Out the window in Joshua Tree National Park.

05.09.13
#HeyTanja – A Social Story

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When Tanja Hollander’s name started popping up in my notifications, I had her pegged as the eccentric aunt of another Hollander I know, one who had somehow latched on to my public photography experiments. So I was surprised when I got an invitation one afternoon at Facebook HQ to come see Tanja speak on her project, “Are You Really My Friend,” Tanja’s attempt to meet and photograph each of her Facebook friends in real life.

After seeing her speak, I can’t promise that Tanja isn’t eccentric. But she’s eccentric in the best sorts of ways. She’s willing to toss herself at any new piece of technology and turn it into a creative experiment, pushing the boundaries and norms to see exactly what it can do. The reason her name kept popping up in my newsfeed? She wanted to see if she could build an actual friendship with someone she didn’t know, purely through little nudges like that on social media. And she found time to do that in the midst of an epic, months-long roadtrip.

Since her talk at Facebook, Tanja and I have became real-life friends. (Her experiment worked!) I’m envious of the work she’s doing, and her dedication to doing it — photography as an industry might even top journalism in terms of disruption and difficulty. But rather than complaining, Tanja embraces it and figures out a way to make it interesting.

That’s why I’m really excited to be up for a panel with Tanja for next year’s SXSW, Taking Risks for Great Social Storytelling. (That link should be your nudge to go vote for us.) But rather than just plastering our Twitter and Facebook feeds with the voting link, Tanja and I are going to try something a bit different. Through Twitter, I’m going to give her some prompts and she’s going to tell a small story in different forms — Vines, Instagrams, whatever best fits.

Will it turn out cool? I hope so! But I don’t really know. Regardless, it’s using the medium to do something interesting. And we both agree there needs to be a lot more of that.

You can follow along by searching for the hashtags #HeyDan and #HeyTanja.

Abandoned Places

I haven’t done as much photography since coming back to New York; it’s been busy, and I’m spending most days huddled away from the heat and humidity in some air-conditioned corner. But Reddit dug up two solid bits of urban exploration in the last week, and I’m living vicariously through them. The first is a Backspaces story on an abandoned island between Queens and the Bronx. The second is an older story about a trip to Discovery Island, once a part of Disney World and now left to the gators (and shockingly lethal bacteria.)

Discovery Island I’ll leave be, but the New York City island might make for a good kayak trip.

“For society to function well, there have to be basic levels of trust and cooperation, a respect for institutions and deference to common procedures. By deciding to unilaterally leak secret N.S.A. documents, Snowden has betrayed all of these things.”

David Brooks, in one of the most colossally wrong-headed op-eds I've read recently. It's a screed against dissent, generally? The audacity of youth? Dunno. But it's terrible.

“Writers and readers seek a solution to the problem that time passes… For there was a moment when anything was possible. And there will be a moment when nothing is possible. But in between, we can create.”

— From How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, by Mohsin Hamid. It's an unusual piece of fiction, in that the narrative is written as if it's a cheeky self-help book. Definitely worth reading.
Remember the Ampelmännchen

Before I first moved to Manhattan, someone warned me that the island had become America’s biggest strip mall. 7-11 is taking out the bodegas. There’s a Dunkin’ Donuts for every 18,000 residents. And while Duane Reade might have won the right to keep its name, it’s really just another Walgreens.

The triumph of the chains in Manhattan is symptomatic of a larger trend: Though the scenery and scale may change, life most anywhere in America looks pretty much the same. We eat at the same restaurants; we shop at the same super centers. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing — I’d much rather nab groceries from Trader Joe’s than some dismal, overpriced Gristedes (a fair description of all Gristedes.) I’m not a cultural elitist, nor am I arguing against capitalism. I’m just bored. The homogeneity removes an element of excitement to travel between cities — sure, there are things that are unique to any place. But I suspect they’re less readily apparent than they used to be.

That’s why I liked the Walking Men project, which covered a construction fence at a site downtown. It’s a collection of the designs for “Walk” figures around the world, showing the subtle points of regional differentiation. Some of my favorites were Andorra’s wavy dude and the signage of Amersfoot, in the Netherlands, which (for once) uses a woman.

AmpelmaennerThe piece also reminded me of one of my favorite bits of trivia from a trip to Berlin. When the city was still divided, the crosswalk figures (or Ampelmännchen) had hats in the east, while those in the west went cap-less. The eastern character proved so popular that it eventually became the subject of cartoons and games, a way of emphasizing roadside safety for children. After reunification, city planners generally supported standardizing under the more generic western figure, but outcry led to the implementation of the East German design more broadly across the city. The Ampelmännchen and their hats endure to today.

Unexpected quirks make going to a new place a bit more interesting. In a small way, in a city laden with chains, this little installation is a good reminder of that.

How VSCO CAM Gets Photo Editing Right on Mobile
Even iPhone photos need a bit of editing.
The app's pretty, too - it's one of my favorite UIs on the iPhone.

The app’s pretty, too – it’s one of my favorite UIs on the iPhone.

It bugs me when people call Instagram filters hipster bullshit. They’re successful because they solve a need, which is that most photos that come out of a camera look kinda crappy. A photographer once told me that half the appeal of an image comes from the post-processing, and that’s just as true for an iPhone as it is for my Canon SLR setup.

But most people don’t have the patience or desire to edit, particularly on mobile. Instagram filters, then, meet them more than halfway, offering a bunch of easy presets to improve a photo’s appeal without needing any of the underlying understanding of what’s actually being done to the image technically. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a great solution for the casual photographer and it often (not always) produces a better photo.

But I want a bit more. With an SLR photo, I’ll happily spend hours futzing away in Adobe Lightroom, tweaking my curves and channels to try and bring out some missing qualities. (And sometimes I’ll overdo it, like here!) But what works on a powerful laptop on a massive, uncompressed file doesn’t work with a lossy JPG on the iPhone. I needed a solution that’s simpler than something like Lightroom, but offers a bit more granularity than Instagram’s out-of-the-box filters.

Jeffrey Gerson is a photo editing freak on mobile, using a combination of three or four different apps to get his photos just right. (And they turn out great!) But one app he uses, VSCO CAM, gives me most everything I need.

VSCO CAM does an awesome job of the ability to tweak without overwhelming with options and sliders. And that’s the sweet spot with mobile photo editing: I’m never going to spend an hour perfecting an image, because to me, these are still fundamentally snapshots. Even the best iPhone photos are still lossy, still small and still soft. But there are plenty of times I’ll want to tweak the color temperature a bit, or add a bit of fill light. I can do that in VSCO CAM in nearly the same amount of time as it takes to apply an Instagram filter.

Apps like Snapseed offer more control, but it comes at the cost of a great deal more complexity (and time.) I don’t want that. If there’s a shot that requires that degree of editing, I’d rather take it with my SLR and process it from the laptop later. VSCO CAM’s genius is in that it only gives you four different options for each adjustment — -2, -1, +1 and +2. It’s a check against any impulse to keep endlessly tweaking.

The built-in filters also have a bit more subtlety to them than the Instagram defaults, so those are worth checking out too. When the team adds the option to straighten photos, this app will be perfect. You can nab VSCO CAM here – it’s worth all 99 of those pennies. iPhone only.

(One other thing: there’s a pretty robust community of people who have discovered this little app. Adding or searching the hashtag #vscocam on Instagram is a good way to connect with some new photographers. I’ve picked up a decent number of followers from it, and there’s a lot of good work out there to learn from.)

Buried in Brooklyn: Ebbets Field and a Hidden Subway Disaster
All gone.

All gone.

I generally avoid crashing with friends when I travel, particularly to New York City. I figure that coexisting with me in a tight Manhattan apartment for any more than a night or two will ruin any relationship I have. But I also procrastinate, and that turned my most recent trip out into a game of Airbnb roulette. Using my scant (but somehow confident!) knowledge of Brooklyn, I booked a last-minute opening in what I thought was Park Slope.

I imagined a twee apartment in a brownstone, but it turned out to be a spot on the 23rd floor of one of three gigantic housing towers plopped down in a nether-neighborhood entirely on the other side of the Prospect Park. It’s an area that’s not quite Prospect Leffert Gardens and not quite Crown Heights — in either case, it’s nowhere remotely near Park Slope.

I didn’t see this as a bad thing, necessarily. That’s part of what I like about Airbnb and my occasionally lazy decision making — there’s an element of unpredictability to travel that’s absent in, say, booking the Hilton Midtown. And as I wheeled my suitcase up, I noticed the name of complex — the Ebbets Field Apartments.

The sign on Bedford Avenue

The sign on Bedford Avenue

Before the Internet fried my attention span, I used to be really into baseball and I still recognized the name. Ebbets Field was the home of the Brooklyn Dodgers and played host to some of baseball’s historic moments. In 1939, the first televised game was played there. In 1947, Jackie Robinson took the field for the first time. Very literally, this is the site where the race barrier fell in professional sports.

The Dodgers relocated to Los Angeles in 1957; the field itself was demolished in 1960. The apartments were constructed on the site in 1962 and have had a sordid history, with a shooting, gang violence and a fatal fire in the past decade. I actually wanted to come see it when I lived in New York, but stayed away when I was told the neighborhood was bad. (This might not be a fair assessment. Residents say it’s better now, and everyone was really friendly during my stay.)

Beyond the name, though, there’s little to denote the site’s history. There’s a picture of Jackie Robinson on the door to the community center in the lobby, and an understated plaque is hidden near the courtyard:

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It’s kinda sad there isn’t more left. There were sore feelings with the Dodgers left town, and maybe the deconstruction of Ebbets Field was so total as a means of catharsis. In the ultimate bit of irony, though, there are signs all over the courtyard warning against any Dodgers fans who might want to use the space for batting practice:

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This isn’t the only bit of history hidden in this mini neighborhood. Just south of the apartments, Bedford Avenue intersects with Empire Boulevard, which has its own backstory:

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Empire hasn’t always had an epic name. Before 1918, this was Malbone Street. On November 1, 1918, a subway car took a turn too fast underneath the Prospect Park station and derailed, killing at least 93 people. The accident became known as the “Malbone Street Wreck”, so city officials renamed Malbone to Empire and left no lasting memorial to the people who died beneath it.

Things like this make big cities fascinating to me. I had the same feeling wandering around Hong Kong, which was always in a frenetic state of rebuilding and reinvention. What were massive landmarks and wrenching tragedies are now visible only in faint traces, just a generation or two later. It’s an incredible pace of change.

New at Shutterstock: Protecting Your Images

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I’m writing a bi-weekly column on the Shutterstock Blog, and the latest is on some strategies to protect your images from getting ripped off on the web.

There still isn’t an easy way to track how imagery spreads online. Some services, like Stipple, are trying to solve this problem, but they generally suffer from sluggish performance and crappy tie-ins to the major social networks.

Read the full piece here.

Slickrock and Stars: Overnighting in Arches
Delicate Arch

Delicate Arch

Arches was the last stop on our mini western road trip, as I signed up for a photography workshop with Brad Goldpaint, a night sky photographer from central Oregon.

He brought the weather with him. The park’s supposed to be in the middle of a desert, but we were drenched for the three days we spent here. And that made it damn difficult to shoot stars – the first two nights were a complete wash, and we packed it in early without anything to show for it.

The third night didn’t look promising either. It rained for most of the day, and storm clouds loomed as we trekked over 1.5 miles of slick rock to reach Delicate Arch. It’s such a popular photo spot that it’s become the background of the Utah license plate, but we planned on waiting out everyone else. After hours of endless (seriously, endless) jumpstagrams, we had it to ourselves by 11 PM.

It was surreal to be alone in the quiet and dark — lightning in the distance was the only thing that broke the darkness beyond our headlamps. That darkness also made it sketchy – Delicate Arch is on the rim of a pit that we collectively dubbed the Lion’s Den. If the camera, or any of us, toppled, it’d be a painful landing.

But as we shuffled gingerly on the sandstone to setup, we caught a break. The storm clouds shifted south, leaving the eastern sky clear for 90 minutes. Brad showed us how to paint the scene with a flashlight, illuminating the arch as we shot. Though the Milky Way hadn’t risen yet — it’s pretty spectacular when it does — the results weren’t all bad.

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By 1 AM, the rain set in. We packed in a hurry and tried to hustle down the rock face, a trickier proposition as water streamed over the slick rock and washed out any footprints left in the sand patches. Flashlight beams guided us from cairn to cairn, and we made it down by 2 AM, wetter but no worse off.

I’m back visiting Manhattan next week — it’s tough to think of an environment any more different. And in a lot of the ways, cities like New York are the main problem for dudes like Brad. The sprawl of cities make it harder and harder to find patches of dark sky. Even our shots from Arches suffered from a bit of light pollution from tiny Moab.

Nights with a true darkness are tougher to come by. I’m trying to find a spot to go out in Colorado to attempt this again, and even Rocky Mountain National Park suffers from some light pollution. That’s what I like about Brad’s style of photography. It’s documentary in a way that a lot of landscapes aren’t. The shots he produces — and the shots he helped us come away with — will be proof that it used to be possible to get away from nearly everything.

(Well, relatively far away. We all got 4G service at the arch, so I’m just as guilty of posting to Instagram as everyone else. But at least I didn’t jump.)

At dusk

At dusk. The glow on the right side is light pollution from Moab.

Brad’s workshops are here, if you’re interested in learning more about this style of photography. I can vouch for his depth of knowledge and patience — learned a ton on this trip, from setting up the shot to post-processing. This was my first photo workshop, and I had an awesome time.

A tribute to a road trip’s third member
It paled in size to the RV at the next site over.

It pales in size to an RV, but manages just fine.

I’ve only had one car in my life. It’s a blue ’97 Honda Accord, and it’s currently carrying (literally) everything that I own — along with Kyle — some 1,700 miles on a meandering road trip from San Francisco back to Colorado.

The car was never much to look at, but that’s particularly true these days. A poorly planned turn into a parking spot scraped up the side a few weeks back, and baking in the Facebook parking lot for the past year only made the sun damage on the roof and trunk worse. But crappy cars accumulate memories just as well as nice ones. I’ve lost touch with people who rode to lunch with me in it, broken up with girls that it’s ferried on dates, but some sense of all those people lingers with me a bit each time I climb in.

This road trip is the longest uninterrupted time I’ve had driving the Accord, though, and it’s interesting how car becomes like a third person on the trip. We’ll talk to it — cheering it on as it musters up the acceleration to zip around someone on the endless one-lane highways through the west. We’ll get pissed at it — the backseat isn’t nearly large enough for everything we’ve tried to cram in there, a particularly egregious fault at 5 AM. And just as we’re scraped and battered after six nights of camping, it’s beat up too: the license plate is caked in bugs and some aggressively large crows redecorated the hood.

We’re doing a lot of photography on this trip, and the car pitches in. In a pinch, it makes for a useful frame:

Out the window in Joshua Tree National Park

Out the window in Joshua Tree National Park

And a good light source:

Kyle at a campsite.

Kyle at a campsite.

Unlike us, however, the Accord nearly met an untimely end tonight. On a highway in southern Utah, a deer darted onto the highway and exploded into the front hood of a Range Rover that had passed us only a mile earlier. The Range Rover took the impact far better than the Accord would have, and everyone was alright. But still – it seemed like a good moment to pay tribute to my cheap little means of transportation for so many years. I’m going to hold on to it for as long as I can.

Shots from the Sutro Baths

This has quickly become one of my favorite places to shoot. The variation in lighting from night to night is crazy, and there’s seldom anyone else down on the beach excepting the occasional teenagers making out.

On an overcast evening.

On an overcast evening.

During sunnier times.

During sunnier times.

Medill MUSAC Media:Rewired Links

For anyone who attended, here’s some of the resources I referenced:

News Sites

TIME NewsFeed
Buzzfeed

Tech Company Content Sites

Facebook Stories
Twitter Stories
Tumblr Storyboard

Startups

Matter
The Atavist
The Magazine
NSFW Corp

Articles Worth Reading

A Day in the Life of a Digital Editor – Alexis Madrigal, The Atlantic
Paying for Writing in the Digital Age – The Journalism Iconoclast
How Facebook and Debris Can Boost Tornado Warnings – MSNBC

Books

To Save Everything, Click Here – Evgeny Morozov

On Northwestern Nostalgia
I wore skinny ties to parties for a bit. Hindsight is 20/20.

Skinny ties were my thing for a bit. A bad thing.

I’m back in Evanston this weekend, giving a talk at Medill. Other than an afternoon spent at Dillo Day during what would have been my senior year (several hours of which I even remember!), this is really my first time back on campus since graduation.

I’m shocked at the nostalgia. I’ve never thought much of my college years — it wasn’t that anything was bad, it’s just that I always saw college as little more than a rubber stamp you needed before the real world actually began. I rushed through nearly every part of it.

I’ve since realized that approach sucked. There was a lot more I could have gotten out of college, and I should have put in more effort to do more — or at least meet more people — while I was here.

But walking around Evanston brings up a slew of memories I haven’t thought about in years – apartment parties, favorite places for dates, late-night food we’d nab after talking shit on Xbox (really lame, I know.) There’s substance to it in a way that I really wouldn’t have expected. I had more experiences than I gave myself credit for, and those three years might have meant a bit more to me than I had thought.

At the same time, it’s odd that this can all feel so familiar and yet I’m now so detached. I don’t know anyone who lives here; only a few people from NU even stayed in Chicago. All those spots all belong to different people now. Maybe they’re cognizant of the time they’re spending in a way that I wasn’t. I doubt it, though. I think these moments seem large only in retrospect.

I’m not meaning to paint any of this as a unique or particularly insightful observation. It just was wholly unexpected. Getting on the plane this morning, I didn’t expect to have much reaction to Northwestern at all, and it’s almost cathartic to find there’s something I miss.

That said, there’s someone screaming at a cop outside and drunk students banging on doors in the hotel. Some of it I’m alright leaving behind.

The Manhattan skyline, from Lincoln Harbor.

04.06.13
Making a Physical Product

I’ve had variations of this same conversation with a lot of people who work in tech/media recently: we’ve never had the experience of producing a physical product, and there’s something sort of depressing about that. It’d be nice to have something to show at the end of the day, other than bits pushed around on a computer screen.

Allie Townsend was talking about how she’d love to open a bakery; I wouldn’t go that far, but something like this project, by Jon Wheatley, might be good for a cheap, tangible experiment.

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