Monthly Archives: March 2007

Act Now: Taryn Simon


Go see Charlie Rose interview photographer Taryn Simon. It’s free for just a bit longer. (Or you can “buy” it for less than one American dollar.)

She talks about her new project/book, An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar and The Innocents project. Okay, it’s not a great interview, but I like seeing someone my age (32) practice photography with such accomplishment. And it’s always great hearing photographers talk about what makes them photograph what they do.

I’d love to see an interview with Paul Shambroom or Alec Soth. (Charlie needs “friends” outside of the Northeast.)

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MFA to get dedicated photography gallery

I was very happy to learn from the State of the Art blog that Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts will have it’s first gallery dedicated to photography. Until now it’s been in the low-rent district with the “Works on Paper.” That’s not to say that they’ll put it in the finer part of the expanded museum. As long as they don’t hide it in the basement by the restrooms like several museums seem to do.

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Five Questions from a friend

My long-time friend and the most academically accomplished person that I know — who wishes to remain nominally pseudonymous but whose quirky pseudonym I just can’t bring myself to use — sent me the following interview questions.

1. What’s it like to be a photographer sans depth perception? Do you think such vision helps or hinders, and why?
To be honest, I really don’t know what it’s like to lack depth perception. I learned around age six or seven that I don’t have it after my ophthalmologist put a pair of funny glasses on me and showed me a picture of a very, very large fly. Apparently, if I’d had stereoscopic vision, I would have seen its wings pointing out at me instead of being flat on the page. Occasionally I wish that I had it — mostly when pulling into parking spots — but I don’t really miss what I can only vaguely imagine.

Last autumn, I did try wearing a contact to replace my missing lens, but it didn’t work out. I was a bit disappointed but a bit relieved, too. I worried that my photography would become more difficult or change in uncontrollably bad ways if my manner of looking at the world fundamentally changed.

I gather from talking to my differently sighted friends that the way my eyes work may be amenable to photographic seeing. The world around me is undeniably flat. I get my sense of perspective by moving around and by remembering (without thinking) how large things should be. Having the world pre-flattened takes away a large part of what I hear makes photography difficult for some people.

Of course there’s a lot more to photography than compressing what’s visible by one dimension. I still find it hard sometimes to manage clutter in the frame and ensure that what I’m seing in my mind’s eye actually makes it onto film. Harder still is picking what to photograph so that each new image fits with rest of a project and says the right thing (and hopefully something meaningful, too).

2. What do you miss most about Iowa and Wyoming?
For a while, Wyoming had the tourism slogan “Like no place on Earth.” Maybe they still do. At any rate, it’s not exactly true; Wyoming is America’s Iceland, minus Björk.

It’s large, but everyone knows each other. One day while bored in a meeting, I calculated that I had probably met around 10% of the people my age in Wyoming. I knew a lot of really great people from all over the state, and we saw each other quite frequently. With just a few dozen high schools — there were fewer than ten cities with more than 10,000 people when I lived there — we were always going to common athletic and academic events.

I suspect a lot of that 10% has moved away; certainly most of my friends have — the people you might put in the “chattering class.” We chose liberal arts trajectories that didn’t involve the University of Wyoming, and during the bust years of the 1990s, we were probably the state’s biggest export. My mother is still there, and I miss her a lot. But I also miss the serendipity of constantly running into people I knew wherever I went.

Plus, Wyoming is just fantastically beautiful. Because everyone who visits the state only goes to “The Parks,” we have most of the the state’s 100,000 square miles to ourselves, and we’ve kept the best parts secret.

My feelings for Iowa are a lot harder to put into words. I was born there and molded into the person I’ve spent years unbecoming. But I also spent four wonderful years in Grinnell, where I met most of my favorite people in the world and learned a lot, including many things I didn’t realize until after I had left. The half-dozen times that I’ve been back since then — visiting the rest of my family, who I also miss a lot — are all about change, too.

So it may seem odd to say that the thing I think I miss the most is Iowa’s impossible changelessness. It’s so different whenever I go back. (Every place in the world shares this trait!) But in essentials, it’s still the same open-air cave where I spent fifteen years of my youth and four more years not long afterward. I like that I can see traces of my family and myself whenever I drive down any self-similar county road or main street. I love the way that the smell of dirt there reminds me of the edge of town where we always seemed to live. That same smell reminds me of a particular wintry day in ninth grade when my friend and I walked along a frozen creek that had cut deep over the years into the Iowa loam, upon which the brilliant sun shone, sending steam into the air and making me see the world anew.

3. When did you become such a fashionista, and why? Did Lisa have anything to do with it?
It all started shortly after moving to the Bay State. One Sunday at the laundromat I picked up an abandoned copy of the New York Times. Shortly afterward I was hooked and we subscribed. If you haven’t experienced the Sunday Times in print, then you probably can’t appreciate the pure avarice that its advertisements embody. At three dollars a week I was unconsciously soaking up bits of fashion knowledge.

A few years later, Lisa graduated from Law School. Though she decided not to practice, she still needed a new work-appropriate wardrobe. I went along and progressed from simply possessing inchoate fashion knowledge to actively participating.

Around 2002 I started working with a very fashionable, very wonderful person around my age whose tastes ran toward the expensive side. We discussed designer lines the way that we might talk about television shows: “Did you see Galliano’s new line?” and so on. At almost the same time I happened upon a copy of W in the Newton Free Library’s magazine swap bin. The magazine’s high-end fashion photography — occasionally showing fashion disasters — drew me in. Of course, I was hooked.

I had also started a self-guided tour through the library’s extensive photography book collection. It has an endowment especially for photographic monographs, and I proceeded more or less alphabetically. A lot of the early books contained fashion photograhs: Avedon, Beaton, Bourdin, etc. Meanwhile I was perusing old issues of Aperture, a high-end art photography magazine, and came across an article which argued quite convincingly that (some) fashion photography is actually art first and advertising second, which suited me fine since I was starting to see couture as art that uses the body as substrate. (I’m more worried about the bluring lines between celebrity and commerce than art and commerce anyway.)

So I’m no fashion expert, but I can’t hide my love for it either.

4. How do you think your job will differ in 5 years? In 10 years?
There’s an enormous tension in software engineering. Newbies start out not knowing as much as we think we do and needing a lot of direction from peers and management. Usually we learn how to do our job well after years of putting in our dues. But by the time we become masters of the craft, we are also deeply involved with a lot of other project and people management activities that reduce the amount of time that we can actually spend applying our software construction skills. It’s a badge of honour, to be sure, but everyone I know has had a “Why can’t I find time to work on development projects?” moment where they realize how much their job has changed.

In some ways, my job has already started to change in this way, and I suspect it will continue over the next five to ten years. I’m working on my annual performance review right now, and I’m surprised how little time I spent last year working on features for MATLAB and the Image Processing Toolbox. But I’m also amazed by how quickly and correctly I was able to do the things that I did do. (In software engineering, when you take the long view, correctness usually equates to quickness.)

Sometime in the next couple of years, I will have my masters degree and more skills to go along with it. I’m in the optimizing phase of my career right now, where I’m learning how to do things well, instead of how to do them for the first time. In the next five or ten years I suspect that I’ll move into the mastery phase, where I start shaping the world around me rather than being shaped by it.

5. What is the new black?
Black, of course. And never has it looked so good.

I see a red dress, but I want to paint it black.

Your turn!
If you’re interested in being interviewed by me, leave a comment or send an e-mail to jeffmather [at] verizon [dot] net.

Posted in Color and Vision, General, Photography, Software Engineering, This is who we are | Leave a comment

Inventor of FORTRAN and BNF dies

John Backus, the Turing Award-winning inventor of FORTRAN — arguably the world’s first high-level programming language — has died at age 82.

A lot of programs of a certain age started their careers with Fortran. I am just a young’un compared to those guys, who had to write programs on punched cards and walk uphill to the mainframe . . . both ways . . . in the snow . . . with no shoes.

But I did give technical support to MATLAB users who needed to integrate their “legacy” Fortran code with MATLAB. I didn’t know Fortran, but that usually wasn’t a problem because no one was really programming much of anything new in it in 1998. So it was mostly a matter of coaxing the users’ compilers to do the right thing.

So, I’m not the right person to eulogize Backus or lionize his contribution to computing, but I’ll give a couple reminiscences about Fortran.

For a long time Fortran had funny syntax rules where the indentation of your code mattered for program compilation. That cracked me up when I first learned about it.

Years ago I was talking to Cleve Moler and asked for some pointers about learning Fortran. (That’s the kind of place I work at: You can just casually talk to the company founders.) Cleve, ever the straightforward kind of guy, asked, “What do you want to do that for?” Cleve first wrote MATLAB in order to shield his engineering students from needing to learn Fortran to do numerical analysis, so that response makes a bit of sense and shouldn’t be a reflection on Fortran, per se.

I wish I had more complementary things to say about Fortran, but I give Backus great kudos for it.

However, I can say that I owe him a great debt for co-developing BNF, that especially pedantic way of expressing a grammar which is so often used by languages and file formats of a certain age.

“You need the willingness to fail all the time. You have to generate many ideas and then you have to work very hard only to discover that they don’t work. And you keep doing that over and over until you find one that does work.”

Good work!

Posted in Computing | 1 Comment

Summa Contra Libraries, or The Book on the Truth of Software Design Methodologies against the Errors of the Infidels.

Sorry to be so absent recently. I have been engaged in a Talmudic examination of a fictious library system for my Software Development Methodologies class. I mentioned before that preparing for SDM class was a bit like studying Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, which above all distinguishes between this and that and categorizes knowledge and argument according to some very formulaic rules.

The first part of my term project involved taking a high level look at the proposed system, identifying some key systems, and creating diagrams that showed some business processes. This most recent part — that I just submitted — refined these details via use case analysis in order to come up with a set of about 90 requirements that cover the gamut from run-of-the-mill functional requirements (operation F does A, B, and C) to emergent business rules and security concerns. The coup de grâce being the following use case diagram.

The next and last phase has me designing the architecture and functions of this mythical system.

I promise to have something more interesting and less geeky to share soon. . . . And good news: no courses for me this summer. Hello, camera!

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Ask Dr. Color’s Assistant

It’s a crazy time here at The Metrowest Homeopathic Imaging and File Rehabilitation Center — the little office that Doctors Color, Compression, and FFT share with me, Doctor Format. Doctor Compression is happy to have most of the litigation behind him but still feels a bit crunched; FFT (“Fast” to his friends) is moving his practice west, which is just as well because I never understood a single thing he said anyway; and Dr. Color is hitting the greens near Boca this winter.

Dr. Color asked me to answer his mail while he’s away. (To be honest, I’m a little worried that he’s not coming back in the spring, since he’s been talking a lot about Rochester, NY.) I’m not an expert, but I’ve been learning about color vision and perception a bit lately and have been eager to try my hand at answering some questions on colorful subjects. But so far, no mail has come for the good doctor.

So, dear readers, if you have pressing questions about any of the following subjects, please leave a comment or send me an e-mail at jeffmather [at] verizon [dot] net:

  • the physical or psychological basis of color
  • optical illusions
  • color spaces
  • color models
  • photometry, radiometry, or colorimetry
  • color conversions
  • how the eye works

You can even ask more esoteric questions about color such as “Is it true that gray is the new black?” (not anymore) or “Can I use the color wheel to pick matching articles from my wardrobe?” (yes, but at your own peril) or “What is it with red anyway?” (I don’t know, comrade; why don’t you tell me?). Mail addressed to the CIE Standard Observer — Doctor Color’s youthful indescretions finally come to light — will also cross my desk.

Finally, if your eye hurts or you can’t see as well as you could the other day or you see spots when you sneeze, then for god’s sake go see a real doctor!

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Fifteen is an eternity in photography years

Richard Misrach – Stranded Rowboat, Salton Sea (1983)

No time to write seriously about anything. No time even for complete sentences. . . .

But I thought y’all might be vaguely interested in a short note about the here-today-gone-tomorrow nature of landscape photography. I give you people’s exhibit A: Between Home and Heaven: Contemporary Landscape Photography (ca. 1992). Originally shown at the Smithsonian and later developed into a quickly out-of-print book, “the photographs represent a variety of themes and concerns of this generation. Many artists are deeply motivated by a nostalgia for the American wilderness, their work referring to an earlier romantic pictorial tradition.” (PSA)

But are these photographers memorable?

A quick glance through online exhibit says — sadly — no. The only names I remember seeing before are Terry Evans and the extremely talented Richard Misrach.

Insert conclusion here . . . .

Posted in OPP, Photography | 3 Comments

Thus Spoke PJ: A Comic for All and None

I hate The Family Circus (antithesis) but I love the works of Nietzsche (thesis). Oh what a tasty synthesis is the Nietzsche Family Circus random image generator! (From The Online Photographer.)

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Black and White v. Color Photography

The hyperbolic, carefully controlled, museum- and gallery-specific versions of photography, in which every prop and gesture can be attributed to the artist’s direction, have been the most pronounced arrivals in the art world. If you are, like me, schooled in the magic of photography’s willful embrace of luck, mistakes, and happenstance, you view the art world’s partial endorsement of this bastard form with some suspicion. . . .

I am sure I’m not alone in beginning to think that the more complex, messy, unfashionable, and broad territory of black-and-white photography is where we are going to find some of the grist to the mill in photography’s substantive and longer-term positioning within art. . . .

One of the most important factors here is our visual recognition that the act of making and defining photographic practice in print form is increasingly nostalgic, and perhaps that calls for an aesthetics of nostalgia. . . .

Herein lies a timely, central issue for those of us who obsess about the future of photographic thinking. These projects are key propositions for what photography carries forward into the 21st century, as a bid for us to remember that photography is an act of making choices. This includes choices regarding methods and style of vision, which need not be defined by the fashionable, marketable production values of an era. . . .

The contemporary black-and-white photography I’ve described above has moved my thinking about the present state of photography onto a much more optimistic platform. Through these contemporary manifestations, the true, maverick character of photography, of our medium’s history, is far from lost. Indeed, these threads of the past are given new and meaningful effect. I am not proposing that contemporary black-and-white photographic prints represent the full embodiment of the future for photographic practice, just that the degree of self-determination that I am sensing in these photographers’ work is timely. I’m enjoying their contrary and imaginative choice to work in a monochrome media at a time when photography’s value as a contemporary way of seeing is to be questioned.
(Charlotte Cotton)

This article by Ms. Cotton — whose criticism I adore — is wonderful and quite timely.

With thanks to Gallery Hopper

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Contemporary Ghost Towns

A couple images from my recent trip to California.

Salvation Mountain (2007)

Alex at Salvation Mountain (2007) – after Rineke Dijkstra

Bombay Beach, California (2007)

North Shore, California (2007)

Posted in Photography, This is who we are, Travel, USA | 1 Comment

Ansel Adams, Capitalist Running Dog

It may be enough to know that, in theory-drunk circles of the period [the late 70s and early 80s], any sort of aesthetic appeal could be regarded as a stratagem of “late capitalist” ideology or some other wrinkle of malign social power. (The enemy’s identity was never entirely clear.) Artists were obliged to signal knowingness on this score. If critical paranoia poisoned visual and imaginative pleasure, that was unavoidable: a toll of enlightened consciousness.

(Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker)

Many things are clearer to me now. Seriously.

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