26 September 2010

23 September 2010

Kindle in the House

In an interesting turnabout, Tani has become the new technophile in our house. First she bought a new Zune HD, then a very swish new computer, and this past week she got herself a Kindle. As for me, I mostly listen to an old hand-me-down ipod nano, my computer is an ugly beige retro-tower from the 90s, and I'm buying and reading more old-fashioned tree-based books than I have for years.

And honestly, I don't want a Kindle. No interest at all. First, I'm no longer willing to pay just to read something. I read on the internet for free constantly. I read books at my university for free constantly. So I've become unwilling to pay for words just to read them. Words are so plentiful and cheap that I can no longer see in them any economic value. And in fact, there is almost nothing I could possibly purchase on the Kindle that I could not get for free by other means. I see Kindle book purchases as the buying of a convenience, and for a mere convenience, the price per unit is far too high.

My second issue with the Kindle is that I read from a screen continuously. I spend more time "interacting" with words on a screen than I do with human beings by a ratio of probably 10 to 1. That's a conservative guess, and I'm really not joking. And I regard it as a sterile and numbing activity, an activity demanded by necessity. If I could sustain employment and feed my interests through purely analog means, that would be my strong preference. But books are just too inefficient to fill most informational needs. I'm surrounded by several hundred books in my office all day every day, and rarely is one taken off the shelf. Internet resources have long surpassed their academic utility, and that makes me very sad.

My need for analog is one reason why I've been buying paper books lately. No surprise, mostly I buy and read books of photography or on photography. As I've written (here, here, here), the printing of photographic images has reached such a peak of high art that it can now approximate a photographic print. Viewing such books is an intensely aesthetic experience and, by extension, owning them feels like collecting art. It is collecting art, but very often at pulp paperback prices. I still don't know how, economically, one can buy a $50 coffee-table book, new in shrinkwrap, for $5. But it thrills me.

Most surprising to me is that I now find my experience of reading an analog book much more immersive than I ever remember it being. Maybe I've just forgotten, or maybe I'm at a different place in life. It's not just that I lose myself more completely in the book. I swear I feel a more intense connection to the content, the characters, the ideas than I do when reading on screen. Books and LCDs convey information equally well, but I find I have a relationship with print that I do not have with pixels.

Maybe I am just an analog man, but I think there is something more universal to it. There is an impressive revival in vinyl record sales, now at their highest point in 20 years. Even tape cassettes are coming back. Film photography is not only surviving, but is rebounding in some segments. Kodak even just released a new film emulsion. This is not being driven by oldsters, but youngsters, who are rediscovering the joy of analog. The limits of analog are seen as creative constraints and lovable idiosyncrasies. Analog's defects, often inherent in its materiality, also make it personable, something capable of being loved.

Producer and artist Brian Eno touched on the reason for this in an article some years ago in Wired. He is speaking specifically of artistic tools, but the principles here are more general:

    With tools, we crave intimacy. This appetite for emotional resonance explains why users - when given a choice - prefer deep rapport over endless options. You can't have a relationship with a device whose limits are unknown to you, because without limits it keeps becoming something else. . . .
    This is the revenge of traditional media. Even the "weaknesses" or the limits of these tools become part of the vocabulary of culture. I'm thinking of such stuff as Marshall guitar amps and black-and-white film - what was once thought most undesirable about these tools became their cherished trademark.
    Since so much of our experience is mediated in some way or another, we have deep sensitivities to the signatures of different media. Artists play with these sensitivities, digesting the new and shifting the old. In the end, the characteristic forms of a tool's or medium's distortion, of its weakness and limitations, become sources of emotional meaning and intimacy.
    Although designers continue to dream of "transparency" - technologies that just do their job without making their presence felt - both creators and audiences actually like technologies with "personality." A personality is something with which you can have a relationship. Which is why people return to pencils, violins, and the same three guitar chords.

21 September 2010

Pepper Run

The trunk of our car. This is how dissertations get written. Well, being Mormon, how mine is getting written. Everyone else uses gallons of coffee. The pillow and blanket? For crashing on the floor of my office when the caffeine doesn't work.

Who would want to do this?

[Revision of a much less coherent post written at 3:00AM. Sorry about that.]

18 September 2010

American Mutton [Payson 6/52]

I saw this sheep randomly grazing lawns on Main St. in Elberta (pop. 278) as I was driving through last week. The whole town is a little American Gothic. The wandering lambmower honestly didn't look too out of place. It may in fact be employed by the city to trim the verge. I did mention this was Elberta.

American Mutton [Payson 6/52]

11 September 2010

Aspen Stand [Payson 5/52]

Tani and I drove to the top of the scenic byway above our house one evening last week, just for some high mountain air. We rarely do it. The sun was very low, setting on the aspens. We talked about retirement.

Aspen Stand [Payson 5/52]

08 September 2010

6x6 Chromes

Film has of course been almost entirely replaced by digital. I own a half-dozen 35mm film cameras and have doubted I will ever use them again. For a while I thought it would be fun to set up a wet darkroom to develop and print b&w film. But although developing film is easy, darkroom printing is a difficult and mysterious art. Lifetimes are spent mastering the craft. And every experiment costs you money. This is why most people who still shoot film scan it and print digitally. Easier, cheaper, and generally better results. And even a shoot-to-scan workflow makes little sense, unless you are going after a certain film look, since it's a major expense and hassle. Sheesh, just shoot digital and be done.

But lately I've been looking at film from another perspective, valuing a different outcome. Most film uses a negative emulsion (whence, "negatives"), with reversed colors and tones. They are "unreversed" when enlarged and made into prints. Most film is negative film because it's easy to shoot (wide exposure tolerances) and easy/cheap to print.

But there is also positive, or transparency film. Transparencies are also sometimes called slides or chromes (from Kodachrome). These are not normally made to print but to project or scan. Set on a lightbox, they kind of look like luminous little prints but differ from prints in two respects. The resolution of the image is much, much higher, with very dense and fine detail. And also, because the image is projected with transmitted light (through the back) rather than using reflected light (like a print), colors and tones are much more vivid and the light in the picture looks luscious and syrupy. A lot of photographers regard chromes, even apart from the images they reproduce, as art objects.

6x6 chrome of a 35mm chrome

Some artists have taken transparencies to the next level by producing huge, even life-size transparencies, which they mount on light boxes for display. The first and most famous "luminist" is Jeff Wall, who started doing it in the late 70s. At the time it must have blown viewers away, and still they are very impressive. But today we're probably a little jaded to the beauty of transparencies because we're very used to viewing transmitted-light images. That's what computer monitors produce, even if at a fraction the resolution of chromes.

From left: 4x5, 8x10, 35mm (upper right), 6x12cm (?) (lower right)

Most people my age (40+) have probably seen 35mm film slides and I doubt it took your breath away. Too small. But I've seen large format 8"x10" transparencies, and they are stunning. Unfortunately, they take a giant view camera to expose and each exposure will cost you about $20 in film and developing. 4"x5" transparencies are also pretty impressive, but still cost about $6-7 a shot.

But medium format 6x6cm film isn't so bad, about $1.80 a shot. I could almost afford that, and I think the transparencies are just large enough to enjoy even without a magnifying loupe. 6x6 film is about 3.6x larger than 35mm. Still a bit smallish, but far less squinting required.

Slide madness
6x6 chromes

As I said, I have a number of 35mm cameras, but also one medium format, a Mamiya C3. It's a massive twin lens reflex (TLR) camera that my dad gave me. All TLRs are substantial, but this one's a real brick. If you drop it, don't worry about the camera, but look out for your toes. I've never used it, but I'm sure dad paid quite a lot for it, back in the day. I think it will need a service before it is ready for action, but it will certainly shoot 6x6 chromes just fine.

But $100 for the service, $30 for a cheapo light meter, then film and developing. Yeah, that first roll won't be cheap.

05 September 2010

Towers [Payson 4/52]

Coming home just as the sun was dropping behind West Mountain, I dove off the highway and cast about for anything worth shooting. I tried for the water treatment plant, but no good angles. So I turned around and started working some industrial towers. Geneva Rock and Concrete, I think. Three minutes of light left. Any light. Some quick clicks.

When I got them into PhotoShop, I thought I had nothing. Then I went a bit medieval on contrast and tone curves and hues, noise layer added to fight banding, and, surprisingly, out came something I liked. The weather towers at center, up on West Mountain, really cannot be seen in the straight photo, but in silhouette they are pronounced and important to the picture. So in it goes at week 4.

Towers [Payson 4/52]

01 September 2010

The White Stripes

Most music criticism employs an absurd amount of comparison. So band X is "picking up the Minutemen math-punk thread" but with "screaming MC5 guitars," but can also sound "like a Krautrock Soft Machine" or even "Devendra Banhart piloting Little Feat." (From an actual review.) I'm not going to pretend I'll avoid this. That would be a practical impossibility, because comparison is vital to description. But I want here to start with a band that, for me, is a rock reference point so pure it almost abolishes prior art.

I first heard the White Stripes about five years ago, four albums into their career. I was just getting back into rock after a hiatus. I'd never gotten past the death of grunge or seriously listened to any rock post-Soundgarden. And being old, I didn't have friends exposing me to anything new. I don't recall how I even came across the White Stripes, but I put on their first album, and when it started into "Jimmy the Exploder," I felt like I was just hearing rock 'n roll for the first time. But that sounds quaint. Let me rephrase: It slagged my brain and I've never recovered.

The White Stripes - Jimmy the Exploder

The first two White Stripes albums (The White Stripes and De Stijl) sound like some impossibly successful sound lab experiment to reduce rock to its purest essence. Not in the sense of purely formulaic—it's actually really quirky—but pure in its effects. Those albums communicate to me the raw electricity that rock should communicate. The first one is certainly the purest, and Jack White apparently thinks as much, too: "I still feel we've never topped our first album. It's the most raw, the most powerful, and the most Detroit-sounding record we've made." Subsequent albums are good, but on the whole, decreasingly good. The problem is you can't get purer than pure.

The White Stripes is a two-piece drum and guitar duo, Jack and Meg White. (Apparently once married, though they deny it.) Meg pounds out time on her large tom with ferocious concentration, and Jack lays down raw guitar and vocals over the top. Jack White's influences are Dylan, the Stones, punk, country, and who knows what else, but he's first of all a blues-rock guitarist. Quoth Jack, "I wouldn't trust anyone who didn't love Led Zeppelin." But he's also a devotee of original Delta and Detroit blues, especially Son House, whom he covers with "Death Letter" (on De Stijl), the most electrifying blues track I've ever heard.

I think Jack White is a musical genius. That means at his best there is none better, but also that he is highly restless and erratic. His more recent ensemble experiments with the Raconteurs and the Dead Weather are not especially good. The Raconteurs made a lot of sense, really. Combine Jack White with the superb Greenhornes and you should have jam on toast. But the sum is clearly not equal to its parts.

The White Stripes are often called "garage rock" because of their raw, lo-fi sound, and they became the engine of a garage rock revival centered on Detroit. But I'd call them primal rock, what rock sounds like when it's all talent and instinct and energy, and no production. A lot of rock bands go for that sound, of course, but few succeed. There is no formula here, just eccentric genius. That rare spark was brilliantly visualized by an equally eccentric genius, French director Michel Gondry, who directed the video for "Hardest Button to Button." Best. Video. Ever. (Though you may need Dramamine.)

Bonus content: The Making of.