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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Avedon: emasculating your DSLR since 1946

  The recent opening party for Richard Avedon: Photographs 1946-2004 at SFMoMA ( had lines that spiraled down the central stair, but was still thoroughly enjoyable. Not just because some of my peers were wearing such improbable shoes. Not just because I went with a good friend, and we bumped into my favorite cousin and his wonderful boyfriend. Not because the cocktails in the lobby were strong. And not just because of the wall o' portraits, where we were able to marvel at the subjects of the photo - young Kissinger?!? Young Jerry Brown!?! WOW! - even more than the photos themselves.

Though the photos themselves were glorious. Glorious large format images, with deep rich blacks, brilliant, harsh whites, and spectacular tones in between.

And the resolution! Oh, the resolution! Seeing the photos live, not just in the magazines they were reproduced in, is really marvelous. Because you see them as true photographic prints, not at lithos or digital offsets or however you have seen them in their lossy near-glory in the recent past. No, the prints are ultra, ultra-fine.

Those of you who aren't familiar with large format film cameras may have wondered why the actual prints look... hyper real. Better than real. It is because Mr. Avedon and his troupe of minions were using cameras that took images on improbably large sheets of very fine-grained, high resolution films. Your digital camera, if you have a current model, meets or exceeds the equivalent of a 35mm piece of film: an fine image the size of a large stamp, perhaps 10 megapixels or so. A "medium format" film camera like the ones I use might be around 50 MP, with its 2.25 inch square film area. Now, imagine that the piece of film were instead 8" x 10". Imagine how many MP your camera would need to be to maintain the same sort of pixel density at that size. And then double or triple it, because the lenses are so sharp, and the film is so fine...

Large format images blow me away, partly because the cameras used to make them see both better and differently than my eyes do.

There is a mural of several frames of Warhol's factory crowd. It is made from several, generally overlapping large format frames. I made my digital-camera-loving friend walk up to the larger-than-life-size images of Andy's crowd, just to look at a little radio at their feet. A perfect little retro radio, sharp, clear, with every little mark on it showing radiantly. The image isn't completely grainless... But the detail was incredible.

Avedon was one of those artists working in the popular media of the day, and he had a huge influence on what people thought photos SHOULD look like. We've grown up steeped in the aftermath of his influence, so it's hard to see, but he was hugely influential, and very talented. I'm not even fond of portraits, but his are such a wonder to behold, so consistent as a body of work, so technically good, so pleasing, that I am gushing.

It's definitely worth seeing. And it's worth sitting in the restaurant downstairs (or at Blue Bottle on the roof), listening to people complain that they saw the show already in New York, and now have to get dragged to it again. Poor babies. :-)

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posted by Arlene (Beth)10:58 PM

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The perils and profits of scale

  San Francisco bike route detour signFor novelty, I will write about something other than food. Don't worry: it won't last.


I have already written about how I am a fan of The Impossible Project (, the main plan of a business (adorably named Impossible BV) to re-engineer Polaroid instant film and bring it back to market. Der Spiegel has a lovely update about the business model: Die Mission Impossible der Polaroid-Jünger (, 7/1/2009). (This is in German, which I struggled through before utilizing a quirky Google translation. Ah, the glories of German word order make this entertaining. Ever read a German novel? All the verbs are in the last chapter! Ha ha ha!)

Summary of the points I like: there is a worldwide niche market for Polaroid films, which the massive Polaroid corporation wasn't able to support. The reason instant film is off the market now isn't that it isn't a viable commercial product: it just isn't viable on a mega-scale. (And also, according to this article, Polaroid had been back-stocking supplies with the intention of keeping it available longer, but ran out faster than expected without finding replacement suppliers - unanticipated demand wiped out their stock, killing the product with its own sales success.) But as a specialty item, it is a GREAT product, and with existing demand from millions of existing Polaroid camera owners, the business has great potential when scaled appropriately.

The very idea of a small, specialty market product is beyond the concept of those of us who are taught that bigger is always better. If your cupcake stand can't support a CEO's salary and a bevy of vice presidents with country club memberships, we are told there is no point in bothering to bake at all. (Who do you think tells us this?)

As someone in an obscure photographic specialty area, I am thrilled at the very idea of small, custom production of much loved photographic materials. With specialty sales channels, this could be completely workable.

It is fascinating that so many doubts come from those who believe that there is no point in selling a product that is unique (or perceived as unique) and that people are willing to pay extra to use. These doubters do not own Apple stock.

"Ubiquity or death" is not a sensible business model, no matter what the business papers say.


The Long Goodbye? The Book Business and its Woes, by Elisabeth Sifton (, 6/8/09 print edition) also touches on the idea of a different niche business being profitable enough: the book publishing industry. In addition to teaching me that Caslon is the font Ben Franklin used to set the Declaration of Independence, it talks about the commodification of books, and the way that the consolidated publishing industry wants to make its money on a few big stars rather than on a broad, diversified sales base.

It is a long article with a long list of publishing industry woes, but also covers niche-market concerns dear to my heart. Ubiquity - having your book published cheaply and priced cheaply in a chain store with tons of other cheap, undifferentiated books that the chain store staff are not paid enough to learn about - to the shock of the 'bigger is better' crowd, is not necessarily a recipe for success. Who knew? Books are more than just "content" on pulp that should be bought and sold by the word or the pound. Industry consolidation is weakening the system that has promoted books to buyers historically: book publishers who stake their reputations on the books they choose to publish, and the craft by which they have them manufactured; passionate reviewers in other forms of print media who review and endorse books; book shops that promote books that their own specific customers will enjoy; book clubs and social networks that endorse and share books...

There is a reason that I often walk out of Borders empty handed, but nearly wear my debit card out at Green Apple ( - the people behind Green Apple are fussy about what they stock, and their selections match my (local) interests.

Sifton's description:
That [media conglomerate-types] had no confidence in books per se and knew nothing about writers or readers seemed a neutral factor, not the harshly negative one it actually is. As any sensible businessperson knows, you can't make money in a low-profit operation unless you stay close to your sources of supply and demand--writers and readers in this case. And it helps your profit margin to love or at least respect them.
It must be nice to be a media mogul and think that celebrity books are going to be a universal hit. They haven't spoken to my friend at work, who knows the names of all the celebrities, thinks it is odd that I (who know only names of some musicians) read books, and recently accused me of being the sort of person who reads magazines without pictures in them. The mogul just missed the mark for both of us; but since I buy books regularly, especially missed me.

The music 'industry' is in a similar boat: the industry fantasy is a small set of universal stars who appeal to all 'markets' who can support their massive infrastructure without putting that infrastructure through the tedium of actually providing services to promote music, or to determine what customers actually want to hear. This may have some connection to all of the weeping I've heard from the industry about how they aren't as successful as they'd hoped or planned.

Business, it appears, is more than just selling widgets by volume.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)12:02 PM

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Really poor futurist prediction

  I cannot help but love this quote, from A Manual of Photographic Chemistry, Including the Practice of the Collodion Process, Sixth Edition, 1861 - Google Book Search:
Photographic printing has reached a point beyond which any further advance will be difficult. The Chapters relating to this subject have been once more re-arranged, but it is not anticipated that such a proceeding will again be necessary unless our present modes should be superseded.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)7:52 PM

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Manifestly important and nearly impossible

  Polaroid's instant films were some of the most ingenious inventions of all time. Complicated and clever, in color or in black and white, and in some cases able to produce both a print AND a large format negative at the same time... Instant film was an AMAZING technology. Barely distinguishable from magic, as most great technological advances are.

I shouldn't refer to instant film solely in the past tense: Fuji still makes both cameras and instant films that produce adorable little instant prints. But Polaroid, who had managed to make instant film simple for users by complex manufacturing on the back end, never really made the amount of money on it that could justify the novelty of instant gratification in an age where, it turns out, people actually can wait for a few minutes if it means saving a few bucks.

Polaroid discontinued manufacturing its analog instant films, which I only recently have started to play with, dispossessing countless travelers (who love being able to share prints in far-away places, especially in isolated communities) and many artists, who either relied on the prints for proofing analog shots, or those who had found ways to manipulate the inside chemistry with heat, force, and a bit of disassembly.

Enter The Impossible Project (, an effort to acquire a closed Polaroid factory with all of its equipment, and re-engineer instant film - knowing it is possible, understanding how it was made, and starting over to make it better.

This is exciting.

The splash page tag line for this project is a quote from Ed Land:
Don't undertake a project, unless it is manifestly important and nearly impossible.
(PLEASE do not use this concept as an excuse not to clean your house.) While I prefer to limit my own activities to a range somewhere between 'totally doable' and 'marginally unlikely,' I admire their pluck... and want to play with their future products.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)10:00 PM

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