Unreal Nature

May 31, 2008

Delayed Gratification

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:20 am

“Desire creates barriers. Barriers create desire.” I heard this conundrum somewhere, long ago, and I turn it over in my mind when I’m stuck somewhere with nothing else to think about. It’s an interesting paradox.

I was reminded of it by a comment posted to a previous post in this blog (Luck)  in which Felix Grant described the success of one of his less talented but more hard-working students beyond that of more talented but less hard-working classmates. Does greater difficulty (the barrier) make for greater desire and thus a stronger work ethic?

When thinking about this, I always end up speculating about how small both the desire and the barrier can be. If you desire food and you get your burger in one minute, does the concept still apply? If one has a perfect marriage, can one have little mini time barriers within that perfection that will thus support desire?

Eventually, as the time to satisfaction of desire shrinks to zero, you end up with instant gratification. Is there such a thing — satisfaction with no barrier or is there always at least some minimal barrier (you have to chew your food or tear the wrapper off your new iPod)?

What does instant gratification do to value? If supply vs demand determines value and there is instant supply, does that mean value approaches zero? If there are no barriers, there is no desire. If desire correlates to motivation, what happens to ones work ethic?

Which (finally!) leads me to photography. According to an America Online’s Digital Picture Survey, the number-one reason why people like digital photography is … instant gratification (poll is from 2004).

What does this mean? About digital photography of any kind, but in particular about valuation of ones work, motivation to work harder, and the benefits that can be achieved only by delayed gratification?

What makes Christmas presents, wrapped up and sitting under the tree, making you wait; or the big game that one anticipates for weeks in advance; or the fruits of any long struggle … so valuable, so enjoyable, memorable, so desired? Bigger barriers? Did you ever work in a wet darkroom? Do you remember this?

There was something almost biblical about the early process of creating an image. Needing a source of illumination, pictures were seemingly carried on rays of light, traveling from the subject and momentarily transferred or hidden inside the camera, adhering itself onto a negative. Then, from a place deep inside the photographer’s darkroom, the printed image arose, miraculously appearing on a previously blank piece of paper soaked in a bath of chemicals.

from The Art of Instant Gratification   by Joel Trachtenberg

Or, what’s so wonderful about reading a book or seeing a movie? Getting — slowly; in good time — to the ending, right?

According to a poll of 500 children taken for the British bookstore chain Waterstone’s, nearly one-fifth of Harry Potter fans will skip straight to the end of the final book in the series. Is there something wrong with sussing out an ending in advance?

… Surely it’s more fun to speculate about the outcome along the way, and then feel humbled, or exhilarated, or despondent when you realize you got it all wrong.

To date, I’ve only heard one convincing reason to flip to the back, from another famous Harry. In When Harry Met Sally, Harry says “I always read the last page first. That way in case I die before I finish, I know how it ends.”

-from Peeking at Potter  from Slate Magazine

On the other side of the argument, in an article called, Against Deferred Gratification,  Micheal Steinberg writes:

We pay a high price for inventing and maintaining this separation. Life becomes a lot less interesting, for one thing, and generally far less satisfying. The retiree who can’t slow down to enjoy retirement is one victim: the chosen end was a life without money problems, but the means took too large a toll. Our resigned acceptance of the brutal, dangerous or merely boring and mind-numbing quality of most work is another price exacted by the regime of deferred gratification. So is the the institutionalization of most every practice and the commodification of ends as entertainments and commercialized experiences like “vacation packages” and “retirement lifestyles.”

Even more pernicious, perhaps, is the way our notions of morality have been transformed. Once means and ends get split apart we need overt principles of selection and justifications for the ends we pursue. This raises all the problems of modern ethics, and it also tends inexorably to instrumentalize means. We set a high standard for our ultimate goals; it’s no longer enough to rely on the exemplars of myth or our affective responses. We must, as Kant insists, become legislators over ourselves. But the territory of morality then shrinks until means to our self-legislated ends occupy a kind of ethical demilitarized zone.

The above may have some relevance to privacy or decency issues in photography — analog and digital.

I think that there are some real issues of devaluation that come from digital instant-ness. But I also think that many of the barriers that were removed along with film have been replaced by those of the digital darkroom (image processing). It’s the nature of artists to push to the boundaries of what is possible. I think digital photographers will (are) rapidly find new boundaries, new barriers against which to build their desire.




May 30, 2008


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:54 am

I am in a tearing hurry this morning and don’t have time to develop this idea, but I’m going to post a single quote for you to think about — as I am. I ran across this sentence in the Dilthey subsection  of a Wikipedia article about hermeneutics and I’ve been chewing on it ever since. Think about it with reference to interpretation and/or perception of a photograph:

“Empathy involves a direct identification with the other. Interpretation involves an indirect or mediated understanding that can only be attained by placing human expressions in their historical context. Understanding is not a process of reconstructing the state of mind of the author, but one of articulating what is expressed in the work.”

First, does this apply to empathy for a person in  the photo, or only to the photographer (author)? And second does it mean that empathy and understanding are unrelated? (I hope I’m making sense … I should be gone already …)





Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:42 am

Via a posting on BoingBoing, I was linked to a haha.nu feature showing photos of a chicken developing, start to finish, from egg to chick (outside the shell). Way cool!

The haha.nu lead before the pictures says, “Like other birth photo series these of a chicken could somehow shock and disgust you. But, it is always interesting to watch the beginning of a life.” Who in the heck would find this shocking or disgusting? It’s beautiful!

Below is an unshocking and undisgusting sample from the start of the series. The stuff in the linked page  is much more interesting …

Kind of makes me nervous that they kept the developing egg warm in a frying pan …

From the haha.nu site, I found a page that shows, in photos, the development of a Cecropia moth from egg to its full six inch glory. This is the beast that I featured in my Alchemy post  not too long ago. The sequence is just as cool as the chicken series.




Wrong From Right

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:31 am

“Everybody’s doing it,” is the perennial excuse used by somebody who knows that what they are doing is inexcusable.

From an article, Journals Find Fakery in Many Images Submitted to Support Research  by Jeffrey R. Young:

Experts say that many young researchers may not even realize that tampering with their images is inappropriate. After all, people now commonly alter digital snapshots to take red out of eyes, so why not clean up a protein image in Photoshop to make it clearer?

Ms. Roovers admitted that she used the software, though she says she was not the only one in the lab to do so.

“I certainly did something wrong, but I don’t think I was alone in the whole thing,” she says, adding that it was not her intent to deceive. “It was trying to present it even better.”

I found this article via a posting on BoingBoing. The comments to that posting, many by people who have witnessed similar cheating in the scientific community, are depressing.

I already talked about the use of image manipulation to produce fake scientific evidence in my February 2 posting, Good Reasons to Hate Manipulated Photographs,  but I didn’t realize it was as common as this article and the BoingBoing responses suggest.

Note that this kind of thing in no way justifies claims that manipulated images and Photoshop cause  deception and fakery — any more than free speech caused  Nazism.




May 29, 2008


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:41 am

Do you think that some photographers have an unfair advantage because of their natural talent and/or because they are rich and well-connected? You can’t compete because you were born with disadvantages? Do you think this is unfair? That great photographs are hard to find, and that only a few have the resources and raw luck to happen to be in the right place at the right time?

Or do you think that anybody with a camera can be a good photographer if they are willing to work hard enough? That potential photographs are everywhere, all the time, waiting for those photographers who are committed enough to take the time and effort needed to develop their visual skills to see what is all around them?

What is your opinion on the role of luck and equality in the course of your own life? I began thinking about this after reading the article, Equality, Luck, and Pragmatism  by David Rondel. It doesn’t translate directly to the issues of luck in photography because it’s definitely not about the kind of luck that photographers think about most — of being in the right place at the right time. But it is about the issue of the fairness of the larger endeavor. The conclusion is, that society should seek equality not in endowment, but in opportunity.

In philosophy, the old way of thinking about luck and equality used to be (and often still is) summed up by the statement:

“No one deserves [in the moral sense of desert] his greater natural capacity nor merits a more favorable starting place in society.”

But this leads to the idea that naturally lazy or peculiar (strange preferences, tastes, etc.) people require or deserve compensation. This is also a negative sense of luck or equality. Many people who are discriminated against don’t consider their difference to be a negative quality; they are merely not the same as the majority (women, or racial/ethnic minorities). In conclusion:

Although there is a place in [philosopher John] Dewey’s account for considerations of luck and choice, they are by no means the central concepts. As he says, equality “denotes effective regard for whatever is distinctive and unique in each”. (Dewey 1954, 151) Dewey’s egalitarianism, therefore, substitutes the question “Is the inequality a result of luck or choice?” with the rather different one “Is the inequality affecting someone’s opportunity ‘to realize the potentialities of which he is possessed’?” (Dewey 2000, 59) The shift here is significant. Instead of asking about the metaphysical source of the inequality, whether it is traceable to luck or choice, Dewey asks about its practical consequences. As he says, “one person is morally equal to others when he has the same opportunity for developing his capacities and playing his part that others have.” (Gouinlock 1994, 191) All of this suggests that Dewey’s account is similar, in spirit if not in detail, to the kind of “capabilities approach” to equality developed by, among others, Amartya Sen. Correspondingly, Dewey thinks that people should be equal in their “effective freedom”. That is, “the absence or removal of any legal or social obstacles to free access to social participation and command of resources adequate to allow us to participate in meaningful ways.” (Welchman 1995) Again, the focus is not, as for LE [luck egalitarianism], on the cosmic source of the inequality, it is on the real capabilities (the word effective should be underscored) that individuals have for democratic participation and moral growth.

First, Dewey’s account has no use for the free-will/determinism controversy, and would probably eschew the suggestion that that controversy is significant, if it ever is, to our political thinking about equality. Second, unlike LE [luck egalitarianism], Dewey’s approach to equality features both a negative and positive dimension. While LE insists that the point of equality is to eliminate the effects of brute luck (as if a democratic society of equals might be brought about merely by subtraction) Dewey’s account stresses, in addition to that, the importance of ameliorating people’s positive capacities for democratic participation, moral growth, and more meaningful “associated activity”. Third, as one would expect, Dewey does not dwell in the remote provinces of abstract theory as luck egalitarians do. He is on the ground, so to speak, stressing the importance of observation, experimentalist intervention, and empirical responsibility. This latter point ensures that egalitarian theory and practice remain integrated, as pragmatists insist they must. And finally, fourth, in placing emphasis on the capacities of individuals, Dewey’s account grasps, in a way that LE cannot, that the fundamental point of equality is not merely the search for a just distributive scheme. Our aim in pursuing equality, Dewey reminds us, has its home within a much broader moral and democratic ideal: what he calls “the search for the great community”.

— from Equality, Luck, and Pragmatism   by David Rondel




May 28, 2008

Photograph as Autonomous Art

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:35 am

The quotes below are taken from an article, Poetry as a Unique Art Form   by David Vessey which contrasts the ideas of John Dewey with those of Hans-Georg Gadamer on whether poetry should be ranked superior to all other art forms. I am not interested in that comparison, but I am going to respond to selected quotes by arguing how I feel that they are true or not with reference to photography (which was in no way the intention of the original piece).

Gadamer regularly claims that the distinctive feature of poetry is its autonomy. By this he means that poems “interpret themselves insofar as one need no additional information about the occasion and the historical circumstances of their composition.” Poetry, like all language and all art, transcends the context of its origins. Unlike most prose, though, a poem stands alone as a unitary object to be interpreted in its uniqueness. Any additional information about the author or the context of its creation are only legitimate tools of interpretation to the extent the poem itself bears that interpretation; but even then, additional information only provides mere clues to the ideality of the poem, it never constitutes the poem’s meaning.

I think this could be an excellent description of the split between photography-as-record vs photography-as-art. If you have participated in any of the old-timer pure-indexical-photography versus contemporary/digital fine art arguments that happen over and over again online, you will recognize the above as nice parallel to the position of the latter.

Importantly, in contrast to Dewey, Gadamer doesn’t understand poetry as first and foremost a kind of communication. For Dewey there is a connection between the emotions of the artist and the emotions of the reader, at least to the extent the poem is successful. For Gadamer the poem stands on its own; its meaning is its own, rather than it being a vehicle for its author’s meaning. As he puts it, poetry doesn’t report, it testifies; it stands on its words.

To flesh out the meaning of poetry’s autonomy Gadamer appropriates Paul Valéry’s currency metaphor. Everyday prose is like paper money: it is purely symbolic and its value comes from its ability to be substituted and exchanged for objects. Poetry is like a gold coin, useful for exchange of course, but valuable in its own right, even after the images on the coin marking it as currency have worn off.

Again, more of the record vs art difference.

…  in poetry the words have an intrinsic value that doesn’t vanish in their meaning. Poetry does not lose its textual presence in revealing what it reveals. Whatever insights we may gain from a poem, the poetic words retain their power to reveal and also show the potential for further interpretations. We recognize when reading a poem that it is these words, these sounds, that are producing the effect, and unless the poem is particularly mundane, it is only because of these words that the poem has the effect it has. That the meaning of a poem doesn’t leave the words behind is part of its autonomy. Along the same lines, Gadamer points out that no poems are every really translated. What happens instead is new poems are written in a new language that tries to capture the power and meaning of the original poem—this is why the best translators of poems are poets themselves. However, the translation is always a separate poem, autonomous as well.

… Finally, to add to Gadamer’s account of poetry as autonomous, consider what we do when we interpret a work of art. We seek to make the meaning explicit by finding words that best express what the work expresses. We try to match the subject matter as revealed by the work of art with the subject matter as revealed by our own words—we don’t expect perfect success in this project, but we don’t let our limitations leave us inarticulate either. In poetry this situation is changed slightly, but significantly. We already have words expressing the subject matter of the work—the poem itself—and we seek new words to express the subject matter in the same way. The activity of interpreting a poem is not one of becoming articulate about what is expressed by the poem, but of translating the meaning of the poem into prose. But no translation of the meaning of the poem could express the meaning as well as the poem—the best expression in language of the meaning of the poem is the poem itself. So the process of interpreting a poem is not one of finding new words to express the poem’s meaning, but finding our way into the meaning of the poem’s own words. The words of the poem are irreplaceable in an interpretation; this is the core meaning of Gadamer’s claim that poetry is autonomous, and its status as such gives it an “essential priority” with respect to other art forms.

I disagree with Gadamer here. While the poem already has its own (best possible) words and sounds, those words and sounds must reference forms and imagery by which we, to rephrase Gadamer’s words; “seek to make the meaning explicit by finding [mental forms/images] that best express what the work expresses.”

Visual arts turn that on its head. They provide their own (best possible) forms and imagery from which we do indeed, as he says, “seek to make the meaning explicit by finding words that best express what the work expresses.” The forms and lines within an art photograph are irreplaceable; the meaning of those forms as”things” does not leave the forms behind. Same thing as poetry only approached from the opposite end of the stick.

[Thanks to Felix Grant for finding the attribution of my previous Value of the Mirror  quoted article (Professor Naoko Saito, of Kyoto University) and thus leading me, indirectly, to this excellent piece by David Vessey.]





May 27, 2008

Falling Water

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:28 am

In the top ten of over-photographed subjects, along with sunsets, flowers, butterflies, and cats — is, surely, waterfalls. So what am I to do with the half-mile series of many waterfalls that is on one side of where I live, and the quarter mile of mini-waterfalls on the other side of where I live? The same thing you should do with sunsets, flowers, butterflies and cats. Enjoy them but spare us the pictures! Okay, but just this once … so you’ll know what I’m talking about elsewhere in this blog (good excuse, no?).

First picture, below, is what you see when standing on the bridge in my driveway, looking upstream.

Next, is Cookie taking a dip in one of the many pools below or between the various waterfalls.

Below, you see, first, the view looking downstream from about mid-way up the falls, and below that, looking upstream about three quarters of the way to the top.

I live way out in the middle of nowhere. The state road dead-ends at my driveway, which is a (very) dirt road. You go around a sharp bend and come to the bridge over the stream with all of the waterfalls, shown above. Point being, that this is not exactly a high-traffic location.

Nevertheless, some, presumably very timid graffiti artist painted the underside of my bridge a few weeks ago. Talk about a conflicted impulse — wanting to be a ‘public’ artist, but at the same time being extremely afraid of being caught …

The point of graffiti is what? To be seen by everybody, right? The only way you can see this stuff is by going down into the stream bed, and looking up. It’s not visible from the road (if anybody were there in the first place). This means your audience has to walk past multiple No Trespassing signs, through a thicket of knee-high poison ivy, down a steep, slick bank, across wet, slippery rocks …

I could show you pictures of the graffiti, but then I’d be doing the person a favor. You can see enough of it in the picture, above.

Before I moved down here, when they were getting ready to start building my house, they had to replace the decking on the bridge. I happened to return from a hike when all of the bridge was gone. I had parked up the road — on the other side. The bridge had a single six inch wide plank laid across its span. I walked that plank, but only because there were three grinning carpenters standing there waiting to see what I would do. I was the typical terrified-person-trying-to-look-nonchalant. One must not be a sissy, even if it means very possibly falling and breaking every bone in your body.

Why is there all that bare rock in this stream? Because the stream-bed got blown out in hurricane Camille, and because every hard rainfall since then causes another blowout of any soil or plants that are trying to grow over the stone. There is nothing to hold the water.

Below you see what the “stream” looks like when there’s heavy rain in a short time span (steady rain over many days does nothing). This picture was taken from the road on my side of the bridge, looking upstream (see the first picture at the top of this post to compare). I was afraid to get any closer. The ground was shaking, and the water was coming out of the lower side of the bridge in a huge, red, rooster tail.

There you have it. Tomorrow, sunsets!




May 26, 2008

Witness of the Inactual

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:52 am

I give you the following two extracts without comment. I neither agree nor disagree …

“… In the sense of an information society, ‹instability› can be regarded as a positive value: It stands for dynamic transmission, unobstructed circulation, and for communication that is not bound to real space; it stands for virtuality as the ability to experience what is possible. In contrast, analog photography hangs on to what is past; its gesture is a clinging—to a state of visible reality, to public and private occurrences, to fleeting moments in everyday life. Its great subjects, the topography of urban and suburban life and the visualization of biography and identity are (or were) being sustained by a concept of remembrance that binds historical tradition and personal memory to material evidence. Fifteen years after the beginning of the debate over the ‹end of photography› one can establish that the radical change from analog to digital technology has not invalidated the notions of representation, identity and memory associated with the photographic dispositive—rather it contributes to a destabilization of these notions. In the environment of electronic media, digital photography constitutes a threshold phenomenon: It is located so to speak at the transition from old storage media to new communication media and their paradigms.”

— above (not below) is from this page in the Photographic/Post-Photographic section of medienkunstnetz.de (sorry about the strange punctuation: that’s theirs, not mine)

 “… But what is really at stake? A preliminary answer would be: lifestyles. Lomo’s message of practicing a photographic style of real life can also be understood as the production of a ‹real lifestyle.› According to the specific aspects of the Internet put forward by Lev Manovich, it is one of the basic principles of new, computer-based media to supply lifestyles through variability: «In a postindustrial society, every citizen can construct her own custom lifestyle and ‹select› her ideology from a large (but not infinite) number of choices.… Every visitor to a Web site automatically gets her own custom versions of the site created on the fly from a database.» In this respect, the vanishing point of the everyday practice of photography is not, or no longer, familiality, but the playful and fun-oriented negotiation of tags or labels that mark temporary membership in a group…. ”

“… A community online game does not predestine the aesthetization of the images, but of life. An aesthetization that is not carried out outside the realm of economic interests, by which the boundaries of sharing become visible: Both Lomography.com and Flickr offer the licensing of images placed on their sites. In view of these shifts from the figure of the photographic image as a cause for memory activity to the image as a permanent referent to presence, it is not only a media-economic assertion to declare a postphotographic age. And this not— or at least not only—based on the digital devices and technologies as such, but on the cultural practices that are tied to them and often embrace them in unforeseen ways. The altered photographic gestures and practices indicate, as Barthes wrote as early as 1979, that «the astonishment of ‹that-has-been› will also disappear. It has already disappeared. I am, I don’t know why, one of its last witnesses (a witness of the Inactual) …» ”

— above is from the same site as the first, but a different essay called Instant Images. The quotes start on this page.

Again, these quotes are here for you to think about, not because I agree with them. I’m thinking about them myself.





Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:39 am

From an interview of Alison Gopnik, Ph.D., Professor of Developmental Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley:

“… The tradition that comes from Carnap and Quine and other people says that the way science works is that we never start from scratch, we always have some sort of theory about what the world is like. But we also have enormous degrees of freedom in terms of how we can modify and revise and change our theories in the light of new evidence.

“When I looked at kids, that’s much more what babies look like. The idea is that the kids are not born as blank states — they are born with innate theories about how the world works. But unlike the Chomskian picture, they can and do revise pretty much anything in those theories in fundamental ways as they interact with the world and get more information and knowledge.

“The neurological evidence supports this view that early on you have massive flexibility. There is this enormous number of different things that could all happen and the connections and pruning of the nervous system are happening at a great pitch. What you have at the end, as an adult, is this lean mean machine. This machine that’s really good at doing things very quickly, and not having to sit and explode before deciding what to do. So I think the trade off is we lose flexibility and learning capacity as adults, but we gain in terms of automaticity and efficiency of implementing the things we’ve already learned.

“For scientists, it is important we don’t completely lose our flexibility because what we do is get ourselves back into that baby mode of simply exploring things for the sake of exploring them.”

“… going to the 7-11 with a two-year-old is like going to get a quart of milk with William Blake. It takes you four times as long, but you suddenly realize that this incredibly boring couple of blocks is actually full of riches and excitement, novelty, and things to look at and find out about.”

For photographers, too, it is “important we don’t completely lose our flexibility”; that we be willing to “simply explor[e] things for the sake of exploring them”. That we be willing to “modify and revise and change our theories in the light of new evidence” — about picture content as well as editing and processing techniques.




May 25, 2008


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 9:12 am



If you have a dog(s) you understand these posts. We can’t help ourselves…




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