Archive for category: Professional Auteurism

Avatar:a Reflection of Human Nature
When Will Homo Sapiens Stop Making Movies Like Avatar

03 Jan 2010
January 3, 2010

Glenn Beck as our species savior?

Annalee Newitz recently posed this question: “When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like ‘Avatar’?” And she followed it up with some interesting ideas on race and film making in America. While I would agree that Avatar and District 9 are Hollywood’s metaphors for racial relations, by limiting her piece to just race she missed a larger issue: the broad scope and brutal reality of human nature reflected in these films.

Avatar is James Cameron’s epic about the Na’vi of the moon Pandora. Humans are so interested in obtaining the element Unobtainium (talk about transparent Hollywood story development) they are willing to destroy the Na’vi’s habitat in order to do so. In District 9, the more straightforward racial metaphor of the two, non-humans have been strategically and brutality segregated from the population of Johannesburg. In both cases, as Newitz points out, white males are the saviors of these aliens. And I do agree with her to a point.

But I would go farther by saying that greed and fear, both prime motivators here, are human traits that go beyond America’s racial history. Earth has a long and sad history of intra-racial and sectarian genocide. The wars between Rwanda’s Tutsis and Hutu, the Sunni and Sh’ia, the Catholics and Protestants of Northern Ireland, and between Serbs, Bosnians, Croats, Albanians, and the Romani, are just a few recent tragic examples. In addition, as we’ve seen in the last year, the quest for riches right here on Wall Street have destroyed millions. This is not just a racial issue but a human malady.

Sadly, there are those, like Glenn Beck, who make it their business and their livelihood to foment these differences. According to a recent Gallup poll Americans admire Beck more than they admire the Pope, Billy Graham, Bill Gates, and Presidents Bill Clinton and George H. Bush. Hollywood isn’t the only industry willing to oversimplify our human condition for big bucks.

In another recent film, Up in the Air, George Clooney’s character is a good example of the disconnect we often feel for one another. In his case, compassion would have destroyed his life and robbed him of his precious frequent flyer miles. The redeeming part of this film is that it doesn’t convey a simplistic character development (like other Hollywood fare and Beck himself) but let’s us complete the picture of a human forced to reconsider and redefine his being. Things are not black and white here nor in the world, but filled with shades of gray.

“The Other” is a human construct. If it’s not race it’s something else. All of these are important parts of the discussion. And should we ever come in contact with real sentient non-humans we will feel the same fear, difference, and loathing we do now for those humans we see as different. And “speciest” will be able to sit comfortably next to “racist” in our human lexicon.

A Related Conversation: at David Weinberger’s JOHO the Blog.

On Creating a New Stock Photo

25 Apr 2009
April 25, 2009
New York Stock Exchange

Commentary at the New York Stock Exchange

On a trip last week to New York for a series of meetings I suddenly discovered the New York Stock Exchange was located directly on the path between my hotel and meeting site. This “discovery” was hard to miss with a huge American flag draped across the front of the building and tourists holding up their cameras for a similar photo op (even at this early morning hour).

My time in Washington has trained me to look for initial signs of heightened security camouflaged as benign architectural flourishes. Bronze-colored “stones” subtly blocked would-be terrorists’ attempts to ram the front of the building. From there my senses noticed more overt measures: guard dogs sniffing along the front of the façade, stockbrokers showing their IDs to uniformed security, and the older gentleman, nicely dressed, loudly maligning the virtues of the new Obama Administration.

While tourist-photographers tended to document the huge flag, I, always looking to make a statement, went for the more ironic version of this snapshot. (The next day there was a new pic to take. Reports that advertising budgets are drying up must surely be premature.)

Anatomy of a Photograph

08 Feb 2009
February 8, 2009
Portraits taken at Obama's Inauguration

Details from some of my Inaugural portraits

As I began to look at the photographs I shot during the Inauguration I realized how many portraits of people I had taken that day: from soldiers and police who were doing traffic control (and other more subtle national security tasks) to the many different citizens who came to celebrate and sell their souvenirs. As I said initially, this was a very different Inauguration than the last two I attended. Few protesters, it was more celebratory than either of the last two Bush events.

Over the years I have spent a lot of time thinking about the best camera to take on these urban photo safaris. In 2001 I dusted off my Pentax 6×7 to shoot medium format “real” film at Bush’s first Inaugural. This had been my go-to camera during the 1990s. Medium format gave me great detail for large prints and I loved the quality. But that January 20th I realized this would be the last time I would ever used this camera –too few shots per roll and, weighing in at almost four pounds, it was heavy as hell. This was not well-suited for the type of urban documentary photography I was interested in and my back was no longer willing to carry it around. It became a burden to take pictures. I needed to make an adjustment just as digital cameras were coming into their own.

In 2005 I brought my first digicam, the tiny Pentax Optio S5. Oooh, it was light and its featherweight brought the fun back for me. But the measly optical zoom (3X) didn’t allow me to get close to some of the action at Bush’s second Inauguration. So I began looking for something closer to my dream combo: a lightweight camera with a massive zoom. The winner was the Panasonic TZ3 (and now its successor the TZ5). It was a bit heavier than my S5 but not by much and it had a 10X optical zoom (the longest zoom on the lightest camera around). It didn’t have processional settings like the Nikon P5000 or the Canon G9 so I wouldn’t have the most control over the images I took but I figured I could do what I needed in post-production using Photoshop.

So this year it was me and my TZ3 welcoming our new President on the National Mall. When you’re taking impromptu street portraits you don’t have a lot of time to contemplate your camera settings. You point and you shoot. I asked people if I could take their photograph. Sometimes I’d just be able to get one shot off before my subject moved on. That’s street photography: Henri Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment. I was in a maelstrom of people moving in all directions. Getting someone to stand still for a minute wasn’t easy.

As I looked at my images on the computer later that evening I started to form opinions about what I had taken. Going in without a strict notion of what I wanted to take (how could I, not knowing what to expect), I relied on my internal photographic senses on the street. However, now I had the time to make decisions about the final images. And I realized that some would require a shallow depth-of-field to separate the subjects of my photos from their background. Unlike my formative photographic years when I could do that by as I was taking the photography using a wide aperture, I was going to have to recreate this via Photoshop. And to do it right was going to entail a multi-stepped process.

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The Composite Sum of Obama’s Face

06 Dec 2008
December 6, 2008
Obama lookalike

Beauty has always been a product of the social attitudes of the time. During the Renaissance voluptuous Rafaelesque women were the standard aspiration while in the 1960s, and certainly today, thin –even an emaciated look– is often what people admire.

While waiting for the subway after work yesterday I found a new back-lighted dental ad at my usual standing spot. Quick! Who does this man look like?

Is it a coincidence this model reminds me of Barack Obama? His election was more than the total electoral votes he garnered –some even calling it a post-racial social revolution. Oh, our propensity to overstate and overstate prematurely. His election was only a beginning. We’re all still racists. How could we not be, given the importance and effect race has had in our society? We’ve got a long way before race is not the issue. But we did learn this time that something else was more important to most of us when it came to our vote. That’s a watershed.

From his campaign logo to his iconic visage for change, the visual in social politics and contemporary culture is once again on its ascendancy. And it was inevitable that Obama’s “look,” beginning as a political critique, would find its way into advertising.

Right now, this is all about Obama and what political and social changes his administration with usher in. But, ultimately, this will be less about him and more about how we see ourselves. An ad for a Dupont Circle dentist is an interesting beginning.

The couple pictured above could be black or white or a mix of cultures and races. I’m reminded of Nancy Burson’s 1980s computer composite photographs, and her Human Race Machine which allows us to see ourselves as a mix of ethnicities. Yes, this couple could be a composite. Then I look at my own family, a mix of European and Han and Mongol Chinese –our transracial family. Each of us literally comes from a different part of the world. We’re less a composite and more of a sum.

Whether composite or sum, it’s the understated mix that Barack Obama’s presidency heralds. A norm. Expect to see more racially mixed or ambiguous advertisements. High style is often at the forefront of cultural shift. But dental ads are another little step. This isn’t Vogue. Suddenly it will seem as if it’s always been this way. And, in a way, it always has.

Update: Washington’s local NBC affiliate picked up this piece and wrote about it on their Web site. The most interesting part of their reportage was the comments. Most readers felt it must have been a slow news day for the station to write this up. Reading NBC’s post I can see why. Rather than treat the dentist’s advertising photo in the context of a larger cultural identity shift, they chose to write it up with comic overtones: times must be tough if Obama’s looking for a second job. Using humor to talk about serious issues is difficult (especially about people trying to find work). NBC, you might want to stick with reporting facts from now on.

Leveraging Political Power in the Blogosphere

19 Oct 2008
October 19, 2008

Hotlinking. I’ve written about this netiquette faux pas before. And as you can see I’ve found a number of ways to get even (here and here). If you’re going to use my images don’t even think of linking to them directly. Internet providers charge us for bandwidth when you do that. It’s costly and it’s just not nice.

But in this time of social and financial upheaval, when we’re watching the powers-that-be vying for control of the message, I have ways of maintaining authority over my own images. Link directly to them and you may find I’ve swapped your my favorite photo for something else, something a little bit more pithy.

Worship Warriors decided it liked the large iCal icon it found on my blog post about the application’s iconic July 17 date. So, they linked directly to it. But this time, given the political season and the very close presidential race I found a way to kill two birds with one stone.

Blog who hotlinked to my image: before

Before: This blogger thinks it’s okay to link to my image directly.

The election is providing unique opportunities to place candidates in heretofore untapped markets. For example, when someone hotlinks to one of your own images, simply replace that image with one of your Presidential favorite and you have free political advertising. From now on, when someone hotlinks to my graphics I’m swapping that image with a none-to-subtle political endorsement.

I’d like to say “All Power to the People” but I don’t want to risk a robocall attack connecting me with a 1960s fringe radical group. So lets just say who needs another 527 when I can do it myself? If you’re for my candidate then I suppose you can let it ride. But if you don’t favor impromptu politics on your own site, you might think twice before hotlinking. Remember, I control my own images. It’s how us ordinary citizens leverage power in these very uncertain times.

I’m Jeff Gates and I approved this message.

Blog who hotlinked to my image: before

After: Remember, if you chose to work this way, you don’t control what appears on your own site.

When Speaking in Spain, Always Take a Picture

18 Jul 2008
July 18, 2008

Gracias por haberme invitado aqui a hablar con ustedes hoy. Yo hablo poco Español, asi que continuo en Ingles. Vamos a empezar.

I’m used to speaking in front of large groups of people. But even though I’ve been doing it since my days as a college prof, I always get just a little bit nervous. In fact, I go through the same regimen every time I ready myself to speak. Suddenly I hear myself saying: “I don’t want to give this talk. I DO NOT want to give this talk!” I’ve heard myself repeat this pre-presentation mantra so often I now laugh when the inevitable thought comes to mind. I always get nervous. It’s a way of keeping me on my toes and down to earth. I’m used to it.

But I’m not used to speaking to people who don’t understand me. I don’t have to visualize everyone naked to relax. Instead, I just think of my speeches as conversations. No matter how large the audience may be, I always find someone in the crowd I can talk with. So as the days and hours before my Spanish speaking debut closed in I wondered: how can I have a conversation with people who don’t speak my language? Yes, there was going to be simultaneous translation but would the subtlety of my verbal and visual jokes translate? Would they get it? I needed to connect with them so I had good reason to be nervous this time.

Thanks to the help of my kind organizers I put my whole PowerPoint and a handout into Spanish. And, most importantly, I rehearsed my opening remarks in Español. In the shower and on the john I thanked everyone for inviting me here to Aranjuez (that’s Aranjueth with a th, just like the natives pronounce it). I wanted to look them in the eyes when I said it. You know, like I was really chatting with them.

When I was first invited to speak here I had fantasies of giving this talk entirely in Spanish. But that was dashed decades before this engagement when I totally rejected the Latino culture I grew up in and took, first French and then German in high school and college. A lot of good that did me now. Thank you for inviting me to speak to you here today. I speak a little Spanish so I’ll continue in English. Let’s get started!

Suddenly, I was sitting up in front of the room all by myself. Everyone had earphones; I could hear the translator in her soundproof booth. Rufino Ferreras Marcos introduced me. I felt like I was speaking in front of the U.N. I took a sip of water, trying to steady my hand as I brought it to my muy seco lips (they were so parched I sounded like I cotten in my mouth).

And then I had an idea. It was crazy but I was on a different planet by then. I took out my camera and suddenly told everyone: “I have to take a photograph of all of you to prove to my bosses that I really am giving a talk this week in Spain and not on vacation.” I lifted the camera just as the translator finished. They laughed; I snapped. We laughed. Un peso pesado levantado fuera de mí.

My Spanish Audience

I snapped the photo just as they heard my words in Spanish. Click for a larger image.

Later that evening I retold this story to said bosses, attaching the photo as proof. Our museum’s deputy director quickly responded, telling me my photo didn’t prove a thing. I wasn’t even in it! When I told the group this the next morning they laughed again. But then someone quickly produced a camera. And there was a picture of me taking a picture of them. Proof positive.

Yep, I found a few people in Aranjuez to chat with this week. It was no vacation but it did have its moments.

Related Stories: Traveling Abroad: A Pre- Pre-flight Checklist and Spain: The Post-Flight Recap

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