Sunday, March 13, 2016

Explorations in Photography: Black and White

A few weeks back, the weekly photo challenge in Ricky Tims' class was Black and White.  We took photos and transformed them to black and white using Lightroom (the same effect can be created in Photoshop).  I went out with the intention of taking a photo of some lion statues in downtown Bethesda, MD.  Yet again, though, my vision didn't materialize.  From every angle, the lions had cluttered backgrounds that I thought would be distracting.

So instead, I took a photo of the ever-patient Q.  I liked the way the line of benches stretched into the distance.  This photo isn't quite as clean in a black-and-white format, though -- there are a lot of medium values that make the photo look busy, and the dark lines of the window frames pull the eye away from the main subject.  I think using a slightly desaturated or tinted version of the photo would probably be more visually compelling

We then walked further into the downtown area and found a nice spot in front of the bookstore.  Q offered to be a model, sitting on the sidewalk with a marble block at his back.  This pose, particularly in black and white, seems to speak of sadness and hopelessness. (Of course, Q at the time was neither sad nor hopeless -- though holding this position was a bit of a strain after a while.)

Then I was struck by his hands and took some close-up shots.  I like this photo best.  Hands tell such a powerful story.  The sunlight and shadows provide beautiful contrast, further clarified by desaturating the photo.

One of the reasons I like photography is that it allows me to see the world differently.  Examining the photos brings out new details and realizations.  When I look at this photo, I realize afresh: Q's hands are beautiful.

What makes black and white photos so emotionally evocative?  Perhaps it is that removing the color helps us focus on value.  Or is it their historical appearance (calling back to the era before color film) that gives them extra weight?  As someone who loves color, I am surprisingly moved by black-and-white photos.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Explorations in Photography: Keeping things in focus

In yet another of Ricky Tims' weekly Photo Challenges, we were to take photos that were "tack sharp", meaning that the entire photo was in crisp focus.  For an image that involves some depth (with some parts of the image being close and some further away), this typically involves using a high f-stop on the camera.  Accompanied by the ever-patient Q, I tramped out in the snow to our local playground to find some shots.  

My original vision had been to take a photo of an empty swing, but that didn't work out.  First of all, swings move, which makes it very hard to get a crisply focused image.  Second, no matter what angle I shot from, there were always distracting elements in the background.  So much for my original vision.  

But Q suggested taking a photo of this springy duck. The duck is somewhat creepy-looking, but with my shadow cast over it, the expression seems more frightened than menacing. Putting the duck in the left edge of the photo gives room for the implied line-of-sight . . . what is it looking at?

(Did you know that there are quite a few unusual examples of playground equipment out there?  A Google search for "creepy playground equipment" brings up a startling array of images, such as these.)

I also took some close-ups of the merry-go-round.  I don't think this is "tack sharp", though -- the front seems in focus, but the back is somewhat less sharply focused.

I took some shots of the jungle gym and the steps up to the slide, too, but nothing emerged as a strong composition.  Finding good photos can be challenging!  After being out in the snow for over an hour, my socks and the knees of my pants were soaked, my feet were cold, and I packed it all in for the day.  

Lessons learned:  Your original vision may or may not work out; be open to other ideas.  And dress for the weather.  

Friday, February 26, 2016

Explorations in photography: Finding lines

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I am taking Ricky Tims' online Photo Challenge class.  Work has been keeping me pretty busy, so I haven't managed to complete all of the weekly challenges.  Even so, I have been learning a lot about photography and composition.  One of the weekly challenges involved finding a line.  I wandered around my father's house one Sunday afternoon, taking photos that explored line.  (You can click on the photos to enlarge them.)

This is a close-up of an African mask (the twigs create the hair & beard on the face).  I liked this photo best -- the lines have a lot of wonderful movement.

This is a close-up of a spinning wheel made by paternal grandfather's grandfather (my great-great grandfather).  This is the photo I submitted for the challenge, as line is the dominant feature, though I'm not completely happy with it.  While the composition is simple and clean, I don't find it that interesting.  

This is a glass art vase.  Here I was exploring the idea of an edge as a line, though I think the colored shapes on the vase draw the eye more than the edge of the vase.  I love the beautiful color and sheen of the glass.

Again, I was looking at edges in terms of line, as well as the lines on the mask itself.  I like the composition and the way it frames the eyes and motifs on the mask.  Again, though, the composition seems less about line and more about shape, so it didn't seem to fit the challenge.  I think I could have gotten the focus a bit crisper, as well.  I have a lot to learn about working with my new camera.  My previous camera was a superzoom, but this class required a DSLR camera; I'm still figuring out how it works.  

This approach to photography is quite different from what I have done before.  Typically I take photos of things that interest me (such as vacation shots) -- I try to do a good job with composition and quality of the photo, but my motivation is to capture an experience or record something for future memory.  The photo challenges require that I go out to look for images to shoot that fit the challenge theme.  I'm finding that somewhat difficult -- it's hard to find inspiration at times.  I'm hoping that I'll get more ideas for photos as I go along.  I think the class will help me train my eye to look for interesting compositions.  

I'm linking this post up to Nina-Marie's Off the Wall Friday.    

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Rediscover the Joy of Learning

Stuff Your Eyes with Wonder (Deborah C. Stearns, 2013)
Trying something new, I began my Inspiration Series.
I love to learn new things.  In fact, I positively deliciate in learning.

* Deliciate = to enjoy or indulge oneself, luxuriate, revel, to take one's pleasure.  

Did you feel a little zing as you learned that word?  A recent study found that learning new words stimulates the ventral striatum, the part of the brain that is associated with reward and pleasure.  In other words, learning a new word seems to activate the same part of the brain as gambling, sex, and tasty food.  (One could say that this means you probably deliciate in learning the word "deliciate.")

I suspect that this is not just limited to learning new words, but is true of learning more generally.  There is pleasure in acquiring knowledge and mastering new skills.  One recent study of elementary school children found that:
joy arrives when the child surmounts a series of difficulties to achieve a goal. One of the authors’ videos shows seven-year-old Esko, tapping himself proudly on the chest and announcing, “Hey, I figured out how to do math!” A desire to master the material leads to more joy than a desire to simply perform well, Rantala and Määttä add: joy often accompanies “the feeling of shining as an expert.” (from  
Sadly, I think we often lose sight of the joy of learning.  I remember one student in my General Psychology class some years ago who insisted that there was nothing he wanted to learn -- nothing at all.  It made me unutterably sad.  Learning can be a wonderful experience, and yet many of us forget its pleasures, thinking of it only as joyless labor.

I am fortunate to work in a profession that is committed to lifelong learning.  Higher education is not only in the business of providing access to learning for our students, but also recognizes the importance of ongoing learning for faculty and staff.  For example, I was able to spend last year on sabbatical so that I could learn more about the flipped classroom approach and the science of teaching and learning.

But you don't need to be an academic or take a sabbatical to experience the joys of learning.  Want to learn something new?   Here are some suggestions.

I've been reading for as long as I can remember.
Books are the bees which carry the quickening pollen from one to another mind.  ~James Russell Lowell
  • Read.  I read voraciously, learning from science writers, biographers and scholars of all types.  I find new ideas in speculative fiction and memoir.  I read online articles, physical books and magazines, and enjoy the occasional audiobook.  Reading is accessible in any number of formats, and can be enjoyed without cost through libraries and the internet.  If you are a bibliophile, definitely head over to Brain Pickings, one of my favorite blog finds this year.  

 Baining Night Dance Mask (Kavat)
made of bark cloth by the Central Baining people
from Papua New Guinea, New Britain
(from the Metropolitain Museum of Art, NYC)

The art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge. ~Thomas Berger

  •  Ask questions. Opportunities for learning are everywhere for those who are curious about the world.  When we ask questions, we open ourselves to new learning.  Ask questions of your friends and family to learn more about their lives and experiences.  Ask questions of experts to learn from their expertise.  Ask questions of yourself to learn more about your inner world.  If you can't find someone to answer your questions, go find the answer yourself!  (I'm still working on finding out more about the art of Papua New Guinea, for example.)
    We all have an Elephant's Child, full of insatiable curiosity.
    Drawing by Kate Reed (used with permission of the artist)

  • Research.  When you find a topic that interests you, pursue your curiosity.  Explore it in depth.  Follow links, look for additional readings, ask questions and find answers.  Become an expert.  I spend many hours researching to prepare for my presentations and it has led me to all kinds of interesting learning -- from the science of happiness to successful relationships to all corners of human sexuality (check out my posts on sexual language, the sexual double standard, and same-sex marriage, for example).  

Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden in Vancouver (2012),
where I learned about traditional Chinese garden design

All the world is a laboratory to the inquiring mind.  ~ Martin H. Fischer

  • Travel.  Travel offers us the opportunity to learn more about history, architecture, art, science, language and culture.  Explore the environment and notice what is different.  Talk to the people who live there.  Try new foods and have new experiences.  Read guidebooks to find out more about the places you visit.  Go to the local sights and visit the museums.  I always learn a lot from traveling, as you can tell from my extensive travelogues (such as my blog posts on Krakow, Prague, and Iceland).

  • Listen to podcasts.  There are so many great podcasts out there -- free and full of learning potential.  I listen to podcasts on long drives and while I'm cooking or filing.  Podcasts like This American Life, RadiolabInvisibilia, and The TED Radio Hour have given me insight into all kinds of topics I knew little about.  I'm looking forward to getting into Hidden Brain, as soon as I have some time, as I have really enjoyed Shankar Vedantam's pieces on NPR.

  • Watch documentaries.  No matter where your interests lie, there is sure to be a documentary for you.  I favor historical and cultural documentaries, and I'm always finding new ones to watch through Netflix.  (I haven't even finished all of Ken Burns' documentaries yet!)  Make sure it is a reputable source, of course -- not all of the "documentaries" on YouTube are accurate.  So check out your PBS station or other credible media sources.  Beyond documentaries, you can also watch educational videos at TED-Ed and  
I learn from my students, too.
(Photo by Sanjay Suchak)
  • Take a class.  This gives you a chance to do more in-depth learning and connect with other learners.  Classes are available everywhere -- the local recreation center, community college, art/dance/writing centers, and other community resources.  Check out retail outlets, too, as you can find cooking classes at your local kitchen store, jewelry classes at the bead store, and ceramics classes at the art store.  If your local area doesn't have the class you want, there are plenty of online classes; you can study with experts all over the world without ever leaving your home.  I generally prefer face-to-face classes (such as the television/video classes I took last year), but I've also enjoyed several Craftsy classes and I'm looking forward to an online photography class with Ricky Tims that starts in January.  
  • Get private lessons.  If you know what you want to learn and can find someone to teach you, you might want to invest in private lessons.  These can be a bit more expensive than classes, but you get to focus on what you want to learn at your own pace and in your own time.  If you have a local expert, face-to-face lessons are a great option, but you could also consider distance learning via video calls (Skype, Google Hangout, etc.).  Over the last year, I've been studying pattern fitting with the fabulous Sarah Veblen, and watching her figure out the right shape for a sleeve or rotating a dart has definitely expanded my understanding of how to engineer clothing that fits well (though I still have much to learn).
What Would Your Eyes See If They Were Newly Bloomed?
(Deborah C. Stearns, 2007, made as a class assignment)
  • Try something new.  We often think of learning only within formal contexts, but we can learn anytime and anywhere.  Walk a different route and take note of what you see and hear.  Use a recipe you've never made before or tweak an old recipe -- what worked well and what didn't?  Explore unfamiliar types of music, art, performance, or athletics.  Try something new and see where it takes you.
Start off your year by rediscovering the joy of learning.  You know that learning is good for you -- it keeps your mind engaged and helps you grow and develop your capabilities.  But don't forget that it is also pleasurable.  So go ahead and deliciate in learning.  I'll be deliciating, right along with you.  

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Christmas Traditions (weird and wonderful)

Holidays are often imbued with tradition -- personal traditions, family traditions, cultural traditions.  My Christmas traditions involve family gathering to enjoy good food and opening gifts in front of the tree, as well as, of course, copious cookie baking.  But I'm always intrigued by other cultural traditions.  Here are a couple of interesting Christmas traditions I discovered in recent years.

Íslendingabók, the Book of Icelanders

  • When we traveled to Barcelona, I learned that Catalan nativity scenes include a Caganer ("the crapper"), a figurine of a peasant engaged in the act of defecating. 
  • I'm still totally in love with the Polish szopka -- beautiful and colorful Christmas cribs made of foil-covered cardboard.  I have a tiny smidgen of regret that I didn't buy one while we were visiting Krakow last year.  

However you celebrate winter holidays, I hope you have enjoyable and interesting traditions.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Last Looks, Landscapes, and Lichen (West Iceland)

The last leg of our Icelandic journey took us through West Iceland on the way toward Keflavik.

We saw these large, round, white puffs on farms all over Iceland -- I guess they grow really enormous marshmallows there! Actually, these are bales of hay, wrapped in plastic to allow the grass to ferment (a practice called "haylage"), which apparently retains more of the nutrition in the hay.

One of the things I found most interesting about Iceland is how varied the landscape is. We'd be driving through lush farmland, and then suddenly, it would turn into a barren, rocky plain. In some cases, there were fields of lava rocks with nothing growing on them, almost like moonscapes. At other times, the rocks would be covered with carpets of Icelandic moss (actually a lichen). Here you can see the transition, where there are still some green plants, but just beyond is lichen-covered rocks.

Here you can see the lichen-covered rocks. (I don't know for sure what kind of plant this is, but it looks like lichen.)

A close-up of the lichen reveals an elegant and interesting structure, but one which is also fragile. Tourist foot traffic often damages the Icelandic moss; it can take years to re-establish itself.

Just off the ring road (Rt. 1), there is a hiking trail up to the Grabrok crater (Mt. Grabrok). We didn't have time to hike the trail, but stopped to take in the view.

That wraps up our Iceland journey -- we stayed overnight in Keflavik and caught an early flight home the next day.  Thanks for reading!  I hope you enjoyed this Iceland travelogue.  If you missed any of the earlier posts, you can start with the first one here and follow the links through the travelogue.  You might also enjoy my travelogue for our trip to Krakow and Prague last fall; the first post is here.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft (Westfjords, Iceland)

Our last stop in the Westfjords was Holmavik, where we enjoyed a delicious meal of carp and potatoes and then visited the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft.

In its early history, Iceland almost faced civil war over the split between pagans and Christians.  The issue came to a head in 1000 at the yearly gathering of chiefs (Althingi). The law speaker, Þorgeir Þorkelsson Ljósvetningagoði (himself a pagan), pondered the matter for a day and a night, and came to the decision that Iceland should embrace Christianity, but that pagans could still pursue their religion in secret.

But later, even secret pagan practices became outlawed and during the witch-hunts of 1625-85, twenty-one Icelanders were executed under accusations of witchcraft. Iceland's history of witch trials differed somewhat from those in other countries, in that men were accused more often than women. Most were poor, living in hardscrabble conditions in the Westfjords, and sometimes the accusations were based merely on knowing runes or staves or owning forbidden texts. (One man was accused based on his writings about medicine.) Accusations of witchcraft might be prompted by the presence of illness or misfortune in the village. One woman's illness served to instigate accusations against 6 different men over the course of several years.

The museum included details of the various trials, including a genealogical chart showing the family connections of many of those involved in the cases. There were also descriptions of spells and runes ostensibly used by witches and sorcerers. The spells ranged from acts of destruction (bringing storms to those at sea) to spells bringing prosperity (transforming a human rib into a tilberi who steals milk from other people's sheep and delivers it to the witch's churn). The necropants in the above photo are a prosperity spell. According to the museum, one creates the necropants in the following manner:
"If you want to make your own necropants (literally; nábrók) you have to get permission from a living man to use his skin after he is dead. After he has been buried you must dig up his body and flay the skin of the corpse in one piece from the waist down. As soon as you step into the pants they will stick to your own skin. A coin must be stolen from a poor widow and placed in the scrotum along with the magical sign, nábrókarstafur, written on a piece of paper. Consequently the coin will draw money into the scrotum so it will never be empty, as long as the original coin is not removed. To ensure salvation the owner has to convince someone else to overtake the pants and step into each leg as soon as he gets out of it. The necropants will thus keep the money-gathering nature for generations."

Runes or staves might be written on paper or a scrap of leather, or they could be carved into wood, as with this protective sign.

It was a small but fascinating museum -- the poor lighting made it hard to get good photos, unfortunately, so you'll just have to go visit the museum yourself to see the exhibits. In the meantime, you can find out more about the museum in this video:

There are more videos about the museum here.

Next up: Last looks, landscapes and lichen in West Iceland

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Litlibaer (Westfjords, Iceland)

Just up the road from the seal colony is Litlibaer, a historical 19th century farmstead. Not only is it a charming home with historic photos and tools, but they serve coffee and waffles! Just the restorative lunch we were looking for after a long drive.

Here you can see the traditional turf roof on the farmhouse. It also included both stone and wood construction.

The rooms were quite small, with low ceilings -- very cozy. We ate at the table by the window and enjoyed looking at the photos of family members who had lived at the farmhouse over the years.

A small pantry area next to the stairs included a variety of historic kitchen tools.

Q is enjoying his coffee and waffles.  (Not being a coffee person, I had hot chocolate.)  The waffles were heart-shaped and topped with jam and whipped cream -- quite delicious!

A ladder to the attic revealed two more (small) rooms, each with tools and materials presumably from the 19th century work at the farm. Wool is a major Icelandic product, so spinning would have been a common activity.

More antique tools were displayed under the attic window.

And, of course, I had to take a photo of this beautiful antique sewing machine. It's all set up with thread and everything! I managed to resist the temptation to do some sewing.

Next up: The Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Ísafjarðardjúp (Westfjords, Iceland)

After our stay in Ísafjörður, we drove back toward Reykjavík. The drive along the northern coastline of the Westjords (around Ísafjarðardjúp) included some gorgeous views.

The waters of the fjord were still and calm, perfectly reflecting the mountains.

We stopped to see the colony of harbor seals that lives in Ísafjarðardjúp.  They were hanging out on the rocks and little islands in the fjord.

From the shore, it was hard to see the seals clearly -- another moment I wished I had brought binoculars -- but every once in a while, they would look up or flap a flipper.

After a lunch break at Litlibaer (more about that in my next post), we hiked out to a different part of the shoreline to look at the seals again.

There were birds, too, quarreling on a nearby island.

As we stood on the rocks at the edge of the water, one seal swam past us.

The little seal swam back and forth, disappearing underwater and reappearing. It was clearly curious about us, as it periodically poked up its head and looked at us.

It was quiet and peaceful on the shore. Watching the birds and seals on the calm waters, with snow-covered mountains in the distance, we enjoyed a long moment of communing with the fjord.

A little too long, actually, as the tide came in while we were out there, and we had to wade back a bit, getting our shoes and socks soaked. A minor price to pay, truly, and I can now say that I walked through a fjord in Iceland. 

Next up: Litlibaer

Friday, December 4, 2015

Adventures with seabirds (Westfjords, Iceland)

On the drive back from Súðavík to Ísafjörður, I was on the lookout for more birds. Iceland hosts many different species of birds, particularly in the spring and summer, so I wanted to be sure to see as many different varieties as I could. Q spotted this lovely bird while we were driving and pulled over so I could get a photo.

Alas, the moment I got within 100 meters of the creature, it flew away. And that was how it went -- I could see birds at a distance, but had trouble getting close enough to get a good look (or a good photo). *sigh* Oh, for binoculars and a telephoto lens!

Still searching for birds, we caught sight of a large flock of Arctic terns. Q pulled over so I could get some photos. I was immediately identified as a threat by some of the terns, who circled above and screamed a challenge. Unnerved, I moved away. They followed, hovering just over my head and uttering threat-calls. Heart pounding, I fled into the safety of the car. I guess I should just be grateful they didn't dive-bomb me, as terns are wont to do.

Q wasn't willing to leave without getting me a chance to get close-up photos of the birds. "We'll feed them," he said, "just like the seagulls at the beach in New Jersey who went crazy for Stella D'Oro cookies!" So he grabbed a granola bar and got out of the car. There he stood, braced against the chilly wind coming off the sea, throwing chunks of granola into the air and crying out "Come get it! Nice fish for you!"

That is true love.

Sadly, though, the birds weren't really all that interested in granola. (I'm pretty sure they knew it wasn't fish.)  But I did get a few shots of Arctic terns, in amongst all the blurry photos.

Next up: Ísafjarðardjúp