Less is More – Pai in the Sky and the NAB Show (originally posted 6 March 2017)

If I didn’t know better, I’d say I was involved with a dying industry. I am speaking of broadcast. Since I do know better, let me say that the industry is merely morphing into something whose end product is difficult to predict.

Television broadcasters have collected millions of dollars for turning in their frequency assignments to be sold to wireless (cell phone) carriers. They may find a new home sharing frequency space with another broadcaster. Some of them are choosing to take the money and run and will cease being broadcasters. The move to share frequencies will be aided by the adoption of a new broadcast standard, ATSC 3.0. That move will obsolete the current inventory of over the air television receivers and require another round of new equipment purchase for the folks who wish to get their television without relying on satellite or cable distribution companies. This comes at a time when the numbers of televisions per household is one the decline, with a doubling of the number of households without a television over the last ten years.

Neither are aural broadcasters on the ascendancy. “AM improvements” have been had largely by more congestion in the FM band with low power translator signals that carry the same service as the ailing AM counterpart. And the competition for ears is no longer just other broadcast signals. The decline in radio listening is based on other sources of music and entertainment provided through the internet. Local broadcasters who lack the solid local component in their programming are very vulnerable to losing ears to music and entertainment providers from outside their market.

The NAB has surrendered. The 2017 Convention, “where content comes to life,” might be described as being in the post-convergence era. Now it’s no longer a matter of convergence between broadcast and other forms of distribution. Now all methods of distribution are equal and the exhibit floor is taken over with gear for the production side of things. Broadcasters are likely outnumbered by those representing content creators whose product might never be sent across the ether.

“You’ve been sensing it for a while.” So says the description of this year’s NAB Convention. “The result of these once distinct fields of media, entertainment and technology are converging and becoming something far greater than the sum of their parts. That’s The M.E.T. Effect℠ — and it’s redesigning the very nature of how we live, work and play.” No longer the NAB Convention, we are now dealing with the NAB Show. It’s not a group of broadcasters getting together any longer. It’s something else.

I still look forward to attending the NAB ‘Show.’ It’s largely a social thing for me now. I do enjoy seeing what some of the broadcast oriented manufacturers might have in their new products. People like Nautel never cease to amaze. Their transmitter product addresses the needs of broadcasters and is thoughtfully engineered for reliable operation and ease of maintenance.

I look forward to the Canon presentations, where they proclaim the virtues of their cinema product with strong examples of their effective use. Their product presentations carry a bit more weight when they are done through interviews with folks who have the initials ASC after their name. The films they prepare to show off camera features are more than entertaining.

NewTek always has a live presentation and demo that is entertaining and gives rise to a lot of good ideas on creative use of their TriCaster. Their booth is always worth a visit.

Yes, Las Vegas will again be a fun trip even if the state of broadcasting is still highly undetermined by the end of the NAB Show. It seems we are among those cursed to be living in interesting times.

The Siege at Jadotville (originally posted 13 January 2017)

“The wind of change is blowing through this continent. Whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact.” – PM Harold Macmillan, Capetown, February 1960

“It is a pity that we, who never believed in the use of force, must suffer for the blunders of little dictators and stupid military leaders.” – Commandant Patrick Quinlan, Jadotville, September 1961

I’m happy to pay my monthly subscription to an organization that helped fund the 2016 film, The Siege at Jadotville. What a gem of a film to stumble across and with which to be able to learn about the Irish battalion whose role in the UN war in Katanga had been moved to the dust-bin of record-keeping for over half a century while the other actions of the UN could be salved over. Thank you Netflix for bringing the early ‘peace-keeping’ actions of the UN back into the light. Thanks for helping with a film that works to explain the many sides in these ’60s skirmishes while not detracting from the drama that moves the film to a gut-wrenching conclusion.

This film opens with the assassination of Patrice Lumumba and then shift quickly back to Ireland and the lot of fresh soldiers about to be pressed into the ranks of UN troops. Time has served to eliminate the recollection of newspaper headlines that would be spoilers for a number of the film’s events. ‘Siege’ serves to bring to mind the depth of intrigue in which any of the UN’s military activities remained encumbered even to this day.

Highly recommended whether or not the early days of independence of the Belgian Congo are in your memory or are only known through historical record. The Siege at Jadotville justifies a Netflix subscription.

Reverend Chris Antal resigns commission (originally posted 17 May 2016)

Reverend Chris Antal was a source of faith and hope to those of us who were touched by his ministry while he served in RC South from Kandahar Airfield. He was an Army Chaplain devoted to the work of counseling and helping heal those who suffered moral injuries from their participation in the conflict. An example of the sort of work he was doing was posted here in 2013 with an interview (Song for Healing)  conducted with Angel, a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

A 2013 posting here (Reverend Chris Antal) described his Veterans Day (2012) sermon that led to an official reprimand. His battalion commander at Kandahar told him that the sermon did not support the mission. He was returned to the US prematurely with a ‘do not promote’ evaluation and removed from active service. He challenged the Army’s actions which were overturned following a Congressional hearing by New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. Antal was reactivated and promoted to Captain.

On 12 April, Reverend Chris Antal resigned his commission as an Officer in the US Army. The details are covered well in a 16 May article in the Army Times. The letter of resignation and its response from President Barack Obama are found on the web site of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Rock Tavern where Antal currently serves as minister.

A 12 May article in Military.com discusses changes in the wording of AR-165-1 related to Army Chaplain Corps Activities. This text is critical to the disciplinary actions taken following the Veterans Day sermon. At the time of the Kandahar sermon, the wording was, “Chaplains, in performing their duties, are expected to speak with a prophetic voice and must confront the issues of religious accommodation, the obstruction of free exercise of religion, and moral turpitude in conflict with the Army values.” Antal took seriously the expectation that he speak with a prophetic voice. His reprimand in the aftermath of the sermon was in contradiction of that call to prophetic voice. The text now reads, “Chaplains, in performing their duties, are expected to speak with candor as an advocate to confront and support resolution to challenges and issues of the command.” Army Chaplains have now been cast in the role of apologists instead of spiritual counselors.

Reverend Antal’s departure from the Army Chaplain Corps is a real loss for the Army. Chris was a skilled counselor and a blessing to those struggling to make sense of their role in a poorly defined conflict. Reverend Antal continues some of that same work as staff chaplain at the Philadelphia VA Medical Center but these skills are sorely lacking near the battlefield. I hope that there might be some lessons learned from the Reverend Chris Antal’s experience with the Army Chaplain Corps and that the Corps might come to see the benefits of accepting a broader role for the support staff of the spiritual condition of the troops.


NAB 2016 – Unleash (Convergence and Disruption)

Unleash was picked as the theme for this year’s National Association of Broadcasters Convention. After many years of promoting convergence while the tools of the broadcaster became the same tools used in other media of content distribution, the big, new word for the year was disruption. Somebody finally noticed that social media, streaming, and other non-broadcast electronic methods of content distribution might have a negative impact of the former core industries of this broadcaster group. It looks like Dr. John Malone was right all along to focus on content.

What’s the big deal for broadcast on the exhibit floor? It’s all based on getting out of the traditional business. The big sales dollars to be generated in the next round of spending will be based on auction of broadcast television spectrum. Some television broadcasters will move, share spectrum, or just go away. Over on the medium-wave end of things, AM broadcasters will be saved by getting paired with an FM translator.

We have to look outside the US to see the effects of innovative transmission technology. India gives us the best  example of digital radio for medium wave as they expand their use of DRM (Digital Radio Mondiale) for their national network. Korea seems to be the one in the lead for implementation of what would be possible with ATSC 3.0.

NAB should still be a lot of fun this year despite not being able to maintain any reasonable expectations of what I can expect to find. Canon always has some great cinema created to show off the capabilities of the latest hardware in their NAB theatre. FCC Chair Tom Wheeler will be subjected to questioning on Wednesday morning. The drone pilots will have had an extra year to hone piloting skills to demonstrate what is possible with the newest UAVs. A good time will be had by all and Dr. Scholl will sell a bumper crop of foot pads. We can all traverse the aisles while humming the Duke Ellington classic, “Things Ain’t Like They Used to Be.”


That pixel moment

Kodak made photography accessible to the masses. Recent advances in digital imaging have given a quantum jump to accessibility. Cell phones are selected for the capabilities of their on-board cameras. Some of the latest are capable of producing movies in HD with surprisingly good quality. Editing capabilities are included with a phone application.

Arriflex and Canon don’t need to fear any impact to their cinema products though it does make for a great many more recorded images than in the days of film. What will become of this new wealth of image documentation that is taking place?

Picture Me at Plaza Santa Ana (Granada)

Picture Me at Plaza Santa Ana (Granada)

Previously images found their way to preservation on paper as photographic prints. If the technology was employed properly the image might remain intact for fifty or one-hundred years or more. Digital images might live much longer lives except that they are viewed as transient objects. Unless they have now some commercial value they may be deleted or lost when the hard drive they reside on inevitably crashes. Captured Kodak moments remain only in captivity until their novelty expires and then they find their way to the ashcan.

Great expectations for ‘citizen journalism’ were touted when image collection tools became ubiquitous. Any such hopes have never been realized. Cinema endeavors from the tiny sensor devices remain a novelty. What impact has the proliferation of image making devices had on the rest of the world of photography? Not a lot. Their output is viewed as a transient one and something quite different than the product of a professional photographer or videographer.

It seems a similar situation to the impact of internet radio on broadcast radio. Instead of displacing the market for ears, internet radio is now an adjunct service to that available over the air, though this may change when internet becomes more readily available to the mobile listener. Not all technological change is a game changer. Sometimes it just makes for an additional game.


If someone photographs a tree falling in the forest but no one sees it, is there a photograph?

Vivian Maier was born in New York City on 1 February 1926. She did a lot of photography before her death in Chicago on 21 April 2006. She worked as a nanny for most of her adult life, residing in the homes of her employers on Chicago’s north shore. She was not known as a photographer during her lifetime. The children she cared for knew she made many photographs and they would often be present on trips into some of Chicago’s worst neighborhoods when she was doing her street photography. Many of her photographs were never printed. Quite a lot of film was never developed. It was only after her death that the impressive body of work she produced with her Rolleiflex became known.


Self portrait NYC c. 1950

Self portrait NYC c. 1950

Vivian Maier has been compared to a number of other great photographers who documented the culture of their period but her style is unique. Robert Frank might be said to be closest in lineage to Maier but his work in the US (resulting in the 1958 publication of The Americans) was done through a Guggenheim grant for which he received encouragement and assistance from FSA photographer Walker Evans. Maier was self-taught and supported her art with her nanny wages. She may owe her perspective on the American scene to time spent growing up in France in the manner that Robert Frank could identify what was uniquely American as a Swiss visitor to the country.

An obvious comparison to the style of Maier’s street photographs are the photos of Weegee (Arthur Fellig) who made his living as a freelance photographer in New York in the ’30s and ’40s. Weegee is credited with summarizing his successful photographs as, “f/8 and be there.” Much of his paid work was photography of crime scenes. Weegee was also self-taught but his work was recognized by inclusion in an exhibit at MoMA organized by Edward Steichen shortly after the end of World War II.

Vivian Maier’s body of work calls into question the concept of a photograph. Did she ever expect others to view her work? Are her photographs something akin to an unpublished diary with herself the only intended beneficiary of the work? What can be said about the many exposed but undeveloped rolls of film that were in her collection; what is their value to the photographer? Did she mean these to be only personal documents without regard for what they could have conveyed to others?

It is only because of a peculiar set of circumstances that Vivian Maier’s photographs surfaced to raise these questions about the value of such photographs. Two years before Maier’s death she failed to make payments on the storage space that housed her materials and they were auctioned. One of the purchasers was John Maloof who was hoping to find documentation for a book on the Chicago neighborhood of Portage Park. A few years later Maloof was busy trying to find out something about the woman who had produced these photographs. The result was the documentary film Finding Vivian Maier which included commentary from the likes of Joel Meyerowitz and the late Mary Ellen Mark.

Finding Vivian Maier raises as many questions as it answers and only touches on the legal matters concerning copyright ownership of these photographs. There is no clear heir to Vivian Maier’s estate so, though the photographic works have found new owners, publication and sales rights are not yet defined. Whatever the photographs meant to the photographer they are an impressive body of work and deserve to be appreciated by a wide audience as soon as they are free of legal encumbrances.


The Agony of HD

HD used to mean something different to photographers. Maybe you just have to be of a certain age to remember when H-D brought to mind Hurter and Driffield. Ferdinand Hurter and Vero Charles Driffield were two Brits who in the late nineteenth century did the pioneering work on sensitometry and densitometry. The logarithmic chart of opacity over exposure is most commonly called the H-D chart with deference to those who did the exploratory work.

Forever after H-D it was possible to make educated attempts at controlling exposure so as to obtain the desired result in the photograph. Tweaks of development and exposure could be used to reshape the toe or shoulder of the curve or change the gamma (slope.) The ultimate practical use of the science of sensitometry these two founded was expressed in the Zone System as developed by Ansel Adams. The Zone System allowed a shorthand technique for photographers in the field to make the best possible use of the dynamic range available in the materials they were using. Similarly, the Zone System provided the technique for translating the dynamic range of the negative into a print which could encompass only about 7 stops of dynamic range.

All that has changed now, possibly for the better, with the current digital techniques. Current sensors allow for resolution sufficient for projecting images on auditorium sized screens. Current sensors provide dynamic range in excess of what can be had with most emulsions. Post-processing techniques allow for subtle corrections to the H-D curve at any point, allowing creative control not possible when working with film. The new techniques may not have sped the process of photography for art. Just as much time is now spent in post-processing with software as was spent in the darkroom, sometimes more. The options in creative control have been expanded considerably. And the smell of photo-chemicals is now largely a thing of the past.

Has the new technology resulted in better photographs, allowed artist’s visions to be realized in a way that was previously impossible? That would be a difficult point to argue. Whatever has been gained and whatever creative controls have been possible in photography with film or digital methods owes a large debt to Hurter and Driffield. Say thanks the next time you see the initials H-D.