20 October 2007

[Italy trip] Conventional conventical technology

I liked this wooden cart which I saw on the grounds of Villa Agape where we stayed in Florence, which is run by the Sisters of "Stabilite nella Carità" (stability in charity). Simple technology, elegant and rustic at the same time. Interesting shapes and textures. I did quite a bit of Photoshopping on this, as there were some distracting blotches of lighter color on the handle near the rusty metal joint which immediately drew one's focus and ruined the composition (in my opinion). I think I did a pretty good job of cloning the wood grain where those spots had been, in a way that doesn't look faked. This is Photoshop at its best -- used to fix something which was not a photographer's error, yet without violating the true nature of the original subject. (That gives a lot of latitude, by the way, to adjust colors, etc. And there is always validity in creatively changing the subject. So don't quote that line back at me if you see something more wild in my use of Photoshop in the future.)

13 October 2007

Destroying restored art vs. restoring destroyed art

More reflections from my art tour of Florence. This 14th or 15th century fresco in San Miniato al Monte (Florence) looks like it has probably had some restoration work done on it over the years, as its colors are so well preserved (I have not touched them up in Photoshop). But also preserved for all eternity (until someone decides to do another restoration on it) are the graffiti of some 20th century vandals (in the lower right corner, on the red patches; click to zoom in on image). It appals me that anybody could be so philistine as to ruin art in a sacred space like this. Fortunately, at not very great expense (certainly not like what it would cost to repair the actual fresco), I can fix the damage pretty well in Photoshop. This illustrates the non-destructive restoration possible in digital media. I can keep a copy of the original, just in case someone doesn't like the kind of touching up I did.

Not so with non-digital art. Case in point: the famous Crucifix by Cimabue, painted to hang above the altar in Santa Croce in Florence. It had been lingering in storage, leaning up against a wall in the refectory, after renovations had replaced it with some other piece. Then it was almost completely destroyed in the great 1966 flood of the Arno River. The controversial restoration by Umberto Baldini used a new technique in which areas where the paint had been completely washed off are approximated with a pixel pattern that only suggests the color and outline of what was there before, but does not recreate brush strokes. Baldini and his team "felt strongly that it was inappropriate to leave this extremely important work as a mere fragment, and yet they were unwilling to deceive the viewer into thinking that the work was undamaged. Chromatic abstraction was their answer to this dilemma. Chromatic abstraction is formulated on the idea that three dominant tones can be abstracted from any painting. These colors, combined in the losses in small strokes that follow the dynamic flow of the image, and in the correct proportions, create the neutral color that blends most perfectly with the painting, making the losses the least distracting without inpainting them imitatively." (Getty Conservation Institute, Painted Wood: History and Conservation, p. 414.) You can see this clearly in the detail of Christ's feet (below, right; click to zoom in on image). Some people have objected to Baldini's restoration because it is not Cimabue's work at all. They claim that the ravages of time and natural disasters are part of the history of art that should be preserved. I am still undecided on this issue. I can't say I liked the restored Crucifix. But it is intriguing from an art historical point of view. You can read more about the restoration debate in this article, and (if you have JSTOR access) in "Art and Its Preservation" by David Carrier (Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 43:3 (Spring 1985), pp. 291-300).

With digital art (including digital photography), all of this is moot. The original cannot become degraded over time, or destroyed by a flood or fire, nor can it be vandalized, as long as a backup is made. And as long as it is converted to new media as they are invented and the old ones become obsolete! That latter would be a subject for "a whole 'nother" post (my favorite example of tmesis, a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is inserted into another word, often for humorous effect).

11 October 2007

The golden lampstand

[News flash: This photo of mine has been published online in Comment Magazine. Click here.]

"Aaron is responsible for keeping the lamps burning continually on the Lampstand of pure gold before GOD." (Lev 24:4; The Message)

Here is another in my votive candles series (see also this one). It is a portrait of a serious man of God, at work in the house of the Lord. This is one of the monks at San Miniato al Monte in Florence, lighting additional candles before the Vespers service. I was drawn to the glow on his face, and only later noticed the subtle outline highlight on his hair from a bit of sun coming in the window above his head. Without that, his head would have blended into the dark background. I considered whether to crop more of the black space at the bottom, but I decided to keep it, to emphasize the height of his body. You can see his robe disappearing into darkness and can imagine where it extends to.

Another possible composition crops it in way close and reveals the time on his watch (even though I was standing about 30 feet away from him; see, there is a use for 12.8 megapixels!) -- the Vespers service did indeed start at 5:30pm. You'll need to click to view the image at full size to be able to read it. For you techies who are interested, this was shot with a 70mm lens, ISO 1600, f/4 at 1/125. Hand held, no flash. ISO 1600 on my Canon 5D rocks! It was very dark in there. I'm beginning to think I like this second one better. What do you think?

05 October 2007

Where is the frame of this picture?

Frame-within-a-frame is a motif that shows up in all kinds of art, from René Magritte to Norman Rockwell to Alfred Hitchcock's films to the Frame Within a Frame group at Flickr. I visited Siena for a day and took lots of photos of all the beautiful architecture and art, just for my own memory. Boring. Well, you might want to see them and they might cause you extreme envy, but I can't claim they are my own artistic creations. However, when I deviated from the usual touristic camera behavior and started looking for the offbeat and quirky, which I guess is where my forte lies, I found this fun subject walking right across my field of view. I like it because though I've chosen to frame it in a certain way, the frame the man is holding makes its own declaration about what is the subject of the picture -- the man's legs and the bag of the lady behind him. Because he's holding two frames (which, incidentally, make a nice repeated shape), the people on either side of him got that experience (though I with my camera could only see one of those views).

04 October 2007

Portraits of children

Yeah, I know this photo isn't exactly about the culture of Italy, but I did take it while I was over there. My little Italian cousins have provided wonderful subjects for me to photograph (see also this one from Milan last year), perhaps because they can't communicate with me and yet are fascinated by me, so they are ever so slightly suspicious and shy or impish when they are around me.

Photographing children is hard. Someday maybe I'll do a whole series on portraits of children, but for now just a couple of reflections. First you've got to get down to their level. That means squatting or crouching. Photos looking down on children aren't very good, generally, and besides, you'll be more likely to gain their trust if you are at eye-level with them. Second, you cannot -- must not -- get them to pose. They are naturally squirmy and can't sit still, usually. But even if you get one who can, children become extremely self-conscious when they are posing for a camera, even more so than adults. They will either be nervous about it and act stiff and unnatural, or they will think it's all a big game and paste on a huge fake smile. Either way, you'll end up with a lousy, uncharacteristic picture. Third, you've got to be patient and take tons of photos. Candid ones, in all sorts of positions and engaging in various play activities of their choosing, preferably in their own home environment, without their parents looking on. The more comfortable you are around children in general, the more comfortable they will be around you. If you can't seem to get a natural shot close up, use a long lens and stand far off so the child isn't quite as aware that you are photographing. Finally (and this goes for animals and adults, too), pay attention to the eyes. Children's eyes are very expressive. Focus on them. Catch spectral highlights in them from ambient lighting. Soft, natural lighting is best with kids. You might not have total control over all of these issues when a kid is running around, but that's why you take a lot of photos and weed them out ruthlessly, down to the two or three that are outstanding. The parents will thank you forever and tell you they've never seen such a wonderful photo of their child, and ask you if they could please have a copy of it.

I shot this one with my 70-200mm lens set to 130mm, at f2.8 and 1/60 of a second. My cousin's eyes are sharp, with focus falling rapidly away closer to the camera, so the sofa is not a distraction from her face. Nor is any of the background. She was playing hard to get, because she knew I was trying to take a picture of her. So she kept running around the house, hiding behind furniture, and popping her head out every few seconds to see if I was still there. I was, and I was ready with my camera for this one.


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