The Steel Door

We walk to the end of the rough stone passageway, stepping over the vents and careful not to slip on the wet floor. At the end of the passageway is a steel door, a meter square, elevated from the floor. The welding marks give a hint that the metal is heavy, thick. Nearby a video camera on a pole watches the door, 24 hours a day, well-lit, and the monitor at the other end of the video cable is monitored by a live person continuously. Through a crack near the floor we can see that the other side of the wall is also lit — I'm assured that behind the steel door are complex explosive traps, and more unblinkingly diligent video cameras. Two coils of barbed wire prevent me from walking the last six or seven steps to touch the door. We're about 73 meters under the ground, and 100 meters from North Korea.

The passageway was made by the DPRK's army, shoveling and blasting for years, inch by inch, then kilometer by kilometer, round the clock working their way steadily through the DMZ and toward South Korea, in hopes of providing themselves a surprise entry into the country — that is until a South Korean team bored a tiny hole into the passageway from above, then a larger tunnel to intercept. The North Koreans fled after a short battle, and today we have the door.

Six hours later I'm here at Lotte World in Seoul, relaxing in my room and starting to type up this entry. It's hard to reconcile the differences — the rabid paranoia that drives the North Koreans to dig deep secret invasion tunnels, applying not only brute force but considerable cleverness and brainpower (such as blasting TNT boreholes simultaneously in multiple locations in North Korea, to prevent sonosensors from pinpointing the tunnel), or to bomb airliners or ram minisubs into shipping lanes; in comparison with the dense riotous consumer indulgence of the South, which is only too apparent in the packed and busy malls like Lotte World (or in the entertainments like the adjacent Lotte World Adventure theme park).

Hard too to see how it continues even as the South continues to hold onto the belief that this will all pass — the train stations with signs hopefully showing the direction to Pyongyang station, the National Folk Museum filled with recent exhibits that detail Korean history and regional cultural development, both north and south as a single culture, without a whisper of the name Kim Il Sung.

Visiting the burgeoning restaurants on Sincheon "food street," or watching the revellers at nearby nightclubs like "New Hacker Membership Discoteque," where the throngs grinding not only to Eminem & Ludakris but plenty of homebrew hiphop & techno, it's easy to see modernity and growth (yet with traditional conservative Korean style: the girls dance with the gils while the boys dance with the boys, and breaking that contract can start a row). They say that the South's economy is now some 26 times the size of the North's (yet with only a 2-to-1 advantage in population, and less land mass). Looking through binoculars across the border, past the giant border placards, statues, and empty "propaganda village" and up in the hills to the real city of Kaesung, you can see the unpaved roads, the distant walking dots and the lack of motor vehicles.

Sadly photography is forbidden at the Steel Door — though the major-general in the car in front of us, hosting a Vietnamese investor, has no problems toting-along an elisted man to carry an impressive digital SLR. But for we the un-selected, check the camera with the MPs.

Even without that, I shoot ten rolls today. I load the eleventh at just past midnight — make it a quarter past September.

Posted August 31, 2003 | Comments (0)

Secret Sports

I planning our upcoming trip to Tokyo, I'm surprised at how little info there is on the web (other than in Japanese) about kyotei boat racing. We passed a stadium along the highway during the past visit, while driving down toward Haneda airport — huge place, yet not found in any web tour guide that I've come across. Hmmm.....

If anyone has some pointers on seeing the races, please let me know!

Posted August 25, 2003 | Comments (0)

The Right Way

Rangefinders are small, lightweight, discreet, and tend to have good optics. That doesn't stop some of us from using them on subjects that don't benefit much from those attributes — say, a fog-shrouded forest road (though having no mirror slap can be helpful for a 1/4 second handheld exposure).

Add professional Leica durability to the equation and Jason P. Howe has definitely figured out the right way to use a rangefinder. In his case, to cover the apparently-endless military and paramilitary violence in Colombia.

It's a situation made for this sort of work — no generators, no sat phones and laptops, just a guy with lightweight sturdy mechanical equipment and pockets full of black and white film that can withstand the hot and damp environment. Compare his setup to the giant rucksacks full of gear carried by the Humvee-embedded journalists during the Iraq invasion. The immediacy and grit of Howe's photos make the crisp, colorful Iraqi shots, while illustrative of American military power, seem like so much sport shooting.

Howe deals with both sides of the conflict, the government AUC and the FARC (which while labelled as a terrorist organization by the Bush administration, still manages to have their own slick and public web site). Among all countries in the western hemisphere, only Cuba is more oppresive to journalists, according the Reporters Sans Frontièreshere's a telling example.

Posted August 24, 2003 | Comments (0)

Can't Leave Well Enough Alone

A few site changes, mostly cosmetic — the biggest a switch from dynamically-sized layouts to a stodgy old fixed-width format for this journal. Someone reminded me that not everyone has laptops that can display a 1920x1200 IE window :)

I also got comfortable with the new street photography randomizer, so rebuilt the associated pages.... and in the course of that, found lots of little missing meta tags, broken links, URLs to nowhere, etc. Fixed, fixed, fixed, and fixed.

Hey, anything to avoid vacuuming and cleaning-out the stacks of old magazines from under my bed.

Posted August 24, 2003 | Comments (2)

85%

Three rolls of TMax 100, Xtol 1+1, 9:30. Unprocessed backlog is down to a roll of Ektachrome (off to the lab) and a single 120-sized roll of Delta.

Whacked monitors are a curse. Worse yet is trying to match them. My Eizo's and Sony are all set to the same gamma, the same white point, but the Sony consistently displays more detail in the shadow values. The Eizos are black or nearly so for the bottom 10%, and the Sony handles the range nicely.

This is a personal annoyance, though perhaps an unusual one (not too many people have to worry about calibrating multiple monitors at home). What's more worrisome is thinking about what people see when viewing pictures on the web.

I regularly see commercial studio pages where the "black" levels are clearly grey — often laid against a true-black background. I've come to the conclusion that the web designers themselves were simply unaware of how rotten their black levels are — they don't even see the differences between 85% grey and black. And if the designers aren't seeing the proper colors, what chance do I have that the casual web surfer will see them?

From now on I will try to preview everything using the cruddiest screen I can find. Maybe the old Sony laptop (a sweet screen for 1998, but not 2003).

Reviewing recent rolls, I will also try to stay away from using my 45mm wide-open all the time. ISO 100 film is not meant for available light indoors in the evening. I slap myself.

Posted August 23, 2003 | Comments (1)

Truth

Before I left San Diego I ventured over to the Museum of Photographic Art in Balboa Park, to view the prints from Eddie Adam's exhibition and book Let Truth Speak to Power.

It's hard not to bring some presumptions to a show with such a title, if only because of its similarity to Gene Smith's dictum Let Truth Be the Prejudice. Is Adams, like Smith, convinced that he has the inside track on "truth?"

The show is a collection of portraits, large prints, the faces of people who have in some way fought against the predjudices, inequalities, and brutalities in their home countries. These huamn rights activists (err, in the language of the show, "Defenders" — always with a capital "D") are scattered around the globe — some of them exiled from their original homes and now living in places like the U.S. or Switzerland, others hiding out in the jungle, some resting peacefully at home because their primary goals have begun to be addressed.

In many, but not all, or these portraits, light plays the illustrative role of truth — we see light skewing in from unseen windows, lighting only the subject of the portrait, or in a few cases the light seeming to almost emanate from the subject themselves. Only on some portraits — Adams is wise to vary his approach and not try to shoehorn his diverse subjects into any single smug metaphor.

The issues addressed by these people are usually dire — genocide, child slavery, starvation, mutilation. Mysteriously there are a couple of portraits of activists who seem more shrewd businessmen than visionaries of peace and freedom.

The prints are gorgeously-made by Charles Griffin, most of them 30x40. The show's curator said that at one point they intended that each portrait would have its own podium. And this confuses me.

At my first glance, I thought that these large-head portraits were meant to place these activists on the same iconographic ground as those they inevitably oppose — the installed, ruthless, and safely powerful. Yet in walking through the show, the power of the large prints was not exercised in this way — they were simply big prints, and exercising the same feeling of authority that any big print carries. I recalled Guy Debord's comment: "Spectacle is the self-portrait of power..."

Except for the shot of an Anonymous activist in the Algerian desert, whose face is covered by a black bag (the photo eventually came to be the book's cover), a element lacking in this exhibition is any sunse of urgent danger. There is no real sense of conflict, save through the texts. A side alcove plays a tape with Hollywood actors reading statements by these leaders, and some of the tales and opinions are strong, but when read by Alec Baldwin or Kevin Kline the effect is so... packaged. It acheives the desired polite western-society hand-wringing, but does it do anything more than enhance the viewer's "awareness?" Does that awareness lead to anything beyond the viewer's self-satisfaction in knowing that by watching a TV play they are... concerned?

These are real people with real issues. The purpose of the undertaking is a noble one. Adams said that he wanted to portray these people in a very human, real way. To let the viewer feel that these activists are someone who could live in their own town. Unfortunately, by adopting the iconographic trappings of power, the size and polished beauty of the prints becomes a wall between the viewer and the viewed. In too many cases, they have the feeling, not of an immediate snapshot, but of the state portrait, of the celebrity machine, of the herioic Defender. Instead of people, too often we get icons.

Posted August 22, 2003 | Comments (0)

It's in There

At long last, the library has re-opened in San Jose.

A good library is one of the most useful photographic tools. Here in Santa Clara we've been a bit starved. I had an excellent library just at the bottom of the hillside block from the house in Mill Valley — the state (formerly royal) library was a five-minute walk from my office in Honolulu. But here we just have a local suburban library packed into house trailers, while the city is building their own new building. It's been a long dry spell.

Almost no individual can have a collection to match even a minor library. Robert Bergman's A Kind of Rapture? Got it. Every issue of U.S. Camera from the 1950's? All volumes of August Sander's portrait books? Got those too. de Tolnay's History and Technique of Old Master Drawings? Klee's Pedagogical Sketchbook? Check and check.

Still no Larry Clark.. can't have everything!

One of the discoveries on my last trip was an old friend, the 1973 edition of the 300+ page Leica Manual. What other camera company could have published such a thing? While Nikon and Canon have been involved in publishing over the years, this old tattered Leica book is still a testament to Leica. It's full of advertising, sure. But it's also full of terrific photographs, a few stinkers, and most-importantly it's a complete, rounded handbook. It covers not just the Leica equipment of 1973 (and before), but the basics of film development, printing, esoteric technical topics, has a section on exposure by Ansel Adams, and sections on the real business — making and seeing photographs — by people like Ralph Gibson and David Duncan, luminaries of the day. What other "camera manual" gave you not just film-loading instructions but portfolios and interviews with people like Duncan, Eva Rubinstein, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Elliot Erwitt, David Vestal, Bill Pierce.... ?

(Okay, my Yashica 124G manual of the time has photos by Weegee — but they're Weegee's banal vacation photos — one of the weirdest, most-aberrant things I've ever seen Weegee do)

Today we live in a great time. We can go to NikonNet.com and get articles by Jay Maisel or Eddie Adams. You can get Canon's DSLR CD and find out about workflow from James Natchwey. But these companies are following in the steps of Leica.

This week the consumer world is abuzz with the advent of the latest round of digitals — the Canon EOS300D/Rebel/Kiss (since as we know, SLRs are always better.... right?), and the little Sony 828 (which looks, to me, the closest yet to the Leica ideal — small, flexible, fast, quiet). Dozens of emails and web postings gushing about features, but none (so far) about the photos people hope to make with these new toys.

Posted August 21, 2003 | Comments (0)

The Grind

Three rolls of Delta 400, 15:30 in Xtol 1+1 — ISO 800 to bring-up some underexposed frames on one roll. The rest can deal with it.

My 90mm Sonnar seems to have developed "the grind." It focuses smoothly when the Contax is held normally, but vibrates noisily when the camera is held vertically (or upside down) when focusing at near distances. Hard to tell if it just needs to distribute the lubricants or if there's something more seriously awry. *sigh* just a week before leaving town. Then again I use the 90mm rarely.

The Canon is a different story — I still enjoy using that old FD 85mm, the oldest SLR lens I own. As much as I would like to consolidate entirely on rangefinders, the SLRs still have a few spots where they excel, albeit noisily. One of them is closeup, wide-open. The 50mm is also excellent for this sort of shooting.

In the morning, the world is a blur. I've worn glasses since the age of eight and to me, soft-focus wide-open closeup work is how morning looks. Until the glasses go on, the world within two feet is clear and the rest... a study in smooth bokeh.

Posted August 20, 2003 | Comments (0)

Short tele

Six rolls Delta 400, 11.5 mins Xtol 1+1; one roll at ISO 100, around 9 minutes. Brita rules — should've done this a while back.

Ran across a new resource last night: the Analog Photography User's Group. Picking through the member logs and clicking the "www" links, one will find that there are some fine shooters connected to that group, and most of them without the laughably strident "digital is not art" attitude found in a few other analog-centric quarters.

I've been fascinated recently by the peachfuzz on the skin of kids, how it catches light in places that, if I were shading them in the computer, I might have thought was incorrect. It gives their faces an added dimensionality that adults lack, and an effect that makeup suppresses, despite its usual promises of a "youthful glow." For one moment, at least, I also remembered why I used to enjoy my fast 85mm.

Posted August 18, 2003 | Comments (1)

Loaded

Spool-a-rama. I was out of film, so last night I spent an hour & filled about 40 cassettes with TMax and Delta, theoretically preparing for my upcoming trip overseas.

This afternoon I tossed one of those Delta rolls into the A-1 and... didn't use it. C & I went to the home of a friend who's suffering from a terminal illness. He was surrounded by family and friends. He is incredibly, painfully weak. I put the camera into the car for the sake of shooting there, but when we arrived I left it under the front seat. It felt selfish to bring the camera into the room, to take away those moments.

While we were there I kept seeing the shots roll by in my mind's eye, the internal mental shutter click-clicking, moments of tenderness and pain, family solidarity and even silliness.

Should I have made those photographs? They're not my family, mostly relatives I'd never seen before. Would the slap of an SLR mirror been too intrusive, inadequately supportive? I can't know. But the sight of our friend's father, lovingly arrangeing his sleeping son's hands, is sure to rest firmly in my memory as one of the most beautiful photos I never made.

Posted August 15, 2003 | Comments (0)

Professing the Faith

During my visit to San Diego I stayed at a seafront hotel and above my bed was a large frame holding four photographs, 11x14 color prints. The matte board was signed and numbered: Xxxx Xxxx, 1/250. The photographs were unremarkable — simple graphic triangles of spinakers, probably from a boat or ship in the local harbor. 1 of 250... I wondered how many of those 250 had been purchased by the hotel.

I got my answer the next morning, walking down the halllway and seeing several more similarly-unchallenging photos of ropes and anchors, with the same signature and bearing numbers like 34/250 and 387/500 — the same set of four sails from my hotel bedroom also adorned the lobby shoeshine stand. 177/250. So the hotel had likely purchased all of these prints.

During the week I idly assessed the full collection — at least eight different framed sets carrying one, two, or four photos. So perhaps a thousand prints and frames, probably more. Typical bulk printing of $30 a pop plus a $50 frame, sell it for $100. Adding-up those $20 bills could be a nice little Mercedes-Benz.

The deuce of it is — and this is hardly a new surprise but it just stuck in my head while looking at this print each night before I dozed off — the actual artistic merits of these photos, despite the flourishing signature on the mat, were a near-zero factor for the photographer's success. They were really quite mundane, commercially bulk-printed. I'd guess she used a medium-format camera, but there was nothing really in them, no life or interest, just a dull colorful safeness with a vaguely nostalgic seaport theme.

There were probably plenty of personal attributes that did go into the sale, mind you. For all I know the shooter is a really delightful person. Or maybe she's an expert at getting a good deal on picture frames, and gave the lowest bid. Or is the next-door neighbor of the person who chose the wallpaper. Hard to say.

This is common enough in all the arts, but more so in photography than any other. One can get a record deal without being a musician, but it's an uncommon occurence. Quite the opposite for photography, where one can become a well-known artist simply by being well-connected. Herewith, today's PhotoRant list:

Easy Ways to Become an Important Professional Photographer

  • Have an extremely hot girlfriend, preferably one who already works for, say, Victoria's Secret. Shoot grainy backlit shots of her changing clothes or rolling on the floor. Show them to your friend the Maxim publisher during a party at his home. Repeat.
  • Variation on the above: hot male friend with probable but infuriatingly uncertain homoerotic overtones (for example: you are, he denies it). Nice speedo.
  • Be famous for something else already, so that you will have numerous famous friends (and their hot girlfriends). Take photos of them drinking and standing around at Gstadt. Sell the photos as a coffeetable book.
  • Be a frustrated painter or sculptor, befreind more-successful sculptors and painters. When they are famous, photograph them. Before and during their fame, exploit their gallery connections ruthlessly.
  • It's your book company, they will print what you tell them.
  • Mix and match!

In all cases, hire a capable assistant as quickly as possible.

Posted August 13, 2003 | Comments (1)

Cut the Cards

In the spirit of the photo journal index, I've added a new thumbnail index for photos from the Streetphoto Salon here.

The list of photos changes daily, and most of the existing links to the full text listing of salon photos are now directed to the random thumbnails instead.

Posted August 12, 2003 | Comments (2)

Switchers, Pt. I

90 seconds under the desk and I've moved my film scanning from the Mac to the old 933MHz XP machine. On the first strip it's evident that the Intel box is faster, though the Eizo Flexscan monitor I have on that box is clearly no match for the Sony mounted over here on the Mac.

Beats me where the Vuescan "B/W Curve" pulldown went, though. You mean... I'll have to read the manual?

Zealous Mac switchers (and you know who you are) needn't be too alarmed, however — the Mac is still running Photoshop, and it's about to be swapped-out for a dual-head G4 of more recent vintage. Moving the scanner just frees-up the Macs for more-productive tasks.

Posted August 11, 2003 | Comments (0)

Shuffle

Slow but steady evolution: minor upgrades to the journal photo index — it already was being rebuilt daily (whether there were updates or not), but now the generated pages follow my own rule: that clicking on a photo in a gallery should move you to the next photo in that gallery.

So simple, so obvious (you'd think). This small but significant change should make the photos much easier to see and navigate.

In addition, the order of links are now randomized at each daily rebuild; and if the photo was used in a journal entry, it will link to the appropriate comments connection.

Oddly, several of the MT templates that drive the management of this part of the site were corrupted in the past few days — and corrupted spectacularly, a few 2K-9K files blossoming into multi-gigabyte binary junk. All should now be well.

Posted August 09, 2003 | Comments (0)

Zoom

Saturday is the Santa Clara Photo Fair — I haven't been to a collector-centric swapmeety show for years, so I'll be checking it out. Not that I really want to buy anything, and I've already made one swell photo purchase this week — a secondhand copy of Gibson's Light Years.

Hey, you never know. Maybe somebody'll sell me a nice Fuji GW 670 for $250... it could happen!

Wednesday night was the last Squirt-League roller hockey game for the regular season. As usual I was there shooting, as were several other parents. Sport still manages to bring out the parents with their film SLRs and impressively-heavy tele zoom lenses — nary a digicam in sight, save for mini-DV's. Ever the contrarian, I brought the 28mm and my own skates for mobility.

Posted August 08, 2003 | Comments (0)

Bulk

Three rolls TMax 100, 9.5 mins Xtol 1+1. Another batch of Xtol gone. Unprocessed backlog now down to one roll of 120 and six rolls of 35mm. Need to run over to the lab and pick up the last roll of Ektachrome.

I had packed about a dozen rolls along for Siggraph — funny, I only shot a couple of them, and even then only after the bulk of the conference was completed. In the next few days I need to start bulkrolling again, in preparation for the coming trip to Korea and Japan. Last time in Korea I was running about four rolls a day — nearly the same in Japan. So for a trip to both locations... hmm.

Will probably pack the Contax along with the A-1 in my coat pocket, maybe an AE1 tucked in a suitcase as a backup... not really trusting the digital, especially since I had two batteries go belly-up in just a few weeks :/

Posted August 06, 2003 | Comments (0)

Siggraph 2003

The lurch in journal entries of late has been almost entirely due to Siggraph 2003, jusy finished in San Diego. I spent the week there, giving about eight classes in Cg all week and helping Kurt Akeley with demos for his real-time shading course. I put in a little booth duty for NVIDIA and some demo time for Studio Relations while I was there, too — so a ver busy week.

Perhaps my perspective is warped but this really seemed to be the year that real-time shading was everywhere. Every major design application either has realtime shading (usually via Cg) or is scrambling to add realtime shading. Last year I thought that the new, meaty edition of Real Time Rendering was poised to be the new industry bible, as Foley &l; van Dam had been in the previous decade (or two). This year that notion felt vindicated.

The hardware scene was otherwise sparse — the show is definitely smaller than in years past, and this year — no SGI on the show floor! No IBM either, as far as I could tell. Sunrise, sunset.

And speaking of sunsets, the coolest new piece of kit has to be Sunnybrook Technologies's new high-dynamic range display. With a range of around 70,000 to 1, the display can show almost as wide a range of luminanaces as your eye can see. In HDR photos of a sunset, I could see detail in the dark landscape, or in the sky — but not both at the same time. As one of my colleagues opined: "it's almost like looking out a window."

The other cool hardware device was my new (temporary? hmmm) laptop, a Dell Precision M60 Mobile Workstation.

I know Courtney likes her new toy but the M60 is pretty darned sweet (and big) — not only a 1920x1200 display, but an integrated NVIDIA Quadro FXGo 700 GPU — not just a GeForce FX, but a Quadro FX — which provides hardware pixel shaders, vertex shaders, and the full-powered oomph to run (as I do) Maya, SoftImage XSI, and 3ds Max on the laptop. In fact, as a lark I ran them all at the same time :) Sorry Chris, and sorry for having to miss Gnomedex, but Dell really does rule.

Posted August 06, 2003 | Comments (1)

400TX

Three rolls 400TX, Xtol 1+1 9 mins — three rolls Delta 400, Xtol 1+1 11 minutes. Got lazy: switched from coffee filters to a Brita.

Tri-X, oh Tri-X. Photo Techniques ran an article on the latest "reformulated" version of Tri-X, now known as "Professional 400TX." They claimed that it was sharper than TMax 400 (and didn't test against Fuji or Ilford) so I thought I'd buy a few rolls and compare the old to the new. Besides, if it was good, I could get it at half the price of Delta 400.

Even processed and hanging to dry, I could see what the scanner would soon verify: Tri-X looks like Tri-X. It doesn't look like Delta, and Delta doesn't look like Tri-X. Tri-X has a very particular, familiar, look.

But I don't think I'll switch as a general thing. The sharpness, while real enough, seems to come from the jumbled grain pattern — TMax and Delta's grains are laid more flatly, and give a smoother, slightly less-crispy appearance — but the Tri-X has a lot of apparent grain.

Between the two, Tri-X has the richer, deeper blacks — but there's grain apparent most everywhere else, all the way up into the highlights. Delta's blacks are less-solid, but the image is smoother and the tonal range greater. I expect almost the exact opposite in grain from the Delta — a little grain in the deep shadows, flecks of light that aren't seen by the Tri-X, but smooth elsewhere. Comparing the two, Tri-X's grainy midtones feel like a nostalgic gimmick. YMMV.

Posted August 05, 2003 | Comments (0)

 

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