Sxy Jns, Google, and Me

Quick, what’s the connection between my trip to Italy in 2006, the promotion for “Sxy Jns” currently on in Mexico City, and my mixed feelings for Google?

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The answer begins with this blog post.

Let me explain. A few years ago I tried running Google ads on the Blork Blog. After about a year I had accumulated about $95 in revenue, which isn’t much, so I was thinking about removing the ads.

Part of the Google Adsense terms of service is this:

You are not permitted to encourage users to click on Google ads or bring excessive attention to ad units.

Regardless, soon after starting to run the ads I did exactly that, one time, and ironically. It was in a post where I was lamenting the commercialization of “alternative” journalism. I concluded with the joke “Alternative journalism at its finest. Now please click on one of my Google ads…” Given my (then) 1400 or so blog posts that never mentioned ads, I did not think that was bringing “excessive attention to ad units.”

Google spotted that while I was on vacation in Italy, a year after I made the post. They sent me an email demanding I remove the post within 72 hours or they would withhold my revenue.

What?

It was one ironic line in a blog that at that time had over 400,000 published words not mentioning the ads. Can Google not differentiate between persistent click solicitation and a one-time joke? Of course they could if they wanted to, but our friend Google, whom everyone knows and loves, showed its real self that day. When it comes to money and service agreements, Google is as short sighted and greedy as Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, and all the other technology “heroes” of our day.

Bah!

Fortunately I had stopped into an Internet cafe in Rome and had read the email. So I had to log into my account and change the post – all the while paying extortionate usage fees to the cafe. I was severely pissed off. A few weeks later I hit the $100 mark (the threshold below which Google will make no payments). I cashed in and immediately removed the Google ads from my blog. Incidentally, I also restored the offending post to its original state.

But what does that have to do with Sxy Jns? (“Sexy Jeans,” for the uninitiated.) A year after the Google fiasco I made a blog post in which I presented a nice photo of a bunch of wet mint leaves; a photo I had taken in my back yard. I thought it would make a nice background for something, such as a desktop wallpaper, so I decided to share it. I joked that there was no need to thank me, to just click on an ad (followed by “oh wait, I no longer have ads”). Thus is the connection between these minty leaves, my trip to Italy, and Google. But where does Sxy Jns fit in?

In that blog post with the wet leaves photo I also suggested that if you want to use the photo as your wallpaper you could toss me a nickel next time you see me. Little did I know that a year and a half later someone at an advertising agency in Mexico would be scouring Google Images looking for a nice photo of fresh spring leaves to use as the background for a spring promotion of Sxy Jns. The rest of the story is self evident; he found my image and requested a high resolution version that could be used in the campaign. And he didn’t just toss me a nickel; we agreed on a reasonable price (that was, incidentally, more than I got from Google for a whole year’s worth of ads).

It is interesting that Google plays a role in all chapters of this story. I remain severely pissed off at Google although I am grateful for its service – which I use on an hourly basis and have even made money from (this is not the first time I’ve sold usage rights to an image that someone found on Google).

When I was running the Google ads, I respected the terms of use, but allowed one minor exception, which I thought would be OK because it was clearly a joke and was not excessive. What pissed me off was Google’s Draconian response. Not only did they come down on me hard for that one reference, they gave me very little time to respond.

In the end, I feel a bit like one of those captive trophy wives; someone who is grateful for the lifestyle but really hates the source of it.

Come on, Google, grow the Hell up and use some of that awesome power you have to put a reasonable threshold on usage terms before you call in the storm troopers!

People

One of the driving forces behind From the Hip — Montreal is my curiosity about people. As I walk through the city and the subways, I’m always looking at people — usually, but not always, sidelong — wondering who they are and what they’re about. Particularly so if there is something notable about them (unusual clothing, very tall or very short, unusual gait, etc.) It’s something of a clandestine activity, as city people don’t take kindly to strangers staring at them.

From that grew my From the Hip project, which is basically a way of preserving my brief curiosities about the people I see in passing. There’s only one problem; sometimes I don’t give a flying f**k about people. I get moody now and then, and it makes me want to retreat from the crowds and to avoid people. When I’m in a mood like that I look at my photos on From the Hip and think “what a bunch of crap! Why do I waste my time taking fuzzy and crooked pictures of banal strangers doing banal things?”

Fortunately, I get over it. Then it swings the other way. Sometimes in the evening when I’m reviewing a few day’s worth of hip-shooting efforts I find myself enamoured with almost every image. I re-live the moments when I’m shooting the clandestine photos and hoping I’ve gotten something that brings together a bit of a moment among strangers. I look at the blur and think “action! drama!” A couple of days later I look at the same images and think “Blurry! Out of focus!”

In the end, I try to choose photos for From the Hip that combine a sense of the dramatic, the aesthetic, and the inquiry. But I don’t let myself edit too much, which is contrary to the advice I usually give. I want there to be a sense of the letting go, of the flinging it out there, without it being overly thought through.

Some work better than others. On some days they’re all good and on other days they all suck. But they’re out there, and that’s already ten steps ahead of the dozen or so other projects that I never got around to because I thought about them too much.

From the Hip

Loyal readers will be appalled that I’m taking time away from what is surely the highlight of their day (this blog) to work on blog number four: From the Hip – Montreal.

From the Hip – Montreal (or simply FtH) is my experiment in clandestine street photography. There are three drivers behind this project:

  • I like street photography (although I don’t like being conspicuous as a photographer so I rarely do it);
  • I’ve long had a fascination with photography that is impressionistic by nature (although the Cartesian side of my personality has usually squashed my efforts);
  • In Quebec it is illegal to photograph people without their permission.

Knock those three together and what emerges is the desire to shoot street photographs inconspicuously, with the camera held at waist level shooting more or less blindly. Sounds like a recipe for disaster, and in many cases it is. I have a very high “reject” rate.

However, I have exiled the Cartesian mind for the time being, and am allowing myself to forget the so-called basics of “good” photography (focus, exposure, and composition) and am allowing myself to view these photographs on a purely experiential and impressionistic level. I only publish the ones that (to me) bring together an interesting confluence of event (what’s going on), subject (who is involved), and perspective (the uninvolved passer-by).

A lot of people will think these photos are crap, and that’s OK. I’m not putting them out there as an example of my expertise or fine photographic craftsmanship. I’m not fishing for compliments on my excellent photographic abilities. Rather, I’m presenting them (as I put in that blog’s About page) as “film stills from the reportage of my mind.” That means they’re tilted, fuzzy, and largely disengaged from the subjects. But that’s how I experience the world when I’m walking around, so that’s how I’m presenting these photos. They’re all about what I see, and how I see it, uncontrived by the conventions of standard photography.

That’s not to say I’m knocking standard photography. Far from it. I’m still running the Monday Morning Photo Blog, with a new image every Monday Morning (since 2004!). But that blog has no particular orientation or perspective. It’s just a loose collection of my photographs spanning more than 20 years and a dozen different styles. If you didn’t know, you’d be hard pressed to identify the photos on the Monday Morning Photo Blog as coming from the same photographer. It does contain a number of images that I’ve tagged as “street” photography (you can see all 75 “street” thumbnails here), and perhaps four of them could (and might) appear on FtH. But I see FtH as a sort of self-contained project, which is why I’m running it as a separate blog.

Go take a look if you feel like it. But leave your expectations behind. Prepare to be underwhelmed. It’s the kind of work that if it grows on you at all, it does so over time, as you see themes and perspectives emerge. Or not. We’ll see.

The New Tri-X

Back in the day, I was a Tri-X 400 addict. Tri-X 400 is a black-and-white (B&W) film from Kodak that was once (and to a small extent, still is) popular among photojournalists. It was well loved for being very forgiving in terms of exposure latitude, as well as being fast (base speed of 400, but pushable to 800 or even 1600 in a pinch). Photos taken on Tri-X have a very particular look about them; a special kind of punchy contrast that is very satisfying but isn’t fake looking or over-done. It has a nice salt & pepper grain that most photographers of yore thought of as providing a distinct texture to the images. Think of any well known B&W photos from the Korean or Vietnam wars, and there’s about a 90% chance they were shot on Tri-X.

I used to buy it in 100-foot rolls and hand-load it into 35mm cartridges which I developed and printed myself. Those were the days. Frankly, I don’t miss the smells and chemistry, nor the enormous black hole of time that a darkroom is, or at least was. In the early 90s it wasn’t unusual for me to spend 10 or 12 hours of a Saturday in there.

But I do miss my Tri-X.

Fortunately, my new digital camera – a Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3, which is physically similar to my old Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX2 – is providing me with a bit of a nostalgia trip. Normally I detest the various silly modes and pre-canned settings that come built into most digital cameras, but this one has a mode called “Dynamic B&W” that produces images that remind me of Tri-X film.

For example, below is a photo I grabbed this evening at about 5:30. It was dark and rainy, and my old LX2 would not have been able to do anything under those circumstances. (That model is notorious for its noise when set above ISO 200, a problem that has been dealt with beautifully with the LX3.) I put my LX3 in “Dynamic B&W mode and cranked the ISO up to 1600 and grabbed a few one-handed shots from under my umbrella. My intention was to just test the camera, to see what the technical quality of the images would be.

Tri-X in Digital

A test shot, but I kind of like it. I particularly like the texture and feel, which reminds me of Tri-X. The only post-processing I did was to bring down the highlights a bit to emphasize the stormy sky. Best seen large (1200×801 pixels).

At ISO 1600, there are some pretty wonky noise artifacts when viewed at 100% magnification. But if I reduce the image to Flickr size (which for me is usually 1200 pixels wide), the noise becomes a pleasant grain. More importantly, the images have that magical “Tri-Xy” quality that you can’t quite put your finger on but you know it’s there. At ISO 400 it seems to be even better; same punchy quality without the noise problems.

Not bad for a camera you can fit in your shirt pocket (assuming you have fairly big shirt pockets). Those who watch my Flickr stream and my Monday Morning Photo Blog might be seeing more B&W photos there in the next little while.

By the way, you may be wondering why I choose to shoot in B&W instead of simply converting to B&W in Photoshop. The answer is simple (yet not); when I’m photographing, I tend to pre-visualize. When I’m shooting B&W, I think slightly differently than when I’m shooting color. So when the camera is in B&W mode, so too am I.

Update: I have started a photo blog focused on street photography, in which I use the LX3 almost exclusively (there are a few older LX2 images in there). Many of the images there were shot in Dynamic B&W mode.