Tuesday, January 24, 2012

What's Wrong with this Picture?

This is not another blog about photography, but does arise from disturbing images.

I just watched President Obama deliver his State of the Union address. As he was speaking, I was making note of certain parts of the speech. Here's a pop quiz. What do the following excerpts from the SOTU have in common?

  • In the last 22 months, we’ve added 3 million jobs.
  • GM is once again the number one car manufacturer in the world.
  • No American company should be able to avoid taxes by moving its money and profits overseas.
  • It is time to stop rewarding companies that ship jobs overseas and reward companies that create jobs in America.
  • Women should earn equal pay for equal work.
  • America's production of oil is the highest it's been in 8 years.
  • Last year America relied less on foreign oil than at any time in last 16 years.
  • I believe what Abraham Lincoln believed: the government should only do for people what they cannot do for themselves and no more.
If you guessed that they were all applause lines, you're half right. They were all applause lines for everyone in the House Chamber except for the Republicans. Speaker John Boehner sat on his hands in response to each of these pronouncements by the President and his colleagues followed suit. In another instance, when the President called for comprehensive immigration reform after touting his administration's success in reducing illegal border crossings, John McCain appeared to be nodding in agreement. But, unlike those who stood and applauded around him, he did not put his hands together.

I cannot get the image of stone-faced Republicans out of my mind and find it incredibly disturbing.

Take a look at the list again. Who could possibly be against, or not appreciate, any of the items highlighted by the President? The coordinated refusal by Republicans to show any support for the efforts of our president is another in a long series of examples of the implementation of obstructionist policies designed to denigrate and politically destroy President Obama.

I am not naive. I know how the game is played. But with everyone acknowledging that the economic crisis we face as a nation requires our leaders to demonstrate actual leadership and put aside political squabbling, the Republicans' strategy is particularly disappointing.

Senator Mitch McConnell, the Minority Leader in the Senate, had a soundbite bouncing around the media today. He said something to the effect that if a CEO of a company had the same dismal performance as President Obama over the past three years, he'd be shown the door. The observation was succinct, contentious and guaranteed to become a talking point among the non-discerning and contentedly under-informed elements of the electorate. It was also nonsense.

What Senator McConnell leaves out is that if a CEO's efforts to carry out the will of the shareholders (technically, board of directors) who elected him was thwarted time and again by a few contrarians in the company's management team, obstructionists who demanded that their co-workers follow their leave on threat of termination, it's the contrarians who would be shown the door in order to give the CEO a chance to perform.

Unfortunately, American CEO Obama lacked the authority to fire Congressional Republicans who bragged from the start that they would oppose any proposal by the President in order to paint him as ineffective and limit him to one term. It is the height of arrogance for Senator McConnell, having spent the past three years blocking the President's initiatives, to criticize President Obama for not following through on all his aspirations.

It is to the same degree depressing to reflect that our democracy has devolved to the point where, as part of a coordinated plan to embarrass the President, Republicans cannot bring themselves to applaud achieving a reduction of America's dependence on foreign oil or the idea that our daughters should receive the same pay as our sons for doing the same work. In what universe would Congressional representatives, elected to serve their constituents while guiding the country to peace and prosperity, take issue with General Motors' return to prominence on the world stage or disapprove of limiting the role of government to undertaking no more than what citizens cannot do for themselves.

We have another eight months or so until the election in November. Join me in challenging our candidates, of whatever political bent, to stay focused on legitimate issues and to offer concrete solutions as the test of their competence for public service. When you see, instead, candidates relying on factually inaccurate character assassination to promote themselves by contrast, ask yourself how we are better served by allowing such intellectually empty pretenders to ascend to leadership. Use your social networks to share relevant, thoughtful analysis with your peers and followers.

One final thought, a final rule of the challenge just made. Do not be dissuaded from declaring the Emperor naked because his more popular predecessor was similarly unclothed. So, for example, Speaker Gingrich's moral lapses in his first two marriages are not excused because President Clinton also broke his vows. If the hypocrisy of having a serial adulterer serve as standard bearer of the Republican Party, which seeks to impose its version of family values on all of us, is objectionable, say so. President Clinton's personal misconduct in 1995 offers no relevance to our weighing the integrity of candidates in 2012.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Respite from Heavy Pondering

When I'm not working at my day job, practicing law, I pursue an decades long interest in photography. It is more than a hobby. I refer to myself as an enthusiast. For as long as I can remember, starting with family road trips to California and vacations in Florida in the '60's, I have carried a camera.

My brother and I shared a darkroom when he shot for the high school yearbook. I set up the first student darkroom at Carleton and was more than pleased to see that it was still around when I visited campus last Spring. I was the guy who memorialized college life and, later, law school for my classmates. Deb became irritated with me while in labor with our daughter because the obstetrician and I were discussing the camera equipment I brought into the delivery room instead of caring for her. I watched the kids grow up through my viewfinder. Today, my Facebook page has 124 photo albums associated with it, covering subjects ranging from friends' birthday parties to macro-photography of food. Last month, I decided it was time to set up a formal site on which to post my work and set up galleries on www.photoesq.biz.

I built my system up over the years, sticking with Nikon products that were mostly backward compatible. I take odd jobs for pay, but mostly volunteer my photography, donating half-day photo sessions to charities holding silent auctions. I also serve as Senator Franken's campaign staff photographer when he's in town. For three years, I served as the event photographer for a steeplechase in Florida. Last night, for the fifth time, I photographed the award winners at the annual Central States Dressage & Eventing Association.

I offer this background to give credence to the advice I am about to share. My presence at events with intimidating looking camera gear frequently invites comments from other attendees with simpler equipment. Observing me lugging five pounds of camera, they worry that their photographs cannot compete with mine because my equipment is fancier.

The truth, cliché or not, is that the photographer, not the equipment is the key element in creating images. Lately, I have been getting amazing results with my iPhone. I encourage the observers to learn the craft by working with the camera they have, shooting whenever they can and making the end product as good as they can. I also usually throw in a gratuitous "fill the frame" as the best single piece of advice on photography I can offer.

There are, however, rewards to learning the basics and being able to make equipment work to its capacity in order to further develop as an artist. I offer this example in today's bi-partisan blog.

Experienced photographers know to bracket their exposures in order to assure capturing just the combination of light and darkness in their images. Recently, software known as HDR, High Dynamic Range, has made it possible to take the best exposed elements of various parts of an image and combine it into a finished product. One of the features of my digital camera, once the flagship in Nikon's stable, is its ability to auto-bracket up to 9 frames in increments of 1/3 of a stop at 5-8 frames per second.

With the "normal" exposure in the middle, this has the effect of bracketing 4 exposures on either side. The complete series ranges from an image that has about 42% of the light of a normal exposure to one that has 233% of the light needed for a normal exposure. By "normal", I am referring to the default setting a camera with a built-in light meter would choose for a particular scene assuming no special circumstances like bright light directly behind the subject.

Of course, it is possible to make the manual adjustments to exposures to get the same effect. But the professional camera equipment I use allows me to quickly compile the entire series of images I want to work with and to do so without the need for a tripod.

Here is an example of the most overexposed image in a series I shot in California in November. I was driving on two lane roads between San Diego and Palm Springs, winding through the San Bernadino Mountains on a rainy Sunday. I was disappointed at the weather because it kept me from stopping to capture more landscapes. When I came to a rest stop just outside San Bernadino National Forest after being on the road for several hours, I seized an opportunity (click on the images to enlarge for viewing).

Generally, the image is washed out, particularly the clouds in sky, which have basically disappeared. This results from the need to over expose the foreground to get detail otherwise darkened by the lack of sunlight. Here's the most underexposed image in the series.

Now I have detail in the clouds, but the high desert flora is too dark to be acceptable. Notice that the images are identical in composition. By shooting the series over the course of less than 2 seconds, I was able to avoid a lot of movement in the clouds or have any problems with aligning the 9 images that made up the series. Keep in mind that there were an additional 7 "in between" images that were eventually combined into the finished product.

By taking all 9 images and applying the HDR software I purchased to enhance the capabilities of Apple's Aperture, I ended up with a finished product that properly exposes all elements of the scene:

I have had universal praise for this last shot, particularly when I crop it to remove the trash bins. There are those who question whether such digital manipulation is really photography. I am in the camp that believes it is. I am merely using tools available to reproduce an image as I saw it in my mind's eye. Our brain does all the HDR adjustments for us. My software merely overcomes the limitations, reduced range, of the sensor in my camera as it deals with any one particular shot.

And now that I've touted the difference a very expensive piece of equipment can make, automatically, here's another HDR example that was captured more basically and attainable with any camera that allows either manual override of automatic exposures or the ability to spot meter various very small portions of a scene in multiple exposures.

This is a composite of six images I shot, handheld, one morning as I was leaving for the office. I had my recently acquired backup camera in the car and I was not as familiar with its controls as with the more expensive model. I manually adjusted the exposures, needing to underexpose from the camera's norm in order to capture the deep colors of the sunrise. That left the foreground black (it's a sunrise; there was no other light). By shooting a series and applying the HDR software, I obtained something special. Because each exposure was taken individually, and despite my best efforts to line up the exposures similarly by using reference points in the viewfinder, you can see some ghosting in the tree branches.

You can see more of my landscapes, and other work, on my photo website. Tomorrow, I'll get back to pondering about politics and matters of more import. Feel free to contact me with questions or for advice. My photography is the release from the pressures of needing to be right all the time when getting paid for giving legal advice. Some people garden, some people read, some people exert themselves physically. I capture images and, from time to time, I write.

When I was introduced to Garrison Keillor at Senator Franken's event last week, he looked at my camera and asked if I was with the press.
"No, sir, I'm an attorney", I replied.
"An attorney? I should have known by the bow tie."
"I'm a left-handed attorney," I elaborated.
"A left-handed attorney," Mr. Keillor repeated. When he smirked, I knew he understood.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Preferring the Chaff to the Wheat

As I write this Saturday morning, news reports suggest that Newt Gingrich is surging in the South Carolina polls and now has a good chance to defeat Mitt Romney in today's primary. A win by Speaker Gingrich will delay what I expect will be the ultimate coronation of Governor Romney as the standard bearer for the GOP in November's general election.

That Governor Romney is having difficulty bringing closure to the process is not particularly surprising. He strikes me as a decent man who is likely more moderate in his views than he is allowed to acknowledge in Republican primary campaigns. However, despite all the time he has spent wooing various electorates for the past 20 years, he also strikes me as uncomfortable with retail politics and the necessity for personal interaction with voters in the early contests. As a result, he comes off as a bit insincere and too programmed. I suspect he's neither, but I am giving it more thought than the average South Carolina voter.

Speaker Gingrich's latest resurgence is similarly unremarkable. It is, however, disconcerting. As if he was running for debater-in-chief, Speaker Gingrich resuscitated his gasping campaign by attacking the "liberal media" in Thursday night's CNN-sponsored debate. The Speaker feigned righteous indigence when asked by the debate moderator if he wished to comment on his former wife's widely reported lurid descriptions of Mr. Gingrich's moral shortcomings. Effectively claiming attempted character assassination by the moderator for raising the issue at the outset of a Presidential debate, the Speaker used it as an example of how the media would do whatever it could to prevent conservatives from gaining widespread acceptance among the electorate.

First of all, I believe moderator John King's question was a fair one. The candidates were receiving free publicity by appearing on a debate hosted by the Cable News Network. Like it or not, the "open marriage request" story was news, replacing Rick Perry's withdrawal from the race as the big news of the day. Everyone in the debate audience, everyone watching CNN and everyone listening to the debate on the radio was wondering how Speaker would address his ex's condemnation.

South Carolina voters might not approve of multiple marriages spawned by serial mistresses, but they are even more concerned by the "liberal elite's" trashing of candidates who just want to return to those good old days in Mayberry when Opie was a boy and all was right with the world. Playing on this, Speaker Gingrich (watch his hands as they never leave his wrists) turned the fairly benign question (Do you want to comment on the allegations?) into an example of disrespect and evidence that the press was stacking the deck to assure President Obama's re-election.

For the most part, the Speaker just ignored the substance of his ex-wife's lurid allegations. Assuming that they are true (which the Speaker ultimately denied as part of his diatribe), they are indefensible when wooing the support of conservative evangelical Christian voters needed to succeed in South Carolina. As my grandfather advised me many years ago, when the law is against you, argue the facts. When the facts are against you, argue the law. And when the law and the facts are against you, argue like Hell. Speaker Gingrich argued like Hell.

What is disconcerting to me is I believe voters should be more concerned than they are when a politician avoids uncomfortable scrutiny, whatever the issue, by aggressively attacking the source and appealing to the audience's basest instincts.

For the record, in today's world, the railroading of cultural norms by a liberal media is a myth. There is so much information broadly distributed by every element of the political spectrum that it is nonsense to suggest that any one mindset can unaccountably and dishonestly hold sway. Would Mr. Gingrich have us believe that his friends at FOX News and the Wall Street Journal have lost their voice or their interest in challenging more moderate points of view? Of course not and the Speaker's complaints about being attacked on Thursday night were patently false.

Nonetheless, the voters like a fight and a feisty fighter. The substance and veracity of what is being said apparently matters less than the fact that it's being said at all. Scapegoating a "liberal elite" might play well in South Carolina, and the visceral reaction of the South Carolina electorate might be enough to win a primary election. I think our country is better served by earning support through cogent argument and persuasion and by avoiding the constant efforts to widen cultural chasms that form the basis for the gridlock killing our democracy.

Thursday, January 19, 2012


I am embarrassed that it has been nearly a year since I last posted on this site. Perhaps I was too angry, too tired, too frustrated, too lazy, too depressed, too medicated, too short of time, too selfish, too self-absorbed, too distracted to spend two minutes to ponder from the prairie. For a year?

I have decided I need to make time again for writing, apart from the volumes I generate at work.

Writing forces one to organize one's thoughts, exercising, training and strengthening the mind in ways that involuntarily lend themselves to enhancing every day's experience. Like a good liberal arts education, committing thoughts to paper (or pixels) demands critical thinking, a skill useful from time to time when away from the keyboard.

Writing serves as a release. The frustrations of being governed in response to Orwellian soundbites passing as political discourse fade with the self-satisfaction realized when publishing reasoned arguments to the contrary.

Writing assuages guilt. I spent this evening with Senator Al Franken. He works so hard to promote policies with which I generally agree, facing intense pressure from the GOP to institute policies I generally loath. I feel guilty that I have not been lending my voice in support of Senator Franken's efforts, apparently content to have others do all the heavy lifting. By writing, I feel like I'm doing my part to move readers in a direction I can support.

The occasion of my opportunity to share time with Senator Franken was a fundraiser at the home of Garrison Keillor, a local writer made good, with, coincidentally, his own history of prairie pondering. It is simply not possible to be in Mr. Keillor's presence, surrounded by his book collection, drawn to his office with its deliciously disheveled desk, awed by his ability to clearly, rationally and effectively communicate a point of view and not feel the urge to try to imitate art.

For me, for you, in appreciation for the public servants like Senator Franken and inspired by Mr. Keillor, our generation's Mark Twain, I am going to give in to the urge and try.

Garrison Keillor's Underwood