Brian Micklethwait's Blog
In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.Home
Julie near Chicago on Cat news
Rob Fisher on Round headlights equals an old car
Rob Fisher on ASI Boat Trip 7: Other photographers
6000 on Nine reflections
Simon Gibbs on The River Thames carpet
Brian Micklethwait on The River Thames carpet
Simon Gibbs on The River Thames carpet
Alan Little on The localness of London's weather
Michael Jennings on Sacred architecture and profane roof clutter - a speculation
Friday Night Smoke on The River Thames carpet
Most recent entries
- Cat news
- Quota selfie from 2006
- ASI Boat Trip 7: Other photographers
- Nine reflections
- The localness of London’s weather
- Round headlights equals an old car
- The River Thames carpet
- Cats … on scaffolding … with shadows …
- Sacred architecture and profane roof clutter - a speculation
- ASI Boat Trip 6: Crowd scenes
- Self-healing concrete
- Bombardier Embrio
- Football comment
- Quota bird
Other Blogs I write for
6000 Miles from Civilisation
A Decent Muesli
Adventures in Capitalism
Alex Ross: The Rest Is Noise
Another Food Blog
Antoine Clarke's Election Watch
Armed and Dangerous
Art Of The State Blog
Boatang & Demetriou
Burning Our Money
Chase me ladies, I'm in the cavalry
China Law Blog
Civilian Gun Self-Defense Blog
Coffee & Complexity
Communities Dominate Brands
Confused of Calcutta
Conservative Party Reptile
Counting Cats in Zanzibar
Deleted by tomorrow
Don't Hold Your Breath
Douglas Carswell Blog
Dr Robert Lefever
Englands Freedome, Souldiers Rights
Everything I Say is Right
Fat Man on a Keyboard
Ferraris for all
Freedom and Whisky
From The Barrel of a Gun
Gates of Vienna
Global Warming Politics
Greg Mankiw's Blog
Guido Fawkes' blog
Here Comes Everybody
Hit & Run
House of Dumb
Iain Dale's Diary
Jeffrey Archer's Official Blog
Jessica Duchen's classical music blog
Laissez Faire Books
Last of the Few
Libertarian Alliance: Blog
Liberty Dad - a World Without Dictators
Lib on the United Kingdom
Little Man, What Now?
Loic Le Meur Blog
L'Ombre de l'Olivier
London Daily Photo
Metamagician and the Hellfire Club
Michael J. Totten's Middle East Journal
More Than Mind Games
Mutualist Blog: Free Market Anti-Capitalism
My Boyfriend Is A Twat
My Other Stuff
Nation of Shopkeepers
Never Trust a Hippy
Non Diet Weight Loss
Nurses for Reform blog
Obnoxio The Clown
On an Overgrown Path
One Man & His Blog
Owlthoughts of a peripatetic pedant
Oxford Libertarian Society /blog
Patri's Peripatetic Peregrinations
Police Inspector Blog
Private Sector Development blog
Remember I'm the Bloody Architect
Setting The World To Rights
SimonHewittJones.com The Violin Blog
Sky Watching My World
Social Affairs Unit
Squander Two Blog
Stuff White People Like
Stumbling and Mumbling
Technology Liberation Front
The Adam Smith Institute Blog
The Becker-Posner Blog
The Belgravia Dispatch
The Belmont Club
The Big Blog Company
The Big Picture
the blog of dave cole
The Corridor of Uncertainty (a Cricket blog)
The Daily Ablution
The Devil's Advocate
The Devil's Kitchen
The Dissident Frogman
The Distributed Republic
The Early Days of a Better Nation
The Examined Life
The Fly Bottle
The Freeway to Serfdom
The Future of Music
The Happiness Project
The Jarndyce Blog
The London Fog
The Long Tail
The Lumber Room
The Online Photographer
The Only Winning Move
The Policeman's Blog
The Road to Surfdom
The Wedding Photography Blog
The Welfare State We're In
UK Commentators - Laban Tall's Blog
UK Libertarian Party
Violins and Starships
we make money not art
What Do I Know?
What's Up With That?
Where the grass is greener
White Sun of the Desert
Why Evolution Is True
Your Freedom and Ours
Arts & Letters Daily
Bjørn Stærk's homepage
Butterflies and Wheels
Dark Roasted Blend
Digital Photography Review
Ghana Centre for Democratic Reform
Global Warming and the Climate
History According to Bob
Institut économique Molinari
Institute of Economic Affairs
Ludwig von Mises Institute
Oxford Libertarian Society
The Christopher Hitchens Web
The Space Review
The TaxPayers' Alliance
This is Local London
UK Libertarian Party
Victor Davis Hanson
WSJ.com Opinion Journal
Bits from books
Bloggers and blogging
Brian Micklethwait podcasts
Cats and kittens
Food and drink
How the mind works
Media and journalism
Middle East and Islam
My blog ruins
Signs and notices
The Micklethwait Clock
This and that
Category archive: Cranes
Last Saturday, I was out and about by the river, taking pictures like this one:
But then, I noticed that bird, at the bottom of the left hand tower of Tower Bridge, and started snapping away in a more zoomed wayr than for the picture above. Hence the title of this posting:
I don’t know what brand of bird that is. I do know that it is not one of those avian imposters that calls itself a “crane” (thus clothing itself in dignity stolen from the mighty urban machine of construction), but other than that, I can only guess. A cormorant perhaps?
Pick and click.
Photographing birds properly is not my strong suit. You probably need to know their habits, the way I know the habits of the digital photographer, the one living creature that really interests me.
If, on the other hand, birds were to start taking photographs ...
Incoming from 6k, about a dramatic Big Things photo that he came across, via a Facebook friend. There is also a blog posting at his place about it, and about how I might like it, which indeed I do.
I’ve done what he suggested and have thinned it for here:
He has the whole thing, and here it is even bigger. Very dramatic, I think you will agree.
6k entitles his posting “Waterloo sunset”. This is a fine Kinks song, but sunsets are defined by where you are when you see them, and this photo was taken from the other side from Waterloo of the Big Things of the City of London, which is what these Big Things are. He has most of them identified, but his big omission (no criticism intended - he is, after all, now 6k miles away) is the tallest one, in the middle. This is the Cheesegrater.
My first thought was that this view might have been taken from the spot I visited last January, when I took these Big Thing photos.
But that isn’t right. However, some other photos I took that day that do point at the approximate spot where the above sunset photo was, I think, taken from.
Photos like this one, also thinned:
6k’s sunset photo was taken from somewhere in among those houses on the other side of the river, with the Shard sticking up behind, on the left of my photo.
Here is a slice of Google Map which shows were everyone is:
I was where it says “ME”. The Big Things of the City are where it says “BIG THINGS”, and 6k’s anonymous photographer was standing somewhere very approximately where I have put “?”. The spot I chose for “?” is something called Stave Hill Ecological Park, which sounds very promising, what with it maybe being a hill. I have never been there and I must check it out. But, that’s only my guess. The photographer could have been quite a bit further south and/or west. Don’t know.
But there is more. While going through the photos I took last January, comparing them with 6k’s sunset photo, I came across this one, which I have again thinned:
Again, click to get the bigger version.
Now, in the middle there, unmistakably (with three unmistakable holes in its top), is the Strata.
But, and I only spotted this today, almost directly behind it is the equally unmistakable Spraycan, unmistakable because in the dark, that is how the Spraycan is always lit up.
Here is a close up of the two of them:
The Strata is at the Elephant and Castle, and the Spraycan is way over in Vauxhall. Beyond Waterloo, in other words. Once again, I hit google maps, to check on the alignment of these two favourite Big Things, and it all fits. By and by, I shall return to that same spot, to take more and better versions of this photo.
Like I always say, my camera has better eyesight than I have. On days like that one, it almost invariably sees far more than I see.
I will go on saying that the tower, as featured in all these photos that I recently photoed, ...:
... should be called the Spray Can, until everyone is calling it the Spray Can. Or the Spraycan, that’s optional.
Or until someone comes up with an (even) better name.
But meanwhile, what shall we call the ”Salesforce” Tower?
The new name should please the residents but piss off Salesforce, for renaming towers all over the damn place, and make them wish they hadn’t attempted this in London. Salesfuck. Something along those lines. Not good enough, because too profane to be printed in regular newspapers. Salesfarce? Failsforce? Close enough to Salesforce to make the connection. But insulting. To Salesforce. The obvious thing would be to just carry on calling it the Heron Tower, but I don’t think that will punish these Salesfuckers nearly enough. Their stupid name needs to be dragged audibly through the mud.
In case you are wondering, yes I am still a libertarian. Capitalism, hurrah! But the thing is, when you complain about a business doing something really annoying, there’s quite a decent chance they may stop, or at least, if they persist, be commercially punished. At the very least there is a decent chance you can make whoever did whatever it was squirm a little, and generally be made a bit of a prat of. When you complain about the government, there is much less chance of any such good stuff happening. No way will you get, e.g., refund. Just another bill to clean up whatever the original mess was.
So, complaints against capitalism are rewarded, by capitalism. Complaints against governments are not rewarded nearly so much, by governments or by anything else.
So guess which, in defiance of all sanity, you get more of.
That’s quite profound, I think. (This is why I like tangenting. See below.)
Incoming from 6k, alerting me to a New Statesman piece by Ed Smith, about how, after a small digger has dug out a deep hole under a posh London house to make the house bigger, it makes more sense to leave the digger in the hole than go to the bother of extricating it. Makes sense. What a great story.
So, many of the squares of the capital’s super-prime real estate, from Belgravia and Chelsea to Mayfair and Notting Hill, have been reconfigured house by house. Given that London’s strict planning rules restrict building upwards, digging downwards has been the solution for owners who want to expand their property’s square-footage.
So, enter the digger, and dig dig dig. But then:
The difficulty is in getting the digger out again. To construct a no-expense-spared new basement, the digger has to go so deep into the London earth that it is unable to drive out again. What could be done?
Initially, the developers would often use a large crane to scoop up the digger, which was by now nestled almost out of sight at the bottom of a deep hole. Then they began to calculate the cost-benefit equation of this procedure. First, a crane would have to be hired; second, the entire street would need to be closed for a day while the crane was manoeuvred into place. Both of these stages were very expensive, not to mention unpopular among the distinguished local residents.
A new solution emerged: simply bury the digger in its own hole. Given the exceptional profits of London property development, why bother with the expense and hassle of retrieving a used digger – worth only £5,000 or £6,000 – from the back of a house that would soon be sold for several million? The time and money expended on rescuing a digger were better spent moving on to the next big deal.
Today being a Friday, I was delighted to learn that there is a feline aspect to this, in the form of Ed Smith’s final speculations. This man is clearly learning fast how to get noticed on the Internet!
In centuries to come, says Smith:
… they will surely decipher a correlation between London’s richest corners and the presence of these buried diggers. The atrium of the British Museum, around 5000AD, will feature a digger prominently as the central icon of elite, 21st-century living.
What will the explanatory caption say? “Situated immediately adjacent to the heated underground swimming pool and cinema at the back of the house, no superior London address was complete without one of these highly desirable icons, sometimes nicknamed ‘the Compact Cat’. This metallic icon was a special sacrificial gesture, a symbol of deep thanks to the most discussed, revered and pre-eminent god of the age, worshipped around the world: London Property.”
I am very fond of the ballerina statue at the top of the Victoria Palace Theatre. I recently photoed it with a red crane behind it, that being one of my favourite recent snaps.
This afternoon, I photoed it again, again with craneness:
From 1911, the year after its rebuilding to its present design by Frank Matcham, the Victoria Palace had a gilded statue of prima ballerina Anna Pavlova poised above it. This was owner Alfred Butt’s homage to the dancer he had spectacularly introduced to London.
The tribute was not appreciated by the superstitious ballerina, who would never look at her image as she passed the theatre, drawing the blinds in her car. The original statue was taken down for safety reasons in 1939 before the blitz and has completely disappeared. It is not known whether it is in someone’s garden or was turned to wartime military use, such as bullets.
The Victoria Palace moved into the new millennium with an adventurous building programme; enlarging the Foyer, WC facilities and increasing the dressing room space, whilst maintaining all the feel and character of a historic building.
In 2006, a replica of the original statue of Pavlova was reinstated to its original place above the cupola of the Victoria Palace and her gold-leafed figure once again gleams above us.
Blog and learn.
I see cat faces on bags:
On the left, in Trafalgar Square. On the right in a shop window, somewhere or other.
I see Hello Kitty continuing its conquest of the world:
On the left: Patriotic Kitty, both an English Nationalist and a British Unionist. (Hello Kitty is patriotic everywhere.) On the right: Hello Kitty colonises one of my local supermarkets. Today shower gel, tomorrow, who knows? One day, there will be Hello Kitty versions of everything.
And now I see this vast cat face on the outside of a building site at the top end of Victoria Street:
Note the surveillance camera right in front of it. Those things are also now everywhere.
This huge cat face was what got me noticing that Victoria Masterplan.
Apparently the cat face is an art installation. Scroll down here if you doubt me:
A bold new art installation has landed here at Nova, Victoria. The enigmatic gaze of a 37ft tall black cat will become the new landmark to greet people as they arrive in SW1. Taking up residence on site, the portrait is the first European commission by American artist, Marlo Pascual. The chic black cat occupies the Victoria Street facade of our four storey site cabins, converting a disheartening grey slab into the most stimulating of canvases.
The untitled installation kicks off a series of iconic and non-conformist art projects that will unfold at Nova, Victoria on its journey to becoming the most forward-thinking and aspirational place to work, live, eat, drink, shop and enjoy in London’s West End.
So, people, nice big photos of cat faces are now iconic and non-conformist. Modern Art eat your heart out.
(See also the bit where a discussion about “THE FUTURE OF LONDON DINNING” is advertised.)
All of which pales into insignificance beside what has undoubtedly been the week’s biggest cat news, which concerned an amazing YouTube video of a cat attacking a dog. This story is now everywhere. The dog was doing serious damage to the youngest son of the family, and was about to do even more serious damage than that. But the dog reckoned without Tara the Cat, who launched what looked like a suicide bomber attack on the dog, which not surprisingly caused the dog to retreat. Tara behaved exactly as if the small boy was one of her kittens.
Cats are complained about for being like perfectly evolved parasites on humans. We feed them, stroke them, put a warm roof over their heads, buy anything with cat faces on it, and in return they do pretty much nothing.
Tara, on the other hand, has surely repaid any debts she ever owed.
In 2013, on September 5th, 18th, 24th and 29th, I visited the area in and around London Gateway, the new container port they’re building on the north side of the Thames Estuary, first to see if I could photo the cranes, and then to photo them again, and again, and again. And everything else amusing I saw on my wanderings. (I would never have remembered these dates if my camera hadn’t.)
I showed a couple of photos here of one of those expeditions at the time, but that was only the tip of the photographic iceberg.
These were undoubtedly among my best photo-expeditions of 2013, right up there with visiting Beckton Sewage Works with Goddaughter One, a superb day which I see that I seem never to have mentioned here at all.
My problem is, when I sit down at my computer and try to pick out a few good snaps from one of these huge photo-perambulations, I just don’t know which to pick. There are just so many nice ones. I end up picking none at all and write about something else entirely.
So, I now pick another one, from one of my four trips to London Gateway, to show you, which I just found when trawling through them all, again. One. Just the one. It features me, but not looking good. No, looking appalling, with my appallingly flabby chin all scrunched up as I look downwards at my twiddly camera screen, which is how I actually do look when wandering around doing this kind of thing.
But, showoffy though it is, I think it’s a rather effective photo:
See also the first five cranes, of the twenty four that will finally be at London Gateway. That snap was snapped on September 24th.
When all those twenty four cranes are up and running and the place really gets into its stride, I will definitely return to check them out, as will all the world and its digital cameras. Mark my words. When they open this thing for business, the media, mainstream and irregular, social and anti-social, will be flooded with it. Flooded I tell you.
But just now, they are busy building it, and the last thing they want is people like me wandering around photoing it. So, they keep quiet about it. Seriously, I’d be willing to bet that there are quite a lot of PR persons whose entire job consists of persuading journalists not to mention this thing until it’s finished, but then to mention it big time. Silence now will be rewarded with access later.
Last Wednesday, I snapper a whole lot of my fellow snappers, but I did not neglect inanimate objects. Here are some of the “I just like it” photos I also took that afternoon, as afternoon turned into evening and as the sun started hitting particular parts of those objects. Click at will for the bigger versions:
I make that: four Wheels (1.2 behind trees; 2.1 behind a little scaffolding; 4.1, bottom of, end on; and 5.2, in a piece of art in a shop window, behind a bird); two Big Bens (2.3, with all its spikes (most pictures of Big Ben include the clock, which then upstages all the spikes) and 4.2, serving as blurry backdrop for two street lights); two Millbank Towers (2.2 and 5.3, the one with the crew cut hairdo of roof clutter); one Shard (3.1, weird top of); one Spray Can (2.3, next to the Millbank Tower -will “Spray Can” ever catch on?) some cranes (1.1) and some tourist crap (4.3), which I love to photo even as I would never buy.
See also a vapour trail (3.3), part white, part dark, depending (presumably) on whether the sun is hitting it or not. (One of my best (I think) postings here concerned a dirty looking vapour trail.)
And see also that St Thomas’s Hospital car park under a park with a fountain (5.1), than I mentioned in the earlier posting with the photographers.
For someone else’s earnestly anxious ruminations about London’s incurably crowded and bustling state, try this. Not enough “affordable” housing, he says. This would suggest to me that building “affordable housing” is not affordable for the builders. Why not? What rules make affordable housing unaffordable to build? He says, of course, not enough rules and subsidies. I say too many rules and subsidies.
Maybe I’d start with the Green Belt, a huge doughnut of dreary fields through which commuter trains race and commuter cars crawl. In a free market, some of the green belt would stay fields or become parks, and some of it towns, that are affordable to live in. I wouldn’t just free up all of it, in one go. I’d carve out the prettiest bits of it and say: don’t build here. And I’d point at the boring bits (very numerous) and say, build here, whatever you like.
But that wouldn’t “solve” all London’s problems. These are caused by London being a great city that millions of people want to live and work in. “Solve” whatever is considered to be London’s biggest problem now, and you merely make all other London problems that bit worse. London will always be overcrowded, and lacking in this or that thing that Guardian opinion-mongers consider necessary and regard as an excuse for bitching about capitalism and for recommending more regulations and subsidies.
First you fuck with the free market and stop it doing its stuff. Then you blame the free market and fuck with it some more. See also: environment.
But I digress. Last Wednesday was a very nice day. As is today, by the look of it.
Seconds after I’d finished photoing that camel, I took this photo:
But whereas I was quickly able to find out about the camel, and about how there’s a pub called that (partly), and so on, I was unable to find out anything about “SOUTH BANK ARCHITECTS” other than a phone number, which I dare not ring because I don’t really have a proper question to ask them other than: do you exist? There is no website. The www knows of no buildings that have been designed by SOUTH BANK ARCHITECTS.
So, if you work for SOUTH BANK ARCHITECTS or if you know anyone who works for SOUTH BANK ARCHITECTS, please add a comment.
My theory is SOUTH BANK ARCHITECTS used to exist, which is when they put up that big sign. But, before the www came into existence, they went out of existence. And now, nobody can be bothered to take the sign down.
Tomorrow evening the 2014 BAFTA Awards shindig will be happening, at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. Roger Hewland, proprietor of Gramex (Records and CDs), Lower Marsh, told me this afternoon that BAFTA is paying the ROH three quarters of a million quid for this privilege. Where RH picked this titbit up, I do not know, but it sounds a lot, doesn’t it?
Below is a picture that I recently took myself of the ROH. If you google for pictures of the ROH, you mostly get either interiors, or else the big Parthenon-like front entrance. But when I was at that Rooftop Bar I recently visited, I took this snap of the ROH:
What strikes me is how modern it looks. It’s just a big box. The decoration is no more than a gesture. I know, I know, that’s because nobody can see this bit, this being before the age of buildings taller than this, from which people can look down. But even so, you can see architectural modernism all present and correct, just waiting to emerge.
Much humour is to be had by modifying a cliché, and something similar applies to photography. The Eiffel Tower features in many photos. The chimney pots of Paris, not quite so much.
That was taken on February 2nd 2012, from the Pompidou Centre.
I an still stunned by how brilliant my new, cheap computer screen is. Pictures like this one become hugely better than I remember them first time around, and wandering around in my photo-archives is more enjoyable than ever before.
Here is another picture taken at the same time from the same place. Also lots of chimneys, though you have to look a bit more closely this time. But in the background there, La Défense, Paris’s Big New Thing district.
What that big dome is in the foreground, I don’t know. I was staying with Antoine Clarke when I took these snaps, and in fact he was up there with me when I took these. Maybe he can tell us what that big curvey thing is. When you take pictures of some big thing, there is a presumption that you do care what it is, but personally, in this case, I don’t really care. There are more than enough mysterious buildings like this in London to keep me wondering, without me fretting about mystery buildings in Paris. But maybe you would like to know.
And yes, I am almost certain that is a crane.
One other thing. This new screen has me thinking that maybe the size of pictures I am putting up here may be a bit wrong. When you click on the above two, you’ll get them at 1200x900, which is bigger than I usually do, because now my own screen is bigger. Is this either too big, or too small? I’d welcome anyone’s opinion on that.
As I said in the previous post, my talk about digital photography at Christian Michel’s last night went well, in the sense of me feeling it went well, and it seeming to be well received. I occasionally put my sheets of paper down and extemporised upon some point I was making, but mostly, this was it. No links, no photos, no extras. (They may come later, I hope, but I promise nothing.) Just the bare text that I read out, complete with all the errors of grammar and spelling, of fact and interpretation, that may or may not be present:
I have given several talks in this 6/20 series, but until now this has been because I have had both questions and answers to offer to the assembled throng. I have had theses to present, clutches of facts to pass on.
This time I don’t know the answers. I merely want to know the answers. What is the impact of digital photography? What is it doing to us? Since fixing this subject matter with Christian I have made, I think, some progress in arriving at answers, but only some. Tonight I expect to make further progress.
Luckily, for my purposes, we have all been alive throughout the period of digital photography’s mass use, and have observed it in action, even if we may not always have wanted to. Has anyone here not taken a digital photo? Just as I thought. (It actually says that here. And this.)
I will start my remarks by quoting a remark made by an American whom I overheard about fifty years ago, on the Acropolis in Athens, the place where what is left of the Parthenon stands. I was there trying to do some sketching, a skill I never got any good at but spent a few years attempting. He was doing pictures with his seriously pre-digital camera. As soon as he had finished photoing, he wanted to leave, presumably to get to his next photoing place. But his family were enjoying the Acropolis in the morning sunshine. Said he to his family: “Come on, come on! We’ll look at it when we get home!”
This outburst captures a great deal about what people object to about digital photography, but it also reminds us that photography, by Everyman as opposed to by professionals, is nothing new. Digital photography is partly just the intensification of a process that has been in place in our culture for well over a century. But it is more than that.
Even setting the scale of the phenomenon aside, digital photography is different from the old sort. It was first applied to the real world by NASA, to solve the problem not so much of taking photographs, but of communicating them, from robot spaceships back to earth, without the vast additional expense of getting the robots to fly back home themselves, like World War 2 photo reconnaissance planes. Central to digital photography is that digital photographs are easy to communicate. It is no accident that digital photography has only now become ubiquitous in our culture with the arrival and mass success of the smartphone, which can, just like those first NASA digital space cameras, both take pictures and communicate them. When we speak of “digital photography”, what are the boundaries of the concept? The “digital” bit means that this is photography that goes beyond merely being photography in the sense experienced by that American on the Acropolis all those years ago. Digital photography, as computer insiders have long understood, is only a part of a bigger multi-media picture, and that was always the idea.
One of the ways I have prepared for this talk has simply been to talk with people, both friends and people I just happened recently to bump into. How do you use digital photography? What do you think its impact is?
In the answers I have so far garnered, a number of themes recurred.
Only a tiny few did not use digital photography at all. In one case, this was because he had suffered a particularly painful digital camera robbery, and he just couldn’t make himself resume the activity. All the others who refrained were old, little-rolls-of-film photography devotees. They loved this technology and consequently hated the successor technology that had destroyed the object of their love, in rather the same way that some devotees of vinyl gramophone records hate CDs. This was exceptional.
In all other cases, my respondents used digital cameras with enthusiasm, and often downright joy. They used them in some or all of the regular ways, to take holiday snaps, to take photos at weddings, family reunions, parties, and so on. But another recurring theme also asserted itself. This is the digital photography killer app, different for each person. Everyone does particular work, has particular hobbies, and in almost every case of such a personal angle on the world, digital photography was making a contribution, to their effectiveness or their pleasure or both.
A fine example is a killer app described to me by a gentleman at the previous 6/20 meeting, on the 6th of this month. He regretted being unable to attend tonight, but I will try to recall what he said, briefly but accurately. Basically, he is a butterfly fan. He likes to scrutinise the patterns on the wings of butterflies, which, to him, are of extraordinary beauty and interest. I am sure you can understand.
But he has a problem. Butterflies are notoriously unwilling to stay for any length of time in the same spot. Their wings will often repay long minutes and ever hours of attention, but your typical butterfly only hangs around for a few seconds and certainly cannot be relied upon to stay longer. No problem. Snap. He can then scrutinise the beautiful creature’s wings at his leisure. He can, you might say, look at it when he gets home.
It’s an aside, but I recall the days when butterfly “lovers” could only contemplate the objects of their devotion for any big length of time by killing them. They used to catch butterflies in nets, and pin them onto boards and keep vast collections of dead butterflies in trays with glass tops. I remember such gruesome collections, perpetrated by male relatives long dead, in my grandmother’s house when as a boy I visited her vast home. That the weapon of choice of an ever higher proportion of human hunters of animals – entirely so in the case of rare or endangered animals - is now the camera, rather than the rifle, is surely a step in the right direction for civilisation. Taken literally, my butterfly man’s use of digital photography to immobilise his butterflies was the very opposite of a killer app. It was a let them live app.
Other killer apps spring to mind. My own digital camera killer app, the app that got me started with digital photography, was contriving computer printable photographs of authors whose writings I was engaged in publishing, for the Libertarian Alliance. One of these authors was Christian, as I recall. About fifteen short years ago, using desktop computers to print photographs was as slow and unwieldy as using computers to display photographs on computer screens is easy now, but I was very happy about that. I could do it. All I needed was quite crude black and white pictures, which were not nearly as slow as better pictures would have been to play with, and anyway, all that slowness deterred the competition and made my products look far less domestic in origin than they really were. Later, I used and still use pictures of prominent libertarian personalities to spice up my blog postings, and to boost their prestige and raise their morale.
Intrinsic to digital photography is that digital photographs can be easily processed. This was also why NASA was so keen to develop this technology. Remember those videos of a hopeless image being slowly but miraculously transformed into a miraculous image. I used to muck about with my author photos to make them more photocopier-friendly. Many of my interviewees have talked about how they create images, rather than merely snap them.
Tonight I hope that I will hear of many more killer apps.
One of my favourite digital photography apps is the photographing of other information. An example of this was told to me by Simon Gibbs of Libertarian Home, who works in computers, in some capacity or other. He and his colleagues, in the course of their collective deliberations, are in the habit of covering white boards with verbiage and diagrams and such, often including yellow stick-on notes with further cleverness. And, before the meeting adjourns, photos of all this cleverness are taken, for later pondering. Simon and his colleagues are definitely not the only ones behaving like this, and nor are they the only ones who photograph the resulting writing on the wall, so to speak, for later reflection. A merely temporary piece of scribbled brainstorming becomes as permanent as anyone wants it to be.
Time was when the only people in the world using small cameras to photograph complicated verbiage and complicated diagrams were spies in movies, and presumably spies for real. And to anyone who says that photocopiers have been around for decades, I say, true, but good luck photocopying a vertical surface several yards wide. Digital cameras are actually now better than photocopiers were. Notice, however, that this was not nearly so true just a few years back, because cheap digital cameras couldn’t then handle the detail. Now, they can.
The more people tell me about their personal, particular, digital photography apps, and about the other apps they have heard about other people using, the more I think that digital photography is like literacy, something that is capable of contributing, always significantly and often crucially, to pretty much any project you care to think of. Of course it has to be done right, used intelligently. Any tool can be misused, applied stupidly or excessively. But seriously, is there any area of work or play to which a bit of shrewdly deployed digital photography can not now contribute?
The pleasure that people get from digital photography is obvious, and often highly visible. But the impact of digital photography on work is just as dramatic if not more so, which is one of the reasons I so like Simon’s photoed brainstorm boards. Where would internet selling be without digital photography? How many pictures are taken per day by the construction industry, to record progress, satisfactory or not? Think of all those Russian cars with their permanently active video cameras, ready to record accidents, and incidentally recording meteor strikes for the evening news.
As for the more conventional uses of digital cameras, to take snaps when on holiday or out of hours when on business trips, at weddings and at funerals and school reunions and at Christmas, well, hear this. Several people volunteered that, were they to suffer a computer calamity and lose all their data, the only losses that would really hurt – really, really hurt – would be the loss of their photo archives.
There were grumbles. Just now a big grumble about digital photography, if my recent conversations are anything to go by, concerns people using tablet cameras (a very recent arrival on the scene) to make bad video recordings of live events, thereby spoiling the view for everyone else. This does not mean that it is silly to photograph Big Ben using a tablet, as I myself have had the pleasure of photographing many people do. On the contrary, a tablet is a very sensible way to take photographs or make videos, because with such a big screen, you know, as never before, the kind of picture you are going to get. But yes, tablets can be used in a way that is annoying to others. More fundamentally, what is the point of going to an event, and then not experiencing it, on account of instead making a bad video of it?
More generally, the grumble is that digital photography does not so much record experience as postpone, diminish, and not infrequently utterly destroy it.
But such grumbles are not new. I would say that they are a consequence of the fact that technology is always now developing, which means that at any particular moment mistakes are going to be made. We are all familiar with the nouveau riche phenomenon, which is people who need to learn how to handle money in quantities they are not familiar with, and in particular not to spend it all. Constantly progressing technology gives rise to a similar effect. At any given technological moment there will be people overdoing it with this or that latest piece of kit. Just now tablet computers are being overused at public events. Suddenly people can record absolutely everything, and some do, excessively and inconsiderately, not even maximising their own pleasure let alone anyone else’s. In the eighties, you may recall, the complaints concerned mobile phones, being misused in trains by people shouting endless gushes of banality into them, concerning the progress of their train journeys, in a way that enraged other passengers. But people learned not to behave like this. The tablet wavers at concerts will likewise learn to mend their manners.
As for the claim that photography is an alternative to visual experience rather than an enhancement of it, my own personal experience has been the exact opposite. I have seen far more of London in the last decade than I would have done had there been no digital photography. And thanks to my photo archives I remember far more of what I have seen, with past photos often vividly triggering past visual memories that would otherwise have gone utterly. My most vivid visual recollection of 2013 was seeing, in the far distance, the first few giant cranes of London Gateway, London’s new container port now being constructed on the north bank of the Thames Estuary. They reminded me of my first sighting of Chartres Cathedral from a similarly great distance, which I spied on one of my sketching expeditions in my teens. Had there been no digital photography, I would never have gone anywhere near London Gateway, let alone now have had such vivid mental (as well as digital) pictures of it. My experience is that digital photography is not a substitute for seeing things. It is an intensification of seeing things.
And as I often like to joke, my camera has better eyesight than I do. One of the most pleasurable moments of my photographic expeditions is when I get home, and fling my pictures up on my big home computer screen. I see all sorts of things in them that I did not see at the time, as perhaps my friend Simon sees in his photos of meetings notes. Just as the butterfly man does not have time to see everything he can later see in his photos, I do not have the eyesight to see what I later see in my photos. Ah, the joy of looking at them when I get home! And yes, I am a bit nouveau riche about digital photography myself. Guilty as charged. But far better to be nouveau riche than not riche at all!
It is because of all the varied pleasures to be had from digital photography that it has become such a mass enthusiasm. All mass enthusiasms give rise to grumbles and sneers, from people who accentuate the negative and prefer to ignore or take for granted the positive.
Some negatives, concerning the impact of digital photography and the new media in general on old school journalism have been much complained about, mostly by old school photographers and journalists. Daily news has been replaced by instant news. Boo. Many people prefer looking at each other’s bad photos instead of looking at good photos taken by the old school photographer complaining in his old school newspaper article. I will not spend time on these grumbles, if only because so many others have done nothing but write about such things. Suffice it to say that the news hasn’t ended. The means of communicating it has changed a lot lately, just as it always has.
One of the many plusses of digital photography is that, by supplying an endless stream of humdrum photos of humdrum people doing humdrum things all over the world, it corrects the impression given by the news that the rest of the world is a crazy place inhabited only by crazy people doing crazily newsworthy and disastrous things, all the time.
One of the bigger negatives associated with digital photography is surely surveillance, both by big organisations like governments and the owners of shopping centres and amusement parks and transport networks, and by individuals, just taking photos, moving or still, of friends or strangers, and then internetting them. And of course the latter activity, as Edward Snowden has now confirmed, feeds massively back into the former one. There was a recent 6/20 talk devoted entirely to this topic a few months back, just before it suddenly became a hot news story.
Surveillance has caught on in the rich world, I am convinced, because it really does do a lot of good, in deterring crime and in supplying evidence for prosecution in crimes that it fails to deter. It also, surely, really does diminish speedy and dangerous driving. The question is not whether there are any benefits to mass surveillance, but whether those benefits are worth the potentially horrible costs. It has been much discussed that Britain has the largest population of surveillance cameras in the world, per head of population being surveilled. I think that one reason for this is that in Britain we have (again: many of my libertarian friends will be disgusted by this claim) some of the – quite possibly the - most trusted public officials in the world. (If my libertarian friends would prefer “least distrusted”, I am happy to let them have that concession, but only that.) Trust in public officials everywhere is probably in decline, including in Britain, but in Britain it still remains very high. There is a lot of ruin in a civil service that started out genuinely civil. Thus, the costs in Britain of public surveillance are considered less burdensome than elsewhere, and the cameras escalate, both in number and in effectiveness.
The Guardian’s Laurie Penny agrees with me. Unlike me, Penny travels a lot to many other cities besides London, and she notes that London – especially London’s trains – are now remarkably free of graffiti, compared to other major cities, and in particular compared to the trains in other major cities. She gives surveillance cameras much of the credit for this. Which makes sense to me. Although, as usual, we have to say that just shoving up surveillance cameras and not paying any attention to their output is utterly insufficient. As with all other digital camera apps, surveillance cameras can be deployed both excessively and incompetently. Cameras only work if part of an effective (and uncorrupt) system of crime prosecution and prevention.
But what if the definition of crime gets expanded? What if British public officials are now becoming less trustworthy so fast that the British public, now so supportive of surveillance cameras, later changes its mind?
And what else are all these surveillance cameras already deterring? Penny speculates that we have entered a new age of self-censorship, of stuffy social decorum, of watching what we say to anyone, not unlike the one that was abandoned in the 1960s by the Beatles generation, i.e. mine. I think I agree about that also, although another big part of the reason for that is that the economy is not what it was. Would young people now fret about pictures of themselves behaving rowdily in the street, or for that matter at private parties where privately owned smartphones are hoovering up pictures and showing the worst of them to the whole world, if jobs for young people were as easy to come by as they were in the 1960s? Personally I don’t think such pictures are much of a reason to not employ someone, but they do make a fine excuse if you are looking for one.
Going back to that graffiti that Laurie Penny observes the lack of in London (and she is rather regretful), I think I observe another impact of digital photography on graffiti, at any rate in London. Yes, surveillance cameras may have diminished the quantity of low grade graffiti, the sort that is hardly better than dogs pissing on lamp-posts to mark their territory, and which is done – or feels as if it is done - to maximise annoyance to property owners, and urban dread in the minds of more sober and timid and elderly citizens like me. But at the top end of the graffiti food chain, at any rate to my eye, things have greatly improved. The quality of the best graffiti art is now dramatically better than it has ever been before, so much so that art galleries now fall over themselves to sign up street artists, instead of patronising the more usual sort of artists, who are now being left behind by their more populist competitors with their defiantly realistic and demagogicly communicative imagery.
Digital photography is definitely part of this story, in fact I think somewhere in my photo archives I have pictures to prove it, of street artists photoing their works in progress. Think about it. If you have just done an elaborate work of street art, in a place where you know from experience you are allowed to do it, and won’t be prosecuted for doing it, and you can immediately record an approximate likeness of it for posterity, that has to gain you more kudos and social media attention than if you couldn’t do that. Street art is all too temporary, replaced almost at once by more street art. A digital photo of a piece of street art is far more permanent. Does anyone here present think that digital photography means less high quality street art?
The weekend before last, there was another art event in London which surely also owed much to digital photography, which was a festival of ice sculpture. How demoralising it must be to sculpt a masterpiece, and then immediately watch it melt, in London’s demoralisingly moderate “winter” climate. How much more fun if you can photo it in all its temporary glory. That fact has resulted in a deluge of photos in recent years of such ice sculptures, and that results (it certainly did the weekend before last) in a whole new mob of people who have never seen such a thing before (because before, nobody in London bothered) assembling themselves to witness these miraculously kitchy objects. And to photo them with their cameras. I actually went to this ice sculpture exhibition, which was held in Docklands. I had hoped for a decent number of ice sculptures and a decent number of photographers, some of them the artists themselves, for me to photograph photoing them. Alas for my hopes. I only got as far as photoing the truly gigantic and (to me) totally offputting queue of people who had all had the same idea about where to go as me.
I’ll end this very soon. Melting sculptures and excessive crowds of people wanting to see them and to photo them may seem like a pretty downbeat conclusion to this talk, but actually it isn’t really my conclusion. That will come when I finally sort out in mind what that is. Meanwhile, I am greatly enjoying the process. Talking with people about how they use digital photography, and about what they think its impact has been and is and will be, as opposed to merely reading about this on the internet and musing about how I use digital photography myself, has also been, quite aside (I hope) from being somewhat informative, great fun. Asking someone how they use digital photography is a great conversation starter, I have found. And I intend to continue with my investigations.
If forced to offer a conclusion now, I think I would describe digital photography historically, by talking about how future historians might choose to describe the little episode of technological history that we happen to be living through. And I think, like me, that they will emphasise the multi-media nature of digital photography, the way that it operates in combination with other methods of information storage and communication. When will they date the beginning of this story? Perhaps a date they will mention is May 11th 1844, which was the day when the first Morse Code message was transmitted between two different cities, Washington and Baltimore.
Or, they may go back to the origins of the printing press, or even of literacy, or even of talking itself. I have already emphasised the way that digital photography, among many other things, adds a dose of turbo-charging to old fashioned writing, by photographing it. For this is a story with no very fixed moment of beginning, and as of now there is no end in sight. It is a story of the gradual and accelerating increase in the power of us humans to interact with our world, to remember things, and to communicate things. In almost no time, from the evolutionary point of view, we have gone from creatures who struggled to make noises that communicated different kinds of danger to the tribe, to creatures who may very soon be making elaborate objects simply by thinking about them and emitting telepathic waves to magic machines, telepathy being a word I used in the title of a recent blog posting about the kinds of things I would be talking about this evening. Future historians will talk of shared experience, and gaze at our absurdly flat photographs, perhaps on an antique “computer screen”, with the same impressed but slightly patronising amusement and bemusement that we now bestow upon stained glass windows.
But enough. Thanks for listening, and please tell me more.
Incoming from Simon Gibbs:
Near the mayors blob
And there was a photograph attached to this message, “sent from my Sony Xperia™ smartphone”:
On the left there, as we look at it, is the Mayor’s Blob that Simon mentions, near the Shard, and a building I am very familiar with, at any rate from the outside. In the middle, something new, which Simon knew I might be keen to check out. So, he photos it, and sends it to me.
Neither Simon nor I are asking anyone to think that this is a good photograph, in the technical sense. Don’t click on it, because it is quite big enough as is. Simon is probably a bit appalled that I am even showing it to anyone, even in the almost total privacy that is BrianMicklethwaitDotCom. But the photo suffices for its purpose, which is not to delight attenders at an art gallery (real or virtual), merely to provide me with information, should I be interested. (Although actually, this is the kind of thing you often do see in an art gallery nowadays, put there by an artist trying, as most artists must these days, to be contrary. “Good” photos are so twentieth century, my dears. Imagine the blurb, as written by this guy.)
I show this casual snap because it illustrates a typical use of digital photography, which is the communication of information, potentially in real time. Me being so hopelessly twentieth century in my uses of twenty-first century tech, I don’t know when he took this photo. It duly arrived on my desk, via my clunky old twentieth century desktop computer. Was it taken only seconds before Simon sent it to me? Perhaps he can tell us. But my point here is that he could have. And like him, I could have been as much on the move as he clearly was, while still as connected to the world as he was.
Here we see photography not as the nineteenth and then twentieth century mechanisation of oil painting, but as a twenty first century amplification of conversation. “Ooh, Brian might like to see that, snap. Hi Brian. Take a look at this.” Try doing that with a twentieth century phone. You could, in this case, after a fashion, but it wouldn’t be nearly so quick, definite and easy.
I am giving a talk on Monday evening at Christian Michel’s about The Impact of Digital Photography, and this is the kind of thing I will be talking about.
Digital photography was, or so I recall reading recently, invented by NASA, not so much to take photos, as to communicate photos, of other planets from robot cameras on space-ships, back to planet earth. Yes.
The logical mid-to-late twentieth century end-point of episodes like this, after you have thrown in a big dash of this sort of stuff, is (see above): telepathy.
And now here are some photos done in much better light. Even dusk, outdoors, is massively better lit than mere electricity. They were taken last Saturday, when I journeyed to Docklands, to see if I could take photos of ice sculpture, and of people taking photos of ice sculpture.
Alas, I was not the only person with this idea. I have the strong suspicion that the size of the crowd dwarfed the event (perhaps because of write-ups beforehand like this), but have no idea, really, what was happening out there. All I got to photo at all interestingly was the gigantic queue to see the ice sculptures:
On the right, my camera, at maximum zoom, does its best to photo a sculpture, and a sculptor. I figured: I’ll look at it when I get home.
I headed off in the opposite direction, back across the Docklands peninsula towards the centre of London, and instead took photos like this:
The top of the Cheesegrater, top left, was taken from outside Tower Hill Tube Station. All the others from Docklands.
I am warming to the Cheesegrater, which is often the way with me and a new Big Thing. At first, I disliked it, because it spoiled the view from my part of London of the Gherkin, which I consider to be a modern classic. But now I am getting to like the Cheesegrater, along with all the other new Big Things, as yet another wonderfully chaotic and uncoordinated contribution to London’s ever more chaotic cityscape.
Says Rowan Moore in the Observer, disapprovingly:
Two of the more celebrated such objects, the Walkie-Talkie and the Cheesegrater, have now tumbled on to the skyline of the City of London, their exteriors nearly finished, with completion dates for both in the first half of next year. They combine high degrees of professionalism in their execution, with multiple consultants working hard at everything from sustainability to cycle storage to lift speeds to lighting, with an impression of randomness. They are better in many ways than the same kind of buildings would be in most parts of the world, and achieve, for example, impressive ratings for environmental performance, yet they attract these unfortunate nicknames.
I love these nicknames, which I believe are affectionate rather than angry. I love their good-natured mockery. More and more, I love the anarchic individualism of these Big Things, for exactly the reason that this guy disapproves.
Could it be better? Would it be possible to have variety and architectural invention, and the craftsmanship that the Leadenhall unquestionably has, as well as accessible sky gardens and hypostyles, and yet have a whole that is more than the sum of its parts? Could the expertise and sophistication of all the consultants who contribute to these towers be matched by the City’s planners?
Well, yes, it surely could. But in practice the choice was probably between the aesthetic chaos we have, and imposed aesthetic tedium. And I know which I prefer, if only because the aesthetic chaos we have gets up all the right noses, e.g. the nose of this guy moaning in the Observer. Had those City Planners had enough clout to make everything “more than the sum of its parts”, they would probably have had enough clout to prevent each part, each Big Thing, being nearly as interesting, and they would have. We can never know for sure about such things, but I reckon the results would have been far less
As it is, people like me love to photo these “celebrated objects” with their “unfortunate nicknames”, and I like to photo such people photoing.
Here are two further Big Thing snaps I took that day, of the Walkie-Talkie and of the Three Eyed Razor, or whatever excellent nickname the “Strata” ends up having bestowed upon it:
And here, finally, are a couple more Big Things With Sunset snaps, this time with leafless vegetation (a constant source of photo-delight) in the foreground:
All in all, an excellent little expedition. And a good example of how my Official Destination (this time it was those ice sculptures) is really just an excuse to get me out and about.
There is something about a crane cluster shaped like this ...:
... that always gets to me. A single crane has to have something a bit special about it to be special. Two cranes is still not enough. But when half a dozen of them start making giant Xs in the sky, it really looks beautiful, to me anyway.
See also, for instance, the second of these two photos.
The above cranes are currently clustered in Battersea, where there will be much digging and grubbing, for the next decade or so, in and around the Power Station. Middle left in that aerial picture is Vauxhall Bridge, which is where I took my picture from, at dusk yesterday afternoon/evening.