25 February 2011

Color or B/W? (Part 2)

[Part 2 of 3 in a series exploring the choice photographera have to make between shooting in color and black and white. Part 1 highlighted some of the strengths of b/w.]

Part 2: Color Works

Photography really developed into an art form in the days before color film. So when color became more prevalent beginning around the middle of the 20th century, there was still a hold-over...um...snobbery about it from art photographers. Color was deemed fine for “snap shots” and “commercial work” such as magazine advertising.* But it wasn’t art. (That’s the nutshell version of part 1 of Color Magazine’s history of color photography.) Maybe this prejudice was a little like that of, say, painters toward illustrators such as Norman Rockwell and even comic strip — whoops, I mean graphic fiction artists.

But for photography, that’s changed, with good reason. Each approach — color and b/w — has distinct advantages in art photography. Black and white allows the photographer to emphasize lightness/darkness contrasts, patterns, and shape and light without the distraction of other colors or differently colored elements in the frame. It also helps a photographer create a range of darker moods and reflective emotions.

The advantage of color is, well, the colors. This should be clear without further comment in the before-and-afters below.
Most of us see the world in color. Many have experienced a sort of squeezed-chest joy at the utter brilliance of a sunset, an autumn tree, or some other color extravaganza the world can throw at us. Color photography allows the viewer to go: “Wow! Reality's amazing!”

The art of color art photography, then, comes in presenting a slice of reality — I like to think of excerpting the world — in an artistic way (say, through compositional elements). At least, that’s my take on it.

Here are a few color excerpts to enjoy:
The final installment in this series will consider some images that work well in both color and black and white, and why that is.

* We came on a trove of People magazines from the mid-1980s and early 1990s. It’s hard to believe now, but most of the images in these magazines were in black and white! Only the covers and inside advertisements were printed in color.

24 February 2011

Thnkg abt abbrv's

In thinking about writing about thinking about words, it occurs to me it might be useful to readers of this blog to have a permanently available, running list of abbreviations used in describing word origins and histories. I’ve already used some of these in copy/pasting from the Online Etymology Dictionary, and will continue to do so.

So here it is... I’ll update this document as I use or paste in more abbreviations in subsequent entries. This abbreviation list will live permanently as the second link in the “About This Blog” section.

20 February 2011

Where Do Shriners Come From?

So I was running through the woods somewhere and my thoughts hit on a random word and started playing with it. The word this particular time was Shriner, as in the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine. Otherwise known to many in the U.S. as the guys who wear red fez hats, ride miniature cars in parades, and have their own circuses. Not for the first time I wondered what shrine has to do with this fraternity. Since I didn’t have access to my OED there in the woods, I had to come up with something.

Then it occurred to me... The Freemasons supposedly take their origins from medieval European guilds of stone masons. So what? Well, in German, a Schreiner is a “carpenter” or “cabinet maker”. Seems plausible. If stone masons are at the foundation of Freemasonry, why not carpenters at the foundation of Shriners?

However, this might be one of those cases of inventing connections where they don’t really exist. Wikipedia* here shows nothing to do with carpenters or other medieval guilds. In fact, the Shriners’ mystic shrine seems like it might have been invented out of thin air to satisfy the needs of the moment: creating a fraternal order for fun and fellowship (in 1870...another case against medieval origins).

But I’m not giving up. I haven’t found the German etymology of Schreiner yet, but I do know that a shrine, like in a temple, is Schrein in German. So I checked my OED and found the following for
shrine (n.): O.E. scrin "ark of the covenant, case for relics," from L. scrinium "case or box for keeping papers," of unknown origin.
One online etymology dictionary isn’t the final authority, of course. In this case, that’s a good thing, because I’d suggest that the unknown origin of shrine above might have something to do with building cabinets or wooden cases to hold something special. When I find the etymology of German Schrein, I won’t be surprised if there’s a connection to that same Latin scrinium.

Oh — one more thing. The Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine was started among members of the Masons in England. To be a Shriner, you have first to be a Mason. The plot thickens...

* Now’s as good a time as any to highlight that I do not look to Wikipedia as the ultimate authority of what is and what should never be. However, it’s a most excellent first stop to learn about something. I include the Wikipedia links in order to “cite sources” and provide readers a jumping off point to explore further. Same holds for my OED, which is just one among many etymological resources for English words.

19 February 2011

Since this blog celebrates words..."Daddyjuice"

I have to say, one of the best things about having kids is to see and hear them work out language. I may inflict on — whoops — regale you some time later with some of my own daughters' inventions, but for now I'd just like to send you over to Beta Dad, who's discovered how wise his adorable twins are.

One of them coined the awesome term Daddyjuice to designate Beta Dad's favorite libations: beer and coffee. Check it out here. And while you're there, enjoy the rest of his writing, too. I do so often, with my own favorite Daddyjuice from Scotland.

Color or Black and White? (Part 1)

Shoot in color or black and white?

It used to be — and still is for some photographers — you had to choose whether to shoot in black and white or in color. The photographer exercised the choice in one of two ways. Either 1) shoot up a roll of color or b/w film, then load a roll b/w or color film to change; or 2) shoot with more than one camera, each loaded with different film. When I started out in the early 1980s, I mostly went with option one, which for some reason had the effect of making me shoot predominantly in one or the other mode for long periods. For a brief time when I had only myself to spend my money on, I had two cameras: a Pentax K-1000 and a Canon AE-1, each with its own lenses.* I felt like a National Geographic pro, with two cameras dangling from my neck as I shot my way around the lovely Monterey Peninsula, camping under cypresses in the rain.

Digital changed that either/or situation. Now, you can choose a setting in the camera, and you just start shooting in b/w or color. Or, and this is what I do,
shoot everything in color and then process it on the computer as black and white or color.** The benefits of this approach are that, even if you finalize it as a b/w image, you always have the original, full-color image, and you can even play around in Photoshop to make a hybrid image.

But you still have to choose what the final image will be, and that’s what this 3-part series is about.

I’m no pro. Though I’m working on it, I’m unschooled on most of the history and practitioners of photography. But for now I’ve concluded three things. For me: 1) some images just work better in black and white; 2) some in color; and 3) some work well in both. (I know! Who needs to study this stuff?)

This series considers each of those momentous conclusions above, using before-and-after examples from my own photography, and considers why I made the decisions I did. Of course, there’s no accounting for taste. One person could easily prefer the color version where I prefer the b/w, or the other way around. I hope not, but I admit it’s possible not everyone shares my impeccable sense of taste. But I hope in this series to at least convince you of the logic for the choices I’ve made.

Part 1 of 3: Better in Black and White

How do I decide? What are the factors I consider? There are a number of answers. The most obvious one is that when I look around, there are some things I simply “see” as b/w images. I’ve tried to analyze how that happens, and I think it mostly has to do with mood — whether my own at the time of shooting or more often the location or image subject. Unsurprisingly, black and white accentuates contrasts, creating a stark mood. In that vein, the following image works for me better in b/w.

What I'm looking for from the image above is a cold, skeletal feeling, like paring back the flesh of the summer and autumn to make way for coming winter. The color image is nice, but the transparency of the leaves on top of each other, their veins, and the structural delicacy come through better in b/w.

The following image doesn’t work for me at all in color. It’s an example of “seeing” it in black and white in my head as I was looking around during a country walk. The reason I crouched in the mud to get this shot was specifically the contrast of the foreground blades in shadow with the bright background. My vision of it was confirmed when I got the image big on my computer. If you click on the image, you’ll see better what I mean. In the color version, the green nearly drowns out the contrast, as well as introducing a distracting brown from the mud in the middle ground. In b/w, you get contrast. (I should have cropped the left edge a bit, and will likely do so if I turn it into a print.)

Field Edge
Some images look good in both, for whatever reasons, but one or the other doesn’t convey what I was aiming for with a shot. The following image is an example of such a situation. In the color version, the fading sunlight provides a dramatic speckling of blue sky amid the evening clouds. I opted for the b/w version, however, since my intention was to show an imposing, imperious government building. The title of this image is “Ministry of Intimidation”, and the color version just doesn’t get that across like the b/w.

Ministry of Intimidation

Finally, as noted, a particular strength of black and white is the accentuation of contrasts. Nowhere does this come out more clearly than in patterns and decontextualization of shapes. I was fortunate in the following image while playing around with framing and the choice of color or b/w. I really liked the color version. It had three of the magic ingredients I look for (see this post). But when I started looking at it on the computer in black and white, those ingredients jumped out and grabbed my face. Returning to the color version, I found it weak, with the earthy colors kind of nullifying each other and dragging the whole thing down, as compared with the stark emphasis on pattern and shape that jumps out of the b/w version.

Stuttgart Train Station

Part 2 will look at why certain images work better in color than in b/w. You can probably imagine some of the reasons. But seeing the difference will show you how big a deal it can be.

* Still have that K-1000. Bought it used in 1984 for 50 bucks. It’s traveled all around with me, been banana juiced, beach sanded, and internationally banged around — and still takes great shots.

** Note: I’m not qualified to enter the debate of the benefits of “wet-film” black and white versus digital black and white photography.

15 February 2011

Thinking about Thanking: Gratitude from West to East

I feel fortunate to be exposed every day to numerous foreign languages. One, I live in Europe (Germany, to be precise); if I drive a few hours in almost any direction I'm in some other country. Two, in my work we deal with many foreign countries. Two and a half, I’m married to someone from another country than my own. And three, as a result of one, two, and two and a half, we tend also to socialize with people who speak more than one language. For an eager wordie like me, this is maybe like a foodie getting a free shopping spree at Whole Foods.

You might know — or at least you might have heard — that most of the languages of modern Europe are related, through that wondrous tree called the Indo-European language family (a little foreshadowing: you can expect to hear more about this tree). But you might not have thought about how those relations are manifested.

So as an illustration, let's follow a simple grateful thought from west to east, retracing a nice little revelation that occurred to me one day. For my purpose here, “west” is the English language space and “east” is Ukraine.* Because this is my blog, I get to skip areas that don't fit my pattern (hello, France and readers among the mer-people of the northern Atlantic).

Gratitude West and East
The word phrase in question here is thank you (which — spoiler alert! — in English is “thank you”). From the English space moving east, here’s how it looks:

  • Belgium (Flemish speakers) / Netherlands: dank je
  • German space: danke
  • Czech: dêkuji
  • Poland: dziekuje, pronounced “jenkooyeh”
  • Slovak: dakujem
  • Belarus: dziákuj or dziakuju
  • Ukraine: dyakuyu
Unless you squint, western thank and eastern dyakuyu don’t look all that related. But the connecting tissue is not just the initial “th/d” and the “k”. The thing that made me make the connection was the nasal vowel in Polish that adds the “n” sound before the “k”.**

So it’s one thing to know on some level that Germanic English and Slavic Ukrainian are related, but it’s another to see the proof in a simple, everyday word like thank.

I’ll wrap up on a side note that nonetheless keeps with the gratitude theme. More a speculative question: I wonder whether the Turkic word teshekür is related to Arabic word shukran. The key sounds making me wonder this are “sh - vowel - kr”. Though Turkic languages are generally considered to be part of the Altaic language group and Arabic is a Semitic language, it wouldn’t be too suprising to find words derived from borrowings. In this case, it might be that with the spread of Islam, the Arabic shukran formed the basis of a word derivation in Turkish. (It’s not uncommon to find Arabic words in the lexicons of non-Arabic-speaking Islamic peoples.)

Are there any specialists in one or the other of these languages out there who can help?

* By the way, it's no longer "the Ukraine", unless you're a past-minded Russian.

** (These are not the only languages sharing this root for this word. Also, these examples are conjugated for the subject "I", so the "je", "yu", etc. endings don't refer to the equivalent of English "you".)

12 February 2011

Speculating on Words

I've come up with a name for one of my favorite little hobbies:
Speculative linguistics, (n., sometimes used with the modifier "moderately-informed"), characterized by taking stabs at explaining etymologies, grammatical, and other linguistic features before looking up the answer. Sometimes confused with knowing just enough to invent connections where they don't exist (about which there may be a separate entry).
I’ve been doing this for many years. I should note that I grew up surrounded by people who spoke different languages and enjoyed language issues. My dad, doing post-grad linguistics work, sort of used us kids as research subjects in children’s language acquisition. My course was set very early.*

The thing is, if you love and are curious about words, you’ll start to notice connections everywhere (a process that explodes once once you’ve got a foreign language under your belt). And what you learn becomes just more clues for finding future connections. I’ve reached a point where I see or hear or imagine connections all the time. It’s now second nature to make a game of trying to find plausible links between what I know and what I suspect. Once I’ve come up with a notional relationship, I can’t rest until I know if I’m correct or not. These days, I regularly finish each round of my nerdy game with a trip to “my OED”.

I hope to show some surprising connections — some obscure, but others are hiding in plain sight of anyone curious enough to look. For example, the next entry to this blog will be very brief, but it will be Thinking about Thanking.

* I should note also that I married another word-nerd. Before we got too busy raising kids, my wife and I would sometimes spend entire evenings tossing ideas back and forth and reading etymological dictionaries. (I don’t expect everyone to get a frisson of pleasure from the prospect of reading dictionaries — but the thing about etymologies is that one entry will lead you to many other ideas, questions, and searches of other entries. This was something like reading Wikipedia. Once you’re in, you can’t get out until the sun rises.)

11 February 2011

Three Magic Ingredients

One of the dominant motivations in my photography is to show patterns and the interplay of straight and curved lines. This photo has a great mix of all three of those elements. (Click it to see a larger version.)
Stuttgart Train Station (excerpt)

07 February 2011

Americans, Russians, Egypt, and "Risk"

No original thinking from me in this post. Instead, I’m highlighting a recent opinion piece  Russian-language maven Michele Berdy wrote in the Moscow Times. Berdy is not just “a Moscow-based translator and interpreter,” as her byline notes, but also a pretty insightful cultural observer. As an inside-outsider in Moscow, she seems able to see life in Moscow and Russia in interesting and enlightening ways. And all the better for word geeks like me, her socio-cultural-political observations are couched in explorations of the nuances of the Russian language and what those nuances suggest about the character and habits of its speakers.

In her 4 February piece, “Risking Life and Limb,” she recounts a curious juxtaposition in the stereotypes of how Americans and Russians treat risk.

“As I’ve watched events unfold in Egypt, my mental storehouse of differences between Russians and Americans got a new load of evidence. American tourists on a luxury cruise ship docked near Luxor said they were comfortable, had plenty of food and were in absolutely no danger, but yet demanded that their government immediately airlift them out — at the taxpayers’ expense incidentally. Russian tourists splashing around the Red Sea not only didn’t demand immediate evacuation by their government, they refused to leave.”

She recognizes these factoids don’t necessarily say anything definitive, but suggests they might just turn some stereotypes on their heads: “self-reliant Americans” vs. Russians who crave “cradle-to-grave” state aid. It could be that Americans and Russians have “vastly different expectations of what our governments can and should do for us.” Or it could be that we have “different notions of acceptable risk.” (I think it may also have to do with the demographics of people who might be on a luxury cruise ship docked near Luxor, but that’s just me.) Berdy then goes on to explore the different types of risk that inhabit Russian consciousness, as reflected through the different linguistic expressions of it.

But that’s not my point here. I just like dwelling for a while on the implications of the juxtaposition she highlights.

05 February 2011

Why Trees?

Green and Gold (Black Forest)
Anyone tracking my photography for any length of time will have noticed an abundance — over-abundance, according to some tastes — of trees. I admit it... My name is Yash, and I’m an arboholic.

I’ve often wondered what lies at the root of this fascination. If I think back, which I’m doing now, I realize that trees have had a special hold on my imagination since I was a kid. It might come from Disney’s film of The Swiss Family Robinson, about which I remember only the ostrich race and that fabulous, magical tree house. Also, when I was around 10, we went to Disneyland. The only memory from the trip that doesn’t come from old, discolored photos is, again, the Swiss Family Robinson tree house, which brought the magic achingly alive for me and probably set the hook in my cheek forever. (You can imagine how the Avatar film turned me into a kid again...and again with the ache of longing.)

January Sunrise (Killesberg Park Stuttgart)
A few stabs at describing my reaction to trees:

  • When you actually hug a tree (maybe “hold” is a less charged word), it can produce a visceral shock of awareness. This thing is not just a hunk of cellulose, but alive with startling solidity and unexpected vitality. Looking up, you see it sway, while at the same time you feel like it’s connecting you directly to the core of the planet. I recognize you probably have to be predisposed to get this reaction from hugging cellulose — and I feel sad for those who aren’t.
Forest Fogset
  • When you climb a tree, or get a peek past a leafy exterior, or just stare up along the trunk of a living tree during the summer for a while, you realize the tree is its own little world, abuzz with bugs, birds, assorted mammals, and its own inexorable sappy flows and chemical processes. You — well, I — imagine myself transported into that world.
  • When I see or hear of trees being cut down, I feel a knife in my gut. That’s the best way I can describe it. The reason for the felling doesn’t matter. I know there are good and necessary reasons to cut a tree down, and of course I do like wood furniture. But my first, unanalyzed and uncontrollable response is a pang of regret.

I’m no poet. But Robert Frost was:

The Sound of the Trees

Turning Seasons (Bärensee Stuttgart)
I wonder about the trees.
Why do we wish to bear
Forever the noise of these
More than another noise
So close to our dwelling place?
We suffer them by the day
Till we lose all measure of pace,
And fixity in our joys,
And acquire a listening air.
They are that that talks of going
But never gets away;
And that talks no less for knowing,
As it grows wiser and older,
That now it means to stay.
My feet tug at the floor
And my head sways to my shoulder
Sometimes when I watch trees sway,
From the window or the door.
I shall set forth for somewhere,
I shall make the reckless choice
Some day when they are in voice
And tossing so as to scare
The white clouds over them on.
I shall have less to say,
But I shall be gone.

03 February 2011

From the Ministry of Countering English (France)

There isn't really a ministry set up to counter English in France. But there is the Académie Française, the keepers of French language purity.  It was founded in 1653 by Louis XIII (not the cognac) and Cardinal Richelieu, whom many might remember as the mean guy with the pointy beard in the movie The Three Musketeers. The Académie's 40 members ("Immortals") are charged with "guarding the French language" (more info here in English).

I had a run-in with the Académie in 1990 when my wife and I were living in France, around the time our first daughter was born. It turns out they're also the equivalent of a Supreme Court for Naming Children, although the Académie's recommendations aren't binding, and I might be mixing some other memory into this story. It's probably more relaxed now, but back then the government had at least some say in what you could name your child -- on the principle that you really didn't want to handicap an innocent babe with a name like "Fingernail", so you got to choose from a list of acceptable names. My pioneering American frontier spirit bridled at the implications. Did that mean I couldn't name our baby "Dweezil" (apart from the fact that it had been taken) or "Popcorn"!? Exactly. Well, that and the fact that my wife also got a vote. 

Whether the Immortals themselves or some other regulation was the source of this invasion of my naming rights, it was around the same time that I learned about the Académie, in the context of its futile attempts to keep English loan words out of  French. Official France, and that included broadcasters and advertisers, had to use good old French words, or good new French words to cover for the lack of a good old French word (ordinateur instead of computer). No more could you use the obviously Anglo interloper hamburger (pardon us, all you residents of Hamburg, Germany). The meat and bun combo now had to be called something ridiculously forced, but French. I wish I could remember where I wrote it down.

Anyway, since the end of WWII they've been having a tough time of it, what with English exploding all over the world and that internet thing. It's probably a rear-guard action. But the other day, I came across a curious word in an official French document: courriel. This "portmanteau" combines two decent French words, courrier (which means "mail") and électronique (which means "I guess it's too late to keep out the Greek"). According to this article in 2003, the French government's national register, the Journal officiel, published an edict whereby the English e-mail was banned from official communications, to be replaced by courriel.

This effort is a bit like that Vuitton model Gorbachev thinking he could stop repressing people's freedom of expression (glasnost) and reform communism in a nice way, while still keeping control (perestroika). In the French case, it's a case of creatively adapting in order not to have to adapt to the onslaught of les anglos and their corrupting language.

Despite my thinking the Immortals have met their match in English, and they just don't know it, I've nothing against courriel, since I'm a big fan of portmanteaux. I also like Dweezil.