Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Diva Night at Fleet Feet

Oh, Fleet Feet Sports Huntsville. You really know how to pamper a lady! Candy station, spiked apple cider, vendors to chat with about product lines, free swag bag, and BUY ONE GET ONE FREE BRAS?!
If you're going to get a new bra, better get fitted properly! (Yes, this is an iPhone selfie... don't hate).

If you missed out on Diva Night last night at Fleet Feet, you really missed out.



I was planning to go to Diva Night for the funsies that come with it, but a friend of mine asked if I was bringing Lux (my trusty camera). I love shooting with ambient light or studio light. But Fleet Feet at night doesn't really offer the greatest lighting situation for event photography. I figured it would be a great opportunity for me to practice some with my hotshoe flash.

At AiP-OD, my instructors tell me time and time again that the only way for me to improve is to continue to shoot. I thought that was so cliché, but then I realized why clichés are worn out: they're true. Looking back at my work even two years ago, I have realized exactly how far I have come in my images. My compositions, my use of design elements, my encouragement toward my models to pose differently... they all add up to much better shots!

Thank you, to Fleet Feet, for allowing me to show up with Lux to explore and improve! Thank you, to the endurance sports community, for hamming it up in front of Lux! And thank you, to my friend, for unknowingly encouraging me to add more tools to my photog's toolbox! Here are a few of my favorite moments from last night:

The Zombie Family graced us all!

Awesomeness is infectious!

Getting pumped up for Diva Night is easy with this crowd!

Unfortunately, this monster was disappointed in his date. Sorry Olivia.

Those spiked ciders were delish!

Watch out for this zombie. He'll getcha!

Rule #1 in this community: watch out for photobombers.

Are you an HTC member? Why not?!

It really is a crying shame we have such shy children. We should really work harder to pull them out of their shells more often.


Keeping the charity raffle in order takes a lot of work, and organizational skills, and beauty. Lots and lots of beauty!

If you're going to crash the girl's only party, make sure you wear a creepy mask.

Or several. Several creepy masks are definitely necessary.

Thankfully, Jason likes candy corn.
For a view on the rest of the images from the night, head on over to my smugmug gallery. Right-click-download the images for free. If you like enough to print it, please buy it there. You'll be helping to keep this artist in business!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The History of Photography Through the Eyes of Szarkowski, the Modernist and Postmodernist Movements

Szarkowski begins his article, “The Photographer’s Eye” by distinguishing photography from painting. The thesis of Szarkowski’s article appears to be when he states, “The invention of photography provided a radically new picture-making process – a process based not on synthesis but on selection” (Szarkowski). Right off the bat, he appears to have a snobbish, almost intolerable tone toward photography when compared with painting: “Paintings were made – constructed from a storehouse of traditional schemes and skills and attitudes – but photographs, as the man on the street put it, were taken”. He moves forward with the thought process by calling photography “mechanical and mindless”, and questions how the process would be meaningful to humans. He even offers his criticisms about the artists: “Since its earliest days, photography has been practiced by thousands who shared no common tradition or training, who were disciplined and united by no academy or guild, who considered their medium variously as a science, and art, a trade, or an entertainment, and who were often unaware of each other’s work” (Szarkowski).
In his criticisms of photography, Szarkowski has forgotten where painting came from. Prehistoric artists created cave paintings over a period of 10,000 to 20,000 years (Kleiner 18). In prehistoric times, did the artists ever train at academies? Were they united by a guild, or share any common training? Did they ever study the works of other artists? No. Because they were busy exploring the technique of using chunks of red and yellow ocher to draw their subjects; or grinding those chunks of ocher into a powder, mixing it with water, and painting on cave walls (Kleiner 17).
Likewise, photographers in the beginning were more concerned with making the chemical procedures easier to work with to develop the photograph, and lenses faster so the model didn’t have to sit still for fifteen minutes for an exposure, than they were the artistic compositions of the product they were making (Rosenblum 40). Cavemen took time out of their hunting and gathering to draw and paint; there were no professional cavemen artists. Likewise, it makes sense that schoolmasters, salesmen, and newspaper editors took time out of their profession to dabble in the photographic processes. After photographers, amateurs, professionals, and snapshooters alike, got a handle on the process of photography they moved forward on a long, arduous journey to grow artistically.
When discussing “The Thing Itself” in the article, Szarkowski says, “The first thing that the photographer learned was that photography dealt with the actual; he had not only to accept this fact, but to treasure it; unless he did, photography would defeat him”. Portrait painters had the flexibility in their art to fudge what their eyes saw. If a rich aristocrat had a ridiculously large nose, and the painter knew that this made the aristocrat a bit self-conscious, it would benefit the painter to shrink the nose in the portrait by use of the brush and some skill. Those who lived with the aristocrat would know that the nose had work done, so to speak, but descendants would look upon the painting and never really question the subject’s nose. This was not the case for photographers in the beginning. The camera did not lie; large noses, birth marks, fat, thin, tall, short… every physical aspect of the subject was recorded whether they wanted it or not. While minor manipulations were eventually made in the darkroom, major changes to the physical topography of a person in a photograph did not really occur until digital photography (and the invention of editing software like Adobe Photoshop) came about.
When Szarkowski describes the details of a photograph, he suggests that what was previously insignificant could now become essential. “The compelling clarity with which a photograph recorded the trivial suggested that the subject had never before been properly seen, that it was in fact perhaps not trivial, but filled with undiscovered meaning” (Szarkowski). While painters would sit a model in a chair and paint them, photographers would make photographs of an empty chair. Why was the chair empty? Is it for sale? Is it symbolic for the person who sat in it every day? Was it an abstract view of something? On the same token, the model in the chair for a painter was generally an aristocrat; yet photography allowed even the lowest class citizen to have their picture made.
Szarkowski goes on to discuss the frame of the photograph. He says the picture is “not conceived but selected”. Remember that the painter could have a model in his studio as he conceived an elaborate waterfall scene for the model’s painted portrait to be in. The photographer, however, would have to work with what he had; a waterfall background meant the photographer was lugging his camera equipment to the waterfall and shooting the model in front of it. But the statement goes beyond what was conceived or selected. Whether done through the lens or in postproduction, cropping has to happen in photography. The photographer makes the decision to allow information in the frame, or to omit it. Consider the images below:
As the photographer crops more of the scene out of the photograph, the facts of the image change as well. The image on the right gives few clues about the scene. The girls could be anywhere in the world based on the hairstyles, the clothing, the nondescript background. But allowing more information in the frame gives the viewer more facts to appreciate: the flag, the buildings on the hill, the background all tell the viewer that the image is probably from Israel. “The central act of photography, the act of choosing and eliminating, forces a concentration on the picture edge – the line that separates in from out – and on the shapes that are created by it” (Szarkowski).
Szarkowski’s perspective on time in terms of photography is noteworthy. “There is in fact no such thing as an instantaneous photograph. All photographs are time exposures of shorter or longer duration, and each describes a discrete parcel of time”. Time never stops, and even when a photograph was taken with an exposure time of 1/2,000th of a second the photograph is not instantaneous. It may seem to be so when paintings take weeks, even months to complete. The instant perception of photography did help painters change their perceptions, however. Consider how the horse was drawn and painted before photography: all four feet were extended in the full gallop. When Muybridge studied movement with the use of his photographic equipment, we learned that the four legs of a horse are in different phases between bent and straight while at a gallop. This speaks, also, to the trivial details Szarkowski mentioned in “Details”; who cares about the leg placement of a horse when the focal point of the painting was usually the war General sitting atop that horse, fighting victoriously? But Muybridge’s study of movement changed the way painters portrayed the animal in paintings in the future.
Finally, Szarkowski speaks to the vantage point of photography. Suddenly, with the use of a camera, the viewer was able to see the world from a different perspective. “Photographers from necessity choose from the options available to them, and often this means pictures from the other side of the proscenium showing the actors’ backs, pictures from the bird’s view, or the worm’s, or pictures in which the subject is distorted by extreme foreshortening, or by none, or by an unfamiliar pattern of light, or by a seeming ambiguity of action or gesture”. In terms of how the viewer saw the world in art, the painter got off the chair, changed the paintbrush to a camera, and climbed high to see down on the world. Or they lay on their belly to look up. Their camera changed meanings, making a person tiny and insignificant or larger than life and perhaps overbearing. Obtaining access to behind-the-scenes views was easier for the photographer because the time lapse of his medium was substantially shorter than the painter’s. This allowed new access to the viewer as well. Consider the vantage point of Edward Ruscha’s Parking Lots from 1967:
In terms of Szarkowski’s article, this photograph beautifully shows how the photographer can use vantage point (a bird’s eye view) to show insignificant details. The photograph is stunning to the viewer who studies it rather than simply looking at it. The geometrical shapes within the frame of the photograph are orderly and rhythmic. The lines in the darker parking lots are repetitive, and break up the lines of school buses on the left, and the lines of buildings on the bottom right. Within the frame of his photograph, Ruscha allows lines and shapes to repeat in different formations to create an interesting new perspective on an ordinary parking lot. The modernist photographer captured a timeless scene in a way that lacked any social comment or political assertions.
Sherrie Levine’s photograph, After Walker Evans: 4, is a reproduction of Depression-era photographs by Walker Evans. The postmodern photograph is simple: an Alabama sharecropper’s wife stands in front of wooden structure, looking directly into the camera. Again, lines are prevalent in the photograph. The horizontal lines that make up the wood slats, and the grain of the wood both mimic the woman’s lips and the implied line that the eyes and ears make up. The texture in her neck also softly imitates the wood grain behind her. The part in the woman’s hair, the fine lines around her eyes, and the furrowed brow run perpendicular to the horizontal lines, bringing visual variety to the composition. Her blouse, a seemingly unorganized compilation of small shapes is actually rhythmic and breaks up the lines in the upper portion of the photograph nicely.  The beauty of this image, much like Ruscha’s Parking Lots, is that in the large scheme of things a trivial detail takes the spotlight. As the world turns, who really needs to be concerned with the wife of a sharecropper, and what she looks like? But the photographic process became progressively less expensive in terms of time and talent of the artist, so low- and middle-class citizens were able to have their picture made. And photographers were able to find beauty in the most mundane scenes.
Ruscha’s and Levine’s photographs are generally similar in the ways previously described. But the two images were created in two separate art movements, and it shows. Ruscha’s photograph lacks social commentary as it explored a different vantage point. Ruscha removed himself from the photograph and allowed the scene to present itself through the viewfinder. Levine, on the other hand, considered the social misfortunes of women and used her photography to create dialogue about women’s rights. “The series, entitled After Walker Evans, became a landmark of postmodernism, both praised and attacked as a feminist hijacking of patriarchal authority…” (“After Walker Evans: 4”). When Levine could have photographed the sharecropper, a person whose lot in life is not very high on the social ladder, she chose to take another social step down and photograph the sharecropper’s wife.
Another difference between the two eras of photography, as shown in the works of Ruscha and Levine is how the photograph is presented. “Although viewers may have been aware that photographs were set up, rarely did they notice the contrived nature of the photographs at first glance. The photographs were not overtly constructed” (“Modernism vs. Postmodernism”). So while Ruscha’s photograph of a parking lot may look like he walked to the top of a building, focused his lens, and took a photograph, the photograph had more work behind the scenes to set it up. In contrast, Levine’s Postmodern photograph requires a person to decode the meaning during the studying of the image. The meaning may alter over time, as social and cultural priorities and norms evolve. This destined the photograph to have an ever-evolving, never constant meaning to the symbolism in the image.
In the beginning, photography was a painter’s tool. The camera obscura was a tool used to get perspectives correct in murals and other important drawings. In fact, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci used the technique (“Introduction”). But just as the cave paintings in prehistoric times were once a tool to communicate something to other cave men (such as which animals roamed the area, or sources of food, etc.), and pottery bowls in early civilizations were used to hold food and water, every artistic medium at one time or another is heralded as something that should move beyond useful to become decoration. Paintings are now created to adorn walls; and pottery bowls are set upon coffee tables and curio cabinets to decorate a space. It just makes sense that photography would move beyond the tool of the artist to become an art form in and of itself. The expectation, however, of the art form to be completely removed from the toolbox of the artist is just as silly as the idea of not putting an apple in the pottery bowl on the counter. Artists today continue to use photography to enhance their art, rather than become their art. This is acceptable, and in many cases necessary.
Szarkowski claims, “The history of photography has been less of a journey than a growth”, but how are the two mutually exclusive? How can something grow without first embarking upon a journey to learn, experiment, and experience? He is correct in his thought that the photographic movement has not been linear and consecutive; as each phase of photography opens, the tendrils appear to reach back to the history of the medium in some way or another to improve upon it. What modernists did, postmodernists did better. Ruscha shot the ordinary; Levine shot the ordinary with symbolism and meaning. And in doing so, opened dialogue that was otherwise taboo.
As photography continues on its journey in the arts, deeper studies on symbolism, details, and vantage points will occur. Photographers are now faced with the constant question of how authentic their images really are because Photoshop has become as much of a verb as it is a noun. Many photographers have embraced the verb, but struggles emerge as photographers who avoid using heavy postproduction manipulations find themselves answering the almost cliché question, “Has this been Photoshopped?” Either way, one can argue that whether the photograph has been manipulated or not, the postmodern elements in photography will be improved upon by future photographers. In a post-9/11 world, vantage points and lack of access will force the photographer to stretch their creativity, exercise their knowledge, and implement resourceful methods when creating new art. Stating that photographs are taken today, rather than “constructed from a storehouse of traditional schemes and skills and attitudes” implies that the photographer is a second-rate artist who fumbles with his equipment and finds accidental success every now and then. This is neither accurate, nor is it fair to the artist or the art itself.




Works Cited
“After Walker Evans: 4”. www.metmuseum.org. n.d. web. 13 August 2014.
“Introduction”. www.curious-eye.com. n.d. Web. 14 August 2014.
Kleiner, Fred S. Gardner's Art through the Ages: A Concise History of Western Art, 2nd Edition. Cengage Learning, 01/2010. VitalBook file.
Levine, Sherrie. After Walker Evans: 4. 1981. Gelatin silver print. Metropolitan Museum Online.
“Modernism vs. Postmodernism”. www.myeclassonline.com. Photo History II: PH333, P01. The Art Institute of Pittsburgh – Online Division, n.d. Web. 13 August 2014.
Rosenblum, Naomi. A World History of Photography. 4th ed. New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 2007. Print.
Ruscha, Edward. Parking Lots (State Board of Equalization, 14601 Sherman Way, Van Nuys). 1967. Gelatin Silver Print. Washington University in St. Louis.
Szarkowski, John. “The Photographer’s Eye”. www.jnevins.com. n.d. Web. 12 August 2014.
Untitled Photograph. www.bewzstyle.blogspot.com. 17 November 2009. Web. 13 August 2014.


Neil Armstrong: Astronaut, Photographer, Photobomber

Once upon a time, on August 5, 1930 to be precise, a young fellow was born. He had a bright future ahead of him: he would become a licensed pilot on his 16th birthday, he would be a naval air cadet at the age of 17, he would serve in the Korean War and be awarded three Air Medals for being shot down. But the one, most important thing this little guy would do in his wonderful life would be something for all of mankind: he would be the very first person to ever walk on the moon.

Neil Armstrong, a Wapakoneta, Ohio native, worked for NASA before NASA was NASA. In 1955 Armstrong was a research pilot for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which later became the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Seven years later, he joined the space program with the second group of astronauts for NASA (“Neil Armstrong”). Another seven years later, in 1969, Armstrong would manually land the Apollo 11 vehicle on the moon and deliver his famous statement: That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind. “(In the excitement of the moment, Armstrong skipped the ‘a’ in the statement that he had prepared)” (“Neil Armstrong”). While on the moon, Armstrong spent more than two hours setting up scientific instruments, testing the gravity, collecting samples, and taking photographs. Those iconic photographs would later be published in National Geographic Magazine, on NASA’s website, on NASA’s Flikr account, and several other locations. Armstrong passed away in 2012 from cardiovascular complications, but his legacy will forever be remembered especially through his photographs “Space Pictures This Week: Martian Vista, Neil Armstrong”.

Neil Armstrong was an astronaut with a camera in his hands; but that doesn’t make him any less of a photographer than a person who has spent his whole life studying photography. His images have been studied, debated over, and even recreated. Read Josh Fox’s study on “10 Reasons the Moon Landings Could Be a Hoax” to see what conspiracy theorists are saying about the photographs on Apollo 11’s trip. The MythBusters, a group of scientists who do various experiments to test the legitimacy of rumors, urban legends, and (when possible) conspiracy theories, ran several tests on some of the conspiracy theories pertaining to the lunar landing in 1969. In Episode 104: NASA Moon Landing, air date 27 August 2008, the scientists “busted” every theory (meaning they found no validity in the conspiracy theories) except for one. They confirmed the rumor that the Apollo astronauts left behind special equipment like reflectors that scientists can bounce lasers off of. While Neil Armstrong wasn’t a photographer by trade, he was definitely a photographer at the end of the mission. But what kind of photographer was he?

“Documentary photographers attempt to tell a story through images and try to create a historical record and change society by exposing hidden truths” (“Week 2 Overview”). Armstrong was definitely attempting to create an historical record of his lunar landing. He photographed his footprint in the moon’s surface, he photographed Buzz Aldrin emerging from the craft, he photographed Aldrin standing on the moon. “One of Neil’s tasks was to document the moonwalk, so the vast majority of the first lunar landing photos are of Buzz” (“FAQ What You Always Wanted to Know”). But with no known photographic training, Armstrong would be considered a documentary photographer with vernacular aesthetics (or snapshot technique). “Without previsualization or directed control by the photographer, advocates of the snapshot aesthetics claimed a snapshot represented authentic life. Photographers captured images quickly and without planning or sentimentality” (“The Snapshot Aesthetic”).

Picking a visual example from photography that influenced Armstrong as a photographer is difficult. For one, he was an astronaut with a camera. Not to downplay the power and authenticity of his photographs, but he spent his career studying aeronautical engineering, not design elements and photographic genres. His photographs do blend together the visual representations of the lunar surface in a manner that mimics images found from Landsat, a satellite-based image collection module. But unlike Landsat images, which have a resolution of approximately 60 meters, Armstrong’s images give a close-up view to the moon’s surface.

The astronauts’ successful mission did not go unnoticed. Video of the first steps on the moon was shown internationally on Earth. “At Mission Control, the words ‘Task Accomplished’ and this first televised view of the crew safe on the carrier end an agony of work and suspense. Weary technicians leap from their consoles waving American flags and shouting” (“First Explorers on the Moon”). The astronauts were celebrated upon their return, and were given many awards for the mission, including the Congressional Space Medal of Honor and the Medal of Freedom. Chase Jarvis wrote a blog entry, honoring Neil Armstrong after news of his death was made public. He had this to say about the photographic astronaut: “Neil Armstrong went to the moon first as an explorer for mankind, second as a scientist and engineer – but with intention or not – he came back a famous photographer” (Jarvis).

Mr. Armstrong left NASA two years after returning from the moon. He first pursued academia, teaching Aerospace Engineering at the University of Cincinnati from 1971-1979. Later, he served as chairman of Computing Technologies for Aviation, Inc. He also helped with the investigation on the failed Challenger mission in 1986. Just before his death, Armstrong testified before Congress against cutting taxpayer’s financial support to the space program. His testimony did not alter the US Government’s plans to cut program spending.

Three of the most famous images from the lunar landing follow. Each of them are credited to Neil Armstrong/NASA.
Neil Armstrong left his footprint on the moon, literally. This image has been criticized by conspiracy theorists for being impossible because the moon’s bone-dry surface would not allow the perfect formation of the boot print. The MythBusters and a separate group of scientists in an article in the National Geographic have busted this theory (“Photos: 8 Moon-Landing Hoax Myths – Busted”).  The image is artistically beautiful, either way. The texture of the moon’s surface is juxtaposed nicely against the repeating lines in the sole of Armstrong’s boot. The shadows in the image give shape and depth to the print as well. For those who are interested, notice that the shadow of the print points to the bottom right of the photograph. At the top of the photograph, the lumps in the surface give off shadows that point to the direct left of the photograph. With the sun being the only light source at the time, this seems impossible.


The next photograph shows Buzz Aldrin emerging from the landing craft. This image is very busy with information for the viewer to take in. The warm colors of the landing craft look nice against the white and black background. The shiny, technological look of the craft really stands out against the desolate landscape Aldrin is about to experience. The space suit Aldrin wears dates the image well. He wears an oxygen tank on his back, along with other safety gear to ensure his lunar trek is successful.


Quite possibly one of the best images of the trip, this last image shows Aldrin looking at the landing gear and Armstrong. Because of the reflective nature of Aldrin’s helmet visor, we are able to see Armstrong’s reflection. As a photographer, squeezing a “selfie” in every now and then to prove your participation is necessary. Neil Armstrong was able to manually land his aircraft, take humankind’s first step on the moon, and photobomb his own photograph all in one successful lunar mission. All in all, Mr. Armstrong was one amazing man!




Works Cited
“FAQ What You Always Wanted to Know”. www.buzzaldrin.com. n.d. Web. 8 August 2014.

“First Explorers on the Moon”. www.ngm.nationalgeographic.com. National Geographic Magazine. n.d. Web. 8 August 2014.

Fox, Josh. “10 Reasons the Moon Landings Could Be a Hoax”. www.listverse.com. 28 December 2012. Web. 8 August 2014.

“Image of the Day”. www.nasa.gov. n.d. Web. 8 August 2014. http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/imagegallery/index.html#.U9mB44BdVFx

Jarvis, Chase. “Inspirational Photos by Neil Armstrong – Primary Photographer on the First Successful Manned Mission to the Moon”. www.blog.chasejarvis.com. 27 August 2012. Web. 8 August 2014.

MythBusters. “Episode 104: NASA Moon Landing”. www.mythbustersresults.com. 27 August 2008. Web. 8 August 2014.

“Neil Armstrong”. www.britannica.com. Encyclopædia Britannica. 30 May 2014. Web. 8 August 2014.

“Photos: 8 Moon-Landing Hoax Myths – Busted”. www.news.nationalgeographic.com. National Geographic. n.d. Web. 8 August 2014.

“Photos: Neil Armstrong – American Icon Remembered”. www.space.com. 21 August 2012, Web. 8 August 2014. http://www.space.com/17299-photos-neil-armstrong-first-moonwalker-icon.html


“The Snapshot Aesthetic”. www.myeclassonline.com. Photo History II: PH333, P01. The Art Institute of Pittsburgh – Online Division, n.d. Web. 8 August 2014.

“Week 2 Overview”. www.myeclassonline.com. Photo History II: PH333, P01.              The Art Institute of Pittsburgh – Online Division, n.d. Web. 7 August 2014.

Friday, August 8, 2014

From Landsat to SERVIR: Saving Earth with Satellite Imagery

In 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. began a drive to register black voters, the state funeral of Sir Winston Churchill occurred, T.G.I. Friday’s opened its first restaurant in New York City, and Landsat was an idea in the mind of the director of the US Geological Survey, William Pecora (“Historical Events for Year 1965”). “The Landsat program offers the longest continuous global record of the Earth’s surface; it continues to deliver visually stunning and scientifically valuable images of our planet” (“Landsat Then and Now”). The original idea for Landsat was to gather facts about our natural resources on Earth remotely, using a satellite. At the time, weather satellites had been used to monitor Earth’s atmosphere, but they gathered no terrain data.

The idea of Landsat wasn’t met with complete enthusiasm at first. The Bureau of Budget felt that high-altitude aircraft could be used rather than a satellite, saving money and resources. The Department of Defense worried that a civilian project would interfere with their clandestine missions, and there were geopolitical concerns with photographing foreign countries without their permission. Finally, in 1970 NASA obtained permission to build the satellite; it took a miraculous 2 years to build and be launched. “In 1975, NASA Administrator Dr. James Fletcher predicted that if one space age development would save the world, it would be Landsat and its successor satellites” (“Landsat Then and Now”). This is especially true for one image in particular.

Fast-forward to the late 1980s. Tom Sever, an archaeologist, was studying ancient Mayan cities and ruins at the time. Looking to keep them preserved, he was working with NASA and the National Geographic Society to document archeological sites, both known and undiscovered, before the river was dammed. “Sever pioneered the use of computer software to read satellite images of the Earth and identify ruins all over the world, using a technique known as remote sensing. The computer processes grayscale digital images from satellites; the user slides the data through a series of mathematical functions to reveal features that otherwise might remain hidden” (Ballon). Basically Sever would study Landsat images, add some mathematical magic to the data, and he was able to find archeological sites.
International Borders from Space: Mexico-Guatemala borders

During that time, he found a Landsat image that showed the border between Mexico and Guatemala as clearly as if somebody were to have hand-drawn the lines on the image. The western portion of the image was recorded from Landsat 4 on 20 May 1988; the eastern portion was recorded from Landsat 5 on 14 April 1986. In the image, the viewer can see Mexico’s cleared forests and Guatemala’s dense, rich forests. Mexico had plans to build a dam in the Usumacinta River (the largest river in Mesoamerica) for hydroelectric power. Damming the river would have not only affected the forests in Guatemala, it would have also obliterated the Mayan ruins that Sever was working diligently to document and study. Sever explained, “We were trying to see as much archeological information as we could before the flood waters removed the modern day Maya Indians as well as destroyed the ancient sites” (“Landsat Top Ten – International Borders: Mexico and Guatemala”).

The image only shows the results. Why was there such a stark difference between the two countries? Sometimes, political realities are shown best in the landscape of the country. At first glance, the viewer may consider that Guatemala had better environmental laws, and placed a higher value on sustaining their lush forests. This was not the reality at the time. Mexico was relatively stable as a country. They had the means and desire to develop their land. Guatemala, on the other hand, was in the midst of a civil war. Rebels had moved to the Petén, limiting development in that region and leaving the area untouched because of an inability to safely harvest the forest.

Sever was not shocked at the image; rather, he was surprised about the responses he got when he shared it. “‘When I produced it,’ says Server, ‘I thought everyone in the world knew about this. It was surprising to see how for everybody it was news, alarming news’” (“Landsat Top Ten – International Borders: Mexico and Guatemala”). And share the image, he did!

First, Sever showed the image to Andrés Lenhoff, the Executive Director of the National Council of Protected Areas of Guatemala. Lenhoff was a friend of Sever’s, and the two worked together; Lenhoff also had regular meetings with the President of Guatemala, Vinicio Cerezo. So the next time Lenhoff met with President Cerezo, the photograph was shown. But the photograph wasn’t simply a 5x7 image. Jim Nations, Vice President of the National Parks Converation Association’s Center for Park Research, described the scene:

He takes it in to his next meeting, a big image, like a meter across and he rolls it across his desk, and the President looks at it and says the Spanish equivalent of “son of a gun!”

Next, the image was published in the October 1989 issue of National Geographic Magazine. This began a discussion between the Presidents of Mexico and Guatemala on the issue of conservation and preservation. These talks became action when national parks and wildlife reserves were created in both countries. President Cerezo later shared with Nations and Sever that the image of the Mexico-Guatemala border was the deciding factor for the Guatemalan Congress to approve his creation of the Maya Biosphere Reserve in 1990. Five national parks, three wildlife reserves, and a sustainable use forest are all under the shelter of a 4-million acre park all because of one image from Landsat technology.

This image also brought Sever to the spotlight with Jorge Cabrera, the head of the Central American Commission on the Environment and Development (CCAD). As a result CCAD, USAID (US Agency for International Development), World Bank, and NASA agreed to conduct environmental research together and created SERVIR. In Spanish it means, “to serve”. Today, SERVIR delivers critical intelligence to help countries assess environmental threats and respond to and assess damage from natural disasters. What the image of the Mexico-Guatemala border did in 1980, SERVIR does full time.

With hubs all over the world, SERVIR helps to understand and respond to natural disasters, combat environmental problems, improve agricultural practices, and monitor air quality. Managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, the program began in 2004. “SERVIR’S primary technical work occurs at the hubs, which are staffed by in-country and in-region experts. The hubs coordinate with other international and national organizations in their respective regions regarding climate change, environmental monitoring, disasters, weather and mapping, among others” (“Earth-observing Camera Launches to International Space Station”).  The Mesoamerica hub was the first, and focuses on Central America and the Caribbean. The African hub, created in 2008, is based in Nairobi, Kenya. In 2010, the Himalaya hub was created for the Hindu Kush-Himalayan region.

Like the image of the Mexico-Guatemala border, many images collected from space are used to show humans the consequences (intended or otherwise) of their environmental decisions. Consider the following image:
Aral Sea in Central Asia
The three images are photographs taken of the same area in Central Asia. The Aral Sea, once the fourth largest lake in the world, has been shrinking since the 1960s due to its two feeder rivers being diverted. The visual result is stunning, yet frightening. The images, from left to right, were taken in 1977, 1998, and 2010 respectively. The unintended consequences run deeper than this, though. The local fishing industry was destroyed as the fish died off due to the brackish waters turning intensely salty. The two feeder rivers were diverted to aid in agriculture; this meant pesticides, fertilizers, and a host of other chemicals made their way into the waters. As the water dried up, those chemicals were found in the dusty ground. When the wind would blow, the chemical-laden dust would cover the crops causing a higher rate of health problems in the region. Without the large body of water to moderate the weather, the summers are hotter and the winters are colder.

Ashtosh Limaye, a NASA scientist who works with the SERVIR project, described this situation as a perfect example of how SERVIR can help (Limaye). The hub would take the three images to local and regional authorities to educate the causes of the higher cancer rates in the area, the polluted sands, and the more drastic weather patterns. Then, a plan will be devised to improve the conditions for both the people in the region and the region itself. But sometimes, the images are simply archived until years down the road when time can show the effects of devastation.

The following image is from Kuwait Oil Fires. During the first Gulf War in the early 1990s, Iraqi troops set fire to over 650 oil wells in Kuwait as they withdrew from the country. The following shows before, during, and after the event; from left to right, the images were taken in August 1990, June 1991, and January 1992:
Kuwait Oil Fires
The fires burned for ten months; firefighters from ten countries traveled to the area to help extinguish the fires. After the fires were extinguished, oil lakes remained. A layer of soot and oil fell from the sky and mixed with the desert sands to create a sort of “tarcrete”. This covered 5% of Kuwait’s landscape (“Landsat Top Ten – Kuwait Oil Fires”). During the June 1991 image capture, the fires were burning so hot that the detectors overloaded temporarily. This turned the red dots into red lines (as indicated in the middle image above).

In November of 2009 a hurricane brought terrible weather to El Salvador. With the weather, came flooding and mudslides. Almost 200 people died, thousands were left homeless, and over $150 million in damages were calculated. “The satellite images provided by SERVIR mapped the mud flow and assisted officials in understanding the full extend of the hurricane’s damage and how it could be avoided in the event of future disasters” (“Daniel Irwin: Using NASA technology to solve disaster, environmental conditions”).

SERVIR has its own camera now. Located on the International Space Station (ISS), ISERV looks out of the Earth-facing window in the station’s Destiny laboratory. One of the benefits of having ISERV on the ISS is that astronauts are nearby when technology fails. Ground control is able to communicate with the astronauts and give directions on how to fix the failure so the camera can come back up. But there are also downfalls to having ISERV on the ISS. For starters, the window in the station’s Destiny lab only allows for a small opening for the camera to look through. This means that the camera can only capture what the ISS is flying over at the time. When the earthquake hit Japan in early 2011, images were not recorded of the resulting destruction from either the quake and the tsunami because the ISS wasn’t able to capture the scenes according to the timing of the ISS’s location and when Japan was in sunlight (Limaye). If the ISS has a loss of contact with ground control, images are not captured either.

I look forward to the day when ISERV will become its own satellite, separate from the ISS. I can only wish that this satellite will be controlled in flight pattern and direction by ground control so the camera can capture real-time events as they happen rather than having to wait until the satellite’s orbit pattern marries up with the location of the disaster. There is no known desire at this time to improve the resolution of the ISERV camera, and I suspect that the reason stems from the use of satellite imagery having been a hot topic in the debate of personal privacy. NASA scientists are happy with the resolution at this time, but look forward to when they can have better control over where the ISERV camera flies and when it can shoot in the sunlight.


Works Cited
Ballon, Massie Santos. “Tom Sever, archaeologist”. www.scicom.ucsc.edu. 25 May 2008. Web. 6 August 2014.

“Daniel Irwin: Using NASA technology to solve disaster, environmental conditions”. www.washingtonpost.com. 18 January 2010. Web. 6 August 2014.

“Earth-observing Camera Launches to International Space Station”. www.nasa.gov. 19 July 2012. Web. 6 August 2014.

“Historical Events for Year 1965”. www.historyorb.com. n.d. Web. 6 August 2014.

“Landsat Science”. www.landsat.gsfc.nasa.gov. n.d. Web. 6 August 2014.

“Landsat Then and Now”. www.landsat.gsfc.nasa.gov. nd. Web. 6 August 2014.

“Landsat Top Ten – International Borders: Mexico and Guatemala”. www.nasa.gov. 23 July 2011. Web. 5 July 2014.

“Landsat Top Ten – Kuwait Oil Fires”. www.nasa.gov. 23 July 2012. Web. 6 August 2014.


Limaye, Ashtosh. Personal Interview. 7 August 2014.