You Are What You Drive

A while ago the Digitizing History MA class produced a website on car advertisements called You Are What You Drive. Some of the details on this project are available here.

In that vein, check out Andrew Bush’s series of photographs of people driving cars.  They are remarkably rich portraits.  The cropping of the images at the windshield makes the car windows themselves a kind of frame for the occupants inside, and avoids fetishizing the car itself.


Boston’s Lieux de Mémoire

As a tourist, it’s hard to escape the scaffolds of public memory in a place like Boston.  As much as it embraces a resolute sense of cosmopolitan modern (like the Institute for Contemporary Art and more commercial endeavours that have reshaped the harbourfront in the last ten years), it is a place of profound memorialisation – both tacky and heartfelt, new and old.  When the day you visit is the tenth anniversary of 9/11, well, escaping the memorial – as a site, as an act, as feeling – is almost impossible.

So a study in contrasts: three images that speak to different times, different memories, different scales and spaces of memorializing.  But all from Boston on a memorable weekend away.

George Washington equestrian statue, 1869, Boston Commons

JFK library

John F. Kennedy Pesidential Library and Museum.

Old North Church Memorial Garden

Old North Church Boston Memorial Garden, blank dogtags commemorating American Armed Forces personnel who have died in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Stop Motion Part II: Flashback

So after finishing a post on Muybridge and stopped time, I come across references to a video by Japanese band, Androp.  Using no CGI (apparently), the video producers/designers wired together 250 Canon cameras with flashes.  At first it seems like all they are doing is a pretty standard strobe effect (cue high school dance flashback here – look man, I’m doing the robot).  But around 2:58 you’ll see that they use images from the cameras behind the band to create a completely different sense of motion.  Lots of technical discussion over at Strobist regarding what they actually used to create the effects, but I find it interesting that the video starts with a careful set of shots emphasizing the technical setup.  T. G. Hamilton‘s multiple cameras were fired off by flash in the dark during seances, but only when the spirits told him to take the shot.  Maybe ghosts in the machine could create their own light show with this kind of setup.

Spruce Meadows and the Ghost of Eadweard Muybridge

Only after returning from a trip to Alberta and looking at the long line of photos of equestrian events from Spruce Meadows did it occur to me that the ghost of Eadwear Muybridge haunts all who follow in this task. No matter how artistic the enterprise, trying to stop a horse in motion is always discursively linked to “Muybridge’s Horse,” as Rob Winger’s poem / ode / biography is called. It is, however, very annoying to see constant references to Muybridge (google “Muybridge horse” for a quarter-million hits) always leaping to the conclusion that he invented or led to motion pictures. While there is some truth in this, it is the stopping of motion that is truly remarkable in Muybridge’s equestrian enterprise. By developing shutter mechanisms that could stop motion faster than the eye could perceive it, Muybridge could “objectivize” the camera as a more powerful recorder of “truth” than our own eyes.

I don’t often work with super fast shutter speeds, but they require something different from the photographer. More anticipation of the moving subject, different focusing systems (it forced me to start using the “AI Servo” setting – for once!), a sense that you’re taking a picture of something that you’re never entirely “seeing” until you see the film / file / preview later. At Spruce Meadows, the thunder of horse hooves, fluid motions over the jumps, the clacks and crashes of the bars seem at odds with the still photographs that are stripped of sound and movement. The stopping of motion opens the field of view to horses’ veins, riders’ faces, and the contemplation of impossibly close spatial relations between the bars and the hooves. Stopping the motion is an inauthentic intrusion upon something never intended to be stopped. It is also an aesthetic desire that is both descended from Muybridge’s extreme externalization (the horse tripped the shutters set on strings) and a marked rejection of it through an urge to “capture” the moment, to frame the romance of equestrianism in all of its splendour. In part it is art v. science, but it is also a matter of embodying the photographer to frame the view, or separating the process of image creation entirely from human touch and letting the horse decide what is to be taken. After 3 hours of moderate frustration at trying to capture anything, I’m not sure if the horses were there for me or if I was there for the sake of the horses.

No good shots of Ian Miller, but did see his final ride to win the North American. These other shots will have to do.

Plebeians like me don’t get to take pictures from the middle of the ring. But capturing the “court” photographer in action struck me as pretty funny. Even funnier is the little box in the middle of the ring where the sponsors, ground owners, and other aristocrats get to sit.


Another conference, another photographic outing to forget everything about the conference. This time a week in Fredericton, New Brunswick ended with a trip to New River Beach on the Bay of Fundy. Low tides came late in the evening while we were there. When we saw the ocean for the first time, my daughter told me that her wish had come true. When I asked her what she’d wished for, she said “to see the ocean!” When I asked when she’d made that wish, she responded, “this morning” – probably while we were packing things up to go to the ocean. Her brother’s new wish to visit Africa might be a little more difficult to fulfill.

Low Tide, New River Beach, Bay of Fundy

Welcome to Pine Point

Welcome to Pine Point is a remarkable NFB digital project by Michael Simons and Paul Shoebridge (of the creative team The Goggles, known for their work with Adbusters among other projects).

According to the “about” page, this project started off as a book about the “death of photo albums as a way to house memory.”  Instead, they produced a haunting interactive documentary that reflects on place, memory, longing, loss, the stories we tell, and the formats and matrials we use to tell them.

I wish that in some ways it could have said more … I wanted more analytical “stuff” somewhere in there (links to footnote essays?) … but I also realized in watching this just how important the silences (or the minimal nature of the words on the screen) were to the overall impact of the narrative.  This is a story told in collages of visual imagery, combining photographs, moving images, maps, primary documents, kitschy objects — all in a way that affirms their respective materialities rather than denies them.  In the journey to Pine Point there are shades of Burtynsky, a critical awareness of “seeing like a state,” and some very sharp observations.

I found this tremendously moving – perhaps in no small part because these are my high school years too, although my small town is still standing, unlike Pine Point, which is a place destroyed and yet ultimately redeemed.

In my photography and public history course there is one class where I ask everyone to bring in a “photo album” to discuss.  Over time, more students are increasingly showing up with no album in hand; when everything is in digital format, “album” is a folder on a desktop or a stream in flickr.  I bring my own ‘baby book’ with my mother’s writing carefully documenting every morsel I ate, every step I took, a photo for every first day of school; it feels so much more tangible as a multidimensional aide-memoire.

It’s easy to lament this passing; it’s much harder to think about the new ways that memory and place interact in digital spaces, in new types of albums, in producing new stories out of old pictures.  The visual landscapes are layered with evocative aural landscapes (thank you Besnard Lakes!), and much more could be said about how image, text, and sound inter-relate in this project.

I recently quoted from Thomas King’s Massey Lectures in a presentation given at my alma mater, and it seems apt to repeat it here: “The truth about stories is that’s all we are.”  King’s purpose was rather different, but Welcome to Pine Point reaffirms the general sentiment in unexpected, but welcome, ways.

Alma Mater

I lugged the camera to my Alma Mater, Augustana during a bitterly cold week in March. It didn’t see much use, but I did venture out to take a few pictures in between speaking engagements. Founded in 1910 as Camrose Lutheran College, I was part of the first class to graduate as Augustana University College, and this year marks their centenary even though the institution became a part of the University of Alberta in 2004.

Augustana is a pretty special place in terms of my own memories and personal history. I’ve been back a few times, but spending a full day and a half on campus made a huge difference this time in stirring up a lot of emotions. Strangely, it’s because of the changes that have happened on campus that I feel almost closer to the place now than I have at any other time since I left. Perhaps the bonds of nostalgia have grown with age, but it is also in no small part due to how the campus has rediscovered its own place in both global and local terms. Reading Roger Epp’s reflections on Augustana in his We Are All Treaty People brought home a lot of issues that I’d been struggling with in terms of thinking about the role of the university and the distinctive education I received at Augustana.

Being back at this moment, during the centenary, and being a part of Roger’s last year as Dean, was a tremendous experience which I am incredibly grateful for.

Here, Martin Luther walks between Old Main and the brand new library building.