Be the Canvas

Trying to Escape

My heart leaps up when I behold<
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is the father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
– William Wordsworth

I have no real idea why this image has attracted so many views o Flickr. It’s a mysterious scene, actually a clear plastic tarp pulled over some landscaping work we’re having done at the front of our house here in Pikesville, MD.

One of my major photographic inspirations were the macro photographs that I remember being in the grade school newspaper, “My Weekly Reader”. There’d be the head of a nail blown up, or dimples in a golf ball. It was the form and texture divorced from the object and context that fascinated me. I think that the Highlights Magazine hidden picture series and the “what is wrong with this picture” images also trained me to look carefully with images for the interesting detail that escaped initial examination.

Most of what I photograph is still pretty recognizable, but reaching to reveal what I’ve seen in the scene. My form of communication here is pretty simple- “Here’s what I’ve seen. Have a look and I hope you find it interesting too”.

It’s an idea that I think I heard Tim Ferriss first refer to as “being the canvas“. I’m making art here by being present rather than being the actor, the prime mover, the creator. It’s made in gratitude of the sensuous life we’ve been granted, it’s made in recognition of those clever inventors of these tools, and I’m grateful to share the experience.

What I Saw Yesterday

Just One of Those Days

This photograph is the Miami Fort Power Station on the Miami River outside of Cincinnati. This part of my exploration of the new Leica M10 as a tool for landscape photography. It’s a very straight conversion to monochrome with Capture One. That’s the story really of what I saw yesterday.

I consider myself an environmental photographer. That’s environmental with a lower case “e”. I’m looking at my environment all the time. It’s my very personal way of seeing. Since starting my photography, I’m taken by texture and light. I see photographs all the time- at least when I’m active in the craft and engaged actively with seeing. It’s a fault of mine that I don’t have the camera ready all of the time and that I don’t take the time to capture images when I see something that takes me.

Yesterday the clouds were braking up towards the end of the day. I thought about how the light might come streaming through. The photograph is a way of showing what I saw and felt. Here in a little town on a warm February afternoon, a power plant sending its own clouds up toward the sky.

I thought about it as a black and white image. But the image on the back of the camera was color, just like the world. The digital RAWs were all full of color too. So I used a cataloging program to strip the color out from that world and saw this. Which is what I saw yesterday.

How to Practice by Exploring Alternatives

Stevenson Field

Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect. – Vince Lombardi

This image was captured with my 28mm lens. After writing about customizing the camera to own the frame, it might be surprising to see a different lens, a different approach. This is me practicing. The 50mm perspective is easy and automatic in use framing images. It’s much harder to isolate objects with this wide of an angle of view. But moving out of my comfort zone is very much like strength training. It’s a struggle when doing the work, but it makes functional activists that much easier because of the power available behind it.

This also started as a color image. I used the NIK Filter Silver Efex Pro to convert to grayscale. It was pretty much a monochrome image to start, but as it turned out, a tough image to get close to right. I really wanted to get the tree fragment to pop more in the image, but the grass and it are just all to close to mid grays that I can’t pull either up or down enough to do what I wanted. In the end, the fault is in the original capture, taken in open daylight.

The reason why I decided to explore processing this capture was the gesture really. It’s an odd thing to see a big part of a tree in a field and it points backwards. It’s got a different texture from the rest of the image which caught my eye.

So not one for the portfolio, but a useful exercise. And some proof I can use the 28mm to capture a broader view that still fits into my vision, so more reason to explore landscape in addition to the streetscapes I so often photograph.

One Camera One Lens

Boo Rail

And it’s that old same thing It’s that old same old thing Now tell me who to blame? The whole world’s fighting about that old same thing Yes it is Willie Dixon – The Same Thing

I never owned a zoom lens until I bought my first DSLR, the great Olympus E-1. When I moved over to Nikon, I bought the Nikon 12-24mm wide angle zoom just to get something wider than the primes I already had from my film setup. Then Vincent Versace convinced me I was crazy not to take advantage of the quality and flexibilitiy of a modern zoom, so I ended up with the Nikon 25 – 120mm f4 zoom on my D800.

That zoom and DSLR were a huge package that just didn’t get taken out as much as my earlier lighter its did. And I don’t know that I ever really fell in love with the image quality of those Nikon setups as I had with that Olympus. In fact, the lens is at Nikon right now for alignment to try to get it sharper at edges.

On the other hand, my Leica cameras and lenses are an ever growing obsession, dictating the direction of my photography. I started shooting film with a used M6ttl , but bought the M-E, the cheaper version of the M9 once it was available used at a relatively low price. And I was taken with the image quality once again. All without zooms.

Looking over my images from the last year or so, they were captured with the Leicas- digital and film. And mostly shot with a 50mm lens. They are beautifully sharp edge to edge. Exposure and focus is generally on the money. For the most part, I’m a chromatic grayscale photographer. I see the image as form, light and gesture and really only want color in the image when color is the point of the image.

The flexibility of zoom lenses obscures the original reason for interchangeable lenses, customization of the camera. The back holds film. The choice of film was one way to customize the device to be fit for use. Choice of lens was the other variable to customize the device. You’d chose a lens for purpose, with the flexibility to use a different lens with the back at another time. It wasn’t uncommon for photographers in the film era to carry multiple cameras loaded with different films with different lenses mounted on each. Zoom lenses and modern post-processing provide infinite flexibility, so the camera as tool suitable for purpose is lost.

I’ve customized my camera to suit my art- monochrome, isolating a subject in space, with a sharp style of drawing by the lens. The last choice- film or digital is an interesting one. There’s a big convenience factor with digital, as well as lower cost and the instant feedback on the LCD screen regarding composition, focus, and exposure. Film on the other hand, renders images with a tactile quality that reveals the method of making the image. It’s an interesting tradeoff and one I have not yet come to grips with.

No Words For It

Road Closed

Letting the days go by
Let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by
Water flowing underground
-Once In a Lifetime, The Talking Heads

I’ve had a practice of combining an image and text whenever I post here. As I’ve continued to work through Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way”, now at Week 10 of 12, I’ve moved strongly toward making images. Why? It’s easier and more fun for me. The words and complex ideas come out fuzzy and half formed. I enjoy reading the background material and exploring the ideas. I think I have some things to say about mind, brain, culture and complex systems, but this is a very difficult platform for it. That wants to be the book form of On Deciding Better. Which may exist one day as a well developed exposition of the ideas I’ve had on the subject.

But the images are what move me in the moment. I drive around our suburban landscape and see the light illuminating all of these odd corners of the streetscape and the yards. Captured with a camera, I get to transform them into pithy little sayings. It feels more eloquent than the writing.

So I’m giving myself permission to play with the images for a while. Maybe while the ideas cook and the words form a bit more easily.

Permission to Make Art

Seattle Tree

Our secret thoughts always feel complete and true. They remain precious possessions we keep close. But once out of their private domain and into the world, forced to undergo scrutiny, our ideas are often revealed as incomplete, inaccurate and maybe not so useful.

So getting those thoughts out but still private is a great way to straighten out those internal conversations.

Here’s a pretty strong claim from Oliver Berkeman at the Guardian about how to do just this: This column will change your life:. He describes how the practice of Morning Pages has affected him. I can confirm his claim. It will change your life.

I had heard about Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way” several times over the years. I borrowed it from the library, but soon bought my own copy as I believe this is a book filled with important insights.

The book is structured as a 12 week journey to get unblocked as an artist. What’s “blocked”? I think she means to include any artist not satisfied with their process or feels capable of breaking through to a new level. Now the book is quite spiritual and is actually God centered, but Cameron allows the reader a lot of latitude in fitting those abstract concepts into their own frame of reference. For me personally, it’s easy.

And the central tool is described up front. Cameron requires you to write 3 unstructructed, handwritten pages every morning. It has to be the morning so that it’s forward looking. If you wait too long into the day, the writing reflects thoughts that rely on reflection. Doing them first thing is key to their power of liberation.

Those who have adopted the Morning Pages practice are right; it been a transformative experience. As far as I can tell after a month of the practice, the chief effect is promoting the practice of externalizing the inner conversation. It’s not quieting the noise that we all carry in our heads. The book puts it in the perspective of the inner voice that limits and constrains creative activity.

These morning pages are a way of beginning the day in a real mode. For me, I’ve become freed from a lot of my strategic concerns in what to write, what system to photograph with and what subject to choose. I’m more focused on making images and typing words, as many as I can, with as many hours as I can free up. So film (as in the image today) or digital, matters less than feeling the need to make images and tell stories. And then acting on that need becomes much easier. Unblocked.

Creative Writing and the Blog

Parking Bar

GGarret Vreeland at dangerousmeta linked to an essay published at Inside Higher Ed in their series “Bad Ideas About Writing”. Let’s Banish the Phrase ‘Creative Writing’ was written by Cydney Alexis, an Assistant Professor of English and Director of the Writing Center at Kansas State University. Alexis describes how creative writing began in the 1920’s with the theory that kids would enjoy literature more by participating in its creation by writing it. Somehow the label “writer” has become attached to a particular kind of writing, namely fiction, poetry and scripts for the stage or movies. I agree that we would benefit from a little wider cultural appreciation of writing in all of its forms. Alexis challenges us to broaden the idea of writer to include writing of all kinds.

I’d suggest that the personal weblog is one of todays most important types of writing, Writing for an audience is fundamentally different than scribbling in a journal. You need be careful. You need to think and edit. That is the defining characteristic of a “writer”.

Writing a personal journal published on the internet is a generous and courageous act. Generous because most who write don’t expect anything in return. Courageous because putting work in front of others is a risky act of exposure. It’s a social expression of shared experience. Of course there’s the reward that sharing knowledge may provide prestige and recognition when you’re linked to or when you’re quoted. This social activity has produced an explosion in public writing on the internet. We should recognize that its created many writers like me.

I’ve happily taken on the mantle of “writer”, because my work has pointedly had little to do with my work in drug development in Biotech and Contract Research. I was privileged for a time to be published by the Gardner brothers at original AOL incarnation of “The Motley Fool” and then lucky enough in late 1999 to stumble onto the first available blogging platform, Edit This Page created by Dave Winer. I’ve been free to talk to a small audience and admittedly, to myself, by posting short pieces to the various incarnations of “On Deciding . . . Better”. I’ve probably been more successful as a photographer posting to Flickr , but its here that I return in order to document and reflect on a few ideas that seem worthy of contemplation.

Book Review: Smarter Than You Think by Clive Thompson

Are our machines tools or extensions of our minds?

instax-2017-01-05 Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better is positioned as a counter argument to the handwringing over the digital world. It’s journalistic report of how humans augmented by computing devices and digital networks become smarter and more capable. It’s time to recognize that the human memory supplemented by data stores, algorithmic machine intelligence, and instant global connectivity fundamentally change who we are.

Our minds have long been long been extended by the unique human technologies of speech and culture. While we begin with a strong subjective sensation that our minds are contained in our heads , constrained physically by our bodies and sitting right behind our eyes, several philosophers like Andy Clark and David Chalmers have proposed that the functions we call “mind” actually operate not only in the brain but also via objects in the physical world. Our memories are not limited to what we can pull out of long term memory, they are also preserved in the photos of our scrapbooks and the writing of our diaries. Acting as our thoughts, pen marks on paper can extend our thinking through time and space.

Thompson more or less catalogs the way computers augment our thinking, but interestingly includes how machines facilitate social interaction. If you’re willing to entertain the idea that the extended mind can include cultural and shared knowledge, then a deeply connected information society has created a very powerful engine for collaborative thought. Thompson starts off his section on blogging with a discussion of the very real phenomenon of writing as a way of thinking, of learning about the world by verbalizing it.

But once there’s an audience, one is no longer talking to oneself, but are in a relationship with others that changes how you go about writing, but also can provide the feedback that improves the value of the thoughts themselves. Certainly the fact that a couple of dozen people around the world regularly read ODB changes how I write, needing to be sure I provide enough quick background on these philosophical positions or at least links to help any new or occasional reader.

The Power of Imagination

Art is the creation of something new in the world. Successful creation is a powerful feeling.

The art may be words that tell a story or ink on paper that renders an image of the world captured by camera sensor. Maybe music as an arrangement of sounds. These creations are of the world, but just abstracted enough to transcend the noise and confusion of original experience. Man-made, they are focused and seem true.

Maybe art is just a way of making our imaginings seem more true, making them look real. The truth in an image or in music can feel true in a way that is more pure than the complicated, uncertain world we’re forced to live in. This is the mental simulation of the world we call imagination.

The power of imagination allows us to inhabit simple worlds of our own creation. If imagination helps envision a better version of ourselves or our circumstances, then it serves to provide goals to move toward. Or a safe place to live while it all blows over.

Imagination brings alternatives to decisions that enable futures to be tested before actually choosing them. We can create these futures because we have the ability to simulate potential worlds in our minds.

Yet imagination most often allows us to ignore the world as it is. What’s the value of imagining an alternate reality if the world treats us otherwise. then It’s only pretending. It’s like putting on on a different version of the world like dressing up in costume. If the mask covers our eyes, it blinds us.

My New MacBook Pro

To The Point

As we continue to load greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and race toward certain destruction, I’m pleased to have a new 13″ Macbook Pro with Touch Bar. I offer some personal thoughts.

I have no doubt that this is the best available notebook computer for my needs right now. I depend on Apple’s culture, one that works to provide a user experience by combining hardware and software. The screen is incredibly bright, high resolution and has extended color range that surpass anything else I can buy. As a portable device it is light, provides great battery life and performs what I need to do fast enough that it never gets in the way. As far as I’m concerned, as long as I’m not waiting for my computer to complete a task, the process is seamless.

For now, the tools I use require a Mac. There's Eastgate's Tinderbox, Devonthink Pro, R Studio, and Mendeley (my reference manager of choice even though I’m forced to use Endnote with collaborators). I was sorry to see Aperture go, but Lightroom won that war and Adobe has prospered. I don't use Pages and the suite, because Office 365 is fully interoperable across Windows, MacOS and iOS. The iPad acts as a more portable, more personal extension for selected activities, but can’t provide the seamless workflow yet.

This isn’t my first Mac of course. In fact, I collected recordings from neurons deep in the brain for my PhD in 1980 with an Apple IIe using an analog to digital expansion card. I bought a 512K Mac as a Neurology resident and used it to write my first grants. These were expensive and not mainstream choices at the time, but they provided an experience that was worth it. I stayed with the Mac through my academic career, even buying a Mac clone for my lab at one point.

As a mature product now, the Mac is on a long product cycle. The current technology improvements are incremental and still involve tradeoffs between speed and battery life. This new notebook is not much different from the last, but overall improved. Good enough for me and those using Macs in science, art and photography. If you need more power for simulation and AI research, you tend to move back to centralized big iron available on the network easily enough if you’re working in that environment. The last time I had to run long simulations in R, I offloaded it to a Mac Mini I use as a server.

The truth is, I’ve felt funny as Apple has become the default choice among my peers for mobile, tablet and notebook. In academic settings, most of the computers at the conference table are Macs. It seems no longer cool, just smart. Maybe I’ll even admit to a little comfort from the price rise as Apple has moved to Retina screens across all the notebooks. These are great tools and worth a bit extra to ensure their continued development.