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Finding beauty all around us on Nature Photography Day

Today, 15 June, is Nature Photography Day. Originally started by the North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA) to “promote the enjoyment of nature photography, and to explain how images have been used to advance the cause of conservation and protect plants, wildlife, and landscapes locally and worldwide”, I am sure it is a day that most photographers, amateur or professional, will have some affinity for.

Nature Photography Day was first celebrated in 2006, and it has been enthusiastically adopted around the world. As stated on their website, “NANPA encourages people everywhere to enjoy the weekend by using a camera to explore the natural world. A backyard, park, or other place close by can be just right. Walking, hiking, and riding a bike to take photos are activities that don’t lead to a carbon footprint. And fresh air can do wonders for the spirit!” And how true that is – nothing like spending some time in the fresh morning air, camera in hand, to capture the majesty of the natural world around us.

(© All Rights Reserved)
(© All Rights Reserved)
Whether it's a majestic vista or a tiny bit of natural magic in the corner of the garden, there's beautiful subject matter all around us for Nature Photography Day. (© All Rights Reserved)
Whether it’s a majestic vista or a tiny bit of natural magic in the corner of the garden, there’s beautiful subject matter all around us for Nature Photography Day.
(© All Rights Reserved)

And you don’t have to go far to discover something wonderful – an attentive eye is all that is required to find beauty all around us – plants covered in early morning dew, insects busily at work around the garden, animals small and large, birds of all shapes and sizes.

While Nature Photography Day is first and foremost a day for personal enjoyment, meant to bring each of us closer to nature, NANPA is also hosting a Nature Photography Day Facebook Page, where anyone is invited to upload their images – the only ‘rule’ being that all photos “must be taken on June 15, 2013, within walking (or biking) distance of wherever you are.”

By the time that this blog entry is published, I will be spending some time in New Zealand’s majestic Tongariro National Park, and I sincerely hope I will be able to capture some moments of natural beauty. Irrespective of the results of my photographic endeavours on the day, however, I am first and foremost hoping to have fun doing it – after all, that’s really what it’s all about, isn’t it?

Celebrating two innovative photographic artists

Today, 11 June, is quite a big day in photographic history – it is on this day that we celebrate the births of two great photographers, Julia Margaret Cameron (11 June 1815 to 26 January 1879) from Great Britain, and the American Jerry Uelsmann (born 11 June 1934).

Cameron and Uelsmann operate in very different photographic domains – while Julia Cameron was a groundbreaking portrait photographer, Uelsmann is known for his fantastical darkroom creations, and is considered the forerunner of the photomontage technique.

Portrait of the English mathematician, astronomer, chemist, and experimental photographer/inventor Sir John Herschel, by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1867. This portrait illustrates Cameron's trademark tightly cropped, soft focus style, and her uncanny ability to bring out the character of her subjects.  [Public domain - copyright expired]
Portrait of the English mathematician, astronomer, chemist, and experimental photographer/inventor Sir John Herschel, by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1867. This portrait illustrates Cameron’s trademark tightly cropped, soft focus style, and her uncanny ability to bring out the character of her subjects.
[Public domain – copyright expired]

Julia Margaret Cameron was a key figure in the development of the modern portrait style. Her influence in this field is particularly significant if one takes into account that her photographic career only spanned eleven years – she only took up photography at the late age of 48 when she received a camera as a present from her daughter. She took to the discipline with great vigour and had an obvious knack for photography, quickly becoming a prominent member of the Photographic Societies of London and Scotland. In her short career she photographed many famous celebrities and historical figures, and she is also known for allegorical works featuring religious and literary themes.

One of the innovations Cameron brought to portrait photography was cropping her portraits much more tightly than was the norm at the time. Another interesting technique she used, was to photograph her subjects intentionally slightly out of focus, and using long exposures, thus creating images that also contained motion blur. While this led some of her contemporaries to ridicule her work, she remained extremely prolific, leaving behind a very comprehensive portrait library for her time.

Besides her technical and artistic innovations, Cameron also brought her innovative nature to bear on the business side of photography – she registered each of her photos with the copyright office, and kept detailed records of all her work. This careful bookkeeping has resulted in a large number of her works surviving today.

While Cameron is an influential figure in portrait photography, her influence only came to bear long after her death – as mentioned before, many of her contemporaries found her soft-focus, closely cropped portraits ridiculous and unacceptable. Things have changed, though, with many claiming her to be one of the portraiture greats – Imogen Cunningham said “I’d like to see portrait photography go right back to Julia Margaret Cameron. I don’t think there’s anyone better”, while Getty Images have stated “Cameron’s photographic portraits are considered among the finest in the early history of photography”.

Untitled (Tree House), by Jerry Uelsmann, 1982. It is quite unbelievable to think that Uelsmann's photo montages were done using film negatives in the darkroom, without any modern digital processing.
Untitled (Tree House), by Jerry Uelsmann, 1982. It is quite unbelievable to think that Uelsmann’s photo montages were done using film negatives in the darkroom, without any modern digital processing.

Unlike Julia Cameron, Jerry Uelsmann’s interest in photography started at the much younger age of 14. While still at school he started landing a few minor photography jobs, and after completing his tertiary studies in photography, he took up a job teaching photography at the University of Florida in 1960.

From early in his career Uelsmann developed an interest in darkroom image manipulation, creating composite images from multiple negatives. Some of his creations, done using his large archive of negatives, were amazingly intricate, often requiring him to work with multiple enlargers during the same session. Referring to his works as “allegorical surrealist imagery of the unfathomable”, he never cared about the boundaries suggested by the photographic realists of hie time. Instead, he opted to use components of a number of different photographs to create and share the images he saw in his mind, thus developing the photo montage technique to an amazingly advanced technical level.

What made the impact of his work even greater was that he created his photo-fantasies at a time when such montages weren’t at all a common concept – photos were essentially considered realistic documentary interpretations of scenes and events. As such, Uelsmann’s avant grade photographic visuals helped to greatly expand the boundaries of photography as an art form.

To this day, despite the proliferation of digital processing tools and techniques, Uelsmann continues to use traditional equipment and his almost magical darkroom skills have resulted in works of breathtaking intricacy – a visit to his website to look through some of his works from the past decade (and earlier) is well worth your time.

Like Cameron, Uelsmann’s work was initially not looked upon kindly by his contemporaries. Like Cameron, however, Uelsmann’s work has stood the test of time and is now being acknowledged for their groundbreaking disregard for the styles, norms and trends of the time – as such playing an important role in advancing the art of photographic.

Both Julia Margaret Cameron and Jerry Uelsmann have succeeded, in very different ways, to move beyond mere photography to create original works of art – in Cameron’s case, vividly personal, yet almost impressionistic portraits, and in Uelsmann’s case, surrealistic visions from the mind of their creator.

Inspiring stuff!

Half a ton, and counting…

Yesterday the Sciencelens blog reached a bit of a personal milestone – 500 followers!

After feeling quite chuffed with myself for a bit, I started thinking about what it means, and I guess it’s really one of those numbers that’s neither here nor there. A year ago, when 100 followers still seemed a distant target for me, I saw another blogger commenting about reaching the 400 follower mark, and thought it was amazing. On the other hands, many blogs I read regularly count many thousands of people among their signed-up followers.

So yes, its many, but at the same time not that much.

There's always something worthwhile photographing or writing about.
There’s always something worthwhile photographing or writing about.

For one thing, reaching this landmark is definitely enough to inspire me to keep going, to keep looking for amusing topics to write about, striking things to photograph, and wacky events to celebrate.

So, to use a popular phrase of the Hash House Harriers (one of my favourite global running institutions):
On-On!

Think before you eat, and help save the environment!

It’s 5 June, which means it’s World Environment Day again. Last year the theme was “Green Economy: Does it include you?”, and I wrote about it here. This year, the focus moves from money to food, with the theme for 2013 being “Think.Eat.Save”.

The Think.Eat.Save campaign is an anti-waste and anti food-loss campaign. The message is that we should all take responsibility to reduce our ‘foodprint’ – the amount of food we unnecessarily waste in our daily lives. The latest stats from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) shows that no less than 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted every year. According to the UNEP website, the quantity of food wasted worldwide is equivalent to the total amount of food produced annually in sub-Saharan Africa. That is scary, and given the number of people in developing countries suffering from undernourishment and malnutrition (more than 20,000 children under the age of 5 die daily from hunger), the figure becomes truly horrendous.

Grow your own food - it tastes better, it's lighter on your pocket, and it's better for the environment! (© All Rights Reserved)
Grow your own food – it tastes better, it’s lighter on your pocket, and it’s better for the environment!
(© All Rights Reserved)
…and if you happen to grow too much to eat, think about ways of using your surplus stock effectively - preserving, for example, allows you to enjoy your homegrown veges long after they were taken out of the ground. (© All Rights Reserved)
…and if you happen to grow too much to eat, think about ways of using your surplus stock effectively – preserving, for example, allows you to enjoy your homegrown veges long after they were taken out of the ground.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The Think.Eat.Save campaign “encourages you to become more aware of the environmental impact of the food choices you make and empowers you to make informed decisions”. While it’s easy to point the finger to big companies who waste loads of food catering for corporate events etc, escaping the blame is not that easy – reducing the global food wastage begins with each of us, at home. By putting a little thought into your food regime – thinking about what you eat, thinking about how you use the left-overs, etc, you can save loads and eat much more efficiently.

As an example, eating processed food involves much more wastage than eating freshly produced local fare.

According to UNEP, “the global food production occupies 25% of all habitable land and is responsible for 70% of fresh water consumption, 80% of deforestation, and 30% of greenhouse gas emissions. It is the largest single driver of biodiversity loss and land-use change.”

By thinking before you eat, and making informed decisions about food usage (selecting foods with less environmental impact, buying locally, growing your own food, effectively using left-overs) you can do your bit to save your environment.

Reduce food-loss – one bite at a time!

An uplifting tour through earthquake-ravaged Christchurch

While photographing the annual conference of the Public Relations Institute of New Zealand (PRINZ) in Christchurch recently, I had the privilege of going on a tour through the earthquake-ravaged city. It has been more than 2 years since a devastating earthquake hit Christchurch on 22 February 2011, killing 185 people, and fundamentally changing the lives of many, many more.

The funky, innovative dance-o-mat - a boom box built into an old laundromat washing machine - simply pop in a $2 coin and you can host your own dance party in the middle of Christchurch, right where the main restaurant strip used to be. (© All Rights Reserved)
The funky, innovative dance-o-mat – a boom box built into an old laundromat washing machine – simply pop in a $2 coin and you can host your own dance party in the middle of Christchurch, right where the main restaurant strip used to be.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The face of the city has changed completely – many areas that used to house shops, restaurants and more, are now flat, empty land, used mostly as car-parks. Even residents who knew their city by heart, get lost among the open spaces that have appeared in the inner city where well-known landmarks used to be. Amongst these ugly, industrial-looking spaces, however, the most amazingly innovative use of urban space is emerging – dance floors with a twist, temporary performance spaces, mini-golf courses made from rubble, and much more. For more info on the great initiatives taking place throughout Christchurch, visit the Gap Filler website.

One of the holes of the earthquake rubble mini golf course, spread out throughout the devastated Christchurch inner city. (© All Rights Reserved)
One of the holes of the earthquake-rubble-mini-golf course, spread out throughout the open spaces in Christchurch’s inner city.
(© All Rights Reserved)
The Pallet Pavillion - a temporary performance space for musicians and other performers, built on a demolished building site. (© All Rights Reserved)
The Pallet Pavillion – a temporary performance space for musicians and other performers, built on a demolished building site.
(© All Rights Reserved)

While a tour through the city is a harrowing experience, it is also an uplifting one, testimony to the human spirit and the commitment of a population to making the most of its circumstances. The city has a long way to go to regain its former glory, but given the tenacity and positive spirit of its residents, I have no doubt it will emerge an even greater city than before.

A special experience indeed!

Scaling the Varsity Heights

Varsity Heights

This road sign, part of my daily jogging route, catches my eye every time I run past.

You have to wonder about the subliminal message it conveys – is tertiary education a dead-end street, or is a life in academia so fascinating and satisfying that you would never want to leave? In the case of New Zealand, tertiary education is clearly not considered a dead-end street – according to the publication ‘Profile and Trends 2011: New Zealand’s Tertiary Education Sector’, more than 450 000 students were enrolled in formal study programmes in 2011. The number of young people taking on higher-level tertiary qualifications is also increasing, as is the number of international students enrolling in tertiary education in New Zealand.

Given that the current population of New Zealand is just under 4.5 million, the above numbers suggest that about 10% of the population is currently enrolled in tertiary studies. That’s a pretty impressive statistic. Not surprisingly, then, that most ranking systems place the country in the top ten in the world in terms of educational performance, along with other high-performing countries like Finland, Denmark, Australia, Cuba, Korea, Japan, China, Singapore and Canada.

Varsity Heights, indeed. And surely no dead-end street!

Celebrating the out-of-this-world photography from the Hubble Space Telescope

Today, 20 May back in 1990, people on earth got their first glimpse at a photograph from arguably the most expensive camera in the world – or at least using the most expensive lens in the world. Today celebrates the day that the first photographic image (an image of a double star 1,260 light years away) was sent to earth from the Hubble Space Telescope (HST).

NASA image release date April 17, 2012 This region resembles a coral reef, but the gas has been eroded by the hefty stars in R136, situated above it. Cloaked in gas at the top of this rugged, gaseous terrain are nascent stars that cannot be seen. Dense columns of gas, several light-years long, protrude from the undulating landscape. These gaseous columns are incubators for developing stars. By NASA Goddard Photo and Video (Space Flickr photograph. Some Rights Reserved.) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
NASA image release date April 17, 2012
This region resembles a coral reef, but the gas has been eroded by the hefty stars in R136, situated above it. Cloaked in gas at the top of this rugged, gaseous terrain are nascent stars that cannot be seen. Dense columns of gas, several light-years long, protrude from the undulating landscape. These gaseous columns are incubators for developing stars.
By NASA Goddard Photo and Video (Space Flickr photograph. Some Rights Reserved.) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
The HST was carried into orbit by a Space Shuttle in 1990, and remains in operation until today. In it’s 20+ years of operation, it has dazzled us with some truly mind-blowing images. The fact that it’s orbit lies outside the distortion of the earth’s atmosphere means that it can capture amazingly sharp images, with practically no background light, providing scientists with a detailed view into deep space and time. The instruments on the telescope observes light in the near-ultraviolet, visible and near-infrared ranges.

To see more of the amazing imagery produced by the HST, have a look at the Hubble Space Telescope: the first 20 years in pictures collection in The Telegraph.

Remembering a pioneer of space photography

A few days ago, on 17 May 2013, Frederick Doyle died at age 93.

For those who don’t know, Frederick Doyle was a space photographer and photographic mapping specialist at NASA. He was appointed chairman of NASA’s Apollo Orbital Science Photographic Team in 1969, where his responsibilities included the planning of the camera systems and direction of orbital science photography for the Apollo lunar missions 13 to 17. Many famous images of the moon, including mappings of the mountains of the moon, came to us courtesy of Mr Doyle.

View of the moon, from "Apollo Over the Moon: A View from Orbit" (1978 © F Doyle)
View of the moon, from “Apollo Over the Moon: A View from Orbit” (1978 © F Doyle)

Beyond his moon imagery, Doyle directed photography projects on space missions to Mercury, Venus and Mars. He was also a principle investigator on the Landsat satellite photography projects, as well as on Skylab. The images of earth created under his supervision have given scientists greater insights into topics like climate change and deforestation.

Frederick Doyle may not have been a household name, but as a science photographer he certainly made a huge contribution to the field of space photography and the mapping of the earth’s surface.

To see more of his wonderful images, have a look at Apollo Over the Moon: A View from Orbit.

Celebrating a year of daily blog-posts!

It was today exactly one year ago, or perhaps I should say 365 days ago, in blog terms, that I made a blog post about the inaugural Fascination of Plants Day.

This rather inconspicuous event in the blogging universe, on the arbitrary date of 18 May 2012, was the kick-off of an idea I had to do a daily blog featuring some interesting fact (preferably with a science angle) related to the specific day, and illustrating it with one of my own photos. And here we are – 365 posts later, back to the 18th of May. 🙂

Jumping for joy at having achieved my goal of a year of daily science and photography blog-posts  (© All Rights Reserved)
Jumping for joy at having achieved my goal of a year of daily science and photography blog-posts
(© All Rights Reserved)

I don’t think I quite realised what I let myself in for – trying to find something interesting for each day proved quite a challenge, especially given the extra requirement of illustrating it with an original photograph of my own. This immediately took things like space travel, innovations at the atomic level, heart transplants etc out of the equation, sometimes leaving me blogging about some rather absurd esoteric topics like Yellow Pig Day and World Coconut Day. I discovered many interesting facts and stories I never knew – the story of Farkas Bolyai and his mathematical obsessions, Stanley Miller’s primordial soup experiments, how bubble wrap was invented, and the fact that there’s even such a thing as World Toilet Day, to name but a few.

I even learned how to make a needle float on water.

My original aim was to keep up the daily blog for a year. With that done, the question is whereto now. While I’m reluctant to commit to another year of the same level of blogging dedication, I have to admit I’ve been enjoying where the blog took me, so I don’t quite feel like calling it a day.

What I’ve decided for the moment (I may change my mind, who knows) is to commit to at least a weekly post on a subject related to the day (or week – there appears to be more than enough ‘International Week of…’ initiatives out there worth sharing a blog post about).

In between I may mix things up a bit with more blog posts related to what I do in real life, that is, being a science photographer. Posts about interesting events and developments in the fields of photography, visual science communication, science art collaborations, and more. Even some personal ramblings, who knows.

My sincere thanks to everyone following this blog, to all the likes, comments and support over the past year. I hope you will continue to share my journey.

Cheers to the next year.
Gerry

ICTs and improving road safety

It’s 17 May 2013, and today we celebrate World Telecommunication and Information Society Day (WTISD). The purpose of the day, according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) website, is “to help raise awareness of the possibilities that the use of the Internet and other information and communication technologies (ICT) can bring to societies and economies, as well as of ways to bridge the digital divide.”

The date of 17 May was chosen because it marks the date of the signing of the first International Telegraph Convention in 1865, and the creation of the ITU. Initially the day was only known as World Telecommunications Day (it was celebrated annually since 1969). In November 2005, the World Summit on the Information Society called on the UN General Assembly to declare 17 May as World Information Society Day, “to focus on the importance of ICT and the wide range of issues related to the Information Society raised by WSIS.” In November 2006, at the ITU Conference in Turkey, it was decided to combine the above two events into a single World Telecommunication and Information Society Day.

Every year, WTISD promotes a specific theme, an area where telecommunications and ICT has a significant impact, or potential for significant impact, on society. For 2013, the theme is “ICTs and improving road safety.”

According to a report by the UN’s Road Safety Collaboration, 1.3 million people die annually in traffic-related accidents, with another 20-50 million injured. Considering the medical costs involved, as well as costs of work-loss etc, traffic accidents clearly have a huge impact on economies globally.

The impact of telecommunications and ICT on road safety is immense. Sadly, it is not all positive. (© All Rights Reserved)
The impact of telecommunications and ICT on road safety is immense. Sadly, it is not all positive.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The impact of ICT and telecommunications on road safety can be viewed from two sides. On the positive side, improved connectivity has a positive impact in terms of placing road users in contact with emergency services and road side assistance. Ever-increasing accessibility of maps and navigation services through smartphones etc can also improve safety on the road. Increasingly sophisticated traffic management systems have the potential to positively impact on traffic safety, and at the high end of technology, intelligent driver assist systems is another domain where ICT in particular has a huge potential role to play.

On the downside, however, driver distraction and road-user behaviour, including texting and interfacing with navigation and other communications systems while driving, count among the leading contributors to traffic-related accidents. And it is not only distracted drivers that cause problems – texting pedestrians represent an equally big risk, putting themselves and other road users in danger. The challenge in addressing these dangers is, of course, more educational than technical – it is all about educating all road users about the dangers of being distracted by personal communication systems while using the road.

So while today is a day to celebrate the amazing technological contribution ICT has made to improved road safety, it is also a day to remind ourselves of the terrible tragedies that have followed from the injudicious and inconsiderate use of mobile phones, GPS systems, etc while engaged in road usage.

Be safe, everyone.