Learned #3: White on White


Welcome to Learned, a resource for all of us who are trying to get just a little more smarterer. Er, uh, educated. We’ve got links, we’ve got commentary, we’ve got a couple of pretty pictures. Let’s get to it.

Photo by me, from the archives.

What We’re Learning:

This week, we’re learning all about dog portraiture. No, seriously.

This is my dog, Lucy. I took the picture a couple of weeks ago and, for the most part, I like it. But I can’t decide if it’s any good. What I mean is, I like it because she’s my dog and I think she’s the most bestest good dog in the world. However, I may be a tiny bit biased. So, the question remains, leaving aside, for the moment, the photos technical flaws*, is this a good portrait of my dog?

Let’s begin with a more basic question: What makes a good portrait?

Consult a dozen photographers and you’ll get a dozen different answers, but most of them boil down to one key thing: A portrait should reveal something about its subject, be that the circumstances of the photo, the emotional state of the subject, or the effects of their life or situation upon the body.

Think of John Lennon and Yoko Ono by Annie Leibovitz for Rolling Stone, which speaks volumes about vulnerability and closeness without saying a word, or, my personal favorite portrait of all time, Marilyn Monroe by Henri Cartier-Bresson, which shows an exhausted woman near the end of her tether. Both photos are made more than mere records by the circumstances surrounding their publications, but the work had to be done before legend could take hold.

But, bringing this back to dogs, can we apply the same standards to undeniably emotional creatures who are sometimes smarter than we are despite being less intelligent? Maybe. And yet, I know that at the time I took this picture, Lucy’s exact thoughts were: Are we going for a walk? Did you bring me a treat? Why not?

Maybe that is close enough to “capturing the emotional state of the subject” to qualify? There are a lot of “how to” guides on the internet for photography in general and for portraiture in general. But most of them can’t tell you if a portrait is any good. That’s up to photographer and the viewers to decide for ourselves.

Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.

— Henri Cartier-Bresson

Further Reading about Portraiture:

Photography Resources:

*Why is she only half in focus? Why didn’t I at least brush her down before shooting? Is that a piece of lint on the left side of her face or is that something on the lens? Would it have been so impossible to get better lighting situated a little lower relative to her eyes? Why is the lower half of her nose cut off? And, most obviously and most importantly, couldn't I feed this poor, starving dog just one more treat?

How about you? What are you learning this week? Let me know.

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What We’re Reading:

Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know

by Alexandra Horowitz

I first read this book back in 2013 (it was originally published in 2009) when I was in the midst of raising a puppy for the first time since I, myself, was a child. At the time, I wrote in my Goodreads review,

It centers around the idea of umwelt, or the way in which we gather information on the world around us and form it into a coherent picture, and how a dog's umwelt both differs from and interacts with our own. There is a wealth of information, all of it meticulously researched and presented, on how dogs fit into our lives and, perhaps more importantly, how we fit into theirs.

That’s still true, but what the intervening years have made me realize is just how valuable having that knowledge was and is. To put it another way, I thought I knew how dogs worked and was just reading the book to formalize my knowledge. In hindsight, I wasn’t as knowledgeable as I had thought and I’ve turned back to this book again and again to help me understand my dog better.

If you’ve got a dog, or are thinking about getting a dog, get this book.


I'm Joel.  I've got a website.  Another website.  And a twitter.  And an instagram, too.  Sometimes, even a byline.

I did some writing about Colombian coffee this week, if you’re into that kind of thing.

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Down the Rabbit Hole:

We’re starting with the news that Airbus is considering making sleeping berths for their A330 wide-body jets. Which is just super green.

But, seriously, this is just one of those ideas that seems less like the future and more like the past circling ‘round in new clothes. After all, the first sleeper cars were added to trains in the 1830s, but it was the Pullman sleeper that really made it comfortable to travel overnight. By the way, you can still sleep in a Pullman if you want.

And these days, even though the U.S. passenger rail service is pretty bad, luxury trains are booming in other parts of the world. Of course, it’s not just trains either. Cruise ships have had tiny berths for the crew for decades, even while luxury suites are getting more flamboyant.

But the whole idea of having a space just big enough to sleep in is far from new. Capsule hotels have been a thing in Japan for so long, entire blocks have been converted into apartments. It’s pretty far from luxurious, but, of course they, too, are going upscale. The idea has also spread out to the rest of Asia and airports the world over have taken the idea and run with it to build short-term capsule-like hotels inside their terminals.

But maybe it’s for the best. All these tiny sleeping spaces can help us head into the big sleep in style.

Random Fact:

Photo by AJ Robbie on Unsplash

Elephants don’t actually drink water through their trunks. Instead, they use the trunk to pour water into their mouths. Huh.

That’s it. Stay strong, stay healthy, learn something.