PAULINA STREET JOURNAL
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
ó Ed Zotti
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