Legibility and order; style and chaos

I get a little nervous when I look at a page of text in a layout program like InDesign; how ought it to be arranged, I wonder, and how (pardon the pun) shall I justify my arrangement?

Take leading and font size, f’rinstance: determining how much is enough of one changes the other, and both are subject to multiple forces acting upon them like the shape of the page, the colour (and the color) of the text block, the length of the line and, not least among many others, the intended function of the text. If you’re writing instructions for the operation of a hand grenade, clarity ought probably to trump style definitively.

But suppose you’re not writing instructions for hand grenades. Suppose it’s a thesis for your graphic design diploma. How far apart and how big ought the letters to be? Fortunately, Joseph Muller-Brockmann  thought this through decades ago.

It's hard to trump Muller-Brockmann for cool, rational clarity in the explication of graphical complexity.
Muller-Brockmann: cool, rational clarity in the explication of graphical complexity.

In Grid Systems in Graphic Design, Muller-Brockmann lays out the law in no uncertain terms. You don’t have to do it his way, but know that if there does exist one way in which to do it that is the right way, it’s probably the way he says it is.

I’m particularly grateful for his treatment of the subject of leading. From page 34 of this crimson tome:

“Too open a pattern disrupts the cohesion of the text, the lines appear isolated and figure as independent elements. […] [When] the lines are set too close together… the lines forfeit their optical clarity and restfulness. The eye is overtaxed and incapable of reading the individual lines […].”

So how do you get it right? I’m always a little skeptical of entirely subjective judgements about things like leading. If only there were some repeatable system or formula for working it out….

Well of course there is. Muller-Brockmann gives us this example worth quoting at length as did Moses the commandments:

“Let us assume that in our draft the column is 57 lines deep. We want 4 grid fields in a column, i.e., the column is to be divided into 4 grid fields of equal size, there being a space between the fields. For this intervening distance we choose the space occupied by one line of text. This space is known as an ’empty line’, i.e., the space in which a line of text could stand remains empty.

“From the 57 lines making up the depth of the column of text we subtract 3 lines which are needed for the spaces between the grid fields. We are now left with 54 lines which are to fill 4 grid fields. We divide the number of lines 54 by 4 and obtain 13.5 lines per field. As there are no half lines in typography, we look for the next smallest number which is divisible by 4 If each of the 4 fields contains 13 lines, we now have, including the 3 empty lines, a column depth of 55 lines, 4 X 13 + 3 = 55. We make the necessary adjustments to our draft. We now proceed a step further and determine the number of columns. If we choose 2 columns, each column has 55 lines or 4 grid fields. The grid fields are intended for the illustrations.

“The corrected column with 55 lines fits precisely with 4 grid fields of 13 lines, each field being separated from the next by 1 line. The depth of the column is now 54 ciceros and 8 points or 24.7 cm” (Muller-Brockmann 57-59).

This arrangement has the added attraction of keeping all elements on the page (not just the text) lined up in an orderly manner: “…the upper and lower edges of the picture always align with the ascenders and descenders of the lines of text.”

In his preface Muller-Brockmann credits his exegesis to the typographers of antiquity, but it ain’t likely they every laid the rules down with such lightning bolt certainty.


I see your illuminated strawberry…

…and I raise you a lightning-struck blackberry!

You will recall in my previous post I was lamenting a phenomenon scientists call “simultaneous discovery,” wherein two researchers arrive independently at the same discovery at about the same time. Both Newton and Leibniz dreamed up Calculus simultaneously, as did Scheele, Priestly and Lavoisier notice oxygen. Ever heard of Alfred Russel Wallace? He came up with a little thing called “evolution” at about the same time Darwin was tickling breadfruit aboard the SS Beagle.

So when I found that Romanian photographer Radu Zaciu was experimenting with the installation of luminous sources within fruit and veg (which I too had done), I knew I was in good (if obscure) company: sometimes people get the same idea at the same time because good ideas are, ultimately, hard to resist. And secreting tiny LEDs inside of berries is indubitably a good idea, as I’m sure you’ll agree.

But what about grounding berries (that is, wiring their moist little bodies to the ground terminal of a wall socket) and then blasting them with the electrostatic discharge from a Violet Ray device?

This obsolete medical electrotherapeutic appliance has fallen out of favor in the last eighty years or so -- not the least because it doesn't work.
This obsolete medical electrotherapeutic appliance has fallen out of favor in the last eighty years or so — not the least because it doesn’t work.

Anybody else had that idea yet? No? So I’m the first then, am I?

Thought so.

Here’s what you get when you put a blackberry between the power of Nikola Tesla and the earth.

I ate this electrified blackberry, and now I am a superman.
I ate this electrified blackberry, and now I am a superman.

Hey! That’s my idea.

Don’t cha hate it when you get a totally hot idea and some other dude has the same idea at about the same time?

Recall my post of October 6, 2014 in which I discuss the subject of experimental photography as a direction for my design thesis? I introduced the subject with an image of a raspberry with a tiny white LED installed within it.

This is what happens when you build a tiny LED into a nice ripe raspberry and then take nine carefully measured exposures of it and combine them in Photoshop's HDR plugin. Cool, huh?
This is what happens when you build a tiny LED into a nice ripe raspberry and then take nine carefully measured exposures of it and combine them in Photoshop’s HDR plugin. Cool, huh?

Well Romanian photographer Radu Zaciu has recently taken to installing lights inside of fruits and veg in order to cause them to glow from within. Check out his lovely glowing strawberry, taken January 24, 2015.

Look, I’m not complaining or accusing anybody of anything, and God knows there’s enough fruit in the world for both of us to illuminate, but it really cheeses me off when good ideas turn out not to be my exclusive purview. Dang!

Slit scan = mind blown

Years ago, in the back pages of Esquire or Harper’s Bazaar something, I saw a photograph that really bent my soul. Some clever fellow had photographed a woman performing tai-chi in such a way that the camera seemed to map her motion rather than just capture her position in space. I never saw anything like it again for years, but the image haunted me. I can’t describe to you how this single colour image seemed to show the movements of a very graceful person without the usual smeary shaping that comes from prolonged exposure; it looked a bit like the demented imagery one produces by moving an original across the glass of a photocopier while the machine is working, but really, really pretty.

I intuited that it had something to do with shifting a long, thin aperature across the film plane while the shutter was open, but beyond that I hadn’t a clue. I didn’t even know what to call it, or I’d have looked it up. Well, today, in researching a phenomenon camera buffs call “rolling shutter syndrome” (about which more later) I stumbled across the thing again — and now I even know what to call it: Slit scan.

Here’s my first bashful whack at it:

A slit scan self-portrait. Note the Cyrano de Bergerac
A slit scan self-portrait. Note the Cyrano de Bergerac

Pretty cool, huh? More soon

Little planets: space compression you can get behind.

After our last encounter you came away kicking at an imaginary pebble and muttering sheepishly that I had killed your dreams of awesome 3d cinema. My apologies. Let me make amends by introducing you to AWESOMEview, my patented 3d film delivery system. Here’s how it works.

1) Audience members are seated only in alternating rows; every second row of seats in the theater are marked “reserved.”

2) Specially trained “AWESOMEview” technicians (each wearing a black velvet ninja suit) quietly file into the unoccupied rows after the film has started.

3) At precisely the moment when something big gets closer to the camera, my specially trained technicians tickle the left elbow of the theater patron in front of them with a carefully chosen ostrich feather; when something big moves away from the camera, they rub that elbow with a cube of frozen distilled water.

4) After a while, most of the audience members have learned to associate the tickle/cold sensations at their left elbow with the depth of field as it is represented on the screen. Some of them just aren’t ticklish; none of them have ever had this sensation associated with the comprehension of the positions of objects in space prior to “AWESOMEview.” Everybody pays extra to experience it.

Ninja-clad AWESOMEview technician expert at simulating depth perception through artificial means.
A Ninja-clad AWESOMEview technician: expert at simulating depth perception. Kinda.

Are we getting it yet? The 3d effect which you may so enjoy (ten percent of humans don’t get it at all) is an artificial phenomenon that has little to do with the way in which we normally perceive depth in the real world. So what would the world look like if our eyes weren’t jammed together on the front of our heads?

Langstone Harbour Entrance, Portsmouth (Mike Ashton, photographer)
Langstone Harbour Entrance, Portsmouth (Mike Ashton, photographer)

Here’s an exciting technique I’ve discovered (others discovered before me in some abundance) that simulates just that. It’s sometimes called “little planet panorama,” and is so popular that there is, as they say, “an app for that.” Not that you should expect results like these from using the app alone: this takes some skill.

Consider this little planet that may be more familiar to Canadians like myself, Planet Parliament in Ottawa…

Photo credit: Matthew Blackett and Justin Van Leeuwen
Photo credit: Matthew Blackett and Justin Van Leeuwen

The process, while time-consuming, is not secret. Google “little planet panorama” and you’ll get some good starter info. See what you you gain when you give up stereoscopy? The hell with fancy goggles and flickering screens; give me eyes that orbit my head!

Space: compression. Because stereoscopy just isn’t worth the sacrifice.

Let’s consider what can be handled in a book about vision (intended to function as my design thesis) without causing radiation burns (see previous entry). Consider what you give up to enjoy the faint pleasure of stereoscopic perception.

Animals less concerned about stereoscopic vision enjoy a panoramic view of the world all the time: they keep their eyes on opposite sides of their heads and thus have access to a much wider field of vision than do we humans. I really envy them this, especially because we humans don’t really get much out of having our eyes close together on the fronts of our heads.

“Nuh-uh!” I hear you complain, “I get stereo vision because my eyes triangulate the positions of things in front of me!” While this is technically true, it’s not very useful despite what the marketers of fancy 3-d goggles and in-yer-face blockbusting movies would have you believe. I’ve heard it said (usually be agog fanboys fresh out of a screening of Avatar or films like it) that “3d cinema is still in its infancy” and will one day “get it right.” If so, it’s been an extremely prolonged gestation.

A page from Popular Science, 1930.
A page from Popular Science, 1930. If the 85 years that separate this idea from Spongebob 3d are any indication of the pace of progress in this arena, we might have to wait a very long time for “true 3d.” Or –here’s a thought!– maybe there just ain’t no such thing!

Why 3d is a crock:

It’s been about seventy years since western cinema began it’s torrid love affair with three dimensional representation. Not once in all that time have movie makers actually succeeded in making the sort of sea change that other new formats have enjoyed — such as Technicolor, wide-screen format, panoramic sound, etc. The problem, in a nutshell, is that human beings keep their eyes too close together.

Unless you’re some kind of mutant, your irises are only about three inches apart. That means that objects more than nine feet away are more likely to be “depth ranked” according to perceptual criteria like context, size, overlap and shading differentiation rather than stereoscopic discrepancy. That’s because the triangle describing the relationship between the subject’s eyes and the object’s position is just too long and skinny (too close to a single line, that is) to provide useful data to the part of the occipital lobe that processes depth in vision.

So the dimensions of the object (factored against their proximity to the observer) play a big part in determining the efficacy of three dimensional representation: things with minor distances between their front-most visible surface and their back-most look pretty much the same (beyond a certain distance) in two dimensions as they do in three. One can use stereoscopic differentiation across an isolated, one-eye-per-monitor system to make objects depicted less than nine feet away appear depth ranked by the proprioceptive relation of the amount of tension across the lenses of the eyes and parallactic geometry of their position alone, but beyond this distance the effect is not a simulation of perception as it occurs in the real world, but rather an artifact interpreting that perception as overlaid on another subject altogether.

So you can induce a reaction in the occipital lobe that mimics depth perception beyond the natural range of depth perception, but then, you can induce a lot of sensations artificially. Is cinema evolving into the orgasmatron? Yes. Yes it is.

Next week: how to compact the wide world into a narrow sample.


Forget x-rays.

In our last episode, I was humming and hawing re: x-rays and how best to demonstrate, in my Design Thesis (a book about vision and the limits of evolution) the world as it would appear if we could see through it. Since then, I have learned from the example of Thomas Edison’s inventor/employee Clarence Daly to just not mess with that stuff, period.

“Don’t talk to me about X-rays,” Edison famously said, after he learned of Daly’s sacrifice in the name of science. “I am afraid of them.” And well he might be, as soon after his man Daly fashioned a Roentgen-style fluorescent x-ray emitting apparatus in the workshop and began testing it, Daly began to show the signs of radiation poisoning. Undeterred by the loss of all his hair and the swelling up of his left hand, Daly switched to testing the apparatus on his right hand instead. He slept, we are told, “with both hands in water to alleviate the burning.”
The medical applications of the device were obvious to all, however, and though Edison was always interested in commercializing his “mucker’s inventions, he left the X-ray machine to others to develop.

Thomas Edison looking right through Clarence Dally's hand.
Thomas Edison looking right through Clarence Dally’s hand.

Edison had paid for his lessons in physics with his own eyesight: exposure to Daly’s machine had knocked his vision about “a foot out of focus” from continuous exposure to the ionizing radiation, which, along with Daly’s slowly advancing cancers (he died nine years after starting work on the project) lead Edison to conclude he “did not want to know anything more about X-rays.”

The sacrifices of Daly and others to the advancement of what came to be known as Radiology are celebrated today, but I’m not about to emulate them. I’m leaving that stuff to the experts. Chaps like Nick Veasey seem to be doing just fine without me.

Showing the invisible

If you’ve been following along, you know that this is the story of a fellow ordering his thoughts about perception, beauty, evolution, art and especially photography into a tangible, salable object the likes of which persons of good taste will yearn to possess. It’s my graduating thesis for Graphic Design school: design and construct an attractive, coffee-table grade book of experimental photography.

The subject has been discussed at some length in entries previous to this one in which the visible spectrum was set to be wrung free of every last juicy photon through a variety of twists and turns of photographic chicanery. But there remains all of that energy beyond the visible spectrum: the radio waves beneath it and mysterious hazards that vibrate above. Dare I tackle ionizing radiations?

No, frankly. I don’t think I do (because death rays). But who can say where the project may take me? You could pick up a pretty cool digital handheld dental x-ray machine on ebay for just a couple of Bordens.

Get your wireless handheld digital x-ray machine today!
Get your wireless handheld digital x-ray machine today!

Look, man, radiation is dangerous. But if ever there was a case of mother nature cruelly conspiring to limit my perceptive envelope, it’s the fact that she made a great many things utterly, perfectly opaque to me. Why can’t I see right through stuff?

Oh yeah, because it’s “solid.” Folks haven’t always been so squeamish about penetrating matter. Consider the shoe-fitting fluoroscope.

If you were buying shoes in the big city in the 1920s, you might like to examine those wing tips in the machine shown above: in its base, beneath the wee foot hole, is a powerful x-ray producing tube. There’s no film to develop: it works in “real time” because above the foot hole a sheet of fluorescent paint-treated glass absorbs some of the rays produced from below–save those which have been absorbed by your feet and new shoes. Most of the remaining radiation is absorbed by the users’ heads, which would be right over the peep holes at the top of the box during use.

Remember, this ain’t no fancy scientist stuff; this thing is for selling shoes (and for giving people cancer of the feet and eyes, obviously). I’d love to be as plucky as some flapper picking flats for a night of Lindying, but I’m still… you know: death ray.

Here’s the thing: when I presented this thesis idea to the class, one chap noted in the Q & A afterward that where each of my previous categories seemed to resolve neatly into some manner of generative binary (expansion / contraction, above / below, time / space), there didn’t appear to be a similar correlate for the area beyond the visible spectrum. It’s a matter of balance. The thing seemed so neatly paired, but beneath the infra red and above the ultra violet, things get really strange and / or dangerous. I wasn’t sure how to proceed.

And then I met the work of Berenice Abbott, whose  fascinating collection of technical / beautiful photographs is called Documenting Science. In it, Ms. Abbott departs from the style that made her famous (documenting the urban tumult of New York in the thirties) to apply her delicate, minimalist aesthetic to matters of scientific exposition. The results are stunning.

bereniceabbott_documentingscience10 bereniceabbott_documentingscience9 bereniceabbott_documentingscience15

In her studies of interference, magnetism and waves, respectively above, Ms. Abbott does precisely the thing I wanted to do first (but isn’t that always the way?): show the invisible patterns of energy moving outside the visible spectrum. Worse, she did it, like, fifty years ago. Dang.

But there’s hope. Ms. Abbott would have rolled back on her heels whistling through her teeth had there been such a thing in 1950 as ferrofluids. And I got a jug of that stuff. Check it out:


So that’s where things stand. A photojournalist turned science glamor photographer of the 1950s and shoe salesmen of the 1920s have bookended the visible spectrum long before I was even born. But new materials have made the zone beneath the visible spectrum rather attractive. In the name of balance, therefor, I must discover some safe means of exploring the zone above, too.

Death rays. Dang!

above and below

Prepositions: the immune system of the English language. Americans fill “out” a form where the British fill forms “in,” people new to speaking English are routinely confused by the way we “work stuff out” and how, when we get new shoes, “work them in.” No matter how perfect your accent, it is the prepositions that will out you if English is your second language. Why? Because prepositions are inscrutable: nobody really knows how they work, we just like to correct people who misuse them. They’re so special I have made of them the electromagnetic bottle in which I intend to contain the thrilling ideas that make up my thesis.

Hence, where last week was all about expanding and contracting light, this week I shall tackle the above and below of making the familiar strange and the unseen visible where it concerns foiling nature’s plan to keep people ignorant of the world outside their mundane experience of it.


Energy shunts around the cosmos at a finite variety of frequencies. When its waves are about 720 nanometers apart, they produce optical phenomena that can be recorded by cameras specially equipped to reveal it. As far as light goes, this is as far as light goes, so to speak. There’s so little energy being reflected by subjects exposed in infra-red photography that it naturally involves a temporal expansion as well: you have to leave the shutter open for a long time to get enough of the stuff together to make a picture. Hence, in the scene above, the shutter was open for so long the ripples in the water cancel each other out reducing the surface to a simplified form: a seemingly perfect mirror. And because this sort of light exists at a place in the spectrum below that phenomena we call “colour,” it is utterly without the stuff.

Yeah, think about that: the world before colour distorts it (the green-blue hue that these images often take on is artifactual). Everything you like about black and white photography–the way it reduces distraction and showcases texture and form–is true with bells on for infrared photography. Portraiture in this band of the spectrum is especially eerie because infrared light passes unimpeded through the uppermost layers of the human epidermis, rendering even the most mottled complexion porcelain. Pass upwards through the visible spectrum and you’ll come out the top in the bluest blue: the ultraviolet.

Blue is pretty special too. Because it’s the shade to which the world is shifted when the amount of visible light is lowest (on a moonless night or at dusk on a cloudy night), blue is the only colour not decoded in the cones of your retinas. See, the cones actually constitute a minority of photosensitive tissues in your eyes, existing only in the fovea or focal area at the middle of your retina.img-fovea The rods, which outnumber the cones by a jillion to one and carpet the backs of your eyes like broadloom shag in a tricked-out van from the seventies, react only to blue light. If you follow the logic that posits the optic nerve as part of the cognitive rather than perceptive functions of the central nervous system, you’ll be receptive to the idea that saturating your visible field with the colour blue engages your mind in a way nothing else can.

The ultraviolet is a fun place to be because it is probably one of the easiest places to detect the walls of the prison in which nature contains our senses. Behold: a world that appears in one way to people, and in an entirely different way to bees.


Again: no fair, nature! How may we escape the limits millennia of evolution imposed upon our senses? Why, with special photography, of course. When I think of all the beauty in the familiar world denied the casual unaided observer…

Tune in next week when I take my prepositional proposition to the next level: beyond the visible spectrum.

time / space; compression/extension


Start on a laugh and end with everybody gobsmacked: that’s how I like to do presentations. Some folks will tell you to end on a laugh, and that’s a good idea too, I guess, but I always worry that “at you” instead of “with you” laughter could follow me off the stage, and besides, it’s way easy to smack the gob out of a bunch of arts students. Here’s how.

The gag I start with is parodying TED talks. I’m kind of a grinch when it comes to the gift of TED talking. Forgive my observing that people with important, smart things to say tend to write them down, submit them to an editorial board of their esteemed peers and have them published in a journal related to their field of expertise. I am suspicious of any attempt to organize, formalize and license (!) the act of talking. Fishy.

But ours is an age of showmanship; we like to be entertained and being entertained means being comfortably situated in familiar tropes. So I tried, in explaining that my thesis would treat the sort of photography that makes its subject phenomena not available to the naked eye, to be a little entertaining. Dynamic, even. You will recall from last week that my thesis would treat the issue of making the familiar strange and seeing the unseen. I intend to effect this perspective by expanding and contracting time and space, and by revealing the energies that operate at frequencies above, below or beyond the visual spectrum. Oh, and it must be beautiful, too. Natch.


Photography can take a moment that happens so quickly you’d never know it even happened and make that moment available for inspection at your leisure. Take this photo of a chap getting it rather bluntly on the chin: note the liquid texture of his features as inertia drives them flopping about his skull. Faces seem so firm when they’re not being walloped and photographed at 1/4000th of a second; you might have gone your whole life without knowing how floppy faces are.

There’s a weird voyeurism about shots that do this sort of “freeze-o-matic” stuff; even when the event is public (as is the case here, happening as it did before a thousand thousand fans and a television audience), we feel a bit like peeping toms for having made a record of what nature intended to pass our notice entirely. This sensation of keyhole peering is a result, I suggest, of our having escaped nature’s intentions for our perception. The forces of evolution formed human perception into what I have come to think of as an artificially-imposed limit on what we can know; a sort of ontological barrier; a membrane we may penetrate only with the aid of special tools and techniques.

Note that I could have used a picture of a humming bird hanging astonishingly still despite the incredibly rapid movement of its tiny wings thanks to the use of extremely high-speed photography. The reason I didn’t use that image is that it is, literally, astonishing and incredible–just the opposite of familiar. My thesis should treat the opposite of rare and inaccessible phenomena; it should make familiar things strange. I don’t know and can’t honestly imagine what it is like to be a humming bird, but I understand getting punched in the face pretty well.


The camera can also take a very long moment, one which passes so slowly that its important changes are indiscernible in their minute progress. The image above is a long-exposure of two lovers sleeping, in which the shutter was left open literally for hours. The result is a compression of time that makes plain phenomena which nature never intended us to see, yet with which we are so intimately familiar that it strains the word “intimacy” to contain it.


If you’ve ever tried to thread a needle you’ve probably rubbed right up against the ontological barrier imposed by the sheer scale of your person. When you’ve brought the object of your inspection to within a couple of inches of your straining eyes, you’ve arrived at the minimum focal distance possible for the architecture of human eyeballs. It’s like you’ve come to the end of a long corridor which terminates in a door too small for you to pass through. No fair!

Fortunately, photography has long been interested in shrink-ray technology that makes you small enough (perceptively speaking) to see the tiny beauty in the strange and small. And macro photography is fascinated with just this sort of expansion of the mundanely familiar, so it’s a natural choice for a project that makes the familiar strange. Living where I do, my everyday, mundane experience of snow usually involves the shoveling of it, and nothing could be more opposed to shoveling snow than the perfect, translucent, symmetrical thing pictured above.


Owing to the fact that my eyes are only about four centimeters apart and on the front of my head, I can only see about 180 degrees or so of the world at any given time. If I want to see more, I have to turn around or swivel my noggin. Horses don’t have this problem–nature put their eyes on opposite sides of their heads. How very different the world must seem to creatures whose perception wraps around them! Thomas Nagel famously wrote a paper about relative perceptions in 1974 called “What is it Like to be a Bat?” the text of which is available online, f’yer innerested.

When you consider that nature’s plan for human eyes was primarily to help people find little red berries in the bushes, it’s a wonder we can see as well as we presently do. Good news: she also gave us marvelously dexterous hands with which we may craft and operate sophisticated camera equipment. Thus equipped, we whom nature intended to see the world only out the fronts of our heads may cheat her utterly; we may use the master’s tools to compose spheroid panoramic compressions of vistas nature never intended us to see.

That, to my way of thinking, is exciting. There’s more, but I can see your eyes glazing over as tiny spit bubbles begin to accumulate in the corners of your mouth. Go watch some tv or something; I’ll be back next week to talk about the “above, below and beyond” of my thesis.