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Google’s new “Search by Image” feature a joy of juxtapositions

This summer, Google released a new search feature that has provided me with hours of entertainment. It’s called “search by image.” You can upload a photo (or paste in a link to an online photo) and Google will comb the web, looking for matching photos on websites throughout the world. In the past, if I wanted to see where my photos appeared online, I could do a Google search (under the “images” tab) by typing in my own name, or by entering words that described the photo or the subject. That approach had limited success. TinEye has offered a “reverse image search” for years, but Google’s new “search by image” seems to find results that TinEye misses — not a surprising achievement from the world’s largest and most powerful search engine. (Though TinEye does deserve acknowledgement for beating Google out of the gate with this concept.)

Photographers will use Google’s “search by image” to find their own photos online, whether the images have been purchased and used legally, or copied without permission. No doubt Google’s new feature will precipitate some copyright infringement lawsuits. I’ve already found some improper use of my photos (including by media outlets that should know better, like the Florida Sun Sentinel). I’ve also been able to finally see my stock photos in the many places they appear (legally) all over the Internet. Here’s just one of the nine pages of search results showing my stock photo of a model (my friend Avram) illustrating a “breath check”:

Interestingly, Google will also show you what it thinks are “visually similar images.” Sometimes these search results are obvious — similar lighting, similar color palette, similar composition — but this doesn’t always mean similar subject matter. I’ve been delighted with some of the serendipitous results for “similar” images. I upload a photo of a man holding a slice of pizza, and Google shows me a photo of a breast exam, an exotic bird, a sailboat, some modern architecture, a bowl of cereal, and a woman in a bathtub. I have to admit, these things are visually similar, though it takes the algorithmic objectivity of a search engine to distill these results from among the billions of images on the web:


The surprise factor

One of the fun things about shooting commercial stock photos is that one never knows how the images will be used. When RF images are sold, the photographer receives payment, but usually no information about who bought the image or how it will be used. I’ve had the pleasant surprise of finding my own stock photos in all kinds of unexpected contexts, including this lovely post on the blog


Long Day of Headshot Photography

Last Sunday, I rented a meeting room in the Holiday Inn Midtown (which used to be a Hilton, and used to be managed by my dad), for a full day photographing actors and models with Acclaim Talent.

I enlisted the help of Lindy Michelle Willis, a good photographer in her own right who has assisted me in the past with weddings and bridal portraits. We photographed one actor per hour, for eleven hours. Lots of work!

This was a good opportunity for me to use a few of my newest pieces of studio equipment, including a large boom from Calumet, which is excellently counterbalanced for a “zero gravity” effect — without adjusting any knobs, you can move the position of the light, and it will just stay wherever you leave it. I have the Calumet boom mounted on a sturdy Avenger wind-up cine stand on casters.

I also made good use of Profoto’s Air Synch and Air Remote. I used three Profoto D1 monolights (which have built-in Air receivers), and a Calumet Genesis 300B monolight (which I synched into the Profoto Air system by attaching an Air synch in “receive” mode.) With a Profoto Air remote mounted on the hotshoe of my Canon EOS 5D Mark II, I was able to trigger all four lights simultaneously, and to selectively turn off any of them, or even adjust the individual output of the three D1 units. This setup offered excellent control and reliability.

My lighting setup for headshots, featuring Profoto D1 lights and Calumet's excellent boom.


Thursday Night Ice; Friday Night Lights

My portrait of Pulitzer Prize winner Buzz Bissinger, author of Friday Night Lights

I got calls all day Thursday from people wondering whether Bissinger’s public lecture would be cancelled.

“Why would it be?” I asked.

This is Texas, where the threat of an inch of snow in February is enough to shut down the Interstate and cancel school.

“What if it snows?”

“It’s not going to snow.”

“What if it does? What if the conference center closes?”

“It’s a hotel,” I said. “Hotels never close.”

This much I knew. My father had managed the Austin North Hilton and Towers while I was in high school. I worked there as a banquet waiter and a room service attendant. When three tornadoes had touched down nearby, killing the power, I had answered phone calls in the pitch dark kitchen, explaining to hotel guests that I’d be happy to complete their room service order as soon as the power was back.

What about beer? You don’t need electricity to bring me a beer, do you?

The elevators are out. You’re on the ninth floor.

What if I meet you half way?

Another time there was an ice storm and many hotel employees had called in, saying they were afraid to drive to work. “I’ll pick you up,” Dad had said. I rode with him as he made the rounds early that morning, rolling slowly but confidently through the suburbs, shuttling bellboys and concierges and waiters and housemen and security guards, all of them downhearted that their snow day had been denied.

Despite the weather this week, the AT&T Executive Hotel and Conference Center at UT remained open, and about 75 people clustered in the center of the 300-seat amphitheater to hear Buzz give his talk on “Friday Night Lights and Beyond: The Critical State of Sports Today.”

His 1990 book Friday Night Lights had been called a cautionary tale by some reviewers. Maybe some people had been stirred by that warning, Buzz said, but it’s been forgotten. Things are worse today.

Using the new $60 million high school stadium in Allen as a timely example, he railed against a culture dominated by sports. He thumped the podium metronomically as he opined on the exploitation of student athletes, the astronomical salaries of college coaches, and the budget deficit in Texas which will cause cuts in education and social services even while funding for athletics expands.

“Don’t for a minute believe that it pays for itself,” he said. “It does not.”

It’s true. Taxpayers have volunteered millions for new stadiums in cities and towns throughout the country, with promises of new jobs and increased revenue. Those promises almost always fall short.

On stage, Bissinger assumed the mantle of provocateur, speaking courageously to what he presumed, I think, would be a hostile audience. He challenged the culture of Longhorn boosterism. Delivered elsewhere on campus, this speech might have been controversial, but the audience Thursday night consisted mainly of Plan II Honors students and Liberal Arts faculty, who were seemingly in agreement that sports had too much emphasis at UT.

After the talk, I attended a small dinner party for Buzz where I was one of the only people in the room without a Pulitzer Prize. Glenn Frankel, David Oshinsky, Michael Stoff and their spouses traded stories with Bissinger about autism, plagiarism, polio, Glenn Beck, the Ku Klux Klan, TV dramas, segregated university housing, e-publishing, academia and the future of journalism. But the conversation reliably circled back to sports—football, baseball, basketball, wrestling, tennis, golf, squash.

I tried, a bit nervously, to insert myself into the conversation. “Well—” I would say. “I—”

I wasn’t the youngest person in the room. Tim Taliaferro was there, too, about my age. Tim knows a lot about sports, though, and he had plenty to contribute to the conversation.

I only have three stories about sports. I had previously related my experience of getting pepper-sprayed at a soccer match to some of the same dinner guests (at a different dinner, a year before). There was also the story about my dad, who had been mentioned once in Sports Illustrated for losing a wrestling match that ended his high school’s unprecedented winning streak. I didn’t feel like sharing that episode, so this night I told my only other sports story, about how I had worked with Jason Cohn for Reuters in Pittsburgh for exactly one night, photographing the Pirates.

With the exception of Jason, who is kind and encouraging, the Pittsburgh sports photographers were the worst people I had ever encountered. They were nasty, intentionally elbowing and bumping each other to spoil shots. They hated the players, the fans and the officials. They hated each other and they hated themselves. One of them threw a temper tantrum when he couldn’t find the batteries he thought he’d packed. I offered him some of my own double-As, but he refused to accept them. I left the batteries on an empty seat. A few minutes later I saw the same photographer (from the Post Gazette or the Tribune or AP — I can’t remember which) popping my Duracells into his Pocket Wizard without even acknowledging me. The photographers criticized my camera (a $2500 Fuji DSLR), my age (24), my inexperience (two years working full time for the Department of Photography at NYU). They criticized my lens for being too small (200 mm) and my CF cards for being too big (1GB). I confided in Jason that I had no desire to come back.

“And your photos?” Betsyellen asked. “How were they?”

“The photos were fine,” I said. “The photos were good.”

“You weren’t tough enough,” Glenn said, teasing me in a friendly way.

“You know what?” I said. “That’s fine.”

The faculty club politely shooed us out at nearly one in the morning.

Indeed, there was a light dusting of frost on the sidewalks and the grass outside. “Slippery,” Michael said. “I hope we have a snow day tomorrow. Otherwise I’ve got to teach first thing in the morning.”

Driving home, the roads were mostly empty. Every few miles there was a car inexplicably wrecked in a ditch where no hazard but panicked braking had caused a forty-foot skid off the road. Distant sirens throbbed and intensified, until suddenly the blue and red urgency of an ambulance flashed past me on the highway. The few other drivers were creeping along at twenty miles an hour with blinkers telegraphing their cautious uncertainty.

I was confident in my 4×4—amused and annoyed by the snow-timid Texans. I was born in Alaska. I had lived in Utah and New York and Pennsylvania. I had driven through blizzards. I had driven through the Razorback Mountains in the dead of winter, through frozen Raton Pass, over the Rockies. My father was from blustery Buffalo and had taught me how to pump the brakes and how to turn into a skid. My father had taught me not to be daunted by nasty weather. Tough it out. Life goes on despite the weather.

Rehearsing the eulogy for Dad’s funeral in Denver, I had read aloud for my uncle Alan, asking for advice. I wanted to practice, because it was hard to speak those significant words — those few lines that were expected to sum up a life — without getting choked up. It was hard even to look Alan in the face, because if he saw how difficult it was for me to say anything at all, pity would well up in his eyes and I’d be overcome. Instead of looking at him I looked out the window at the snow-covered roads and the barren trees.

“Take as much time as you need,” Alan said. “They’ll wait for you. It’s important for them to hear you say something. Some kind of context. They’ll wait to hear it.”

“This line, I said. I’m not sure about it: ‘He taught me how to tie a necktie, how to take pictures, how to grow vegetables and how to drive.'”

“It’s a good line,” Alan said. “It’s intimate. It lets them see your dad in a way that nobody else knew him.”

“I just don’t want it to be a laugh line,” I said. “I don’t want it to strike anybody as something funny,” I said.

“Why would it?”

“About him teaching me how to drive,” I said. “Because, you know—that’s how he died. In a wreck.”

Alan did laugh then, just a chuckle. “I think it’s okay,” he said. “They’re not going to make that connection.”


New Lens reviewed: Canon EF 70-200mm f2.8L IS II USM

Fortuitously, the first time I took my new lens out for a walk, I saw a plane passing near the daytime moon. The image on the left is a crop at 100%, on the right, the uncropped photo as recorded at 200mm on my EOS 7D.

The Canon 7D with the updated “II” version of the 70-200mm f2.8 L lens

As a portraitist and product photographer, I often use short telephoto prime lenses. I prefer the 100mm f2.8L Macro IS USM for tabletop product photography, and the 135mm f2L USM (sometimes with a 1.4x extender) if I need a long reach outdoors or in a convention hall. My favorite short telephoto lens for portraits is the Canon EF 85mm f1.2L II USM, which (on a “full frame” 35mm camera) offers perfect compression and magnification for head-and-shoulders composition for a single subject. This lens is also capable of extraordinarily shallow depth of field effects, which can be hard to master — at f1.4, I occasionally find that my subject’s eye lashes are sharply focused, but the eyeballs are soft.

Many of my colleagues forgo this set of several prime lenses and instead purchase a telephoto zoom, which is less expensive (compared to the cumulative cost of three or four prime lenses) and more versatile, especially for event photography, when frequent lens changes could cause interruptions and missed shots.

I’ve owned several telephoto zoom workhorse lenses over the years — two versions of the Nikon 70-200mm f2.8, as well as the Canon 70-200mm f4L IS USM. I found that the f2.8 lenses produced acceptable resolution and contrast, suitable for event photography and journalism (but noticeably less sharp than a good prime). The Canon 70-200mm f4 was impressively sharp for a zoom lens, but wasn’t quite as fast at acquiring focus in low light (because the f4 aperture doesn’t allow as much light to land on the autofocus sensors). None of these lenses performed as well as the best primes, and they also had the disadvantage of being large and heavy.

I used a telephoto zoom lens for several hours at a wedding in 2008, and afterwards had a tingling sensation in the tips of my left ring finger and pinkie. This tingling persisted for several days, so I asked my doctor about it. He said it might go away, but that it could be nerve damage.

A few moths later, with my fingers still tingling, I visited a specialist who performed a nerve conductivity test. He put electrodes on my arm and hand at various points and shocked me, measuring the time it took the electrical pulse to travel across my ulnar nerve. Then he stabbed the needle-sharp end of an electrical wire into the fleshy web between my thumb and forefinger. This wire translated the electrical activity in my nerve endings into an audible signal. We listened together to the scratches and pops that issued from a small speaker next to the examination table.

“There’s no doubt about it,” he said, “You’ve got nerve damage. And significant muscle loss in your hand. I’m going to send my report to your doctor, and he’ll most likely refer you to an orthopedic surgeon. You’ll want an upper extremity guy — an arm guy.”

“Were you in any kind of an accident?” The surgeon (the arm guy) asked me. “Did you hit your elbow very hard?”

“No,” I said. “I don’t think so.”

“Any repetitive tasks?”

“I’m a photographer,” I said. “I raise and lower my camera, and I support the lens with my left hand — like this,” I said, pantomiming.

“How much does your camera weigh?” he asked.

“Depends on the lens. With a big lens, a battery pack, and a flash — maybe ten pounds.”

He shrugged.

The surgery I had in November of 2009 — an ulnar nerve transposition — stopped the tingling in my fingertips and left me with an five-inch scar on my elbow. A year later, my left hand is still weaker than my right, and I have persistent numbness in those fingertips. The surgeon did say that he found an extra muscle in my elbow that only about 1% of people have, and that it was possible the muscle might have been crushing the nerve. He removed the muscle and moved the nerve to a new location on the other side of my arm.

The scar on my elbow from an ulnar nerve transposition, possibly the consequence of a repetitive stress injury from using heavy telephoto lenses.

So it remains a mystery wether my nerve damage was caused by a mutant muscle or was the consequence of supporting a too-heavy lens for too many hours. I swore off heavy zoom lenses…temporarily.

This Fall though, I attempted to photograph a wedding using only prime lenses. This involved a lot of running around and a lot of quick lens changes. Even with two camera bodies, I never seemed to have the appropriate focal length ready at the moment I needed it. At about the same time, I began reading breathless reviews of the newly updated Canon EF 70-200mm f2.8L IS II USM. It was as good, the critics claimed, as any prime.

With future weddings and conference shoots scheduled for the near future, and with Canon offering a $200 rebate on the lens, I decided to give a big zoom another try. What I discovered:

In studio conditions and at identical apertures, the new Canon telephoto zoom is just as sharp as the 85mm f1.2L II USM, the gold standard for short telephoto resolution. The 85 is of course capable of significantly shallower depth of field, and offers a noticeably brighter viewfinder image, helpful for manual focus. (Despite the smaller maximum aperture, the 70-200 will typically autofocus faster than the 85 due to a more sophisticated USM.) And the 85 is shorter, less conspicuous, and fully a pound lighter than the new 70-200.

Here are two portraits I made recently of my friend and mentor Paul Woodruff, Professor of Philosophy and Dean of Undergraduate Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Both photos were lit by Profoto D1 monolights, but with different lighting setups and slightly different apertures (f9 for the first and f14 for the second) so this is not an ideal test, but an imperfect “real world” comparison of the 85mm prime versus the 70-200 zoom set at 85mm, with the same subject and the same camera.

Photographed with the 85mm f1.2L II USM

Photographed with the 70-200mm f2.8L IS II USM at 85mm

Both of these photos of Dr. Woodruff were shot with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II in RAW, and converted with ACR in CS5 with minimal adjustment and no further retouching. The zoom lens seems to have a bit higher contrast (attributable, perhaps, to differences in lighting.) I don’t see an appreciable difference in sharpness.

So, in terms of image quality, I am quite pleased with the new zoom lens. But it’s no great joy to use. Here are some helpful size comparisons:

My new zoom lens in a side-by-side comparison with my 135mm and 85mm primes

And here let's compare the 70-200 and the two Canon short telephoto primes, all without their lens hoods. For another point of reference, I've included my Carl Zeiss 140mm f2.8 lens for the Contax 645. Even measured against a medium format telephoto lens, the 70-200 is a monster.

The 70-200mm f2.8L IS II USM mounted with a 1.4x extender to a Canon EOS 5D Mark II

My conclusion: Canon’s new 70-200mm f2.8L IS II USM will produce outstanding results comparable to even the best prime lenses in the same focal range. It is, however, brutally heavy to hand hold and carry. If you need a general purpose lens for tasks including event photography as well as portraiture, get the new telephoto zoom and a monopod to help support it for longer sessions. If you are interested exclusively in a portrait lens, get the 85, which remains superb and will be easier on your arms and on your back.


Poetry on the Plaza: The Language of Photography

This October, I had the honor once again of reading poetry at the Harry Ransom Center for their Poetry on the Plaza series. (I read for the series once before, in 2006, together with my friend Molly Schwartzburg, HRC Curator of British and American Literature.) This time I was one of three readers on the theme “The Language of Photography,” a tie-in to the current exhibition of the Gernsheim Collection. The other readers were Roy Flukinger (HRC Senior Research Curator of Photography) and prominent Texas photographer Geoff Winningham. We each read several poems by established writers, including Naomi Shihab Nye, Natasha Trethewey, and William Carlos Williams. Self-indulgently, I also read one of my own poems, “Reciprocity Failure.” Here are a couple of photos friends took for me:


the fantasies of grenadiers

A man named Scott McKinney blew himself up while driving through my neighborhood Sunday. After the explosion, his car veered into a ditch about 400 yards from our house. According to the very limited news reports, he was planning to throw a homemade bomb out the window of his car, but it blew up in his hand instead. He died in the hospital Monday morning.
In the preceding days, Suzi told me twice that she thought she heard gunshots in the area behind our house. I’m wondering now if she had been hearing McKinney’s earlier experiments with explosives.
Our neighborhood is only half-developed, and there are many empty lots overgrown with weeds and switchgrass. But there’s also a tiny playground and a bus stop, and when I walk through the empty woods I find the abandoned nests of teenage parties — beer bottles, trampled earth, small fire pits. It’s not an unpopulated area. Throw a bomb into the woods here, and you might kill somebody.
Without more information, I can’t reasonably speculate about what McKinney intended to accomplish with the bombs he was making. Perhaps he had no objective to his bombmaking besides satisfying a pyromaniacal compulsion. This story, though, invites some associations with other events I’ve witnessed and some fears about new violent sentiments in my community.
Through the Internet, I’ve encountered amateur paramilitaries who believe that society is threatened, and that they’ll soon need to defend themselves or their property with deadly force, in circumstances of total lawlessness. I know people who are amassing arsenals, learning to build bombs, stockpiling food, stockpiling ammunition, buying body armor. They expect that, in the near future, the government will betray the people in such a fundamental way that there will be revolt and chaos in the streets. (As some of them see it, that betrayal is already in progress.) Intermingled with warnings and fear of a coming pandemonium, there is also an eager anticipation of the revolution. These prophets of doom actually look forward to a day when all their preparations will prove valuable. They believe that they will have a meaningful role to play when the revolution comes.
I was in New York when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center in 2001. From an eighth-floor window in the NYU Department of Photography and Imaging (where I worked), I watched the twin towers fall. I understand through personal experience that there are radical people in the world who want to kill Americans. But there are also mixed-up people here in the American heartland who are so preoccupied with self-defense that they create a new danger all their own. It was dizzying for me to visit the burned out shell of the federal building just off the Mopac Expressway in Austin and see a miniature scale replica of the World Trade Center disaster in New York. Joseph Stack flew his private plane into that IRS building because he hated the American government, and he wanted to make a political statement.

The aftermath of Joseph Stack's plane attack on a building in Austin.

Now, a Republican Senate candidate in Nevada named Sharron Angle has suggested that unhappy conservatives might turn to “second amendment remedies . . . when our government becomes tyrannical.” She has indicated repeatedly that, if voting doesn’t solve what she calls “the Harry Reid problem”, guns might be the next alternative.
Whether in actual application, or merely as a threat, this intimation of violence is the most base form of ‘tyranny of the minority’. Don’t have the votes to get what you want? Can’t persuade the population? Kill the opposition. Or at least intimidate them. It’s the same strategy the Taliban have used in Afghanistan, and it is the fundamental strategy of all terrorism. Whether Angle really means to suggest that people should kill Harry Reid if she loses the election (or whether this is just rhetorical posturing) is barely relevant. When you tell people that government is tyrannical, and that the end is near — and if they believe you — they will make preparations. They develop plans to kidnap and murder police officers. They execute those plots. They fly their planes into office buildings. They learn to build bombs. They ambush and murder civil servants. They blow up federal buildings. They might even practice with IEDs in your backyard.

July 2018
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