Monthly Archives: March 2006

The Talent for Practice

In his fine essay “The Learning Curve,” Atul Gawande explains how top performers seem to share a “talent for practice.”

There have now been many studies of elite performers–concert violinists, chess grand masters, professional ice skaters, mathematicians and so forth–and the biggest difference researchers find between them and lesser performances is the amount of deliberate practice they’ve accumulated. Indeed, the most important talent may be the talent for practice itself. K. Anders Ericsson, a cognitive psychologist and an expert on performance, notes that the most important role that innate factors play may be in a person’s willingness to engage in sustained training. He has found, for example, that top performers dislike practicing just as much as others do. (That’s why for example, athletes and musicians usually quit practicing when they retire.) But, more than others, they have the will to keep at it anyway.

Taiwanese Director Ang Lee

The Associated Press profiles Taiwanese director Ang Lee, who has been nominated for Best Director for his film Brokeback Mountain. I am still hoping that Lee will someday soon refocus his directorial attention on Taiwan and its history, which to date has been left largely to directors like Hou Hsiao-Hsien to work.

The Body at Risk

Got a chance to look at The Body at Risk, the exhibit at the International Center of Photography. A lot of quality images, but what stood out to me were the images by W. Eugene Smith and Sebastiao Salgado. Too often, you see Smith’s photographs included in collections as single photographs, which does not do justice to his work and vision at all. Though his best known singles each show technical and photojournalistic accomplishment, Smith’s photographs are best viewed within the series that he envisioned. Additionally, when you see each photo in each series side by side, you also realize the incredible level of quality Smith was able to maintain throughout his work.

Smith was known for his epic battles against his editors at Life Magazine: he felt photographers should have much more control over the choice, organization and layout of photographs. It was great to finally see full-sized prints of his series “Nurse Midwife.” PBS, in its American Masters documentary on Smith says:

Smith would spend weeks immersing himself in the lives of his subjects. This approach, very different from the usual practices of photojournalism, reflected Smith’s desire to reveal the true essence of his subjects. For “Nurse Midwife,” the story of Maude Callen, a black woman working in an impoverished community in the rural South, Smith wanted his essay to “make a very strong point about racism, by simply showing a remarkable woman doing a remarkable job in an impossible situation.” Smith’s method of getting close to his subjects and photographing them from a more intimate perspective proved successful.

Hardcover Blogging

Blogging takes self-publishing another step forward, according to The New York Times.

Though not all blogs may aspire to literary permanence, they can achieve it through the new Book-Smart software from Blurb, a publish-your-own-book service. The software, which is expected to be available free later this month at, features a “Slurper” tool that automatically downloads and reformats the contents of a Web log into a book that bloggers and their admirers can purchase online.

The Educated Observer

We often hear concern over hit-and-run photojournalism, how the fly-by photographer on a few-day jaunt is apt to overly exoticize an unfamiliar land and people. This speaks to the importance of immersion in a subject. Spending a day or two with a subject is very different from spending weeks, months, years on a project, getting to know people well enough that they let down their guard and are no longer conscious of the camera, or the photographer as photographer.

On the other hand, does lengthy immersion take away your ability to see things differently; does it melt away the inherent advantages of being an outsider? Someone growing up in a particular environment grows to think of certain things as everyday and mundane. Casual travelers come in and think of certain things in that environment as startling, even exotic, but the problem is that these many casual eyes too often flit onto the same topics; worse yet, they flit onto them with the same viewpoint. The expatriate is often well placed as an observer, because he is neither inured to the everyday there, nor is he too overawed with subjects that might initially be deemed exotic–yet do not give full meaning to things like time, people and place.

The key question: what are we meant to document? It’s too easy to think of photographing certain objects, and letting them represent a place and people: rickshaws and oxen in Asia, for instance. Strong photography goes beyond simplistic forms of iconography to focus on moments.