Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Evening with Yaël and Conan

What an unusual day.

I looked up Yaël Naim's 'New Soul', which Joel identified at Audrey's wedding reception with that incredible smartphone app that identifies songs.

And a brilliant live version:

And then, on Google Plus, I saw Alpha's posting of Conan O'Brien's secret Santa project. You can access the link here.

Curious about Conan O'Brien, I looked him up on Wikipedia and learned that he won an essay competition back when he was 17. I found the Boston Globe article here, and reading it reminds me once again of what I love so much about writing, that it's about characters, about people—and real people at that.

I like what he says about Hemingway, which I have found to be true as well: "[Hemingway] has a vocabulary about as extensive as mine, but he puts it together well."

The article is here. But just in case the digital version disappears, here it is in its entirety.

* * *


By Phyllis Coons -- Boston Globe -- December 3, 1980 -- Section: LIVING

This weekly series focuses on Massachusetts high school students in the classroom and their EXTRA CREDIT - the hobbies, jobs and interests that round out their lives.

He writes stories in a garret, but he's no starving artist. He lives in a large house in Brookline with a large family . . . five bothers and sisters, his parents and grandmother . . . in a comfortable style which his friends call "The Corporation."

"I live in the corner of the attic because it's quiet there and nobody can shuffle my paper around," says Conan O Brien. The 17-year-old Brookline High School senior's latest story, "To Bury The Living," won him a top prize in the National Council of Teachers of English writing contest. "The competition was very stiff, " says Marcia Castellon, administrative assistant for the Council's 1980 Achievement Awards in Writing. More than 5500 students from schools in every state and American schools abroad were nominated by their English teachers to take part. "The writing performance of this student was compared with other able students and was adjudged to be of superior quality," says O'Brien's citation.

O'Brien's story is about a middle-class Irish undertaker who can't take it seriously when his son wants to enter a writing contest for a college scholarship because it is understood that he will work at Leigh Herlihy and Son Funeral Home. As O'Brien described the situation: "Leith felt numb at first. What his father had said (about Herlihy and Son) didn't shock him, simply the fact that it had finally been said. Without looking at his parents, Leith knew how to focus on his grandmother. She alone had the power to change it all, she alone had witnessed it twice before. Better than anyone else, Grandmother Herlihy knew the cycle. After a long pause, she looked into Leith's eyes and nodded her head.

"Leith, sick with frustration, felt the smallness of the room. He stood up and kicked his chair from under him. Without looking at anyone, he ran from the table and up the stairs leading to his room. The door slammed and the entire house shook with the force. As the china in the cabinet rattled, Grandmother Herlihy thought back to a similar scene 30 years before."

The story ends with the boy crumpling up the contest application and dropping it into the wastebasket. "I wanted it to be about real people and not end it with a walk off into the sunset," O'Brien says, running his long fingers through wiry red hair and shifting his 6 foot 3 frame as he put the pages of the story in order.

"No, it isn't autobiographical, but it comes from a sense of family tradition. We have a lot of it in our family. We all know where to sit at the table for Sunday dinners, and we always used to go to our grandparents, the O'Briens in Millbury or the Reardons in Sturbridge, for holidays.

"It had a big impact on me when both grandfathers died within days of each other. Grandfather O'Brien was a banker and Grandfather Reardon was a policeman, who also sold real estate so that he could support his large family. "In order to enter the contest we were asked to write about something that was a real experience for us, and that's what I wrote about, how hard it was for me then in the 7th grade to understand that that part of our family tradition was gone."

O'Brien's father, Thomas, is a microbiologist who does research at Harvard. His mother, Ruth, is a law partner in Ropes and Gray. Neither profession appeals to him. "I'm interested in writing, history, and politics. That's my dilemma. I like all three. I worked as a congressional intern for Robert Drinan and then for the candidate he endorsed, Barney Frank . . . street work and mail drops. It's a chance to meet all sorts of people."

"My family says that I've been scribbling since way back, but the writing I do now is mostly for the school paper, The Sagamore.' I was editorial editor last year and managing editor this year, which means that I don't have as much time to write, but I am freer to choose what I'll write about."

John Medearis, editor in chief, says, "Conan's contributions are extremely valuable. He is able to bring out the points which aren't predictable. My favorite piece of his was the spoof on the typical high school student . . . boring, boring, boring. He's a good mimic, too, especially of movie star heavies and he's co-captain of the debating team."

Tom Bresnahan, a classmate in English, says, "We all have to re-write the simplest of assignments in order to get the word choice and the sentence structure clean, but Conan probably does the most re-writes until they come out sharp."

O'Brien's English teacher, Christopher Reimann. says Conan's writing is very good. "Unlike most high school students, he is able to communicate what he is thinking very clearly. That can be a two-edged sword. If your thinking is confused, you have to have the ability to handle ambiguity. I criticize Conan's papers not on a high school level but on a more mature bassis and he handles criticism fairly well. It is clearly important to him."

O'Brien says, "There's not that much that separates me from other students, except that I take English very seriously. If I get a mediocre mark in math, I let it slide, but not in English.

Adds Conan, "I wrote to E.B. White, one of the writers I admire most, once and asked him how he handled criticism of his writing. You put so much of yourself into it that it's hard not to take criticism personally. White wrote back that he never minded critics much except when they had their facts wrong."

"I like Hemingway, too. He has a vocabulary about as extensive as mine, but he puts it together well. And Woody Allen. He's made up a style of his own. Everytime he starts with a thoughtful sentence he slips in something totally absurd."

Asked about the name, Conan, O'Brien says it is not for mystery writer Conan Doyle, but for Gaelic priests. "Something so simple that you can't make a nickname out of it.

"College? I'll take the best one that picks me. I tell my parents that next year they'll have to ask someone else to drive the little kids around and do errands, but I'll miss it just the same. There are a lot of real characters in this family."

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Thoughts after lunch with Eric Peris and friends

I reflected on my first meeting with the legendary Eric Peris in this post:

A year and eleven months later, I found myself having a meal with him—and friends!—again.

(Many thanks to Aunty Sheila who made all this possible in the first place.)

During lunch, one of the things Eric talked about was the careless shooting attitude digital photography seems to encourage—it seems to be a recurring topic for him—in which photographers these days seldom think before they shoot, partly because we are no longer constrained by the 36 exposures of a 35mm film roll, and partly because 'bad' shots can be erased later. The conversation—principally with Uncle Rahman, Danial's father—began with Eric talking about why he doesn't bother getting larger capacity memory cards.

He summed up his stance in three words—"Think of 36." We would do well, he believes, to imagine we are still shooting with a limited roll of 36 exposures; then, he says, we will be more careful before pressing the shutter.

This led me to think of two recent shoots I did for a UM friend's company. At the first, I had forgotten to charge my camera's battery the night before, and to make things worse, I had forgotten to bring along the spare. Every shot counted, and—thank God, really—the battery lasted. I ended up making just about 200 exposures in four hours; I have a feeling the company may have wanted more—or at least, more shots taken so that we'd have a larger pool for selection.

At the second shoot, I went all-out and shot something like 800 frames in six hours. Were the shots from the second engagement necessarily better than those from the first? Not necessarily! More varied, yes; capturing more random nuances, yes; but more compelling as a portfolio on the whole? Not necessarily.

I do believe that photography is about knowing what you want and going for it; yes, you do approach the subject from different angles—but from a FEW angles, not by racking off 100 frames or so, hoping to record the anatomy of a yawn. (Then again, some people seem to like this sort of stuff these days.)

* * *

Later in the day, on the way home from a five-hour whirlwind errand run—which included the said lunch—I thought about the Penang workshop/trip I made with the PCP people in May 2007. After the morning photo walk, I remember hearing one of the guys at the workshop asking another, "So, how many gigs [gigabytes] did you shoot?"

Strange that the question wasn't, "How many good shots did you get?" let alone, "Did you encounter anything interesting?" or "What did you see?" It wasn't even, "How many shots did you take?"—the question was about the total size of the digital files!

At that time, I secretly thought to myself, "I think I took more pictures than that dude, but because my camera's files are small, I probably didn't hit anywhere near a few GB."

We are no longer Hemingway's old man, out there pursuing that great marlin, but mere trawlers, sweeping the sea with our giant nets and hoping to get lucky. We think—as these modern 'fishermen' do—that we can easily dispose of with whatever we don't want.

As I look back on those photographs, I find that I had shot nearly 500 pictures over the morning and evening photo walks; I can barely count 10 gems, looking through them. Amidst all that trawling I did get this picture:

But it was taken in the evening, when I was less obsessed with shooting every moving object, and more attentive to texture and form—when I was relaxed enough to look down at the beach and notice the extremely long shadows the strolling pigeons made.

This was the shot that received praise from renowned studio and advertising photographer Kelvin Chan during the group sharing session.

* * *

Plug: A photography exhibition on Nepal, curated by Alan Ng, is on display at Kokopelli Travellers Bistro, 4 Section 14/46, PJ, until the end of this year. So hurry, drop by and see it!

The photos include a stunning silver gelatin series by Alan Ng, and photographs taken by restaurant owner Ariff Awaluddin, Soraya Yusof Talismail, young Ushuaia Arif, Ange Choy, Choy Khye Fatt, Wong Lee Ling and Tovee Wan HL.

How do we maintain relevance in a world where photographs are so effortlessly made, and, perhaps for that reason, so arbitrarily disposed of?

I think this is what Eric Peris has been going on about all his life, and his photographs give us a strong clue as to the direction in which to head.

So I got my copy of Gitanjali signed, but unfortunately Soraya could not make it; Imaging Selfs will have to wait!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

It's really not about being 'green'

People get it wrong. They think I'm against plastics, styrofoam and the like because I'm an eco-fanatical tree-hugger sort. Well I'm not green; the grass is green, but I'm quite positively some shade of brown or tan.

I'm against wasteful use of synthetic materials simply because I like aesthetics. I take photos, I paint, I write. And my subject matter often comes from the world around me. Needless to say, plastic bottles generally don't look good in photographs—certainly not in nature photographs! And no one looks good eating out of a styrofoam container.

I believe in wildlife conservation not because I'm enraptured by the cuteness of dolphins, turtles and elephants, but because I think natural ecosystems are awesome. And when it comes to conserving an ecosystem—be it a coral reef, a rainforest or an arctic tundra—every member of the ecosystem needs to be conserved. In fact, it's often the small creatures that keep ecosystems alive; rainforests can survive without tigers, but they can't survive without the fungi and microorganisms that break down dead matter.

I endorse responsible and independent tourism, not because I think tour operators are crap (though of course, some are), but because, honestly, who wants to go snorkelling with hundreds of other day-trippers? Who wants to go for a jungle hike that feels more like a weekend school excursion? And who wants to take pictures of impressive architecture and sweeping landscapes with a menagerie of tourists in the foreground?

I support local agriculture and sustainable fisheries—and generally the whole 'going local' thing—not so much because I'm convinced of a creed or something, but more so because—let's face it—this is the only way that's going to work in the long run.

The December issue of National Geographic features an article on city living (link here—KL made it into the pages!), in which it is suggested that sustainable cities are the best bet for survival on earth. It must be realised, however, that sustainable can mean anything from perfectly synthetic (we don't need rivers because we can manufacture water) to a 'ruralisation' of cities (by going back to the natural way of things).

I know my opinions may well be a wet blanket in the dreams of many engineers, but I truly believe the key to the future is in the past, and that future cities really worth living in, will bear the unmistakable hallmarks of the best villages of the past and present.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Totally made my day

At the Rantai Art Event 'Revisit' at Urban Village, next to BLC.

Jia Ming, meet Jia Ming. Yes, same characters. ;-)

I vaguely remember having met another Jia Ming before, some time ago. But what are the odds!

This is Jia Ming Suen, artist, sketchbook and notebook designer, among many other things I'm sure! Blogs here:

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Rock: It Matters if You're Black and White

I am convinced that rock music, more than any other art form, is best expressed visually in black-and-white, or sepia-tinted, photographs.

I would go further and assert that these ought to be film photographs, and medium format at that (though I use 35mm), but these points are, I suppose, a little more debatable. For me, at least, I find the N80 so much more responsive than the D50 when it comes to autofocus in low light, and there's less camera shake when used with long lenses, too. I believe the newer cameras have superior autofocus, but I don't intend to spend that kind of money on a new digital SLR when most of my work is done on film.

Anyway, for my rock guitarist brother's 21st birthday, I prepared a portfolio of images I had taken, primarily during the later parts of 2010 and 2011, of him 'in action'. These are some of them.

* * *

Studio. 6 Strings, Taman Connaught.

Stage. The Library, e@Curve.

Stage. Opera, Sunway Pyramid.

* * *

The following were taken after the portfolio was completed, at UCSI's Contemporary Music Festival, 27 Nov 2011.

Bass and guitar.

The band performing Dream Theater's 'Endless Sacrifice'.

Thoughts on Street Photography

The moment I saw these guys walking my way, I thought of a friend in Singapore whom Kishan described as wearing a cravat of late.

I barely had time to whip my handphone camera into action before they disappeared behind me. And then I realised a few things about street photography.

It is commonly held that street photography benefits from a wide and fast lens, and fast film or a high ISO. It also benefits from a small and inconspicuous camera, which is why rangefinders—especially when painted black—have been an enduring favourite of street photographers. SLRs, while perfectly black, are in no way subtle, and compact cameras, while subtle, are often not responsive enough to capture split-second moments on the street.

But there is, I believe, an approach to street photography that leaves less to chance, and enables the photographer to get compelling shots even with an SLR. And that is to use a tripod and a wide lens, to disappear into the busyness of the street, to capture the subjects walking by, using a cable release or remote control to trigger the shutter. This way, the photographer becomes a 'passive hunter' of sorts, crouched and all but hidden behind the camera, making passers-by and other people on the street less self-conscious. No doubt, many will try to avoid the camera. But pedestrian pathways are usually narrow enough for a wide lens to prevent any possible escape on the part of potential subjects.

Bring a friend along, put two stools out on the streetside, and have a conversation over drinks in one hand and the cable release is the other, being mindful of what's going on in the corner of your eye. Pre-focus the camera and set it on Manual, and trip the shutter whenever something of interest happens within the camera's field of view.

Because in all of this, street photography, I feel, is not so much about capturing random scenes you pass by, as it is about capturing scenes of people and things that pass you by. And this calls for a certain discipline, patience, and directed focus more typically associated with the 'passive' art of landscape photography.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

O Donna Eileen Peris

Eric Peris's mother passed away on 30 November, at the age of 96.

At the memorial, the Sinhalese Buddhist priest, who is somewhat familiar with the Peris family, mentioned the family's artistic tradition, that it fulfilled one of three areas of the complete life, that is, the area of Aesthetics.

Aesthetics, the part that relates to how you see the world, to your artistic sense of things around and within you. "This requires discipline, especially so when the whole family is involved."

Ethics. "This is how you relate to others, and to society."

Religion. "This is the redeeming of space and time."

* * *

Dixie, the family dog, died earlier this year at the incredible (by dog standards) age of 19.

They are indeed a long-lived family. But what is even more enduring is their art—indeed, it would appear that long after every last Peris is gone, the works they have created will outlive them and continue to influence and inspire many generations to come.