Monday, November 26, 2007

Gearheads and junkies: what a scratched lens can do

My first Nikon lens, a 28-105mm ( It was bought brand new and without the scratch)
It didn't sound like anything at all, as much as it sounded like silent fingernails on a blackboard. I saw the scratch and I could actually feel the blood drain from my face. It was my only 'real' lens at the time. Which means that it was the only one that metered, and auto focussed, that Nikon would approve of and which had burned an ugly hole in my grad student size pocket*. Oh my God, what was I going to do? Not much, all my money had leaked out then. I covered the scratch with a black permanent marker (mostly worn off now) and kept making pictures and saving money. Eventually I bought new lenses and other gear. I still use this lens, by the way, although I do contemplate replacing it.

It works, not always, its bad for some situations, notably with on or just off axis light. When I stop it down the scratch has a greater presence in the final image. But mostly it's usable. If I use it less than I should, it's because my stomach still turns at the sight of that scratch. The images below were all made using this lens in this state. So repeat after me, it's-not-the-gear.

*(The other one was just this stupid Minolta 50mm which I reversed with a piece of metal, it never amounted to much that lens, just a few odd unimportant shots.)

A Sausage flower bud

Off at the deep end

Jumping jack flash

Hetropogon grasses
(The flare isn't from the scratch, it's from the lack of a hood, and I actually like it!)

PS: Jumping Jack flash there is Vivek, my labmate. We were having some fun with the empty swimming pool a while back. Anyone who's up for being my guinea pig for experimental shooting, shoot me a line, we'll have some fun.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Wolf snake

Just eye-candy for today. And a link for a photography competition website. Andrew, the webmaster, e-mailed me to let me know about it and thought you would be interested too. He seems to be doing a great job, aggregating the important details upfront for your convenience, especially about how image rights are handled in the competition. Watch out for those alright?

And many many thanks to Brian of Epic Edits for featuring my blog and feed in his feedlist.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The hedgehog, the fox and every modern man's pox

Apologies to Stephen Jay Gould for snicking the title of his excellent book

This day was wonderful for so many reasons, can I have it back please?
Some of you know that I am a graduate student right? I work in the field of animal behaviour now, but my training has been much broader than that and I've studied and done work in several other unrelated fields in biology. I'm not a polymath, but I do have a passing familiarity with a fair bit of biology.

I sat to down to tea with a friend today at the mess and I found a paper lying next to the window. Here's the title of the paper 'A simple reference state makes a significant improvement in near-native selections from structurally refined docking decoys.'

Mallika Sarabai
I had a WTF moment, then V pointed out the name of the journal, it was 'Proteins'. We made a game of it and tried to piece together what the paper might be about, based just on the title. The best we could make of it was a very very hazy idea. To think I've even worked in computational protein biology, albeit a long time ago. Worlds move on, jargon grows, knowledge becomes extremely specialized and inaccessible even to people just outside your sub-specialty. In Frazer's view the evolution of human societies went from magic to religion to science and it seems sometimes to have come full circle again and back to magic. Much of todays science is so technical and narrow that its much beyond the reach of so many, it might as well be magic.

Throwball player
What does this have to do with photography? A bit, I will come to it soon, I promise. Before that let me tell you about the hedgehog and the fox. Many of you might have heard of the adage, "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing". When hunted, foxes apparently try many different tactics to get away from their pursuers. All hedgehogs everywhere, off course, do one single thing, they curl up into a spiny inaccessible ball.

Isaiah Berlin and then others have used the fox and hedgehog analogy to divide writers, scientists, thinkers, etc into these two categories. Those who are fox-like and have multiple approaches, or do many different kinds of things, in whose life multiplicity is key. And those who are hedgehog-like, who dig deep into a single thing or idea and thoroughly study its every aspect. You're either a hedgehog, singular and focused; or a fox, multiple and hence, by implication, superficial. Depth or variety, those seem to be the choices offered.

Here is the modern man's pox. That it has come to this, a choice.

If you want to make the top of the game, given the way it's set up, usually the foxy choice is hard to make. In any field. To reach the top of the game, I might add, not your game. It's also true of photography. Nearly everyone at the very top of the field has a sub-specialisation, they inhabit a very special niche. Portrait photographers, children's portrait photographers, wedding photographers, bird photographers, industrial photographers, foundry parts photographer, automotive parts photographer what have you. Sometimes its not even a reaching the top affair, its a survival affair. I have occasionally felt the desire to go pro. The narrowness sits uneasily with me however. I can't see too many ways around it however.

When I think about where I come to photography from, something in me rebels against this. I am, as it stands, a scientist. I have a little creative instinct somewhere in me, it likes to express itself this way. I have things other than science that I enjoy, that I am passionate about. The reason I shoot is to make myself multiple, multi-dimensional.

The truth be told I am a pretty narrow photographer already. Look at my portfolio. I'm a nature photographer, in fact there are some who think of me as a macro photographer (how I squirm). Thats my hedgehog nature. And its what makes me good (sometimes, even if I say it myself). Nonetheless, every time I find myself stuck, hitting plateaus, in the way I see or shoot, I do one of the following two things. I pack my bag with a single wide lens; a wide right now, because that is what I shoot least. Or I shoot people, something I've always been uneasy with.

Looking at people looking at the image not the thing
Shooting people teaches me a lot about the theater within an image. Shooting wide teaches me a lot about the construction and configuration of elements within images. Both of these types of shooting are unforgiving in their own way, images fail easily. To make them well, I must learn certain basic things, about patience, form, position, timing, etc; these I can apply everywhere. I find growth in any direction, even away from my primary direction, is very satisfying. There's a part of me that knows it will pay off eventually. Every foxy thing I do, I can bring to bear on my hedgehog concerns. I think the Wiki version of the hedgehog and the fox idea codes it a bit wrongly. It's not so much to see the world through a single lens, but to make many lenses bear on the same world.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Friday, November 16, 2007

Form is everything. Content is banal

I quote a friend here. I owe him some of my better conversations, he, like Vivek, knows where the digging is good or maybe even knows how to make any dig good. Questions and answers, a pair like form and content, one over-archingly more important than the other.

I remember watching 'The Thin Red Line', with it's paradisaical travel catalogue frames. Each one a design principle illustration, a telling of the magic of point, line, colour, light, space: filled and otherwise. It was a story told in stills; if nothing had moved I imagined it would still be perfect. (Sontag calls film a series of under-edited images.) I cried and I didn't know why. Reading 'If on a winter's night', shuttling between books that maybe, that may become and readers that maybe and are in books themselves, back and forth between reading and writing and being. When I think of the books I love, and the movies. They all have this simple commonality, a play with form.

I look at my images, the ones I love. They follow a pattern, a structure that is classifiable with little effort. There is a path that my eye follows through the images; not a rigid linear one, more like the meanders each of our lives take, with an internal logic. A path, the logic of the image will compel each one that sees it, to follow. A conversation between what came before and hence what must come next. Even the surprises are planned and the detours mapped. The breaks work because they break expectations. If I do it right, you will see what I want you to see, ignore what I will of you and maybe respond how I would wish. 'If I'm doing my job then it's your resolve that breaks / Because the hook brings you back.'

I care about content, don't get me wrong, I even argued with R. (Unsuccessfully I might add, as always.) I cannot escape narratives, no matter how banal. I have a greed, Byatt's mot juste narrative greed (from another favourite, Possession). It doesn't work without the structure though, It cannot be communicated. It does not stay. A story is in the telling.

An outline shadows each image, an outline of it's elements, the bits and pieces that make it up. The insect here, the warm green bokeh there, negative spaces here, active ones there. Some part of my over active, organising classifying brain is at it before the shutter trips. I work at it, I look, I look and I look. I analyse, I see each image broken down. To forget I must know, I must assimilate and then I can let it go.

Slowly it becomes second nature and I silence the voices. The rule of thirds is distant background hiss and the colour wheel is second nature. I don't think of symmetry or balance or repetition. When the moment comes together, and it does rarely, I've bettered my chances of knowing. Now all I wish for is a camera that snicks rather than crash-bangs.

Monday, November 12, 2007


Mushroom cluster 8th Nov (no 2 in linked post)
Just because you got a good picture of something does not mean it's over. That the thing is done, wrap up your cameras and close the door behind you. There is almost always more to come. Learn to have patience, learn the rewards of return.

Things, particularly living things change, they evolve, they like people display sides of themselves that you've never seen before. You cannot anticipate everything, don't try to. Even the inanimate things, light moves over a familiar surface, moss climbs over it in the rain. Everything changes and you can keep looking and keep learning. Try not to be so wrapped up in shooting that you forget to see.

The same cluster 10th Nov

Many people visit the same places and yet their photographs are not the same. What sets the good apart from the also-rans is the ability to see and break tired ways of seeing, the patience with a subject that cracks it wide open. The good shot you wanted and got in the bag is often the one that has more to do with you and your head than with the subject at hand. Sometimes you need to stare at something stupidly for a while before it begins to speak to you. (It helps an awful lot if its an immobile thing.) Don't be easily satisfied.

More from 10th Nov

IISc green gang: Clean up 2

Some of the folks in this Saturdays clean up
The Green gang revived itself. We sent out a mail last week asking for people who were interested in green issues particularly as regards the IISc campus. We got a few responses, not overwhelmingly large in number but definitely some. Some of the folks who wrote couldn't be there this Saturday, but there's always next time. A big thank you to those who did turn up and participate.

What I'm really hoping for though is to see more students involved in this. A lot of the responses to this little project was from IISc faculty (which is great!), but not as many students as I had hoped (whys that?). Apart from CES students and Satyam, there were no others! (I love my juniors for their candor, by the way, credit where it is due.) I can't believe the rest of the students care so little and take so for granted the place we live in, that we're so complacent. C'mon folks, show a little something, signs of life? Is this why the place is such a mess in the first place?

A discarded chair: was against the wall. Was it being used for unauthorized entry?
We did our first round of cleaning up this Saturday around the GPS and the path in Jubilee. We did do a bit of cleaning along the CPRI wall but really that seemed too much for us to handle by then and by ourselves. That'll need a bigger group and implements. It's smaller than the huge dump I wrote about earlier but bigger than a quick job. And the junk is truly bizarre. There were the inevitable bottles of booze, plastic cups, bottled water bottles and other food type stuff from the CPRI community centre. There were old clothes(!) and a blanket. There was glass tubing of different gauges(?). In the area of the wall near their pump-house, there were car seats, shoes, the usual stuff and ...two chairs. The place is due and ripe for a garbological study.

The two chairs I speak of

There will off course be more coming up soon. Feel free to mail us at the addresses below, to join or even to suggest things that need to be looked into.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The grass is greener

Gray nightjar (possibly the first record from IISc)
Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchSome time ago we had a talk in out department by Prof. Madhusudan Katti from California. He started his career as a birder like me from my hometown of Bombay. If you know Bombay superficially, you'd be amazed that there is any opportunity to bird there at all. But both the sprawling city and it's suburbs actually do have a great deal to offer, from marshlands, to the seaside to the birds in the Borivali national park which sits paradoxically within a city!

Brown Shrike: a winter migrant
His academic interest continues to be urban wildlife and ecology, particularly in the area of reconciliation ecology. His talk was on some quite interesting work which he did recently in Phoenix, Arizona. He and his group were trying to look at the effect that the socio-economics of a neighbourhood have on the biodiversity in a particular area. They were specifically looking at the bird and plant diversity in 49 parks and their neighbourhoods in Phoenix which they then classified into different socioeconomic areas.

Bluethroated flycatcher: another winter migrant
They acknowledge that there are several processes in action which regulate biodiversity in an urban situation, they identify both top-down effects, (effects that flow from the decisions of policy makers to citizens: what trees to plant, how to landscape in public parks, etc ) and bottom-up effects (which flow in the opposite direction usually in personal land-holding). They also acknowledge that these effects might leak across, so given that birds are quite mobile what you see in the parks might have much to do with whats going on in backyards. What they expect is that higher socio-economic groups are making their neighbourhoods more diverse, by planting more diverse plants, possibly having more area to work with. The parks however which are top-down managed shouldn't show such patterns.

Verditer flycatcher: yet another migrant
After having controlled for a host of other possible effects, what they found was just that, socio-economics was good at telling you about plant diversity in neighbourhoods not in parks. But that it was good at telling you about bird diversity in neighbourhoods, but also partly in the parks! This I guess is the leakage effects across the two because of bird mobility. With due caveats about the applicability of a study like this particularly to a country like India, where so little is managed at all, I find this result quite interesting. Being rich means a lot of things, not only does it mean that you have the possibility of a more varied life, but it also means you have a better environment in several ways unthought of before!

For those of my readers who are wildlife shooters and want to shoot in urban environments, make the hike to the parks in the richer areas! There's better pickings there!

Spotted munias: residents
What it also leads me to, is this... In India, at least in the two cities I've lived in, Bombay and Bangalore, the campuses of educational institutes happen to be some of the most biodiverse areas. (Especially when I compare it to the only campus I've been on in the US, the Univ. of Maryland, Baltimore campus, which was nothing to write home about.) In Bombay, the IIT has leopards and jackals on it's campus. I've documented quite a bit of what is here in IISc, Bangalore. I've heard great things about the IIT, Chennai campus as well (Rahul?). So I guess, we live the lifestyles of the rich in our protected little enclaves? Without actually having their incomes, we at least experience some of the benefits of it.

Red avadavat: unknown status
Off course, a little thought tells us we owe it to having top-down management delinked from governmental management. Essentially, someone, somewhere in the history of our institutions had the good sense to think that if we can't offer the money, we might do well to offer the trappings. Think about it, in how many places in Bangalore would kids grow up with trees to climb? With a pool thats 50m long and amidst such beautiful greenery? (How I will miss my swims when I leave!) With a backyard thats essentially 500 acres big. What this also means is that we remain dependent on this wisdom continuing and not being eroded by enticements of 'development' and 'modernization'. Fortunately, since the communities are smaller we are more likely to be able to influence what policies are made as long as we ourselves remain interested and engaged.

PS. Has Blogger been driving everyone nuts with image uploading issues? Or is it just me? It's been a hellish month or so. Images take forever to upload with just too many errors and crashes.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

More mushrooms and my new flashes.

I finally sprung for two SB 600s and I've been having fun playing with my new flashes. I haven't been playing nearly enough though. No competition to these guys from Strobist.

More about how the shots were made here and here.

Ideals and polemics

A Hoopoe threat display, the white in thebackground is plastic
Susan Sontag levels many charges at photography in her essay 'In Plato's cave' in On Photography. Sontag's criticism of photography and this book in particular has apparently had a checkered history, rebuttals and denials and elaborations. Even today, Sontag's name on LS is not a exactly liked. Nonetheless I believe that one has to engage with what she says, think about it and digest it, perhaps eventually deny it. I can't seem to ignore it easily.

Hoopoe foraging
While I was shooting the Hoopoe, one of the things that bothered me a great deal was the plastic that was littering the place. Especially since it got into the backgrounds of my frames and 'screwed' things up. I found myself constantly attempting to find a composition that left out the litter. At some point, I gave up and made a few frames where it was part of the image. It even became the point of the image for me. The image now took on a political message. It's a simple message, that wild animals are forced through our carelessness to root through our filth to get by. That we pollute their environments and that we oughtn't to.

Black headed cuckoo-shrike female with a plastic bird
Both sorts of images were driven by separate notions, one of how an certain image becomes a political/environmental message and one of how animals should be depicted, with no trace of 'the hand of man'. Or at least no obvious visible trace. It's interesting that this particular qualification is actually a requirement in some competitions. The hand of man is an odd concept, while it is overt in a plastic infested image, it isn't necessarily missing elsewhere. Biologists now constantly question and discard the notion of a pristine environment. Leakey and Lewin push our ability to influence biology large scale back to pre-history! So these ideals are not real, they lie within our own sensibilities, (some would argue, evidently, so what?). Well, why is this the mode that dominates wildlife photography? If you doubt this, visit any nature photographers forum, pristine, isolated and completely 'natural' is the dominant visual image. Nothing could be further from reality, so why is the rank and file producing 'idealized' beautiful images? This, off course, is a charge Sontag levels, that animal photographers produce idealized images.

A common myna attempts to use a plastic cup to line her nest
Off course you'd argue that there are people who address this in their photography, and I would concur. Nick Nichols does, a few landscape photographers do. There are the beginnings of this in a few small places, here and there. I'm not qualified to say if it's a trickle or a flood (Indian bookstore's photography sections suck), but it's only just begun. The story of the wild world today is not biology; its conflict, conservation, climate change, what have you.

Or is it? Or is that the merely what is current conversation, what is now happening within our discourse. Has this always been the story? Maybe even the scale of human effects has not really changed that much, we are just closer to our own extinction hence the panic? I admit that this is hard to disentangle. Sontag argues that photographs begin to be there, be viewed, be appreciated and make an impact only in if the political sensibility that guides them already exists. She uses the Korean war and the Vietnam as examples. She argues that the photograph of Kim Phuk from Vietnam was seen and considered outrageous not only because of what was in it but also because the American people were in a certain political mindset. There were many such (maybe not as evocative?) pictures from the Korean war, but since that war was seen as an Us against Them (the commies) that these images did not enter public consciousness (actually not me, I'm Indian, but Sontag was American).

White breasted water hen on floating garbage
And yet people publish the '100 LIFE photographs that changed the world'.
One can't argue that these weren't powerful images. Which came first the chicken or the egg? The sensibility to see and hence react to an image? Or the reaction from the image and hence the sensibility?

When I look at my own images, I am often surprised by how easily they could cut both ways. That one could surmise by seeing a bird among garbage both that it is hindered by it, and that the scene is unpleasant. One could equally well think that it is assisted by it and the existence of garbage does not hurt the bird at all. I, off course, usually feel the first (not second), but this no reason to believe that it is the most common story conveyed.

Blue capped rock thrush among garbage
Are photographs then intrinsically neutral? No, they reify and ascribe value to certain specific things at certain specific times, so not entirely. Maybe that's not the right question. Are they useful on their own to make a certain specific political point. Perhaps not. That then limits a photograph, even photography's scope somewhat. It makes both less free-standing. They become poor polemical devices. It requires photographers to take verbal/written control of their photographs if they are to communicate. (Do read Jim Johnson on Ed Burtynsky 1, 2.)

Not such a hard thing in Web 2.0, but perhaps a new thing for some? And even if we do speak for them, will we be heard. Will the images be taken from what we intend to whatever anyone intends once they are out there? Where's the control to rest, is there control?

Monday, November 05, 2007

Chris Jordan: Conspicuous consumption

The number of plastic bags used in the US in 5 seconds (60x72 ")
How many cellphone models have you had? How many plastic bottles of Coke/Pepsi/etc did you drink and dispose over the last week? How many times did you stop at the coffee kiosk and do you remember where you put your coffee cup? How many print-outs did you take? Were they one-sided? Did you leave the tap running while you brushed your teeth? How many computers have you owned and what happened to the ones you no longer use? Did you go shopping, did you accept plastic bags?

Actual size detail of previous picture
Chris Jordan is an American photographer who's concern is consumption and the scale of it. It seems like a small thing when you see your own waste, but most of us fail to account for the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of people who lead the same lifestyles as us. We fail to account for the size of the problem when do this. Large numbers numb human beings, we cannot process numbers like millions and billions, they are no understandable scale with respect to the ten fingers on our hand. Often to understand them we need the analogy of physical scale. Here is a commonly repeated physical analogy for large time scales:

"Man has been here 32,000 years. That it took a hundred million years to prepare the world for him is proof that that is what it was done for. I suppose it is. I dunno. If the Eiffel tower were now representing the world's age, the skin of paint on the pinnacle-knob at its summit would represent man's share of that age; & anybody would perceive that that skin was what the tower was built for. I reckon they would. I dunno. - Mark Twain"

Chris Jordan's work does exactly this, you see in space what we consume in time and when you consider how much space we occupy, obliterate in how little time hopefully you pause to think. Here is part of his statement, I find it intriguing that he also perceives and worries about the damage to our spirits from this frenzy of consumption:

"The pervasiveness of our consumerism holds a seductive kind of mob mentality. Collectively we are committing a vast and unsustainable act of taking, but we each are anonymous and no one is in charge or accountable for the consequences. I fear that in this process we are doing irreparable harm to our planet and to our individual spirits.- Chris Jordan"

Fifteen minutes of Energizer battery production. Size scaled as if the batteries were depicted at true size.

We, as a country, probably do not yet consume quite as much as the US. But I reckon that in some pockets of Indian society, our consumption levels are as high. With the kind of economic growth that gets much touted in the MSM, some of us are definitely getting there. It is any rate something that many aspire to and that all media now pushes us to aspire to. We need to think about what we're doing. Every time we buy, every time we discard. Can we do without this? Can I use this some more? Do I really need that new shiny thing? Because one day we might be choking on growth.

Recommended viewing: Running the numbers; Intolerable beauty

Friday, November 02, 2007

Dinner fights back

Shikra juvenile with a skink
The classic drive to fight, to try, even when your chances are nearly not there. All I remember from my readings on predator-prey interactions is about the asymmetry in drive. The predator is running for lunch, the prey for it's life.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Quick thank you

Just wanted to say a quick thanks to the Voices, the IISc newsletter for featuring my blog.

For those who are first timers here, I've been sort of walking around campus, taking photographs, a lot over my few years here. I'm quite interested in the wildlife /natural history. I'm also quite interested in photography. This blog contains a lot of both.

The archive go back as far as 2005, please dig through them if you enjoy what you see. Theres a bit of an image-outage on some of the posts, which I will fix eventually. If theres anything specific that you'd like to know or see (that I might know about/have), let me know, I'll try and post about it. Have fun. Thanks for stopping by.