You never see the same photo twice. I started to carry a camera with me because I wanted to remember the world as I had seen it. But then once the images are on film, or hard disk, your way of looking at it changes. First you crop, then you begin to adjust them in other ways. Eventually you learn that the raw image is an universe that you can explore in its own right. Every time you look at it, the image reveals new aspects.
I went back to photos that I took in the first decade of the century. Today my eye sees patterns hiding inside them. They were not taken then for the shapes and textures that I now found. But those qualities were always there, for you to find, explore, and enjoy. Dead coral, antique car grille, tourists in a fort, a butterfly’s wing, mirror cladding on a building, ancient tiles in a museum, flowers, a fruiting tree, a gargoyle, I saw them differently earlier. When I meet them again ten years later, I might new things in them. Each photo is an individual. You have to get to know it. Again and again.
As the morning’s sun cut through the mists of Neora valley and shone through the tree tops, I took photos of glory around the lichens hanging from the trees around me. The Family looked beyond the glory right at the source of light. When she showed me this photo I found it stunning.
Light breaks where no sun shines; Where no sea runs, the waters of the heart Push in their tides; And, broken ghosts with glow-worms in their heads, The things of light File through the flesh where no flesh decks the bones.
A candle in the thighs Warms youth and seed and burns the seeds of age; Where no seed stirs, The fruit of man unwrinkles in the stars, Bright as a fig; Where no wax is, the candle shows its hairs.
Dawn breaks behind the eyes; From poles of skull and toe the windy blood Slides like a sea; Nor fenced, nor staked, the gushers of the sky Spout to the rod Divining in a smile the oil of tears.
Night in the sockets rounds, Like some pitch moon, the limit of the globes; Day lights the bone; Where no cold is, the skinning gales unpin The winter’s robes; The film of spring is hanging from the lids.
Light breaks on secret lots, On tips of thought where thoughts smell in the rain; When logics dies, The secret of the soil grows through the eye, And blood jumps in the sun; Above the waste allotments the dawn halts.
Light? What is gentle and beautiful about light? Light is a harsh thing, the kind of thing that sent Dylan Thomas off on long rants. When you have to deal with harsh tropical light all the time, you envy photographers in parts of the world where the sun slants down and filters through a thick layer of air to drip its soft light on things. They can keep their fatuous sunbeams. We know what sunlight is: a killer.
Midwinter’s light in Thailand (the featured photo) is so harsh that it has to be filtered through leaves to yield a photo with shadows. Compare that to the similar photo from the Camargue in the south of France. The contrast is less harsh as you go away from the equator. The mangoes and jasmine buds photographed yesterday in my balcony have to compensate for harsher light than the gentle summer light of Europe.
When you have a tiny little flower waiting to be photographed, why do you want to ignore it and concentrate on the tinier droplets of water on stalks in front of it? As George Mallory is famous for saying, “Because it is there.” One of my last trips with a Panasonic of many years, was to Kaas Plateau, that unique and very difficult habitat which contains some species of wildflowers not found anywhere else. I’d scratched the lens when I fell off a slippery boulder, and spent a year thinking I would replace it. Also, sensors had become better, and data buses faster, so it made sense to replace the camera.
I dug up this image because in the last few days I’ve been obsessed with figuring out how to do at least a half-way decent job with black and white photos. It is something to worry about, but I’m getting there. The plateau bursts into flower for a couple of weeks towards the end of the monsoon. I’ve never been there when the sun is out. You see marvelous (but tiny) flowers, but you are always wet. It is a job keeping your equipment dry. Doing it in a mask is one thing that I do not want to try.
Someone said something like “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” Who? A search, filtered through my web bubble, ascribed it to Stephen R. Covey, Anais Nin, Albert Einstein… The trail is complex enough that the Quote Investigator has an article on it. When you start thinking about the path from the the eye to the perception of the world around us, you realize that the world is so complex that the brain’s computations can only create an approximation. A frog sees a world of moving objects in exquisite detail. A butterfly sees the bright patterns in ultraviolet light that flowers have evolved to attract them. We do not. And the camera, that instrument that we carry around in our pockets, does not see what we see. So it takes a little work to tweak a camera’s output to get the impression of dark water, its surface reflecting the clouds above, its transparency letting you see a rotting leaf slowly sinking, its beading on the fresh leaf to reflect the sun, into what you think you see.
The cold war led to the development of CCDs to act as eyes on spy satellites. In the same year, 1976 CE, that they were first used for this purpose, they were also used for astronomical observations. The very next year they were put into the Voyager satellites, our first eyes to travel to other planets. Kodak labs had developed the first CCD camera in 1975, but it wasn’t till 1988 that the first commercial digital camera became available. There is enough information in the output that what looks like a perfectly black image at first can be used to tease out details. Even without using raw data, I could recover an image of a gaur (Bos gaurus) that I saw on a dark night in a forest. You see that imposing creature in the photo above. This was an old camera, so there is a lot of noise, but I like it that way. After all even our eye/brain does not see too well in the dark.
Colour perception is another whole kettle of fish. The simple RGB colour space model which cameras use is a very crude approximation of what our eye sees. Actual human colour perception is still an active research area. So the images that come out of a camera require colour correction. And the interaction of attention and colour; let’s not even go there. When I looked at this lotus pond inside a forest my first reaction was to the bright red of the flowers. Only later did I realize that the number of insects on it was enormous. And was the water strider (Gerridae) there for the flower, or its shade? I forgot all about the red. To reproduce a semblance of this attention I had to tweak the photo.
Lens artists will want to see the” originals” too. The step from raw to jpeg is all digital magic, so nothing is really original. For that matter, our eyes are not particularly great instruments, so the brain’s chemical-electronic magic is really needed to build up, see, the world around us.
A walk in the garden on Perihelion Day was a bit of a disaster. In most years this is the best time in the garden in Mumbai. This year the pandemic meant delays in turnover and replanting. As a result, the garden was mostly freshly turned beds. Only one row of plants was flowering, the lilies that you see here. Backlit, I wonder which version looks better, the colour or the monochrome. What do you think?
I stepped out to buy a loaf of bread on Saturday and found a parking apron taken up by a trio busy stringing marigolds into streamers. Of course, the time-keeper in my head told me, “Tomorrow is dusshera.” It wasn’t very easy to track this year, with no lights, no festivities, no night-long dances. But it was hard to forget too, with all the sighing and complaining from friends and family about missing everything this year. I didn’t actually, I’m a happy bear these days. I’m a day or two late, but a happy dusshera to you.
But while lost in uffish contemplation of these photos snapped off quickly with my phone, a monstrous jabberwock raised its head. Do you recognize a subtle bit of structural racism here? Let me explain. A phone camera is no longer the simple light catching device that a camera was forty years ago. The image is mediated by software, and the huge improvement in this decade has been due to the addition of AI to the mix. That tweaks the exposure and colour according to optimizations it has been trained to use. Many of these improvements involve recognizing and enhancing faces. Just check your photos from five years back, and you’ll see how much better faces look in recent photos. I say usually, because it depends on the skin colour.
The AI is trained on data sets selected by Google, and these are largely biased to lighter skin colours. See, for example, a photo taken three years ago, by a six year old phone, in Madrid’s Atocha station. I have taken a random face from the shadows and inset it to show how well the AI has captured that. All I did was to increase the overall illumination in the inset. See the subtlety with which the details and shadows are rendered. Compare that to the inset face (with the same tweak for overall illumination) visible in the photo above that: the AI has rendered the bamboo framework in the background better than the face. This comparison shows that it is not light or darkness that makes a difference; it is algorithmic bias. It took me a bit of work on the featured photo to make the face visible. It is because of this bias that a DSLR or a good bridge camera still remains superior to a smart phone for street photography in India and most of the world.