Nostalgia Again

I’m done with the Olympics. Not tired. Done. It’s not just that I’ve stopped really caring, it’s that I’m now questioning the entire reality of sports as a result of the Olympics. I’m hoping that this is just a function of how my views on sports have changed as I’ve aged.*

*And that watching sports with my sons will rekindle some of my former feelings. I’ve covered this before but I’ve been pushed even further down this path now.

I fear however that it’s sports which have changed to the point where I barely recognize them anymore.* And that the world has changed to the point where the old approach is no longer sustainable.

*In some ways, best summarized by the baseball card market and how it imploded on itself by forgetting the point of the product.

We know too much now and something as innocent* as sports is anachronistic when it doesn’t evolve.** Yet it’s no longer recognizable when it does.

*Ideally.

**E.G. The Masters. The fact that it hasn’t evolved is what makes it both great and horrible. It’s a remnant of the past and a reminder of how sports used to be covered.

This isn’t just the evolution of sports into becoming more and more like business. It’s the erosion of our sense of idealism.

In the past, it was possible to watch the Olympics each night with family, talk about it the next morning with friends, and experience the events as an introduction to semi-obscure sports and to the rest of the world. The competitors were amateurs and the competition was intended to be a celebration.

Tape delay didn’t matter. Nor did the relentless focus on American athletes. And the event was unquestionably the most important event of the sport.

Now? It’s a stunt more than anything else. These athletes see and compete against each other all the time.* Any surprises are because of people peaking at the  right time rather than a lack of knowledge about a country. The events are never show live so there is no sense of community with the rest of the world.** Results are known in advance.*** And, in many cases, the competition truly isn’t the most important event for the sport anymore.

*One of the nice things about the World Cup is that it represents a reorganization of the existing professional teams in a way which is still taken seriously. This reorganization of teams isn’t possible with individual sports.

**Watching Twitter, or even Facebook, while a live event occurs is a fantastic way of being plugged into the pulse of the event.

***It’s been this way for a dozen years now. Impossible to stay away from “spoilers” and, really, why would you?

If it’s not broadcast live, it’s no longer a sport.

The Olympics is now a sports-like product which encourages all the things which are ruining sports.

It’s not just fanaticism, it’s nationalism. This tales the irrationality to an extreme. Not only does a rational point of view become potentially “not a real fan,” it’s now unpatriotic to criticize your team. Oh, and you can’t choose your team at all now.

The packaging of individual stars as products. While this is annoying in sports which I care about, it’s even worse with sports which no one cares about. Especially when a medal favorite “fails” despite the hype. Winning is hard and should never be taken for granted yet the Olympics coverage is all about expecting wins.

Advertising and commercial sponsorship. Good lord. At least the Super Bowl ads are funny. These ones are all trading off of stars or patriotism. And they all reflect corporate buy-in in a way which tends to exclude any local businesses from being involved in the games. Every Olympics is the same old sponsors. Why are there never any local companies involved?

The extortion of public money for private benefit. This one galls me the most. Private owners of sports clubs expect the general public to fund stadiums and other infrastructure. For baseball (80 games a year) this makes some sense. For football (8 weekends a year) it does not. For the Olympics (2 weeks. Period.) it really does not. Especially since all the commercial sponsorship money does not make it back to the funders of the infrastructure.*

*The Bay Area 2012 Olympics proposal involved already-existing stadiums and just upgrading the infrastructure. It never made the cut because it was “too cheap.”

The amateur-professional issue. The Olympics, correctly, does not treat athletes as amateurs anymore. This, however, screws anyone still in college since the NCAA still clings to an unworkable definition of amateur. And it points out both the problems and issues we have with rationalizing the professional world with our ideals of what sporting competition should be.

As someone who roots for comeuppance, the only lingering hope I have for the Olympics is that they’ll blown themselves up in their own hype. While I’ll only get to see it on tape delay, the good news is that I’ll know to tune in ahead of time.

Trust

The most difficulty I get with my family photos is when I’m taking them. Some people always try and pose. Other people try and run. Others just want me to delete everything I take. Everyone knows what taking a photo means and is hyper-conscious of their image in a given shot.

Personal Propaganda

One of the current discussions online regarding photography is how much people trust it. A lot of this is tied in with the discussions about Photoshop—especially in regards to photojournalism and news photography, but also just the general increase in awareness of what occurs after a photo is taken.

In the trust discussion, we aren’t talking about how the photographs are taken, by whom, how they are displayed, or who sees them. The more those variables are narrowed down, the more likely people are to trust the results.* But if you look at the entire process? It’s pretty clear that people don’t trust it.

*Granted, even what seems like a narrow use case—for example, family photos displayed on Facebook for an audience of family friends—is not that straightforward. Each time Facebook messes with its privacy settings, everybody freaks out. Why? Can’t they trust their data?

I don’t think people know what photos mean in general. People know how to manipulate photos so that they mean what they want them to mean. And they are deeply distrustful of the medium since they know how it can be manipulated.

I’m always aware when I’m carrying a camera* about how other people are reacting to me. If I’m taking pictures of people** I’m even more aware since my subjects will often either pose or run away, or ask to chimp my result and insist I delete anything the don’t like. I’m very often not trusted until I’ve been around long enough to be trusted.***

*especially if I’m out with my son.

**typically family

***Another reason why I feel so strongly about how the identity of the photographer matters.

Why?

People want to control their own image: what is presented, how it is presented, and who sees it. It’s difficult to cede any of that control to someone else—especially the decision about who sees it. Right now there’s still a legacy of trust regarding who sees the photos. As we lose more and more control over who sees our images, I suspect that we’ll trust the ones we do see less too.

Proposal

As fewer and fewer people use 35mm film or full-frame equivalent digital cameras,* it will be interesting to see how our nomenclature for wide/normal/long lenses changes. I grew up during a period** were 35mm film was the standard. We’re no longer there and one of the most confusing things with new photographers now is understanding how focal length and field of view interact with sensor size.

*The history of photography has seen a gradual amateurization of “professional” equipment and an corresponding decrease in the size of the sensor as lens-making technology has improved.

**I expect the period from 1975–2000 (give or take 5 years on each side) to be somewhat unique in photographic history in that there was a single dominant sensor size for that time. Yes there were other formats but none of them gained that much traction.

That we sell new lenses and systems with 35mm equivalent focal lengths is increasingly silly. Many photographers now will never shoot with that size. So why not move toward a unit-independent method of indicating how wide or long a lens is?

I’m not crazy about this am I?

Lytro and Communication

Lytro is the most extreme example of a technology which will allow for more control in photographic post processing. It also has the potential to completely change how we will interact with photo editing programs. Yet its point will be completely lost on a large number of consumer photographers since they don’t post process anything.

—My first reaction to Lytro, last June

The reviews are out now. And they’re annoying. Mainly because it seems like the first generation camera is one of those “this is a neat gimmick” products rather than one which actually addresses or improves how people consume photography.

I’m not as much of a hater as I appear to be. Really. My main problem with the product is that it appears to be headed in completely the wrong direction and as such, risks branding the technology as a failure because marketing screwed up.

Right now, Lytro is a  gimmick. The finished product is anything but finished. And the camera itself encourages sloppy communication—the opposite of what a good camera should do. I’m upset because the technology is hugely exciting and has the potential to transform photography.

Between Lytro’s “Living Pictures” and the Nikon 1 systems “Motion Snapshots” we’re moving closer to Harry Potter photographs where images are no longer still but they aren’t movies either. Lytro’s problem is that what it considers to be the final output is only the first step—akin to presenting a RAW digital file or film negative as the final output. For most photos, and for all non-photographers, this is a waste of time. When we look at photos, we don’t want to have to ask about what the point of the photo is.

It’s telling that all the reviews state how it’s difficult to take good photos with Lytro cameras since standard shots all look flat. If any other camera came out and was reviewed with “this makes it harder to take photos” it would be dead in the water.

Photos are communication. The photographer needs to determine the message. The camera is a tool toward communicating clearly.

I do not want to figure out what the point of your image is by wading through infinite focal planes. If multiple planes of focus need to be presented, the photographer needs to choose the relevant ones and the final output should only show those—preferably in the sequence which the photographer chose.

Being able to pick focus post-exposure is great. It eliminates pre-exposure focusing errors and would make a welcome addition to any photographer’s toolkit. But it’s a tool, not an end product.

Ethics

This is the kind of thing which keeps functional photography from being considered art. It also drives me crazy. Yes, people think that photographs are true and expect them to be documentary. And yes, people are much more aware of how photos can be manipulated. At the same time, it’s completely wrongheaded and suggests that photographic truth exists.

Ansel Adams – Mount Williamson, The Sierra Nevada, from Manzanar, California, 1945

Errol Morris understands the issue a lot better. There’s always something outside the frame and the choices the photographer makes in framing the shot present a certain story where what is excluded can be at least as important as what is included—Ansel Adam’s photo of Mt. Williamson has to be viewed in the context of the fact that Manzanar is being excluded from the frame.

Cropping matters whether it’s done in-camera or during the page layout.

The same applies to other effects and techniques. Is vignetting only cheating when it’s done in post? Based on the evidence of David Burnett’s Holga photos, this seems to be the case. Burnett is a respected photojournalist whose Holga shot of Al Gore won the White House News Photographers Association Award in 2001.

The dividing line seems to be about whether something is done in-camera. While it came as no surprise that Damon Winter’s Grunt’s Life photos caused all kinds of discussion about their legitimacy as photojournalism, I’m pretty sure that if the photos were processed in Photoshop rather than on the iPhone, the exact same images wouldn’t even have been published.

Which is absurd.

The sooner that we stop presenting photography as truth—and the sooner people realize that a photography is inherently not realistic—the better.

E-reader Expo

Our local library had an e-books expo today where “industry experts” came in to answer questions and let people try out devices. While I’m not exactly an e-reader person (yet), we do have an iPad and I have been impressed with Amazon’s strategy of moving toward a “you pick the licensing agreement, we deliver the content” marketplace. So it made sense to check things out in person.

Sigh.

I should have known better. The Barnes and Noble guys were probably the most useful but the Nook is somewhat limited in its PDF support. The rest of the “experts” were really just salesmen and it was pretty clear pretty quickly that they were not that familiar with books. Which was disappointing.

What I was pleased to see is that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland appears to be a standard e-text sample text. For what I’m interested in in e-books, Alice is probably the ideal choice. It’s supposed to come with a specific set of illustrations and it includes a very obvious concrete poem. This means that in addition to checking on obvious things like text/illustration handling, I can also check whether special typesetting is also do-able by flipping directly to the Mouse’s Tale.

The Kindle on display? Failed the test.* When I asked whether it was a function of the e-text or e-reader? Blank stares until I was patronizingly assured that it displayed pictures too.

*Our iPad passed. Was probably the first thing I did in the e-reader too.

I do like the Kindle display though. So at least not all was lost. I’ll have to keep an eye out to see how things develop. But at this point, I still get the sense that the technology isn’t being driven from a “how to improve reading” point of view.

Serious Art

http://twitter.com/#!/vossbrink/status/77768867560177664

http://twitter.com/#!/vossbrink/status/77775892591554560

Inspired by a blogpost from Colin Pantall.

The discourse of art photography is a discourse of pretension and deceit on the whole

And an article on the Online Photographer.

anybody want to tell me where the image sites are that are edited (moderated), where serious photographers present redacted bodies of work? I’ve heard that the founders of Facebook, flickr et al have raked in millions; now what we need are people willing to run some sites to present serious photography in a serious way and rake in thousands.

And expanding on one of my previous posts on how artwork is presented.

I’m not sure why photography is treated the opposite of other artwork in museums. Most museums distinguish between art and craft by describing art through its content and craft through its purpose or provenance.

One of the chief distinctions in a museum is between functional objects displayed as examples of craft and non-functional objets d’art. Curation, in general, tends toward suggesting that non-functional art is more important. Objects of craft are often presented as cultural artifacts. Purely non-functional items are presented as fine art.* I don’t mind the distinction but I have a problem with implied superiority of one over the other.

*An item for another post is the heavy western bias where non-functional items from the third world are assigned pseudo-functional descriptions such as “fetish figure” when the same kind of item from the west will be given a name and creator.

The distinction is good because it is important to know the purpose behind a given work. Is this intended to be used? Is it decorative? Is it ceremonial? Is it an intellectual exercise? Without knowing the purpose, you risk not understanding the piece at all.

Duchamp’s Fountain at SFMoMA

While I embrace the distinction, I reject the idea that non-functional items are somehow superior or more important than functional ones. It bothers me when museums and other art appreciators buy into that way of thinking.* What’s more annoying though is when that way of thinking starts to be applied to items outside of the museum.

*One of the reasons why I loved the Oakland Museum’s Marvelous Museum exhibition was because of how it mixed functional and non-functional items together. My favorite example of this was the large overhead powerline insulator amidst the rest of the art ceramics.

Visiting museums involves a willingness to be surprised and provoked. I attend with the expectation that my mind will be engaged and for the entire experience to be intellectual at some level. What is art inside a museum loses much of its context when it is taken outside. It is no longer curated and so I have to do it myself. While I can decide how I wish to approach things, I cannot presume that my taste in art is applicable to others. I can only state what I like, not what someone else should like.

Which brings us to the overuse of the word “serious.” Like the porn designation, serious is used as a way of dismissing things which aren’t Art. Unlike porn,where there’s an implied surface appeal and a gut-level critique at whether there’s actual meaning, the labeling of what is serious* is a conscious choice at distinguishing what is intellectually worthwhile. People who label things as serious also tend to do so in a way which suggests that there is some sort of universal criteria for making that choice.

*Except in cases where serious is used to denote an extreme quantity of something.

The entire point of art (especially modern art) is that there is no such criteria.

What is serious for one person is frivolous to another. And, often, vice versa. Is food for sustenance or for show? Are movies for entertainment or enlightenment? Is photography for family scrapbooks or gallery walls? Yes—while only some of them are art, all are serious.

Let’s go back to describing things as “art.” We don’t need a value judgement, just whether an object was created for a purpose beyond its usual intent.

Fakeness and Authenticity

Obi

I have a love-hate relationship when it comes to the concept of authenticity. In many ways, I’m an orthodox do-it-right, do-it-for-real type who most people would expect to hate any sort of modern fakery. Sometimes I even think of myself this way. But I’m not. I love the concept of fakery and screwing around with the concept that things are not necessarily what they appear to be.

At the same time, quite a few modern fakes and replicas piss me off. Recently, it’s been Instagram’s Nashville filter which has really been getting to me. Inspecting my wife’s replica jersey also set off a couple other rants about “doing things right.” So I’ve started thinking about the right way to make a fake.

As with most things craft, it comes down to a combination of the details and the intent. I have a number of sports jerseys of varying authenticity—ranging from the cheapest fakes you can purchase from a street vendor in Italy to official field-ready merchandise to a specially-crafted throwback. The cheap street-vendor jerseys are, as one would expect, horrible. They aren’t meant to be anything but horrible though. This is their appeal.

As the quality of the jersey rises, so do my expectations of getting the details correct. I don’t expect them to ever be fully identical to what’s worn on the field—fans expect a jersey to last many years, do not need performance fabrics, and are typically not shaped like athletes. I do expect them to otherwise match and have the same patches, badges, lettering, etc. The official MLB replicas fail in this regard in that their lettering is off and they get key details (such as the lack of last names on the backs of the Giants home jerseys) wrong. The result feels more lazy and incompetent than cheap.

And I love throwback jerseys. These are the definition of fakes but since they get the details right (when done correctly) that no one cares that they’re modern versions of old items. I would probably hate them if they were passed off as originals but they’re intended to be new and wearable and their branding celebrates this.

rancho

In photography, the fakery discussion is even more interesting. You can fake things digitally in post or you can fake things through using outdated techniques and materials.

Hipstamatic, Instagram, and Poladroid all take modern digital photos and process them to look retro. You can also use various filters to achieve both the color responses and grain of film. Again, whether or not something feels right for me comes down to the details and the intent.

In the case of photography, the details and the intent are often intertwined and much of the fakery involves a fascination with the details rather than the image.* This means that the details have to be even more correct and all to often, the exact opposite occurs because those people fascinated with the details don’t understand what those details actually mean.

*Photography, by being so technology-driven, is prone to getting sidetracked into technical details which have nothing to do with the image.

So we get the kind of fakeness which I can’t stand: Overdone, poorly done details. Fake film borders which all have the same frame number. Black and white film markings for color images. The same fake fingerprint on each fake polaroid. Crazy vignetting and color shifting. Etc. Etc. Etc. Some of it is indeed fun. But the details are getting in the way of the object and that’s a problem when the details are so obviously wrong. The digital fakery I like so far are all images where the filtering has been turned down, the obvious mistakes eliminated, and everything is considered with the subject in mind.

At least with lomography, the details are arrived at through physical means. There’s the same obsession with form over content, but the process is valid. Of more interest to me is how shooting vintage gear (toy cameras from the 1950s, a Speed Graphic, etc.) or using outdated processes (tintypes, albumen prints, etc.) doesn’t offend my sensibilities. With these, the point isn’t to make something that looks old but in fact to see what those must have looked like brand new. And that’s what makes all the vintage gear/process stuff fun and exciting.

We’re in an age of knockoffs, replicas, and pseudo authenticity. Small houses have details which are intended to make them look big. Cheap furniture is detailed so it looks like it’s been made from real wood rather than particle board. And what I find myself being increasingly sensitive to can only be defined as craft. Take care of the details and I’ll forgive the fakeness of it.

Disease of the eye

overpass-3
My art professor used to always tell us that “perspective is a disease of the eye”—his point being that forcing everything to fit an arbitrary rule causes us to always see things the same way.  Every time I’m on flickr, I can hear him saying this as I’m constantly running into people who instantly judge and dismiss photos for completely arbitrary things like canted horizons, lens distortion, lack of sharpness, etc. etc.

Now, it’s one thing if someone’s incapable of ever getting a horizon level or if every shot uses a gimmick like fisheye distortion or blur. But many times I’m seeing the comments in one-off cases. Heck, many times I receive those comments when I’ve intentionally shot something that way. I often shoot things off-kilter and I’m not wedded to perfect focus or lack of distortion.
At the same time, yeah, the constant criticism of this kind of shooting has made me think about exactly why I frame certain things the way I do.

REASON ONE — laziness

waiting

Sometimes I can’t be bothered to frame something perfectly level. Maybe I’m in a hurry, but often it’s just easier to make it obviously intentionally slanty rather than looking like I tried to make it level and failed. It’s also a lot easier to shoot interesting lines out of the corners of the frame rather than trying to line up everything parallel to the edges while keeping the camera level. One of these days I’ll use a tripod and actually compose carefully.

pier-1

pavilion

REASON TWO — cheap zoom

DSC_0022

Originally a digital SLR phenomenon for me, the nice thing about a crop sensor is that I get some free extra reach. And what was the first thing I did with that reach? Start turning my camera so that I can squeeze out every last angle of view out of my lens. I do it with my wide angles and I do it with my telephotos.

top of the climb

The next step of this is to start doing it with all my cameras by coupling it with foot zoom. Want to get closer and fill the frame more? Better start angling the camera so the subject fits.

res

agapanthus

REASON THREE — focus point limitations

all alone

My D40x has a measly 3 focus points. When I have an auto-everything lens mounted, I tend to have one of the two side points active. And I tend to keep it active and trained on my subject while just paying attention to its location in the frame rather than looking at the horizon or anything.

The Selig Effect — Epilogue

Part 3 of 3

An additional, unexpected, and quite wonderful followup to my MLB.com Shop ordeal after I thought things had ended. It turns out that not all is hopeless and the public-relations arm of MLB is both helpful and competent.

January 11, afternoon—email from MLB.com shop

I’m writing to apologize on behalf of MLB.com Shop for the dreadful service you experienced this past month when attempting to purchase a Giants jersey. Your experience was certainly outside of the norm and is inexcusable.

We truly regret that we were unable to provide you with the level of service we consistently strive to provide each and every one of our customers. We would like to take this opportunity to offer you another replica jersey of your choosing or, since it seems you were finally able to find a jersey at a Giants team store, perhaps a t-shirt and cap of your choice. Please let me know which option you might prefer and which items we can send out to you, free of charge.

Our apologies, again, for your poor experience.  We can only hope to be able to have you back as a customer in the future to replace the negative impression with a more positive one.

Interesting. Interesting. Interesting. I have very mixed feelings about this. Part of me is saying,  “Screw MLB.” Another part is arguing, “But you like MLB, it’s just Bud Selig you hate.” A third is screaming, “OMG!!!! FREE SHIT!!!” And a forth is already warning, “Don’t be greedy and don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”

January 11, evening—email from me

I decide to be honest.

While the experience has left me a bit gun shy, as someone who definitely prefers shopping over the internet and dealing directly with the source rather than going through resellers, I appreciate your generous offer; it helps assuage my concerns with buying official MLB merchandise in the future.

I’m currently pretty well set when it comes to Giants apparel.  I do not need a third Giants jersey and I’m trying to abstain from any additional tshirts.  My wife, however, would be ecstatic with her own replica jersey.

We didn’t order one for her originally because there are no non-personalized women’s jerseys available with the World Series patch.  We were trying to decide between item 3180911 (basic replica) and item 10887905 (personalized with patch) and couldn’t justify spending $30 just for the patch (she didn’t want a name and number).  Since there was no urgency for getting a non-World Series jersey, we decided to just get my order and wait on hers.

A small women’s replica jersey (item 3180911) would be great.  Getting the World Series patch on there so she can join me in commemorating the occasion would be a wonderful late Christmas present for her.

It feels weird to ask for something that isn’t available on the site. At the same time, I really don’t need any new Giants apparel and any upcoming purchases I will be considering will indeed be for the other members of my family.

Also, that there was no World Series replica jersey for women was both surprising and disappointing to my wife. While I have no idea if my request is possible, I feel that the feedback is good. And yeah, worst case scenario (and, I’m thinking, most-likely) appears to be that she gets her own replica jersey without a patch.

January 14—email from MLB.com shop

Ok we had Majestic make the women’s Giants jersey with a WS patch (which will be unique) especially for your wife. This was sent out this morning. The tracking number is ****************.

Hope that the jersey makes it to you safely and that your wife enjoys it. And again, thanks for bringing your experience to our attention. We have learned some valuable lessons and are working on correcting things as we speak.

Holy wow! More that I expected and it also seems like they really mean to see what the hell happened with my original order.

January 17—email from Me

Wow!  I’m impressed.  On a number of counts.  I appreciate your going the extra mile on the generous offer. And it speaks very well of MLB that you take complaints this seriously.

My wife is eagerly awaiting the arrival of her jersey and I hope to be able to complete the epilogue to my blog post with a photo of her in it.

Tough email to write. Always strange to deal with shifting opinions. In this case, while my opinion of MLB.com shop has gradually moved from “you guys are incompetent” to “standard corporate screwup; standard corporate response” to, finally, “they actually seem to care,” my brain is still hedging and suggesting that I shouldn’t make any conclusions until we see what arrives.

My brain is very pleased to see that UPS reports something to be arriving at the end of this week though.

January 21

Look who’s happy about her late Christmas present!

Late Christmas

So yes. Maybe this is the reason to have a blog. In the past, an experience like this would result in my writing MLB.com shop to complain and then, if I were lucky, I would receive the bed bug letter. Of course, I would still be telling my friends about my experience and they would possibly be mentioning it to their friends as well. The end result would be.

  1. One dissatisfied customer.
  2. A handful of people who distrust, avoid, or recommend against using the merchant.
  3. Continued dismissive merchant behavior to the customers.
  4. No real possible way to change people’s attitudes.

Now, while I don’t presume to have produced any changes in how MLB.com shop works, their hands are sort of forced by how easy it is for me to publish my experiences—producing at least some material evidence that “mistakes were made.” That free jersey is on someone’s balance sheet even if it’s just part of what’s been budgeted for such affairs. And with all the corporate belt tightening, every penny matters and of course they would like to avoid cases like mine.

Meanwhile, I can honestly say that I would purchase from MLB.com shop again. Will I take a deep breath before clicking the “submit order”? Absolutely. But I’ll do so knowing that there are responsive people over there and that there is a commitment to keeping customers happy and to improving service should something happen.

The post-screw-up situation now is much much better than it would be in a pre-blog world. And I think all parties would agree on that.