Friday, 28 January 2011

Why I love photography...

I love Henri Cartier-Bresson’s idea of the "decisive moment" – of capturing the “whole essence of some situation” that is “unrolling” before your eyes with a single photograph. It’s the neatness of it – the concision of saying so much with just one image. And the very greatest photos will always reveal more and more to you as you live with them over time.

Cartier-Bresson talks of how he, “prowled the streets all day, feeling very strung-up and ready to pounce, determined to ‘trap’ life - to preserve life in the act of living."

For him a, "slice of ordinary life is picked almost at random, and acquires a new meaning by its recontextualization through the strategy of d├ępaysement".

"D├ępaysement" means to "decountrify oneself" and is defined as the experience of re-seeing. "One leaves one's own culture to face something unfamiliar, and upon returning home it has become strange – and can be seen with fresh eyes."

This chimes with theory of many of the surrealists at the time. However, for Cartier-Bresson this find expression in the capacity of the photographer to uncover facets of everyday life  that go unnoticed until the photographer reveals them. He hunted in the street for juxtapositions whose ironic contrasts would surprise people and make them see the world with new eyes.

This approach has been taken forward by many famous photographers, some of whom talk eloquently, movingly, about what they do. Steve McCurry, most famous for his shot of the Afghan refugee on the cover of National Geographic, commented:

"Most of my images are grounded in people. I look for the unguarded moment, the essential soul peeking out, experience etched on a person’s face. I try to convey what it is like to be that person, a person caught in a broader landscape that you could call the human condition.”

It’s another tough one to choose my top ten, but I’ll give it a go...I won’t even attempt to stack rank them though!

Ansel Adams
Yann Arthus-Bertrand
Edward Weston
Dorothea Lange
Henri Cartier-Bresson
Bill Brandt
Galen Rowell
Art Wolf
Ami Vitale
Yousuf Karsh

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Why I like Bill Hammond...

Hello's post was supposed to be about my top ten classical composers and works. I'm very close to finalising my list, but not quite there, so I'll delve a little deeper into one of my favourite artists from an earlier post.

Bill Hammond took as his motif Buller’s birds for a substantial period of his career. The Victorian ornithologist Walter Buller documented New Zealand’s birdlife in a beautifully illustrated book. He viewed native birds as being on the verge of extinction and saw no irony in encouraging the large scale destruction of the birds on which his own success was based. Like many Victorians of his time, he continued to collect specimens for his own research.

Hammond looks at the idea that man sought to civilize a wilderness, when in fact he was destroying it. So, in some paintings you see a string quartet playing against a vast backdrop of turmoil.

Birds in all cultures across time feature in creation myths, sagas, parables, liturgies and fairy tales. They have come to represent among many things, the realm of the spirit world. They are harbingers of both fortune and evil, and in dream mythology they represent the personality of the dreamer.

Hammond's hybrid bird, horse, human and serpent figures change and morph before our eyes. Egyptian-looking, always in profile, theoretically capable of flight but never flying, they are meticulously and disturbingly recorded. They stand in a denuded, but beautiful, landscape.

His version of Horus, Lord of the skies in Assyrian/Egyptian legend, is in fact the extinct giant New Zealand eagle. Narrative stone bas-reliefs from Nimrud, in particular Protective Spirit in Sacred Tree 875-860 BC, depicting a winged eagle-headed magical figure, inform these paintings along with burial sites, rock drawings, moa in pre-historic New Zealand (prey for the giant eagle), and the shape of the landscape in and around Banks Peninsula.

Hammond’s paintings show a collapse of foreground and background that provides a sense of infinite space in the art of traditional Chinese painting and Ukiyo-e. Often reminiscent of Italian Renaissance painting and tapestries, Hammond’s compositions combine a graphic ability with delicate decorative qualities. Daubed backgrounds overrun with trails of dribbling paint, patinas of embellishment, reminiscent of the intricate textiles of the Middle East and Asia.

I love the vast sweep of events unfolding in his paintings and the sense of foreboding. There's many stories waiting to be told of mythic proportions about these works and for that reason you will never tire of them. That has to be a defining characteristic of the very greatest works of art.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Ever so caring elephants

The African bush elephants are the largest living land mammals. They always seem to be constantly in motion – flapping their ears to create a cooling breeze, swishing their tails at flies, breaking off grass or tree branches and nuzzling each other.

Although elephants are typically greyish in colour, they often seem brown or reddish from wallowing in mud holes of the iron-rich volcanic African soil. The elephants love squelching in the mud which acts as a sunscreen, protecting their skin from the harsh ultraviolet radiation of the sun. After bathing, they even use their trunks to blow soil on their bodies to help dry and bake on their new protective coats.

Trunks are pretty useful things really. African elephants have two “finger-like” projections at the tips of the trunk which are sensitive enough to pick up a single blade of grass, yet strong enough to rip the branches off a tree. They even greet each other by entwining their trunks, much like a handshake.

They’ve also got great hearing and are great at making deep, low frequency sounds that enable them to communicate with other elephants up to 10 km away.

Elephants listen by putting trunks on the ground and carefully positioning their feet. Their trunks are sensitive to vibrations, they have special receptors in their feet which pick up the sound as it travels through the ground, and hearing receptors in their ears.

Now, isn’t that amazing?!

The hummingbird

The sight of hummingbirds hovering to refuel on the wing never ceases to astonish. Their mechanics of flight seem to defy the laws of physics. They are true masters of stationary flight and can even fly backwards — the only birds able to do so. They flap their wings around 25 times a second, though the smallest of the family (the bee hummingbird) beats at up to 90 times a second. The noise their high-frequency beating makes gives rise to their name.
Unlike other birds, hummingbirds get a portion of their lift during the upstroke of their wings. Because flying objects cannot generate lift without creating drag, birds close their wings partially and set their “angle of attack” (the wing’s incidence to the direction of flight needed for generating lift) to zero during the wasteful but necessary upstroke. That minimises the drag and conserves energy.

They then get their lift and forward thrust using a high angle of attack during the downward working stroke. By spreading their tail feathers and curling the tips of their wings back as they bring them down, the large energy-loaded vortices spilling off the leading edge of each wing can be channelled in the required downward and rearward direction to provide both lift and forward motion.
By contrast, to get the extra lift needed for hovering, hummingbirds do not simply flap their wings up and down, but oscillate them through a figure of eight pattern. By angling their bodies near to the vertical, the lift-generating vortices are thrust straight down beneath them. The hummingbird is literally buoyed on a vertical jet of air, with its head held stationary as it uses its long bill to feed.

The wings create the main vortex with a high angle of attack on the downstroke. They then flip their wings around on the upstroke, so as to create another vortex on the other side of the wing.

Pretty cool, huh?

The amazing world of bees...

The bee is aptly described in the proverbs, “as profitable, laborious, loyal, swift, nimble, quick of scent, bold, cunning, chaste, neat, brown and chilly as a bee,” according to Charles Butler in The Feminine Monarchy or the History of the Bees from 1609.

There is no dull fact about bees, whether we regard them for themselves, or for the metaphorical uses to which they are put by social commentators.

Bees are a “keystone species” which have a disproportionately important effect on their environment, relative to their biomass. Such species affect many other organisms in an ecosystem and help to determine the types and numbers of various other species in a community.

They play a role analogous to the role of a keystone in an arch. While the keystone is under the least pressure of any of the stones in an arch, the arch still collapses without it. Similarly, an ecosystem may experience a dramatic shift if a keystone species is removed, even though that species was a small part of the ecosystem by measures of biomass or productivity.

Bees play an important role in pollinating flowering plants, and are the major type of pollinator in ecosystems that contain flowering plants. Bees either focus on gathering nectar or on gathering pollen depending on demand, especially in social species.

Bees gathering nectar may accomplish pollination, but bees that are deliberately gathering pollen are more efficient pollinators. It is estimated that one third of the human food supply depends on insect pollination, most of which is accomplished by bees, especially the domesticated European honey bee. The former is primarily as an energy source and the latter primarily for protein and other nutrients. Most pollen is used as food for larvae.

There are nearly 20,000 known species of bees in seven to nine recognized families, though many are undescribed and the actual number is probably higher. They are found on every continent except Antarctica, in every habitat on the planet that contains insect-pollinated flowering plants.

In 2005 researchers at Caltech studied honey bee flight with the assistance of high-speed cinematography and a giant robotic mock-up of a bee wing. Their analysis revealed that sufficient lift was generated by "the unconventional combination of short, choppy wing strokes, a rapid rotation of the wing as it flops over and reverses direction, and a very fast wing-beat frequency". Wing-beat frequency normally increases as size decreases, but as the bee's wing beat covers such a small arc, it flaps approximately 230 times per second, faster than a fruitfly (200 times per second) which is 80 times smaller.

Bees figure prominently in mythology and have been used by political theorists as a model for human society. Journalist Bee Wilson states that the image of a community of honey bees "occurs from ancient to modern times, in Aristotle and Plato; in Virgil and Seneca; in Erasmus and Shakespeare; Tolstoy, as well as by social theorists Bernard Mandeville and Karl Marx."

As for the insects as symbol, bees have been used to endorse monarchism, republicanism, hard work ("non nobis" - "not for ourselves" do we work, runs the tag along many Renaissance images of hives) and indolence. Bees have provided templates to explain or guide human society - although we've been almost always wrong in how their society forms and operates.

Honey bees actually live in hives of up to 80,000 insects. They are divided into social classes – the queen, around 6,000 unhatched eggs, 9,000 hatches eggs or brood larvae, 20,000 older larvae or pupae, 300-1,000 drones and 40-50,000 work bees. That's a lot of insects working together for a common purpose - to make life go on - and the delicious honey is a great by-product along the way!

My favourite animals...

There are so many animals that possess many astonishing qualities that we can learn form or which play a role as a keystone species determining the types and numbers of various other species in a community.

Some enjoy the ideal hydrodynamic form to allow them to move through water others have the most amazing sensory perceptions. 

Thanks to the science of  biomimicry, products emerging from the imitation of these features. For example, scanning electron microscope studies have revealed that tiny "teeth" (riblets) cover the surface of a sharks’ skin that produce vertical vortices or spirals of water, keeping the water closer to the shark’s body and thus reducing drag. This led to the development of new swim wear.

There are loads more examples I could give, but here are ten for starters: