We Are Not Alone?

I treated the idea of finding intelligent life elsewhere in the Milky Way Galaxy in three parts earlier, starting here. But something that I kind of blew past is the idea that we have already been contacted – let’s face it, a lot of people can argue that this really is the case. So, I’m tackling that aspect now. And yes, it’s another long one. Nature photography will return at its regularly scheduled time.

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Wanted: Atheist, must be Noble

There are people who find every baby adorable, and every young fluffy animal to be cute. I’m not one of them, though I can find certain behaviors to be amusing. But this – this is just too cute for words!

There is a new initiative from the catholic church now – they’re reaching out to atheists and agnostics to try and improve church relations. That article has, to my mind, the right angle on it – the church needs some improved relations desperately, after the long string of cluelessness it’s spewed recently. However, it does not appear that they’ve hired experienced help.

They’re hoping to stage a series of public debates next year, and are reaching out to atheists and agnostics – kinda. It’s not really clear how they’re reaching out, but they’ve set some specific ground rules already:

The foundation, [Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi] said, would only be interested in “noble atheism or agnosticism, not the polemical kind – so not those atheists such as [Piergiorgio] Odifreddi in Italy, [Michel] Onfray in France, [Christopher] Hitchens and [Richard] Dawkins”.

I’m left wondering just what exactly “noble atheism” is – I’ve spent enough time trying to understand what “New Atheism” is. I’ve finally determined that it’s the kind that actually speaks out rather than hiding under a rock. I can only guess that the noble kind is probably pretty close to the opposite.

But it’s nice of them to reach out to somebody, I guess. I’m just wondering why they think this is then going to be a debate. I suppose having god on their side won’t weigh the odds in their favor enough to handle the out-of-control and vociferous Richard Dawkins? I mean, this is the catholic church itself sponsoring this – I can only guess their resources won’t stretch enough to bring in a heavy-hitter for their viewpoint.

Let me be fair – Ravasi goes on to explain his concerns:

Such atheists, he added, only view the truth with “irony and sarcasm” and tend to “read religious texts like fundamentalists”.

Umm, hmmm. Can someone explain how Christopher Hitchens reads religious texts like fundamentalists? Does this mean left to right? Or that he reads religious texts in the same manner that he reads fundamentalists? Because it damn sure can’t be that he reads them as if the texts are the literal word of the one true god, which is how fundamentalists are actually distinguished from the merely religious.

But hidden within that short sentence fragment is an even bigger indication of how badly this is going to fail, and exactly why the church has so damn many public relations problems in the first place. It’s the bit that says, “…only view the truth with irony and sarcasm.” You see, you’re not really ready for a debate when feel your standpoint is “the truth” – that’s actually arrogant, and insulting to your debate opponent. And you’re certainly not ready if you can’t handle irony and sarcasm. What is actually being said here is that the church wants to find someone that won’t argue against them, and make this a big media event. I have to wonder what they’re paying to take a dive…

More cluelessness follows:

“When we speak of a New Evangelization, these people are perhaps taken aback. They do not want to see themselves as an object of mission or to give up their freedom of thought and will. Yet the question of God remains present even for them, even if they cannot believe in the concrete nature of his concern for us.”

Translation: We know the approach is a big turn-off, but we’re going ahead with it anyway because our way is right. Using an approach that isn’t condescending would be silly.

No, Sparky. The question of god does not remain present for atheists – that’s the definition of atheism. And I, for one, certainly believe in the concrete nature of god’s concern for you – or to be more specific than this tortured sentence, I certainly believe that you think it’s important. The kind of debate that I’d be willing to see is how you establish its importance, or even relevance, to anyone else. That’s how a debate works: you attempt to demonstrate why your standpoint is stronger. This, however, doesn’t seem to have registered.

But you really have to be clueless to actually come out and say that your standpoint involves giving up freedom of thought and will. C’mon, how can anyone not be sarcastic when faced with that attitude? I’m trying, really hard, not to let it slip out.

Aw, fuck it: “Oooh! Become an automaton? Where do I sign up?”

Are We Alone? (Part Three)

Yeah, I’m still at it – there are links where you can find Part One and Part Two of this extended essay to catch up or keep continuity. Meanwhile, I’ll keep going with the idea, which basically is, what are the chances of us contacting intelligent life elsewhere in the Galaxy? This time, I talk about long-distance life affairs.
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Another interlude

I’m just doing this to break up long strings of posts unrelated to nature photography. You know that means that yet another will be coming up next, I’ve just been taking my time completing it.

Just remember, no matter where you are, an insect may be watching you. Whether they’re judging you or not depends on how mellow they are.

Which makes me wonder what could horrify a damselfly, but with a name like that, I imagine it doesn’t take much…

Are We Alone? (Part Two)

This continues a rather long-winded essay on my part. In Part One, I talked about the idea of extra-terrestrial life from the standpoint of cosmology, the planetary conditions that might be needed to produce it. In that post, I went out on a speculative limb, always a dangerous thing from the uneducated. Here, I’m going to compound the error as I talk about the definition of “intelligence.” Please turn your irony meter off before proceeding.

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A brief interlude

The other day I chased a pair of Southeastern Five-lined Skinks as they ventured around the opening of a hollow tree outside my place. I was hoping to catch some feeding behavior, but it was not to be.

However, on examining the photographs in detail after unloading, I noticed that the breeding male (distinguished by his bright red head) had done exactly what I have, far too many times when walking through the forest. I have to give him a bit of credit, though – he appears to be dealing with it a lot better than I ever do. Despite having gotten (mostly) over my phobia of spiders over the years, I can’t walk through a web and not flinch. I certainly can’t go without peeling the damn thing off, especially if it’s as laden with past meals as this one. But to Joe Cool here, it ain’t no thang.

That’s Lizard Cool, that is. I’ll have to work on it…

Are We Alone? (Part One)

I’m warning you ahead of time, this is going to be long, as evidenced by the “Part One” bit above, but hopefully it’ll be interesting as well. I’ll do my best.

One of the staple topics of all-night bull sessions, and not just in college dorm rooms, is the concept of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, or to keep it simpler, elsewhere merely in our own Milky Way Galaxy. And you can’t discuss the topic properly without bringing up two “key” factors: Drake’s Equation, and Fermi’s Paradox. Both of them, however, do more to bring up questions than provide any answers. I’ll state right off the bat that this was actually the intention of both, though they typically are used exactly the opposite way. I’ll be brief, though.

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I’m not sure what happened

So, here’s the scene. Several years ago, I was living in Florida and trying to get steady income, and one of the avenues I explored was working as a wedding photographer. I was working alongside a couple of established photographers in the area doing backup and creative shooting – photojournalistic style, candids, B&W, that sort of thing.

One particular morning, ten minutes before I was to be picked up by the photographer for a wedding, she called me and asked what I was wearing. Ummm, standard black shirt and slacks, why? Then I was asked, did I have any leathers? This photographer was a biker on the side (no, really) and did custom leather work, so I knew what she meant, though my answer was still in the negative – even though I used to ride for quite a few years, I never liked the Harley/biker style and didn’t dress up to use my motorcycle.

“Well, I just got reminded that this is a biker wedding,” she told me.

“Uhhhhh,” I said alertly.

“Don’t worry about it, as long as you’re in black. I’ve got some leathers you can wear.”

“Uhhhhh,” I repeated, in case she had misinterpreted me.

“It’s cool, it’s just a theme wedding. I’ve got you covered, and I’ll be there in a few.”

I dug out some black boots, but that was the best accessory I could scrounge for my ensemble. When she showed, I complemented those with a black Harley cap, black fingerless gloves, and a dark brown leather vest that said, “Property of Robin,” on the back. If I’d had even just a little more forewarning, I would have skipped shaving. This was before I had the beard, and trust me when I say I was more mistakable as a Best Buy salesman than a scooter-jockey.

On the way to the wedding in the photographer’s white hearse with a skull on the dash (you think I’m making this up, don’t you?) I drew more than a few interested looks from passing motorists, undoubtedly due to the dashing figure that I cut in my manly duds. Our first stop was at a motor lodge to pick up the bride, since she wanted to arrive in the hearse. No, wait, listen: the wedding was at a park pavilion and there were no facilities for getting ready, so the parties had to get dressed off-site, and the motor lodge was already in use for some of the guests, okay? And some people just like to be different.

So, I’m in the front part of one of the rooms, waiting for the bride and ‘maids to get ready, and of course the dresses are still around. My keen senses alerted me to the fact that the bridal gown and bridesmaid dresses didn’t really have much of a biker flair, and wouldn’t have been out of place at any other wedding I’d been to. I started wondering about this, but then caught sight of myself in the full-length mirror and almost scared myself, I was that bad looking. No, I lie, the biker thing wasn’t working at all, and I have to say the vest and cap put me more in mind of a National Geographic photographer. I have a friend that wears a photo vest all the time when meeting with clients – the vest serves no serious purpose, but it seems to say “professional” to them. Nevertheless, I have yet to purchase a photo vest.

So, we bundled the bride into the hearse (she had the sense to ride up front, so I stretched out on the platform in the back) and headed to the park. Once there, I noticed a curious absence of biker gear, or even bikes. I pointed this out to the photographer, who said that other guests would probably be arriving more thematically. Now, let me outline something from shooting a few dozen weddings, at least in Florida. No matter how upscale, no matter how old or young the happy couple, some guest would show up in camouflage pants and a cap. We always had to shove them into the back of the party pictures and get them to hide the cap.

But not this wedding. Even the guests that wore cowboy hats were in nice slacks and a dress shirt. The entire wedding party was in tuxes and dresses – appropriate to their gender, even. There was just the photographer and I making our hoodlum way around the proceedings. Even worse, a videographer that I knew from photographers’ club meetings was there, and pointedly asked me what the hell I was wearing. All I could say was that I was told this was a biker wedding.

Nothing in that wedding was “biker,” with one tiny exception: a pair of plastic motorcycles on the wedding cake. Not the happy (and perhaps giggling) couple, not the minister, not the ceremony, not the guests, not the reception music, not a damn thing. Yes, I was undoubtedly set up, but I really don’t know by who. The only saving grace was that the photographer who had contracted the job was in her own leather getup and bandanna.

Now, here’s another little thing: photographer’s assistants get to do things like prepping the couple for the formal shots, which means straightening the bride’s dress and arranging the accent flower bouquets. Are you picturing this? The groom certainly didn’t miss his opportunity to point out how good I was at flower arranging, but he couldn’t keep a straight face through it.

And because I know you don’t believe me, I provide proof. That’s me in the shot, though I’d shucked the vest by this time (the reason you see bikers wearing a vest over their bare torsos is because the damn things are hot.) You can’t even tell that I wear glasses, which of course simply added to my badassedness. This is the only memento I have of that occasion, and it’s a scan from a weathered print. The awkward position I’m standing in, besides showing off how badly my slacks were cut, was to try and get the best framing possible. The background down the dock wasn’t working too well, but across the dock, aiming downriver, was much better. I had to stand with my heels on the edge of the wood and lean back to get the framing right, and the happy couple was instructed, should I go backwards, to catch the camera as I threw it into the air. Hell, being soaking wet at that wedding wasn’t going to make anything worse, but there was no way I was taking a chance on losing the camera.

I have little doubt that somewhere, one or more of those guests show off their own photo of me to their friends when flipping through pics, and have a nice giggle over it. That’s okay, I’m cool with that, have your fun. But I charge a lot more for theme weddings now…

On composition

If there’s one thing that I emphasize above all else in photography, it’s composition. Don’t just take a photo, but put the elements together within it to your satisfaction. This, to me, holds up far more than what kind of equipment you’re using and how technically proficient you are with it. And it’s not an easy thing to teach – I’m still at the point where, even though I can name umpteen different compositional tricks, rules, and recommendations, I also shrug and say, “You have to develop an eye.” What an “eye” is is debatable – much of our appreciation of photography takes place subconsciously and is very hard to pin down, but I encourage students to examine their favorite images and try to determine what it is that strikes them the right way.

The image here is kind of a lucky accident. Only a couple of weeks ago I took advantage of scattered clouds blown by a stiff wind in front of the full moon and shot a large number of sky and moon shots. This one is a long exposure (45 seconds) as the clouds blew by – the moon is high to the right, out of the frame. What worked with this is, the clouds were blowing in the same direction as the road, so they streak in harmony with the lines and unseen traffic. As I said, this was accidental – it was right out in front of my place and I didn’t plan it that way, but it would have had far less impact, I think, had the clouds been moving in any other direction. The clouds, the treelines, and the road all bring focus to a single vanishing point in the distance, and the clouds seem to race past in contrast to the stillness of the rest of the image. The few stars that I captured, while moving against all of this, hadn’t moved enough to show distinct streaks and thus don’t counteract the clouds and lines. There’s even a curve in the clouds that mimics the “influence” of the trees. If I actually tried to achieve all this, it might have taken me a hell of a long time to find a road facing the way I wanted with the wind, the right clouds and moonlight conditions, and no traffic. But I’ll still take credit for it anyway ;-)

And of course, there are times when it doesn’t work. I don’t particularly like this image, for a number of reasons. After shooting it, I realized I would have liked it better if I’d set the camera slightly offset from the line of footprints, so they angled across the frame a little rather than directly into it. Those tracks are mine, purposefully made for the image, but I should have remembered that I really do walk that splayfooted and made some effort to walk a little more normally. And the strobe that I used to give illumination and definition to the tracks is a little too bright and blue, and seems to indicate that there’s something bright just out of the frame to the left, counteracting the idea of a lonely, empty road. Even a single, dim light in the distance (or perhaps none at all) would have worked better than the multiple sources flooding in from the sides. So I consider this one a miss, and a learning exercise. I’d actually envisioned what I wanted, but failed to execute it to my satisfaction.

Does this mean I should stick to winging it, like the top image, rather than planning like the bottom? I hope not, because that’s not a good way for a photographer to operate, but in this case, at least, it would have been better with more foresight. Long exposures at night are tricky things to get proper light levels within, so be ready to experiment a lot when you try them. And always think about the elements in your image and what they seem to say or imply – these can be subtle. How you use them is up to you – that’s your own style. But the powerful images are ones that seem to contain more ideas than simply the subjects within the frame.

The stage is set

A couple of posts ago, I mentioned the concept of staging shots in nature and wildlife photography, and I’m finally getting back to tackling that as a subject. I’m going to attempt to throw some things out there for consideration without inserting too much personal opinion into the mix – we’ll see how that goes ;-)

While I don’t know if it has ever been measured by poll, I think most people believe that nearly all of the images they see of wildlife subjects have been shot on location and demonstrate natural behavior. Not only that, I think a large percentage actually bear some resentment towards the photo (or nature program) that is staged in some way. From experience in the field, and knowledge of lighting, behavior, and conditions that you’ll find these animals within, I can tell you that a hell of a lot more photos are staged in some way than most people think. For instance, most of the calendars showing owls, wolves, and the big cats are not shot in the wild. Most nature programs are staged either partially or completely, something that fans of The Crocodile Hunter and such really don’t want to hear, but seriously: do you think anyone, no matter how experienced, wanders up on animal subjects in the wild as often as these shows demonstrate?

There’s several debating points here. The first and biggest is, “Lying to your audience.” And I will readily agree that claiming that a staged shot or captive animal is actually “in the wild” is unethical. But, if you notice, most shows, calendars, photo credits, etc. make no such claim at all. They simply let you believe it, and take pains to hide the extra cameras, the edges of the set, the lights and reflectors, and all that. They imply a wild setting, but make no positive claims of such.

So, is implying unethical? Hmmm, good question. We are bombarded by it throughout our media, from commercials featuring “doctors” to every reality show out there, and everyplace in between. We’re happy with the suspension of disbelief that is required to get anything at all out of our entertainment. And in fact, there’s no small resentment when an actor that we like turns out to be a bigger asshole than the character they portray. There seems to be little argument, however, that we see nature photography and programs differently from, say, MTV’s “Real World.”

One can argue that nature photography can have a goal of demonstrating appearance, coloration, habitat, or behavior, and that staging doesn’t actually change this. Yes, it’s a closeup of an owl, one that it would be virtually impossible to achieve in strictly natural settings. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s adorable! Yes, it’s perched on a real branch and has foliage in the background – that’s just part of the setting. Is this wrong, or deceptive? Does it have the same impact on us if it’s perched on the handler’s glove, or an obviously manmade perch? Is that difference all in our expectations?

Cost is an issue, too. Let’s say I want to see a hummingbird feeding its young. How many times have you seen hummingbird nests? I have yet to find any myself, even though I know there’s been one within a hundred meters of my place (because of the presence of a family at my feeder.) It might be a dozen meters off the ground, well hidden in a tree. Getting close enough for good detail shots means being in the trees near it, with a clear shot through foliage, and with adequate light to keep the images from blurring. Too close, and the hummingbirds aren’t going to like my presence, and might even abandon the nest. I might spend days to weeks at a time trying to get a couple of simple photos of feeding behavior.

Does this mean I can sell those images for a hell of a lot more money to an editor, because they’re genuine and took lots of effort to get? The chances are slim. Will the sponsors of a nature program pay a lot more for footage in natural conditions? Nope – there’s only so many commercials they’re going to stick in the program, and only so many viewers that these programs typically get, anyhow. Steve Irwin (The Crocodile Hunter) gained as many viewers as he did because he was an over-the-top character, and because people were waiting to see him get bitten. And while his show was one of the few that might have gained enough sponsor money to do everything in the wild, this was certainly not their approach.

So, how much “staging” is okay, and for what purposes? I’ve photographed hatching Ground Skink eggs in a terrarium – the behavior was natural, the setting was not. I’ve done plenty of shots at zoos – should this limit where and how those shots are used? For an article in a local newspaper or magazine about eagles, should any images be taken in the wild, or are these simply illustrations? Does the practice of setting out food and waiting for the photo subject to come by count as staging? And here’s a crucial question: would you pay more for a calendar of penguin photos that was guaranteed unstaged and natural? A whole lot more? And what counts as staging? Does habituating the animals to the presence of a photographer count?

I’m not leading anywhere with this, just providing some of the perspective. And of course, you should have guessed by now that, if I used that image at top for this post, it was staged – look closely and you’ll see the white of the bathtub peeking through the leaves. I tweaked the color and contrast to appear more like natural light conditions. The snake itself was quite wild, however – I had rescued it hours earlier from an old casting net it had become entangled within, and getting these shots earned me several bites and no small amount of juggling as it launched itself from the bathtub (not to mention cleaning the bathtub afterwards.) I was after detail and identifying markings, but is this an adequate excuse? And if I sell it, should there be specific markets I aim for?

[And if it helps, I usually make great effort to shoot in natural settings, and have never misrepresented an image. Just to put your mind at ease ;-) ]