Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A history of seeing

Over the next few weeks some of the posts here will be a little sketchier than the norm as I work on a larger project. I also need to remind you that the deadline for submissions for the special Aotearoa edition of Overland is in six days, and that you should all be otherwise occupied as well.

Speaking of Overland, I have a piece up there today on Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table for the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

But this week’s post is scattered notes about an old topic, and for that I apologise. I have hinted at this from time to time: how looking at old moving like, say, Ghostbusters might remind me of when my mind processed the same, ostensibly identical images I see today, in a very different way. It’s not just that the digital effects that look comically inadequate today seemed advanced. That much is obvious. It's that the images looked real.

Or take this screenshot, from a 1987 Rainbird videogame called The Guild of Thieves, which I’m quite sure my mind – familiar with watercolour painting, photography and what the inside of patrician villas looked like – smoothed at the time into a high-resolution, high-colour picture, in place of the rudimentary array of pixels I see today.

I haven’t studied the topic in any great detail, but if this is true for other people, it suggests that technologies of representation update our sense of what is real, or perhaps that we lower our expectations of what looks real based on the state of those technologies.

This may or may not apply to you. But as I struggled to make order among old family pictures during my last visits back home, I found documents of another kind: the first photographs I ever took, from the ages of six to ten, some at home, some on holidays, with a Kodak camera of roughly this vintage and model.

Some, not all: I recall taking pictures of my toys, and of a wonderful exploded-view poster of the anime robot known to Italians as Goldrake that I kept in my room. It was a black and white, six-by-six copy of a full-size colour poster, and yet it felt as if by taking the picture I was somehow enhancing the original – this I recall quite vividly.

Of the photos that survive, some are of my immediate surroundings: the downstairs neighbour’s balcony, which otherwise was of no interest to me whatsoever.

The roof opposite my window, one day it snowed.

Others I took in Milan, like this one at the old university in Via Festa del Perdono.

Several were extreme close-ups of my fingers. I seemed to have a real knack for this.

While the balance, more justified in their keeping, come from our holidays. Two pictures of the same tree at Lido Conchiglie, in Apulia.

A nuragh in Sardinia.

(We developed this film years later, by which time the pictures were uniformly orange.)

And our long wished-for, never repeated holiday to Greece, in 1980.

Both my parents are in this one

I don’t have any special reason for showing you these, except to ask if maybe you recognise a child’s way of framing a house or a monument, of getting things wrong. I look at the pictures now and some of them I actually remember taking – or perhaps think I do – but all of them speak to me in varying degrees of that personal history of looking at the world, of being short and eager, and of learning to see through the small eye of a machine.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Google knows where you've been

Originally published at Overland

Last August I received an unexpected notification form Google+. I barely use the service, so I was surprised to hear that they had a story for me to review. I clicked on the link. It said ‘Trip to Camogli and Genoa. A story by Giovanni Tiso.’

The ‘story’ was actually a photo album, waiting for me to furnish it with captions or a proper narrative or post it ‘as is’. It comprised twenty-four pictures I had taken in early June and uploaded to my Google Drive. I had never asked that they be selected to create a story, nor was I aware that the feature was even available. I wasn’t aware that my Google Drive was synched to my idle Google+ profile either, for that matter.

Then there was the title: Trip to Camogli and Genoa. How perfectly accurate it was, how plain. But how did Google know? I took the pictures with a regular digital camera, not with a location-enabled smartphone. The camera does have a GPS function, but I deactivated it as soon as I left the shop. I could hazard a couple of guesses, but for the moment I was struck by the slickness of that little album. How well the photos had been selected, discarding the ones that were too similar. I had forgotten I had taken a photo of a cat, but there it was. Google knows what people like.

A Genoese cat
I felt intruded upon. The feature was optional, meaning I didn’t have to publish the story, but I had no option not to have it presented to me in the first place. Google’s algorithms were going to trawl through my pictures in search of a narrative regardless.

I did some research. The new feature was introduced back in May, without actively alerting users of the service, although the Google Blog published a post entitled ‘Memories made easier’ in which the company explained how Stories would take the work out of sifting through holidays photos and videos, automatically weaving them ‘into a beautiful travelogue’. As for the part where Google could tell where I had been, the company is a little more reserved, but it is reasonable to assume that its Landmark Detection features play a part, as well as the company’s constantly expanding global database of user-supplied pictures with GPS data.

In other words: how Google knows where I was in the first week of last June is because of people like me, who upload or back up our pictures onto the company’s servers. Letting the company play with the content they are storing for us is a sometimes tacit, sometimes explicit part of the transaction. Furthermore – time-saving convenience being the wonderful thing that it is – I am sure that many if not most people are happy with the features that are added from time to time, and that they never knew they needed. Like the wonderfully named Auto Awesome, to which Stories is the latest addiction.

One of the features of Auto Awesome can take several near-identical pictures in your collection and select the best pose and the best smile in order to produce an automated composite which just so happens to capture a moment that never existed. But who cares? It is a beautiful picture, and you’re in it.

‘Memories made easier’ is an attractive proposition. We’re talking strictly about social memory, here. This is what stories are about: sharing in our experiences and interests, so that others may know us better. But this is also how we construct our identity, socially, and has been since long before these new technologies.

Therein lies my problem, the sense of having been intruded upon. I took that trip to Camogli and Genoa a week after burying my mother, in a brief, unscheduled lull before the flight back to New Zealand that I had booked in haste when the phone call came. I left Milan by train almost aimlessly, to get away from the painful familiarity of the apartment and the streets where I grew up. I was sad and exhausted and in need of some time alone.

Reduced to a set of twenty-four pictures without commentary, that trip as it was presented to me by Google meant something else, something less. Stripped of its emotional content, it became the trite account of a holiday like any other, which could have been taken by anyone – which is in fact precisely how Google could tell where I had been.

If these were memories, they weren’t mine. Delivered two months later, out of the blue, and demanding that I acknowledge them as part of my life, they felt unreal.

I published the album on my idle, hollow Google+ profile, to hang on to it a bit longer and figure out how they did it. But now I’m thinking I could go on allowing Google to document every future trip of mine in this way, and find myself, years from now, with a perfect record of the life of a perfect stranger.

Monday, January 12, 2015

From the road

Our trip down South was a decade in the planning, an idea we routinely abandoned each year around the month of October once we realised that the all-devouring needs of family would foil us again. So this time we just booked five one-way plane tickets to Christchurch as a way of making the trip non-refundable, therefore definitely happening. The kindness of a friend and some fortunate last-minute bookings made sure we had somewhere to stay and the beginnings of an itinerary.

The trip involved a great deal of driving – 2,200 kilometres by my rough reckoning – which fell entirely upon my partner, so I was able to take some pictures. As I shared them on Twitter over the past week (if you’ve seen them, you’ve read this post), a couple of people suggested I check out Robin Morrison’s The South Island of New Zealand From the Road, a relatively recent (1981) but emphatically out-of-print book that I was able to study today at the Turnbull Library. And a catalogue of beautiful pictures it is, without doubt, yet also oddly skewed. There is not a single image of Christchurch, save for the interior of a restaurant. Nothing from urban Dunedin, either. Its favourite subjects are windswept landscapes and quirky buildings, remote cottages and farmhouses, aging workers and retired couples. It’s a South Island cast by its unique light in stark loneliness, tied to old industries – like mining or crop farming – while progress may be presumed to happen elsewhere. Blasphemously, I took a picture of one of Morrison’s pictures. It’s indicative of their somewhat bleak geometry.

Our own impression was warmer, less angular. There was of course the quiet shock of Christchurch, more so for Justine who had never been there. And here I didn’t allow myself to take photographs – like Morrison, though for different reasons – save for this stunning remedial trompe-l'œil in Manchester Street. I’m told it’s by Mike Hewson. (When trying to locate the exact spot on Google, I discovered the Street View shots are still pre-earthquake.)

Discretion aside, taking pictures of Christchurch for the tourist is pointless because in no way it captures the experience of moving within the city – which may be why the images from Christchurch communicate little to the rest of us, until we’re actually there. When I visited last August I got lost one evening and stumbled, alone, into Cathedral Square. The giant ruined building seemed in no proportion to anywhere or anything else. Had I been inclined to take its picture, I would have simply lacked the vantage point.

Elsewhere it was Summer and almost everything was new to us. We experienced Te Waipounamu as Morrison did, from the road. For if taking pictures is a way of seeing, so is looking out of a car window.

We crossed Arthur’s Pass into this view of the West Coast.

In Greymouth.

Poorly photographed rata on the way to Punakaiki. Trust me when I say they were beautiful.

Paroa school, established 1876.

At the Carnegie Building in Hokitika they sell copies of The Luminaries especially stamped for local authenticity.

(To find out what came of the other 17 Carnegie Libraries erected in New Zealand, see here.)

At Greymouth Museum, these chairs in which Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip sat in 1954, and then no-one else. Okay, so maybe I did.

At Moeraki. This photo may seem unexceptional but I had to wait two hours and kill a busload of Hungarians to take it. The unusual spherical concretions are made of a glue that is irresistible to tourists.

This lonely penguin. I thought it was a blue one but no, says Twitter: it’s a yellow-eyed.

Oamaru is old stone buildings and a Victorian precinct that – aside from the Steampunk Museum – is in more than reasonable taste. I liked this bookshop.

This wall.

These windows.

They love the locally quarried stone so much they use it to wall up doors and windows. (I thought this building was disused: it’s in fact the arse end of a squash club.)

Inside the altogether more garish Steampunk HQ. The museum now features an ‘Infinity Portal’ which is identical to Yayoi Kusama’s mirrored room but with incense.

Meanwhile, farmers in South Canterbury are building fortifications.

The Rainbow Confectionery Shop, Oamaru.

We really enjoyed our brief time in Dunedin, especially the visit to Purakaunui Bay thanks to lovely and knowledgeable friends who moved there not long ago. Pictured, the loot.

Inside the Railway Station.

The Savoy.

Bottled Sunshine, Tiger Tea.

Towards a comprehensive catalogue of New Zealand motel art.

Above the Clyde Dam, what I assumed at first to be the secret base where Bill English keeps his robot army. But no, it’s actually a device to channel stormwater and prevent the hill from collapsing into the reservoir and flooding the village below.

Dunstan Lodge, Clyde.

Lake Dunstan.

What you see if you turn around after taking the previous picture.

The sunset in Kaikoura.

Then back in the car, one last time.

It has a lot of road, the South Island of New Zealand, and a tremendous amount of sky. We hope to be back soon.