Posts for Category Photography

The crocodile in my bathtub

In which Bill grows a crocodile in his bathtub and contemplates his own mortality
Dec 172014

I just spent two weeks listening to my life passing me by in 20-minute increments marked out by this sound:

Camera in the bathroom pointed into the bathtub That’s the sound of the shutter on the camera set up in the guest bathroom, where it sat for those two weeks with a timer running to take a picture every 20 minutes of the crocodile growing and then shrinking in the bathtub.

Front and back of grow crocodile packagingIt all started a few weeks before that, when I wandered in to a dollar store in search of inspiration for birthday gifts, Christmas gifts, and blog posts. I found a rack of “grow animals”–little plastic animals that expand when you put them in water. I got something similar as a gift once; they were little things made out of sponge or something similar. But the ones I saw in the store were bigger and made of plastic, and what caught my eye was the claim on the package that they grow “up to 600%.” Some of them were fairly small, but one of them was a crocodile that was 11 inches long. The package says to “submerge your creature in a large container full of room temperature water. Make sure there is enough room for your creature to grow.” Six hundred percent of 11 inches is five and a half feet, and I was giggling in the store as I pictured the little animal growing to overflow a bathtub.

So I bought the crocodile and it sat around for a while until I finally had some time to devote to the project. Fortunately I also had a spare bathroom to devote to the project, because I couldn’t think of another container capable of containing my soon-to-be-66-inch-long beast. Since there’s no point in doing a thing unless I can write a blog post about the doing of the thing, I decided I should make a time-lapse movie to document the experiment. And that’s how I found myself, on a fine Sunday evening, rigging up a light stand and tripod in the bathroom.

I put the crocodile in the bathtub, added some water, set the camera to take a picture every 20 minutes, and tried to  go about my business for the next seven days while the crocodile went about its.

Except that the camera shutter is pretty loud, and that bathroom sits right outside my home office and my bedroom. The sound even carries faintly to the lower floor of the house. I have a grandfather clock that chimes every 15 minutes. I’ve had it for 16 years now so I’m used to it and hardly notice it. But that camera. That camera–

It never faded into the background. Two weeks. Whatever I was doing, every 20 minutes there it was, reminding me that another 20 minutes of my life had passed me by. Wrestling with how to word an e-mail message to a customer? Click-click: you’ve just wasted 20 minutes on that. Think you’re making good progress on that knotty technical issue? Click-click. Click-click. Forty minutes and you’re still not finished, so not such great progress after all, is it? Can’t get to sleep tonight? Click-click. Just think of everything you could be doing if you weren’t lying here staring at the ceiling. Click-click. Still awake? Enjoying reading a good book? Click-click. Narrative spell is broken. Think of all the chores you should be doing.

I’ve done some thinking about why it affected me this way, but didn’t come up with anything other than perhaps I was in an existential angsty sort of mood for those two weeks. Maybe it didn’t help that my birthday was mixed in there.

Anyway, aside from taking a surprising toll on my mental state (quoth the camera: nevermore), here’s how it went:

Day 1: The crocodile grew noticeably but not dramatically, changed color, and started to curl backward on itself like you might expect a dead reptile to do.

Day 2: Most of the growth seemed to happen in the tail, which came out of the water and caused the crocodile to tip over from the weight of it. I added more water to the tub to try to keep everything submerged, and, after reviewing pictures from day 1, improved the lighting.

By now it was clear that there was no danger of the thing reaching 600% and bursting out of the bathtub. I never really expected it, but still I was a little disappointed. I also realized that maybe they meant 600% fatter, not 600% longer. I did a Web search to learn more about what I should expect and came upon the Web site of chemist David A. Katz, who explains “the chemistry behind toys, old and new, with hands-on activities,” including an experiment with grow creatures. From this I learned that

The original creature is composed of a plastic called a graft copolymer of hydrolyzed starch-polyacrylonitrile (polyacrylonitrile is commonly known as “Acrilan,” “Orlon,” or “Creslan”). Such materials are called superabsorbants or “super slurpers” and some are capable of absorbing up to 2000 times their weight in distilled water. By combining the starch-polyacrylonitrile with glycerin or ethylene glycol (the active ingredient in anti-freeze), a strong and resilient plastic gel is produced that can absorb up to 400 times its weight in distilled water.

So I should have filled the bathtub with distilled water for the best chance at full growth. Also, “Creslan” seems like a good name for my little super-slurping crocodile.

Day 3: Started to uncurl a bit and stretch out.

Day 4: A little bit of excitement overnight, apparently: I found a fly floating in the tub in the morning. I like to think the crocodile made an effort to catch it but then couldn’t be bothered to eat it. So much for super-slurping. I fished it out, but you can see it drifting around a bit in the video.

Day 5: The skin looks like it’s in danger of sloughing off, as if the crocodile is moulting. The tail has developed a crack that looks like what you get when you’re boiling an egg and the shell cracks and egg starts to leak out. Maybe the fly bit a chunk out of it? When I touch it it feels slimy.

Day 6: Continuing to straighten out. And the clicking. The endless, soul-crushing clicking.

Day 7: It doesn’t seem to be growing any more but it is wagging its tail in very, very slow motion, which is very strange and slightly creepy.

Day 8: Like day 7. Time to call this thing and drain the tub.

Here’s how it ended up: grown version on top, and the original inserted into the picture underneath for comparison.

Photo showing original and grown size of crocodile

I’ll spare you from squinting at the ruler and doing the math yourself: it went from about 11½ inches to a bit over 18, making it 163% of its original length. I suppose you could look at it with your eyes squinty and try to convince yourself it bulked up by a factor of six, but this is the 600% I wanted to see:

What the crocodile would look like if it grew to 600%
The instructions say it will shrink back to its original size to be used again and again, so I decided to torture myself with another week of click-click and let it go. By the eighth day it had shrunk down to 14½ inches long but not lost much of its girth. I stopped taking pictures at that point and took down the camera so I could go back to using that bathroom when I didn’t want to walk the 30 feet to the other one. Another two weeks or so have passed now, so it’s been out of the water about three weeks and is back close to its original size, so I went and took another picture. Now I’m a little disappointed I didn’t keep the camera going. When you touch the crocodile, crystals of something flake off all over the place.

Here’s a final comparison of all three stages:

comparison of original, grown, and shrunk versions of crocodile

To cap it all off I spent a few hours learning how to edit movies and made this for my entertainment and maybe yours:

* * *

An addendum for those of you now thinking about rushing out and buying some grow animals as Christmas presents for the kids in your lives: I think you can find better things to spend your $1 on. I don’t know your kid so I could be wrong, but I can’t imagine your kid patiently waiting around for a few days and then being excited by the modest growth. Or even remembering, by that point, how the animal looked to begin with. Watch this video for a demonstration of a parent trying very hard to get his kid excited about one of these animals. The kid is mostly excited that his hand is wet. If you want to make it into a science experiment or time-lapse photography project with your kid, that’s another thing entirely, and you should definitely go for it.


Earth Day 2010

Remember Earth Day 2010? Neither did I until a strange voice appeared on my audio recorder
Nov 232014

Today I got out my audio recorder to use for a project involving a crocodile in my bathtub (more on that in a week or two). There were already some tracks on the memory card that I had never taken off, so when I went to play back today’s audio I was suddenly listening to the sound of my cat (who died in 2011) purring. Followed, bizarrely, by my sister talking to my niece about taking Woof Woof (stuffed dog?) with her (niece, not sister) to go pee-pee. Followed, even more bizarrely, by a man on a loudspeaker (with folk guitar in the background), laughing maniacally and saying, “We control your horizontal. We control your vertical. We give you that which is, was, will be.”*

I couldn’t figure out what I was listening to, or how it got on my recorder, and it was a little bit creepy. After a few moments I realized I must have recorded him when I was out photographing an event during one of my periods of playing at photojournalism (which for a while also involved some attempts at getting audio to go with the pictures). The timestamp on the audio file was April 25, 2010, which meant nothing to me, but I checked my photo catalog for that date and found my pictures from the Climate Rally held on the National Mall on Earth Day.

Man holding loudspeaker with Washington Monument in backgroundWhen I looked at the pictures it started to come back to me. I had arrived around 9:15 that morning, when things had barely gotten going and there were a few dozen people milling around. Off to the side was a man in his 20s or 30s wearing dress pants and shoes, clean white button-down shirt, tie, and dark sunglasses, with an American flag stuck in his hair and a battery-powered loudspeaker in his hand, talking about Jesus. The speaker was more interesting than your average person haranguing strangers about Jesus: he had a bit of an improvised poetic style, and was also listening to what was happening on stage and referencing it in his patter.

I recorded audio and took pictures of him at a few different times while I was there. By 12:15 I was done with the event; I can’t remember if I had somewhere else to be or was just bored with it. There were still fewer than 200 people there at that point, and the headline acts hadn’t come out yet. Apparently I really missed out, because eventually the sun came out and the rally got interesting, and, according to some reports, “tens of thousands” of people were there.

My pictures from the three hours I was there are uninteresting–so uninteresting that they’ve been languishing in my “to be reviewed” backlog ever since, totally forgotten. As I flipped through them today I had the audio playing in the background, and I found it a little haunting and strangely compelling–the speaker’s monologue interwoven with the music from the stage and contrasted against the rest of what was going on. So I’m posting it here as an audio slideshow for your consideration. It’s maybe a little long at just over seven minutes, and each picture is in front of you for too long because I didn’t have enough to select from, but still you might find it interesting if you put yourself in the right frame of mind and listen.

Plus there’s a guy with a cat on a leash.

I should just mention that I’m not trying to make any sort of statement about the Climate Rally itself here–it’s just that that’s what was going on while the guy was speaking, so I put the pictures in for context and to give you something to look at while you’re listening. I don’t know whether he was trying to make some larger point; whether he came out that day specifically for the rally or just decided to go preach on the Mall and the rally happened to be there. I don’t know this or anything else about him because I never talked to him to get his story, and for that reason I haven’t included any pictures of him other than the one above. Including more (identifiable) pictures of him felt like an invasion of his privacy (even though he was speaking in a public place), or maybe like co-opting him into my little art project. If I were actually a photojournalist I could have made a story about him, but instead this is a story about me listening to him, four and a half years after the fact.

Earth model in front of Capitol.
Play Slideshow

* * *

Oh, and because it seems wrong to let a post go by without making fun of someone or something, here’s the official Earth Day Menu of the food being offered by Guest Services (authorized concessioner for the rally):

Concession menu for Earth Day rally

I know there are limits to what you can efficiently and cost-effectively serve to large crowds, but didn’t someone think that this sort of rally might attract a lot of people who are vegetarian, or at least interested in healthy eating? Apparently not, because there are three choices on the menu: hot dogs, chicken tenders, and pulled pork barbecue. Also, just to nit-pick, I like that they included the accent in “à la carte” but missed the apostrophe in “Nations [sic] Capital.”


Google tells me that first bit is a misquotation from the opening sequence of The Outer Limits (video here).
I just today taught myself how to edit audio, so cut me some slack.
If you’re the person who wrote this sign, please refer to the Turnabout is Fair Play policy if you’d like to get your revenge upon me.

Heads in jars in the news

A new book tells the stories behind a closet full of brains in jars
Nov 142014
Brains in a jar
Photo by Adam Voorhes via Amazon

Recently I opened my morning newspaper and found this picture, which looked so familiar I had to get up immediately from breakfast to go find Bill’s Head’s jar (which currently houses the remains of a terrarium; sorry if you’re disappointed to learn that it does not actually contain my floating head) and see if it’s the same one. Not quite, but close enough to give me a little tingle.

The picture is from the forthcoming book Malformed: Forgotten Brains of the Texas State Mental Hospital, by photographer Adam Voorhes and journalist Alex Hannaford. The book documents some of the “extremely rare, malformed, or damaged human brains”* that Voorhes discovered packed away in hundreds of jars in a storage closet at the University of Texas State Mental Hospital, including the stories of their former owners and the collection itself.

If you’re looking for something to get me for my birthday or for Secular Winter Gift-Giving Holiday and Bad Music Extravaganza, the book will be published on December 2.


So says the book’s blurb on Amazon. You can also read more at the Washington Post.

A cheaper alternative to spending $4.3 million for a dull photograph

A boring photograph just sold for $4.3 million. Here's a cheaper alternative.
Nov 162011

I don’t think I had ever heard of Andreas Gursky until I read yesterday that one of his photographs just sold for $4.3 million, making it the most expensive photograph ever sold. Christie’s auction house describes the photograph, Rhein II, as “a dramatic and profound reflection on human existence and our relationship to nature on the cusp of the 21st century.” OK. Whatever. Here’s the photograph:

Andreas Gursky's Rhein II
Andreas Gursky/Christie’s Images, Ltd., 2011

The Guardian reports that

The desolate featureless landscape shown in Rhine II is no accident: Gursky explained in an interview* that it is his favourite picture: “It says a lot using the most minimal means … for me it is an allegorical picture about the meaning of life and how things are.”

In fact the artist carefully digitally removed any intrusive features – dog walkers, cyclists, a factory building – until it was bleak enough to satisfy him.

That’s right: it’s not really even a photograph–it’s a Photoshop composition.

Well, I suppose the buyer will enjoy bragging about owning it.


But maybe your taste is different from mine, and you think that this “photograph” is interesting. Maybe you even hoped to purchase it, but got outbid. Well, here’s some good news. Shortly after I saw Rhein II, I happened to walk past a cactus that I have in my house, and noticed a similarity.

So I cropped a picture of it…

cactus detail

…and then spent 10 minutes in Photoshop until I was satisfied that it was conveying my intended message about the meaning of life and how things are:

Bill's Cactus II photograph, which is almost as good as Gursky's Rhein II
Cactus IICourtesy of Bill

It’s not my best Photoshop work, since I’m working without benefit of my dominant hand and also didn’t want to waste a lot of time on this, so I’m offering it for sale at the bargain price of $4,338.50, which is 0.1% of what Gursky’s photograph sold for. I’d say Cactus II is at least one tenth of one percent as interesting to look at as Rhein II is, so it seems like a fair price. Now, for this unbelievably low price, you’re getting an unframed print that’s about 30 inches long. I realize that part of the appeal of Gursky’s work is the large size of the prints. Therefore, I am also offering my photograph glass mounted at 80″ x 140″ (about the same size as Rhein II) for the still very reasonable price of $43,385.

Or, if you think that both Gursky’s photograph of the Rhein and mine of my cactus are actually quite dull, by all means take a look through my gallery and see if there’s something else you’d like instead.


I tried to watch the documentary that contains this interview, but got bored before Gursky made his appearance. I’m still not sure that Ben Lewis, with his breathless enthusiasm for Gursky, isn’t having us on.
For the record, I think some of Gursky’s other work is interesting.

Nice photograph (not mine)

Bill's favorite photo from the Washington Post travel photography contest
Oct 122011

The Washington Post recently published the winners of their annual travel photography contest. My favorite was the second-place photo by Katya Gelfand:

door to school
Photo by Katya Gelfand

Click through for a bigger version of the picture and take a look. It’s a good illustration of Cartier-Bresson’s idea of the decisive moment: the girl looking through the gate is what makes the picture work, and the photographer caught her just in time. As the Washington Post article describes it,

Standing on a busy corner in Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi, Kenya, surrounded by curious children begging her to take their picture, our second-place winner noticed one little girl standing apart from the group. She was peering through an iron fence’s gate into the local schoolyard, where some boys were playing soccer. The scene of the game — which echoes a painting on the fence — “was as interesting to her as the Mzungo (Swahili for a white person),” said Gelfand, a 32-year-old customer service rep, who took the shot in the instant just before the child turned — and joined the rest of the kids clamoring for a photo.

Gelfand has also entered the photo in the 2011 National Geographic photo contest.

Angry protester smashes window for dozens of photographers

An example of how journalists may influence the story they are covering
Nov 132010

The Washington Post on Thursday had a story about tuition protests in London that turned violent, illustrated with this photo:

AP Photo/Sang Tan

Nine leading papers in the UK used a photo taken by another photographer from the same angle. Your paper, if you have one and it covers international news, probably used one of these two as well.

It’s a good photo, capturing the rage of the student protesters, and you can imagine the seething mob behind this guy, waiting for their chance to stream in and start the looting. But the BBC has posted a wider-angle shot of this scene:

Press Association via BBC

The mobs of protesters are there, in the background, but it’s a mob of photographers who are arrayed around the guy doing the smashing. It’s a reminder of how photographs can be deceiving, and of how journalists can influence the story they’re covering: one has to wonder whether the protester would be going to all this trouble if he didn’t have such a big audience of cameras.

May 062010

It’s a sad irony that environmental destruction can yield beautiful photographs. I was flipping through the Style section in today’s Washington Post not really reading anything when I saw a great picture that I at first thought was accompanying an article about a new art or photography exhibit. Then I focused and realized it was a photograph by Associated Press photographer Eric Gay of shrimp boats in the BP oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico (illustrating an article on what the oil spill should be named):

Shrimp boats are used to collect oil with booms in the waters of Chandeleur Sound, La
AP / Eric Gay

(Though it was more striking splashed across a full page in print, where
it looked more abstract out of the corner of my eye.)

You can see some other nice photos from Gay (and other photographers) here. The Post has a large gallery of photos from the oil spill here (you just have to sit through a commercial first). Gay’s are in there as well, somewhere near the end.