A few days ago, the photo-science geniuses from Rochester Institute of Technology conducted their annual Big Shot, an experiment in painting with light. A scene is chosen--this year, the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian on the Mall in Washington, D.C. The public is invited to participate by bringing handheld light sources, such as flashlights or candles. Streetlights, security lights, and other nearby high-tech sources of illumination are extinguished, so when night approaches, the scene gets darker and darker.
Inside lights are switched on to make the building glow in the dark. Then the crowd is arranged so that all the handheld lights paint the scene. This year, about 800 people participated, and after a 20-second exposure, the big shot came out pretty as a picture.
That's the Washington Monument in the background, leaning to the left because of distortion caused by the wide-open lens.
This is Stockholm after midnight last June, during one of the white nights near the summer solstice. The tower in the foreground is part of the Old Town, which dates back to the thirteenth century. The cranes in the background are building the part of town that will date back to the twenty-first century.
There's an urban legend about a deer more spectacular than any other, a deer that's pure white, maybe even albino. It is glimpsed from time to time, usually at dusk or dawn or even after dark. It's shy and quick, won't stick around for the camera.
For a hunter to shoot such a deer, a white ghost of a deer, would make the whole forest cry. It would bring a whole lifetime of bad luck to the hunter who felled it. Unless it was actually a good luck charm. Or a trophy like no other--a trophy deer above all others.
One problem with the white deer, urban-legend-wise, is that there's widespread disagreement concerning what it might signify, if it signifies anything. The story is messy, if there is a story to it. But that's okay, urban-legend-wise, because the white deer is real--an estimated 1 deer out of 30,000 is albino, completely white with pink eyes.
Their coloration leaves them especially vulnerable to human hunters and other predators. Do they know that? Is that why they are so shy? Perhaps not, but their light-sensitive eyes may make them avoid daylight even more than other deer.
Nonetheless, Janet Goldwater sort of got a photo of an albino deer that had been eating apples from her tree in Eagles Mere, Pennsylvania. "This photo was taken (in a rush obviously!) through the window of my house," she writes. "My opportunity to take a photo came at dusk, hence the slow shutter speed."
Here, the albino deer looks almost like a unicorn, which seems appropriate enough. If you want clearer pictures, you can find them on the tubes. But this shot seems to pretty much sum up the whole white-deer thing: whatever is out there is hard to see, impossible to pin down, fleeing fast , but definitely, positively, really something.
"The Storybook Wolf," by Spanish photographer Josi Luis Rodriguez, won National Geographic's 2009 prize for wildlife photography. To get the shot, Rodriguez rigged up a motion sensor that tripped the shutter of his camera, which used an infrared sensor for night vision.
I know this wolf. He eats grandmothers and little pigs and little Russian boys, and I'm sure he's very hungry now.
Photographer Trey Ratcliff is known for his high-dynamic-range techniques, which pump up the drama in his pictures, producing weirdly wonderful, or just plain weird, results.
The idea is that when shooting a scene that is partly bright and partly shadowed, a camera can properly expose the picture to show color and detail in the bright areas or in the dark areas, but not both at the same time. Ratcliff shoots the same scene over and over with different exposure settings; he then uses fancy software to blend together parts of the image from all the different shots.
Our eyes naturally have a much wider dynamic range than any camera, so in theory Ratcliff's pictures should be more natural-looking than regular photos. In practice, they look less natural--often interesting, sometimes beautiful, but almost always somehow artificial and extreme. I have mixed feelings about his work; here, for example, the sky looks spooky or fake to me, but overall, it's really, really pretty.
Carol and Sandy Fuchs spent a week in northern Sweden recently, including New Year's at the Ice Hotel near Kiruna, about 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle. The sun never rose above the horizon the whole time they were up there, though the dark of night faded into a sort of twilight for a few hours in the middle of each day.
They tried dogsledding and snowmobiling and visited with reindeer herders. The town of Kiruna is a thriving iron-mining center, where the hundred-year-old mine is nowhere near played out; it is currently expanding closer and closer to the town, which is gradually being relocated to escape the blasting and other mine activity.
The basic structure of the Ice Hotel is made of snow; in November each year, snowguns spray artifical snow over arched metal forms, which are removed after a couple of days, leaving igloo-like tunnels. Interior walls are made of two-ton ice blocks cut from the Torne River and returned to the river when the place starts to melt in April or May. The ice is cut in March and stored for the next winter's construction.
Beds are platforms of ice and snow covered with reindeer hides. Guests sleep in sleeping bags. There are ice sculptures and specially carved ice chairs and tables in the rooms, but according to Carol guests don't usually spend much time lolling about in chairs made of ice. Although she slept well, she reports that Sandy hardly slept at all; he was worried that if he relaxed and closed his eyes, he'd freeze to death and never wake up. The room temperature was about minus 5 Celsius, or 23 degrees Fahrenheit.
The hotel has an ice bar, where drinks are served in glasses made of ice. There's also a restaurant, which serves hot food on regular dishes, in front of a blazing fire.
I'm thinking that part of the rationale for a winter vacation in Arctic Sweden is that it must feel pretty good when you leave; wherever you spend the rest of your winter, even if it's in what you normally consider a fairly wintry sort of place, must seem bright and sunny and maybe even toasty by comparison.
Sam Javanrouh's caption for his nighttime skyline shot was indeed a reference to election results--but not to the mid-term elections at the center of the media universe here in the U.S.
Javanrouh was unhappy about last week's mayoral election in Canada's largest city, Toronto, where a "right-wing intolerant redneck" named Rob Ford trounced former deputy premier of Ontario George Smitherman. Ford ran openly homophobic ads against Smitherman, who is openly gay. He also promised to cut taxes and stop spending and etc.
The CN tower is dark in this photo, not its usually well-lit self, but that's just a coincidence, not an example of early budget-slashing. Must be Obama's fault.
As the year turns, the astronauts in the International Space Station have been steadily circling the globe about 400 miles above us. A couple of nights ago, when they were flying over the ocean near North Korea, they picked up their little Nikon digital camera and pointed it westward, toward the Asian mainland. That's Beijing in the upper left, Tianjin in the lower right, glowing out into space.
This is what new years will be looking like for a long time to come.
Meanwhile, may 2011 bring health and glowing good cheer to you and yours. This past year wasn't all that great; there is plenty of room for improvement.
In hopes of maintaining secure communication with its ships and submarines at sea, no matter what, the U.S. Navy maintains arrays of thousand-foot-high Very Low Frequency transmitter towers at three locations around the world. This is the Navy's Cutler array, the largest and most powerful radio installation in the world, with 26 towers located on a peninsula at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean in downeast Maine, near Machias.
Cutler, constructed in 1961, is 100 percent Cold War technology: no GPS, no internet, no cellphone network. The biggest towers in the world were built here because this station services vessels in the Arctic Ocean as well as the Atlantic and Mediterranean, and naturally occuring electromagnetic pulses in the Arctic–the Aurora Borealis–can interfere with all but the most powerful radio signals.
The transmitters here run on power generated on-site and distributed to the towers by underground wiring. Underground wires also extend far offshore under the ocean, to maximize communication with submarines. There are no naval personnel working in Cutler; a civilian crew maintains the site, which sends out encrypted signals generated at a base in Norfolk, Virginia.
Although this shaky picture, which was taken with a handheld camera on a dark and cloudy night, suggests a somewhat haphazard string of towers, they are actually arranged in two identical clusters, which can operate separately or together. Each cluster can be shut down as necessary for maintenance. There's a problem, however, in the part of the installation around the power plant, where the two clusters are so close to one another that the electromagnetic field can be hazardous to humans, even when one of the clusters is shut down.
This area of the installation is called the Bowtie. People doing maintenance try to work as little as possible in the Bowtie, because even if they are working on towers that have been shut down they may still be exposed to dangerous electrical radiation from nearby still-active towers.
Because the Navy requires that at least one of the Cutler clusters must be functioning at all times, the towers in the Bowtie area of the installation have seen little maintenance over the years. In particular, they have never been painted, and they are now fifty years old. The civilians onsite requested a four-month shutdown of the entire array to complete the painting, but the Navy said no.
I predict one of two probable resolutions: either they'll run out of money for the paint job and just let the salt and snow do their thing on the thousand-foot towers, or else they'll redefine the safety standard for electromagnetic radiation so that working in the Bowtie magically becomes safe.
Way, way out in the country, a million miles away from city lights, on a clear night the sky is lit by stars, as we see above at left, in a photo taken in Glacier National Park in Montana. The few small clouds in this starlit sky show up as black blotches that block some of the stars; a completely cloudy night in remote parts of the world is a very, very dark night, too dark to photograph at all.
In the megalopolis, however, clouds actually light up the sky by reflecting urban light pollution to brighten the night dramatically; an overcast night in a big city like Berlin, shown above at right, can be up to ten times brighter than a clear night.
At about one o'clock in the morning of July 1, 2011, Manuel Claro pointed his camera up at the night sky above Alentejo, Portugal, and opened the shutter for 30 seconds. Then he did the same thing again and again and again, 430 exposures over the next four hours, and combined all the images to create this picture.
During each 30-second exposure, the earth rotated a little, while the stars pretty much stood still (by comparison). So the image of each star is smudged as the camera moves a bit; when all 430 of the smudges are shown together in a single image, we see what looks like startracks but is actually a single earthtrack, circling Polaris, the North Star.
The different colors of the different startracks reflect differences in temperature of the various stars.
New York and New Jersey are mostly back on the grid, we hear, though there are stories, still, of people stranded in the cold and dark ever since that storm called Sandy. But last weekend, these electric Stein women–Amelia, Maggie, and their mother Sue–lit up Manhattan as they swept into town with glowing high spirits.
On the lightship Nantucket, we're told, docked at Pier 24 in TriBeCa, something was going on that involved wineglasses. Maggie, the daughter described by her mother as a "crafty sailor," apparently did a creditable turn at the ship's wheel without even setting down her glass. "Bet they don't teach that at Annapolis," observed Sue.
Happily, it's a big year for weddings in this branch of the human family. And one of the best things about weddings is that the pictures are so many and so various and so thick with kisses and flowers and hopefulness. Indeed, every morning could be a Wonderfully Good Wedding Morning in this blog . . . if only Facebook didn't always have the jump on us.
Here today, however, are a couple of shots from Maggie and Colin's wedding back in June on Peaks Island, in Maine's Casco Bay. Above, the newlyweds focused on a joint engineering venture that went off almost without a hitch: as the sun went down, illuminated hot-air balloons soared up and away, floating into the future.
The first one rose and floated perfectly, above the island and out over the sea. The second one plopped down into the harbor. As did the third. The fourth balloon also looked doomed at first, but it somehow fought hard against gravity and wobbled skyward and . . . fell flaming into a patch of brush next to the island gas station.
Nothing bad came of it. The day and the night were far too gentle and elegant.
This is a pretty spectacular photo, with the features of an iconic landscape dwarfed by a skyful of stars and clouds and hints of daylight. Modern cameras can capture this sort of scene more or less routinely if they are set up to stare into the night, lens wide open, without blinking or moving for, in this case, twenty seconds.
The human eye could drink it in at a glance, if only we were there. But we weren't there, sadly. This morning, we must make do with the picture, and fortunately it's a picture that rewards a slowly wandering eye with pleasant little discoveries in the realms of shadow and glow, detail and hulk, pattern and emptiness.
We shot this picture at night because well-mannered hibiscus flowers fold up and die at night, after just a single day of wide-open gorgeousness. This bloom's behavior is out of line; it has glowed like this for four or five days and nights now, and it shows no sign of giving up.
We should note that it's cold outside, downright frosty at night. And well-mannered hibiscus plants don't bloom at all in November in Pennsylvania. They give up and die.
There are no more buds on this plant, and many of the leaves have dropped now, or curled up, or turned brown and crunchy. So when this flower goes, that's it; the show's over. But what a show.
In richness and boldness of color as well as in longevity, this last swan song of a flower really outdid the pale, delicate blooms of summer. But oddly, perhaps, if we carefully compare the hibiscus flower of November with a flower from the same plant back in July, it becomes apparent that this new all-night, all-weather blossom is missing its male parts. And that's all there is to say about that.
In the earliest moments of the year 2010, the people of the Filipino city of Legazpi, south of Manila, celebrated with fireworks, as the Mayon volcano in the distance stirred up some fireworks of its own.
As we slip slide into 2015, here's hoping we all stay warm and healthy and full of sparks. And where's that cup of kindness when we need it?
The sun sets on the other side of the International Date Line, in Teneriffe, a riverside suburb of Brisbane, Australia. Or so they say; this post is yet another in a long irregular series spouting off about places we've never seen and about which we know next to nothing.
But we persist.
In the early twentieth century, Teneriffe was the wool-export center of the universe, with warehouses that could store tens of thousands of bales of Australia's wool. During World War II, the country's largest submarine base was located here. But in recent years, shipping has moved to container facilities at the mouth of the Brisbane River, and Teneriffe has assumed more of a residential character.
Until a couple of years ago, internet access in Cuba was a tightly restricted privilege; now, however, anybody can go online.
But two big obstacles remain. One is cost; a few minutes of wifi can eat up an entire day's pay for an average Cuban. Thus, although some people do use the web to check for news beyond official government reports, most internet activity in Cuba is focused on phone calls, often video calls, especially to friends and relatives abroad.
The other obstacle to getting online is that wifi is not available in your living room; you have to go to a hotspot, which is often outdoors, in a park or plaza. So Cubans such as the Havanans in the photo above gather at hotspots around town with their phones and tablets.
In the evenings, when the tropical heat is letting up a bit, some hotspots get so crowded that the internet slows to to a crawl and may crash. The govvernment has promised to expand the wifi network and even bring it into people's homes, but little progress has been noted.
That's because of the American embargo, say Cuban officials. And they may be right.