The Fragility of Freedom

In high school I was an idealistic and active participant in the local Methodist Youth Fellowship in my New Hampshire town of 6,000 souls. Concerned with growing drug use among teens, our Fellowship’s adult leader and his wife opened the door of their home 24/7 to any troubled youth who felt the need of conversation or just neutral territory. For many, he would only be willing to let “those people” into his home if he were a drug dealer. Our own minister convinced parents not to let their children attend Methodist Youth Fellowship meetings. The sergeant of our town’s police force told me that if I went to this leader’s house, “some day I would hear a crash and there would be a police officer coming through every window.”

This was the 60’s and adults were threatened by anyone wearing long hair or beads. They complained to the Board of Supervisors that they didn’t feel safe going downtown because of “undesirable” youth hanging out. The Supervisors passed an ordinance banning all people under 18 from the town common and any group of three or more from downtown. In protest, a group of high school students went to the common after school. In a scene out of “Alice’s Restaurant,” the police appeared, dressed in full riot gear recently purchased with a Federal Grant available because of all the threats the nation faced from anti-war protesters. The police got on their bullhorn and ordered the protesters to disperse. The scared teenagers scattered to the winds.

The last protestor was hunted down some three miles from downtown and hauled to jail. The charge was “failure to disperse”.

It was about this time that the National Guard was being called out against people saying what most people now believe to be true: the Vietnam War was a mistake. Four dead in Ohio.

I wonder what our government would justify doing if there were a real threat, say from terrorists, and they had the capability of unlimited access to our private lives?

One day my high school social studies teacher gave us an unusual lesson. The class was divided into teams. One team represented the leaders of a newly independent country. The remaining teams were to represent different forms of government. After giving us a week to research the hypothetical country and the different theories of government, a debate was held at which each team tried to convince the “leaders” to adopt their form of government.

I convinced them to adopt fascism.

It was easy.

At one point the team representing democracy got so frustrated with the obvious success of my arguments, they shouted out “but what if the leaders become corrupt?” I waved my hand at the leaders and responded, “Are you accusing these people of being corrupt?” The deal was sealed.

In fact, the team representing democracy had the most difficult argument to make. Democracy is messy, provides no tangible benefits and offers protections against only hypothetic harms. No practical leader would choose democracy. Belief in democracy requires idealism and a willingness to stick with those ideals even in situations where it seems against your best interest.

In 1776, fifty-six people had the courage to sign a confession of treason in support of those ideals. A confession which ends “for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” I’m talking, of course, of the Declaration of Independence. Today we are almost unimaginably more powerful and safer than were those 56 gentlemen. Yet, how much risk are we willing to take for those ideals?

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The King is Dead. Long Live the King

Particularly with the proliferation of camera phones, there is a growing belief that we are inundated with images and, in particular, that the “soft”, that is, electronic, nature of these images is creating fundamental changes in how we view photography, and perhaps to the culture in general.  Whatever the actual extent of these changes, they are deeply rooted in human nature.

The belief that the world is saturated with images did not begin with electronic cameras. In The Story of Kodak, published in 1990, author Douglas Collins writes “By the late 1980s pictures had become a common coin, bright, plentiful, almost too ubiquitous even to notice.”[1] In her 1973 essay In Plato’s Cave Susan Sontag seems to lament

“… there are a great many more images around, claiming our attention. The inventory started in 1839 and since then just about everything has been photographed, or so it seems.”[2]

When Sontag wrote her essay, it is estimated that around 10 billion photographs were taken each year. Today that number is closer to 400 billion.[3]

But there is no reason to start with the invention of photography. Creating representational images may be the defining trait of human beings. More common definitions – tool-making, verbal language – have been found in “lower” animals, but image use seems uniquely human.

One particularly fine example of image creation by the earliest humans is “Wounded Bison”, a Paleolithic cave painting in Altamira, Spain. In the classic History of Art, H.W. Jason describes it thus:

“We are amazed not only by the keen observation, the assured, vigorous outlines, the subtly controlled shading that lends bulk and roundness to the forms, but even more perhaps by the power and dignity of this creature in its final agony.”[4]

Left: Wounded Bison, unknown, ~15,000 BCE. Right: Bull -Plate 1, Pablo Picasso, 1945.

Figure 1. Left: Wounded Bison, unknown, ~15,000 BCE. Right: Bull -Plate 1, Pablo Picasso, 1945.

Perhaps the earliest examples of human image making are the paintings in the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave, some dated to over 30,000 BCE. One thing of note: there is no evidence of human habitation in this cave: no fire pits, no bone scraps, no tool chips.[5] The site was used solely for the purpose of displaying images. It may be the earliest example of an art gallery.

Sontag claims “To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed.” But this explains neither Paleolithic art, nor the meteoric rise in the number of images created in the 21st century. If one considered the image a way of capturing the object imaged, one would keep it near hearth and home, not in a cave, nor in the cloud.

A more likely explanation of the desire to photograph, or more generally, to create images, is our need to be part of a community created by shared experiences. For a species so visually oriented, photography satisfies that need to share.

That photography was a way of sharing was a belief within the Eastman Kodak Company, at least towards the end of the 20th century. Several executives became convinced that the “new” way of sharing images was to view them on your television.[6] This belief led to the 1992 introduction of the PhotoCD system. The concept was that customers would receive a CD containing scanned versions of their photos in addition to their processed negatives and prints. A special player would display these on their TV while the entire family gathered around to watch. However, at that time people were conditioned to watching video on their TVs so the general reaction of people to the displayed images was “what, they don’t move?” It would take people becoming conditioned to seeing still images on their computers screens before seeing them on their TV could become popular.

Photo CD Player

Figure 2. Photo CD player and disc

PhotoCD could have played a role in the digital sharing of images; Kodak convinced all manufacturers of CD drives to make them PhotoCD compatible. However, a fundamental objective of the PhotoCD system was to protect Kodak’s film business from encroachment by electronic image capture. This resulted in complex ‘protections’ being built into the system that often made it difficult or impossible for consumers to use the product as they desired, for example, to make a copy of the disc.[7] More importantly, with the 1990 introduction of the first commercially available digital camera, the Logitech Fotoman,[8] to share images the consumer no longer needed Kodak to “do the rest” after they “pushed the button”.

So identified is photography with sharing that the first camera phone is generally attributed to Philippe Kahn, best known as the founder of Borland Software. However, what Kahn actually did was to be the first person to share an image over the Internet using a cellular phone. He accomplished this in 1997 by taking a picture of his newborn daughter with a Casio QV-10 digital camera, transferring the image to a Toshiba laptop, and then hot wiring the laptop to his Motorola Startac cellular phone. His personal experience, as well as the reaction of the people with whom he shared the image, prompted Kahn to start a company that worked with Japanese cell phones makers to create the camera phone. [9]

First photo by cell phone

Figure 3. First photo shared by cell phone

The first commercial camera phone, the Sharp J-SH04, was introduced about three years later, in November 2000.[10] This segment of photography grew rapidly, and in 2008 Nokia became the largest camera manufacturer, selling more camera phones than Kodak sold film cameras.[11]

Photographs taken with cell phones are seldom printed, they are shared with family and friends by text message, Instagram or other electronic means. The website with the most photos stored is Facebook, with over 90 billion images in January 2011.[12]  On Facebook, storage of images is essentially an unintended consequence of sharing them. But is this really any different than the way people treated ‘traditional’ photographs? There was a flurry of excitement when the pictures came back from the photofinisher, but once shared they were put in a shoebox to gather dust.

In the early 1980’s, Leo ‘Jack’ Thomas, Senior Vice President of Research for Eastman Kodak from 1977 – 1985, reflecting on the growing excitement around electronic imaging, commented that if chemical-based photography were being invented today, it would be considered a marvel.[13]  His statement continues to be true today. The amount of scientific knowledge and technology condensed into a few microns of emulsion, and the image quality that results, verges on the magical. It’s just that, compared to digital imaging, it didn’t deliver what people want: any easy way to share their experiences.


[1] Douglas Collins, The Story of Kodak, Harry N. Abrams, Inc. (1990) p368

[2] New York Review of Books, October 18, 1973. Available at http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1973/oct/18/photography

[4] H.W. Janson, History of Art, Harry N. Abrams, Inc. (1963) p19

[5] Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a documentary film by Werner Herzog.

[6] One might conclude that these same executives also believed that sharing convenience trumped image quality. If so, they were adept at keeping that belief under wraps. Kodak executives almost universally expressed the opinion that film’s “inherently” superior image quality would keep electronic image capture at bay.

[7] The discussion of PhotoCD is based on the author’s personal experience while employed by Eastman Kodak Company

[12] Justin Mitchell, self identified ‘Facebook Photos engineer’, in http://www.quora.com/How-many-photos-are-uploaded-to-Facebook-each-day/all_comments/Justin-Mitchell. Accessed 2/24/2013

[13] Personal recollection of the author

Posted in History, Photography, Sociology | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

4×5 Kodachromes of WWII

A friend clued me into this blog: 4×5 Kodachromes. The lighting and the Kodachrome colors in the 4×5 format make these dramatic images. As was pointed out in the comments, the photos of women factor workers must have been staged – these are essentially propaganda photos for home consumption.  They tell a glamorized yet true story of life at home during WWII. IT is good to see women other than “Rosie the Riveter”!

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My new Photo Blog

I’ve decided to make all my photography-related posts on a new blog, Douglas G. Stinson Photography. I will use “Unexpected Connections” for my more philosophical musings. As keep this distinction clear, I have deleted my purely photography-related postings from this blog.

I hope those of you who have enjoyed my photography will “follow” me at the new site!

Thanks for reading!

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Creating ones self

OuroborosIn his blog on technology for the writer’s group The Loft, my friend Don reinterprets the Ouroboros, conventional “he who eats the tail” as “that which creates itself by speaking itself.”

I know I’m supposed to think the Ouroboros paradoxical. The snake who constantly consumes itself, but is never consumed. But that is not how I see it. I see the circle grow ever tighter until it becomes a point, and then disappears.

However, if the snake is speaking itself into existence, the paradox seems unavoidable. I see it happening, so I must believe it, but it seems impossible because how did it start?

Don writes a bit of PHP code that “eats” a string of characters and regurgitates it in reverse order as a symbolic representation of the transformation from Ouroboros “one who eats his tail” to Soroboruo “that which creates itself by speaking itself”. Comments poetically explain the code’s function, as if holding the code up to a mirror, reflecting the analogy.

I think a better programing analogy might be to the concept of recursion. “Ordinary” functions F(x) take a value x and transform it into a new number, for example F(x)=x2+1. In code, this might look like function fnF(x){return x^2+1;}. This is easy to understand. Hand the function an “x” and the function will return a “y” equal to x2+1.

A recursive function, for example Fn=Fn-1 + Fn-2, creates itself from itself. This might look like function fnF(n){return fnF(n-1)+fnF(n-2);}. This is not so easy to understand. Hand the function an “n”, and it asks itself ‘what is the value for n-1 and n-2?’. It then asks itself, ‘what is the value for n-2 and n-3? And so forth.

This happens to be the definition of a Fibonacci series. From n=-5 to n=5 one such series is … 5, -3, 2, -1, 1, 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5 … . The definition of the function explains from where the next number comes, but from where did the series come? No matter how far back one goes, there are always two earlier elements that needed to be calculated from yet earlier elements. I see it so I must believe it, but it seems impossible because how did it start?

Of course, historically the Fibonacci series was created by assigning F1=1 and F2=1 and calculating forward. Later it was extended to negative “n”. This is rather like freezing the Ouroboros in time, which is exactly what the drawing at the top of this essay does. It is only in our minds that we imagine what the Ouroboros must have looked like before, and before that, and before that, creating the symbolism and the paradox. But didn’t the Fibonacci recursion relationship and the series itself always exist, independent of time, from -∞ to +∞, without us having started it?

If the Ouroboros is “speaking itself into existence”, it is more than recursive, it is  self-referential, i.e. talking about itself. Self-referential statements are even more difficult to deal with. The most famous such statement was made by the Cretan Epimenides, as quoted by the Apostle Paul: “Cretans are always liars” (Titus 1:12).

Is that statement true or is it false?

Self-referential statements are so problematic that one is tempted to ban them from logic. But isn’t the ability to examine one’s self, talk about one’s self and modify one’s self the very definition of possessing consciousness?

This is the basis for Douglas Hofstadter’s assertion that self-referential algorithms, or “strange loops” as he calls them, are critical to artificial and natural intelligence.

In his blog, Don call attention to an analogy between his reinterpretation of the Ouroboros and  the Gospel of John

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God … All things came into being by Him…

When we read this in conjunction with Genesis

then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light

we see God simultaneously speaking the words that bring the universe into existence and  being “the Word”.

In the original Greek, what was written was λόγος (logos), which means not only “word” but “an expectation” and “reason”. I particularly like the thought of the universe existing as “an expectation”, full of potentialities, where we create it as we go by the choices we make.

Emanuel Swedenborg saw the human as a microcosm of the universe and the creation story of Genesis as a symbolic description for individual human development. While he proposed detailed correspondences for each of the seven days, they can be generalized into three steps (1) recognizing the need to improve [Repentance], (2) acting “as if” you were improved, i.e., practicing [Reformation], and finally, incorporating the “new you” into your inner nature [Regeneration]. In a real sense, we are “speaking our new self into existence”. While Swedenborg has a particular way of expressing these concepts, you see similar principles espoused in practically every religion and every secular “self-help” group.

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Becoming Your Parent

This is the eulogy I delivered at by father’s funeral, but it is also a commentary of what we receive, often unwittingly, from our parents.

Winston Herbert Stinson
November 15, 1923 – April 21, 2007

Our parents prepared my brother, Scot, and me for the transitions in our lives. They supported us through those transitions; our high school graduations, college graduations and our marriages.

At each of those events I saw in my parents’ faces the happiness that came from seeing us, their children, grow into a new phase of our lives. But I also saw the sadness that came from the knowledge that we were also moving away from them in many ways.

Today I am filled with the same contradictory mixture of emotions I saw in my parents on those occasions. For today is yet another graduation ceremony. We are here to celebrate my father’s graduation into a more abundant life with the Lord, where his spirit, the sum total of all that he learned, all that he created, all that he is, can shine unconstrained by physical limitations. It is my most fervent wish that all of you share my joy on this occasion.

I know you share my sorrow. The sorrow that comes from the lack of his physical presence among us. Yet in a very real sense, he hasn’t left us and can never leave us, anymore then, throughout all our transitions, Scot and I could leave our parents’ hearts.

Cigar boxes on basement shelves

Cigar boxes store magical stuff on shelves in my parent's basement. Note the label on the box in the center of the frame.

In the basement of my parent’s house there are shelves on which sit rows of cigar boxes. Each box is labeled in my dad’s precise lettering with their contents. There are boxes with electrical outlets, plugs, wire nuts, mercury switches and so on. As a child these were treasures and my dad explained what each one was for and how it worked. I spent hours fashioning perfectly functioning but utterly useless electrical circuits from this stuff. I also received a few nasty shocks.

One of my earliest memories is of my dad sitting in the black wooden rocking chair, with me curled up in his lap, while he read to me from the small, maroon volumes of the Funk and Wagner’s encyclopedia about electric generators, transformers and all sorts of other magical stuff. But this was magic that had logic, could be understood, and which a person could use to build useful things.

Later I went to college, and then to graduate school, and finally to work in the research laboratories of several companies. But — if I have done anything of use, it can be traced back to those cigar boxes and that rocking chair.

By the way, on those basement shelves there are certain boxes whose labels begin “ASST”. ASST screws, ASST connectors, and so forth.  Now as a young child one learns language seemingly by osmosis from one’s parents. A cat is called a “cat”, a spoon a “spoon” and generally one doesn’t ask why. A cat just IS a “cat”. And so it was that I learned that ASST means “this is the box you look in when you can’t find what you want in any other box”. Only when you grow into middle age does your mind take a philosophical bent and you begin to ask those penetrating questions such as “What the heck does ASST mean?!” I assume it means “assorted” but now I can never be sure.

My favorite cigar box was labeled by dad “ASST ODDS”. I assume ODDS is short for “odds and ends”. But apparently these are not ordinary odds and ends. These are assorted odds and ends. Clearly this is the box of last resort.

Another influence my dad had on me was in the appreciation of visual beauty and craftsmanship. Yes, he earned a living as a sign painter and as a master cabinet-maker, but beyond that, I grew up surrounded by wonderful wooden plaques cut in the shape of, and painted to look like, various cartoon characters and animals. Luckily, he never finished all of these and so I got to discover them in various stages of completion and could see all the detailed work that went into them. He also made signs for various relatives, friends and neighbors and I saw the care that came so naturally it seemed effortless but that informed every decision of shape, finish, lettering style and color to capture and express meaning, emotion – and love.

As a result of dad’s influence, I’ve dabbled in typography and graphic layout and developed a passion for photography. Earlier this year some of my photographs were selected to be displayed in a local exhibition. At the opening, a person whose talent I admire, pulled me aside and said “I really like your work, it is so precise”. This took me aback. I hadn’t heard anyone refer to a piece of art as “precise” before and, frankly, I didn’t know whether to be honored or insulted. Then two days ago I came across some practice pieces my dad did as a commercial art student. Expressing the greatest love of his life he produced, in large, dramatic 3-dimensional block lettering, the word “RUTHIE”. With a little notation that the “T” should be moved 1/16 of an inch to the left.

My mother's nickname

Robert Sapolsky is a professor at Stanford University who studies the effects of stress in animals. He has written a number of best-selling books for general audiences based on his research, perhaps the most popular being “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers”. By one of those strange coincidences in life, I was reading one of Sapolsky’s books two weeks ago while visiting with my dad, for what would turn out to be the last time. While studying baboons in Africa, Sapolsky employed the son of an African family, who, being the youngest, would not inherit the scraggly collection of animals constituting the family’s wealth. Having no prospects in his home village he left to make his way in the city. Sapolsky accompanied him back to his village for a visit and watched as the young man regaled his father and eldest brother with tales that must have seemed as strange to them as if he had just returned from an alien planet. Sapolsky noticed that the eldest brother and father nodded, smiled, laughed and talked at the same time. Their expressions were virtually identical and changed in unison. It was as if the older brother not only inherited his father’s herd, but was growing to become the father. And he thought “this is the difference between “western” and “African” cultures. In the west we strive to separate from and surpass our parents while here in Africa their ambition is merely to become their parents.”

Later, the death of his own father inspired Sapolsky to give a motivational, “carpe diem” lecture to his students. Once he began speaking, he found himself talking not about how life is short and how they should take risks and make their mark, but rather, quite against his volition, he told them to steel themselves against life’s difficulties and inevitable disappointments. In short, he gave the lecture his father would have given in that situation. Shaken, he realized that perhaps western and African cultures were not so different. That becoming your parent is not only inevitable, but admirable.

And so I find it is one of my greatest pleasures, and a far better tribute to my father than these words, when my wife turns to me and says with a loving smile, “You know, when you do that you remind me of your dad.”

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Just because you find it, don’t stop searching

Recently I went for a walk in Portola Redwoods State Park. The ostensible purpose was to photograph the small but scenic Tip Toe Falls. After scouting the area I chose an oblique view to include the ferns and color from the adjacent cliff walls.

Tip Toe Falls

Tip Toe Falls, Portola Redwoods State Park, California

This image is actually a composite of three photographs. The shutter speed for the base photo was chosen to obtain a balance between motion blur and capturing detail in the flow of water over the fall. However, under those condition the water in the pool looked “frozen”, as that water was moving slower. A second exposure was made with a slower shutter speed, and the area of the pool was copied and pasted into the original photograph. A third image was taken, exposed to bring out some shadow detail on the cliff wall, and the relevant areas copied and pasted into the original. Selective contrast adjustments, cloning out some small, distracting elements and applying some vignetting completed the image.

Before I packed up to hike out, I took one last look around to see if there was anything else interesting to photograph. Jumping to the other side of the stream, I noticed the fern frond that shows up in the center of the photo above, forming a gentle arc against the background of the falls.

Fern Frond in front of waterfall

Fern Frond by Tip Toe Falls, Portola Redwoods State Park, California

This is rather different interpretation of the falls, which now provide a patterned background for the central subject, the grace of the fern.

By now the sun was almost directly overhead, traditionally the worst time of the day for photography. I was hungry and had an afternoon appointment. Time to leave.

But I reminded myself that I was trying to develop a new practice. To be patient. To be open to the moment. It was then I noticed the sun shinning through the overhanging ferns, infusing them with an internal glow. I took several shots, but this is my favorite.

Back lit Fern Frond

Fern, Portola Redwoods State Park, California

In fact, it is my favorite image of the day. An image I would not have captured if I had stopped looking once I had found the image of the waterfall I originally sought. An image I would not have seen if I hadn’t rejected, not once, but twice, the impulse to move on to the next item on my list.

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