Shooting the moon.  It’s such a simple thing.  Or it should be.  I don’t go out of my way to see lunar eclipses, but I had a front row seat to yesterday’s [I forgot to post this yesterday and nobody apparently noticed…].  I could see the full moon out my office window, and I’m already well awake and into my personal work before 5:00 a.m.  When it was time I went into the chilly morning air and tried to shoot the moon with my phone.  It’s pitiful to watch technology struggle.  The poor camera is programmed to average the incoming light and although the moon was the only source of light in the frame, it kept blurring it up, thinking, in its Artificial Intelligence way, “this guy is freezing his fingers off to take a blurred image of the semi-darkness.  Yes, that’s what he’s trying to do.”  

Frustrated, I went back inside for our digital camera.  It wasn’t charged up and it would take quite some time to do so.  Back outside I tried snapping photos as the phone tried to decide what I wanted.  Yes, it focused the moon beautifully, for a half second, then decided for the fuzzy look.  I had to try to shoot before it had its say.  Now this wouldn’t have been a problem if my old Pentax K-1000 had some 400 ASI film in it.  But it doesn’t, alas.  And so I had to settle for what passes for AI appreciation of the beauty of the moon.

Artificial Intelligence can’t understand the concept of beauty, partially because it differs between individuals.  Many of us think the moon lovely, that beacon of hope in an ichor sky.  But why?  How do we explain this in zeros and ones?  Do we trust programmers’ sense of beauty?  Will it define everyone else’s?  No, I don’t want the ambient light averaged out.  The fact that my phone camera zoomed in to sharp focus before ultimately deciding against it shows that it wasn’t a mechanical incapability.  Sure, there may be instructions for photographing in the dark, but they’re not obvious standing out here and my freezing fingers can’t quite manipulate the screen with the nimbleness of the well warmed.  There were definite benefits to having manual control over the photographic process.  Of course, now that closet full of prints and slides awaits that mythic some day when I’ll have time to digitize them all.  Why do I get the feeling that the moon isn’t the only thing being eclipsed?

Camera Ready

A friend recently asked me about cameras. I’m no expert, but after I finished my master’s degree I worked at Ritz Camera for about a year. It wasn’t an ideal job, but I learned a lot.  (Interestingly, I say that about most of the varied jobs I’ve held—janitor to editor.)  The conversation led me to dig out my box of pre-digital photographic equipment so that I could familiarize myself with f-stops and shutter speeds.  Handling my old Pentax K-1000, I reflected on how actual cameras (not that device in your pocket) transitioned from using actual film (which is superior for capturing images) to emulating that experience for the needs of digital photographers. Taking a stunning picture was more than just framing and lighting—it involved manual control.  The modern digital camera will allow the photographer control over things like shutter speed, aperture, and film speed (even if in altered terminology).

At the camera store, as in much of retail, waiting was involved.  Sometimes quite a lot of it.  Between customers coming in—and you had to be ready for that at any time—you had to find ways to amuse yourself.  Some would restlessly straighten up counter displays, restock the film (remember film?) bins, or find something that required putting away.  Most (and this was a young adult’s job) found ways of goofing off.  Immaturity takes a long time to settle into more reflective adulthood.  I often used the opportunity to read through the photography books we sold.  Well, in actual fact, I don’t remember ever actually selling one of those books.  If you’ve looked at the pictures most people take that will be evident.  That’s how I learned the little I know of photography.

At least you could see this kind.

We live in an era of disputing experts.  We like to think that we know just as much as the next guy.  Trump’s bull-headed tenure only made this fashionable.  Photography, on the other hand, no matter whether digital or print, is an art where the truth is clearly evident.  Gifted photographers take better photos.  The rest of us can learn some tips, but we all know when we see a stunning photograph.  We might even question if it’s real.  Although cameras can be made to lie—all photographs are fragments of the past—photography is perhaps the most impartial form of art.  Learning about it can improve results, but the camera is a revelatory device.  In the hands of an expert it can change the way we see the world.

Youth Evolving

Picture a picture.  A photograph.  I’ve got a specific one in mind, but it’s likely one you’ve not seen.  Any photograph will work for this lesson, but if it’s one of your own, one from your youth works best.  Your teenage years.  The photograph that I’m imagining is one of a slightly older friend of mine.  It shows him as a teenage machine-gunner in Vietnam.  I didn’t know him at the time, of course; I was too young to be sent off as a national sacrifice for a police action to protect capitalism.  In any case, I got to know this friend later, after he’d survived the conflict, wounded but alive, and I was struggling to survive puberty.  Emotions at that time were off the charts, but I never saw the photo until I was an adult.

Why am I asking you to think of old pictures?  I was recently reading a discussion where intelligent people were wondering why, throughout human history, we have idealized youth.  I suppose there’s no single answer, but I have a suspicion that it has to do with evolution.  We often wrongly assume that we can get at the naked truth.  As if we could somehow get outside of our own frame, our personal point-of-view, and look at reality objectively.  Our brains, however, evolved to help us survive in an often hostile environment.  The “point”—if you’ll allow me to hypostasize a bit—of evolution is to survive long enough to reproduce.  Many species with young that can care for themselves simply die at that point.  Mission accomplished.

As human beings (and mammals) our young need parental care to survive, at least for a few years.  Biology would seem to dictate that by the time we can reproduce—that self-same puberty which is such a difficult age—is the point at which we’ve reached our evolutionary goal.  There’s something deeper going on here, of course, but I wonder if this might not be behind the question of why we idealize youth.  We remember with a sharp pang—don’t need to see a doctor about that one—the incredible and unsurpassed discoveries we personally made at that age.  There will be other surprises as life goes along, of course, but nothing will ever equal our biologically determined goal.  I’m oversimplifying, I know.  Still, this may be one mystery that is less mysterious than it seems.  I know this because I have a photograph of a young man.  It matters not if it is of someone I know or me.  We have made it through our most awkward age, and we reflect on how it made us into who we have become.

Was I ever that young?

Photographic Evidence

All photographs are lies. That moment preserved, formerly on celluloid but now with electrons, is gone for good as soon as the shutter is snapped. The camera doesn’t see as the eye sees. I was reminded of this during a mountain thunderstorm. I awoke early, coated with jet lag and the residue of my regular early morning schedule. It was still dark, but the reddish sunlight soon wrestled through a valley fed by a creek across the lake. The color was impressive, but my camera washed it out to a diluted Creamsicle orange. In reality the clouds were roiling overhead and lightning was streaking through a thunderhead like synapses firing violently in a massive brain. Thunder in the mountains can’t be photographed. Nor can it be forgot.

My work used to require quite a bit of travel. Before I would visit a campus I would spend some time on faculty pages, trying to put faces together with names. Impressed with how young these professors were, I’d knock on doors armed with foreknowledge of who might greet me. I wondered who these older people were when the door actually opened. It’s disconcerting to see someone age before your eyes. I would think back to the photographs online that had assured me this person would be much younger. The picture was a fossil. A moment frozen in time. The very next second after the photo capture that smiling face had changed. The best that we can hope for is a gross approximation.

Perceptions of reality, as all religions teach us, contain a healthy dose of illusion. While it contains ethereal beauty, this vision I’ve captured in my lens is only part of the picture. There is something deeper, more meaningful behind it. Photographs enhance memory. In the days before Photoshop they could be submitted as proof of an occurrence. They are a form of art. Whatever else they may be, they are also lies. Lies need not be of evil intent. Religions try to explain what some privileged individual realized was the truth. These who found a way of looking behind the photograph. The streaking lightning outside evades the slowness of my finger on the button. The thunder rolling and re-echoing through these valleys will remain in my head long after the sound waves cease to reverberate. Reality is more than it seems. Even my experience of this mountain thunderstorm is that of a single individual seeking enlightenment. Elsewhere others are up early, observing it too. What they experience may be something very different from me indeed. I have a photograph to prove it.

A Slice of Pi

Raster images are made of pixels. MP3 files fit into neat little squares. Who owns a watch with an obsolete dial anymore? We live in the digital age. We are satisfied with less. We are told—and who dares question?—that digitization is more precise than any old analogue technique. There really are not curved surfaces anywhere. At lunch with a friend recently, this topic came up. Again. It is a conversation I’ve had before. Not everything can be quantified. Once upon a time, there was something called “quality of life.” No more can Nigel Tufnel claim, “Well, it’s one louder, isn’t it? It’s not ten.” Everything is ten.

If you don’t believe me, take a digital image and enlarge it. At some point the edges will grow fuzzy. That’s only because our eyes can’t focus on the smallness of the pixels. Keep on enlarging. Eventually you’ll come to the point where the little squares, the pixels, show their characteristic stairway to Heaven. Then go to your favorite art museum. Look at a painting. Get as close as the docent will allow you. Where are the pixels? Or get to know someone with a high quality camera. Preferably one that handles film larger than 35 millimeters. Watch them at the enlarger. The images get bigger, the edges remain sharp and curved. Where are the pixels? Some of us may be too old to truly tell the difference, but try breaking out your old LP’s. If you can find a turntable try one out. Then listen to the CD. Can’t tell the difference? Try putting it up to eleven.


The classic manual aptitude test has both round and square pegs. We’ve all been told that you can’t fit a square peg into a round hole, but we do it all the time. Life is full of circles, swirls, curlicues. We don’t teach our children to read cursive anymore. The square pegs on the keyboard are sufficient for every possible form of communication. There’s no need to sit back and wonder at the implications that pi is a non-repeating, infinite decimal number. You can’t find the area or perimeter of a circle without it. Nature is stunningly rococo with its spirals, from non-pixelated ripples in the water to the colossal swirls of galaxies so large that the human mind can’t comprehend them. For that you need a computer. And just to be safe, you better make sure that it’s one that can go up to eleven.

Evolution’s Snapshots

DarwinsCameraIn America’s political climate any book about Darwin takes on a religious cast. As strange as it may seem, an odd equation exists between Darwin, evolution, creation, and the Bible. We forget that Darwin was a retiring man with many interests and a very keen intellect. Erstwhile groomed for the clergy, he lived at a time when much of the world was known really only to the local inhabitants, and observations were still mostly made by the human eye in person. So it was that as photography developed, a new avenue into science opened up. Darwin’s Camera, by Phillip Prodger, is a rare look into, as the subtitle says, Art and Photography in the Theory of Evolution. Darwin wrote several books. Among them was The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. This book was among the first scientific tomes published with photographic evidence to illustrate, if not prove, the points being made. Prodger takes us through the process by which Darwin procured and commissioned his photographs for the book and reveals some deeper truths about his life.

Interestingly, one of the sources of early photos was asylums. There was a belief, apparently, that photographs might be used diagnostically. One of the emotions that was presented to Darwin for his consideration was religious rapture. (Not that I can make any great claims here, but having experienced at least mild versions of such states—whatever their physiological cause—I know that they are powerful.) The observation comes through that religious rapture is difficult to distinguish from insanity, on the face of it. This may sound like an anti-religious slur, but it’s not. Ask around the mystics and you’ll see what I mean. Sanity has its uses, to be sure, but mysticism is all about letting go.

The only real religion in this book comes in the confrontations to Darwin’s evolutionary theory. Prodger does, however, briefly delve into Darwin’s late (and brief) concern about spirit photography. Shortly after cameras were developed, photographic tricks evolved. The Victorians, as we all know, had a very palpable sense of death’s nearness. It is no accident that Spiritualism developed during this time period when a reasonable lifespan was anything but assured. Spirit photographers claimed to capture ghosts of the dead revisiting the living. Darwin, who’d lost a beloved daughter prematurely, knew what grief was. He did not, however, allow it to interfere with his critical thinking. Photographs could be used to prove a point, but they could also be used to make a false claim. Darwin’s success in his book on emotions falls somewhere in the middle. He did have to have some staged shots to illustrate his point. Ever the gentleman, however, Darwin’s decisions were made to enlighten, not to deceive. One wonders whether creationism can even remotely make that same claim.