July 8, 2017

Every Picture Tells A Story [7/26/11]

Administrator's Note: A repost from the archives dealing with photography's loss of “respect” that touches upon the recent fascinations (and distractions?) of so-called “fake news.” My post from 6 years  ago also mentions the horrific and despised Syrian dictator, Bashar Assad . . . and it is extremely depressing to note that he is still in power.     

The tenuous respect once held for a photographic image – it’s insistence on truth and actuality – was over as soon as the conspiracy theorists began questioning the Moon Landing. Even in 1969, we knew that “reality” could be easily constructed in film studios, so why couldn’t the U.S. government have done the same? Fast forward to 9/11, and even though you watched those planes going into the Towers, you engaged in some level of doubt if you read the analyses of why steel buildings cannot collapse that way and that fast.

Today’s political agendas, even when documenting seemingly benign events, are fraught with insidious corruptibility and easily manipulated. A photograph showing Syrian President Bashar Assad swearing in his new choice for Governor of Hama, Anas Abdul-Razzaq Naem, has been exposed as a Photoshop fraud – the two men were probably never in the same room.

One might ask what was the intent of the Syrian government in pairing the two men in a seemingly “friendly” photo-opp. It goes without saying that their intention was clearly to manifest a false reality to represent an equally false “business-as-usual” vision for the rest of the world.

So intention is key here. Can we then forgive the young bicyclist who posted the equally false Photoshopped image (see above) of his “miraculous” pedaling across a body of water to promote his worthy cause? As has been pointed out already by the “Debunkers of ‘Net Fakery,” the young man’s foot can be seen resting on a post. Do we forgive his fraud, obviously committed for an ethical reason to get people talking about him and then, hopefully, his cause?

On a lighter note, actress Megan Fox tried a similar Photoshop sleight-of-hand (or perhaps it was boyfriend, Brian Austin Green) to “prove” she has not had Botox by showing the actress doing “Things You Can’t Do With your Face When You Have Botox.” This merely translates as sad – gravity is as relentless and fickle, Ms. Fox, as the public.

May 9, 2017

One Lesson Remembered

In honor of Teacher Appreciation Week (May 8-12, 2017) , I would like to recount one of my strongest remembrances of an art instructor during my early years in Arkansas, and a strong lesson that I learned from him about making art.

Most of us have had at least one teacher who inspired or energized us, and taught us an unforgettable lesson. This art instructor was named Paul Ganong and I had enrolled in his sculpture class at the Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock. This was extracurricular from my regular high school classes and I received invaluable practical studio training in Paul’s class.
Paul was one of those art instructors whose appearance suggested a radical, 1960s rock star; he favored bellbottom jeans and wore his hair down to his shoulders, with a mustache. Paul’s sculpture medium of preference was welded steel. As I had become enamored of the steel sculpture of David Smith, the machismo style of hammering, bending and welding steel appealed to me. Paul taught me how to use an acetylene torch to weld and cut steel plate, and I also learned the basics of arc welding under his guidance.

I had been working on one particular sculpture using sheet metal, heating and bending it to build an abstracted figure that stood about 4 feet tall. I thought the piece was finished and wanted to enter it into a student art show at my high school to impress my fellow students.

So my mother and I drove down to the Arkansas Arts Center one Saturday morning to pick up my sculpture from the studio and take it over to enter it into the high school art show. In the parking lot, just as I was loading my sculpture into our car, I saw Paul pull in and park. He noticed what I was doing and walked across the parking lot toward me.

With his gentle but assertive tone, Paul asked what I was doing. I told him that I wanted to enter my sculpture into the art show.

“But it's not finished yet,” he stated firmly.

I cannot remember all the other things he said to me that morning but I do remember the sense of loss that came over me as I realized I wasn’t going to enter the sculpture in the art show. But I also knew that Paul was right; the sculpture had abstract forms at the top that had been welded sealed but there were large gaps of negative space at the base. Slowly I recognized that there was work still to be done.

The image posted at the top of this page is the sculpture as it stands today at my mother’s home in Hot Springs Village, Arkansas. The photograph that I took recently shows the steel has rusted over the years. You will note the additional work I put into the sculpture at the base, by closing up those negative spaces and raising the height of the piece to near human form.

The lesson I learned from Paul Ganong that day resounds with me these years later, that the yearning for recognition and fame should never outweigh one’s own sense of intention and creativity.

Thank your teachers today, and let them know how much you appreciate everything they do for you.

Image: Wounded Figure (date unknown), welded and forged steel, photograph by MCB.

March 10, 2017

Mono-holic Mis-Rememberment & Keith's Studiocraft

Several years ago I became peripherally aware of “analog vs. digital” skirmishes being waged among musicians, music fans and the recording industry. Respected artists like Neil Young were touting the superiority of analog LPs (“Long Players”) over the ubiquitous formats of CDs or MP3 files. In a 2001 interview, Neil tried to explain the differences: “Analog recording, Young said, ‘produces real emotion, because there are so many possibilities for the sound in that recording, so many variations in sound that are recorded, that it's almost like real life’ […] Digital, though, is a single, stable picture. Young described the record industry sitting in a room, changing the picture: ‘We don't really need to see the sky in all its detail – just paint that in blue…No one will know.'”

Analog recording used to be the recording industry's standard, from four-track tape recorders of the 1960s, to the monster 24-track tape transport machines, until the industry went virtual with digital, unlimited “tracks.” Neil Young's argument against digital sound was that it’s only an approximation, a computerized reproduction, of the air pressure variations of sound. Analog sound is similarly complex:

And here's a nifty analog vs. digital breakdown from the Recording Connection site:

These debates provoked me to start collecting analog sound again and the only format I find interesting are vinyl records – which have been achieving many new converts and laudatory audiophile reviews since at least 1988. The lure of vinyl now occupies my spare time, with my focus on monaural blues, rock and jazz recordings of the 1950s and '60s.

My experience with mono records was closely tied to my childhood and my first exposure to The Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Who, the Animals, and the Americans (Byrds, Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Kingsmen, Shadows of Knight). We played those records on monaural players, often portable, with a single speaker powered by small tube amps. The concept of stereo was exotic and wasn't fully accepted as universal until '69 or '70.

Parenthetically, the basics of how to “go mono” are easily found – here’s a good source. My solution was to buy an inexpensive modern turntable with built-in “preamp” and plug it into my receiver’s auxiliary (AUX) input. But from the experts: “In general, newer stereo gear, including most mini-systems, Bluetooth speakers, home theatre units, etc. don’t have phono inputs. [Phono stands for “phonograph,” a quaint term for turntable.] To use a vintage turntable with these newer units or to play through a computer, powered speakers or headphones, the turntable signal must pass through an external phono preamp. You’ll then plug the output from the phono preamp into line-level inputs on your gear (these may be marked Aux, Tape, Line, Video, CD, etc).”  

I had kept a handful of Muddy Waters, Little Walter and Howling Wolf Chess LPs but I hadn't heard them in years. A couple were in mono and when I placed them on the turntable and “dropped the needle,” they sounded fantastic: bass, drums, guitars, blues harp merged almost tangibly in a centered shape between my speakers. Other mono-holics have raved about mono sound being concentrated, with a solidity that makes a band sound like a band.

Having long ago sold my record collection, bedazzled like many people by the hype of CDs, I prowled the few record stores available and did some “crate-digging.” To my surprise, I discovered lots of new vinyl by contemporary bands. Alas, none are in mono, of course. 

Then I remembered there was a 2014 release of Beatles albums in mono, newly mixed from the original, analog tapes. The prospect of hearing some of those was too tempting to pass up so I purchased the Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Revolver mono LPs from Amazon. What a pure joy it was to hear those familiar songs, that I'd only been hearing for years in stereo via FM radio or CD, in their glorious original mono mixes once again. (1)  

It was while rebuilding my lost Rolling Stones mono album collection that I discovered some tantalizing information. As you may know, 45 rpm singles were the path to success via the Top Ten for many rock 'n' roll bands on both sides of the Atlantic. I was surprised to learn via some Stones fan sites that a few Stones 45s were released with alternate mono mixes, some of which weren't included on the subsequent albums.(2)

This intrigued me for a number of reasons. First and foremost, if an “early” mix of a song was played on the radio but later replaced with another mix this could theoretically affect a listener's memory of the song. One would have forgotten which single we actually heard on the radio. In other words, if you heard that “later” mix played now, for instance, in an “Oldies but Goldies” program, your appreciation of the song would be flawed by this mis-rememberment.

Secondly, regardless of a Mis-Rememberment Issue, the fact that different “official” mixes of songs exist provides us a revelation about the record-making process. Traditionally, the goal of recording songs was to capture a performance. Early recording technology allowed only real time capture, but later multi-track recorders gave musicians the chance to re-do their song “takes,” to add tracks and other musicians, and these actions could be done any time. Sound technology further developed the aural manipulation of individual tracks so that equalization, volume and tone could be altered on each track. This was when the mix of a song became malleable and the point at which songcraft became studiocraft.

I admit that I became obsessed with the idea of Stones' original, as well as alternate, mono mix singles. Original copies of Stones' mono mix singles are somewhat elusive; they have been included on various compilation albums, but many of the songs suffer from “electronically re-channeled” mixes. What you want are the original mono mix singles but you will quickly learn if you peruse eBay, 45cat or Discogs that these legendary alternate mono mixes are very collectible.

Case in point: “Street Fighting Man.” Recorded in 1968, SFM hit the US airwaves in late August. The Democratic National Convention had just concluded on August 29, with its violent, televised clashes between Chicago's police and Vietnam War protesters. Because of this many radio stations banned SFM, fearing it might incite more violence. In actuality, the lyrics are decidedly apolitical with a chorus proclaiming: “what can a poor boy do / 'cept to sing for a rock 'n' roll band / 'cause in sleepy London town / there ain't no place for a Street Fightin' Man.”         

The studiocraft behind SFM involves guitarist Keith Richards' innovative use of an early Philips cassette recorder to record his acoustic guitar. SFM remains one of Richards' favorite Stones songs, he says, “because the music came together through a series of accidents and experimentation.”

Surprisingly, the only electric instrument on “Street Fighting Man” is an overdub of Keith on bass guitar. Drummer Charlie Watts played a small traveling trap kit, the kind that folds-up into a suitcase, with a snare like a tambourine. But it's the experimental studiocraft, the open-tuned, acoustic guitar overloading a cassette recorder's mic, merging with tambourine-snare and cymbal stabs, that makes the song so unforgettable.

Here's that alternate mono mix of SFM you may have mis-remembered:


1. If you have read anything about The Beatles' recording sessions then you know the Fab Four only cared about the mono mixes; those were the only mixing sessions they attended as they had no interest in the stereo mixes.

2. My research turned up some wonderful Stones sites, including Beat Zenith’s exhaustively detailed site, with full particulars on all the LP’s, both UK's Decca and the US London releases, including catalog numbers, release dates, highest chart positions, etc.

3. Both Richards and Mick Jagger had been in Paris in May 1968 during the student riots that nearly shut down the government.