Are Sepia Images Better?


As I may have mentioned before, one feature of the LX1 that I like is the ability to simultaneously store both a RAW file and a full-sized JPEG image, complete with whatever imaging mode is currently active: particularly grayscale and/or sepia toning.

Exactly what a camera does to the image to produce a sepia-toned image can vary. If the image is converted to 8-bit gray scale and then the processor just replaces the gradient of white to black with a gradient from light brown to the same darkened brown, then... well, you haven't gained much. In fact you've compressed the number of gray tones.

But if the conversion were more duotone-like, following curves that mapped the grayscales across hue as well as brightness, then there's the potential that there might actually be a larger number of discreet color values in such a toned image than there would be in straight monochrome. The result: smoother gradients, and a file format that could pack more of the original RAW info into a compact JPG package.

Does the LX1 do this the "right" way, by converting the original 12-bit RAW signal to 12 or 16-bit grayscale and remapping those 12 or 16 bits diagonally across the colorspace before quantizing to 8-bit and building the JPG? Sadly, I don't think it does. But some camera might...and the idea, that this otherwise merely decorative camera mode could be the secret path to higher-quality digital B&W, is appealing.

Posted August 27, 2006 | Comments (0)

Private Crossings


Just before Siggraph I ran across an imported, ad-free, all-black-and-white magazine that hadn't been in my local store before: PRIVATE. Issue #33 bears what I consider to be an rather classic-looking (almost clichéd) image for its "East Europe" issue: a George Georgiou cover shot of Serbian workers in front of a heavy, rust-era-looking pipeline — a bit grainy, contrasty, and one assumes that other than a slight shift in the fashions of their coats, these fellows coud have been working on the same heavy-industry line in 1980 or 1950 or 1930.

On this surface we can see reflected a great difficulty in the "timeless" character of black and white — its very timelessness reveals its disconnection from immediate reality. For example, the image above could have been made twenty years ago, or yesterday — only subtle clues can let you determine which.

A notion regularly nagging at me over the past couple of years has been the non-mirroring aspects of photography. When Winogrand said he wanted to know how things looked when photographed, he was hinting at the truth that what a photograph reveals is not a reflection of reality but a reality from some other universe well-beyond Alice's Looking Glass, one with physical laws and causalities all its own.

Just this past week I read a quote (I think it was Harry Callahan?) describing the photographs he made as "messages from another world."

I was pleased to find that despite the danger of slipping down into easy images and pre-programmed readings of Eastern European photojournalism in PRIVATE, editor Roberta Valtorta is well-aware of this difficulty, and confronts it in her editorial that begins the very first page (and can be found on the PRIVATE web site, where you can preview the entire edition):

Images used in photojournalism today look, to me, like fragments of reality snatched from a complex world which is essentially indescribable. They are isolated moments, fragments of attempted accounts which are no longer possible, because contemporary man, assailed by communication, is tired of watching and seeing, without understanding, images stolen from every part of the world. As sociologists and society have pointed out, man now is intent on cultivating his individuality, his solitude and sometimes his egoism, and feels that recounting what happens in the world is futile.

I think that classic black and white photography helps to dramatise this impossibility. In the mythic age when photojournalism, the beating heart of communication, blossomed on the pages of newspapers and magazines, this chiaroscuro code was an authoritative, symbolic and powerful document, true testimony of things seen and recorded in the places where they happened. Today, on the other hand, it dramatically shows an extreme desire to bear witness, and alludes to the past greatness of photographic documents, but at the same time it shows all our desperation about a world which is too full of events, disasters, changes and shifts. And if we look inside ourselves we know that this world cannot be understood or recounted.

Because of this, photojournalism today is a heroic thing. It is an old song, a last raised voice.

Because of this, the strongest and truest photojournalism today is that which outlives itself without straining to be "beautiful." It stays faithful to its "primitiveness," its leanness, and far from aesthetics.

It is a deeply dramatic experience today to see so many fragments of the changing world in black and white photography, scenes in chiaroscuro where the old mixes violently with the new. Not so much, and not only, because the subjects of these images are so dramatic, but because the code used to try to recount them is. It is the silent and noble code of historic photography, a code of nostalgia which is used at the very moment when history dies and its meanings fall into the thick folds of the mass media, while the real world, which is made out of man's flesh rather than images and runs alongside the world which is portrayed by the mass media, is shaken up, untidy and elusive.

This magazine shows fragments taken from a very complex old-new world. Women with their heads covered, scenes of death, cars, children playing, children suffering, figures alone in the frame or closed in the geometry of architecture, someone jumping, eyes, faces, disease, skies, poverty, accordions, hovels, symbols, the words coca-cola, animals, towns, people dancing, workers' faces, wrinkles, children posing for the camera, old peasant women, dolls, and dolls' eyes watching us.

Many photographers have contributed to this edition, but for me photojournalism remains a great collective language. Perhaps even the echo of a language, the ghost, the shadow of a lost language which has settled at the bottom of a history that does not exist any more. It is, therefore, a language which we look upon with tenderness, because as it chases after moments and fragments it also continues to look for the truth, seriously yet simply, like an ancient choir which insists on commenting upon the world as it unfolds.

Blurred images, wide shots, close-ups, details, pieces of lost history. Photojournalism is also a disconnected language, because of the anxiety the photographer feels to tell all, to try to say a little about everything. He recounts different situations in life, fragments of every thing, place and event. In every shot and every choice of viewpoint he tries to find a way to tell, even though the compulsion to tell is less.

She got me at the first paragraph, enough to promptly lay-down another hundred-plus euros for a subscription and a handful of back issues.

This issue of PRIVATE is the closest thing I've seen to the late, great, Reportage. It's interesting that while there are plenty of color journalists, PJ-specialty magazines like this or Hamburger Eyes continue with a strongly black-and-white-centric view of photography (HE reminding me a bit of the old Provoke). Even ei8ht continues the same pattern, though with a bit more color.

I suspect that a part of this bias comes from a sense that color is too direct, too easily-overlaid with feelings that may have nothing to do with the content (a golden sunrise for Hezbollah, a blue sparkling beach for Israel) — and importantly, color is the only language that advertising seems to understand. Even ads that are presented nominally in black and white inevitably include a color logo or brandname or a tiny inset color image in the corner. Ironically, since "real" color has become so connected to what we perceive as slick and fictitious, it's the old and "unreal" medium of black-and-white photography which we can feel is more trustworthy.

Postscript: The cover images (and some of the others) don't just look like the sorts of shots one came to expect from Eastern Europe just after the collapse of the USSR — in fact they are, quite often, dated from that period.

Jim Johnson's "(notes)" blog has also found the same issue of PRIVATE in his local shop. I consider it a good sign that he also likes it, but for rather different reasons — enough in there for many people to find value. My guess is that PRIVATE has found a new US distributor, and hopefully we'll keep seeing it around.

Posted August 24, 2006 | Comments (1)

The Truth

Yes Mr. Chesterfield, despite the physiological and historical evidence, the lengthy papers and the bald in-your-face assertions, I've come to the sudden realization as to why black and white photography will never, ever, go out of style:

It always matches the sofa.

Posted August 23, 2006 | Comments (0)

Short, Attentive Spans

When we lived in Hawaii I enjoyed what seemed like a relatively short commute: only twenty minutes from Leeward to Windward sides of Oahu, traffic permitting. I could have the sunrise over the sea going in and up the Pali, and the sunset over the sea driving back away from the harbor.

In the morning I would usually time my drive to coincide with the local broadcast of the local news in Hawaiian, tacked-onto the end of All Things Considered and just before a program I had not heard since our move: Garrison Keillor's The Writer's Almanac. The presence of some single poem each morning was a regular reminder that life and spirit could contain more than just another predictable workday.

In these days of home-office and even shorter commute (three minutes from my driveway to NVIDIA building D, traffic permitting), I don't get much opportunity for radio. Happily I've recently found that the program is podcasted, so now I collect episodes in clusters, waiting for the right moment every week or two for me to consume them while in some waiting room or chilling in an airplane seat.

To me a sign of great art is my own desire to have been the person who made it — not for the accolades or the persisting prestige but merely the desire to have had the experience of having Those Thoughts, unbidden — the ones that led to This Thing.

There have been a handful of poems in the recent weeks' archives that I've felt that way about, by Bukowski and by Sexton and this one, "Light, At Thirty-Two" by Michael Blumenthal from Days We Would Rather Know:

Light, At Thirty-Two

It is the first thing God speaks of
when we meet Him, in the good book
of Genesis. And now, I think
I see it all in terms of light:

How, the other day at dusk
on Ossabaw Island, the marsh grass
was the color of the most beautiful hair
I had ever seen, or how — years ago
in the early-dawn light of Montrose Park —
I saw the most ravishing woman
in the world, only to find, hours later
over drinks in a dark bar, that it
wasn't she who was ravishing,
but the light: how it filtered
through the leaves of the magnolia
onto her cheeks, how it turned
her cotton dress to silk, her walk
to a tour-jeté.

And I understood, finally,
what my friend John meant,
twenty years ago, when he said: Love
is keeping the lights on.
And I understood
why Matisse and Bonnard and Gauguin
and Cézanne all followed the light:
Because they knew all lovers are equal
in the dark, that light defines beauty
the way longing defines desire, that
everything depends on how light falls
on a seashell, a mouth ... a broken bottle.

And now, I'd like to learn
to follow light wherever it leads me,
never again to say to a woman, YOU
are beautiful,
but rather to whisper:
Darling, the way light fell on your hair
this morning when we woke — God,
it was beautiful.
Because, if the light is right,
then the day and the body and the faint pleasures
waiting at the window ... they too are right.
All things lovely there. As that first poet wrote,
in his first book of poems: Let there be light.

Posted August 22, 2006 | Comments (1)

Always Home

Always Home

It's just economics of scale, we like to tell ourselves. On my last rushed morning in Boston I set off to seek out a few extra gifts for my return to the bay, something unique and memorable. Instead as I orbitted in increasing circles through downtown it was clear that I was less in Massachussetts and more in the United State of Generica, with every storefront filled with familiar brands and stocked with goods in no way different from those in Santana Row or The Great Mall. In the end I settled for some team shirts, sold every fifty feet throughout the mall under the Prudential tower and all supplied by... a centralized web site in Washington State.

Okay, the big guys succeed on costs and inevitably the little guys end up either losing on price or having to carve out a space based on tradition, design, or quality... right?

Then I got home and found this Metro story waiting un-read on my kitchen table: how Stanford Coffee Roasters, a small, popular, successful and long-established business in Stanford's tony mall, was pushed out not, apparently, for any economic reasons, but because the mall owners prefered homogeneity.

"I was told that they preferred to rent to a Triple A tenant," she recalls. "I said, What is a Triple A tenant? They told me it was a business that would have a national chain and national marketing."

In other words, the mall managers prefered Starbucks over the successful Stanford (in Stanford) not for the rent values but simply because they felt that national chains were inherently superior to anything that might have a local flavor (literally or figuratively) — so superior that it was worth crowbarring-out a local landmark for the sake of enforcing dullness.

Note to self: never shop at Stanford Mall again.

When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other. — Eric Hoffer

Posted August 06, 2006 | Comments (0)

So Long Siggraph 06


That's it! Back to Santa Clara and cats and snakes and kids. But not for long, Microsoft Gamefest is only about a week away....

Posted August 03, 2006 | Comments (0)

The Right Tool


Soonmin Bae is a Ph.D. student at MIT and this week she published a new Siggraph Paper: "Two-Scale Tone Management for Photographic Look."

Analog purists may reel at the technical jargon, but in her paper Bae shows several interesting effects for B&W photographs (and some color ones) that she's discovered simply by examining come well-known classical "fine printing" photographs of the Ansel Adams variety — and then reduces the general feeling of those effects to a set of functional algorithms.

The computer may not understand the "feeling" of a "fine arts" print, but Bae's results, to this viewer, seem to work pretty darned well — associating texture and detail to contrast range corrections, in particular, seems perfectly sensible and maps perfectly to common darkroom techniques like dodging, burning, and split-contrast printing.

That, combined with Rob Fergus et al's "Removing Camera Shake from a Single Photograph," might raise the ire of plenty cheezy ULF shooters, used to dragging their heavy tripods up the sides of Yosemite like it was their own personal Golgotha. But for the rest of us, bon appetit.

Posted August 01, 2006 | Comments (1)



It's SIGGRAPH time and I'm here in Boston getting ready to host three sketch sessions ("People, Puppets, and Pillows," "Fast and Cheap," and "About Face") in addition to various NVIDIA events all week. As always I'm booked for multiple things at once most all day every day, and there's lots to see and learn and sometimes share.

At this moment I'm sitting in the sketch audience watching a terrific presentation on the facial action capture used for King Kong (short version: they built a solver for their facial mocap that reduced the many XYZ motion-capture tracks into tracks along the axes of FACS (Facial Action Coding System) (axes in this space correspond to human expressions, and to a strong degree those expressions correspond to specific immediate emotional states); then remapped them to a roughly-corresponding set of thier own created "gFACS" — gorilla FACS — which gave really terrific high-quality results. As a bonus, the FACS tracks are a lot more intuitive for subsequent tweaks and revisions than just trying to manipulate dozens of scattered XYZ tracks. Cool!)

Posted August 01, 2006 | Comments (0)


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