Have digital cameras condemned us to looking at ever more pixels, ever less art?

2 supermoon interior 2 postgutenberg@gmail.com

Scrolling through machine-tooled, precision die-cast supermoons photographed by engineer-robots and posted on Twitter

Sorry, that’s not quite right. We meant to say that in inspecting other photographers’ pictures of the same moon to which we were trying to pay homage in our own inept way, in recent entries here, we wondered whether anyone else had noticed that skyscapes with too many pixels can be like high-definition digital portraits that make beautiful people ugly. Also, that while it is growing more common for photographers clicking away on digital cameras to think that you can never have too many pixels, sharpness can be ruinous — making photography steadily more workmanlike and less like art.

The answer from an online search was — yes, at least one other person had noticed both the trend and its effect. His guesses about the explanation for the epidemic of pixelholism were identical to ours but unlike us, he couldn’t be accused of sounding superior about the aesthetic judgements of people with different interests and inclinations. He was brave enough to chide his own tribe. On the Peta Pixel site,  we saw that Eric Kim, too, wishes that members of it would think of the magic that the Impressionist painters wrought with inexactness if not brazen fuzziness. He said:

A lot of us who get started in photography are gadget-nerds or geeks. I myself have always been obsessed with technology … [A] lot of us nerdy photographers come from sciences, engineering, or computer-programming. We think we can quantify the “quality” of a photograph by the technical settings—the sharpness or resolution of an image.

Designers of digital cameras are apt to be gadget nerds, which could be why maximising precision appears to rank higher than other conceivable improvements in successive generations of these products. It was heartening to see a techie suggest why this has gone too far. Kim’s post also observed:

Here’s the thing: good art is often un-sharp.

Consider the impressionists. They didn’t seek to make picture-perfect images of reality. Rather, they used dreamy and imperfect brush-strokes to evoke a mood; to evoke a feeling.

They realized that the importance of a picture or an image wasn’t whether it reflected reality or not. The more important thing: whether it reflected their personal mood, or view of the world.

We once saw a parallel to what the Impressionists achieved in a headline somewhere that encapsulated it as outing the inside of an artist.

Kim’s post concluded:

Avoid gear review sites, sharpness tests, and all those nerdy places. Be satisfied with the gear you (already have), and remember what photography is all about: making meaning in your life; not making photos.

Well said. But did he foresee the sour reaction to his advice in Peta Pixel’s comments section — and a 21st-century equivalent of tarring-and-feathering? One reply read:

Kim may have his own obsessions (demons), but that does not mean everyone else shares them. He seems to trying to convince himself why he should change his mindset by projecting it onto us.

The obsessive discussion of sharpness can be as seductive for outsiders as a conversation between cement mixer-truck mechanics. For instance, this snippet from one commenter (who must have had Spellcheck turned off) — someone partially supporting Kim:

I prefer to have a slightly unsharp lens (comparitively) but one that works nearly as well in the corners as the centre. This is why, for much of my landscape photography with a digital camera, I prefer to use f/16 rather than the ‘sharpest’ aperture which is supposedly f/4 or f/5.6. That’s because at f/16 most abberations are subdued and I can sharpen back to get enough acuity. It’s also why I shoot large format where the corner sharpness is almost identical to the center sharpness for nearly all size prints. (OK, not true for some tele lenses and cheaper ultra wide large format lenses but for most semi-symmetric lenses it’s a given)

It is time to ask, are we going backwards?

Thirty-two years ago, John Russell, the English art critic of The New York Times, wrote about the Impressionists’ rebellion — which, he explained, was not just about refusing to submit to the dead hand of convention in classical painting, but tossing out what would now be called the marketing or business model that shaped the economic lives of professional painters in late 19th-century Paris (described in detail here). Some might recognise a parallel to the most successful indie writers rejecting traditional publishers in our day.

We see differently, and we see better, because those painters lived.


They proved that it was possible for painters to break the monopoly of the Paris Salons by showing on their own, on a regular basis, and prosper.

When they defied the once-sacrosanct old rules for painting, the Impressionists were rejecting excessive orderliness and precision — that is, moving in the reverse direction from the shift towards hyper-precise, hyperrealism among many, if not most photographers today.

[T]hey introduced a completely new mode of expression — one based […] on ”the brush moving at will in any direction, freed from traditional centered drawing […]”.

This movement of the Impressionist brush is by now so much a part of our universal inheritance that we no longer think of it as something that could present a difficulty. Yet it is the achievement of Monet and his colleagues that, more than 100 years ago, they broke a monopoly far more deeply entrenched than the monopoly of the Salon painters. This was the monopoly of traditional Western composition, with its centered pictorial structure, its balanced and rhythmic ordering of forms, and its careful, preordained, seamless presentation of what are in reality the wandering, disorderly, often frantic procedures of seeing.

Seamless, yes – pixelholics love that. Some of them insist that their work is inspired by the Photorealism school of painting, which dates from the 1960s. That seems reasonable enough, even if one condition a painter must satisfy to qualify as a bona fide worker in this tradition is confusing — with a touch of tail-wags-dog-why-bother about it. According to experts cited in the Wikipedia: ‘The Photo-Realist must have the technical ability to make the finished work appear photographic.’

In other words, some of Eric Kim’s photographer-nerds are imitating painters whose rules require that their paintings must resemble photographs as closely as possible.

Right. So glad we’ve got that sorted!

We hope to return to these subjects soon, in a future post — not necessarily our next one.

Surely they aren’t trying to reinvent the mandala? A pictorial entertainment on computerised visions by cosmologists of gravitational waves

Mandala of Vajrabhairava (detail), 1600-1800, Tibet, Asian Art Museum, San Francisco

Mandala of Vajrabhairava (detail), 1600-1800, Tibet, Asian Art Museum, San Francisco

Computer simulation by NASA of gravity waves emanating from two orbiting black holes, slightly modified by postgutenberg@gmail.com. Compare with the original image: here

Computer simulation by NASA of gravity waves emanating from two orbiting black holes, slightly modified by postgutenberg@gmail.com. Compare with the original image: http://www.nasa.gov/centers/goddard/images/content/146977main_gwave_lg4.jpg

mandala_17 soutien67.free.fr

mandala in square img1.etsystatic.com il_570xN.701326921_2yu0

Mandala patterns floating about on the net

mandala google dictionary

Didn’t nearly everyone notice the close resemblance to mandalas of some images cosmologists published last week to tell us what confirming Einstein’s theory of gravitational waves meant to them? Strangely, we have found scant evidence of that on Google.

In very old Buddhist and Hindu metaphysics a mandala represents the cosmos.

But, as most scientists abhor religion — or say that they do — wouldn’t they consider any such connection a besmirching?

Not necessarily. Not all of them.

We found a mention of mandalas on a German site, Einstein Online — belonging to the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics — on a page with a charming animation of a ‘simple gravitational wave traversing [a] mandala’. Fitted to the circle in this visualisation is a tribute to Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, a diagram as mystical as it was an accurate geometric anatomisation of the human body. The Encyclopedia Britannica:

Leonardo envisaged the great picture chart of the human body he had produced through his anatomical drawings and Vitruvian Man as a cosmografia del minor mondo (“cosmography of the microcosm”). He believed the workings of the human body to be an analogy, in microcosm, for the workings of the universe.

Leonardo's Vitruvian Man in a mandala -- Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics

Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man in a mandala
Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics

… That Einstein Online link was nearly all that showed up in searches using the string ‘mandala gravitational waves’ — except for a Google Books offering in which someone called Choudhur Satyanarayana Moorthy has reinterpreted parts of Hindu scripture to make long-ago sages — rishis — experts on the cutting edge of quantum mechanics. He even has a Rishi Kutsah Angirasah describing gravitational force deified as ‘Rudra’:

With his firm limbs … he is forceful. He is ruddy brown, but has taken the bright golden form. He is the supreme ruler of the vast universe.


Stick to your linear algebra, Charles Dodgson — and calling yourself Lewis Carroll won’t make any difference, you’ll never succeed as a writer!

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A page of the original manuscript of Alice in Wonderland

 From Ireland, BooksGoSocial helps indie authors to market their books on social media platforms

Some of us would pay far more for an explanation from neuroscience, some day, of how Lewis Carroll’s brain worked, than to satisfy the more conventional curiosity about Albert Einstein’s noddle. Glance at the manuscript page at the top of this post. Who, writing in a hand so obedient to the laws of tidiness, is ever capable of wildness in storytelling more easily explained by an existence of Bohemian excess – say, getting through a case of good Burgundy every week, then smashing all the bottles — than by this writer’s mousey actual life, including twenty-six years as an Oxford theoretical mathematician of the first rank?

The most imaginative story in the English canon of which there are near-daily reminders, in the madness of reality, had to be rescued from becoming a discarded publishing artefact. As either Charles Dodgson or – his pen name – Lewis Carroll, the author would certainly have trouble publishing himself, today. As noted in a recent review of an exhibition in New York’s Morgan Library, built around the original manuscript of Alice in Wonderland, he was ‘socially maladroit’. Goodbye, social media! — as a helper or crutch.

Some other points in Randy Kennedy’s witty report worth a special mention:

• An editor had to rule out the first — wondrous — pseudonym the author chose: Edgar Cuthwellis (though admittedly, referring to oneself as ‘post-Gutenberg’ is far worse).

• These were some other titles he mulled before a friend steered him towards the one we know and love: Alice’s Doings in Elf-Land, Alice Among the Goblins, Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, and Alice’s Hour in Elf-Land.

• John Tenniel, one of the most celebrated and successful illustrators of the day, who accepted the publisher’s commission of a set of pictures for a story by an obscure Oxford don with no track record in literature, rejected all twenty copies of the first edition of the book in 1865 – because it was badly printed. Though Macmillan had accepted the book after an editor’s first inspection of the manuscript, it was Carroll and not his publisher who paid the large sum of money for its reprinting.

• It was Tenniel, not the author, who chose the principal characters in ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’ poem in Alice. Carroll had been toying with other possibilities – a walrus and a butterfly – or baronet.

• Sadly – or so it seems to us – the too-powerful Tenniel also persuaded Carroll (whose original drawings we actually prefer) to drop a chapter in Alice’s sequel, Through the Looking-Glass, a segment whose working title was ‘The Wasp in a Wig’. Why? Because he was incapable of drawing a being he considered ‘altogether beyond the appliances of art’. Bah: pure humbug. If only Dali had been hatched, by then: he could have drawn a wigged-out wasp in his sleep.


As great scientists frankly admit what they owe artists, should the income gap between gifted arts and science workers be quite so wide?

Lucinda's rose LARGER June 2015 IMG_7530

— photograph by Lucinda


A virtuoso painter and craftswoman friend — prolific, courageous, stoical in degrees that sometimes defy belief — grew up among Californian country folk, on the margins of the Pacific, in high trees and curling mists a few miles south of a refuge for artists established by an autobiographer who wrote these lines:

… [W]hy did I collect art? Or even more pertinently, what is art? I answered this question in my play Phallacy …:

REGINA If the beauty of this sculpture is not important, what about art?

REX Define Art.

REGINA An image from the mirror of life.

REX (derisive) Good God!

REGINA: All right then. How about Art being everything other than what you see in the mirror?

REX Better! But how necessary is that?

REGINA Art is never necessary. It just happens to be indispensable.

For me, not as a collector but as a human being, art happens to be indispensable. Isn’t art what distinguishes us from all other species?

Those are words of the late Carl Djerassi, and the retreat, his well known Djerassi Resident Artists Program. Before he jumped tracks to write novels and plays in late middle age, he made his name — young — as a scientist of the same rank as the superstars in our last two entries on this blog (part 1  and part 2).

Lately, the reminders of him have been so frequent — and cheering — that some of the mystically inclined would offer them as certain proof of haunting.

Another reason why he swims into view, in an inner eye, is indirect. We often think of him when we hear from our artist friend, who would have been a sort of neighbour of his, had she not flitted away to an art academy and the next act in her life in virtually the year he bought himself an outsized eyrie in the Santa Cruz range. Like him, she shone in school — especially as a science student. Then one day, she met and was magnetised by a whole family of artists living nearby. Watching them draw and paint — with radiant abandon — made trying her own hand irresistible. In no time, she was an addicted arts-worker-for-life.

The rest of this story told only in its leanest outline — to protect someone shy — is, on the economic plane, all too predictable. Though her work has found devoted fans to whom she ships orders at addresses all over the world, and she lives simply, with few luxuries, financial security has always been a dream never quite within grasp.

Dr. Djerassi, by contrast — even if he had been merely a successful scientist, not one referred to as ‘the father of the birth control pill,’ was virtually guaranteed a life free of money worries by turning the exceptional aptitude recognised at university into a career.

Here is the question that led to this post: is it necessarily quixotic (or mad or pointless) to wonder whether this cliché of contrasts — comfortable scientists and struggling artists — should be accepted as inevitable and unalterable, forever?

Accepted even though a Carl Djerassi was as unembarrassed as a Lawrence Steinman or a Josef Penninger in wearing his love of, and need for, art on his sleeve — long before he took off his lab coat to write poetry and fiction? Even if large numbers of practical materialists will scoff, ‘But that’s absurd! How could artists deserve to be compensated as well as scientists, who save lives, and whip up whizzy innovations entrepreneurs use to build technology giants, and send people to Mars?’

Ah, but if artists feed the souls of those scientists?

Better than setting up arts foundations and handing out grants, what if scientists were to make a sacred mission of looking for new ways to buy more work from artists of all descriptions? Employ more gifted and even daring architects to design their research centres and laboratories, … designers to add eye appeal to the utilitarian interiors in which they usually toil, … spend real money on aesthetically pleasing web sites … on art for scientific book and journal covers, and between them … and employ more editors capable of honing and adding lustre, if not poetry, to their words … ?