Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Mad Dogs and Englishmen

Light to a photographer is what paint is to a painter, or a block of clay, wood or marble are to a sculptor. That's why you hear photographers and film makers waxing eloquently about particular types of light as other artists do about the raw materials of their craft. One of the most desirable types of light for many photographers is the natural light that occurs during "The Golden Hour", that is to say, the hour(s) just after dawn and before dusk.  
The long, seductive shadows
of golden hour light

It is at those times when the light from the sun, low in the sky, casts long, dramatic shadows. Filtered through more of the earth's atmosphere than at any other time of day, the quality of the light is relatively low in contrast and provides a warm cast which is especially flattering for portraits. But really everything looks beautiful in golden hour light which is why it's not surprising that many photographers make their images exclusively early in the morning and/or late in the afternoon.

The antithesis of the golden hour is the light found on a cloudless day at noon, particularly around the Summer Solstice when the sun is at its highest point in the sky. From the high angle the sun's light passes through the minimum amount of atmosphere, resulting in high contrast, bluish light. That trifecta of qualities can be a deadly combination. It's unforgiving light that in the wrong hands, can make anything look terrible. 

Which is why to paraphrase Noel Coward, unlike mad dogs and Englishmen, most photographers seldom go out in the midday sun.

But the truth is, while certain types of light are not appropriate for certain situations, there is no such thing as bad light.

I first discovered the magic of high noon summertime light about thirty years ago during a partial solar eclipse. In order to safely observe the rare celestial event, I came prepared with a simple device consisting of a shoe box with a tiny hole poked into one of its sides. This simplest of cameras commonly known as a pinhole camera, works on exactly the same principle as other cameras, just without the fuss of a lens.

In a nutshell, here's how it works:

The very act of seeing and image making are based upon a very simple principle, the fact that bright objects reflect more light than dark objects. Now imagine deconstructing the scene in front of a camera into a grid of tiny squares, each square reflecting a different value of light (and color). Light reflects in all directions from our squares, but as the pinhole is so small, only a tiny portion of light reflected from any one of our image squares will find its way into our pinhole aperture, Once it passes though the aperture, that ray of light then follows a straight line until it hits the back of our shoe box camera, resulting in a tiny speck of light. The more light reflected by our square, the brighter the light speck.

As the light reflected off each image square hits our aperture at a slightly different angle, the light entering into the camera will deposit itself on a different part of the camera back, Now take the light from all those little squares, each one carrying with it the reflectance value of its source and depositing itself faithfully within its unique set of coordinates upon a new grid of points of light on the camera back and VOILA(!), we have projected upon the back of our box camera, a two dimensional image representing the scene in front of the camera.

Now unless we were able to climb into our shoe box camera and close off all outside light except the light entering through the pinhole, it's very difficult to view the image of  most subjects with the naked eye as the pinhole only permits a small amount of light to pass through. Unless that is, the subject happens to be a very bright object, such as the sun.

The problem with the shoe box/pinhole/eclipse viewer is that you have to hold it very precisely and very still in order for the image of the sun to be easily visible on the back of the viewer. Not to mention that you look silly holding a shoe box over your head. 

In no time I chucked my homemade device because I discovered that nature provided a much more efficient pinhole eclipse viewer, the leaves of trees.

We've all seen the shadows of leaves cast by the sun. When leaves are dispersed and enough light passes between them, their shadows are distinct. However when a tree is densely packed with broad leaves such as those found on maple trees, only a small amount of direct sunlight if any passes though, and these tiny holes that allow light to pass work exactly as pinhole apertures. So rather than shadows cast on the ground, what we see in the photograph on the right are live images of the disc of the sun, one for each "pinhole" opening in the leaves. 

During normal times these discs of light on the ground may be mistaken for shadows, but during a solar eclipse, the image of the sun being blocked by the moon is unmistakable, as rather than a disk what we see are crescents of light, the shape of which determined by the amount of sun covered by the moon. In the extremely rare event of a total eclipse, the crescent for a brief moment becomes the familiar ring of light that is the sun's corona we've all seen in photographs of eclipses but few (myself included) have ever seen in person.

It was a discovery for me that day as while I understood the concept of the pinhole, I never thought of it in that particular context. As I was in a public park at the time, I shared my "discovery" with passersby who cared to notice. 

A few years ago during another solar eclipse, once again around noon in the same park and the same time of year, I tried to repeat the experience. Alas, it was a hazy day and while the sun was still visible through the thin cloud cover and still possible to view the eclipse by other means, the stark contrast between the sun and the rest of the sky wasn't enough to produce the pinhole effect through the trees. 

So the recipe for the leaf pinhole effect is a cloudless sky to provide sufficient contrast to be able to see the image, and the sun being high in the sky to produce nearly circular (rather than elongated) images of the sun. In other words, the dreaded summer solstice noon light.

A few weeks ago while walking home from the grocery store, again around noon, near the summer solstice, I became enchanted by these images of the sun as pictured in the second photograph, dancing around the sidewalk due to the wind blowing about the leaves and their "pinhole" apertures.

Since then I haven't stopped looking down, observing and photographing the wonderful array of images produced by nature upon the human made canvas of the sidewalk, during what I once considered the worst light of the day.

And as of a few weeks ago, I've joined ranks with the mad dogs and Englishmen out in the midday sun.


Sunday, June 27, 2021


Army General Mark Milley is the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Last week, he and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin appeared before a congressional hearing to discuss the proposed budget for the Department of Defense. Present at the hearing were two Florida congressmen, Mike Waltz and darling of the Trump crowd, accused child molester Matt Gaetz. Both took the opportunity to question the Secretary and the highest ranking uniformed member of the military about the ultra right's latest red herring, the teaching of Critical Race Theory

CRT is the idea that for centuries and to this day, racism has been endemic in American society. To anyone with any sense of US History, that is a no-brainer. Nevertheless the ultra right has taken up the cause of fighting against teaching our children, and specifically for Waltz and Gaetz at the hearing, members of the military, a truthful and honest representation of American history, rather than the sugar coated Euro-centric version that generations of us (myself included) received. 

For his part, Secretary Austin, the first black Secretary of Defense, deflected the question, saying that the military is merely interested in weeding out the kind of extremism that led a handful of its members to take part in an insurrection, storming the Capitol on January 6th of this year in an attempt to overturn a free election. Here are some of his comments:

We do not teach critical race theory. We don't embrace critical race theory, and I think that's a spurious conversation... We are focused on extremist behaviors and not ideology — not people's thoughts, not people's political orientation. Behavior is what we're focused on.

Milley chose another path. He gave an impassioned two minute speech espousing the importance of education while denouncing the willful ignorance of the questioners. Here in full is his statement:

I do think it’s important for those of us in uniform to be open-minded and be widely read. The United States Military Academy is a university. It is important that we train and we understand. I want to understand white rage — and I’m white. What is it that caused thousands of people to assault this building and try to overturn the Constitution of the United States of America? What caused that? I want to find that out. I want to maintain an open mind. I do want to analyze it. It’s important that we understand it. Our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and guardians — they come from the American people. It’s important that the leaders, now and in the future, understand it. I’ve read Mao Zedong. I’ve read Karl Marx. I’ve read Lenin. That doesn’t make me a communist. So what is wrong with having some situational understanding about the country we are here to defend? I personally find it offensive that we are accusing the United States military — our general officers, our commissioned and non-commissioned — of being ‘woke’ or something else because we’re studying some theories that are out there while calling out those who have criticized military officials as “woke” for entertaining the theory based on the idea that systemic racism exists in America. [Critical race theory] was started at Harvard Law School years ago and proposed that there were laws in the United States prior to the Civil War that led to a power differential with African Americans that were three-quarters of a human being when this country was formed. We had a Civil War and an Emancipation Proclamation to change it. We brought it up in the Civil Rights Act. It took another 100 years to change that. I do want to know. I respect your service and we’re both Green Berets, but I want to know. It matters to the discipline and cohesion of this military.

The Green Beret comment was directed at Waltz who is a decorated veteran. During Milley's comments, Gaetz, the Eddie Haskell of Congress who is more famous for showing colleagues nude photos of his sexual partners than for his non-existent military service, was shown smirking and shaking his head. He would later tweet this:

With Generals like this it’s no wonder we’ve fought considerably more wars than we’ve won.

Later that day, the talking heads at Fox, especially Laura Ingram and Tucker Carlson threw, in the words of Vanity Fair, a massive "shit fit" over Milley's comments. Ingram suggested that Congress refuse to grant a penny to the Department of Defense until they agreed to renounce CRT. 

Wow and I thought the Trumplicans were supposedly appalled by so called "cancel culture". Now they want to cancel the Pentagon?  How times have changed. 

The "conservative" Carlson seemed to have a particular bee in his bonnet over Milley's mention of "white rage". That makes sense because through his years of publicly huffing and puffing over the subject of so called "reverse racism", and his insistence that white folks such as himself are the true victims of it, Carlson has become the poster child for white rage. 

Poor little snowflake.

Carlson called the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff "stupid" and a "pig" and later doubling down on his hissy fit, called Milley's thoughtful comments at the hearing, "disgusting and disgraceful". 

During his diatribe the evening of the hearing, Carlson said this: 
(Milley) didn't get that job because he's brilliant or because he's brave. Or because people who know him respect him. He is not, and they definitely don't. Milley got the job because he is obsequious. He knows who to suck up to, and he's more than happy to do it. Feed him a script and he will read it.

Geez given Carlson's remarks, you'd think that Milley was a Biden appointee. Spoiler alert: he's not.

For the record, Milley is brilliant, well at least in the common sense of the word, having received a bachelor's degree from Princeton and advanced degrees from Columbia University and the Naval War College. As for his braveness, well if you watched the hearings you may have noticed ten bars upon his right sleeve, each one representing six months of time served in combat deployment. The hardware displayed over his left breast displays a distinguished record of service to this country.  Where Carlson got the idea that Milley is not respected is anybody's guess, folks of his and Gaetz's ilk feel little need to back up what they say. 

Tucker Swanson Carlson, heir to the TV dinner fortune, has a penchant for questioning the bravery of bona fide American military heroes who don't happen share his world view. For his part, Carlson's military record is every bit as impressive as Matt Gaetz's.

That's not to say he's not brave, after all he did do this: 

Also for the record, Mark Milley was appointed to his current position by none other than Calson's BFF, Donald Trump. While dressed in military fatigues, Milley among others accompanied the exPOTUS during his infamous march to St. John's Episcopal Church across the street from the White House last year during the protests over the killing of George Floyd, for the sole purpose of staging a photo op of the Chief Executive standing in front of the slightly damaged church while holding a bible. 

Shortly after that shameful performance where police and National Guard members used force against peaceful protestors to clear the way for the exPOTUS's stunt, Milley regretted his presence at the event and publicly apologized for his symbolic role in the farce:

I should not have been there. My presence in that moment, and in that environment, created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics.

Milley even considered resigning from his post after the public embarrassment.

Perhaps Carlson felt it was that affront to his Dear Leader that gave him carte blanche to go after Milley. 

What I find remarkable is that people who call themselves "traditional conservatives", people who express pride in their supposed unwavering support and respect for the military and those who serve in it, would put up with this relentless trash talk against them, especially coming from folks like Gaetz, Carlson and yes, Donald Trump, none of whom have ever come close to service of their own. 


The debate over Critical Race Theory is yet another farce foisted upon us by the Trumplicans. It's as ludicrous to suggest we refrain from teaching our children the truth about our past (good and bad) as it is to suggest that German schools refrain from teaching their children about Nazism.

This should be so obvious, there is really little to say about it, but I will bring up one crucial example of how the American education system has failed us, and the absolute need to teach our children honestly about race in this country. It can be summed up in three words:

Tulsa Race Massacre.

Until recently, how many of us knew about this particularly horrific event in US History? 

I'm ashamed to admit that I didn't.

If you still don't  know about it, look it up. If you don't look it up because you feel there is no need to learn about critical race theory because you believe we have overcome racism in this country, then my friend, you're part of the problem, not the solution.