Reconsidered: Images of the Horse

Nancy Marie Brown
September 01, 1999
horses running
Jennifer Tucker and Gerald Lang of the Digital Photography Studio; digital collage by James Collins

Jerry Lang is remarkable for his laugh, and his eye. I met the eye first: Touring a new friend's house, I was lured by a photograph on a far wall. My host found me some fifteen minutes later, alone in a darkening room, staring at the image, transfixed. He said nothing, but stood beside me, matching my gaze until by some imperceptible sigh or sign he understood that I'd drunk my fill. Then, "Jerry Lang," he offered. "You should meet him."

Years later, I toured a museum exhibit in which famous people identified photos that had changed their lives. My companion asked me what I would have picked. I chose the Lang print on my friend's wall.

It was a platinum print of a horse bent sharply to bite at a fly. I knew what that horse was doing—itching—yet the print, with its silvery gray tones and exquisite lines, radiated nothing but peace. It had for me the soothing quality of a pieta. And it led, more or less directly, to my eventually buying horses of my own.

I could not afford a platinum print, so I acquired Lang's photo in a subtle way of my own: It appeared on the cover of Research/Penn State in March 1992 to illustrate a story on Lang's book, The Horse: Photographic Images, 1839 to the Present. (It made no difference that Lang's own work was not in the book.)

While I was working on the story I got acquainted with the laugh. Booming doesn't do it justice. It is a truly explosive, hold-the-phone-away outburst. You wouldn't think this casual, comfy, rumpled professor with the easy, anything-I-can-do-for-you air could produce such resonance. The only person I've met who topped it sang opera and had the cape to match. Nor does Lang have the control of a professional. The noise erupts from him, bursting his bubble of concentration (and that of anyone else in range). He'll be examining an image, his narrow gaze sharp-focused, intensely pursuing a line of thought, his voice dipping into the register of a whisper as the idea gets deeper and deeper and then—

I got used to being startled. And strangely, started to like it. Nothing like a sudden jolt of joy to perk up your day.

In 1998 we featured Lang and his students in a special issue of Research/Penn State on undergraduate student research. Lang had set up a Digital Photography Studio in the School of Visual Arts, where budding artists could point and click and enlarge and retouch without ever winding a roll of film or wincing at the stink of a dark room. "Throughout the history of photography, technology has influenced image-making," Lang said then. "The ways this new technology will alter photographic vision, how photographs are used, and what new opportunities digital imaging will provide are all integral parts of the research underway by students in the Digital Photography Studio."

When the issue came out, Lang begged a box (some 180 copies) to send to his friends and sponsors. And then he began to nag.

"But no, this is really new," he'd insist. While we were in press, he'd found a way to take his Digital Photography Studio out into the field. High resolution, professional quality photographs (the big Kodak cameras can handle a Nikon lens as long as your arm) that you can send over a wireless modem from anywhere. Anywhere! A newspaper photographer could send one from a battlefield. Or from a baseball park.

"Can you do it from my barn?" My Icelandic horses, my pride and joy, had just taken up residence in my brand-new barn. And this wireless stuff—it was an experimental network set up by Penn State and Cellular One. Its radius was supposedly smaller than the campus. My barn was 18 miles out.

"Sure, we can do it from your barn!" He laughed. Then, "If we do it from your barn, will you put it in the magazine?"

girl and man on hay look at laptop
Jennifer Tucker/Digital Photography Studio

Last May, Lang and his wife, Jennifer Tucker, brought the Penn State Digital Photography Studio out to my barn. While I chased the horses around the paddock with a stiff blue whip, Lang and Tucker screwed some long lenses onto their digital camera bodies and contorted themselves into the hunched and crablike shapes of photographers-at-work.

"That background is nice."

"I know."

"We can get rid of the fences later."

An hour later, Tucker sat back on her heels. "The battery's gone." "Let's see what we've got." Lang opened the back of one of the cameras and slipped out the PCMCIA card—a 340-megabyte storage drive. Fishing an Apple Powerbook out of the bottom of a canvas bag, he carefully set it on top of the dog kennel (waking the old spaniel), slipped the PCMCIA card into its slot, and threw his jacket over his head, transforming himself from tech-weenie into the sort of photographer who took shots of Niagara Falls at the turn of the last century.

"Isn't it amazing!" he shouted, his laugh muffled by the fabric. "You have to use a dark cloth to see the screen. Just like an old view camera." He lifted up a corner. "Stick your head under here. See what we've got."

It was a contact sheet of 53 shots. Each represented a 6 mega-pixel file, an image with a resolution of 2,000 by 3,000 pixels. They were magnificent (they were my horses, after all).

Huddled under Lang's jacket, with the spaniel snuffling at us from below, we clicked on a half dozen and "acquired" them into 17.8 megabyte TIFF files in Adobe Photoshop, from which we could blow them up and check the focus and depth of field, not to mention the wave of the horses' manes or the position of their feet. I picked one to send, and Lang saved it in a smaller format. Then we went down to the barn, set up our "lab" on a bale of straw, and hooked up the Sierra wireless modem. Lang dialed in and linked to Penn State.

"What's your e-mail?" He typed it in, pressed send—and nothing happened. "Maybe I better make it smaller." From a 200 kilobyte JPEG file he reduced it to the standard screen resolution of 72 dpi and made the image only 3-by-5 in size. Theoretically, he said, we could send the whole huge original file, but this was a mere "proof-of-concept" demonstration. "Wireless technology is slow to begin with," he said, "but the point of the matter is, it gets it there—hopefully." He pressed send again. Nothing. "I don't know. Is it slower under a metal roof?"

"Maybe you're too close to the fence charger," said Tucker.

The connection died and we moved outside. Jacket over his head, Lang reestablished the lab on a sawhorse. Dialed up and—"It's gone!"

I ran up to the house, dialed in to Penn State, downloaded my e-mail from the University server—and there was a photograph of a horse, floating, with all four feet off the ground.

Gerald Lang, M.F.A., is professor in the School of Visual Arts, College of Arts and Architecture, 210 Patterson Bldg., University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-0444; gxl7@psu.edu. The Digital Photography Studio has received support from AT&T Wireless Services, Calumet Photographic, Inc., The Eastman Kodak Company, Megavision, Mamiya America Corporation, and Photographic Supply, Inc. The Sierra Pocket Plus wireless modem was configured specially to run with the Powerbook by Apple Computer Senior Systems Engineer Doug Brooks.

Last Updated September 01, 1999