Archive for August, 2008

Mechanical Orgy: The Great Dorset Steam Fair

Sunday, August 31st, 2008

Several traction engines haul their load up a hillThe English revere their industrial heritage and glory in their eccentricity, two traits that indulged to the nth degree at what is reputedly the largest event of its kind, The Great Dorset Steam Fair. I’ve been to steam fairs before, but nothing on this grand scale. where else can you go to see a couple dozen steam rollers, all merrily driving around a couple miles of pasture land? A veritable orgy of steam and rivets, the air thick with the acrid coal smoke of hundreds of fireboxes, the air rent with the shrill sound of steam whistles, the rattling of chains and gears, and the cloying sound of colliopes, the overall effect of the thing is beyond words. 200,000 people were expected to visit this year’s 40th anniversary event. [see my full photo gallery]

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Central stage at GDSF is the Heavy Haulage Area. All day long, steam engines of various sorts, along with the occaisional Diesel interloper, circle around about a 2 mile loop, the far end of which is relatively steep. Although there are some steam rollers (see the two at the far left), the real stars are the transport engines, the road locomotives that hauled heavy wagons, or short trains of lighter wagons, on public roads. Loads being pulled in the Heavy Haulage Area included a large generator, a huge tree, and big bulldozer on a trailer. Shown coming up the steepest part of the hill in the picture at the top, a train of 3 traction engines, 2 in the front and 1 in the back, chuffed out huge clouds of dense black smoke hauling this load.

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Other traction engines, although they could haul themselves and their attachments to the job site, were used primarily as stationary power, running threshers, balers, and saw mills. Steam rollers were demonstrated not only smoothing down a road being constructed at the site, but were also used to pull grader blades and tar wagons, and were demonstrated powering a rock crusher. The most powerful steam engines working at the fair were the plough engines. Even as late as the 1950s, traction machines were used to plow large fields in the UK. A matched set of engines, right handed and left handed, with huge winches located under the boiler, alternated pulling a multi-gang plow.

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Most of the engines, and their owners, were eager to get their hands dirty, but one class of engines are in a class apart. A showman’s tractor has an electrical generator and is traditionally used to power the rides and calliopes at fairs, carnivals and other events. Decked out in gleaming paint, with ornate twisted brass brackets, they were also used as tractors to haul fairground equipment between events. Many of these were in evidence at Dorset, powering calliopes big and small, and fair ground rides.

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English Mess Transportation: What is was like commuting in ’02

Saturday, August 30th, 2008

[From the archives] It’s Thursday, March 7, 2002, and I’m sitting on a crowded train car, somewhere between London and home. We left the station about 5 minutes late-not so bad on my line. But we only travelled about 10 minutes before coming to a dead stop. In a not-at-a-station place. We are on one of the wagons that has a working PA system, and after being stopped for a few minutes, a voice informed us that the train ahead of us was broken, and that we ‘may be here for a while.’

DSCN8833.jpgMost people express disbelief when I try to explain what the rolling stock is like. I have checked, and one of the series of cars does date back to 1957-1961. They call these cars ‘slammer’ cars because they don’t have pneumatic sliding doors (a feature developed on the London Underground shortly before WWI), but instead have narrow doors that are open and closed manually by the passengers. Although they have a lot of wood trim on them, presumably they are made of metal on the inside. They are curved, to match the sides of the wagons, and are hinged at the top and bottom. Such doors do not exactly snick closed with the precise assurance of a Mercedes limousine-they need a running start to close completely. Hence the name ‘slammer’. A series of 8 doors line each side of the car between 10 pairs of facing bench seats, forcing in and outgoing passengers to climb over each other’s legs.

The car I’m on is one of the ones that have no door handle on the inside, which means that exiting passengers must crawl over the knees of sitting passengers, and without losing their balance, pull down the window and reach outside to unlatch the door before the train leaves the platform. It is considered good etiquette on a cold day to close the window on your way out.

DSCN8826.jpgOne side of the interior of the car has facing pairs of benches with room for 3 skinny people, and the other side has room for 2 skinny people. Each pair of benches has a sturdy wire shelf welded above it for luggage. The seats are covered with a vivid read and orange upholstery, nicely matching the light gray walls, robins egg blue doors, and the charcoal black linoleum floors. Everything is lit with a bilious green fluorescent glow, from the bare open tubes that actually work. Giving up a set at each end of the car to facilitate use of a skinny wooden door leading to the next wagon means that there are a total of 78 seats in each car. This probably explains why they keep the cars in service-because they have such a high seating capacity. Running two 8 car trains an hour ensures an efficient use of the rolling stock, often resulting in standing room only crowds at the London end of the trip.This being a commuter train, there is no food service, which is perhaps desirable when there are no waste baskets (or ‘dust bins’ as they call them here). The long distance trains have very nice plastic waste baskets, but our local is littered with newspapers and old food wrappers.

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To Tweak or not to Tweak, that is the digital darkroom question

Thursday, August 28th, 2008

For the past year, I’ve enjoyed membership in the Bracknell Camera Club. The speakers, and competition judges, for that matter, seem to be chosen on the basis of how colorful they are. At least from my POV, growing up in America, some of these crusty old analog dudes are…..unusual.

We had a neurosurgeon speak once. He did beautiful B&W photos of symphony performers, and in his oh-so-received accent he explained that he was actually a very simple man who used the simplest gear possible: a Leica with an F/1 lens. I’m never sure if the English actually are polite or not, but nobody snorted out loud.

A more recent speaker (in calendar terms, not age), was a bit more wired, and he actually used our club digital projector, raving over the potential offered by PowerPoint as a slideshow platform. He animated lines across his photos to demonstrate how in spite of his being a completely intuitive photographer, when you looked at his photos, you had to agree that he was instinctively following well-recognized principles of composition. It would be unfair of me to quote him as having said “One doesn’t tweak.” What he actually said was, and you have to imagine an outdated sort of BBC English that is no longer taught (nor received), “Well, of course I use Photoshop, but just for minor exposure and light balance changes. I do not tweak.”

In terms of either the digital or the analog darkroom, just what constitutes a tweak?

I grew up using an old-fashioned darkroom. Thanks to an extremely talented and dedicated teacher, Judi Coolidge, my high school had a serious journalism program, with one of USA’s consistently rated yearbooks and a weekly, multi-page newspaper. You quickly learn that journalistic photography is about coming up with the goods as requested, on time. When you are sent to cover a story, the editor is planning on using your picture, and if you fail, for either technical or aesthetic reasons, then everybody has a problem.

You try your best to expose correctly, and develop the film properly, but if you screw up, you do what you can to make a usable photo. Once you’ve got a negative in hand, there are a lot of decisions to make with exposure, contrast, dodging, and burning. I actually spent a lot of time reprinting other people’s pictures, and sometimes had to use 5-grade high contrast paper to try and make a decent picture out of muddy underexposed images. Was that tweaking? If so, then long live tweaking.

A few years ago, it was all the rage for artsy photographers to file out their enlarger’s negative carrier so that the edges of the film showed, demonstrating that their photo was framed in-camera exactly as printed. What kind of a strange little contest is that? Books and magazines are generally not publishing pictures using the exact aspect ratio of the cameras which took them, so most published pictures are cropped. Does it truly improve the viewer’s aesthetic experience when they know that the photo wasn’t cropped? For that matter, why should the viewer care how many layers I used in Photoshop?

The only thing that counts is what is on the final print. Certainly it helps to optimize the capture and reduce the need for later manipulation, but ultimately, only the photographer knows.

At the top of this posting is a photo I took last year on a Young Life service project to an orphanage in Bulgaria. It was a harsh place, and the kids in the Tran orphanage had a difficult time of it, but for a week, the kids on our service project managed to connect with them.

This picture to the immediate left is closer to the original, but it still has undergone a lot of processing, and it should be pretty obvious that I removed a large brown splotch on the wall. We had just primed the walls, but no amount of primer was capable of fully covering the filth that had been allowed to collect on this wall. From a journalistic point of view, I would probably have left the splotch in, although I’m not certain of that. I don’t think anyone can doubt that as an aesthetic effort, and one that properly portrays the mood of these two girls, the ‘tweaked’ picture at the top of this post, is superior. If you look carefully, you’ll see that the shadow under the redhead’s chin is darker in the ‘original’ than it is above. More tweaking on my part.

The ‘original’ file created by my camera is in camera RAW format, and it cannot be viewed by a human being without being processed in a way that affects the colors, exposure, and contrast. I used Adobe Lightroom to adjusted white balance, exposure and color as my starting point. Then I used CS3 to clone out the splotch on the wall and lighten the shadows, along with a couple other ‘tweaks’ that you wouldn’t notice.

I do feel that much of the power of this picture lies in its authenticity, and that it would be wrong to make substantial manipulations. The redhead actually does have paint all over her fingernails, having ‘helped’ us do the hallways of the orphanage. The other girl was recovering from eye surgery, paid for by a Christian charity. If she had been paying me for a professional portrait, she might have expected that I would open up her eye and align the pupils of both–I really don’t know. I’m comfortable that what I did to the picture was appropriate, and does not misrepresent the lives or spirits of these teens. I tweaked the picture, and I’m proud to admit it.

Lots of photographers like to brag that they capture the picture in camera, and that their pictures don’t need any additional processing. Well, you can still buy transparency film, and as long as you don’t scan it or print it in a darkroom, then you can claim that you didn’t tweak it. Last I heard, a couple guys in Paris had bought up the last of the small-format Polaroid instant film, but even much SX-70 photography is subject to after the fact ‘tweaking.’

The fact is, you can’t reproduce either a film negative or a digital one without making multiple aesthetic decisions about the output appearance. That holds true for journalism and documentary photography as much as it does for purely abstract photography.

The question of what constitutes representational truth and integrity is a deep one, and I’ll be exploring it, and look forward to discussing it. But it isn’t about tweaking. This is a picture. Ceci n’est pas une pipe.

Is America a Police State?

Tuesday, August 26th, 2008

I drove into Staines the other day to pick up a new suit (funny how the Olympics, the US Presidential race and new suits tend to arrive in the same year). Cleverly anticipating some one-way streets, I entered town from the north, through that complex Crooked Billet Roundabout on the A-30 bypass. A  police car pulled in behind me while I was mentally rehearsing my line through the roundabout. Instantly, I went into ‘American Driver Mode.’ Upon seeing a policeman, most Americans assume he/she is looking to pass out traffic tickets, and you could be next.

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After living so long in Europe, I can’t help noticing during US visits how many cops are prowling around America’s road system. Once on a business trip from Cleveland to Columbus I passed 7 highway patrol cars. Sure, most countries enforce the speed limit in some way (well, only in 1/2 of Italy), but other than Canada, I’ve never been any place that felt it was the primary role of the keepers of the peace to be nursemaiding automobiles.

In the UK, the police have better things to do than following around drivers looking for an excuse to issue them a citation. The idea of a ‘rolling stop,’ in which a driver is fined for not coming to a complete halt at an intersection, is totally alien to European driving. If you are not skillful enough to avoid pulling in front of another car, you shouldn’t be driving at all. Probably because they are not needed, stop signs are relatively rare over here–vehicles in the little roads are expected to yield to vehicles in the big road (which road is which is marked if it is not obvious).

To be fair, drivers in the UK are much more predictable and civilized than drivers in the US. I don’t know how much of this is innate. Its hard to imagine that American drivers would suddenly become more careful if there were fewer traffic cops, but nobody would expect any significant upturn in the number of accidents caused by failures to come to complete stops. The driving test is significantly more difficult in the UK, and once you pass the test, you generally drive with courtesy and skill. Lane discipline happens naturally, and there is very little weaving between lanes. UK natives who feel otherwise should spend 30 minutes driving around the Washington Beltway, Cleveland’s inner belt, or anywhere on I-95.

Do American drivers need more enforcement because they are innately more dangerous, or because the local municipalities find traffic citations to be a convenient source of money? I won’t address that, but I’m confident in belief that traffic duty does nothing to improve the level of respect that people in America (and let’s lump Canada into this one) have for their law enforcement officers. It is counterproductive to their purported primary duty.

I’m going to Dorset tomorrow, for the 40th anniversary Great Steam Fair, and I’m taking the train.

Little Lambs Actually Eat Lettuce

Wednesday, August 13th, 2008

I know I’m not the only person in the world who loathes iceberg lettuce. Switzerland is the source of my saladic salvation. The French take credit for the discovery of lambs lettuce (reputedly, Louis XIV’s gardener first cultivated the thing), but its the Germanic people who popularized it. Yes, you guessed it, Rapunzel is one of several German words for lamb’s lettuce, a salad green that has only recently come to the general attention of the English speaking peoples.

So how does some poor German kid end up with a name like lambs lettuce? Well, as the Grimm brothers tell it, a couple expecting their first child lived in a small flat backing up onto a witch’s garden. The wife, apparently craving Vitamin C, along with B6, B9, Vitamin E, beta-carotene and some omega-3 fatty acids, asked her husband if he wouldn’t be so kind as to sneak over the wall into their neighbor’s veggie patch to pick her up some supplemental greens. Anyone who has been in this situation knows that this was not an optional request.

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LOTR condensed

Tuesday, August 12th, 2008

If you spend too much time thinking about Tolkien’s rich tapestry of fantasy history, parts of it start to seem questionable. Take for instance the purportedly significant role played by Aragorn/Estil/Strider/Eaglestar/Elessar. He has just spent the last 100 yrs (starting at age 20) becoming the “hardiest man in the world.” He fights with Rohan & Gondor, he explores the south, he explores the edges of Mordor, and he fights dark foes all over the place, sometimes with his pal Gandalf (Gandalf by the way, is actually a sort of Balrog with an optimistic disposition). A century kicking orc ass prepares Strider for what?

His contribution in the battle of the ring is solely as a diversion. Nothing else. He reveals himself to Sauron, which freaks out the Dark Lord, who consequently doesn’t notice a little unfolding drama on Mount Doom. Having been such an effective diversion then qualifies Aragorn to marry the most eligible babe available out of 2 races, (somewhat creepily she’s actually his first cousin, 35 times removed). Returning to Minas Tirith, he successfully claims to be the heir to a line that split 3000 years earlier, with his branch having gone underground about 1000 years earlier. The Gondorians are geeked about this, but they have less ardor in Arnor where Aragorn grew up. Are you with me so far?

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