I have written before about the treatment of family photos and other artifacts from previous generations. I recently re-encountered the collection of old 16mm home movies made by each of my grandfathers, which span a time range from the 1930s to the 1960s. I had sort of decided that I didn’t want to invest the time and expense of converting them to modern digital media just to look through them maybe once, wondering who these unknown people are, at events and places that have no particular meaning to me.
Still, I couldn’t bring myself to discard them, ending their life in some landfill. So I made a final effort to find someone who might actually be interested in them, perhaps as props for period theater productions, or as some old-timey footage to place in a modern film project. A google search did not find such uses, other than to mention that there is a market for old movies, without really listing many. But one suggestion was to check with local historical societies, who are sometimes interested in them for research and documentary purposes.
I grew up watching my father, following his father’s example, coming up each year with handmade Christmas cards that nearly always included a family photograph. They were both avid amateur photographers and would corral and cajole my siblings and me into a studio-like set in the living room with carefully positioned lights and a camera mounted on a tripod that would be aimed at a scene of dressed-up children surrounding their proud parents. This often occurred at our family Thanksgiving gathering, allowing just enough time for my mother to get prints made, mounted into cards (often with her hand-stenciled or stamped cover designs), personal greetings inscribed, and envelopes addressed and stamped, all before the week of Christmas.
In recent weeks I have been reviewing old family photos in preparation for a covid-delayed memorial. Among the too many pictures of unidentified people and places are some intriguing treasures. The relatives who could tell me more about them are now gone. I can’t ask them, which is one of the more frequent and sad experiences I have these days.
But sometimes it is possible to follow clues in the photos to find the answers. In this case it is a photo that my grandfather took, possibly back in the 1930s. It shows a beautiful composition of light and shadow of a building entrance/lobby. I liked the lighting, but I really enjoyed discovering the detail on the door panels that were casting the shadows: insects and plants. What building would host such artwork?
Google search is an amazing technology. A response to “door panels insects plants” did not yield anything useful, but by adding “Harvard” to the terms (knowing my grandfather had studied biology there) and looking for image results, I found a unique building: the Harvard Biology Laboratory.
The building was built in 1931 and obviously impressed my grandfather, where he likely spent considerable time in it pursuing his doctorate. It continues to impress, as recent posts attest. As I look at the pictures of the outside of the building, who wouldn’t find it intriguing?
It turns out that there are three doors to the entry; my grandfather’s shot depicted two. But there is a hint of another– a bicycle is parked there, and sure enough the current pictures show a third door, adorned by sea creatures. All of them, and the sculptures outside, created by Katherine Lane Weems.
All of this makes me want to visit. I now have a memento from the past that would be fun to re-create!
In 2006 I was given a travel tip by a coworker: there was a dramatic view of the Colorado River available to those willing to hike a half-mile to the canyon rim from a roadside rest area just south of Page, Arizona. While on a trip to the state, I searched for it and found the barely marked spot described by my friend, and then found hints of a lightly used footpath across a barren expanse of desert to a rocky crest that hid the sudden drop-off behind it.
It was indeed a grand view, and I returned that night with my camera to attempt some long exposure star trails. The conditions were not optimal: the moon was lighting the sky, but worse, clouds were interfering. Still, it was a beautiful setting and I have learned that unexpected results sometimes occur, so I stayed several hours to record whatever happened.
The results were not “stellar”, but the composition was strong enough that I include it among my nightscape favorites.
I have not had the opportunity to revisit that site until this year, when I looked forward to showing this hidden treasure to Poldi on our road trip through the area. As we traveled toward Page, the obscure rest area sign we were looking for had been replaced by huge billboards. I was stunned to find that the parking area, previously able to accommodate a dozen cars at most, now had a capacity for hundreds! And tour buses! There was an admission gate where fees were collected by multiple lanes of toll workers! Horseshoe Bend had been “Disneyfied”!
No longer was it a broken footpath to an exposed canyon ridge; a paved sidewalk had been installed to a fenced overlook, with benches at shade stations along the way. Hundreds of visitors flocked to the viewpoint and took selfies with the same backdrop I had used fifteen years earlier (before “selfie” was a word).
I flowed with the crowd, amazed at the transformation. I guess this is what happens at natural wonders as they become discovered and shared. And I guess it could be worse. It is part of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, administered by the National Park Service. For an example of “could be worse” look to Niagara Falls, the south bank managed by our NPS, preserving a beautiful park, but the northern Canadian side, with arguably a better visual vantage, is spoiled by unrestricted vendors catering to tourist sideshows and amusement parks.
It is no longer possible to take the picture I made in 2006. The expansive parking lot, which overfills during the day, must be empty by sunset according to Page city ordinance (which owns the land outside the national recreation area). There is no easy access at night.
Although I feel like I have witnessed a historic change, a 15-year transition from patch of desert to parking lot is much less than a blink-of-an-eye in the geologic time scale that created this wonder. In another million years, I expect the parking lot and the fenced overlook will be condensed to just another narrow but colorful band among the sedimentary layers displayed along the canyon walls.
1968 was a big year for me. I turned 15 and I went on a date, my first, with a girl who would later–45 years later, become my late-life partner and constant companion, road trips included. But that is another story. Earlier in that big year I experienced my very first road trip adventure.
My uncle Bob had completed his medical school training and had been accepted for the next stage on his path towards becoming a practicing physician: an internship at Oakland Medical Center. In 1968, Oakland California was a long way from Minneapolis Minnesota. Yes, an expensive plane ride could get you there in three hours, but if you needed to bring more than a weight-limited suitcase, a three-day overland drive was required.
And Bob was fully ready for it, having recently acquired a 1968 model year Ford Mustang convertible, into which he packed the possessions that would support him for the next year in a remote setting. The car was symbolic, a vehicle to take him to that next phase of his career. It was freeing. With the top down, the wind in his hair evoked that sense of traveling to far off destinations holding unknown new experiences. It was a big year for him too.
There was a second wide spot in the road at the south end of the playa; we parked and continued our explorations. This time we found stones sitting on the surface of the lakebed. There were not many, and we had to hike a mile or so to find them. Some sat happily contemplating their position in the uniform semi-infinite plane of mud cracks. Others showed a faint trail of disturbed, and now solidified mud, leading to their current position. These were the famous sailing stones!
Life highlights are those you can list on a single hand. They are indelible events that exceed the normal range of our experience. They may include a first kiss, the birth of a child, recognition of a career accomplishment, or the challenging hike to reach a beautiful mountain pass. This is the story of adding one more of those outlier life experiences to my list.
Years ago, I had read about the geologic mystery of the “sailing stones” on the Racetrack Playa in Death Valley. Death Valley is an intriguing place and not just because of its ominous (and deserved) name. It is a geology and biology classroom, displaying the impacts of volcanoes intruding on sedimentary layers that have been shape-shifted into ribbons of colorful escarpments with water and wind-eroded features. Somehow, the valley has fallen below sea level, and the water, when there is water, dissolves minerals from the mountains and finds its way to the bottom, where it evaporates and leaves the residue behind as a salt flat.
In the spring, the water also nourishes an intense flowering of desert plants, desperate to reproduce. For a few brief weeks, colorful plants and flowers adorn the roadsides and cover the otherwise barren hills. I have been to Death Valley during this season, during a “superbloom” following an unusually wet winter. It was a stunning display of flowers in this otherwise arid and nonviable setting, something I had never expected to see. As impressive as this floral show was, I had really hoped to visit the famous sailing stones on the playa.
When Management Graphics adapted their film recording technology to support motion picture film formats, it was quickly adopted by movie studios to bring special effects from their computer memory images on to film. There were some problems however, and one of the most serious was the difficulty in obtaining the full brightness range found in typical scenes, especially when they included lights—candle light, desk lamps, car headlights, streetlights. Any light source, even a glimpse through a window to the bright outdoors, would cause a large flare in the final film frames, washing out detail in the scene. Our customers complained, and we started down a path to research and solve the problem.
We understood what the fundamental issue was: halation, an effect caused by the glass faceplate of the cathode ray tube used for creating the image. The bright spot on the phosphor screen was internally reflected at the glass surface which then illuminated the phosphor coating. If phosphor were black, this would not be a problem, but phosphor coatings are white, as are most materials made of fine powder, and it resulted in this internal reflected light overexposing the film. In the absence of a black phosphor, there were few other ways to mitigate the halation effect.
One of our customers was incorporating our film recorder into a full workstation system. Quantel, a company in Newberry, England, had become successful in the early years of digital video and was looking for a way to expand its editing tool offerings into the motion picture market. Quantel’s engineers understood the halation problem as well, but they didn’t want to rely on our figuring out a solution: they had an aggressive development schedule.
My father, an early adopter of nearly everything, took on a project to digitize a collection of historical family photos that had accumulated over many generations and that were now in his possession. It was the early years of digital photography when scanning technology was barely up to the task, and computer image file formats were crude by today’s standards.
Nevertheless, he forged ahead and built a repository of over 700 scanned photographs dating back to the 1800s. He recognized a weakness in the collection—there was no context, no annotations, no identifications of the people portrayed. Old photographs lose their value when this information, originally held in the memories of those who were around at the time, is not recorded.
My father knew this and wanted to somehow attach the information about the photo, in the scan of the photo. I know this, because he asked me (an imaging scientist) about how to do it. Unfortunately, at the time, there was no standardized way to embed such “metadata” within existing image file formats. He was a man ahead of his time.
This is adapted from a tribute that my father made at the memorial of his father, Theodore Olson, after whom we are both named, who died in 2002 at the age of 97. I post it here for the online access of posterity, and to provide a portrayal of the scientific mindset of a family patriarch that influenced not only his students, but his entire family and several generations beyond. Here is my father’s rendition of our family history.
The start of this story goes back almost 150 years. In about 1860 in Norway, Hans Opjörden left home and went to Oslo. Hans had the misfortune to be the second son in his family, and that meant that his older brother would inherit the family farm. Hans left home and headed off to Oslo, where he went to work in a shipyard building boats. After a while he decided he really wanted to sail on the boats instead of just building them. At this time Norway was a province of Sweden. Shrewdly, Hans changed his name from Opjörden to Olson (with a Swedish spelling) and got Swedish sailing papers.
He went on several voyages and along the way befriended a shipmate named Peter Magnus Peterson. We can imagine a conversation between them based on what subsequently happened. Hans confided that he’d really wanted to be a farmer but had no prospects of getting land—and that being a sailor was not his “dream job”, but was good paying employment.