Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Old and New Junk

've been thinking once again about obsoleted technologies as I was listening to an NPR radio program about the last remaining manual typewriter manufacturer, in India, having gone out of business. The story was via the Daily Mail newspaper in Britain. So I went to their website, read the story. It turns out that the article, which was widely distributed, ended up contradicting itself on the matter of whether the last manual typewriter manufacturer had in fact actually gone out of business, stating in a rather passing, almost off-hand, manner that there might in fact still be manufacturers in "China and Japan" who still produce manual typewriters. Which begs the question, so what was this story actually about, anyway? Just to remind the remaining Luddites in the crowd that they've been given notice, once again? Rubbing salt in our wounds?

The NPR story ended on a rather cutesy and frivolous note, with that classic typewriter music (violins being plucked, then the carriage return bell - does anyone know what that song is called?), reminding the audience that typewriters are so ancient that it's no wonder manufacturers have gone under (imagine, manual typewriters in this day and age, ha-ha-ha!), the piece leaving me disappointed, considering that manual typewriter usage in a digital age seems to be the kind of story that NPR would want to report on, is "right up their alley," so to speak, they having had a golden opportunity to do a much better job on this story. They could have done a side-piece on someone who still uses manuals, instead of mocking us. Heck, didn't they just cover the story of a recent type-in, just a few weeks ago, along with the NY Times, and about how manual typewriters are enjoying a kind of resurgence? I thought so. I suppose I shouldn't be so sensitive; it takes a lot of courage to remain out-of-date.

The once new, discarded

esterday I undertook the chore of moving my desktop computer into another room, onto a smaller desk. Now, desktop computers aren't laptops, with at most a charger cord plugged into the wall. No sir. We have a plug for the computer box itself, another plug for the monitor, yet another plug (and assorted wiring) for the speakers, another plug for the external hard-drive, another for the printer, yet another plug for the scanner, and another for the DSL modem. And also, all of the wiring (mainly USB cables) that connect various said devices to the computer's box. All done, there's a rat's nest of wiring under the desk that rivals that of the best mainframe computer. And assorted plug-strips, ganged together in serial fashion, like you're not supposed to do. Please, don't call the Fire Marshall on me.

I keep reminding myself that the desktop computer is supposed to be a dinosaur; certainly from the looks of my system it doesn't appear to be nearly as elegantly simple as, say, an iMac computer integrated into it's monitor with wireless keyboard and mouse. No, my PC system more resembles some failed mad scientist's experiment, like something out of Blade Runner or a Mad Max movie, cobbled together in the dust of the apocalypse.

I can't actually believe that companies still make these ugly boxes that have to be connected, like an astronaut's umbilical, to their life-support of external peripherals. In the wake of products designed from the ground up to represent a coherent life-style choice, like the iPad, my system in comparison seems like it wasn't so much the product of fine design and craftsmanship as it is a cobbled together assortment of parts from a computer warehouse. Which, if you understand the desktop PC market, is exactly that.

Imagine if other products were manufactured using that same business model, say cars. You'd buy a basic chassis, then have bolted onto it all manner of engine, transmission, wiring and plumbing options, kind of crudely cobbled together. Actually, it reminds me of our old mid-1980's GM car. Never mind.

So my desktop computer setup is now functional again, but the desktop itself still needs some organizing. For one, there's no room for my manual typewriter or dial telephone, which used to take prominence as a functional icon of classic mid-20th century technology. Now, when I want to bang out a missive on my Underwood or Olivetti, I have to purposely clear off some space, push back the PC's plastic keyboard, scoot the mouse over to one side, and make a concerted effort at processing words via ink on paper. I suppose that's not such a bad thing, this having to purposefully plan ahead to type, as long as the machines, they don't end up being relegated to the closet, because you know what happens then, don't you? The closet is like the Rest Home for old technology, one step away from the landfill or the grave.

The sad thing about this just-recently obsoleted technology is that it will never achieve the patina of an antique, through which we admire old mechanical devices from long ago. No, you wander through a thrift store, come across discarded video game consoles from the 1980s, cheap plastic boxes, snarled with a tangle of old cables, in some dusty cardboard box, and think it should just be tossed out. Even old 8-track tapes have a certain functional elegance, as do old LP records. But aging beige PC boxes? As icons to memorialize the halcyon days of Microsoft they may serve a certain purpose, like fixtures in a museum serve some purpose of informing us how lucky we are that we no longer have to put up with such outdated tools. But as cute decor that reminds us of an earlier era (like manual typewriters or old dial telephones), old computers fail to impart any sense of reverence or nostalgia; rather, they seem more likely to induce a sense of relief, like "whew, good riddance."

And yet, as a functional (but ugly) tool, my desktop computer is lightning fast and does things that I can't do on an iPad or laptop. The thing about desktop PCs, they really are tools of business, and like any other aspect of business require the business-like support of an IT department in order to remain in good working order. It's like owning an old British sports car, you'd better be handy with a wrench if you expect to keep the old girl on the road. In the case of my desktop machine, it's only several years old, but was designed like that old British road car, still requiring periodic fiddling in order to remain in good working order. But when it runs, boy can it run.

Having used technology both classic and modern, people like me end up with a desire for hybrid tools, that employ the best of both eras. That's why I think we tend to like simply elegant writing tools like AlphaSmart keyboards, and adapting classic manual focus lenses onto digital camera bodies. It's the physical tangibility of our hands upon a tool that's built to be fondled, of having dedicated physical knobs to turn. There's something reassuringly predictable about being able to press the "V" key on a typewriter and have it print, each and every time, the letter "V", whereas on a computer the same letter has a multiplicity of meanings, depending on its context with other key strokes. There's something reassuring about turning the mode dial on my camera one click to the right and knowing, without even looking, that I'm now in aperture priority mode, or turning a nicely knurled focus ring and be able to see the image change focus with immediate feedback. We desire this sort of physicality to our tools that honors our bodies, respects the fact that we have prehensile thumbs and finely nimble fingers, more elegantly functional than that of any other species. In this regard, the prospect of humanity becoming some sort of hybrid cyborg, like sci-fi writers and futurists are constantly prognosticating, indelibly fused with some artificial technology, seems crude by comparison.

Manual focus lens on Lumix G1

n the way back home from this morning's outing I stopped in at a local camera repair shop, that had recently relocated to a building of their own, coincidentally almost directly next door to my favorite typewriter repair shop. I had with me my Lumix G1 digital camera, with an old 28mm manual focus lens in Minolta MD mount. I was hoping to find a wider angle lens in MD mount, since on the G1 the 28mm ends up with an angle of view equivalent to that of a 56mm, but there were none to be had. My name's on a watch list, however (no, not THAT watch list), so perhaps one will show up soon. I like manual focus lenses but don't want to pay the one-grand price tag for a new Cosina Voigtlander 25mm lens in micro-4/3 mount. This represents one of the central issues with why I like older technology, which is that old junk is often less expensive than new junk. So I have that going for me.

(Posted via AlphaSmart Neo)

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A Day of Moments

Epilog: This is what happens when 1)You read Kerouac's "Visions of Cody" late at night, and 2)You're inspired by Oz Typewriter's blog entry about typesetting by typewriter. Don't ask me how long it took me to do this justified margin thing (unless you're really curious).

Edit: Here's a scan of a portion of the original document, including all the little jots and tiddles, should one be so inclined (or insane):

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Philip Connors: Mountaintop Typer

Today, I read this article* from the New York Times book review online about writer Philip Connors, who has spent recent summers atop a fire lookout tower in New Mexico's Gila Wilderness.

Here's a line from the article that I found interesting:

"While Connors occasionally wears the cap of environmental reporter, his book is at heart as old-school as his manual Olivetti."

Now I'm wondering, exactly what model of Olivetti does Mr. Connors use? Interesting.


*(HINT: enabling "private browsing" on your browser seems to get around the NYT's recent restriction of non-subscribing visitors only able to read 20 articles per month.)

Sunday, April 10, 2011

In Search of the Big Picture

Courthouse Rock Vista, Arches National Park

Arches National Park, like many other high-volume tourist destinations, can be a confluence of peoples from many different walks of life. These major tourist destinations become melting-pots-in-miniature, affording one the opportunity to rub elbows with people not ordinarily in one's social circle.

As a photographer, these major tourist destinations also serve as photographic melting pots. One sees virtually the entire gamut of photography, from the tourist with miniature digital point-and-shoot, held at arm's length, to the enthusiast or professional with motorized digital large format panoramic setups.

One could imagine a spectrum of artistic approaches represented by the range of technological sophistication of the various cameras one encounters during such a vacation, from the simple to the complex, the simplistic to the sophisticated. There's also another dimension to this hypothetical photographic spectrum, and that is the nature of manufacture of camera equipment, from entirely factory-made, to partially modified, to entirely handmade, cobbled-together creations.

It is this last dimension of photographic process that I was most interested in observing during my trip. I am fairly certain, during the time between my own image-making activities when I specifically observed other photographers in action, that I was the only person in the Park using any kind of silver-gelatin-based photographic technology; I didn't see another film-based camera during our entire vacation. I am also entirely certain that I was the only person utilizing any kind of handmade or modified camera system.

Joe photographing the Double Arch

We had decided to vacation in Moab specifically to visit Arches National Park, not only as a get-away for us as a couple, but also for the purposes of photographing the park with a large format pinhole box camera.

This idea of process flow, how interactive we are with our image-creation process, I feel is crucial to a successful and meaningful photographic experience. This is a fairly broad statement, but one that I believe applies equally to electronic, traditional or alternative processes.

I enjoyed the interaction with other people induced by my oddly appearing box camera, which served as a jumping-off point for further discussion. There were many "did you make that yourself?" questions (which kept me laughing to myself, knowing the crude appearance of the foamcore and gaffer's tape contraption), along with a few "is that a pinhole camera?" questions, and several "I made one of those, years ago in grade school" put-downs (usually by a DSLR-totting sophisticate, intent on informing us that such childish acitivity is beneath them), along with several very meaningful conversations, one in particular with a lady who had served as assistant during several of Clyde Butcher's large format photography seminars in Florida. There was plenty of interaction with other people who were polite enough not to walk in front of the camera (of which I informed them that if they kept moving, they wouldn't show up in the picture). It was a fun time to provide some fundamental level of education to a broader audience who had little or no experience with large format pinhole cameras and paper negatives, and made me consider anew a hypothetical pinhole camera seminar of my own.

Fiery Furnace Overlook

There was a moment during our trip that highlighted both the commonalities and differences between the various photographic methods being employed. It was our second day in the Park, late in the afternoon, and we had arrived at the Fiery Furnace Overlook. The parking area was fairly crowded, more crowded than many other parts of the Park that day, which made me wonder what it was that was so spectacular up ahead. After a brief walk down a dusty trail I found at the trail's end, overlooking a spectacular vista, a group of about a dozen photographers, each with a tripod and camera rig that appeared to be at least as sophisticated as the DSLR wielded by the typical middle-class tourist.

Joe at Fiery Furnace Overlook, setting up for his shot, adjacent to a digital Hasselblad panoramic photographer

I found myself reacting negatively to the reply from one member of the group, in response to my wife's question, that they were engaged in a "digital Hasselblad panoramic seminar." My negative reaction, which amounted to not interacting with the group at all, surprised my wife, who had assumed that I'd be interested in conversing with fellow photographers.

Perhaps it had something to do with an inner insecurity on my part, or mere petty jealousy over the cost of such equipment (I mentally computed a sum-total equipment bill-of-material for the seminar that was at least as expensive as the value of my house), or perhaps I was grouchy that afternoon (that's not out of the range of possibilities) but I felt it not the appropriate venue to distract the seminarians over discussions about one's personal methods of art-making when they were so focused on one particular aspect of photography (and which I'm fairly certain cost them good money to attend, and would also be tied in with some potential camera sales afterward).

My negative reaction was spurred on by the insistence of the person to point out the "digital Hasselblad" part of the seminar, as if it were important for others to know this particular detail of their activities, as if it were insufficient to merely say "panoramic photography seminar". My skepticism was reinforced as I heard motorized buzzing sounds eminating from a computer-driven altazimuth camera mount, slewing the digital Hasselblad, whose lens was bigger than a can of Foster's beer, back and forth. I thought at the time that it's one step away from cutting out pictures from some travel magazine, entirely saving the cost of the vacation or having to outfit one's wardrobe with Eddy Bauer-like, crisply ironed, pseudo-safari outfits that had not a lick of dirt or stain of sweat, the only thing missing being the price tags. It seemed insincere, like there was some intrinsic disconnect between the tools of their craft and their hand and eye. But there's the problem, and what I was reacting negatively to, as I stood there in my threadbare work shirt, sweat-stained boonie hat and cobbled-together box camera, which is that I perceived on their part a lack of interactivity with their craft.

Atop the canyon face at Delicate Arch

Of course, I was wrong. It was wrong of me to judge other's inner motivations, and I'd truly missed out on an opportunity to expand my knowledge horizon by interacting with members of the seminar engaged in an area of photography that I know little about. I had explained to my wife of the group's pretense, that they were mere posers. But, as we returned to our car from the Overlook, we passed the same gentleman we'd seen along the side of the trail earlier. He still had his digital Hasselblad rig pointed down at a dry piece of wood, and was still fumbling with the camera, obviously interested in finding the optimal composition and focus, and I realized, only later, that here was a man truly interested and engaged in his art, that it was pretense on my part to make assumptions about others, about their skill level or experience or veracity of their approach, that I could just as easily picture myself there, in his shoes.

This is a problem that's present, not only in the blowup arguments typical of equipment-oriented Internet discussion forums, but also in the presumption of superiority evident in my attitude that day, as if there were some moral high-ground intrinsic to a non-electronic, technologically simpler approach to art-making. I could picture myself being equally as obtuse and elusive over some perceived intrinsic moral certitude about the merits of the do-it-yourself pinhole photography approach. I failed to remain humble and open-minded.

My failure that day was that I had not kept in mind the first principles of 21st Century Photography, which could be simplified into the commonly-heard quip "it's all good." Whether one's hand is at the stylus or mouse, or instead soaking in a tray of developer solution, there is found the artist interacting with his medium, the lessons being to stay involved with one's craft, to mix it up (literally as well as figuratively), to never make assumptions about the approaches taken by others, to stay open and receptive, and to always value the benefit of cross-pollination between disparate disciplines. Artists are the great observers, the Seers, of the culture. We must keep our eyes clearly open, our hands firmly engaged on our work. To fall into the trap of pretense, of petty comparisons over the merits of one method versus another, can distract us from seeking the Big Picture, which is not merely an image captured of some spectacular vantage point, but is more fundamental, having more to do with the motivation behind our creative pursuits, our inner perspective being that which informs our outward activity.

(Posted via AlphaSmart Neo)