Friday, March 21, 2014

Sheer magic...

I earned my living as a 'unit' in a class of company workers ironically termed by Fernand Huts back in June 1980 as 'brilliant career boys'. These are the so-called 'executives', often Vice Presidents, Directors, Managers, preferably with a 'Senior' attribute in front, who sacrifice a great deal of their first 30 years to obtain the 'proper' education as their sole key to a future 'success'. Such might be reached after long and struggling labor inside corporate management landscapes, often working for multinationals, and being paid 'modest' albeit quite generous 'fixed' pay, accompanied by a more than generous, merit dependent 'variable' part, plus, by no means ignorable, a shitload of share options. Sounds fairly glamorous, and there have been made indeed many Hollywood movies illustrating the sexier aspects of such professional "vida locas", low-flying execs from boardrooms to airports, another day another country, 'talking to customers' (ie. assistance in the closure of some deal by pledging bottomless love to clients until the latter sign the papers, followed by a "don't call us, we'll call you" sort of thing), and fulfilling C-level requirements about the 'numbers'. Or, else... Another quarter, another 'retirement', another corporate 'wishing the best' in someone's future 'endeavours', another bitter headhunt, landing (hopefully) on another job. And the history repeats itself...

I remember quite well a UK gentleman, one of my best mentors I was lucky to encounter in my early career, whom I met and worked with during the late 80ies to mid 90ies. Graham Price his name (R.I.P.), a native Welshman, who spent a lifetime as a Xerox executive in Rochester, NY, and even at Xerox PARC in Palo Alto (not sure whether he wasn't pulling my leg on that last bit). A stoic and incredibly wise man, who had gulped corporate politics and top floor intrigues with buckets! He was eventually made redundant (don't we all?), about when he hit 50. He subsequently became an independent consultant, and I happened to involve him in a number of ICT strategy projects in the Benelux and Switzerland. Norsk Hydro and Hoffman La Roche were among the largest of our customers, where he spent many long months with. I was more than 20 years younger than him, but he didn't mind 'working for me'; why should he, as we ended up me working for him in real terms, while he's been 'selling' the results of our analysis work to the client company chiefs. In general, C-level folks prefer grey wisdom to tell them what to do, and Graham had that, sort of... Anyways, during 1988 and 1989 I used to drive with him a lot to customers in various parts of Central and South Holland, and in Belgium. One 'sunny' day, while driving from Eindhoven to Venlo, I saw him stunned, staring at the Dutch landscape, obviously impressed by what he saw, like he'd never seen that before! With a gasp, he uttered, "I been around here a million times, I never managed to 'notice' the 'windmills', dammit! Did they just built them?". "Yeah", I giggled, "like two hundred years ago!" We had good laughs about this, years later, talking about the 'old days'. However, the incident has been engraved in my brain cells, and I remember this like it was yesterday. Graham hadn't noticed the damn windmills in Holland's countryside!!! I remember him often using a wonderful expression about bartenders and waiters for "being the world's leading experts in looking at you and never seeing you". I believe his very quote was exactly applicable to him, as he 'forgot' to swallow his 'own medicine'. Looking at the windmills countless times but actually never 'seeing them'...

You gotta be blind to come to Holland, travel around and never see the windmills. I had a scream when he said that. What a moron, I thought! Much I knew then... He basically admitted that it was all about arriving at some airport, picked up by some taxi or limo service, driven to the company facility while leafing over the relevant reports on the way, never talking to the driver, toil all day long, being driven for overnight stay to some 'corporate standards' hotel in the neighbourhood, probably being entertained by some business partner in between, with night cups before sleep, expensive French wine, and cholesterol saturated dinner meals, back to the office the following day after a few hours sleep (courtesy of the usual jetlag) for more torrential meetings after meetings, and eventually heading back to Schiphol to catch the overnight flight to some other corner of the world. For more of the same. Graham passed in September 1999. Hardly 60 years old. Complications of an operation, his son wrote to me months later. Into the year 2K, it was. Un homme pressé! Diabetes, cardiovascular, or maybe cancer. Or a combination of any of the above. I'll never know. It doesn't matter anyways. All of us, brilliant career boys will go down similar ways. Mark my words. Not much glamour there. The keyword is 'stress'...

It's the tulips season these days round. Early spring that is. We got quite a few of those in our garden, and, for a number of seasons during the last 3-4 years, having abandoned corporate life for good, encouraged by friends from countries where locally grown tulips are a rarity, I photographed and shared my pictures with those same friends. As a matter of pastime. But like Graham, I never stood still by their intricate tulip beauty, so divinely expressed by simple but brilliant geometry, another proof that Mathematics is nature's very architect. To many indeed Mathematics is nothing short of The Creator! God Itself. (Aronofski's 'Pi' is an interesting try to prove this thesis. Worth viewing, despite it's technically mediocre B/W filming and its occasionally scary occult 'messages'.)

Nonwithstanding our broad knowledge about the obvious destiny, like many millions other 'brilliant career boys' running the enterprises of the world out there, me as well, I never stood still. I actually 'forgot' to do it! Can you just believe this? My world for decades was merely the Company, its products, its customers, its numbers! I haven't 'seen' my offsprings grow from infants to teenagers, to adolescents and young adults. I'd been still looking south to see them stepping on my shoes to do the 'funny walk', but I was shocked to find them north, my eyes staring upwards and discovering them quite few inches above my line of vision. I had become the shortie and hadn't realised. 'Who knows where the time goes? Nina might have known... Life passed me by and I found myself driving through countless and vastly spread fields in the last 30 years with millions, probably billions, tulips, in the very Netherlands of all places, but I hadn't 'noticed' them!

Click on my recent picture above for a larger view. I somewhat annotated it to prove my point hereafter. When I saw four tulips like this one with their petals spread open, during the uniquely sunny and warm day yesterday, exceptional for the time of the year, I became speechless. I just couldn't believe the wisdom by which evolution 'managed' to create tulips like those four. All configured and pre-defined for millions of years, deep in each and every specialized cell of theirs by their own (magical as well) DNA code. We witness a miracle taking place, and we feel too incompetent to grasp its magnitude. I mean the size of the divine wisdom that 'created' nature's laws, which subsequently made tulips 'happen', as well as the rest of the visible and invisible universe for that matter.

Look carefully. There's two systems of three petals each, 120 degrees apart, combine into a simple but beautiful symmetrical structure to form almost a full circular disk, as they spread wide open. In themselves, each of the 'systems' forms with its tips 2 virtual isosceles triangles that are repositioned 180 degrees apart to combine into a 'star of David'. They actually result in a virtual hexagon, with at its center the flower 'style' ending at the 'stigma'. The stigma itself, in a shape similar to each of the petal systems (reminiscent of a Merc star), is also properly aligned with the rest. Everything seems symmetrical by revolution. With every 60 degree angular turn the resulting shape remains invariant as seen from a fixed reference system of angular coordinates. But the sheer beauty of all this is how those 6 anthers (why 6 indeed?) appear aligned to the tips of the petals. The latter turning from light yellow to dark purple around the spot opposite those same anthers, is creating a stunning visual contrast. Probably in order to better attract insects, the masons of the fertilised plant seeds. Like the archangel messengers of the coming of life's next generation.

My description so far has been simply of the static state of rest of the flowers, after they unfolded their petals to attract by their scent and visual marvels the flying bees around them. It is far more spectacular to witness them, when by obeying nature's mechanisms of 'simple' biological pathways inside all of their flower-cells, each time ambient temperature and daylight 'allow it', hermetically 'closed' petals graciously unfold... open up! I often saw time-lapse sequences showing this slow unfolding process, petal after petal, and it's sheer fun to watch it as an accelerated smooth 24 FPS video clip. It might be one of my next projects. Takes a lot of organisation and patience to get it right. But it's worth the try. Don't you think?

I think, this time, I might have indeed 'noticed' the tulips. Never too late to teach an old dog new tricks...

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Photobook: A History, Volumes I, II and III

I recently received a Phaedon email ad about Vol. III of this book series, and, realising celebrity Magnum Photographer Martin Parr was one of the authors, it made me take a second look at the attached PDF extract of volume III. The rest is history. Order placed with Amazon and Vol. I and II (Vol. III is currently under production, I reckon), delivered yesterday, on a Saturday, by BPost (good for them).

These are large books, quite heavy and 'pagey' indeed. Not as bad as the Modernist Cuisine and its derivatives of course, but large enough, and heavy nevertheless. Impossible to bring to bed for a casual 'read' before dozing off. You might risk suffocation for sure if you tried and fell asleep under its size and weight!

I haven't leafed them books yet, not even casually. I'm saving this for future savouring during genuine 'quality' moments (if I ever find those), relaxing and ready for 'deep' thinking. However, I spent half hour this morning reading the authors' Introduction to Vol. I. There's two authors, Martin Parr as said, and Gerry Badger, whom, I need to confess - cross my heart, I don't quite know, and if he's equally important as Martin Parr, my apologies for my ignorance. As a matter of fact, until ten years ago I hadn't heard of Parr either. During a visit in London during early 2000's to meet my daughter (a RUG Arts-History college student
then, as an Erasmus exchange student in Nottingham, England), and she brought me to the Barbican to an expo by Mr. Parr that she's been dying to attend to. It was then that I found out about the man. We even bought the catalog, and I remember the place and his photographs like it was yesterday. I even remember the guard shouting at me for using my own camera to shoot Mr. Parr's marvels as a souvenir. I always hate expo spaces, when they won't allow shooting your own pictures for fear of... flashlights damaging artworks, camera click annoying other visitors, stealing the artist's or the museum's IPR, or I don't know what else. However, in the meantime, in some clever places especially in Germany, you buy this 'shooting' right during a visit, but have to carry a badge at all times to avoid remarks by vigilant caretakers. At the least this is a much better solution for bypassing embarrassing guards acting like schoolmasters and treating us shooters worse than grammar school pupils.

Back to Martin Parr, again. Harsh, very saturated colours in frequent photojournalistic shoots, 'cease the decisive moment (Bresson)' kinda thing, Magnum style photography (I had fun with his shot sequence of napping commuter Japanese workers), many rather closeup single household and other object pictures as well, always with conspicuous deeply saturated colours (have I already said that?). He seemed like using dia-positive films, a lot like Kodakchrome and the likes. If I remember well, he is also known for using conspicuous flashlight fill-ins under sunny daylight conditions. Many use that style and it creates a sort-of 'plastic', almost acrylic, touch and feel. He once confessed this in an interview about the intensity of his colours : "I used amateur film, often Fuji 400 Superior for the 6/7 cm camera and Agfa Ultra or Fuji 100 asa film for the ring flash and macro lens. This combined with flash gives very high colour saturation, there is no Photoshop used.". Needless to say, the camera he uses nowadays is simply Canon's marvel 5D Mark III (don't we all?).

In their Introduction the authors describe their rationale and choices made for creating this book series, a monumental epic work indeed. They were quite impressive by the clarity of their argumentation in this part of their narrative. Quite often this section in a book appears to be pompous and useless, instead of a good and comprehensive 'management summary' as it should. I found their analysis of the 'Photobook' concept and it's place in the Arts and History of the World quite remarkable. I'll touch base on a number of points mentioned that I found particularly useful.

1. "Photographs can function as historical documents, as political propaganda, as pornography, as repositories for personal memories, as works of art, as fact, fiction, metaphor, poetry." I bet you, this is one of the most comprehensive, to the point, and complete definitions I've come across about the aim of photography.

2. I loved their definition of a 'photobook' too, being a 'book' whose author(s), photographers or not, convey its message simply through a series of (theme) photographs. It has a specific character, distinct from the photographic print, the latter being either (business related) functional, or as a fine-art exhibition print.

3. Their mention of the Dutch critic Ralph Prins stating: "...(in a photobook) the photographs lose their own photographic character as things 'in themselves' and become parts, translated into printing ink, of a dramatic event called a 'book'."

4. Book design, typography, binding, accompanying texts, the jacket, the print paper, the technology used. These are all important elements of the book, properly selected and designed to support the book's ultimate purpose.

5. This part I have appreciated a lot, notwithstanding it not being theirs. They expose a set of criteria to be fulfilled by a good Photobook, borrowed from photographer John Gossage: "Firstly, it (the book) should contain great work. Secondly, it should make that work function as a concise world within the book itself. Thirdly, it should have a design that complements what is being dealt with. And finally, it should deal with content that sustains an ongoing interest." I couldn't have said this better myself. Great photographs, consistent with the theme of the book, with an effective design, and focused upon stuff that matters.

6. They further develop the idea that a photobook should not necessarily only contain photographs of the book's author, or even contain 'great' photographs for that matter. Still, one can get a great book that is curated by a 'photography lover' author, who orchestrated a number of selected photographs by known or unknown photographers into a wonderful 'dramatic event' (the book), properly fulfilling all of Cossage's criteria. I found this quite a remarkable idea. As a consequence, their 'History' epic is not about famous photographer monographs or anthologies, except under certain conditions, like for instance Bresson's Decisive Moment (1952), but more about books that tackle worthwhile themes. Therefore, no Stieglitz, no Weston, no Adams (!) references in their opus magnum. Wow!

7. About the 'theme' of a photobook, they state: It can be as broad as the Universe, or as narrow as closeups of rippled mud. It might be formally precise as the geometry in plants, or casually intuitive. It can be simple or it can be rich as a dictionary. In any case, the theme must be clear, if not immediately obvious!

8. An interesting point made is about the known fact that European musea don't usually expose photographs as artworks, whereas in the US photography has often found it's way into the known musea and their permanent collections. European sceptics might bitterly claim "that's because they haven't got much else to show, them poor Yanks", but the fact of the matter is that it's all about Euro-conservatism and arrogance if you come to think of it.

9. Following (and pursuing) the theme of a Photobook by 'intention, logic, continuity, climax, sense and perfection' has been their criterion of inclusion in their work of any photobook that they considered. It is an excellent criterion and it thoroughly proves true their argument that not merely great photographs are a sine-qua-non condition to create a great Photobook. They admit however that a great book is more than the sum of its parts. And when the parts happen to be great, then the sum is likely to end-up even greater. Presumably, selection of the parts is the hard bit in this process. This is the area where the genius of the author or curator becomes apparent and raises them to the Pantheon of Greatness.

10. Finally, to complete this list of what I considered important points in their Introduction, I welcomed their assertion that a Photobook is a far more reaching, open and broader vehicle for disseminating photographic works than gallery exhibits during finite in time vernisages, enjoyed mainly by the 'cultured' intelligentsia of the large urban centers of the world. The book can reach you everywhere, even in the remotest of places, God bless

A must own - must read. Your choice...

UPDATE: A good friend who read this post sent me a message adding the following info:

Photobook collections appear to be quite a hot item in recent years. Even curators of known musea are picking them up wherever possible. This also includes self published photobooks, not necessarily originating through the 'usual suspect' publishing houses. Also, at the Annual October/November Photography Fair 'Paris Photo' with many participating galleries, photobooks assume an important place among the various exhibits. It's incredible how the photobooks presented in the Parr and Badger three volume history are currently being sought after. For some of them already considerable dollar amounts are being paid. They have a word for it, the Parr/Badger-mania! Incidentally, Badger is an authority in the field of photography, and photobooks in particular. He wrote most of the narratives of this book series. Parr, on top of being a celeb photographer himself, is also a fervent collector: He has 12,000 photobooks at his home.

My pal has about 1500 pieces and I thought that was far too many already. I hardly have 1500 books of any sort in total, maybe a few dozen photobooks alone, and I thought I had a serious library... Dream on! However, I saw that I own one of the Parr/Badger presented books, which incidentally was purchased by my daughter and offered to me long ago! Gosh, I'm rich! (nooot?)

Sunday, February 2, 2014

A few months ago I have returned to 500 pix, a social site for photographs, where viewers vote on pictures posted by the site's members. I became a member myself long ago really, but I haven't paid too much attention to them in the past. They use a proprietary ranking algorithm whereby a brand new posted photograph receives quite a few points the first time it's been viewed, liked, or faved, but, the more it's score (a.k.a. pulse) grows, every new supporter adds far less points to it. When you first upload a photograph, it appears in the Fresh category and on your Friends' pages. When it reaches a rating of 60 (that is, just 5 positive votes for a fresh photo), it moves to the Upcoming. This shows last 7 days of photos, sorted by upload date. Upcoming photos have a great chance to get to the Popular (pulse above 80). Popular contains 50 pages of photos with the highest rating. Currently, it takes a pulse rating of about 84 to get to the last page of the Popular. For more details on the 500px ranking visit their blog. 500px considers scores above 94 pointing at photographic 'works of art'. Actually this is what I'd like to comment about here.

The ranking is quite hard to be tricked, and top ranks point at what the large masses of viewers presumably like. What the masses do 'like' and 'fav' though is not necessarily a 'work of art'. Even looking at a photograph adds points to it.  By definition photographs denoted as 'adult content' and hidden from view are 'asking' to be viewed by male viewers. Not too hard to trick viewers into it. I recently found someone posting the portrait of his dog (an excellent shot by the way) and covering it with the 'adult content' label. C'm on! That's really stupid. 500pix also claim that you can even unlike a picture, and, when you do that, you subtract 6 points from its pulse; I haven't quite seen where one can do this though. Maybe it's been a function in the past. What I often saw however, there have been pictures at the pole position with 99.8 points, which all of a sudden disappeared quite a few pages behind! Maybe the 'dislikes' took care of that, but as I said, I don't see where someone can dislike a picture at the present point in time.

To grow above 94 you probably need thousands of viewer hits. In any case, in its overall rankings 500px is far better than Facebook and Instagram, where pictures are faved by 'friends' and depending on the popularity of the photographer, and regardless how good his/her photographs are, pictures are faved by the thousands of 'dumb' and ignorant followers and 'friends'. I've been 'following' Ricky Gervais on FB for some time, and any picture he'd post would simply attract thousands of 'likes', just because he happened to be comedian Ricky. I reckon most viewers in the social networks are genuine morons as far as photography is concerned. That's why Flickr is still a better network for picture posting.

Back to 500px. You can easily find out what people generally like by watching regularly which photographs make it to the first page or above a pulse of 90 in the 'popular' category. I've done it for some time now, and can report what I found out. But before I do that, I'd like to state that I'm not falling into their trap. I'm not creating images of an imaginary nature, and I will avoid Photoshop as hell as a means of enhancing my work that I intend to post on 500 pix. And I also prefer to show the world in a happy mood, more or less the way I see it. There's no point in creating negative feelings in images. Enough misery and pain around. Creating negative moods is not quite my 'thing'. Also, there is no need to create pictures of a world that doesn't happen to be, on this planet anyway... You rather create a painting instead of capturing images.

Which pictures make it to the top? In general very few photographs, if at all, that have not been enhanced one way or another. It seems that the masses prefer to adore a dreamworld, a world of fairy tales that claims anything but the truth. How do you otherwise explain the popularity of so many landscape photographs with manipulated colours to the degree of plainly impossible? An example is Manarola, Italy, a picture shot always from the same angle of an Italian village by the sea that seems to have been winning top positions in rankings for as long as digital photography has been around. C'm on, there's other places too in this planet. It's plain ridiculous. Déjà vu to the nth power! Landscape photography from Iceland, or the poles is quite popular too. Many use either blurring effects or long time exposures to wipe out ripples from reflecting waters and make them appear more like mist or cloud than plain water. I hate that effect. It's looking at nature the way nature never presents itself to humans and animals with vision. Weird. And the masses love it.

Another popular subject is macro photography. I like this one. Especially when it enters deep into the inner workings of life in animals and plants. Sure thing. I like quite a bit the work of macro photographers, but only those who use normal equipment that you and I can buy. Not fancy microscopes in the hundreds of thousands of dollars that you can only find is government funded labs.

Then there is the 'adult' section. Especially broads from the east and ex CCCP. They seem to have suddenly discovered the likes of our corrupt west, and are gracefully posing with their private parts exposed to attract 'likes' and 'favs' from westerners. And the sex-hungry 'civilised' west falls for it like a rat grabbing the cheese bits off a mouse trap. I remember, I posted once on my Flickr account a nude painting that I created digitally on an iPad, and needless to say, that thing, even in the form of a painted image, has attracted thousands of views. Most I ever had on any of more than 25 thousand pictures I have posted for almost ten years now on Flickr! Go figure... Like some viewer once responded to me: "C'm on, dude. Don't you know yet? Sex simply sells!"  The question is why... Is this because God Himself told Adam and Eve to do so? Kinda 'Go, and have sex, kids'...

Then, there's many pictures with pets, and animals of all sorts that seem to also be one of the preferred subjects of the masses. I'm sick and tired of looking at pets, however, I have less of a problem with wildlife, especially National Geographic style. But not many of us are blessed with the opportunity to travel to the jungle for shots like these.

Then, there's portraits of older people from all over the world. They rarely make it to the top, but they usually get good rankings. It's the type of photography that I simply adore to shoot. Usually in monochrome. The texture of someone's skin, the expression in the subject's eyes, their hands and wrinkles tell volumes-long of the plot behind their life. These are photographs with character. The best photographers of the world had the skill for good portraits in spades. From Bresson and Karsh to more recent ones, like Platon and Vanfleteren. Just love it.

Then you have architectural photography of impossible buildings and angles of view, reflection photography, whereby the reflected part is entirely manufactured by copy/paste/flip vertical and ripple blur (pathetic), exotic landscapes from countries one has never had and probably will never get the opportunity to ever visit (only the lucky ones), flower photography, and a myriad of classic deja vu techniques and framings used in B/W and colour.

Hereunder I'm posting a screen capture of the top 8 shots as I am writing this ( on Sunday, Feb 2nd, 12:47 CET):

The only one I personally like here is the Snowy Bisons at a Yellowstone National Park. The cygnes we saw in Valentine cards a trillion times, Big Ben is presumably a tiring subject, and with long exposure times, you get perspective lines from passing vehicles (big deal), the broad has got an awfully ugly nose and she's posing kinda funny, the frozen bench, fine, it's interesting to see for informational purposes about places everybody wants to see once but nobody wants to live any near, same for the 'sleeping boat' and the 'amazing cloud' seems cool at first, but I wonder how much of it happened in real, or it was tricked above the horizon as a Photoshop layer of some sort. And it goes like this.

I have loved photography from the time I was a toddler. Not always however was I able to say what I liked or disliked in other people's photographs or mine. In the years that followed I bought me dozens of cameras and photographic equipment! I learned to develop films and print paper enlargements in analog on all combinations. From B/W to colour negatives as well as colour diapositives (Cibachrome). I have used small compact point and shoot cameras, (D)SLRs, medium format bodies and field cameras. I owned and used equipment to enlarge and print 24x36 up to 4x5 inch negatives. I worked with Adobe image processing software for more than 20 years. I seen it all. Been there done that.  No kidding. However... there is a huge 'however'. Despite what I did in the last forty years in photography, it is only the last three years that I started learning what photography, as a human endeavour, is all about. There are many fortunate individuals among us, who have the talent of grasping photography from early on in their lives. Not me. I belong to the masses, notwithstanding the fact that I can  practically shoot pictures of good technical quality (sharpness, colour, contrast and composition). I was fortunate though to have recently found such an expert to help me out. Thankfully, in the last three years I have been monitored and trained by a far and away friend, who studied history of arts in her twenties in one of the known UK Arts schools, and after seeing my pictures in 2010 for the first time, she decided to help me understand good photography, learn to appreciate my own work and learn what the photographic craft and art is all about.

I so learned things about implicit emotions photographs create inside the psyche of the viewer, about composition and the framing of objects, about the depth of colours and forms, and the role of perspective in the dimensionality of the photograph, and above all, how these elements translate into human emotion. I have to say, her ability to distinguish a great from a bad or average photograph is remarkable. My daughter, who happens to have earned a Masters degree in Photography too seems to possess a similar capacity for discrimination of bad from good. With an outstanding speed, mind you. In a heartbeat. I envy so much such people. They are able to see 'art' where the rest of us plain mortals merely see just a simple event being photographed. Amazing.

I can now humbly pretend that I nowadays understand more about other people's and mine photography. Looking at many of my past pictures again, with my new 'vision', I often feel embarrassed... Anyways. A dog is never too old to learn new tricks. Better late than never, I say... BTW, if you wondered what this picture of the man drinking tea at the top of this post is doing here, well it's my latest post on 500px that I bet to myself that will touch a pulse of 90. I'm trying to prove a theory that one does not necessarily need unreal worlds in order to grow in pulses above 90 in the Popular category. Linking to that picture will show you my latest score. Right now it has touched 88.5 with 152 views and 24 likes and 7 favs. Another shot I posted yesterday with a simple door handle after the rain has so far enjoyed a max of 91.8 and still growing!

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Fedex reinvents the shortest route to destination.

Package to arrive in Oudenaarde from Veldhoven. 1.9 kgs net. Fedex, the carrier. Veldhoven is just over the border with Belgium. Package travels to Germany. The highways to Belgium from Eindhoven are presumably blocked for Fedex trucks. From Köln (two hour drive from Brussels) it flies (!!!) to Stansted, England. Maybe the routes are blocked from Belgium to Germany too. Farmers on the highways? Hadn't noticed yet...

I suppose, next stop will be Brussels for home delivery in Oudenaarde. Don't know yet. It might visit Paris first. For a romantic walk in Montmartre. Or Barcelona. Maybe Prague. It was initially mentioned 'delivery by Wednesday 29th 6pm the latest' in the first tracking report. It's written 'delivery unknown' now. My 1.9 kgs flew over the channel to Stansted to breath some fresh air, after the taste of sauerkraut in Köln and smelly Vieux Gouda from Veldhoven. Fedex is doing its best to increase the environmental footprint impact of my 1.9 kgs (just a photo album). I already feel guilty about the future generations. I am one of the millions to blame for using online shopping damaging the ozon layer.

It could have been delivered yesterday. It's anybody's guess whether it'll be here at all tomorrow. If not, Friday nobody's home and they'll have to deliver it on Monday. Is this an exception or the rule of international courier companies? Are they stupid, pardon my French... Do suppliers know how their couriers work? Do they give a shite? Who knows? I'll tell you when or if it arrives. In the meantime, see for yourselves. A picture is worth a thousand words. Click for larger and readable views.

UPDATE: I was right after all. The good news is that they managed to get it (I hope) very close and I'll probably have it by today. The bad news is I was right about Paris. It really traveled from Stansted to Charles De Gaulle - Roissy! Only difference now was that it wasn't shipped to Brussels for final delivery, but to St-Denijs - Westrem, around Ghent, about 20km from where I live. We're getting closer... 

It might have been Brussels after all where the real problem was. "No ways lead to Brussels" sort of thing... With so many Eurocrats living in the most fake and pretentious city on the planet, who wouldn't avoid it??? 

See for yourselves hereunder! I updated the charts...

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Photography of the Modernist Cuisine

I don't quite remember when or where I found out about this book, at first. The important thing is that I found out. I have long known its author, Nathan Myhrvold, from when he was the big shot CTO in Microsoft, a position previously held by His Lordship, Bill Gates III. Nathan is not a dollar billionaire yet, but I reckon he can get around without having to sweat much for a living... with his $650M... Although this is at least 100 times less than Buffalo Bill himself, however, what the heck? It's only money! Still enough for his next hundred years, right?

In terms of personal fulfilment I guess Nathan seems quite a happy man. He's got two great passions in his life, besides his late day-job, I'd reckon. These are Photography and Haute Cuisine. For the former he seemed to have travelled the entire planet multiple times over, and shot photographs in places the rest of us only witness on National Geographic documentaries. For the latter he spent a year off in France, while a CTO, to learn how to cook the frog way... Good for him, and his lifestyle might also explain the general incapacity of Microsoft to properly keep up with Innovation. His long absences could have never happened under Jobs's watch if he happened to be working for Apple, that's for sure. No Ive sabbatical in sight, probably not even under Cook. You don't abandon the troops for a year's sabbatical if you are the commanding officer in charge of a raging battle against multiple enemies. No Sabbaticals for Feynman and his fellow scientists on the Manhattan project either. I worked long enough for various US bosses who never lost an opportunity to let me know, "if we can miss you for more than a week, we can miss you for ever!'. Right, Tommy? A 365 day Sabbatical in such a top job? At the hottest IT company in town? Blimey!

Anyways, Nathan seems to be quite a smart cookie, and whatever he got hold of, he managed to turn into a success story. So, he created this monumental work about his very own trend in cooking that he called Modernist Cuisine. A five volume giant in book form with cooking recipes, except that the recipes are only a (small) part of the story. Watch the Vimeo for a teaser taste.

Eventually, good ol' Nathan had the dough to turn his passion into a venture business with this Modernist 'thing' and we all wish him well, as from what I experienced myself, this is indeed something we never witnessed before in the world history of books since Gutenberg.

When I first read about it in a recent edition of the New Yorker (suddenly it came to me, it was indeed the New Yorker where I read about his books), I saw the reference to a separate book that he made about the Photography of his monumental undertaking. Indeed, the photography looked stunning, the sort I like a lot, as I found out in a variety of sources available, among other, at his homepage and on Amazon. Curious as I am, I really wanted to find out how he actually shot those supernatural photographs, used in his books, and other media that seem to be sprouting from his Chef league cooking (ad)ventures. So, I Amazoned his 'Photography of the Modernist Cuisine'. I picked it up at the US as they seemed to offer it a lot cheaper (including shipping and handling) than their European sisters (UK, DE and FR). Worth mentioning, when I ordered the book, I had no clue what its overall size or weight were. I thought it's just a book. Maybe a bit larger than usual, but, what the heck, a book is a book, right? We are not in the Middle-Ages anymore and Illuminated Manuscripts of 100+ pounders were long gone and hidden in some obscure musea storage space, right?

So much I knew... The postman arrived and left me a note to pick it up the following day, as I wasn't at home when he delivered it. Next day at 11 am I'm standing at the PO front desk waiting for the clerk to pass me the goods that she went to fetch from their storage. My eyes kinda popped out when I saw her arriving with a huge semi-transparent flexible plastic container with something huge in it. WTF was that?!! I thought, it oughtta be 'the book'. Still seemed hard to believe. Since when does Amazon deliver goods packed in clumsy plastic sacks? Once at home, mystery solved. The smart asses of our local Customs were curious to find out what kind of stealth missile was hidden inside the Amazon box, addressed to me all the way from somewhere in the US of A, and they literally ripped the package like their life depended on it. I've never witnessed the mess done on the Amazon box, ever before. Thankfully, ripping the outside package revealed an inside box (well done Amazon!) with a label 'Do not open'. Curiously enough, the local Customs Officer, who ripped the first package with so much hatred, seemed too pooped that he decided there were no threatening explosives or gold bars (whatever) inside the interior package, and he just threw it like this into the plastic container.

When I finally managed to get it out of there, and released it from a last protective foil layer, I found myself experiencing what skilled monks used to do daily a thousand years ago, working on Illuminated Manuscripts. The 'Book' gives real meaning to the term 'humongous'! Words are not enough. I put it on my kitchen table and went thru it page by page. It's the first time in my life I had to page thru a book literally standing up. I mean, if you sit down with the book open on a table in front, you have a very narrow view of the contents. You gotta stand up to experience it's grandeur. Page spreads are larger than A2, a single page is definitely larger than an A3 or even an A3+. I shot the picture posted above with two tape measures reading outside dimensions 34 x 42.5 cm!!! And added my hassie for size reference. Unfortunately, I didn't have a weight scale handy to weight it (a simple kitchen sample won't cut it).

Needless to say, the pictures are extremely well shot, simply gigantic, most shot with Myhrvold's gear, nothing more - nothing less than a Canon 5D Mark III (what else?). He seems to like shooting macro photography, and he often used microscopes to get inside the soul of his foodie objects. Actually, the concept of his culinary books is quite unique. I wish we all had time to study this 21st Century Bible thoroughly, as there is a myriad things to learn about food. There's even a more concise version called Modernist Cuisine at Home. See the references at his homepage to find out more. There's a deep preview of the book at Amazon's too. However, even that 'smaller' version is not what you'd call 'easily manageable' by anyone less than a Sumo fighter. Nathan likes them big, one could safely claim.

However, I was strikingly surprised about something, but at the same time I felt quite happy about. You'd reckon a loaded individual like Nathan, with deplorable amounts to spend on pastimes, would have used the crème de la crème in photographic gear. At least a bunch of Hassies, or even Phase One backs on Sinar Large Format bodies. Not true. He merely used simple Canon DSLRs, actually not even the 1DX, but the 5D instead, and only a few lenses (180, 100 and 50 mm with macro). I use almost identical gear (I got the 135 instead of the 180, the rest are same). Besides, I am not that much into macro as he does. BTW, the 5D is used a lot by many other big shots. One other example is Douglas Kirkland, who became famous shooting Marilyn Monroe for Look.

The other surprising thing was that Nathan used the same post-processing like many of us gifted amateurs do... that is, Photoshop, Lightroom and Helicon Focus for Focus Stacking! Also, panoramic stitching in Photoshop is a thing he likes much. Techniques used for high speed photography and the like seemed quite common too. They had a hell of a challenge though cutting through their cooking gear and putting stuff inside to demo what happens when one cooks. In some shots they used dozens of frames layered in Photoshop to simulate cooking processes as if someone was inside the pans and pots and ovens, watching the cooking unfold. Very educational material indeed, but not what subject matter experts would quite call 'artistic photography'. Simply extremely sharp and well lit objects demonstrating what happens during cooking. Myhrvold and his photographers/stylists/chefs actually help us crawl inside the mystery parts of cooking and live to tell our grandchildren about.

In this venture, Myhrvold somehow proved that one doesn't necessarily need to be a dollar multimillionaire to start a project like this. A Kickstarter crowd funding would probably suffice. It only needs guts and passion. Like so many other things in life. And it also needs the genius of a man, who doesn't only have ideas, but also knows ways to make it happen. 'Ability to execute', like we used to call it in the corporate lingo. I was very pleased to see how he did it, but also felt deeply envious of the lad. Looking at him dressed like a chef, the ex-CTO of Humongous and Almighty Microsoft, you suddenly realize that software development frameworks, operating systems and Office Suites are not his thing. He probably did that bit to acquire the dough from share options and eventually seek to realize his dream. Only for that reason, sharing a part of his passion, I'd go buy his other book too, as in mine there's no recipes at all. Only photography and how he shot it.