing it back.  He noted that it must be expensive, and I said that it was actually fairly cheap compared to some, such as the Leica I was using at that moment.

My pal Pope Francis

He then sat down to lunch with a number of others from different countries and ethnicities -- African, Indian, etc.  I was not asked to sit at the table (all the seats were taken) but welcomed into the discussion.  He noted the cost of the cameras and wondered about whether that money might be better used.  I answered that at least the cameras would bring the stories of need to others, but I asked the group what they thought about the proper use of money.  Specifically, I saw this as a chance to ask people who might actually have some useful answers about something that had been bothering me of late.

 The world's most expensive painting
Would you spend something like the budget of a small city for this?

Christie's recently sold the world's most expensive painting, a triptych by Francis Bacon that went for over $142 million.  Yep, basically the budget of a decently sized corporation.  One commentary I heard on the radio speculated that it was bought by a "trophy hunter:" someone recently made fabulously rich who wants to prove his wealth and good taste with the purchase of things like this, whether he himself values them or not.

Now this sort of thing has given me pause from time to time.  Often, it's when some sports star receives a massive salary (mainly because the star in question usually plays in a sport in which I have little or no interest).  I think it's a useful example; the sports industry globally is worth something in the area of $600 billion (with a B, billion) dollars.  That's a little less than $100 per person, man woman and child, on the entire surface of the earth.  What do we get for it?

Sports doesn't build roads or run food programs.  It doesn't clothe people or end disease.  It just entertains.

Now, one can make the same argument about sports as one can about paintings: The human mind cannot live on work alone.  We need to unwind and enjoy things, elevate the spirit and so on.  And whenever there's a way to make money off of something, humans will do so.  (I have a similar rule that any time a human discovers something with forward motion, he will find a way to race it competitively, but that's neither here nor there right now.)  $600 billion for a few quiet afternoons ... for those who can afford it?

Perhaps a better argument could be made to say that the $600 billion doesn't simply evaporate, or go directly into the team owners' and players' massive bank accounts.  That includes the cost for construction workers to build stadiums and hot dog vendors and janitors to clean up afterwards, not to mention all the secondary markets in bars where people watch the games and companies that make jerseys and stuff for fans.  It's a considerable little economy there, but it's still an economy built on basically nothing.  (As opposed to the economy around, say, a car factory, which actually produces something.)

Let's go somewhere else, like popular entertainment.  Or how about the whole secondary industry around popular entertainment?  A nice play, some music -- again, you can make the human spirit argument.  But what about something like the Michael Jackson trial in 2005.  Global coverage.  Satellite trucks and thousands of reporters gathered, waiting, day after day.  What did that cost?  Not the trial, just all the people hanging around to cover it, and the satellite time, the equipment rental, the food and hotel expenses.

Outside the courthouse in 2005

What more productive thing could all this money be applied to?  What if we could all agree to take one day, or one event, and just apply all that money to something like development in a poor country?  (Of course, I'm sure everyone would instantly agree with this, except for the sport or team or game that they follow.  Just take someone else's.)

So I cited the painting example (a particularly galling one to me) to the lunch crowd, who seemed to receive it with interest.  A discussion was beginning when my group started to leave, and -- as dreams will -- the scene suddenly shifted elsewhere.  China, to be specific.  But perhaps that's another posting ...

What shall it profit, my brethren, if a man say he hath faith, but hath not works? Shall faith be able to save him?   And if a brother or sister be naked and want daily food: And one of you say to them: Go in peace, be ye warmed and filled; yet give them not those things that are necessary for the body, what shall it profit? So faith also, if it have not works, is dead in itself.  

- James 2:14-17 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Secret Code of 1940s Movie Guns

Once upon a time, I noticed the hammerless Colt .32 automatic.  It was probably in some old movie, and I think I only paid attention because the hammerless Glock had just come out, and I thought that feature (not having the thumb spar for cocking a pistol) was a modern innovation.  The Colt, however, was made in 1903.

But then I began to see it all the time in old movies, and it occurred to me that there is a secret social code built into the guns that appear in movies, particularly the detective pictures from the 30s and 40s.

You see, for example, all the cops carried Smith and Wesson .38 police special because that was the standard issue then.  (Coming full circle, in a way, you'll often find police today carrying Glocks.)  It was the bad guys who had the hammerless Colt, because it was small enough to stuff in a pocket and wouldn't catch on something when you pulled it out.

The good guys (the tough-as-nails detective) always had the M1911 Colt .45, and here's where the code came in.  The implication is that the pistol was a memento from the detective's experience in the war.  It's also why he wears a trench coat.

It's an instant backstory.  The good guy was in the Great War, an officer.  He's probably a little damaged, can't really put it behind him, but undoubtedly did his duty.

The bad guy, on the other hand, used his underworld connections to avoid service.  He has fancy suits and a fancy gun -- a little gun, like something a girl would use.

After a while, the .45 has come to carry a cache all its own, and since even took on a whole new meaning in the 80s with the development of the Colt Desert Eagle.

But what's interesting to me, and why I even bring this up, is what this says about society and culture.  The viewers of those old movies -- when they were new movies -- knew all these things without conscious thought.

While I think we could, and do, use unspoken signals like that today, they're much more cliche-specific and less able to tell as broad a story that most if not all of society could agree on.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The American Apocalypse

One day, while caught in a seemingly interminable evening traffic jam in downtown Washington, DC, I had what was at first an amusing then oddly disturbing thought:  What if the Apocalypse came in the form of a global gridlock?

One day, all the major cities would start to bog down, cars filling every inch of road, until there was no escape.  The jams would start to grow out of the cities as more and more cars tried to enter, filling the roads and turnpikes, highways and bypasses, spilling out like a stain, until finally everything grinds inevitably to a halt.

And then the sun sets on all of us, waiting patiently or angrily (as the personality dictates) in our idling cars, never to rise again.

Of course, this makes Final Judgment very convenient.  Drive Through!

The Small Miracle of Normality

On my commute this morning -- a quiet hour of forced contemplation, accompanied by the BBC World News -- it occurred to me that in the news business, and in life in general, we tend to miss something: the fact that we pay attention mainly to the unusual.

As I drive down the interstate, a place often affected with accidents and minor catastrophes, my commute is generally uneventful.  I am surrounded by cars and trucks, and their drives are likewise normal, even dull.  Every day, millions upon millions commute to work, noticing the drive mainly because they find it boring.  Whereas, if you give it a moment's thought, the whole thing could go sideways astoundingly quickly.

By extension, thousands of flights take off and land without trouble every day and night, even in parts of the world where (if we're honest with ourselves) it's astounding that they have a civil air system at all.  Trains travel down miles and miles of rail, never bouncing off those narrow strips of steel, and crude and refined oil is pumped in volumes one has difficulty grasping in a simple way through as many miles of giant pipelines.  Nuclear reactors pen up the most basic level of explosion -- splitting the very atoms of uranium -- without mishap in dozens of places around the world.  Ships don't sink, cargoes are unloaded, and people run through their routines, blissfully unaware.

This is a miracle.  It's miraculous that things just tick along without disaster, day after day after day, when we really are constantly perched on the brink of the precipice at every moment. 

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents ... some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new Dark Age.” 

- H.P. Lovecraft

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Photo that Never Dies

One could safely say that the photo that made Robert Capa was his "Death of a Spanish Soldier," shot during the Civil War in Spain in 1936.  Yet in the years since it was made -- most particularly in the last 30 or so -- it has become increasingly mired in controversy.

I wrote about it a few years ago for the NPPA, when I thought the newest clue, far from proving the photo a fake, simply provided a difference without a distinction.  Now we have Capa himself telling the story of it, a similar story to another version he wrote before.  This is actually rather unusual, as he was notoriously reluctant to talk about it.  Why?

The usual theory was that the event had profoundly upset him.  Remember, when the picture was made, Capa was a young man just starting out.  While he affected an air of nonchalance (even then), Spain was his first serious war coverage, and like any real war, it wasn't pretty.  (Let's keep in mind, this is the fighting that brought us Guernica.)

Also, he was in the throes of his first, perhaps most profound and some say greatest love.  He and Gerta Taro (nee Pohorylle -- like Capa, who was born Andre Friedmann, she chose a literal nom de guerre) were at the least linked when the picture was made (she was with him, also making photos).  Not long after, Gerda was killed in Spain, still covering the war, while Capa was in China covering the fighting there.  Some say the love had died (she was in the company of another man when killed), some not, but there is an air of tragedy about the affair and his accounts of it.  I like to think that he always looked on her as The One, lost to death and time, and thus another reason he didn't like to talk about the events then.

However, here's something else I think: In that 1947 interview, he's lying.

As I say in the NPPA piece, I don't think there was a machine gun, let alone four waves of attacks to take it.  I think a bunch of relatively inexperienced soldiers were running around in a field playing at battle for the cameras when everything turned horribly real.  I don't think Capa even meant to take that picture.  Rather, he flinched when the shot was fired and accidentally triggered the shutter.  I think the men then ran around trying to assemble some sort of response, getting at least one more of them killed, before a sniper melted back into the landscape.  And most of all, I think Capa was embarrassed by what he saw as personal cowardice, disgusted by his own profit from the situation, and finally trapped by the myth that rose up around the picture.

So he finally, through a few reluctant retellings, assembled a more acceptable story probably based on his later experiences in combat, something that could be disposed of quickly with a minimum of questions, thus sparing him the need to dwell on his unpleasant and ambivalent feelings on the event.  It's a more public version of what we all do when trying to explain later some embarrassing mistake or unhappy argument, for example.

But here's the thing: it's just my guess based on personal experience in life and photography and some research.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

And Another Thing ...

I heard this on the radio the other day, a quote from Jack London:
"I would rather be ashes than dust.  I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than that it should be stifled by dry-rot.  I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.  The proper function of man is to LIVE.  I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them.  I shall use my time."

While there is some question of its authenticity,  it's a great bit of writing and an interesting thought.

However, I must admit that on first hearing it made me a bit uncomfortable.  It struck me as a relative of the movie line of, "Live fast, die young and leave a beautiful corpse."  (Truth be told, I had to look that one up.  I thought it was from the old Jimmy Cagney movie, "Public Enemy," but it turns out to be from a Humphrey Bogart film, "Knock on Any Door.")

Another scene from the movie, also clever, but not with the key line ...

You see, the more extreme, latter version makes me ... nervous.  I am left thinking, as the knight says to Indiana Jones, that he did not choose wisely.  Perhaps it's because I am rather attached to the idea of a long and comfortable life.

But a dull life?  Not so much.  That's what leads me to give London's quote a second look.  I do feel sympathy with his dislike of being a "sleepy and permanent planet."  Enduring in some plodding, pedestrian way doesn't suit either.

 I have sort of touched on this before, and the question I raised there still remains for me, still valid.  Is it really good to do interesting and even great things, but then linger about waiting for accolades, or even for people to remember?  If you're to be forgotten and ignored, must you really be around to endure it?

So perhaps I hope to be not a superb meteor, atomized in worldly glory, but a secondary star, remembered fondly and accorded the occasional lifetime achievement award or so such.

And money.  Yes, wealth would be nice too.

Monday, November 11, 2013

More Amazing Writing ...

Heard the opening line from Wilfred Owen's "Anthem for Doomed Youth" on the radio today.

Simply amazing.

"What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?"

Now that's a lead sentence.

Here's the whole thing ...

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Light Reading

I do look a lot at other blogs, if for no other reason than to try to figure out how they manage to post so often.  A couple caught my attention today as they addressed things I have either blogged on or referenced vaguely before.

Photography Talk has an entry on the "Six Most Annoying Trends in Photography" that I pretty much agree with.  I must admit I blanched a bit when I got to Number 6: "Professional Know-It-Alls," but was relieved when I found I hardly fell into their definition, which involved those who live by rigid rules. 

Meanwhile, Japan Camera Hunter (an oddly named blog these days, as it has expanded into a rather interesting spot for thoughts on street and film -- as opposed to digital -- photography) has a piece titled "Why your phone is not your friend."  The hed caught my eye, and again I feared that it was something it is not. 

Lately, on my other blog -- or "phlog," as I like to call it, as it centers more on my pictures -- I have been forced to admit that, though Leica is in its name ("The Guy with the Leica") I've not been able to process the film I've been shooting in my Leicas.  It's a money thing that's been going on for some two years now, and frankly I choose not to blog about that merely because I think it would come across as whining.  That's neither here nor there.  My point is (and, as Ellen Degeneres would say, "I do have one") that I've had to substitute pictures I've shot with digital Nikons and, more often, my iPhone.

This was not shot with a Leica.

When I first broke down and posted the iPhone pics, I did it under the "camera you have" rule (as in: "The best camera is the one you have with you"), but I've got to say as I've returned to them, they're not that bad.  Maybe, I feared, I was missing something.  Nope.  Japan Camera Hunter is merely afraid that, with one's head down on the little smartphone screen, one is missing the real world passing by. 

Finally, here's another from the endlessly fascinating PetaPixel site, "Five Painless Steps for Getting Rid of the Fear of Street Photography Once and for All."  Again, I'm not sure that it's directly on the mark implied by the title (which is a real mouthful -- don't they have copy editors over there?)  It will only take a minute to read, but I can save you even that by saying it comes down to two things: Engage with people to stop being afraid of them; most people like having their picture made.  Still, worth the minute to get all the thoughts and encouragement in between.

Amongst those thoughts was an interesting take on the famous Robert Capa quote, "If your photos aren't good enough, you're not close enough."  The author, Oliver Duong, thinks Capa has been generally misunderstood by having his words taken far too literally.

"What Capa meant was to get closer to your work, to what you are doing," Duong writes.  "If your photographs aren’t good enough, you are not connected enough. How does that help in regards to fear and street photography? It tells you that you do not have to get physically close to your subject as the sole goal."  Frankly that sounds more like Cornel than Robert to me, but I've been very wrong about things like that before.  (Remind to tell you my embarrassing story about "Stonewall" Jackson someday.)

I think his point is valid -- I once read that Henri Cartier-Bresson complained about having to use his 35mm instead of 50mm lens too much when he shot in the US -- but I think Capa is misunderstood on a much more literal level.  Many new photographers are afraid to get right into the midst of the action, and so they produce pictures that reflect their distant, stand-offish attitude.  A better picture brings across the feel and swirl of events, and usually that requires the photographer to get right in on top of them.

Also, let's remember Capa was primarily known as a war photographer (though I'd bet war pictures only make up about a third or a quarter of his work).  An AP photographer once told me he covered war with a 20mm and a 300mm lens, as the action was either right next to you or really far away, and I noticed pictures of another photographer friend, Frank Johnston, when he covered Vietnam, inevitably showed him with only two camera bodies: a Leica with something wide angle (a 28?) and a Nikon F with the immortal 105.

Look at all those great war photographs.  I'll bet you can count the ones shot with a long lens on one hand.

Frank Johnston shooting for UPI in Danang in 1967.

Also, when I called it up, there were some intriguing titles at the bottom, like "Joel Meyerowitz Says He Despises Bruce Gilden's Attitude, Calls Him a Bully."

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Pop the Bubble!

Or perhaps, more grotesquely: Lance the boil!

Apparently I have been blissfully unaware of a tiny tempest out there over a pair of photographers (or perhaps "photographers" -- more on those irony quotes later).  As best as I can tell from this Peta-Pixel piece, a pair of wedding photographers became stars of the seminar and blogging world from their appealing marketing methods -- exciting speaking engagements, clever Tweets, etc.  It has since been established that some of those blogs and Tweets and so on were plagiarized.  I actually took a moment to read through some of the supporting material hotlinked in the Peta-Pixel article to figure this out -- when I saw plagiarism, I jumped to the conclusion that they had lifted photos from someone else's website or something, but that's apparently not the problem at all.  And that's the problem.

This doesn't appear to be about pictures in any way; it's about image and marketing.  As the article says:
"As DSLR ownership proliferated, the audience for workshops and conferences moved from the traditional professional to the photo enthusiast creating a huge opportunity for new faces in the world of education. At Rich Clarkson’s Photography at the Summit workshop two weeks ago, I bemoaned the rise of 'internet famous' photographers, and commiserated with titans like Jodi Cobb and David Alan Harvey about their relative anonymity in today’s world of photography."

There are two issues here:
1. The obvious one, that people like Cobb and Harvey and dozens of others I could name (including many unjustly forgotten) aren't celebrated and feted and learned from as they should be.
And 2. less obvious but more important, that the rising mob of DSLR-enabled anticipatory "photographers" think that, with a couple of energizing seminars with these exciting "teachers" (the irony quotes are getting thick around here), they can become just as good as someone who has chosen and worked at photography for their careers.

Says Allen Murabayashi in Peta-Pixel: "The 'rockstar' photographers might not be great photographers, but they are master marketers and they provide inspiration for a certain segment of photographer that is disinterested in what has preceded them – a segment that the old guard wasn’t satisfying, so it’s hard to begrudge their success. And let’s face it. Being a good photographer doesn’t mean you’re a good teacher, and vice versa."

No no no.  Here's the thing: I do begrudge them their success.  Why?  Because it's the empty success of an inflated balloon.  The "old guard" he quickly celebrates and then dismisses worked hard to make real pictures that meant real things.  These were the "concerned photographers" that Cornel Capa celebrated, the true masters who toiled in obscurity in the old Life magazine and National Geographic.  (And don't argue with me about that obscurity thing; you know that no one outside the photo world could easily name, for example, who shot the picture of the Afghan girl from Geographic's cover.  It was Steve McCurry.)

I don't care that a thousand people think that they have the talent to be professional photographers.  I don't care that there's a massive, hugely profitable market in teaching them -- or rather running seminars in which they think they are learning -- how to be professional photographers.  This does not, or at least should not make superstars out of people with a talent for exciting a room full of hopeful artistes or writing intriguing blogs.  These people, in my mind, are not important.  They are charlatans from the get go, regardless of who actually writes their blogs.

Is it a tragedy that Henri Cartier-Bresson never taught a course on street photography?  Should I wonder whether Alfred Eisenstaedt had it in him to fascinate and encourage a roomfull of students?  Maybe.  But I will not be interested in someone being a "rockstar photographer" until they are first a photographer.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Why I'm Not In PR

My alternate hed for this was: "Well, That Was Weird"

October 16 was my last post here, and that day I had a remarkable 38 views.  38.  That's like five times my normal rate.  It's back down to the normal half-dozen or so now.

On that day, I did a post referring to a post I did the same day on my "phlog," The Guy with the Leica.  I was actually pretty proud of that post, a series of pictures shot at Jimmy "The Boogie Woogie Man" Valiant's wrestling camp.  Obviously, I thought, someone hit that in a Google search on pro wrestling or something, and I had an unusual surge of viewers who normally wouldn't have seen my stuff.  Perfect sense, right?  Except that Guy wth the Leica had ... 0 (as in "zero") views that day.

So what does it mean?

Two days before that, I did a post on artist Cy Twombly's studio here in Lexington.  Is that what caused the jump?  Did I drive people to my site with a reference to Van Gogh?  Twombly? Lexington?  If so, why did it take two days?  Who Knows?!

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I quit PR after one short year in that business.  I don't know why people do things.  I just know what interests me .... and if you read this, you're just along for the ride.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Not Yet ...

So I just finished another posting in the "phlog," The Guy with the Leica, titled "Loosen Up," which really seems to have nothing to do with the content.  (Does anyone actually look at the headlines on these things?)

Frankly, it was a little message to myself.  If you're one of the half-dozen or so who have followed my stuff, especially at the phlog, lately, you know money's been tight and, as a result, the output from the actual Leicas -- film cameras I own from the 1950s and 60s -- has been two years in the waiting.  I've been shooting old film I had in the 'fridge, and just can't afford to get it processed.  I know there's some good stuff in there, but it sits in the 'fridge, carefully stored in a tidy ziplock labeled with the year it was shot in.

Anyway, I decided that, after posting pictures shot on my Nikons and even my iPhone, I just needed to loosen up.  I can't wait for the day that I get to process and post the pics from the Leicas (and I still carry one with me wherever I go) but in the meantime "The Guy with the Leica" needs to be more about the kind of pictures I make, and less about the equipment it's made on, I think ...

Monday, October 14, 2013

Another Project Slips By ...

There's a story that, when Van Gogh committed suicide, his landlord in Arles was furious.  It was bad enough that he had to put up with the crazy artist who's rent was uneven at best (Van Gogh sold only one painting in his lifetime) but the lunatic had painted all over his walls.  In addition to everything else, now he was going to have to pay for all these crazy drawings to be painted over.

In the 20th Century there was another artist, Cy Twombly.  He did significantly better than Van Gogh.   (At a Southeby's auction in May, a page full of scribbles done by him in 1971 over housepaint on a piece of card about 16 by 20 inches sold for a little over $2 and a quarter million.)  Twombly died a couple of years ago, and one would think the price would be significantly elevated as a result, but his work has sold in the millions for years.

For $2,285,000 this too could be yours.

Twombly was originally from Lexington, Virginia, where I live now, and he maintained a home here where he would spend anywhere from a quarter to half the year.  The rest of his time was generally spent in Italy, where he preferred people thought he lived full time.  All the same, he had a nice home here and even rented a local storefront as a studio, where he would work.

When he died in July of 2011, the gallery and lawyers swooped in.  They had his assistant seal the studio, and strictly forbade any photos of the place.  I nonetheless was fortunate enough to befriend his assistant, and did a piece for WDBJ in Roanoke on Twombly of which I am unnaturally proud.  (The link has long since aged out of the system, I'm sorry to say.  I have it on tape still -- yes, actual, physical tape -- and should digitize and upload it here sometime.)

Butch, his assistant, let me into the studio, and we filmed his interview there.  I was forbidden to shoot the studio, but I stood Butch so that in the background, on the wall, were marks ... the paint that had smeared off the edge of the canvas Twombly had tacked to the walls as he worked.

Some time later, the gallery people took everything away, and the storefront has been available for rent for months now.  And for all that time, I have meant to call the agent and ask to be let in, just so I could photograph those marks.  A part of me wanted to do it for posterity, and a part of me thought they might be interesting abstract artworks in and of themselves.

But as I have gone past in the last few days, workers have appeared within ...

Shot today with my iPhone as I passed.

I fear the tragedy of Arles is being repeated.  A new owner has been found, and the last marks of Cy Twombly (you can see some quite clearly to the right of the ladder on the right) will be gone.  Frankly, I never could quite think of how to start the conversation with the realtor.

Once again, I must learn: when I have these ideas, I need to act.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

In the Meantime ...

I have been working on another post -- on and off, in between the day job -- and I promise it is forthcoming ... or perhaps I threaten it is, as it is another one of these grand philosophical things.

In the meantime, I helped on photographing a Virginia Military Institute reunion weekend a little while ago, and I was pretty proud of what I did, four pictures especially.  I plopped them on my "phlog" (get it: Photo blog? Phlog?), The Guy with the Leica.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

For the Love of ...

Okay, I know I said I wouldn't go on about this any more, but I just saw this TV ad for Lynda.com (which I would post here, but no one has it on YouTube yet).  The theme is that you can be whatever you want to be, just go onto Lynda.com and watch the appropriate tutorials to learn how.

Fair enough.

That is, until they start having the happy actors list off what they want to learn: "Business  management," chirps a woman dressed as a baker.  "Spreadsheets," says another, and then a man with a consumer DSLR on a tripod says, "Photography!" and they move on.  Photography?  So someone who is a professional cook and wants to learn a few tricks in managing her business and expand it, and that's the same as starting up a profession I've spent 30 years working at?  Yeah, just watch a few video tutorials and you're the next David Hume Kennerly!  Start working on that Pulitzer acceptance speech now, friend.

And why am I upset (again)?  Because: look at the other things they list.  Learning about spreadsheets  is a technical thing involving a tool.  They don't say, "Learn how to be a sculptor!"  Rather, it's like saying "Learn how to choose a good piece of marble."  One is a skill that is part of a profession, the other is a profession.


Monday, September 2, 2013

Still Not That Smart

But I do seem to have some support in my opinion that one should not approach things feeling superior.  This was Sunday's Gospel reading in the Catholic Mass:

And he put forth a parable to those which were bidden, when he marked how they chose out the chief rooms; saying unto them.
When thou art bidden of any man to a wedding, sit not down in the highest room; lest a more honourable man than thou be bidden of him;
And he that bade thee and him come and say to thee, Give this man place; and thou begin with shame to take the lowest room.
But when thou art bidden, go and sit down in the lowest room; that when he that bade thee cometh, he may say unto thee, Friend, go up higher: then shalt thou have worship in the presence of them that sit at meat with thee.
For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.

Luke 14:7-11

So, as the joke in "Caddyshack" goes: 
"So I got that goin' for me, which is nice" 

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Now THAT's Writing ...

There's an anecdote that when the miraculous comedy writing team that worked on Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows" came up with a great joke, none of them would laugh.  They never actually laughed as they wrote some of the best sketch comedy ever.  When someone came up with a truly wonderful gag, the rest would simply nod and say, "Yeah, that's funny."

Though I lack that kind of self control, I sometimes feel I want to do something similar -- but with an added tone of awe in my voice -- when I run across truly great journalistic writing.  Usually, it's old writing, the kind of reporting that's not done anymore.  It's the kind of journalism that was necessary in an age when the reports had to be mailed back, and the news was often days if not weeks old.  It was the kind of description that had to be put on the page when there were no 24-hour cable networks, no television at all.  You'd be lucky if there was a newsreel, and that usually without synch sound.  The reporter had to put you there, and do it only with the written word.

I think that art is too often forgotten today.  Look at the complaints when, at the recent "Whitey" Bulger trial, cameras were not allowed in the courtroom.  Legions of journalists, used to having their television  -- with sound -- and still images, found themselves at a loss when composing reports of the most dramatic mafia trial in recent memory.  People were describing murders right out of the movies, old gangsters were staring each other down in the courtroom ... novels have been built on such things, and you can't crank out a decent minute-and-a-half with drawings?

I look at things like Kirke Simpson's 1922 account for AP of the return of the Unknown Soldier from France to Arlington.  It won the Pulitzer.  Sure, it's sort of antiquated in style, but look at that rich description of the ship slowly moving up the Potomac, the minute guns thumping as she comes.  You want to savor the words like a fine wine, rolling them around in your head.  Or the articles that triggered this post, in the New Yorker, chosen by editor David Remnick (of whom I am jealous beyond words in general).  He points to two separate reports on the Nuremberg trials, both written in 1946, but in a way neither describing the trials per se.  Rather, they are rich descriptive stories, telling about the places and people who are what make something like the trial an event worth reporting.  Because, when you think about it, an event is rarely a thing unto itself.  Rather, it is the actions of people in a place, even when that event seems apart from the people.

Tornado ratings, for example, are not really rating the tornado itself, but its effects on houses and people.  There can be (and I suppose are) tornadoes out to sea, away from ships and people, about which we never know ... and never shall.  They are not, for us, an event.  But what if someone should go out seeking those storms ...

Anyway, great writing, writing like these authors created, now that's something a person can aspire to, something one can wish to create for a magazine or a book or a blog ...

Monday, August 19, 2013

The End is Near!

There was a period (still occasionally reprised) when cartoons in the New Yorker and its ilk always included one with a robed figure on the streets of the city, carrying a sign reading: "The End Is Near!"

It was a good, simple setup for gags, something everyone understood instantly, so there was no need to waste time explaining background.  I read an article today that made me think of those cartoons.

At first, I thought that Rob Goodman, writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, was going to take an interesting tack on my thoughts about mourning and when is the best time to shuffle off the mortal stage.

"We flatter ourselves when we imagine a world incapable of lasting without us in it—a world that, having ceased to exist, cannot forget us, discard us, or pave over our graves. Even if the earth no longer sits at the center of creation, we can persuade ourselves that our life spans sit at the center of time, that our age and no other is history's fulcrum..."

But then he moves on to a grander canvas, looking interestingly at the full picture of apocalyptic legend and literature for humanity.

"In music, a progression that resolves to a minor chord is more pleasant than one that fails to resolve at all; in the same way, even a story of the end of the world may be more comforting than the thought of history as an endless, pointless series of 'one damn thing after another,' something too immense and amorphous to be captured by story. Kant, in fact, suggested in his 'Idea for a Universal History' that it's unbearable to imagine history without plan and purpose. Whether or not such a plan exists, we would be paralyzed unless we acted as if it does: 'For what is the good of esteeming the majesty and wisdom of Creation ... if we are forced to turn our eyes from it in disgust, doubting that we can ever find a perfectly rational purpose in it. ... ?'"

Goodman moves on, by way of George Orwell's 1984, to Olaf Stapledon, author of Last and First Men.  "His treatment of history and apocalypse made him one of the last century's most innovative authors of science fiction. His work, which imagined the course of humankind from the 1930s to its extinction in two billion years, reached an astronomical scope. And his refusal to flinch from historical randomness led to a kind of fiction far more disturbing than the alternately self-pitying and reassuring dystopias of our time—and also, in the end, more honest and more humanist. The question at its heart is a lasting challenge to our political imaginations: If we lose our faith that history is going somewhere, how should we behave?"

Fascinating.  Though it sounds profoundly depressing, it seems something worth finding.

However, in the end (of this blog entry, at least), I can only think of a favorite quote from H.P. Lovecraft:

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents ... some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new Dark Age.” 

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Just Call Me Canute

The other day, I proclaimed the supremacy of printed magazines and books for documentary photography, explaining that, while pure art photography has an obvious outlet in print sales, no one would want a print of dying soldiers or poverty stricken drug addicts in the living room.  The internet is where everything is going -- an article I've been reading today explains why Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post, but includes this quote from him: “There is one thing I’m certain about: there won’t be printed newspapers in twenty years.”

So I'm wondering, to completely contradict myself, if there isn't a way to print an "online magazine" that could be as satisfying in its use of photos, and still exploit the multi-media aspects of the internet, using, for example, video and audio podcasts, written material, etc., in a layout that would artistically display them all. J. Bruce Baumann has tried something of the sort, trying to transfer the old picture magazine experience to the net in his Posey magazine, which is indeed a thing of beauty, but I'm thinking of something more.

Maybe I'll have to just do it for myself.

If I can find the time ... and the content ... and the knowledge of coding ...

Saturday, August 17, 2013

"We Did This Thing ..."

A truly cool video, but at the end it leaves a question I have addressed in another form ...

"We pointed the most powerful telescope ever created by humans at absolutely nothing, for no other reason than because we were curious..."

Yes! Outstanding.  But now let's think about actually going to, I don't know, the nearest damn ball of rock to us, let alone galaxies millions of light years away?

Friday, August 16, 2013

Paper and Ink Is the Only Way

Every so often (many will tell you far too rarely) something will set me into a cleaning or organizing frenzy of sorts.  I think some subconscious part of my brain, after staring at a pile of stuff in search of the right place, will solve the problem, and at that moment I can't wait to get everything taken care of.

Today, it was the case of a stack of various photo magazines in my office.  I started by flipping through them, remembering why I'd kept them around, then putting them in order, then placing them where I thought they belonged.  It was indeed satisfying.

But in the process, I was reminded of a lot of truly great work by photographers, and I came to think: the magazine (and by extension, the book) is really the best, the only medium for documentary photography and its various relatives.

Unlike much "art" photography, a lot of documentary work just isn't something that calls to you to buy a print and hang it in the living room of your posh Bel Air estate.  I mean, who want to walk into the family room to the scene of heroin users shooting up in gritty black-and-white?  Even the simpler, less grotesque images of, say, a run down Appalachian neighborhood are kind of sketchy, in my opinion.

Now, one could argue (as I often have) that not all documentary work needs to be gritty and downbeat.  As a matter of fact, I tend to get frustrated (and have written here and in NPPA's News Photographer magazine) when every prize seems to go to a "compelling portrait" of the disgusting life of gay, black insane people on drugs in forgotten neighborhoods.  I mean, really, wouldn't it take more talent to show all the facets of a hardworking high school athlete, or explain how someone could be truly happy as a farmer in the Midwest (not enraged and frustrated, things which are I think remarkably simple to photograph)?  But, as they say, I digress ...

Where I was headed was this: the magazine format, that thing in your hands, is perfect for showing a story.  You page through, the pictures are revealed -- some bigger and grand, some small and delicate -- in an order and in an arrangement that display the art, tell the story, and are -- by their arrangement -- an artwork in themselves.  You can show a single image, or a whole series in a slowly unfolding tale.  With a book -- a nicer, longer version of the magazine -- you can do the same.

Sure, you can put photos online, and you can even arrange them artistically, but it lacks something, a sense of presence, something tangible.  It's just not the same when you lean into the screen to study some detail, not like looking at a page ...

Long live dead tree magazines!

Thursday, August 8, 2013

I Am Not the Smartest Guy In the Room

Shortly after his loss in the 2000 presidential election, Al Gore was the subject of a range of articles centered on the idea of his superior intelligence.  Most were about how he was misunderstood, and if one really knew Gore, one was impressed by him and baffled by the election results.

I particularly remember one piece, an extended personality profile, that described him as entering every place knowing he was "the smartest guy in the room," and of course how he was right.  I instantly took a dislike to Gore.

Really, who walks around constantly confident that he is smarter than everyone else around him?  Does it not occur to you that, perhaps even by random chance, you might have tumbled into the same region as someone far more clever than yourself?

I generally assume I am actually the stupidest person in the room, or at least part of the vast miasmic mass of average that fill out most places.  Often, I am surprised to find myself wrong, but that doesn't in my mind invalidate my premise, nor does it stop me from continuing to assume that I am most certainly not the smartest guy in the room.

And here's my bigger point: It's perhaps unfair to say that, when I read that profile back in 2000, I took a dislike to Gore.  I think I more properly took a dislike to the author and those testifying on Gore's behalf.  People who go into a discussion thinking they are smarter than everyone else are frankly annoying.  They assume a rectitude and superiority that sets my teeth on edge, foreclosing any discussion or debate with an attitude that any questions I might have, let alone disagreement, can only be brought about by stubborn ignorance at best and obtuse evil at worst.

Assuming at least the intellectual equality of those around you seems to me simple politeness, a graceful pleasantness that promotes open discussion and good feeling.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

How Could I Forget?

It's easy to get carried away by someone like Fridtjof Nansen, but that's no excuse to forget to cite a couple of others, like Sir Richard Burton.  That's the Victorian explorer, not the dissolute Welsh film actor.  A friend's blog reminded me of my error.  Burton was a classic example of going somewhere because ... well, because it was there, and no one had done it before.  He also brought us the stories of 1001 Arabian Nights, one of which is Alladin.

When Wendell Phillips (again, there is confusion: not the 19th Century abolitionist, but a 20th Century archeologist) set out in the 1950s to find the cities of the Queen of Sheba, the closest comparable figure he had for his adventures was the legendary Sinbad.  Now, we have Indiana Jones.  I hope someday to made a documentary about Phillips, who I had the pleasure of meeting as a child in the 1970s when he spoke at the Smithsonian, showing film and photos of his adventures.  He died only a couple years later, a wealthy man as he arrived in Arabia about the same time they figured out there was oil there.  The organization he founded still stumbles on, though without his monumental personality at its center.

Where are these people today?

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Houston, We Have a Problem ...

July 20th was the anniversary of the day, 44 years ago, when man first walked on the moon, and one is left to wonder: Why haven't we been anywhere else?  For that matter, why have we not returned?  I have a couple of thoughts on that, as you might expect ...

One is that I think we've been ruined by Star Trek.  It's a truly raging irony that a show about space exploration and beloved by science and space nerds would, in my opinion, be what killed space exploration, but I think, as special effects have gotten better and the writing has evolved from simple "space opera" (where the location was merely a way to separate the action from everyday life) to something more complicated and elaborate, the general public has lost its desire for and sense of wonder in actually being in space.  Who needs to go to that great expense and, frankly, risk when you can trip on down to the local theater and get it in 3D and Surround Sound?

Sure, you might counter that any number of young people have been inspired to go into the sciences because of Star Trek and its ilk.  The first space shuttle was named Enterprise in honor of the show, but I think there's an apt metaphor or two there.  That shuttle never left the atmosphere (it was used for drop tests to make sure the damn thing actually glided rather than dropping out of the sky like a brick), and the entire shuttle program never left close Earth orbit, as in close Earth orbit.

(As an aside, when I worked as a National Air and Space Museum docent back in the day, a child once asked me if the shuttle could go to the moon.  I was befuddled for a moment; the idea had never occurred to me.  Then I said, well, yes, I suppose it could do it with enough thrust to get there, but that wasn't the point of it.  Then again, maybe there's an apt metaphor too.)

So instead we shoot doughty little robots to Mars, and are oh so proud when they trundle around the surface for longer than planned.  What a brave little machine!  It's so much cheaper than sending humans, and so much less risk, which brings me to another point ...

Have we lost our taste for risk? 

I'm reading a book about the search for the lost oasis of Zerzura.  Long story short: it's the true story (or rather, stories) that formed the basis for The English Patient.  I'm not very far in yet.  It's the 1920s, and Britain, France and Italy are squabbling about who owns northeastern Africa (basically, Egypt, Sudan and Libya, respectively), and where the borders meet is ... well, nothing.  Empty desert and blank space on maps.  There are rumors of any number of oases, which would with proper planning make crossing (and thus mapping) those empty spaces possible, but no one knows where these vital watering spots might be.

The solution then was simple.  A bunch of guys got together (at first French, then Egyptian, then English) and got on their camels and in the cars and headed out into the desert.  That's it.  They actually got into Model T Fords and drove into trackless sand dunes to see what they could find.  And that was the improvement from the whole camel option.  (Cars don't eat and drink; fewer supplies need to be carried.)

All through history, from Darwin heading out on the Beagle to the great Fridtjof Nansen (Wikipedia's straight bio of him is impressive, but this one -- describing him as the "Badass of the Week" -- gets more to the point), sometimes with government money and sometimes with their own, people would go out to test scientific theories or fill in blank spaces on the map or just go because it hadn't been done.  Where are these people now?

"Badass" Fridtjof Nansen
from Wikimedia Commons
 Star Trek regularly interrupts the action to have one of the noble leads explain to some befuddled and troublesome alien (usually one that has somehow tortured, tested or imprisoned all or part of the Enterprise crew) that humans are by nature explorers, and though it is dangerous and sometimes even difficult to find the benefit, we keep insisting on going out there because we just want to know.  Well, maybe not so much right now ... unless shipping out a cut-rate robot to conduct whatever experiments we can afford counts.  Are we that afraid of losing people or spending money, government or private?

Take me to your leader ...
or whoever I can afford to see.

Is it really that we have become so risk-averse and comfortable that we are not just unwilling to die ourselves, but unwilling to have anyone perish doing something as intangible as going out there?  You know, There, beyond the here we've already been to before?  Why is it that, when one plan to colonize Mars involves simply shooting people up there to stay, is generally met with amusement?  Is that how the early colonists of the Western Hemisphere were received?

It just strikes me lately that we're willing to listen to Jean Luc Picard speechify about the nobility of reaching out to the stars while enjoying the pseudo-reality of CGI nebulae flashing by, but we're not ealy ready to give up that second latte to see if the special effects guys were right ...