The Troubles With New Memorials

This monument to Edgar Allan Poe was erected in October. It honors Poe’s roots in Boston and shows him returning to the former home, just down Charles Street. He stands in “Poe Square.” It was named after on Euriabam Daniel Pograham, a mid-1800s grocer and chorister known as “Poe” to his friends. He had a shop in that area.

(Ho, ho.)

I’ve been taking an interest in public sculpture and I’m very pleased to see some more of it placed in the city. It’s quite appropriate that this figure be located where it is (above and beyond the historical connection, that is). He’s walking away from Boston Common and the Public Garden, where a couple of dozen gorgeous monuments exist…so this one only adds to the value of a good walk around these two blocks.

Second bit of pleasure: they went with a representational approach. I’m often disappointed by modernist public sculpture. I’ll see a monument that looks like nothing so much as a fish being crushed by an acorn, the plaque says “In Honor Of French-Hungarian Immigrants, 1872-1905.” I blink and I re-read the plaque and then I think there’s at least a 70% chance that the artist had this thing cluttering up his garage for twenty years, unsold, before he heard about a competition for this memorial. The greatest effort he put into it was to explain how these shapes related to the subject.

Okay, and I’ll tread softly into a sensitive issue: the 9/11 memorial in the Public Garden. The Public Garden is filled with remarkable sculptures and monuments, most of them placed no later than the 1920s. Placing a new memorial there was an interesting challenge, no doubt, and given that two of the four hijacked planes departed from Boston, bearing so many New England passengers, the connection to the city is quite a painful one.

The memorial isn’t supposed to be a sculpture; it’s meant to be a contemplative garden. Benches are arrayed around a stone crescent engraved with the names of those murdered during the 9/11 attacks who had connections to Boston.

I walk through the Public Garden and I sometimes wonder if this was the most fitting tribute possible. How will visitors to the Public Garden relate to this monument in fifty years’ time? Will it draw people in? Will it cause people to stop, and sit, and reflect?

Or will they simply see another stone shape with names carved on it, and not look or think twice?

I think about the George Robert White memorial, also in the Public Garden. Also known as “Bread Upon The Waters,” it was sculpted by Daniel Chester French, one of the three dominant American sculptors of the age. It’s objectively a thing of beauty. You want to come closer and examine it. And this winged figure, casting seeds from a basket, is a fitting tribute to a philanthropist who contributed so much towards the beauty of the city’s public spaces and to area hospitals.

I learned about him and his work because the monument intrigued me. Me, someone born seven decades after White died.

Ditto for the Robert Gould Shaw memorial on Boston Common. It engages people’s minds and spirit in a way that a basic marble plinth engraved with the names of the members of the 54th Regiment never could.

Back to Ed. I’m surprised he isn’t little bit further up towards the Common, though. If he were nearer to the corner, he’d be easier for people to spot. As-is, anybody headed up Boylston Street — a major thoroughfare, particularly for pedestrians and tourists — is likely not to spot him.

Curious, I looked up the story behind the statue. Ah. Poe hated Boston and mocked certain Boston writers as “Frogpondians.” He’s walking purposefully away from the Frog Pond in Boston Common, and towards his former home. Cool.

The Mac App Store: Falling In Love Again

BPL Staircase

Y’like that photo? It represents two things: the grand staircase of the Boston Public Library, and the regular renewal of my love for the Mac App Store.

It’s one of those rare scenes where it’s almost impossible not to come away with a great photo. I mean, just look at what’s there. Plus, the balcony that the camera is sitting on is at exactly the same level as the bottom sills of the windows on the other side, and there’s even a seam in the marble that shows you where to center your lens.

The shot and the composition is right there waiting for you but you can make things better with proper technique. I’ve taken this same photo over and over again and I think this version includes pretty much every mix-in ingredient from the sundae bar. The camera was sitting flat on the balcony to eliminate camera shake; I selected an aperture from the lens’ “sweet spot”; I used a super-wide-angle lens to get the whole thing in one shot; I shot on an overcast day so that the west-facing windows didn’t blow out the stairs; I manually selected an exposure point from the midtone range of the scene; I waited until the area was clear of people (or for there to be a person in there standing still and doing something that enhanced the scene); and I shot seven bracketed exposures, which I assembled into an HDR image to get around the limitations of the image sensor.

To summarize: I tried to Ansel Adams my ass off with this one. Gosh!

The HDR image was created by Photomatix by HDRSoft. It’s the go-to app for people who think a High Dynamic Range photo should look like a photograph and not like a frame from a computer-generated short circa 1998.

Generating this image was a needlessly long and complicated process. Oh, the app is easy as pie. It was only complicated because I hadn’t really used the app in ages. I downloaded a fresh copy from HDRSoft and looked in my Mail archive for the license code, but I couldn’t find it. I used their website’s automated thingy to have it re-sent to me, but they didn’t have the code on file and it was a holiday weekend.

So I had to dig through my closet for Lilith 9, my 2008-edition MacBook Pro. After thirty minutes of charging, I booted it up for the first time in a year and a half. I remembered my admin password after seven failed tries and I had to remember how things work in MacOS 10.6. But then it was like I was entering the tomb of The 2009-2011 Version Of Andy Ihnatko. Here, arrayed in the undisturbed air almost as though he had just departed moments ago, were all of the tools and amusements and artifacts that he surrounded himself with in life. For what purpose were they buried with him? History may never know.

Anyway, yes, Photomatix was installed and licensed on this machine. More good news: I could upgrade to the 2012 edition and still use the old app’s registration credentials. I copied over the source images and soon had the merged HDR image that I’d come for.

If I’d acquired Photomatix from the App Store two years ago, I’d have had it up and running on Lilith X after just five minutes of clicking…no registration code required. Every time I encounter into a situation like this, I love, love, love, freaking love the Mac App Store. I want to put five dollars in an envelope and send it to Apple, in the hopes that it might land in the hands of someone who was responsible for making the App Store happen.

The Store is still a source of some worry. Apple is the sole authority on what apps can and can’t run on an iPhone, iPod, or iPad. That rankles, given that an iPad costs as much as a Windows 7 notebook. Shouldn’t I have the right to do whatever the hell I want with a computer I paid $400 to $875 for? The situation is different on MacOS but developers still feel enormous pressure to kowtow to Apple’s rules and seek their approval. The App Store’s where all the money is.

So noted be. But damn, yes, the Store makes life so much easier for every user.

Which is why we sigh and we move on, instead of driving to Cupertino with a trunk full of V for Vendetta masks and a collection of signs that we hope will be amusing enough for people to reshare on their Tumblrs.

I Walked Fifty Yards For Hunger (…you’re welcome.)

Yesterday was the sort of day when a visitor to Boston thinks about maybe moving here and those of us who live in the are pat ourselves on the back for having made such a sensible choice. It was beautiful. Blue skies, cool weather…overall, when I left the Boston Comic-Con and entered the fresh air I was very pleased I had a bit of a walk to get back to where I parked my car. Particularly because this walk could end, after only the slightest of detours, with a stroll through the Public Garden.

The Public Garden was chock full of people determined to enjoy the former salt marsh and rope-drying area that had been transformed into a lush, colorful oasis by landscape architects more than a hundred and fifty years ago.

Lousy one-man band in Boston's Public Garden.

…And, to my annoyance, one idiot who was equally determined to make placid enjoyment impossible. This clumsy busker was doing a one-man-band act with an electric guitar and cymbals. The Park Service allows that kind of idiocy in the Common, but the Public Garden is supposed to be a place of peace. You’re not allowed to throw around frisbees or footballs and you can only play music if you do so quietly, and on acoustic instruments. You’re not even supposed to engage in any kind of commerce there. That’s why if you want to get a drink, you have to cross Charles Street and visit the pushcarts at the entrance to the Common.

(Sorry.)

(Back to the beauty and tranquility.)

Ducks in Boston's Public Garden

The flower beds were in bloom. Mallard drakes and hens were swimming in close, cozy pairs. The Swan Boats were making their last few laps around the lagoon. I was tired from my day’s efforts and was sort of eager to get to my car and cruise on home, but the whole scene was irresistible. I found a vacant bench and parked myself.

After about a half an hour of this pleasantness, I sensed it was Time To Go. I followed the lagoon to the stairs at the feet of the bridge and when I reached the surface, I finally realized why there were so many people around: Sunday was Project Bread’s annual Walk For Hunger. More than 40,000 men, women and children were spending the day walking through the city to raise money to help fund food banks throughout the state. The Charles Street entrance to the Public Garden was the finish line.

After a moment’s hesitation, I joined the flow. I really did need to get to Charles Street and it was just a few dozen yards away.

I nonetheless felt a little guilty when I exited the gates to the Public Garden and heard all of the applause, cheers, and supportive car horns. I tried to generate a little wave that indicated “I’m not one of these fine, selfless people in the Walk For Hunger; although I do think that food banks are among the most important and effective kinds of charities, in this particular case, I’m a humble pedestrian.” But all that came out was a cross between Queen Elizabeth’s “screw in a light bulb”-style wave and a Vulcan salute.

Still! I walked a few dozen yards to help end hunger. You’re welcome.

Project Bread is always eager and thankful for your donation. Click here for their donor page.

Photoshop Disasters: The Home Game ANSWER!

The line “…I wonder if you can spot it, too” in Saturday’s post was a spontaneous thing but boy, did I enjoy all of the responses. Here’s the original photo again:

A lovely photo of Boston's Public Garden, with two swans sliding into a calm lagoon and a 140-year-old iron footbridge in the background.

I’ll show you the original, untouched imagery. But first, let’s roll through some of the guesses:

  • “The debris in the water looks like dust on the bed of a scanner.” Nope…this was shot digitally. I did momentarily consider erasing all of those little bits, but that would have been overkill.
  • “Is it the unexplained circle of water ripples?” Oddly enough…nope. I myself have been trying to think of why the ripples look a little out-of-place. Maybe the swan entered the water at one angle, and then changed course? Midway through the edit, I thought “Damn…I must have made a clumsy, square selection at some point.” This is why I sometimes find myself returning to the original image to make sure I’m not “fixing” something that’s actually a natural feature.
  • “Oversharpening of the trees?” Nope. Or at least I didn’t give the trees any special attention. I don’t think I applied any sharpening to this image. I might have done it to the whole thing by reflex.
  • “A little quaint for my taste.” Point taken. I think it’s more photographic and stylish than hotel room art, but the image would still be alarmingly appropriate for the title screen of a wedding video. The main focus of my attention was the bridge, which I think is one of the prettiest public structures in Boston. Other shots of the bridge in this series use angles that are more dynamic. I liked that I caught one of the swans just as she was about to jump into the water.
  • “It has to be the light on the left. It looks like it is behind the tree at its base, but the post and light are in front of the tree.” Nope, I didn’t do anything to the trees or the lights on the bridge. I think the trees behind and in front of the light are just sort of compressed together in the image. But yeah, I see what you mean.
  • “My untrained eye keeps coming back to the lights on the bridge. They appear to be lit, even though daylight has arrived.” This was shot at about 6:30 AM. The sun was up but the timer on the lights hadn’t tripped yet. I’m grateful that there’s a little color and texture in the lights.
  • “the bit of sky in the top right hand corner. I keep looking over there and there is nothing to see.” Interesting. That wasn’t the “mistake” I was thinking of but maybe I’ll just see what it looks like with some cloned foliage filling the gap.
  • “Ok, I’ll go with ‘Something seems wrong with the water in the extreme lower left corner, just to the left on the standing bird’s reflection.’ Hard to tell at iPad screen resolution, but the ripple and reflection patterns look like they’ve been modified.” OooOOoooh…very close. I had to look carefully and compare the source to the final photo to check. No, but you’re verrrry close.
  • “Maybe too much cloned tree by the rightmost lamp.” Nope, I didn’t clone any trees.

Nobody got it. One of you would have won the $30 Outback Steak House Gift Card (had I offered one as a prize) for coming closest: Jay Horsley sensed that there was…something…going on with the reflection of one of the two swans.

I actually did two different major edits to this piece. It’s a composite of not one, but three photos.

Firstly, there are two swans in the Public Garden but only one of them is represented in this photo. The other one was minding the nest on the opposite shore of the lagoon. I shot a multiple-image sequence of the swan jumping into the water and paddling off. After Photoshop automatically aligned the two shots I’d selected, it was easy to “paint in” the swan on the shore.

I used the “swan in the water” shot as my main image; it saved me the trouble of removing the woman from the bridge.

Jay’s comment encouraged me to examine the Before and After images side-by-side and see if I should have painted more of the “shore” swan’s reflection into the water. The only thing missing is its head; I think it should be obscured by the ripples of the water. But maybe I’ll play with it some more.

That edit was easy. The tricky one was cleaning up the bridge abutment. “It’s a focal point of the photo and it’s covered in bird s***,” an art critic might say.

I thought that’s what it was, too. But actually, it’s just lime scale seeping through the cracks in the mortar.

“Uh-huh. But it still looks like it’s streaked with gallons and gallons of bird s***.”

Critics!

There was just way, way too much of this stuff to “fix” the stones via the usual Photoshop tricks. So on a later visit to the Public Garden, I shot a closeup of the opposite abutment, which (praise Tarim) was much, much cleaner:

Photo of bridge abutment.

Damn and blast, I didn’t have a copy of the photo with me at the time. I had to guess at the right angle and I wasn’t even close. But it’s a tiny part of the final image so I suppose it doesn’t really matter. I mashed and distorted it until it was the same shape and size as the one covered in bi…in lime scale. Then I used a mask to knock a hole in the master image and lined up the replacement abutment under the hole, flipping between the “Before” and “After” to make sure that the blocks matched the original.

But look what I forgot to do:

Detail of image, showing the "fixed" abutment of the bridge, with the original "messed up" abutment still reflected in the water.

Yup…I forgot to fix the reflection of the original streaked-up abutment.

I was pretty proud of the replacement job (though I think I’ll fine-tune the edges a little) and I stopped working without thinking about how The Thing Wot I Changed had influenced other things in the image. That’s a common mistake. You see it all the time on the “Photoshop Disasters” site. You might have done a great job fixing the whatsit. But before you move on, you need to look back at the original image. Is the whatsit reflected in something else? Does it cast a shadow? Is it supposed to be reflecting light on something else? If so…what color is that light? Do any of these things need to be updated?

Thanks for your comments about the photo. I wasn’t actually fishing for reassurance but hey, who doesn’t like reassurance and encouragement?

Some people like to unwind with a game. I tend to sublimate that kind of adventuring into creativity apps. When I run into a problem, it rarely really frustrates me; I actually enjoy trying to figure out how to get the Babel Fish. I keep getting killed on the “replace the background without leaving a color halo around the foreground figures” level. But I keep at it, or I buy a cheat guide, and I figure out how to beat it. Hoo-rah!

…And then I start getting killed on the “intensify a specific color without compressing the image’s dynamic range” level instead.

Speaking of cheat guides: my pal Lesa Snyder has a new edition of her fab book, “Photoshop CS5: The Missing Manual” It was within reach throughout most of this little job.

I really do use it as a cheat guide. The table of contents doesn’t actually read

  1. Man, Andy…you’re such a dumbass about layer blending
  2. I guess you owe that print service an apology…you’ve had the color management settings set wrong all this time
  3. How on earth did you get through several decades on this planet without ever knowing how the Histogram tool works?
  4. …Or you could fix that sky in about three seconds by doing it the right way, but what the hell do I know, I’m just a Photoshop book

…but it might as well. I have a problem, I open the book, I find the solution.

Photoshop Disasters: The Home Game

A lovely photo of Boston's Public Garden, with two swans sliding into a calm lagoon and a 140-year-old iron footbridge in the background.
A nice little shot of Boston's Public Garden. The Public Garden is a much more quiet and peaceful place before the tourists and bridal parties descend.

I’m a big fan of the Public Garden (the oldest public horticultural garden in the USA) and a few weeks ago I decided to make a special early-AM trip out there to do some Serious Photography.

I got some nice shots. But I haven’t really posted anything on Flickr yet. Why?

Yes, of course: I’ve become a Button Freak. Like Oskar Schindler at the end of the movie, who wandered in a daze, paralyzed by the thoughts of everything else he could have done, I keep looking at these shots and thinking “But there must be a way I can restore the blown-out highlights in that sky.”

(So when do I get my adoring biopic? Well, okay: Schindler had to wait 50 years for his. Plus, he did save a whole lot of people’s lives. I guess I’ll just have to wait my turn.)

There comes a point at which Photoshop, Aperture, and The Ambition To Produce A Lovely Pick-cher become handicaps to the amateur photographer. This shot of the swans — a lovely lesbian couple; you should meet them sometime — is probably my favorite of the series and a case in point. I can’t stop tweaking it. I went from “I like it; I’m going to include it among the 20 I’ll post to Flickr” to “I like it; I’m going to export it from Aperture and edit in Photoshop, for more control” to “I really like it; I think I’ll make an 11×17 print of this”…which ultimately landed me at “If I’m going to be staring at this on my wall for years to come, then this ought to be perfect.

Next stop: bedlam. Now’s a good time to start stowing any personal electronics because we should be landing there shortly.

I thought I was done working on this photo, honestly. But then I spotted a problem…a mistake I made in editing. I wonder if you can spot it, too.

Over-doing Photoshop is like over-doing plastic surgery: you don’t know you’ve gone too far until you’ve gone too far. But unlike Joan Rivers, I can undo the damage I’ve inflicted upon what God created by simply hiding a few adjustment layers.