Thumbnail Literacy

Pic by Joseph Kesisoglou

The Creative Hacktivism seminar at the not-even-started-the-refurb BOM venue had the usual mix of good and dull stuff but the highlight was probably Robert M Ochshorn whose presentation reminded me of being at Resonate a few months ago. He’s one of those people who casually demonstrates something that is effectively from “the future” and then more casually mentions he’s moved on from that a couple of years ago. He also ran his presentation from the command line. No powerpoint, just shell commands. Hardcore. Sadly his website has nothing on it relating to his talk – he did apologise for this – but I made copious notes in big exciting handwriting.

One of his goals is to visualise a whole film at once, to be able to visually browse a time-based medium. Related to this was a PDF reader where the thumbnails were displayed behind a floating reader window showing where in the publication you are. These are not novel. Video editing has a visual scrubber. PDFs have thumbnail views. But the way he integrated these into the reading / viewing experience was interesting.

Where he used slitscan to visualise films obviously caught my attention since I’m well into slitscan though I’d not thought of it as a way of effectively thumbnailing a temporal sequence. A film still just captures 1/24th of a second. A slitscan shows, or at least represents, a much longer period of time.

But using slitscan as an indexing tool implies a level of literacy which we might take for granted in other forms. I asked Robert about this and he agreed. We do “read” thumbnails and try to make sense of their abstractions. This is not something I’d really considered before but it ties in with a lot of my thinking, bringing photographic composition into the realm of symbolism and such. One of those nice “click!” moments.

One of Robert’s projects was a visual index of every Godard film. The screen showed them all as slitscanned thumbnails which the viewer could scrub through, amongst other things. I was struck by how the traffic jam scene, made with long tracking shots, in Weekend jumped out and was immediately recognisable to me. Another scene of a woman dancing in a window was not necessarily recognisable but clearly showed a moving subject shot with a fixed camera. Similarly you can tell when the film is full of fast jump-cuts because the scan becomes noisy.

Slitscan images made from films are interesting because they compress time into a single image. But if you don’t know how a slitscan is made you might assume it’s still an image of a single moment, not lots of moments compressed into one.

This evening I tried an experiment. I took that traffic jam scene from Weekend and turned it into a slitscan (extracting 10 frames per second). It looks like this. (click for full size)

Godard slitscan

I also squashed it into a 3:2 rectangle.


I then posted it to Twitter, telling people it was a scene from a film and asking them to name it. Here are the answers people gave:

  • The Italian Job
  • Monty Python and the Holy Grail (French castle scene)
  • Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Knights who say Ni)
  • Falling Down
  • Get Carter
  • Shaun of the Dead (back garden first zombie scene)
  • Four Weddings and the Funeral
  • Life of Brian (stoning scene)
  • Clockwork
  • Quadrophenia

The Italian Job was the most popular guess and the cars do look a bit like Mini Coopers in Red White and Blue.

What I think we’re seeing here is thumbnail literacy but for stills rather than for slitscan. Most people don’t know how a slitscan is made, even those who’ve been following my work. The idea that this represents 7 minutes or so of a film is not obvious. So people fall back on the more common method of looking for symbols and icons. Those colours, the era. Interesting that along with The Italian Job you also have Get Carter and Quadrophenia.

On reflection I maybe should have chosen a more well known film (only one person got it right) but the wrong answers were actually more interesting. They show they is some kind of dominant thumbnail literacy out there and that if we want to use different sorts of visual abstractions to represent time and space we need to take those into account.

Here’s the original scene:

Pic at top by Joseph Kesisoglou

Spectral Songs of the Slitscanned Selfies

Spectral Selfies Screenshots

As I approach what is hopefully my big personal project of 2014 (watch this space) I spent an evening putting some of the elements I’ve been working on into a 10 minute video piece.

I call it Spectral Songs of the Slitscanned Selfies.

As the slit-scanner moves across the photograph that pixel-wide column is stretched across the whole image in a translucent layer. Simultaneously photos are fed through an ANS synth, treating them as a sound spectrograph and producing a unique drone. You can watch the progress of each scan by the light grey tick at the bottom of the screen.

The process went through a few stages and builds on lots of previous work of mine.

First off, the source material comes from the hundreds of thousands of seflie photographs I’ve been collecting since November last year. The selfies seem to be becoming raw material rather than essential to the work and I don’t think I’m making any useful commentary on hypernetworked vernacular self-portrature at the moment, but that’s fine. Maybe I’ll return to them later. For now the only notable thing is that they are face-shapes.

Next, I’m processing the images using a slit-scan technique. At it’s most basic this mimics the action of a flat-bed scanner by examining an image one column of pixels at a time. My methodology for this was to repeatedly crop the photo to 1x600px strips and save each one in sequence and then stretch that strip back to a 600x600px square. I did this using basic ImageMagick scripts.

Then I made a movie of the stretched slits moving through the image in sequence from left to right. Here’s a test which I called Selfies in Flatland:

Flatland is a reference to Edwin Abbott’s 1884 novel set on a two dimensional world which explains how we 3D people might experience a four dimensional object. In the book, Square is visited by Sphere but he cannot see Sphere all at once. As Sphere moves through flatland Square sees a dot grow into a circle and then shrink back to a dot. Square sees Sphere in slices. So what I’m doing with these 2D photos is passing them through a single dimension, the Lineland of the book.

I heard about Flatland from Rudy Rucker’s excellent book The Fourth Dimension and How to Get There which I can highly recommend. (Out of print for some stupid reason but plenty of cheap copies on Amazon.)

Finally, there’s the sound. My big personal project of 2014 is currently based around an app called Phono Paper which got some attention recently. It’s based on the Russian ANS synthesizer which creates sounds from 2D arrays of light and dark points, lines and areas. Points at the top produce a high note, points at the bottom a low note, just like notes on the stave of a traditional score. The resulting sound is called Spectral Music, from the score being a graphical representation of the spectrum of soundwaves, but it also alludes to the cosmic, otherworldly feel of the music which featured in Solaris, Stalker and other Tarkovsky movies.

Here’s a demo video of Phono Paper:

What’s interesting to me is that the scores that go in and come out of the ANS synth are very similar to photographs – rectangles of black and white dots arranged in a specific way to produce an aesthetic effect. This opens some new doors.

One of the best things I did last year was regularly attend If Wet, a salon-style event where sound artists and experimental musicians meet in a village hall to perform, present and discuss their work. I go to take photos as a favour to the organisers but the real benefit is hearing people on the cutting edge of manipulating and recording soundwaves talk about it in detail. As someone who thinks about manipulating and recording lightwaves with a camera, applying the ideas and concepts from If Wet to the relatively staid and standardised practice of photography has been really useful.

A very simply concept that came to me from If Wet came from learning about electronic transducers which turn one form of energy into another. For example, a loundspeaker turns electronic signals into sound by vibrating the air, or a guitar pickup turns the motion of the strings into electricity. Simple stuff but it got me thinking about converting photos into other signals, such as sound. Obviously, this isn’t news but it gave me a coherent framework to play in.

Namely, is there a relationship between the composition of a sound and the composition of a image?

I touched on this a few months back when playing with processing photos in sound editing software noting that a “echo” audio effect produced echoes within the image. But what of the elements of the image themselves?

Anyway, back to the Spectral Music which satisfies the concept of “transduction” nicely. The developer of the Phono Paper app has also produced a more advanced program mimicking the venerable ANS synth called Virtual ANS which runs on Mac/Linux/PC/iOS/Android so you should definitely check it out. You can load images in and see what they sound like. Woo!

To create a soundtrack that matched the visual slitscanning I stitched the selfies in a row and set the synth to “read” each column of pixels at the same speed as the movie, 30fps. Here it is playing in Virtual ANS:

Virtual ANS screenshot small

So when you watch the movie you are hearing the sounds of each slit of pixels as they appear to you. My hope is that the viewer can make the connection between the lines, the sounds and the original photo, though I have included a subtle progress line at the bottom to help navigate.

This work is now complete. I’ll be moving on to the big personal project of 2014 next. Anyone got an old record player they don’t want?

Thoughts about Collective Memories and Cameraphones at Gigs for Supersonic

Tomorrow, Saturday 31st May, I’m appearing on a panel at the Supersonic Festival called Collective Memory about how over the last decade the audience has documented music events in ways that used to be done by those with backstage passes. This blog post serves to get my thoughts in order and to promote the event which takes place at Alfie Birds (the new name for what us old people call the Med Bar) in the Custard Factory at 1pm. I particularly want people there who think I’m talking utter rubbish because I know a lot of these ideas need a good critique. The talk is free to all, whether you have a festival pass or not.

An audience member videoing Mono on their flip-phone in 2009.

In 2007 I started a blog called Created in Birmingham, which is now in the hands of people much younger than I like to think about. Ostensibly it covered the creative and artistic communities of Birmingham but it’s secret agenda was to highlight and monitor how new online communication tools (soon to be gathered under the label “social media”) were being used and to promote the idea of artists and creative businesses taking control of their comms using the Internet. Nowadays that might seem a bit quaint but for that short window it was quite the innovative thing.

One of the creative businesses I was particularly interested in was Capsule because they promoted many of the gigs I went to and put on the excellent, life-changing Supersonic Festival. Capsule struck me as the perfect sort of business to use blogs and such. They were niche with a fairly nerdy audience covering the sorts of subjects that DIY publishing, from zines to blogs, thrived on.

These days, given the relatively intimate size of Birmingham’s arty scene, I know the Capsule people fairly well, but in 2007 I don’t think I was particularly on their radar. At least not until I posted the first Supersonic Collective Memory on July 15th.

It was a pretty simple thing, really. Every day during and after the festival I searched for mentions on blogs, Flickr, YouTube and elsewhere. When I found one I put a link to it on the blog post.

My memory is hazy but I think 2007 was around the time people started regularly carrying devices on them that could take pictures and shoot video, the sort of things we do all the time now with our smartphones. What this meant was that the crowd-eye view of the event was suddenly being broadcast to a potentially wide audience, on a level playing field with the “professional” content being made by the photographers, journalists and filmmakers with the press passes.

A lot of it was noise, not intended for a wide audience, but some of it was perfect. Take this short video of David Yow asking if anyone has his passport.

It’s not a formal interview, it’s not slickly edited into a broader narrative – it’s raw footage from the middle of the floor and it feels raw and personal. This is closer to what it was like to be there. It’s “real”.

Th blog posts were also a revelation. Journalists, for better or worse, write to a general formula and for a broad audience. Someone writing on their personal blog is writing for themselves and their small readership of friends and acquaintances. As such the writing, while influenced my mainstream norms, is different. It looks at the edges, the curious bits, the personal stuff that you only see when you’re in the audience. Take this, from a Sunn0))) fan.

During the late evening, at about 11pm, while I was waiting for a Norwegian band called Jazkamer to start their set, by chance I wandered alone into a cinema that they had in the festival. The above movie was playing and it was really beautiful and trippy looking, a black and white Japanese style movie filmed in split screen. I don’t know what it is called. There was nobody else in there, seems that everyone was away watching the band Om playing their set on a different stage. So I thought to myself “You know, I think that I’ll stick a bit of that on my blog”. So let it be written, so let it be done.

As my relationship with Capsule developed over the years my experience of the Supersonic Festival changed. I got a photo pass, which meant I could bypass the crowds and sit in the photographers pit. I got involved with various projects and even did a bit of DJing one year which meant for a while I didn’t even pay for entry. While I was never part of the team I was definitely on the periphery of backstage, and that was a bit strange. One year I decided I’d had enough. I turned down the opportunity to get involved in return for a free ticket and decided to pay my way like a normal punter. My wristband was standard and gave my no special access. I had to queue with the rest of them and, for the first time in years, I experienced Supersonic from the middle of the crowd.

It was so much better.

The cult of the “back stage pass” in the music biz has created something of a hierarchy at these sort of events with the fans being at the bottom, milling around like cattle in some warehouse where cattle were probably slaughtered once upon a time, but the audience is the most important part of a festival. Without the audience you just have a bunch of pretentious wankers on a stage. With an audience you have heroes and gods and universes exploding. What happens in the middle of that crowd is magic. What happens backstage is admin. Where would you rather be?

From “the google” – artist unknown

Back when I started the Collective Memory photos were still mostly being taken with “proper” cameras but in recent years the mobile phone being held up at gigs has become a cliche, some say a curse. In the old days, when your parents were cool, people would wave their lighters in the air. Now they wave their phones. Watching a gig with a sea of tiny glowing screens in the way can be pretty annoying, especially if you know none of those photos are going to come out well. So why do people do it?

I’ve been thinking about this question for a while now and I have a theory. People take photos or shoot video at events of note because they want to creatively engage with that moment. Being in an audience at a rock-style gig is a creative act. You dance, you sing along, you cheer – all of this adds to the performance that is happening around you. Even if you just nod and stroke your beard like a good Supersonic attendee you’re participating is what we could call a Work of Art. The euphoria of being at a concert doesn’t just come from witnessing it – it comes from being part of it. A collective creation of a moment that will never happen again.

Following this logic, if you regularly create photographic works for your Instagram stream or Facebook profile then it might feel perfectly natural to use that creativity in this sort of environment. To take that raw energy and your place in it to make something special, something that you made and you own. This is what the professionals do all the time, turning the raw materials of experience into coherent works. Why shouldn’t those in the crowd also do this?

After a great gig what do you do? You take your experience and you craft stories about it. Those stories become part of the story of you and your place in the world. Photographs, I’d argue, are no different and just as important.

That doesn’t stop people who take photos at gigs from being really annoying idiots, but gigs aren’t short of really annoying idiots who spoil it for the “real” fans. The obnoxious tall people who push their way to the front and then have a conversation are arguably worse than someone who insists on filming the entire gig. At least the filming guy will share it later. And at least he’s engaged with what’s going on.

In my brief period as a Live Music Photographer (Amateur) I realised that the best way to get great photos of a band on stage was to really watch them. Don’t hold the shutter down and take 500 photos in the hope that one of them is great. Put the camera down and watch how they move, the patterns of their performance. Learn to predict their movements and how they relate to the music. Set up your shot and wait for that moment you predicted to occur. Then, and only then, take your photo.

When I take pictures on bands on stage I believe I am more involved “in the moment” than when I’m in the crowd simply watching, because I’m using the creative parts of my brain to tune in on an artistic level. I don’t for one minute think that everyone who waves a cameraphone at a stage is tuned in on an artistic level, but I do think there’s something going on in their brains related to that.

I see art. I want to relate to that art. I have art-making tools in my pocket. Click.

Prototype Portable Camera Obscura

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For the forthcoming Birmingham Architecture Festival, on May 24th Jenny Duffin and I will be wheeling a large camera obscura around Birmingham city centre which people can view the city through. It’s something we’ve been talking about doing for a few months and it’s actually going to happen. We just need to build it.

The project is, at this stage, completely self funded. We did tout the idea around a bit but nobody seemed interested in paying us to build a giant mobile camera, and understandably since we had nothing except an idea and a very bad sketch. So we shrunk the budget, lowered the expectations, and built a 1 meter cube on stilts, stuck a sheet of tracing paper over the bottom, covered it in blackout plastic and fixed a lens at the top.

It’s surprisingly hard to photograph it since it’s really just a black box. Here are some production photos, after which I’ll talk a bit more about the process.

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It was a very iterative process. I realised, not for the first time, that my diagrams might show how something should look but failed miserably to show how they might work. I am not an engineer and my respect for engineers grows with every attempt to build something.

The original plan was to have the viewer lie on the floor under the box and look at the image projected onto the screen. While this rear-projection idea is interesting it didn’t prove that practical, especially for testing the focus, so we cut a slit in the top next to the lens to look into the box itself. With an old parka hood for lightproofing this turned out to be much better, so we’re probably sticking with that.

The other issue was the 45 degree mirror. I sourced cheap acrylic mirror tiles on eBay but the image refused to focus. A visitor suggested it might work with a proper mirror, so I grabbed the bathroom one. It worked much better, though Fi won’t let me use it as it’s apparently a nice mirror. But in the process we started liking the simplicity of just pointing the lens at the subject on its own, so we might get rid of the mirror altogether. Except I just bought an £8 glass mirror from the mighty Latifs and it works, so we’ll see.

A final unexpected issue was the focal point. All the literature about lens-based camera obscuras talks about the lens focussing on the screen at a particular distance inversely proportional to its diopter (our +1 diopter lens focusses at a metre, a +4 diopter (similar to most cheap magnifying glasses, it seems) focusses at 25cm) but none of it talks about where the focal point of the subject itself might be.

It turns out our lens has a focal point of 20 metres, give or take. This might explain why all the camera obscura I’ve seen are a long way away from their subjects, up towers or on cliffs. Anything too close with fall out of focus very fast. This might be an issue when we’re wheeling this thing around at ground level. Or it could just be a feature!

But we’re happy with the current iteration – a box with a lens and a screen which creates an image people can look at. Here are a couple of photos taken by resting my iphone inside the camera. It’s not accurate (high ISO noise and long exposure blur) but it proves it works.

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To do:
- Get some wheels and make it mobile.
- Devise an adjustable fixing for the new mirror.
- Create side banners saying “Duffin and Ashton’s Superlative Camera Obscura” in a Victorian sideshow style so it looks a little less like a big square binbag. Any offers? Can pay with pizza and beer.

The box will be roaming around Birmingham City Centre pointing at key buildings on Saturday May 24th as part of the Birmingham Architecture Festival – check their Twitter for locations on the day.

More details to come, along with our long term plans for this project, of which we have many…

New Art-Walks in Birmingham this Spring

Summary: My new walks start this Sunday. Book here.

As many of you will be tired of hearing, I’m still digging myself out of the ideas pile that fell of me last year thanks to my Grants For The Arts award. It’s nearly over, though. Here’s the end-game.

  • A book about what I did, what I discovered and what I learned. Not a massive book but certainly a few chapters. This is the “exhibition” and will be released via Leanpub once it’s finished, hopefully in April.
  • An artwork based on the photos that were taken. I have a pretty good idea about what this might look like but am keeping it under wraps for now. Again, April.
  • A package of photography-based workshops and walks which can be offered by arts and culture organisations, integrated into their general offer. This is the bit where I become a resource to the arts industry in my region, paying back the Arts Council’s investment. I just need to write this up, so maybe this week but probably April.
  • A brand new series of eight walks developing the experiments in 2013 into a coherent package resulting a new work.

ring road arrows-1

The new walks start on Sunday and are being run through Photo School. You can buy tickets and read my description of them there.

One of the big disappointments with the walks last autumn was how few “normal people” they attracted. Because Photo School does well on Google, a significant number of people who come to the classes and walks are not from my word-of-mouth circle and the mix of people I know and people I’d probably never meet otherwise is a great thing.

Despite being sold through Photo School, the November walks didn’t get my usual mix of people. I knew nearly everyone who came on them and many were from the art/culture community. Which was great from the sense of showing the world in which I wish to work what I do, but not so great for the work.

I think the reason for this is the word “Art”. The culture wars in this country have loaded it with meaning, both positive and negative, and it can make people feel uncomfortable, or at the very least provide a small barrier to bothering.

I was in somewhat uncharted territory, running events directly funded by the Arts Council, and one of the requirements was that people be made aware they’re participating in “an artwork”. I didn’t have a problem with this, but maybe I pushed it a bit too much. I also didn’t think about why people came on my walks. Their reasons would be myriad but they probably wouldn’t be about helping me develop my art practice.

With these new walks my artistic approach is finely attuned. I’ve done the research, thought the thinks and gathered inspiration from other artists. I’ll be doing LOADS of art on the walks and that’s what makes my walks unique to me.

But I’m not selling them as art. They’re Photo Walks with an emphasis on an educational, enjoyable experience exploring the city with cameras. I bring my artistic nous as a service but it doesn’t dominate. The overriding context is photography. Any art is a byproduct and a bonus.

Interestingly this isn’t a problem when I work for someone like the Ikon where they’re employing me as an artist. If anything I have to hide the teachy side and push the Hero Artist stuff. It’s all about context.

So, to summarise:

  • I’m producing a new work this Spring / Summer.

  • It will exist as a series of eight walks and a single piece of work informed by the walks. (digital/physical/other).
  • Participants will be recruited through Photo School.
  • It builds on and continues my research from the last 6 months.

If you’d like to come on one or more of the walks, book now!