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A view to the future November 18, 2008

Posted by eyegillian in change, creativity, learn, life, technology.
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6 comments

picwomencameraCameras capture time. Whether film or digital, still or movie, they are recording the profound or insignificant moments of our lives.

As I recognize how much I feel at home behind the viewfinder, and begin to gain a sense of the stillness at the centre of each photo, I am also seeing how — even as I watch — the way I think of photography is slipping into the stream of time. Photography, like the printing industry it is still mostly dependent on, is becoming outdated and antiquated.

There have been so many changes in the history of photography, from calotypes and Daguerreotype to magic lanterns, from the first mass-produced box cameras to the sophisticated computers with glass and mirrors we are used to seeing today. Now it is commonplace for people to take photos with their cellphones, and shoot videos with their digital cameras.

Of course, these days you can also buy a miniature camera no bigger than a thumbnail if you’re in the spy business, or if you want to snap the martians at play and don’t want to spend two years and a few million getting to Mars, you might be able to afford a monster-sized 1700 mm (5-1/2 foot) lens for your camera instead.

But I’m trying to simplify my life. I’m fascinated by convergence, by the iphone approach which incorporates music, phone, camera, organizers, becoming an electronic catch-all for the stuff you used to keep at the bottom of your purse or wallet or desk drawer. My cellphone can take photos (I’ve used it twice) and play music (I haven’t tried that function at all) as well as store task lists, phone numbers, and I’m sure it has many other bells and whistles I haven’t bothered to explore. But the fact is, I want to use it as a phone. Period.

browniecameraI have the same relationship with my camera. I use it to take pictures. I’m glad it’s digital, so I can see the images right away, and don’t have to pay for film and processing. But many cameras now are designed to do so much more than take pictures. Even the new high-end cameras are beginning to feature high-definition video capability, along with all the other must-have doohickeys. How many functions does your camera have? How many do you use?

I don’t want to be a luddite about this, but I’m afraid that what I see as the point of photography is getting lost in the race for bigger and better equipment, in the competition for the electronic-savvy consumers who want a camera that’s fully-loaded, whether or not they possess the will and skill to master it.

I’m not a camera purist. I don’t think that you have to use a square-format view camera and shoot in black-and-white (and process it in your own darkroom) in order to be considered a serious photographer. But I do want to draw a line between photography and videography, between single eloquent images and multi-frame movies. For me, photography is about stopping and seeing, about observing and contemplating a moment in time. I’m talking about still photography, plain old-fashioned pictures. Come to think of it, I prefer plain potato chips, too.doo-lough-ireland

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Related links:
Geist Magazine: “My Father’s Hands”
New York Magazine: “You must be streaming”
Jacki Schklar: “Video vs Still Images”
Technology Review: “Crossover Camera”

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A place to call home July 20, 2008

Posted by eyegillian in Canada, change, family, history, journey, learn, life.
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18 comments

A photo from the family archives: I’m in the red snowflake hat.

“Where’s your home?” It seems a simple question. I first heard it from a man who lived in a L’Arche community.

I’ve had lots of homes. I grew up in my parents’ home, built just before I was born. I lived there for 21 years (not including time away at university). They are still living there, although my two brothers and I have moved away.

Then I moved. Three apartments in Saint John, one in Woodstock, then Oshawa, Newcastle and Orono. A house in Port Britain, then an apartment in Cobourg. We are now on our third apartment in Toronto, the best place yet.

galley

Our current home in Toronto.

“Where’s your home?” It’s where my heart is, where my partner is, where my stuff, my memorabilia, my computer… where I can be myself. But that’s not a place so much as an idea. It’s wherever I happen to be living at the moment.

If there was one place I could call home, one place that I’m rooted in, no matter where I roam, I would have to say Saint John, where I grew up. I’ve lived in Ontario for nearly 20 years, but it’s not really my home. When people ask, I tell them I live in Toronto, but I almost always add: I’m not from here; I’m a Maritimer. Some part of my heart will always be in that rocky sea-and-forest landscape that I associate with my childhood.

Saint John 1

Saint John from the air.

One of the Maritime themes is that of people leaving — for Toronto, Calgary, other places — in order to find better jobs, better opportunities, a better life. Yet there’s a second half to that story: a lot of Maritimers come home again, or at least they yearn to return.

I left that “home” a long time ago. I’ve heard people say “you can’t go home again”. But is it true? Or is it just that everything changes, that home is never the same again?

The people I grew up with have moved away or moved on with their lives. The paths I used to walk, the stores I used to visit are gone, overgrown or redeveloped. What I think of as “home” is a place in time, so in that sense, I can’t go home. I can’t go back.

And the fact is, I don’t want to go back. I don’t want to be an awkward teenager again, or return to that stage of my life when I was just beginning to discover my interests and develop a sense of myself. I like who I’ve become, my work and friends, being able to make my own way in the world.

Yet there’s something else, some part of me that feels cut off, adrift. I felt that most keenly during my most recent visit, when my parents were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. I was surprised to see how many people I recognized, and how many people knew me and greeted me, not as a former acquaintance, but as family. Until then, I had only thought of home as geography, a mix of woods and houses, the cool blanket of fog drifting in off the coast, the steep road we bicycled to reach the blueberry patch under the power lines…

So where is my home? Is it really a place full of memories, the childhood I’ve left behind?

I wonder if there’s more to that place than I had counted on, as if there’s a future as well as a past. How would it feel for me, the confident grown-up me, to return to this place that still pulls at my heart? Maybe all these years I’ve been living in exile, and it’s time to go home.

Where’s your home?

empty benches

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Designing cities of the future March 4, 2008

Posted by eyegillian in design, environment, life, nature, science, technology, urban, world.
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2 comments

IwamotoScott's City of the futureThe signs of urban decay are there for those who have the eyes to read them: leaking water and sewage systems, roadways deteriorating under the weight of too much traffic and buildings crumbling from smog and acid-rain, rotating black-outs and a strained electric grid, problems with water contamination and garbage disposal. Will the aging infrastructure that holds together our cities with a fragile network of wires and roads and pipes be sufficient for this century, let alone the next one?

I’m not talking about whether these things are fixable. All it takes to keep things running is a lot of money and perhaps some improvements in materials, such as replacing ashphalt pavement with concrete, or cast iron pipes with pvc plastic. But all this work is merely maintaining the status quo — how are we planning for the cities of the future?

The lead story on the WorldChanging website suggests that many cities in the developed world have racked up huge “infrastructure deficits” — backlogs of needed work on existing systems, as well as demand for new systems — and quotes a U.S. study which estimates that it would cost $1.6 trillion dollars to bring everything up to date. “Most of the infrastructure we use today was designed a century ago: some of it is based on ideas that go back to the Roman Empire,” says writer Alex Steffen.

“Essentially all of it was designed for a world without climate change, resource scarcity or any proper understanding of the value of ecosystem services. In other words, most of the systems upon which we depend are not only in a state of critical disrepair, they’re out-dated and even out of touch with the realities of our century.”

The article suggests five new ways to prepare our urban spaces for the future:

  1. Adaptive and creative re-use – making the best use of what’s there
  2. Whole-system missions – taking into account the impact of systems on society and nature as a whole
  3. Resilience and survivability – the social and infrastructure net needs to be sustainable and be able to cope with whatever climate changes or epidemics the future holds
  4. Distribution – efficient movement of water, power and other services
  5. Wild ideas – creative thinking can change the world

HydronetAs an example of creative thinking, Steffen points to the design which won one of the Regional Prizes in the History Channel’s “City of the Future” competition. The design by San Francisco architects IwamotoScott takes the city and transforms it using creative ideas like a “hydronet”. The description by Geoff Manaugh on the Bldg Blog sounds like a science-fiction fantasy:

“The project reimagines the entire San Francisco peninsula in the year 2108 A.D., having been overlain, if not completely replaced by, a kind of prosthetic hydrological landscape – complete with underground rivers of algae which will be cultivated as a source of hydrogen for fuel…. Architecturally speaking, the city will sprout a whole series of new structures, including multi-angled fog harvesting machines, tendril-like towers along the waterfront, subterranean transport tunnels, and biologically active reservoirs buried beneath the streets.”

My imagination is really caught by this concept of a truly living city, imagined as a whole system, not just a series of bits and pieces put together all “higgeldy piggeldy”. And like good science fiction, everything imagined here seems not too far from the realm of possibility. Would you like to live in this city? Check out this and other concepts, and vote for your future here.

For more images, check out IwamotoScott’s photoset here.

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