Familiar

The flight is short, really. One moment you are standing on the tarmac in Berlin, the next you’re in line at “Passport Control”, slide your ID across the counter, and enter Bulgaria. The taxi driver speaks Italian, and so you make do, using whatever language at your disposal. And then, four hours after rushing to the airport, you’re sitting in a warm restaurant for dinner, meeting old friends, in an atmosphere that has become familiar over the years.

*

Of course there are no seat belts in the back of the car. Of course the statues have kept crumbling and the politicians become no less corrupt. You drive by an empty hotel building, a skeleton of concrete before the night sky. Someone is selling cabbages out of an old bus. But the gas station has vegan waffles. The city center is a flurry of cafés, art supply stores, wifi-equipped parks. Those pastries you enjoyed years ago? They’ve been reinvented, turned into a tradition on steroids, and they’re everywhere. You stock up on them, filling your backpack with baked goods. You meet lovely people, smile, nod. Lora knows everyone, young people seemingly all wrapped up in a project or another. Designing type. Making energy bars. Turning an office space into an makeshift salt cave. It’s Saturday afternoon in Bulgaria and fall asleep in the salt room, waking up to a coffee and Leonard Cohen.

*

You decipher the Cyrillic, which is the most achievable super power of them all. Writing that used to look unpenetrably foreign is resolved into words before your eyes. You read like a first-grader, but you read. You most likely annoy your friends with your fascinating for the letters, but you also can’t help yourself.

*

On Sundays you normally sleep in. This Sunday you all get up early, drive for just over 20 minutes and find yourself standing on a mountain range, right next to Sofia. It has snowed over night, but of course you left your gloves in Berlin. Jacked zipped up to the chin, you start hiking, regardless. After an hour, the clouds clear, revealing a brilliant sun in the blue sky. The trees are frozen, the branches white like your fingers, and you fumble for your camera, overexposing nearly every picture.

The next day, walking to work, it seems surreal that you stood on a mountain not too long ago. That a place can be so close and yet so far, so familiar and yet so different. You’ll miss this place and its people. And that can only happen with familiarity.

*

round

The Joy of a Round Photograph

A while ago, dismayed about Snapchat’s byzantine navigation, a friend described the app as “so simple that it’s complicated”. That logic applies just as well to the success of it’s mother company, Snap Inc.: Its moves are so simple that they add up to something remarkable.

Look no further than Spectacles, the new “smart glasses” Snap is rolling out across the United States to great fanfare. Not only is the marketing behind these glasses absolutely divine (drumming up excitement through rarification), the product also breaks with many gadget conventions. Rather than being complex and powerful, Spectacles are dead simple — a fashionable frame with an embedded camera that records very short clips to share online. But by being so simple, it manages to come across as fun. Remember how Google Glass had transparent lenses? Spectacles’ lenses are tinted, making no pretense to be a tool of any sorts.

All that simplicity, of course, serves a purpose: it makes a new (and arguably invasive) recording device seem much less scary. And then there’s the format: The videos shot with Spectacles are round, and look like nothing on the market today.

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A circular photo taken by the Kodak No. 1, courtesy of the National Media Museum.

Interesting enough, they look like something that was on the market 120 years ago. Back then, Kodak’s first camera — aptly called the No. 1—also took circular photos. You can find a selection right here.

And why not? Camera lenses are round in order to let in the maximum amount of light. A round image is what falls into the camera. But due to rectangular modern camera sensors, which are derived from 35mm film, modern images are rectangular. Which means that much of the visual information coming into a camera is cropped and discarded. A reason for that is that it’s hard to build a lens that is perfectly clear towards the corners, and cropping eliminates the unfavorable parts of an image. Remember the TV ad of how fish sticks were supposedly made by cutting the very best part out of a fish? A camera sensor effectively does the same thing.

That Snap is bringing back the round images isn’t just a throwback though: It’s a simply way of ensuring it’s clips look absolutely unique, regardless of where you are viewing them. And circular images replicate the human way of seeing — we’re not constrained to rectangles, after all.

But most of all, these clips are really fun. Just like the Spectacles themselves, they’re doing something ambitious (redefining how we capture our world) in a very basic way. These clips look lifelike, and it’s delightful to see the format of the photo being challenged so effortlessly; calling in question the very definition of what we consider an image. What started out as static, rectangular shot is quickly turning into a short, moving image that can take any shape it wants.

This morning, I noticed that the first sentence of Snap’s Twitter description reads: “Snap is a Camera company”. The startup is boldly moving forward from it’s origins as an app maker — which makes it one of the most exciting players in the photo space. Now if only they could fix the byzantine navigation of their core product.

Take red-hot rivets and fasten me to central girders.
Let me be the great nail holding a skyscraper through blue nights into white stars.

Carl Sandburg

“The universe tends towards maximum entropy, the condition of ultimate disorder from which there is no return. The eggs will all have scrambled, the sand castles blown down, the sun and the stars faded to uniformity.”
James Gleick, Time Travel

The Fourth Dimension

After a summer break, here’s the third episode of my podcast, Available Light. I produced it after thinking about Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Decisive Moment, what it means for originality, and remembering a sentence I heard in an interview a while back.

You can listen below – or click “Read more” to continue to the transcript.

Read More

Strange and Familiar

The Romanian capital is just two hours away from Berlin, and it’s both strange and familiar: Bucharest’s center is a concrete jungle of Stalinist ambitions, with the city fanning out from the grand boulevard in curvy streets. There are crumbling walls and faded signs, but also specialty coffee places rivaling Berlin, charming restaurants, and colorfully decorated back alleys. The streets smell of dust, fumes, and freshly-baked apple pie.

Visiting a new city always turns into a character study. What is is like? What are its people like? I met a Romanian man on the train who asked how I liked the trip. “It’s fun”, I responded. “Really?”, he exclaimed, with wide eyes. Bucharest doesn’t have the greatest reputation, but it feels like a city on the upswing, positively brimming with change.

For me, photography has always been a way to make sense of a place. And Romania, where it was still warm and sunny, invited itself to taking pictures. My camera never left my hand, and I tried to get a common look into my photos: a bit grittier than usual, a bit more casual and bright.

We took a train up to the Transylvanian city Brasov, which was the polar opposite of Bucharest – it looks like an Austrian mountain town, and even has German signs all over the place. It felt weirdly colorful, and a bit as though the train had taken us back to central Europe.

I am not sure my photos do Romania any justice. I seek out the crumbling walls and random bits, probably because I don’t have them at home. Not all phone booths are broken. I didn’t see anyone with the haircut below. As Romania changes, those are the things poised to go away, no doubt making the man on the train lose some self-doubt about his country. And as much as that makes sense, it’ll make the place less strange and more familiar, aligning it with the length of the trip.

Obsessed with visual pleasure

In 1971, photographer Sheila Turner-Seed interviewed Henri Cartier-Bresson. The transcript was long stored away in a time capsule, but was unearthed by her daughter in 2013. The New York Times Lens blog published it as a two-part series that I can’t recommend enough. Cartier-Bresson was a veritable quotation machine, seemingly putting out memorable sentences with every other answer. Here are some from Part 2 of the interview:

Freedom for me is a strict frame, and inside that frame are all the variations possible.”

“Photography as I conceive it, well, it’s a drawing — immediate sketch done with intuition and you can’t correct it. If you have to correct it, it’s the next picture. But life is very fluid. Well, sometimes the pictures disappear and there’s nothing you can do. You can’t tell the person, ‘Oh, please smile again. Do that gesture again.’ Life is once, forever.”

“The difference between a good picture and a mediocre picture is a question of millimeters — small, small differences — but it’s essential. I didn’t think there is such a big difference between photographers. Very little difference. But it is that little difference that counts, maybe.”