Friday, April 22, 2011

Do You Have Any Homework?

After spending twenty-two of my thirty-four years going to school, I finally get to answer, “No!” to that question.  It’s been five years since I’ve been assigned homework and three years since I’ve worked in a traditional school setting where I’ve designed, assigned, and graded large amounts of the stuff myself. 

It feels good to be done – lovely and very freeing, in fact.  Outside of work and family, my time is now my own, and I have no problem figuring out how to spend it.  But homework is still on my mind.  Puttering around the house, I run into literal piles of spiral bound notebooks filled with notes, double-spaced essays with comments lurking on the back pages, even a report titled The Desert that I wrote in fifth grade.  Talking with my coworkers, I discover that at least half of them also have stashes of homework from 20 to 50 years ago.  Even my father, who hated the majority of his homework assignments and who says that even after 40 years of not doing homework, he still feels relieved not to have any, brought in a couple of typed essays from his freshmen year of college when asked. 

Despite the freedom I feel now, and the feeling of dread and anxiety I associated with much of the homework I had through those twenty-two years, being assigned homework certainly wasn’t all bad.  Homework offered me a reason to sit quietly with my thoughts outside of the tumult of school.  I took it seriously – and luckily much of it was worth taking seriously, and as a result I learned plenty from what I was assigned.  But I also wonder if there was a cost.  Thinking back, I rarely had anyone ask me what I would like to pursue, what homework might be useful and interesting.  As a result, I didn’t really learn to follow my own curiosity – or rather attempted to do so in the limited time available after homework was done.

Working with young people through Mindport’s education program, I continue to consider the value of homework.  How does it affect an individual’s desire to learn?  What are its effects on a person’s life and the life of their family?  Is it useful?  What kind is useful?  Why?  When a student and I make a plan for what they might do between our meetings, should we even call it homework? Or is that too loaded a term? 

To help me look for answers, I’m starting to put together a show for Mindport’s gallery on this very theme, and I’d love to have your thoughts – and/or to see your homework (returned to you if a SASE is included). What was the best homework assignment you ever had?  The worst?  What homework would you give yourself?  What homework do you wish you’d been given?

Comment on this blog, or write to me at 210 W. Holly St. Bellingham, WA 98225 or talithamdj at yahoo dot com.  Looking forward to hearing from you. 

Tallie Jones

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Something to Try

I've been playing with digital cameras from nearly the first day they appeared on the market. The early models had a resolution comparable to the old VGA video monitor standard, of 640 by 480 pixels. Enlarged to over snapshot size, the images looked terrible, full of "jaggies" and JPEG artifacts, which were distortions inherent in the process of compressing photos to sizes compatible with the amount of computer memory available at the time.

Those early cameras did have one odd advantage, which was the fact that their image sensors were tiny and focusing an image on them required very short focal-length lenses. Due to the physics of the situation, this meant that the cameras possessed huge depth-of-field, much like a pinhole camera. In other words, the lens would bring any object from a few inches away to infinity into focus simultaneously. This made it possible to shoot interesting photos that would be difficult to capture with a conventional 35mm film camera.

One of the illuminating aspects of my switch to digital was that, with no film to buy, I could experiment freely in order to understand better how a camera sees, and how to make use of the unique qualities of a particular type of camera. Of course the computer and camera cost money, but unless I made prints it cost nothing extra to shoot as many images as I desired. With digital cameras the possibilities of what a camera can record are considerably beyond what was possible with film cameras. In the process of playing with digital images I learned some lessons, as I did with depth-of-field, above, that have not only expanded my repertoire of possible imagery, but have encouraged me to create images that would have been difficult or impossible to attain with film.

Here's an example of a technique I've tried with my digital camera that often brings interesting and surprising results, while educating my eyes to see subtleties that were previously not apparent.

In the first example, I shot pictures of intriguing marks left on a concrete breakwater by the wooden forms in which they were poured. The concrete was dull grey and the resulting image hardly interesting to look at. I loaded the picture into my image processing program and greatly enhanced its contrast until it began to bring out colors and textures that were nearly invisible in the object or the original photograph of it. There were hidden blues, browns, reds, and shades of texture you'd hardly notice if you glanced casually at the original surface.

 After I'd experimented with this technique for awhile, I began to see all sorts of possibilities for creating striking images from subject matter I previously would have ignored. Such transformed imagery reminds me of my pottery-making days and the excitement of opening a kiln after a firing, then inspecting the surfaces of ware after their colorful transformation by heat.

If you try this, it's best to choose low-contrast, minimally colored subjects. However look for any patterns and textures that might not be apparent due to the low contrast inherent in the scene. Boulders, rocks, and geological formations are good possibilities to investigate. The soft light of a cloudy sky makes for the right sort of illumination. It's color neutral and just the opposite of the sort of lighting you might conventionally wish for such subjects. When you increase the contrast of the image, you may have to tone down the brightness in order for the highlights not to "burn out," that is go completely white.

After playing with this or other means of digital transformation you might ponder this question: What do you think are the advantages and liabilities of digital photographic process compared to the old days of film and chemistry, and how do you feel about digitally modified images as an art form? These are ideas I still contemplate quite a lot and will probably discuss in future postings, along with a few other ideas for modifying digital images. Meantime, have fun experimenting.

Kevin Jones

Friday, April 8, 2011

Harbingers of Spring

Spring has sprung. . . barely, it seems. When I awakened this morning there was frost on the roof below my bedroom. But the frogs are in full din in the several wetlands around where I live. In the past they've often begun to pipe up toward the end of the first week in March, but they've begun their song a week or two later in the two or three most recent years. Early on, cold nights apparently inhibit their ardor, though once they've gained momentum a frosty night doesn't seem to curb their enthusiastic song.

Above is a photo of one of these characters, a different species, I believe, from the more common variety who raise their multitudinous voices in the wetlands every spring. This particular variety I've observed occasionally perched on leaves in the flower beds around our house. One of them, in fact, actually paid us a more intimate visit than that a couple years ago. I was sitting in our kitchen enjoying a cup of tea.  The silence of the kitchen was suddenly interrupted by a subdued CREEAAK issuing from somewhere behind me. The sound was so sporadic that it took me some time to discover its source, which turned out to be beneath the dish drainer. Upon lifting the drainer's rubber base, I spotted the green vocalist, an individual just like the one pictured. Thinking his chances of finding a mate in this venue were limited, I gently carried him outside, all the way to the opposite end of the house, and set him on a leaf.

That wasn't the end of the story, however. A week later, again while sipping tea in the kitchen, I heard the selfsame CREEAAK as before. Sure enough, there was my green friend, once again under the dish drainer. Now, I can't prove it was the same critter because I hadn't banded a leg or anything, but I don't see these frogs around very often, so I like to think that he somehow made his way around the house, climbed through the kitchen window, which was cracked open only an inch, as had been true the previous week, and reclaimed his hiding spot in the damp cave under the drainer.

The other harbinger of spring in the many wetlands on Lummi Island is the skunk cabbage. They're one of the first flowers to show their faces, usually just a week or so before we hear the first frogs commence their song. Over the years I've watched one patch on the west side of Lummi expand, now covering a good quarter acre on a wooded, swampy hillside. When the flowers first poke up their heads, they're irresistible to photographers like myself. I must have accumulated a couple hundred photos, captured as I slogged around in the mud, now and then losing a boot to its grip after becoming immersed in it to well above the ankles.

The skunk cabbage is an unusual plant. It's reputed to generate enough heat of its own to be able to melt its way through a snowbank. Check out this article on the web site of the Nature Institute for more information. While you're at it, explore their site farther. It's one that I've visited periodically for years, and which I discovered after becoming a subscriber to Steve Talbott's Netfuture series of essays.

In closing, best wishes for a happy spring to all our readers and visitors.

Kevin Jones
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