Happy Dusshera

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.

Perihelion photoshow

The year should rightly begin on Perihelion Day, tomorrow, January 4, when the earth is closest to the sun. On the Perihelion Eve of the end of the fourth century of the Keplerian Era (Why do I feel like Linus sitting in the pumpkin patch?), I thought of examining the ghosts of Perihelia past. One year ago I was in the Little Rann of Kutch. As the sun set after a full day of photography, the batteries on my camera ran out soon after I took the featured photo. That was a spectacular way to end Perihelion Day.

I haven’t been consistent about taking photos on Perihelion Day. I had to go back five more years, to 2014, before I found a set of photos I’d taken on Perihelion Day. It was a Saturday, The Family was at work in the morning, and I was at a loose end. I took a series of photos of a cape gooseberry. I liked the difference in texture between the fruit and the leaves which enclose it.

Two years before, in 2012, that Perihelion Day was on a Wednesday. I was in Mahabaleshwar for a meeting, and had the morning off. Somewhere near the edge of the plateau I could see the hills marching off into the distance. The layer cake of the Deccan traps turns from red to hazy blue as you look away towards the horizon. The Sahyadri mountains are spectacular, and it is a pity we seldom go out there in winter any more. Perhaps that’s something we should start doing again.

The previous set of photos that I took on a Perihelion Day was in 2009. That year Perihelion Day was on a Sunday, and I walked out into the garden with my new camera to take test shots of flowers. Looking at this photo brings back memories of a warm winter morning, and a camera I really enjoyed working with for the next few years.

My digital photo album goes back a few more years, but there are no photos taken on Perihelion Day. Four photos at the end of a century is rather careless. I should track Perihelion Days better in future.

People in Hagia Sophia

I wanted a clear and unobstructed photo of the marble door in the south gallery of the Hagia Sophia. This is not easy, because a continuous stream of people go through it. After a long wait I decided that I should be taking photos of tourists instead. In any case, ambush photography is great fun: you take photographs of people who are being photographed by others. The Family and I had an argument a few days before about whether Chinese tourists outnumber everyone else.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I’m not terribly good at pinpointing nationalities, but by my count about two and a half photos out of the eight in the slide show contain Chinese people. A significantly larger number come from eastern Europe. Add in the west Europeans, Turks, and a smattering of people from across Asia outside of China, and I think you begin to get a picture of where the tourists come from. About half of them take selfies, a fourth have someone else take their photo, and the rest are not interested in their own photos. My survey was interrupted because I was spotted while taking a non-ambush photo. I had to go back to being a tourist interested in the marble door again.

Black and white Bougainvillea

You’ll usually find colourful Bougainvillea draped over fences and climbing up walls. Most photos of these flowers emphasize the colour, but I think the texture is equally nice. That’s why these two photos: enjoy the texture of the bracts and the leaves. No disturbing colours. It’s a Monday after all.

Street Photographers of Shamian

The modern incarnation of Shamian island seems to have been built for street photography. We walked through it in the middle of the week, but the leafy roads were full of people clicking photos. The pair in the featured photo took themselves in various poses with the statue you see, and then sat down to look at the photos carefully.

This pair had found a much more interesting background, I think. Although the front camera is being used, it doesn’t look like the girl is taking a selfie. Perhaps the front camera is being used so that the subject can see herself in the screen and control her image better. What is better than taking a selfie? Have a friend take your selfie for you, clearly.

When people are so absorbed in taking their own photos it is much easier for a tourist to take photos of them. Did I feel like a voyeur? No. There were others equally busy documenting the modern Chinese need to put their photos on Weibo and Wechat. I’m used to my nieces taking each other’s photos for Instagram. They do not notice what I’m doing at such times. Sometimes they post the photo I took of them taking their own photos on Instagram. The meaning of privacy is much more nuanced now.

Whatever social medium is being used, some people are more professional than others. This pair could be creating portfolios: the woman as a model, the man as a photographer. But much more likely they will post it on Wechat. The pair noticed me, but did not care. Their portfolio/profile was much more interesting.

This guy was a serious amateur. If you look at WordPress, Flickr, or Instagram, you’ll see some really outstanding amateur photographers from China. This guy could be, or could become, one of them. I liked the fact that he was photographing a statue of a photographer. It gave me a chance to go another level meta.

And then there are tiger moms. The child did not want to pose any longer, but when mom says you have to do it, you have to. Not a hint of rebellion shows in her face or posture. Hard to believe that between shots she was complaining. This set is definitely going on the family Wechat group.

A decade of midsummer

Where have I been during midsummer in the last decade? I thought I would look at my photos to jog my memory. I don’t have photos from the solstice on every year. For example, the last photo I took this year was a week ago in Mumbai; that’s the featured photo. So I just put together a photo selected from June each year, as close as I could get to the solstice.

2017: Granada (Alhambra)

2016: Frascati

2015: Beijing (Lama temple)

2014: the stratosphere

2013: Mumbai

2012: Thane (railway station)

2011: Paris (the Eiffel tower)

2010: Germany (countryside)

2009: Mumbai

Photography exhibitions in Berlin

I’d had a quick look at the list of photography exhibitions in Berlin before we left. It would be impossible to catch up with everything going on in photography if we stayed in Berlin for a month and visited only photo galleries. We didn’t even try.

Walking away from Kudamm one night we came across a wonderful large art and photography bookstore. Browsing through it I remembered that in the excitement of chasing street art I’d completely forgotten about photography. The Museum of Photography and C/O Berlin are close to each other and very close to the Zoologischer Garten S-bahn station. We targeted these two for our last morning in Berlin.

The Museum of Photography is housed in an old military building, and has a large exhibition space which coexists with a foundation devoted to the well-known erotic and fashion photographer Helmut Newton. I am not particularly fascinated by fashion photography, but the public at large disagrees with me on this. The uppermost floor of the museum had two fascinating exhibitions on. One was a look at transformations in cities. This is an idea which is still completely open, schools of thought have not yet formed, and the variety of ideas was visible in the variety of styles different photographers brought to the subject. The second showed the Cultural Revolution as seen by photographers. This period of China’s history is sufficiently close that it is still held in living memories, but far enough that a coherent story is emerging. The works of Hai Bo, Maleonn, Mu Chen and Shao Yinong, and Cao Kai together give a certain shape to this history.

We’d heard and read much about C/O Berlin. It moved from its old haunt in Oranienburger Strasse to the old USIS building (featured photo) in 2014. The building is lovely, and now that it is no longer the scene of street protests, one can see the shape that Bruno Grimmek had planned in 1956. It is perfectly suited to house a gallery. This had two wonderful exhibitions running. We spent a long time in the retrospective of Danny Lyon’s works. We decided to have lunch after this at the cafe in the glassed area in front of the gallery. This was full, and several groups seem to have come in only for the lunch. After we were served, we understood why the cafe is so popular.

After lunch we went on to look at the work of a photographer we had not encountered before: Willi Ruge. He was apparently very well known in the 1920s and 30s in Germany, since his work appeared in many German magazines of that time. This is first retrospective of his works, and it left The Family and me quite flabbergasted. At a time when cameras and planes were both new technology, Ruge not only took aerial photos, but also did sky diving and photographed himself doing it. His work fits right into the modernist art movements of his time. It was interesting to see also photos like the one whose caption you see in the image above: the more things change the more they seem to remain the same.

An impossible job

Primrose flowering by the road are impossible to photograph

If the photo above looks weird, it just shows what I mean. On a walk in a high forest in Sikkim we came across primroses flowering by the road. They grew in clusters, brightening up an otherwise overcast day. But every time I tried to take a photo, it would refuse to come out right. I tweaked the exposure and colour balance on my camera. I tried as many other things as I could, even changed the f-stop, but nothing could make the colours come out right. The primroses looked much more pink to the eye than what the camera was getting. I could not stop the camera from changing a fuchsia to a violet.

It seems this needs post-processing. I tried to reproduce the original colour from memory by manually changing the colour balance and produced something that looks reasonable. I decided to make this change only on the left half of the photo above, so one could see what the changes did. It made the dead leaves look a little too red. Fortunately it did not change the colour of the green leaves and grass, and it made the small yellow flowers on the top left to pop a bit. I’m happy that it turned out to be reasonably simple.

I seem to have trouble with pinks and purples at high altitudes. Could this be due to the enhanced UV content of sunlight? Have you had such problems as well?

Mundane matters

Samsung I9100 phone
Image captured with a Samsung I9100 phone, lightly posterized with Gimp

Pho Trablogger’s Mundane Monday Challenge #30 asks you for a mundane subject. This is the most mundane photo of Switzerland that I have.

Berne’s university looks down at the switching yard to the town’s main railway station. I saw this grungy looking pattern of horizontal and vertical lines as I peered over a railing and took a photo with my phone. The lens seems to have a minor colour aberration: you can see that the center of the photo is a little biased to red.

With a camera I pause and think about what I take, and often miss what I wanted. With a phone I just click anything: mundane or not.