Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Camera Never Lies

At ordinary resolution this may appear to be just a photo of a man's face, but zoom in on the pupil and you can recreate what his eye is looking at. As Shree K Nayar explains, it’s the closest you can get to seeing what someone else sees, short of implanting chips into their brain. Shree Nayar studies computational vision, but tonight at the Cornelia Street Café he’s explaining to a mixed group of bohemians, scientists, artists, and regulars how the very word camera is rapidly changing meaning. Professor Nayar points out that the same fundamental concept has underlain all photography to date, the camera obscura (latin for dark chamber), wherein an image is projected through a hole onto a screen (that screen is at the back of an enclosed hollow, hence the latin). Until very recently, this primary feature has been shared for all cameras, from the earliest mention in ancient times, through the first exposures of Daguerreotypes in the 1800s, through 20th century film, up to and even including the 21st century point-and-shoot digital hand-helds. But today, the stalwart camera obscura cedes to a truly new technological advance, the computational camera. By using concave and convex lenses and spheres, computational cameras can take all kinds of images. As Shree jokes, the ultra-high resolution described above can be used to tell you exactly what your significant other is looking at while your talking to them - so pay attention to the conversation! Other exotic uses are gained with mirrors. We're shown a concave mirror, fitted on the end of a lens such that there are exactly three different perspectives of the same image reaching the sensor of that camera. Before the computational algorithm kicks in, the images that the sensor "sees" look rather odd indeed. Imagine your reflection, then imagine it encircled by another reflection that is stretched like a rubber band to go around not once but twice. . After further algorithmic processing those three images are used to construct a final 3-D image of your face. On the other hand, convex mirrors can be applied to create ultra-ultra-wide angle lenses (ie beyond fish-eye) with applications such as video conferencing where a single lens can be used to video-capture a room full of people.

L to R: Jim Moore, Stuart Firestein & Shree Nayar
Since Roald Hoffmann organized the first series in 2002 with Robin Hirsch, the Cornelia Street Café has welcomed scientists and artists to dialogue together. Today, in the stead of Dr. Hoffman, Stuart Firestein, Columbia Professor of Biology, hosts a show that lives up to the series' namesake, Entertaining Science. No surprise, since Shree Nayar, the Chair of the Computer Science department at Columbia and the winner of numerous awards has also won two prizes for excellence in teaching. As Shree continues his presentation, he tells us that he's taken his passion for teaching to children, showing us one of his latest creations. The Bigshot is a nifty, colorful assemble-it-yourself and crank-it-yourself digital camera designed for children. The idea behind the Bigshot project is to give young people hands-on experience assembling a device that works while they also enthusiastically imbibe the technology behind the piece they are using.

Even if Shree Nayar was no warm-up act for Jim Moore, as he had joked in the beginning, the stage at Entertaining Science is nonetheless shared. Science having spoken, it was Art’s turn. Jim Moore has been performing, photographing, and photographing others performing for his whole career. As a mime he would climb the metal kiosk by Waverly Place and pose until the sidewalk was saturated with bystanders. Then he’d dive into his act. His performer’s act, in turn, gave him a keen eye for capturing the moment within the moment of a performance. And we got to see hundreds of examples in his collections of “Vaude Visuals.” Jim presented his projects with clowns and other performers in depth. In one brilliant shot Paul Zaloom the puppeteer is on the floor covered by baby shoes as if he’s being invaded; the tiny shoes in Moore’s pictures are utterly alive. We also see a great deal of Jim's work during preparation for Phillipe Petit's tightrope walk between the Twin Towers in 1974, including a short clip of an interview with Jim taken during the documentary, Man on Wire. In the months leading up to D-Day Jim had spent extensive time with Petit researching and photographing the roof of the Twin tower which was still under construction, shooting to get views on anchor points and pylons for Petit's soon-famed tight-rope walk. Incredible aerial images of the towers were taken by Jim leaning out of a helicopter with his Nikon while Petit tugged at his denims to make sure he made it back in one piece. From this period we see quiet, but intense drama captured, Petit's anticipation as he sits gazing on the edge of the tower, jotting in his notebook. We see Petit's famed act betrayed by rigorous, calculated premeditation, and of course some of his antics as well, like standing on the edge of the tower balancing a broom on his forehead. But above all, we see the towers. We see Jim's picture of both towers taken from the ground, a commercial airliner flying above, and it's impossible any longer to keep at bay the flood of dread that comes with the marvel of seeing them at all. At once the order of images ceases to matter as Jim shows us his picture, taken from the ground, of both towers enshrouded in fog. How impossible that the man in front of us ever stood in that space. And yet, we see a shot of Jim himself doing a handstand on the edge of the soon-to-be-completed Tower.

Entertaining Science brought together artists, musicians, magicians, writers and neuroscientists on the evening of 7th February. After the formal presentations they asked questions. After the questions they lingered, pondering, conversing, and, we suspect, anticipating the next show.

- Abha Dawesar

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