Joel Meyerowitz on the impact of smartphones on street photography

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Stuart Jeffries writing for The Guardian:

Today, what entranced Joel Meyerowitz about the street is all but dead. “Nobody’s looking at each other. Everybody’s glued to their phones.” But street photography still exists? “It’s thriving but not in the way I used to do it. The best street photographers now show humans dwarfed by ad billboards. The street has lost its savour.”

Between Then and Again: Peter Funch’s “42nd and Vanderbilt”

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Peter Funch, 2012.07.03 09:09:07 / 2012.07.17 09:09:43

Peter Funch, 2012.07.03 09:09:07 / 2012.07.17 09:09:43

What to make of this collection of images taken over nine years at the same intersection in New York City, comparing individuals (separated from the crowd) walking by on different days? 

In his New York Times review, Teju Cole's reference to Walker Evans is helpful, but his famous and groundbreaking subway portraits are much more surreptitious. Evans wasn't as interested in the ritual or the remembering of a particular yet insignificant intersection of time and space but rather sought the truth that photography alone seemed to be able to conjure: the unguarded, unrehearsed version of a person that emerges within the presumed anonymity of public spaces in large cities.

Likely Funch wants us to be impressed by the discipline of nine years going at something, and the unique fruits of that particular labor, and for the most part I'd say we are. Time, that much of it, gives the project weight and a lens through which to look at difference, perhaps the best way to recognize (and predict) patterns1. But as with any project, “42nd and Vanderbilt”2 is also very much the result of curation. How many shots didn't make the cut? How many days did his commuters not turn the right corner? These images, and the moments they point to, are no longer unremarkable or transitory, as a natural consequence of their choosing. In this light, Douglas Coupland's mention of Warhol makes sense, given his exploration of (the paradoxes of) unedited phenomenon.

To my eye, it seems Funch is trying to paint the routines and mundane patterns of everyday life here in the most flattering light possible. Unlike Coupland, I’m not as preoccupied with the limited wardrobes these images betray. Nor am I as struck by the “remembering” the project evokes for Cole, perhaps because New York is not my home.

Rather, these images, despite their careful curation, composition, and exposure, function in a much more abstract and less personal or sentimental way for me. The isolation of these subjects in terms of framing, focus, and lighting, within a context (a street corner in New York!) that is anything but isolated, pushes my attention more to the blurry bits in the background where others (often partially) enter the frame. Those stories, and the potential intersections and geometry they represent (through happenstance or otherwise), pique my interest as much as the day to day differences and similarities Funch seeks to reveal.

  1. Though it is worth noting intervals between photos of a given subject, at least for those I’ve been able to see online, typically span days or weeks not years. Perhaps the full collection goes further. As well, likely for practical reasons, most if not all exposures occur between May and August. ↩︎
  2. I haven’t done the research to discover if there is a significance to this particular intersection, other than its proximity to Grand Central Station, and therefore the increased chance of spotting commuters coming and going. ↩︎

Memory, Reason, Imagination

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Great conversation here discussing how the Library of Congress, the largest library on the planet, is encouraging folks to use their digital resources and data sets in innovative ways as part of a general rethinking of the cultural role of libraries today. 

I was particularly struck by Kate Zwaard’s thoughts on how the notion of ephemerality is changing in the age of Instagram, mobile, and cloud computing:

I think the other thing about the ephemerality of the material as far as the young people think about what they create. It think actually they don’t think about it as ephemeral. They actually trust the world to keep it. So they don’t think about their photos as disposable but they don’t think about storage. They’ve actually abstracted that, right? That’s someone else’s problem. And to me that’s actually very good. I think reconstructing an archive from someone’s cloud services is very possible.

Early Site Design (1997 – 2002)

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Below is a sample of designs for this website from very early on. Back then, html was primitive and javascript was in its infancy compared to modern web standards and tools. That said, as has been suggested more eloquently elsewhere, much was accomplished in the face of these limitations. There was a real sense of possibility and experimentation resulting in a wide range of styles and layouts, which gradually became more generic and predictable as major template-based CMS platforms (e.g., WordPress, Squarespace, etc.) grew in popularity.

Apps Amuck

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Chuck Jones, Duck Amuck, 1953

Chuck Jones, Duck Amuck, 1953

With WWDC 2016 upon us and its expected focus on the much-anticipated third-party Siri API, I’d like to reflect on how Apple has been preparing native app developers for a world where the experience of a given application service or brand is multifaceted, continuous across platforms, extensible, and, ironically, as a consequence of increasing reach, also at risk of being fragmented, subsumed, and erased.

Last year while attending WWDC, I had the good fortune to participate in the inaugural Layers conference, which was introduced as a design-oriented complement to the generally developer-focused WWDC “main event” of the week. The conference size, the diversity of its events, the approachability of its speakers, the range of topics covered, and the engagement level of the audience all came together to make Layers a truly inspiring and memorable experience. One presentation from last year in particular has stuck with me as I’ve thought through the changes we are seeing in the way we interact with services and brands on our iPhones.

Neven Mrgan spoke about some of his favorite things, and, loosely, the sometimes unexpected goodness that comes from sharing what you love. Chuck Jones’ seminal Duck Amuck cartoon was one of the beloved things Mrgan shared (@ around 20:00), a rare treasure which I agree is both wildly entertaining and endures as required reading for anyone interested in the art and craft of animation, filmmaking, or storytelling and visual art in general. But what caught my attention that day was Mrgan’s off-handed comment about the sequence near the end of the cartoon where the frame literally begins to close in on poor Daffy, collapsing from all directions. He joked the image reminded him of his time designing responsive web applications.

The analogy was spot on and, as I thought about it more, seemed appropriate not only to web app design but equally reflective if perhaps in a more abstract way of the fundamental changes native mobile apps have witnessed in recent years, especially in light of Apple’s announcements that very week, which included: app “thinning” and targeting application assets for different devices, Siri Proactive and app deep linking, and multitasking and split-screen window management in both OS X and iOS. Through the lens of Duck Amuck, Apple’s announcements could be seen as the latest in a series of operating system enhancements (cf. iOS 8’s share sheets and extensions framework, notification center widgets) designed to deconstruct what it means to be—and what it means to experience—a modern, mobile (iOS) application.

Instagram “Peek” on iPhone 6S running iOS 9

Instagram “Peek” on iPhone 6S running iOS 9

The trend continued with the hardward-specific “peek and pop” feature enabled by 3D Touch announced later in the year as a feature exclusive to the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus. So it wasn’t surprising that many industry commentators began to question the long-term fate of native apps. And given recent investments in messaging and chat bots, major platform players, especially those who have been laggards in mobile, appear anxious to speed the demise of the standalone app (store), instead encouraging companies to deliver their services on their respective “aggregator apps” or “portals” as Ben Evans astutely describes them, such as Facebook Messenger, Microsoft Skype, Kik, Slack, and the most successful to date, WeChat. Even Amazon’s Echo requires a companion mobile app to manage third-party aggregated services through so-called “skills”.

In parallel, responsive web design emerged to address the proliferation of devices accessing the world wide web today, and effectively, with limitations, provide native app-like experience to web apps when accessed by mobile devices. Rather than developing and serving mobile-specific sites (remember WAP?) for mobile devices, the responsive web is built on the idea that a site should be fluid in nature and able to gracefully adapt its content and services to accommodate the way in which that content is accessed and used.

As with responsive web design, native apps will continue to evolve with greater adaptability based on device type and screen size (including no screen at all) and, by extension, their respective interaction models. Traditional graphical UIs will co-exist with conversational voice and text options. The challenge will be how best to maintain context across these interaction models and move users as seamlessly as possible between them when necessary. And users, for their part, should prove equally adaptable as long as expectations are clearly communicated, transitions are consistent and predictable, and transactions are fast, accurate, and add value.

Did 1995 Change Everything?

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1995: The Year of Monica Lewinsky, O.J. Simpson, Timothy McVeigh... and the Internet.

1995: The Year of Monica Lewinsky, O.J. Simpson, Timothy McVeigh… and the Internet.

Twenty years (and some change) ago:

Netscape Navigator was a browser created by a group led by a twenty-four-year-old named Marc Andreessen, who was described in Newsweek as “the über-super-wunder whiz kid of cyberspace.” The company’s I.P.O., on August 9, 1995, was a huge success. Five million shares went on sale on Nasdaq, at twenty-eight dollars a share; they closed the day at $58.25. The Times called it “the best opening day for a stock in Wall Street history for an issue of its size.

A little more than two weeks later, Microsoft released Windows 95, backed by what was reported to be a three-hundred-million-dollar marketing campaign, along with its own browser, Internet Explorer 1.0, and the browser wars were on. Netscape, of course, was quickly and easily outmuscled by Microsoft. In 1998, Netscape was acquired by AOL, and it faded into insignificance.

In the midst of Netscape’s I.P.O, which W. Joseph Campbell contends woke the world up to the Internet, I was happily ensconced on campus at The University of Chicago, spending my time reading, attending screenings and workshops, and, on occasion, shivering in the computer lab (curiously reachable only through Harper Library if memory serves) exploring the nascent world wide web, but more likely checking email, the most used “app” by far at the time. Thinking back on the “browser wars,” I don’t agree that Netscape faded into insignificance so quickly, though I do remember acknowledging their impossible odds. That said, I recall well into 2003 still contending with the vagaries of Netscape and IE while designing and coding (i.e. grappling with javascript) websites. Though, by that point, the seeds of change certainly had been planted. On January 7, 2003, Steve Jobs announced Safari (Apple’s fork of KHTML), helping to set the stage for improved cross-browser standardization which is still largely the trend today.

Apple Watch and the Benefit of the Doubt

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Apple Watch

On the eve of Apple’s “Spring Forward” event, I thought it would be worthwhile to revisit Robert Cringely’s prediction for 2015 as the year “when nothing happened” and, particularly, his take on the significance and reception of the Apple Watch:

The Apple Watch is Cupertino grabbing mindshare and early adopter wallets, nothing else.

Even those who are typically bullish on Apple seem to be restraining their enthusiasm and predictions of massive success for the Apple Watch. All except the stock market itself, with AAPL up over 14% YTD. The naysayers are hedging a bit too. If you widen the view on Cringely’s comment, he isn’t exactly dismissing the Apple Watch to the dustbin of history, instead pointing to 2016 as the year to watch.

I am hopeful he’s wrong. I personally find even the most fanciful aspects of the Apple Watch experience intriguing, at least as they have been described up to this point, and applaud Apple for the tact they have taken as they methodically enter the nascent wearables market. I expect many recent enhancements to the iOS experience like Touch ID and the application extensions framework will be all the more relevant once the Watch is in the wild.

Critically, though, unlike the release of the iPhone in 2007, there isn’t an obvious problem begging to be simplified and redefined. We aren’t dissatisfied with our time pieces in the same way that so-called smartphones left much to be desired eight years ago. The Apple Watch is a much harder sell because of this; it is trying to extend, and ideally in many situations, replace the iPhone experience itself (which obviously is a bit thorny for Apple, though they have been famously comfortable with product cannibalization before) rather than displace something already taking up space on everyone’s wrist.

Will the convenience and attempt at a kind of naturalness by situating tech on your arm rather than in your pocket, be as obvious when we look back on 2015 as portable touch screens appear now, when we reflect on the dark ages of 2006?

It might just come down to the distillation Apple is promising with the interface elements pictured in the photo above: the new pressure-sensitive screen, the much-fetishized Digital Crown, and, simply, the Button. While much has been written recently about the attention Apple is paying to the fashion-related aspects of the Apple Watch (e.g., luxury options, extensive customization compared to previous products), perhaps the obviousness and must-haveness of the device will emerge in its everyday use, where routine things will get done faster and information will be transmitted with less friction and without the encumbrances of even the most modern of smartphone interactions. And that is to say nothing of the integration of Apple’s Siri personal assistant and speech recognition tech, which Tim Cook boasts using “all the time”. Will Apple Watch be Siri’s debutante coming-of-age?

One thing is certain: as my father-in-law reminded me tonight, given Apple’s recent history, it would be foolhardy to categorically dismiss anything they aspire to do with the Apple Watch. For perhaps the first time in the company’s history, it seems Apple has earned the benefit of the doubt.

View from Chicago Tribune Tower, 3:08 PM

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View from Chicago Tribune Tower, 3:08 PM, 2014

View from Chicago Tribune Tower, 3:08 PM, 2014

We are moving the company’s downtown Chicago offices to a larger space closer to Union Station; both good things. We invited Eastlake Studio to help make the new location awesome and I recently visited their offices in the Chicago Tribune Tower. I’ve walked and driven past the 1920s landmark countless times before but never had the opportunity to go inside.

The above photo is the view from Eastlake’s offices looking west-southwest. Not bad, right? How wonderful to have such inspiration just outside your window every day.

A couple of technical notes

1) This capture was taken very quickly with an iPhone 5S. A snapshot. Nonetheless, I am thoroughly impressed with the detail and resolution the 5S pulls off—from street-level sidewalks to the distant top floors of the Willis Tower to the weathered stonework of the Wrigley Building and the shadow detail of IBM Plaza (now AMA Plaza). Perhaps I’ve just grown accustomed to digital aesthetics, and a future print likely will be the true test, but I’m not sure I would have been able to produce anything like this with my 35mm gear, certainly not without preparation.

2) If you peek at the metadata, you will find that I used Adobe Lightroom 5 to post-process the image (monochrome conversion, lens correction, and perspective adjustment). As a long-time Apple Aperture user and evangelist, this marks my first tentative steps toward an all-Adobe workflow. It’s no small decision and part of me is holding out hope that the mere thought of ditching Aperture will have some cosmic effect resulting in the announcement and release of Aperture 4.0 at WWDC next month, delivering all the goodness of Lightroom and more. But I am doubtful. Despite my deep (some would say non-rational) reservations about Adobe generally, for anyone looking to get more serious about photography today, I would be hard-pressed to recommend Aperture. I wish things were different.

Since one cannot easily move one’s work and time invested in one tool to the other, perhaps the best choice is to rely on them as little as possible. There are likely alternatives out there which I am not aware of, but it seems to me that photo file management and lightweight image post-processing is an area begging for innovation, including cross-platform support, long-term scalable network storage, and auto-curation beyond map views, face recognition, and “on this day” flashbacks (as provided by the now-defunct Everpix).

Arkansas

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States Visited Map - Arkansas

It only took six years, but I am pleased to report I am one state away from visiting all fifty United States, a long-standing box to be checked on the bucket list. 

Again, SG came through and arranged for a weekend excursion to nearby Little Rock, Arkansas. Unlike our surprise getaway to Omaha, Nebraska eight years ago, we had a couple of extra travelers in tow this time, which definitely put a different spin on things (note to self: next time, fly). We all agreed the River Rail Streetcar was a highlight. Other recommended destinations include the William J. Clinton Presidential Library, Little Rock Central High School and National Historic Site, and the Arkansas State Capitol Building. While the boys were a bit young to fully appreciate the significance of LRCHS in the history of African-American civil rights, the visit was a good learning opportunity for all of us.

With tornadoes forecasted, we decided to head back home early on Sunday. Waking Monday morning, I was surprised to hear how much damage had occurred; my thoughts are with those who lost loved ones to the storms.

Game 7

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Game 7,  2003

Game 7, 2003

The Sports Critic writing on the 10th anniversary of the 2003 NLCS:

The Cubs led the 2003 NLCS three games to one [sic]. In Game 6, they led the Marlins 3-0 going into the top of the 8th at Wrigley Field. With one out and a runner on second, the Marlins’ Luis Castillo lofted a foul ball destined for infamy. Left fielder Moises Alou chased it to the stands. He leaped for the ball that was directly over the wall. A fan attempting to catch the ball himself knocked it away from Alou. Castillo ended up walking, and the Marlins then scored eight runs in the inning to eventually win the game.

In Game 7, the Cubs led 5-3 after two, thanks to home runs from Kerry Wood and Alou before the pitching gave up six runs to lose it.