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If You Don't Follow Me On Instagram...

October 21, 2013

I’m not one of those photographers who posts to Instagram several times a day, or even daily. But I do use it. If you don’t follow me, here’s a little bit of what you’ve missed:







Portrait: Minna Schrag for Columbia Law School

September 24, 2013

Hot off the press, it’s the latest issue of Columbia Law School Magazine featuring my portrait of alumna Minna Schrag. She’s had a pretty incredible career, including time spent as a senior trial attorney for the International Criminal Tribunal and as chair of the board of NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund.

When I spoke with Minna to set up a time and place to shoot, she suggested using her bookcase at home as a backdrop. I politely dismissed that idea and if you do a Google Image Search for the phrase “lawyer portrait,” you’ll understand why.

Instead, we found some nice natural light elsewhere in her building that I supplemented lightly. And for some alternate options, we shot nearby at the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. I liked the large concrete bricks as a symbol of her personal strength.

Here are some outtakes:

Inventor Portrait: Douglas Engelbart (1925-2013)

July 3, 2013

I’m sad to learn that Douglas Engelbart, father of the computer mouse, passed away today. I spent an afternoon with him and his wife Karen in 2009 photographing him at home and work as part of my inventor portraits project. We talked about his invention, and next generation navigation like touch screens. He was charming, even flirted with my assistant. I will have more thoughts to share on him later, but for now here is a link to the New York Times obituary and a few photos from my shoot with him.

Inventor Portrait: Randall Olsen

May 16, 2013

I try to find a broad category of inventors for this series, including small entrepreneurs and successful legends. So when I read about some of the technology being invented by the Navy in their SPAWAR division, I thought it would be really cool to include some military technology in the project.

When I initially reached out to the Navy, I thought it was a longshot that I could get access and permission to photograph one of their inventors. But ultimately the Navy turned out to be one of the most supportive organizations I’ve reached out to. And their level of organization was unequaled. The whole shoot was a great experience.

They put me in touch with Randall Olsen, who invents antenna technology for the Navy. In our interview, we focused on his DANTE technology which allows for inexpensive high-speed ship-to-ship communication.

Here’s the video, followed by some photos from the shoot:


Inventor Portrait: Mark Setteducati

March 21, 2013

I especially like the latest video for my PBS INVENTORS series because the subject, magician and artist Mark Setteducati, was just so fun to photograph. The camera really liked his face, and I came up with a variety of ways to capture his personality in his small apartment.

Plus, he’s a really smart guy whose inventions are quite clever. Hearing him talk about “hexaflexagons” sent me down a rabbit hole of Google searches and videos about these fascinating mathematical objects. Here’s the video, followed by some photos from our shoot:


Inventor Portrait: Esther Takeuchi

February 7, 2013

One issue I'm conscious of in my Inventor Portraits series is that it's not very gender balanced. Of the forty-something inventors I've photographed and interviewed so far, only eight are women. There have been other women under consideration, but in an effort to keep the inventions varied, I've passed on some that were too similar. I can only have so many women who invent products for the closet, baby room, or kitchen before it begins to give the impression that women only come up with domestic inventions. Those kinds of inventions are certainly important and useful, but my project strives to be broader in its subject matter.

So when I reached out to Esther Takeuchi, a chemical engineer whose life-saving developments in batteries for implantable medical devices have saved millions of lives, I was delighted that she said yes. She's a terrific role model for women in science, and yet she expresses her own frustrations with exclusion in her field.

Inventor Portrait: Donald Scruggs (also: big news!)

November 14, 2012

I’m very excited to announce that the videos I’ve been producing as part of my Inventors Portrait Project are now part of PBS Digital Studios. The first new episode went up on their YouTube channel last week, and new episodes will go up every other Tuesday. Here’s the first episode, about Donald Scruggs, inventor of the Screw-In Coffin:


The series will be mostly new videos, with some of the videos I’ve posted here previously mixed in, perhaps with a few changes. They’ll be new to most people.

The YouTube Channel can be found at its permanent home http://youtube.com/inventorseries, and it would mean a lot to me if you subscribe to the channel and/or share it with your friends.

Here are some of the photos from my shoot with Donald Scruggs:

Portrait: Will Leitch for Illinois Alumni

June 29, 2012

New York magazine columnist and Deadspin founder Will Leitch, photographed for the University of Illinois alumni magazine:

Inventor Portrait: Ralph Baer

March 4, 2012

Ralph Baer is sometimes known as the father of video games. One of his early inventions, sold as the Magnavox Odyssey, was the first home video game system.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Odyssey, and this week is Ralph Baer’s 90th birthday. So it seemed like a good time to share this video from my interview and shoot with Ralph in which we discuss, among other things, why he’s still inventing at 90 years old.

At one point in our interview he expressed frustration that modern kids don’t read anymore because they’re too busy playing with their smartphones. So I asked him if he thinks kids play too many video games today. Did he accidentally unleash a monster with his invention? His answer:

Yeah. I did a bit. What I thought I unleashed was a family game. If you’ll stop to consider for a second, what’s the ping pong game? You can’t play ping pong with yourself. It was meant to be played by two people. And we had four-handed ping pong and hockey games early on, also. I always thought of it as a family game. And it just sort of degenerated into a one player type thing which was never in my mind.

One trend I’ve seen in my project is that inventions sometimes evolve into something the inventor never imagined. In this case, though, I think I see a pendulum swinging back in Baer’s direction with consoles like the Nintendo Wii, which put an emphasis on group play.

Anyway, Happy 90th Birthday, Ralph!

Inventor Portrait: Ernest Nussbaum

July 8, 2011

I took the last couple months off to have a baby, but now I’m back in the swing of things, so here’s the latest video from my Inventor Portraits series. This is Ernest Nussbaum, inventor of the Practicello.


The Practicello is a full height cello that breaks down to fit in carry-on luggage. It’s not intended to be good enough to play in a concert, but its just meant for cellists who want to practice while they travel without needing to pay for an extra seat on the airplane to bring their instrument. And since it doesn’t resonate as loudly as a cello with a full body, it’s not going to annoy the people in the hotel room next door.

Here are some more photos from our shoot:

Ernest Nussbaum Practicello

Ernest Nussbaum Practicello

Ernest Nussbaum Practicello

200th Birthday of First Portrait Photographer

April 29, 2011

One of my side projects is a blog called Sunday Magazine where I reprint articles from the New York Times Sunday Magazine exactly 100 years ago each week. One of the articles from this weekend in 1911 is especially relevant to me as a photographer, so I thought I’d write about it here.

This weekend in 1911, the magazine ran an article celebrating the 100th Birthday of John William Draper, who took the first portrait photograph, an image of his sister Dorothy. Here is how the article appeared:

To read the whole thing, you can download the article as a PDF.

In Draper’s day, all photos required long exposures, so the subjects needed to sit extremely still. Draper experimented with putting white powder on people’s faces to lighten them up a bit for the picture. And he also realized that if a person sits still for a 30 second exposure, they can feel free to blink during that time without worrying about ruining the image. But any other movement must be considered and eliminated:

“The hands should never rest upon the chest, for the motion of respiration disturbs them so much as to make them have a thick, clumsy appearance, destroying also the representation of the veins on the back, which, if they are held motionless, are copied with surprising beauty.”

Here’s some more of Draper’s advice for a portrait sitting:

“It has already been stated that pictorial advantages attend an arrangement in which the light is thrown upon the face at a small angle. This also allows us to get rid entirely of the shadow on the background or to compose it more gracefully in the picture. For this it is well that the chair should be brought forward from the background from three to six feet. Those who undertake daguerreotype portraiture will, of course, arrange the background of their pictures according to their own tastes. When one that is quite uniform is desired, a blanket or a cloth of drab color, properly suspended, will be found to answer very well.”

While Draper took the first formal portrait, Louis Daguerre actually took the first photo of a person. He captured a photo looking out over a street in Paris. It was a long exposure, so people moving through the frame were not captured. But one person stood still long enough to register in the image while he was getting his shoe shined.

Note: The Times actually celebrated Draper’s birthday a few days early. He was born on May 5.

Inventor Portrait: Steven Sasson

April 11, 2011

It’s been way too long since I’ve posted one of these. This is my portrait of Steven Sasson, inventor of the digital camera. He was the 32nd inventor in my project. I shot him in October at Kodak’s headquarters in Rochester, just a couple weeks before President Obama awarded him the National Medal of Technology.


When he initially mentioned that the first digital camera held 30 pictures, I assumed that was due to the storage capacity of the digital tape. It was really interesting to hear that he picked 30 as an artificial limitation, and his explanation why.

Here are a couple photos from our shoot, as seen in the video:

Steven Sasson

Steven Sasson

Update: A few people have commented on the upholstery, so I thought I’d expound on that a little bit:

The only room made available to me for shooting at Kodak was the lobby, which wasn’t very inspiring. I talked my way into getting one more room to look at, a conference room that had slightly more visual interest: there were some cameras scattered around in displays, a conference table, a giant pot with huge sunflowers, and a few chairs. I tried to find a way to shoot in there that didn’t scream “conference room” and that probably hadn’t been done already, since I know they’ve used that room for media before. As soon as I saw this chair parked near a coffee table, I knew I had to use it. The pattern immediately reminded me of the Bayer pattern used in modern digital sensors. (It’s the checkerboard-like arrangement of red, green, and blue receptors — do a Google image search for “Bayer pattern” and you’ll see what I mean). I figured that most people wouldn’t notice the connection — Steve said he’d never heard anyone point it out before — but to me it was as relevant a prop as if I’d picked it out myself for the shoot because it speaks directly to the invention. Now every time I see it, I smile and wonder if there are any other people out there who see the connection, too. I think of it as a subtle inside joke for technically minded.

A 30-Year Contact Print On Construction Paper

February 7, 2011

I was in Arizona a couple weeks ago to shoot two more people for my Inventor Portraits Project. My parents live in Arizona, so I took the opportunity to visit them and go through some old boxes that have been taking up space in my old bedroom.

In my closet, I found a photo of me that was taken almost 30 years ago. It had been taped to a piece of green construction paper and placed in a cheap plastic frame around 1982. It hung that way on a wall in my bedroom for about 15 years. When it was hung up, it looked like this:

By the time I took the photo down in 1997, indirect sunlight had faded the construction paper from green to a sort of salmon-like orange. I digitally restored it to the original green for the image above, but actually the background had faded like this:

When I found it in my closet during my recent visit, I decided there was no reason to keep the photo in the bulky plastic frame any longer. It should go in an album, or a better frame. When I separated the photo from the paper, this was revealed hidden underneath:

How wonderful is that? Over all that time hung on the wall, sunlight had bleached the construction paper everywhere it could. But since it couldn’t penetrate the darker areas of the photo, the corresponding parts of the construction paper underneath remained their original color.

Any light-sensitive surface can be used to make a photo, and I’ve seen everything used from leaves to grass. But I don’t remember seeing photos printed on construction paper, even though I know they’re sometimes used to make photograms as an activity for kids. But I did a little googling and found a couple other people who made a print on construction paper using similar methods, although deliberately and not over quite so long a time.

Inventor Portrait: Brent Farley

May 11, 2010

Part of a continuing series of inventor portraits.

I’ve photographed 30 inventors for this project so far, but Brent Farley is among the most interesting. He’s certainly the most prolific. I normally start one of profile posts with an invention name and patent number, but Brent has so many inventions that I couldn’t pick just one. So before I say much more, why don’t I show you this video profile I made that sums him up pretty well:

Here are some of the photos I shot of Brent:

Brent Farley

Brent Farley

Brent Farley

Brent Farley

Inventor Portrait: William Walsh

March 26, 2010

Part of a continuing series of inventor portraits.

Inventor: William Walsh
Invention: Convertible Pizza Box
Patent: No. 7,051,919
Brand Name: Greenbox

The Green Box is a brand of environmentally friendly food containers. The inaugural product, the Green Box Pizza, is made from 100% recycled materials and features several patented design elements. The top half is perforated to split up into 4 plates. The bottom half folds up into a container for storing leftovers.

William Walsh Greenbox

Will says that back in college he and his housemates were watching football and eating pizza, and nobody was using plates. So he tore up a pizza box and handed out improvised plates. His housemates were amazed, but he dismissed it, assuming everybody did that. He says, “I thought it was standard operating procedure.” Ten years later, people were similarly amazed when he tore up a pizza box at a friend’s daughter’s birthday party. This time, with the wisdom of a business degree and a minor in mechanical engineering, he decided there might actually be a way to turn this practice into a business.

William Walsh Greenbox

“I went to a local restaurant, I bought 50 or 100 pizza boxes — the guy thought I was out of my mind — and an exacto knife, and a straightedge ruler. I spent 3 or 4 days in my apartment creating different options, like different alternatives how I could utilize this base material to do something else… I came up with 4 or 5 different designs, and I took the best function from each design and came up with this current design.”

William Walsh Greenbox

Now I’m hungry.

Inventor Portrait: David Palmer

March 16, 2010

Part of a continuing series of inventor portraits.

Inventor: David Palmer
Invention: Massage Chair
Patent: No. 4,746,167

You’ve seen the offspring of David Palmer’s invention in shopping malls and convention centers around the world. In 1986, he debuted the first portable massage chair. It was heavy, and made of wood. It collapsed down to a “chair-in-a-box” for portability. The modern incarnation is much lighter, more comfortable, and even more portable.

Here’s David relaxing in an early version of the massage chair:

David Palmer

And in the modern version:

David Palmer

David explains why he’s in the massage field: “I’m focused on making touching a positive social value in our culture. It’s what I call the orphan sense. We’ve got five primary senses and of them the one that’s been ignored most — by academia in terms of research, by the media in general, by society in general — is definitely touch. Touch has the most negative associations attached to it and I’m out to change that because I think that touch is essential to our health and well-being, to our development as children, as infants, and it’s long overdue that we take the pathological aspects of touch and turn them into something positive. We’ve got a very pathological relationship as a culture to touch. And that’s mostly manifest in our relationship to sexuality in this culture. So I’m out to make touch something that is much more comfortable for people at large, and also something that people can utilize in their daily lives for their health and well-being. I think that massage is something that should be in every home, that family massage as it’s done in certain cultures, like the Japanese culture for example, is something that should be taught in every grade school as far as I’m concerned. That’s a basic life skill that people should have.”

Inventor portrait gallery featured on Time.com

November 12, 2009

In conjunction with Time Magazine’s 50 Best Inventions of 2009 issue, they’ve featured a gallery of my inventor portraits on Time.com. This includes a couple of inventors I have not yet featured on this site.

Here is the gallery at Time.com: Inventors and their Inventions

Inventor Portrait: Tami Galt

October 30, 2009

Part of a continuing series of inventor portraits.

Inventor: Tami Galt
Invention: Folding wagon
Patent: No. 6,491,318
Brand Name: Fold-it & Go

Tami Galt is a mom, and her invention is sold in toy stores, but it wasn’t inspired by her kids. She was looking for an easy way to carry groceries at the market, and thought a little red wagon would be cute. Unfortunately a little red wagon wouldn’t fit in her car. So she came up with a collapsible wagon that stows away in a bag, and can easily be transported.

Tami Galt

Tami Galt

And here’s a video I made about Tami and her invention:

Inventor Portrait: Joe Carolan

September 10, 2009

Part of a continuing series of inventor portraits.

Inventor: Joe Carolan
Invention: Guidance system for rescue personnel
Patent: No. 7,196,614
Brand Name: Quick-Finders

Joe Carolan is a volunteer firefighter who has a solution for a serious problem: In a smoke-filled burning home, firefighters can’t see very well, and a stranger’s home is unfamiliar territory. Half of all home fires occur while people are asleep, and 64% of children who die in fires die in their bedrooms. So Joe invented Quick-Finders, a two-part system that helps firefighters quickly identify bedrooms. The first part is a sticker that goes outside the front door. It lets the firefighters know that your home has Quick-FInders. The second part is a reflector you stick to the baseboard on the hinged side of a bedroom door. When firefighters shine their flashlights through the smoke, they will see the reflectors (which are designed to catch light from any angle) shining back and know where the bedrooms are.

Joe Carolan Quick-Finders  Joe Carolan Quick-Finders

Joe Carolan Quick-Finders

The Quick-Finders website: www.quick-finders.com

City Street

July 9, 2009

Herald Square

I love the feel of this photo, with all the nondescript people in their nondescript clothes.