Sartore and Alvarez win Communication Arts Photo Annual

Editorial Series Joel Sartore

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photos by Joel Sartore

Editorial Series Stephen Alvarez

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photos by Stephen Alvarez

The Map and the Mind

Nicholas Carr’s new book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, examines how our intellectual technologies—the tools we use to find, store, and share information—influence the way that we think, from the map and the clock to the book and the Internet. In this excerpt, Carr looks at the map’s far-reaching effects on the intellectual lives of our ancestors.

Ira Block
photo by Ira Block

A child takes a crayon from a box and scribbles a yellow circle in the corner of a sheet of paper: this is the sun. She takes another crayon and draws a green squiggle through the center of the page: this is the horizon. Cutting through the horizon she draws two brown lines that come together in a jagged peak: this is a mountain. Next to the mountain, she draws a lopsided black rectangle topped by a red triangle: this is her house. The child gets older, goes to school, and in her classroom she traces on a page, from memory, an outline of the shape of her country. She divides it, roughly, into a set of shapes that represent the states. And inside one of the states she draws a five-pointed star to mark the town she lives in. The child grows up. She trains to be a surveyor. She buys a set of fine instruments and uses them to measure the boundaries and contours of a property. With the information, she draws a precise plot of the land, which is then made into a blueprint for others to use.

Our intellectual maturation as individuals can be traced through the way we draw pictures, or maps, of our surroundings. We begin with primitive, literal renderings of the features of the land we see around us, and we advance to ever more accurate, and more abstract, representations of geographic and topographic space. We progress, in other words, from drawing what we see to drawing what we know. Vincent Virga, an expert on cartography affiliated with the Library of Congress, has observed that the stages in the development of our mapmaking skills closely parallel the general stages of childhood cognitive development delineated by the twentieth-century Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget. We progress from the infant’s egocentric, purely sensory perception of the world to the young adult’s more abstract and objective analysis of experience.

“First,” writes Virga, in describing how children’s drawings of maps advance, “perceptions and representational abilities are not matched; only the simplest topographical relationships are presented, without regard for perspective or distances. Then an intellectual ‘realism’ evolves, one that depicts everything known with burgeoning proportional relationships. And finally, a visual ‘realism’ appears, [employing] scientific calculations to achieve it.”

As we go through this process of intellectual maturation, we are also acting out the entire history of mapmaking. Mankind’s first maps, scratched in the dirt with a stick or carved into a stone with another stone, were as rudimentary as the scribbles of toddlers. Eventually the drawings became more realistic, outlining the actual proportions of a space, a space that often extended well beyond what could be seen with the eye. As more time passed, the realism became scientific in both its precision and its abstraction. The mapmaker began to use sophisticated tools like the direction-finding compass and the angle-measuring and to rely on mathematical reckonings and formulas. Eventually, in a further intellectual leap, maps came to be used not only to represent vast regions of the earth or heavens in minute detail, but to express ideas—a plan of battle, an analysis of the spread of an epidemic, a forecast of population growth.

The historical advances in cartography didn’t simply mirror the development of the human mind. They helped propel and guide the very intellectual advances that they documented. The map is a medium that not only stores and transmits information but also embodies a particular mode of seeing and thinking. As mapmaking progressed, the spread of maps also disseminated the mapmaker’s distinctive way of perceiving and making sense of the world. The more frequently and intensively people used maps, the more their minds came to understand reality in the maps’ terms.

The influence of maps went far beyond their practical employment in establishing property boundaries and charting routes. “The use of a reduced, substitute space for that of reality,” explains the cartographic historian Arthur Robinson, “is an impressive act in itself.” But what’s even more impressive is how the map “advanced the evolution of abstract thinking” throughout society. “The combination of the reduction of reality and the construct of an analogical space is an attainment in abstract thinking of a very high order indeed,” writes Robinson, “for it enables one to discover structures that would remain unknown if not mapped.” The technology of the map gave to man a new and more comprehending mind, better able to understand the unseen forces that shape his surroundings and his existence.

Copyright 2010 by Nicholas Carr. Reprinted with permission of W. W. Norton & Company. All rights reserved.

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Josh Anon talks about CS5 and Nature

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National Geographic photographers have a reputation for authentic images. But in the digital age what you see through the viewfinder is not always what you get in the edit. It is one of the challenges of contemporary nature photography. There is a fine balance between vision, reality and good visual storytelling. In Josh Anon’s new book he presents the tools to enhance your images and leaves it to the reader to make their own determination how to use them. The book reads like you’re having a coffee with a patient Photoshop expert who truly cares that you learn the craft.

Josh Anon works on the creative side at Pixar in Northern California. The work ethic that goes into Pixar’s Oscar winning movies is reflected in his book. His attention to subtle details will motivate you to run out and capture new images and then try your hand at some of Mr. Anon’s techniques.

National Geographic Blog recently got a chance to talk with Josh Anon about his new book, Photoshop CS5 for Nature Photographers, which explores the different techniques that allow digital technology and nature photography to co-exist in a non-compromising way.

NGA Blog:
In your book there is an undertone of remaining true to the image as it was shot.  Yet, you’re telling people how to use photo manipulation software.  How do you keep the balance in your minds eye?

Josh Anon:

What you see when you take the shot isn’t always what your camera captures, even if what you see is the potential that a shot has.  We’re not talking putting polar bears and penguins together but rather things like, “gee, this would be better if that branch wasn’t there, but I don’t/can’t disturb the scene” and “man, I wish I had time to wait around to get a better sky here.”  While you could use these techniques to put polar bears and penguins together, we leave it up to the reader to determine how much manipulation they want to tolerate and simply teach a range of techniques to improve their images.

NGA Blog:
When you’re shooting on location do you ever consider the post production power you have available back at home when you’re looking through the lens?  That is to say, do you ever shoot with the intent of working the image in photoshop?

Josh Anon:
Somewhat, and it’s a new tool that digital photographers have.  HDR, panoramas, and other techniques that involve multiple images are mainly where I think about post-production, allowing me to capture shots you couldn’t do on film.  However, I aim to get the shot as perfect as possible and find it much easier to walk to get the composition I want rather than planning on relying on Photoshop.

We Love Summer

Ain’t that America – Lou Lesko/Joel Sartore

Often, when traveling out of the country on the Fourth of July, I am put in a position of explaining that the media’s representation of America is woefully incomplete. “You mean the United States isn’t made up primarily of spoiled celebrities and serial killers?”

“Oh no.” I respond, “we just give them a home.”

Lesko Porch
photo by Lou Lesko

Traveling within the United States I am always thrilled to find that the vast diversity of the American landscape is alive and always growing and always changing. There is something wonderful about the people of this country. We have a tireless passion for reinvention. That spirit has resulted in monumental accomplishments which, thankfully, are still numerous enough and big enough to temper the absurdity of our missteps.

At the beginning of the financial crisis, when many pundits were writing off the United States, the most sage economists were saying the opposite. “There is too much innovation happening in some of the garages of America. You never know what the Americans will come up with next.” When I heard that I realized that the Fourth of July is as much a celebration of our independence as it is a celebration of our pioneering spirit.

Joel Sartore Fourth
photo by Joel Sartore

I am always surprised how much I miss the United States when I’m traveling abroad on the Fourth of July. I’m also surprised that, as much as people from other countries like to criticize the US, they also have a desire to live here. When I ask the reason why, the overwhelming response is “opportunity.”

Not everything is perfect here in United States. But it is an amazing feeling to know that we always have the freedom to make things better.