West Coast Troublemakers, or the Naked Girl with the Big Clock

Ten or fifteen years ago, I read a really good biography of the photographer Ansel Adams. I’ve recommended it often, but somehow, I couldn’t find it on my shelves. A bit of curiosity and research led me to the author, Mary Street Alinder and her new book about Adams and his West Coast photography buddies and co-conspirators including Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, Brett Weston (Edward’s son), Consuelo Kanaga, Dorothea Lange, and other notables. Sometimes formally, sometimes less so, they were collectively members of a group bound to change American photography. They called themselves Group f.64, which is both among the smallest lens apertures generally available (for extreme depth of field and its resulting sharp images) and the title of Ms. Alinder’s latest book.

UnknownWhen the photographers in Group f.64 started out, they found themselves in what, today, seems to be an unlikely situation. Photographers on the east coast followed a mostly European tradition anchored in painting. On the West Coast, the fad was pictorialism in which photographs were not considered viable unless they were altered to look like other forms of art. For example, the pictorial photographers often hand-colored their work, used soft focus lenses, and created faux brushstrokes during the photographic development process. Pictorialism found some rather odd expressions: one very popular West Coast photographer named William Mortensen was, according to Alinder, “the very vocal champion of the Pictorialists. He applied his expertise in set design and the latest in Hollywood makeup artistry: elaborately costumed historical portraits and tableaux. He staged each picture’s setting, building a fictional alternative universe, often of a teasing salaciousness or portraying scenes of horror, his models transformed into monsters with heavy makeup.” Mortensen was among America’s most famous photographers and easily photography’s most prolific teacher. In a series of well-described articles in Camera Craft magazine, he sparred with Ansel Adams who took the position of photography as pure art form that required none of the nonsense that Mortensen promoted.

From 1932—just a few years before those articles—the f.64 wrote a manifesto to explain its unique and somewhat radical approach to pure photography as an emerging art form. “Pure photography is defined as possessing no qualities of technic [technique], composition or idea derivative of any other art-form.”

What did that mean? For Edward Weston, in 1927, pure photography involved making perfect images of a single pepper or a shell. What’s perfect? Have a look.

weston - shell

Also from 1927, Ansel Adams provides this example:

Ansel-monolth

Time has not been kind to Mr. Mortensen, whose partial portfolio can be found on an Eastman House website:

Mortensen

Mostly, this is the story of perhaps a dozen fully engaged West Coast photographers whose clear vision redefined American fine art and serious amateur photography. In an attempt to gain serious recognition in New York City galleries—remember, the west coast was rather distant from the east in the 1930s—they solicited a largely unimpressed Alfred Steiglitz in what they believed to be photography’s future. You know Stieglitz’s extraordinary work:

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In time, and with considerable frustration, the West Coast photographers found their way into the mainstream. The level of detail provided by Ms. Alinder may overwhelm casual readers, but it’s all worth reading to better understand the large aesthetic shift that occurred in what amounts to about twenty years, maybe thirty.

Where does the story lead? Clearly, Mr. Mortensen’s fascinations have faded from public interest, but the work of Ansel Adams continues to demonstrate the power of photography for the world to see (and for a great many amateur photographers to emulate). The shift from manufactured to realistic beauty is nicely expressed by this famous image by Imogen Cunningham:

Cunningham

I believe that the world is a better place because these photographers taught themselves to see, and then encouraged us to do the same. Dorothea Lange’s well-known work includes images of migrant workers, but I think I like this one best:

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Or maybe this one. Ms. Lange gets out, grabs the camera, finds the angle, and creates a memorable self-portrait.

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Time for me to re-read the Ansel biography, I think. Good news—the same publisher (Bloomsbury) has reissued the book with some new material and additional insights. I can’t wait.

 

 

 

 

 

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Watch, Smile, Watch, Read

Brawley GirlfriendThis is going to take about fifteen minutes, but I think it’s worth the time.

First, you’re going to watch a very nice music video that was shot with Olympus’s just-announced OM-D E-M5 Mark II (several of them, in fact). It’s a fine piece of work by DP John Brawley. It’s here.

Second, you’re going to watch a making-of video.  It’s a behind-the-scenes video with a music track, so you can see what he did without getting lost in the details. It’s fun to watch, and it’s here.

Finally, read the detailed article about Mr. Brawley’s impressions of a camera that he likes very much. If you’re intrigued by the video potential of the still cameras, this essay will help to clarify your understanding of the state of the art.

It isn’t often that a creative professional reveals his process so completely—and so joyfully! It’s a fun read—and don’t be surprised if you go camera shopping immediately afterward.

Enjoy!

Beyond the Decisive Moment

Cartier-BressonHenri Cartier-Bresson was one of the great photographers of the 20th century. Best known as a prolific street photographer (for whom color was a commercial concession, not an aesthetic option), HCB’s life story is no less compelling than his lifetime of images. His career and personal commitments were well-described last year at an extensive exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Happily, the exhibition has been packaged as a coffee table book by Clément Chéroux and published by Thames & Hudson. It’s expensive ($75) and it’s worth the money, in part because Mr. Chéroux curated the 2014 exhibition.

Students of photography associated HCB with “the decisive moment. Just as Martin Luther King (okay, “MLK”)’s life work far exceeds the brief period of his “I Have a Dream” speech, Cartier-Bresson’s infatuation with the precise instant when a photograph ought to be made is only part of an expansive range of artistic and journalist expression.

Born in 1908, Cartier-Bresson grew up in a comfortable Parisian household; the family owned a large cotton and thread manufacturing company. 1908 was also the year that, in England, Robert Baden-Powell published “Scouting for Boys” to support his new progressive approach to education known as the Boy Scouts. The organization’s combination of an active life for boys, with ample freedom and discipline, was a good match. At age 14, as a Scout, Henri began to experiment with photography, but only as  hobby. The family’s plan for Henri was all business—he was sent to the best schools so he could, sometime, lead the large family business. Of course, things didn’t work out as planned. Instead, with the blessings of his family, he studied art. Mostly cubism. Which he found “boring” because it was “too systematic.” He preferred the more expansive world view offered by surrealism. In October, 1930, by now free from both his formal education and military service, Cartier-Bresson followed Europeans curious about “the Dark Continent.” He spent nearly a year in Cote D’Ivoire, Cameroon, the French Sudan, Togo, and along the Niger River, he photographed children on the streets and people at work—avoiding the exotic and tribal imagery, just focusing on the day-to-day. Over the next few years, his casual interest in travel photography became a passion, then, a career. He traveled to, and photographed street activities in, Paris, Marseilles, Milan, Florence, Sienna, Trieste, Madrid, various parts of Mexico, and more.

Along the way, he learned by copying the styles of Eugene Atget (streets of Paris, store windows); European photographers intrigued by the geometry of city life (mostly); the golden section that is key to classic composition; various less-than-compressible surrealistic sketches and distortions. In time, he worked out his own style. Before he turned 30, he had created enough distinctive images to display his work in a successful exhibition.

The story becomes more interesting as HCB moves from travel photography and street work (often one and the same) to work with a more specific purpose: often, related to his attachment to the ideals of Communism. Stories of the Spanish Civil War, Mussolini, and the utter transformation of Europe are among the best stories—supported by some of the best images—in this book. He becomes concerned about poverty and tells his visual stories so they will provoke attention. He attends to the facial expression and behavior of crowds, often ignoring (and needing to caption) just what they are looking at. He documents free time—a relatively new idea in 1938 France, at least for the working class—and this is probably my favorite selection of his work. For example, a Sunday on the banks of the Seine from that year:

sfmoma-hcb-03-near-juvisy-1938

In truth, what I love about this book is the arc of the creative story. It begins with a smart teenager who decides he likes art and photography better than college and business, who grows up quickly as he travels and makes stunning pictures. Then, he finds his political and social conscience, and plays a very active role, using his photography as a very effective tool. Then, he realizes that his political affiliations will become a career problem, so he co-founds Magnum, a journalistic photo agency with Robert Capa and several other extraordinary photojournalists, and becomes one of LIFE magazine’s active contributors. Then, he explores topics that interest him: the growing connection between people and machines (a project for the IBM of the 1960s, for example), icons of power (very powerful—and decidedly odd—image of a giant Lenin in front of the Winter Palace in Leningrad as a man and his small child stroll in the foreground), and the ways that crowds behave. And then, in this 60s, he begins to slow down, to take images that are more focused on the feeling than the moment. And he begins to draw, picking up on something he loved to do as a child. He visits art museums, and spends hours sketching great works. He takes pictures of the family with his legendary Leicas. It’s a lovely life story, wonderfully punctuated by his pencil on paper self portraits from 1987 and 1992. One of the better free bios on the web is here. And there are a lot of smaller books filled with specific HCB projects that you can find on Goodreads, along with the compendium Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Man, The Image and His World, also from Thames & Hudson.

Henri-Cartier Bresson was born in August, 1908 and died in August, 2004—he lived, and documented, the better part of a century. And nobody did it better.

On the left, a picture of an American woman in 1947. On the right, “Giant Effigy of Lenin” from 1973.

american_woman-and-lenin

 

 

A Thousand Moments in Time

The image is not entirely white. The paw prints — very big paw prints —are indigo, the color of the surrounding sea. Apart from the burst of white light near the sun, the sky is rendered in various shades of indigo, too. Most of the remaining ice floes are  pure white, tinged with indigo’s inky blue. The ice seems to be melting by the minute. It is no longer a solid mass. A polar bear sits on one of  larger ice floes, polar bear looks to the sky. His or her coat is faded yellow, the color of a baby chick.

That’s the second image in the new 478-page compact coffee table book by one of my favorite authors of photography books. This one handsome volume is entitled, “Photography: The Definitive Visual History,” and it’s a wonderful way to make someone very happy this holiday season ($50, but less than $40 on the internet).

The first image is very familiar: “Migrant Mother,” also called “Prairie Mother,” created in March, 1936, the heart of the Depression, by Dorothea Lange. At the time, Lange was working for the Resettlement Administration, a New Deal program that became a part of the Farm Security Administration a year later. The location: a camp of pea pickers in Niporno, California. Lange: “I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn to a magnet.” The family had recently “sold the tires of their car to pay for food.” The woman in the picture’s name was Florence Owen Thompson. She knew her own name, but she couldn’t do much good with that knowledge. Thompson was a poor Native American woman, and at age 80, when she was dying of cancer, she won an appeal and received $32,000. In 1998, the “Getty Museum paid $244,500 for a print.”

Here’s the image from the U.S. Library of Congress.

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The image above is the one that became famous, but, as Ang explains, it was not the only one. “Using a Graflex camera…Lange made a total of six exposures…within a mere ten minutes or so. For each image, Lange moved in closer. The first image was wide, to show context. The final one is above. The second image below was a step along the way.

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Ang goes on to explain how the famous photo is constructed: the “careworn face,” the way the each of the older children frame their mother, the sleeping baby, so apparent in the mid-shot, so nearly absent in closely-cropped image.

Way back in the book in the section labelled “2000-Present: The Digital Age,” this is a small but striking picture of four lions. They seem to be heading directly for the photographer (his name: Chris McLellan). It was shot in 2013—last year. He used a Nikon D800E with a very wide angle lens to take the picture—and many more like it—but the camera was not in his hands. Instead, the camera was mounted on a remote control buggy, and the 18mm lens was installed in order to capture the images of the lions that it passed by, or got curious.

Chris-McLennan_buggy_011-780x520

According to Ang, “the resulting shots were viewed more than two million times within three days.”

For me, the heart of the book is the (mostly) black-and-white middle section where Robert Doisneau’s “Kiss by the Hotel de Ville,” is followed by the remarkable Zeiss 80mm Planar medium format lens (Ang mostly features photography, but also devotes some spreads to important equipment innovations, the likes of LIFE and LOOK magazine, and other parts of photography’s long story), and Andreas Feininger’s “Midtown Manhattan Seen From Weehawken, New Jersey,” and Edward Steichen’s “monumental” (a good word for the project) 1955 book and exhibit, “The Family of Man,” fashion magazines and their aesthetic, and just before the spread on the Nikon F 35mm SLR camera, a few photographs by Alfred Eisenstaedt, who worked for 36 years as a LIFE magazine photojournalist. A few pages later, there is the famous quote by Lennart Nilsson:

Patience is the most important tool. Patience. Patience. Patience.”

And, Lennart’s 1965 photograph of a human fetus. “The first time he saw a fetus sucking his thumb, he was ecstatic and took a picture.” But nothing happened—the flash was broken (remember, he’s shooting inside a human body with an endoscope. The image shown below is his most famous. Sadly, the child was easier to photograph because the child was no longer alive.

Lennart-Nilsson-100

Others survived, thrived, and were photographed by Nilsson along the way.

Lennart Nilsson

This collection of Lennart Nilsson images comes from another fine book about photography, “A Child Is Born.”

Photography can take your breath away.


 

Here’s the book cover, just so you don’t pass it by when visiting your local bookseller. It’s a very special holiday gift.

Photography-History_cover

BTW: On final note. If you’re even remotely serious about digital photography, Tom Ang’s your man. He’s a wonderful teacher, and his many other books about digital photography are among the best in the industry.

 

Grandpa, what’s a camera?

Infographic-1920-1200-ver-2-0-1024x640This infographic comes from a website called Lensvid, which is filled with interesting photographic stories, inspiration, reviews and more.

The site attempts to explain what happened, but their editors as as mystified as I am. Clearly, smart phones are having an impact— why spend the money and tote around a separate smart box when the phone contains a perfectly fine snapshot camera.

But there are hobbyists, amateurs, professionals—and it seems unlikely that shipments dropped by as much as 40 percent in a single year. Unless it was a tipping point. The graph on the top left certainly illustrates a multi-year drop. But why haven’t lenses dropped by a similar percentage? Maybe because the sale of lenses wasn’t so hot in the first place—and once an amateur buys into, say, the Canon system with a digital SLR, they tend to keep their lenses when they buy the new camera body from the same manufacturer.

No surprise that sales of compact cameras are dropping so quickly—a 60 percent drop since 2010—because those the cameras that are most effectively replaced by the cameras in smart phones.

Isn’t it odd: we are taking more pictures than ever before, and yet, the camera business is falling apart. Reminds me of a recent post on LinkedIn by my friend Paul. It appears below, and I can’t quite get it out of my mind.

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Post-CES 2014

Sony-wideIn the old days, I used to go twice a year: once to Las Vegas in the winter and once to Chicago just before summer began. There were so much to see!

This year, CES came and went, and although I wanted to be there just for the fun of it, I was surprised because I didn’t notice the usual flood of stories and cool products that I wish I had seen for myself. I suppose there are a few reasons why: many of the products of the past were driven by their own unique hardware needs, so the physical design and functionality of so many products were unique. Now, many of these innovative ideas use the same portable computer—the smart phone or the tablet—so the form factor and the functionality is less original. Often the innovative idea is iterated as software or accessory, not a whole new thing. (On the far side of this timeline, my basement is no longer quite so full of old stuff that seemed like a great idea at the time, and so, my garage sales are less frequent and less thrilling for the neighbors).

In past articles, I’ve written about the new 4K HDTVs, and now, we’re starting to see digital cameras (including a $2,000 camcorder from Sony) that can create content for the new format. New screens are curvy, which is cool, but so far, not so useful. Still, this is among the things to come that we will own within a few years—whether as part of a phone or a living room TV set.

This was supposed to be the year of the wearable computer, and that’s going kinda slowly. Pebble updated its cool smart watch, which is now smaller, heavier (but still okay), and comes with twice the memory (4MB up to 8MB). For details about this Bluetooth device, and a taste of other wearable devices from the same company, be sure to read a very helpful article on The Verge. Their article about Razer’s Nabu wristband is also interesting, perhaps more as a trend report than a piece about something you’ll be buying this summer; ditto for the backgrounder about Nuance, which is bringing Siri-like technology to wristbands another small devices.

Sony A5000Happily, Sony is beginning to regain some of its juice. The image that tops this article is a fun piece about Sony’s CES presentation using 4K technology and a fair amount of hands-on creativity. The company will introduce a new short-throw HDTV projector this summer that will allow, for example, useful projection onto tabletops (though what I really want is the touch-screen desktop surface used on Hawaii Five-O). Sony’s still cameras (which shoot video, of course) are becoming more and more impressive—and smaller. New to the line is the A5000, but if you haven’t checked out the RX-100, I encourage you to do. It’s my favorite camera (right now, anyway).

Lots of heat re: 3D printing, which is increasingly ready for prime time. Once again, The Verge does a superior job in explaining what this technology is all about, what happened at CES, and why this may become important to you in 2014. For example:

Unsurprisingly, everyone at the CES 3D printer zone thinks that consumer-level 3D printing is on the cusp of something big. “It’s just kind of a whole ecosystem that has to be built up, and it’s kind of slowly growing out,” says Abdullah. “I don’t think we’ve hit that tipping point obviously, but I think that we will get there soon.” Chang describes 2014 as “like the year when the Apple II came out.”

Yes, TV sets will become that much larger, and digital cameras will become that much smaller. More of us will be wearing digital wristbands of some sort, no doubt communicating with one another or with some super server as we track what we eat or where we go or how thoroughly we exercise. Somehow, with each passing miracle, these seem to be less newsworthy. And yet, it’s fun to see what the latest Jawbone portable Bluetooth loudspeaker can do, or how successfully Beats is invading popular culture (now with its own music service). So we are we not all completely crazy about the potential of 3D printing or wall-sized video projections? Because we’ve got a 5MP phone in one pocket and a tablet that’s much smarter than most of NASA’s old school gear in the hand that used to tote around a MacBook Pro but doesn’t anymore because that’s just too heavy or too much of a pain to connect using the smart phone’s portable internet hub. We’ve become so sophisticated, everything exciting seems commonplace, or predictable.

Me, I think I preferred the naiveté and twice-annual festival of wonder.

All I Want for Christmas (or immediately thereafter)

Heck, the stores are too busy, and there’s no law that requires all of the good stuff to show up on December 25. Here’s a rundown of fun stuff on the holiday list. And yes, I’m allowing myself just about anything I want, regardless of whether (a) I need it, and (b) something else on the list is, pretty much, the same thing. On Prancer, on Blitzen… (and be sure to scroll down to the Niagara Falls video—it’s amazing!)

Nikon’s new $3,000 Df DSLR, recently announced, available in black or silver. It’s expensive—and it doesn’t include a full-frame sensor, and it’s not 20MP like the best new cameras, but just 16MP instead. Still, it looks really cool, very much like a 1980s era Nikon SLR. There’s all of the expected stuff that you’ll find in most DSLRs costing half or two-third as much, but it’s the holiday, so why not?

A $350 Tascam DR-60D 4-channel linear PCM recorder, or, in short, a digital audio recorder that mounts on a tripod just below your DSLR, it and can record up to four microphones simultaneously. It records with 4 AA batteries.

A Phantom 2 Vision Quadcopter—not the one for $350 that takes a GoPro camera (though that’s cool, too), but the FPV model that costs over $1,000 (FPV = “first person view”). It can fly for nearly a half hour, and the wireless controller (an app for your iOS or Android device) can be 1000 feet from the remote helicopter in flight (but it must be line-of-sight). The app allows you to start and stop video recording from afar. With all sorts of cool stabilization features. This is easily the coolest gift on the list. The more I learn about it, the cooler it seems. Take, for example, this little film made ABOVE Niagara Falls…

Sony’s $800 DEV-3 Digital Recoding Binoculars. I’ve often wondered why most or, at least, many binocs don’t include a video sensor and some storage. Here’s the start of a whole new thing…you can record in HD, or shoot 7MP images, record on SD cards, and enjoy 10x magnification. Is it a camcorder with a 10x zoom? No, better than that. Is it kind-of-like a digital still camera with a pair of 10x lenses? Well, that’s probably closer to it, but the long-term viewing experience through a pair of binocular lenses is far superior to a camera experience. It’s a very good pair of binoculars, and also, a high-quality camera.

For just $200, Røde’s iXY stereo microphones snaps into a iOS device for much-improved sound recording. It’s a much better way to record music, meetings, etc.: a pair of crossed half-inch cardiod condense captures and onboard  analog-to-digital conversation in a small package. And, of course, it’s all controlled by an app. You can record up to 24 bit / 96 kHz with the device (warning: a paid app upgrade here for better recording—an odd way to charge customers for quality.)

In the “I already have one, but maybe you don’t” department: you can now buy Zoom’s H4n portable digital recorder for about $170, and that’s about $100 less than before. It’s a terrific little recorder, well-suited to all sort of professional needs. In fact, I wrote a whole article about it a year or two ago.

Finally, I think I’d like to experiment with a Blackmagic Design Cinema Camera, and the starting place might be the $1000 Pocket Cinema camera. The key here is 13 stops of dynamic range, and my ability to use existing micro four thirds lenses (and legacy lenses via adapter). The result of the extended dynamic range (and other features): that irresistible film look. It’s a pocketable camera that can be used to shoot an independent film. Then again, I think I might prefer the $2,000 model. Or, perhaps, because it’s the holiday time (the best time of the year), maybe one of each. Here’s the start of a three-part review worth watching. at least for those who want every possible detail.

WiFi Accessories for Your Digital Camera

Earlier this year, my wife and I modernized our digital cameras. I got myself a wonderful Sony RX-100, the subject of a previous article. Her more basic model included a feature that has since been added to the deluxe model of the RX-100: Wi-Fi. At first, I didn’t much care about the extra feature, but now I think it’s a pretty good idea. How to add it to a camera that has no Wi-Fi?

Eye-Fi cardAha! A new product called Eye-Fi. It’s a Wi-Fi base station built into an “ultra-fast” Class 10 SD card with 16GB of memory. In theory, it provides “instant access on iOS and Android,” and “eliminates the need for cables.”

Great idea! So far, I have moved 3 images from my camera to my computer without attaching a cable. Mission accomplished. Sort of…

The software is not intuitive. It’s not easy to understand. It doesn’t set itself up without causing the user to lose some confidence, and it doesn’t easily do everything it’s supposed to do. I tried three times to set it up on an iMac, carefully repeating each step. The first two times, it didn’t work. The third time, it worked. I went through the same process on the iPad, found myself caught in an endless loop of unclear screens, and gave up. Directions? Nothing in the box, and nothing easily accessible on the web. Click on “Help” in the App’s menu—not an option because “Help is not available for Eye-Fi Center.” Why not?

I think this is a clever product, and if you’re tired of dealing with cable connections between a camera you love that lacks the Wi-Fi feature, you ought to invest $99 in Eye-Fi. When a product doesn’t install easily, and/or the interface is not absolutely spectacular, my confidence in the product’s reliability wanes. Perhaps with experience, my confidence will grow.

Of course, we’ll be seeing more and more wi-fi connectivity associated with photography. I’m intrigued by wireless remote operation of cameras that can be placed, for example, up in a tree. For about $300, Camranger turns your iOS or Android mobile device into a camera control center for many Canon and Nikon DSLR cameras. You can control most features remotely, and you can see the photo or video on your mobile screen.

Shooting with an iPhone

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So the new iPhone 5s includes an 8 megapixel camera. What can you do with a camera phone?

Turns out, quite a lot, especially if you happen to be an extremely skillful photographer whose credits include National Geographic.

Confirming the “it’s not the camera, it’s the photographer” theory, have a look at this work, read the article, and take the time to read the comments.

Here, then, is a sample image, a bit of the article in a Nat Geo blog, and a sampling of comments. Find it all here.

The photographer is Jim Richardson.

What surprised me most was that the pictures did not look like compromises. They didn’t look like I was having to settle for second best because it was a mobile phone. They just looked good. Nothing visually profound is being produced here, I would have to say. But it feels good, and I even noticed some of the folks on our tour putting big digital cameras aside once in a while and pulling out their cell phones when they just wanted to make a nice picture.

Alex of Virtual Wayfarer.com had this to say:

Not a fan of the either or approach that has been floating around, but definitely love the flexibility of using my phone as a camera. Scotland is incredibly difficult to photograph, so kudos for some wonderful shots. I actually find that with some vistas and views I have a much easier time capturing it accurately with my phone than my Canon. Interestingly, there were a number of shots I took on a recent Scottish roadtrip that were much better on the iphone (landscapes and Panoramas really are great on there if the light is right) than on my dSLR. Kudos!

Not quite convinced? Try the photographer’s Instagram exhibit, where you will find several dozen superb photographs. Among them, this image.

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A Fight Over A Postage Stamp

Korean War Stamp_1On September 20, 2013, the U.S. Postal Service was ordered to pay well over a half-million dollars to Frank Gaylord. He is a sculptor, the artist responsible for the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., which is managed by the National Park Service for the American People. (Let’s not forget: when the U.S. Postal Service writes the big check, they’re paying him with my money, and yours).

The U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp picturing the work,  based upon a photograph whose rights were cleared prior to the stamp’s publication.

For several years, the Postal Service and Mr. Gaylord have been caught in a legal tussle about copyright infringement. It’s interesting, confusing (as these cases tend to be), and provides a useful snapshot of U.S. Copyright Law, Fair Use, the rights of artists, questions about public property, and more.

Here’s a quick rundown on the story from Stanford University’s CIS (Center for Internet and Law):

One of the important questions the case presents is whether this stamp makes fair use of the statue that appears in it. The image you see is a photograph of a sculpture taken at dawn in a snowstorm. The sculpture itself is called The Column, and is part of the Korean War Veterans’ Memorial in Washington DC. It features nineteen larger-than-life soldiers arranged in two columns, representing a platoon of soldiers on patrol in the Korean War. The Postal Service got permission to use the photograph that appears on the stamp, but not the column depicted in it, so the sculptor sued the Postal Service for infringing his copyrights in the sculpture.

The ruling is here.

A detailed analysis prepared by Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society is here, and well worth reading, especially if you’re (a) interested in the ways of copyright law, and/or (b) a creative professional whose understanding of fair use could be more complete.

The story about the ruling, and the reason why the case is suddenly in the news, is here on Digital Photography Review. DPReview does a fine job in explaining the story, so there’s no reason for me to repeat it here.

I will, however, offer a picture of the stamp. In fact, I could not find a US Postal Service image of the stamp, but I did find a picture of the stamp from the Stanford CIS site:

So here are questions in my mind at the moment:

1 – If I reprint Stanford’s picture of a U.S. stamp on this website, am I violating Stanford’s rights? Is such a clearance necessary?

2 – Did Stanford get permission from the U.S. Postal Service to show the picture of that stamp on its website? Was such a clearance necessary?

3 – If Stanford did not get permission, do I need to get permission?

4 – If you decide to forward this article, stamp included, do you need to get permission from me, or have I already granted that permission through some online agreement with WordPress that I’ve forgotten all about?

I am still wading through the articles myself. I can’t help but wonder whether the sculptor ought to  share compensation with general or specific Korean War Veterans whose images were depicted as statues or, at least, served as inspiration. And, like you, I am confused because I thought a Memorial was, somehow, public property.

Comments always welcome.

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