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A picture is worth 274 words

November 11, 2010

I should make it clear at the outset that I have only the highest respect for Hans, and nothing Iím about to say should be understood in any way as a criticism. I merely report the facts as they are.

Hans and I were taking picture of steel boxes in Elk Grove Village, which is the kind of place where, if youíre going to be taking pictures of anything, itís probably going to be steel boxes, although I donít suppose itís out of the question they shoot the occasional porn film there. In any case I wasnít the person who pushed the button that caused the strobes to flash; that was Hansís job. I provided vision and strategic direction; Hans did the work. This was my notion of the ideal creative partnership.

Itís not necessary to have a detailed understanding of why we were taking pictures, other than to say we were trying to convey information. Information, it must be said, of a fairly basic sort. This was the crux of my problem with Hans. My job was to explain, in a precise and elegant way, certain aspects of the physical world. I thought it would be useful to have some of these aspects illustrated. Thus Hans.

But now I had the problem of any writer in a digital age. Hansís contribution was dwarfing mine Ė not in any aesthetic sense, but literally. His part took up way more bytes.

You may suppose you hear ego talking. I acknowledge that partly this is so. Itís wounding to the literary sensibility to realize that, from the standpoint of scale, the words on which you have lavished such care are a dandelion seed in the forest. I had started out with 500 kilobytes of text, added Hansís photos, and wound up with a file 137 megabytes long. To put it another way, for every 274 bytes devoted to Hansís creative output, I got one.

Purely as a philosophical proposition, I suppose, I could have gotten used to this. Size alone meant nothing. Sonnets are short. The Gettysburg Address was short. Brevity is the soul of wit. However, the Gettysburg Address hadnít had to compete with photographers for hard disk space. The issue at root was a practical one: The file in which Hansís photos and my text were merged was too big, slowed the computers to a crawl, and made the e-mail server choke.

I explained this to Hans. He was unsympathetic, taking the attitude common among artists Ė Frank Lloyd Wright was often like this Ė that the solution wasnít for him to dial back, but rather for the rest of the world to catch up. Indeed, he gave me to understand, he looked forward to the days of cameras were measured in gigapixels and color depth in the trillions, when his photos, now a wan imitation of reality, would really look sharp.

I tried to reason with him. I said that, while I didnít want to make excuses for slipshod work, it was hardly necessary for an image that, in reproduction, was going to measure two inches by three to contain an individual photographic record of every atom on the subjectís surface. Hans said he realized that, and that in any case the Heisenberg uncertainty principle presented a practical limit to the achievable fidelity, and that he was content to abide by the laws of physics. Lesser constraints, however, no.

I decided to try a different tack. Hans, I said. Do you realize that 137 megabytes is more than would be required to digitize the collected works of civilization up to 1900?

Youíre making that up, said Hans.

All right, I said, Iím making it up. But it stands to reason. Literature was borne of an age of scarcity. Writers learned to express themselves economically when the result had to be copied out longhand by monks. Whereas today we heedlessly squander our subatomic resources, tying up countless gigabytes on pictures of toddlersí birthday parties and tentacle porn.

Hans gave this some thought. The Bayeux Tapestry, he said finally.

What about the Bayeux Tapestry? I asked.

It was created well before 1900, Hans replied, possibly as early as the 11th century. Itís 224 feet long. Youíd suck up some serious bandwidth making a JPEG out of that.

They used coarse thread, I said. You could use a low-res scan. Also, given the limited range of medieval textile dyes, itís not as though youíd need 48-bit color. Eight-bit should be fine.

Rembrandt then, said Hans. Titian. Leonardo. All those guys. Admittedly things get a little slapdash once you start heading into the Impressionists, but nobodyís going to tell me you could do justice to the great masters at 75 dots per inch.

Hans, I said. Weíre not talking about the great masters. Weíre talking about taking pictures of coin sorting devices with wires coming out.

This was a mistake Ė I saw that immediately. I had wounded Hansís pride. Yes, the subject matter was humble, but Hans took as much satisfaction in it as a medieval mason carving gargoyles high on a cathedral that no one but the pigeons ever saw.

Let me tell you about the chianti, he said in a quiet voice.

When he was younger, Hans explained, he'd been a connoisseur of the finer things, wines in particular. One year he discovered an exceptional chianti ó a chianti for the gods. Hans bought a case of it, and served it only on special occasions.

One day Hansís in-laws came to visit. They were Italians, from Ohio ó Hans said this with an air suggesting all the best Italians came from Ohio. He brought out a bottle of the chianti and poured a glass for his mother-in-law.

His mother-in-law sipped the chianti and looked thoughtful. Then she asked:

ďCan you put some Seven-Up in this?Ē

Well. An anecdote like that brings the game to a halt. Who wants to brand himself as a person so cretinous he'd besmirch his chianti with Seven-Up? Conceding the fundamental rightness ó  nay, nobility ó of his cause, I dropped any notion of persuading Hans to compromise his principles. Instead I resampled his photos at a smaller size after the fact, on average getting a 6 megabyte image down to a manageable 70 K.

Craftsmanship is all very well. But life must go on.

ó Ed Zotti

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