30 November 2010

22 November 2010

Moon over Walgreens [Payson 15/52]

I love this photo. I grabbed it out of my car window while waiting for a green light. The caption on the sign was serendipity. I didn't even notice it when I shot it.

Moon over Walgreens [Payson 15/52]

And Forgotten Shoes just passed 300 views on Flikr. What a trip.

17 November 2010

Photo Contest Photo Contested

I'd actually love to judge a photo contest, but I don't have thick enough skin. And you need it, because while there is no disputing matters of taste, everyone will dispute your taste. There are no good or bad photos, it seems, just good or bad judges.

I think anyone who is foolish enough to host a photo contest gets what they deserve, and the British Journal of Photography was given both barrels this past week for the winning image they selected for the single image category of their International Photography Award:

Man asleep on the Golden Mile, Durban, South Africa, by Michelle Sank

There are dozens of negative comments posted in response to the original BJP announcement and their subsequent defense of their choice. Their basic defense is that this image "defies simple photographic convention" and challenges the viewer. In saying that it "defies simple photographic convention," what they actually mean (I think) is that it's technically unimpressive and ambiguous. That is certainly the critical consensus.

Being unconventional might or might be a virtue for the judges. Commentators and bloggers have effectively said it is in fact very conventional, a conventionally unsuccessful photo. A prizewinning photograph, they say, especially outside of a body of work, has to provide its own context to be intelligible. It does that both by choice of subject and its technical execution. And ambiguity is not necessarily polyvalence or depth. A photo that can communicate anything communicates nothing. The original announcement called this a striking "image of poverty," but that was later revised because there is nothing to indicate that the subject is a poor person (the photographer indicated otherwise). The subsequent defense, by one of the judges, makes this lack of clarity about the subject a virtue.
He says, it "challenged my assumptions about photography." Critics say it certainly challenges assumptions about good photography, if we were to all agree this is good.

Much of this furor is just a collision between artworld and realworld. The judge's comments make this plain enough. But few photographers are interested in artworld photography and its frequent eschewal of traditional photographic values. And after all, this photo was given a photography award by a photography magazine, not an art award by an art magazine. No sane editor could present this to a body of photography enthusiasts and expect a positive response. I don't think it succeeds even as art. I expect the panel of judges were photographers trying to select something that looked like artworld art, not artworlders who happened to settle upon this photograph.

Though maybe this is just another referendum on the futility of photo contests. As one commenter says, "This is why photography contests, in general, are quite stupid. . . . On the one hand you get judges who get their jollies from picking bland and impenetrable pictures and on the other, literalist morons (see this comment thread) who can understand postcard shots but not much more. In the end, no one comes out ahead."

14 November 2010

10 November 2010

Ten Great Recordings (Pt. 2)

I'm listening right now to a 1959 recording of bassist Oscar Pettiford, Vienna Blues. It sounds more pristine than probably 99% of the pop and rock recorded and released this year. When I first started listening to jazz, I found it incredible that music recorded in the 50s could sound better than most music released today. The 50s and 60s were a gilded age for recording, a combination of great studios, great engineers, great taste, and surprisingly great technology. So at least one reissue from that age of legend needs to be included here.

Miles Davis, Kind of Blue (1992 Mastersound Gold CD) [SBM CK64403] - This 1959 recording is the #1 jazz album of all time. It was recorded at the famous Columbia 30th Street Studio in New York, a former church with the best recording acoustics of any studio, ever. It's been issued in an endless stream of editions, but this release is the first to fix a pitch issue that affected side one. The primary 3-track tape machine that they used to record it was running slightly fast during the side-one session. This Mastersound Gold CD was the first edition that used an alternate, correct-speed side-one master (the "safety" master), which had been lost since before 1984. It is expensive and rare, but the most recent 2009 Legacy edition, easily found, is also very good. This 2009 reissue is based on a 1997 remaster, which used an original vintage deck for the transfer, and has been much praised. It's warmer, more analogue, and has less stereo separation, and also less bite. But I personally think 1992 Gold release is the best there is. It sounds like you're right in the session.

Dayna Kurtz, Another Black Feather (2006) - A new discovery, this is a great album of eclectic Americana from a brilliant but obscure artist. A reviewer of an earlier Kurtz album lamented, "there's no logical reason why singer-songwriter Dayna Kurtz is not a full-blown star." It seems like the smaller the label and more obscure the artist, the better the sound quality of the album. Forget the majors; support the indies.

Nirvana, Nevermind (1991) - My blog's name comes from a Nirvana lyric, but I have to mention them in this list due to the great production of their records. Nevermind was produced by Butch Vig, mixed by Andy Wallace, and mastered by Howie Weinberg. Weinberg did the mastering all by himself. Given a free hand, he could do, and did do, superlative work. Instrument separation is superb, the guitars crunch, the bass has grunt, the drums hit hard. This is what rock should sound like. Nirvana's next (and last) studio album, In Utero (1993), was produced by enfant terrible producer Steve Albini, whose records are always technical gems. Rounding out a trifecta of recording excellence, Nirvana's MTV Unplugged (1994) is as beautiful and shiny as really depressing music can be. When "Polly" starts, you feel just like you're sitting with Curt, Krist and Dave right there on stage.

ZZ Top, Tres Hombres (1973) [2006 remaster] - ZZ Top's back catalog has been rereleased in really excellent remasters. This is no small thing, since most rock remasters are worse than the original issues, due to loudness war compression aggression. But the vinyl remaster of Tres Hombres was done By Steve Hoffman and the CD remaster by Bob Ludwig. These are two of the best mastering engineers in the business. The vinyl is said to be a bit more dynamic than the CD, but the CD/digital version is still very good. This great reissue is partly an act of penance, since all previous CD issues are based on an early digital remaster that was really heinous. "La Grange" has never sounded better or boogied harder.

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Mojo (2010) - This is Petty's first Heartbreakers album in eight years, and was worth the wait. I'd singled this out for inclusion here based the fact that it's been released in CD and vinyl, naturally, but also in downloadable 24/48 hi-res audio format. The CD is, sadly, a victim of loudness war compression, but the vinyl and hi-res digital are pristine. One of the reasons for this, it turns out, is that the tracks were recorded live in the Heartbreakers' rehearsal space. No studio slicing and dicing. Live recording rules.

Bonus: Sam Cooke at the Copa (1964) [2003 remaster] - A reviewer in The Absolute Sound (Oct/Nov 2003, 139-40) said this may be the most realistic recording of the human voice he had ever heard. Restored by Steve Rosenthal and mastered by the great Bob Ludwig. The SACD in 5.1 surround is said to be astonishing, but even the standard CD/digital release is very good. This was recorded before I was born, but I put on my 'phones and I'm right there. Reminds me of an anecdote. A passerby at an audio show asked a rep how much a certain turntable was. "$25,000." "Wow, that seems a bit expensive for a record player." An audiophile standing nearby replies, "But that's really cheap for a time machine."

09 November 2010

Ten Great Recordings (Pt. 1)

Right now I'm listening to a live CD by Patricia Barber, Companion (1999). My hair is standing on end. This is an audiophile recording, captured with 32 mics by a very talented sound engineer, Jim Anderson. Even on my decent-but-modest headphone rig, it sounds like I'm sitting right at the stage. I can occasionally hear a glass clink behind me in the audience. It's completely immersive.

Every time I listen to a recording like this, I wonder why most recordings, on a technical level, fail to sound even half as good. Live recordings often sound much better than studio recordings, benefiting from less slicing, dicing and production. So there is that. I've already discussed the loudness war. The producer's tastes and engineers' competence also have much to do with it. And sometimes magic just happens. Usually it doesn't.

I treasure like rare and shiny seashells albums that transcend the disappointing average. I wish I liked classical music more, because recording standards for classical are generally very high. But I couldn't recommend a single classical recording. Jazz recordings likewise are often engineered to very high standards, and I like jazz. Pop and rock are very hit or miss, mostly miss. Metal is a complete write-off.

Part of the problem is that very dense music, like rock or metal, fills up too much sonic space to permit rich dynamics. Jazz, folk, and even country breathes in a way heavier music just cannot. So the following selection of sonically great albums is necessarily skewed to "light" music. I also avoid rare stuff (MFSL, Japanese SHM-CD releases, etc.). Most of these are easily found on Zune, my preferred music service, or of course iTunes.

Melody Gardot, Worrisome Heart (2008) - This first album by breakout jazz artist Melody Gardot is not only beautifully recorded and mastered, it's simply beautiful. One of my favorite albums, period. Her 2009 sophomore offering, My One And Only Thrill, is also excellent in all respects, but not quite as intimate, using full orchestration.

Jenny Lewis, Acid Tongue (2008) - This second album from Rilo Kiley frontwoman Jenny Lewis is another personal all-time favorite. The album would be brilliant no matter how badly produced, but the recording and mastering may be the best you will ever hear on a rock album. When the chorus comes in on the title track, I guarantee you will get chills. The stereo mastering is almost binaural. It sounds like you're standing right in the studio with them.

Rebecca Pidgeon, Retrospective (2003) - This "Best of" compilation was issued by Chesky as a Hybrid SACD, meaning it has both CD and SACD layers. It is an audiophile disc and tracks from it are found are various audiophile sampler CDs. I find the disc a little uneven, but the best tracks ("Spanish Harlem," "Auld Lang Syne") are a delight. All of Pidgeon's recordings are very well engineered.

Brad Paisley, Time Well Wasted (2005) - This has been praised as one of Paisley's best albums, with especially strong songwriting. I wanted to include at least one country album here, and the recording and production work on Time Well Wasted is quite good. The instrumental break "Time Warp," for example, is dense but shows great instrument separation and placement, and sparkling dynamics. I think country music is typically less abused in mastering that pop and rock, where producers just want it LOUD LOUD LOUD.

Andrew Bird - Noble Beast (Deluxe Edition) (2009) - Andrew Bird is one of the most talented musicians that almost no one has ever heard of. One reviewer described him as a "hyper-literate singer/songwriter, genre-bending violin player, and peerless whistler." I saw him first on Austin City Limits and he blew me away. This a great album and well produced.

07 November 2010

Just Too Loud

Much contemporary recorded music sounds absolutely awful, and it has nothing to do with the music itself. The recording industry has been waging amongst itself a loudness war. You may have noticed that of you play an older CD next to a newer CD, the older CD is much quieter. You have to turn up the volume, sometimes quite a lot, to hear it. Louder is not better; it's the sound of war.

All recorded music has a fixed dynamic range, the volume difference between the loudest and the softest sounds. The reason new CDs sound louder is because they are mastered very "hot." All sounds are pushed to be as loud as possible by compressing the dynamic range, even to the pointing of clipping or distorting it. This is sometimes called "brickwalling" since it turns the sound wave into a solid brick of noise.

When everything is made loud, the music sounds flat and harsh, and it's extremely fatiguing to listen to. I suffered from this auditory fatigue for years, listening to newer music, but had no idea what I was experiencing. I just knew there was music I liked that I couldn't stand to listen to for long at all. When I was first made aware of the loudness war, it floored me. Record labels are purposely mastering their music to be unlistenable. For the love heaven, why?

The theory behind all this is that the songs that "jump out" at the listener when they come on the radio, or Pandora, or in iTunes samples, will be the ones they like the most and buy. This is driven purely by marketing. The labels could care less about the music. They have always pushed loudness, but older technologies were prohibitive. With vinyl records, the needle will jump out of the groove if it's mastered too hot. This is one reason why contemporary albums that are released in both vinyl and digital formats sound much better on vinyl. The vinyl is mastered, necessarily, with a lot more dynamic range.

Fortunately, the loudness war has gotten increasing negative press in recent years [1, 2, 3, 4, 5] and Greg Milner's excellent book Perfecting Sound Forever has a great chapter on it. Rank and file fans are slowly becoming aware of it. There was quite an uproar in 2008 when Metallica's Death Magnetic was released. The CD version was mastered insanely hot, but the version used for Guitar Hero was an alternative master (or pre-master) that was much less dynamically compressed. The difference is easy to see and hear, and almost 22,000 fans petitioned for a remaster of the CD. The producers defended their work, refusing to remaster, and most fans probably just ended up torrenting a copy of the Guitar Hero version.

For all this, I don't know that things are changing that much. Most listeners could care less how bad something sounds. Blasted out of crappy computer speakers or throwaway earbuds, everything sounds tinny and clipped anyway. I can still listen to some brickwalled music in small doses, but I'm attracted far more to music that is well recorded and mastered. This has actually shaped my tastes. More on good recordings next post.

06 November 2010

05 November 2010

Shoe Fetishists

When I took the picture below of some kid's shoes at a playground, I knew it was a good photo, though I didn't even bother getting off my bike to shoot it. It was just a little found gem, no effort required. After I posted it in August, it was noticed by a group admin on Flickr and invited into a Lost Shoes pool. It was my first pool invite and I was flattered.

But tonight that same photo has just passed 200 views, meaning, over 200 people have seen the thumb and pulled up the full-size image for viewing. It's like having 200 people bump into one of your blog posts and actually bother to read it. This is huge, for me. My next most viewed photo has just 24 views. So I confess, I'm really feeling the love.

Forgotten Shoes [Payson 3/52]

03 November 2010

Sometimes You Get What You Pay For

As I mentioned the other week, I've dug around a time or two in the camera bin at the local goodwill looking for toy cameras. Most of the bin cameras are point-and-shoots dating from the 80s and 90s. Most probably don't work (there's no way of knowing) and are only fit for recycling. But some of them, for what they are, were the best of their kind in their day. I bought one such and ran a roll through it.

Olympus Stylus Epic Zoom 80
Olympus Stylus Epic Zoom 80

I had almost this exact camera years ago. Many of the early photos of my daughter were shot with it, so I picked this specimen up partly out of nostalgia. As you see, I paid $3 for it. The battery to run it cost twice that. Most of these cameras run on CR123A or CR2 batteries. Add in film and they were not cheap to run, but they were very advanced cameras. Multi-element glass lens, excellent autofocus and metering, auto DX (ISO) sensing, auto film advance (auto everything, in fact), and a very smart clamshell design. It would have been at least $200 new. These were produced right up until just ten years ago or less. Digital killed this little guy before his time.

Everything works on it, but the lens suffers from some kind of horrific flare. This is not normal. I'm guessing one of the internal lens elements has come loose. The photos still come out decent, if you can ignore the flare. But you can't. In most photos, it's just awful.

Sometimes cheap or defective cameras produce photos that are so bad they're good, but that's not the case here. I just got what I paid for. Junk. It's headed back to recycling.

No Parking

Driving for Jesus

Orange Cruiser

01 November 2010

The Resistance

Jeffery Goldberg's account of the new TSA security pat-down procedures had me gasping with laughter one minute and sputtering with indignation the next. The TSA has introduced more invasive pat-downs for people opting out of their irradiating, genital-imaging full-body scans, primarily, it seems, to induce them to submit to the scanning. All of which, as Goldberg shows elsewhere, is pointless "security theater." You have to give it up for Goldberg. Bluffing your way through TSA security with a fake boarding pass, wearing a Bin Laden t-shirt, just to show how pointless this grossly expensive and personally humiliating system is? Gonzo, man.