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Creatively Speaking: Kevin Scanlon

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Our Creatively Speaking series of interviews continues this week with the brilliant photographer Kevin Scanlon. If you read The New York Times, Forbes, Time Magazine, or LA Weekly, you probably already know Kevin's work. But today you're going to have a chance to get to know the man behind the amazing photographs. And tomorrow, we'll be giving away an original Scanlon print to one lucky/smart reader, but you have to read today's interview if you expect to get in on that action.


In addition to well-known artists and actors like Steve Carell, Robert Redford, Tilda Swinton, Daniel Day Lewis, and Jodie Foster (just to name a fraction), Kevin has shot athletes like Larry Bowa, rockers, like Neil Young, and many advertising campaigns you'd recognize.

Check out his Web site for a sampling, or see some of the additional images we've included with the interview below. And don't forget to tune in tomorrow for your chance to win an autographed Scanlon original.

DI: How'd you get started in this racket and how'd you get your first gig?
KS: I started shooting in high school. My friend and I took an elective photo class and shot each other skateboarding for our assignments. I got more serious when I met Ben Stechschulte later in high school. He had a contagious passion for photography. After not graduating from college (I couldn't make up my mind between photography and music), I played in a band throughout my 20s, shooting for fun, all the while. When the band fizzled out, photography took over. I was shooting my friends' bands live shows and press photos. For the heck of it, I shot a couple friends' bands that were playing a music competition sponsored by the Phoenix New Times. The New Times had a staff photographer who was shooting other bands too, but my friends were the ones who won, and the staffer had no shots of them playing. So I got my first images published, and started a two-year run shooting regularly for the New Times before moving to Los Angeles.


DI: With camera technology what it is today, it seems anyone who owns a digital SLR calls him-herself a photographer these days. But it's not that easy is it? Why not?

KS: I think it's great that some digital cameras are affordable enough for just about anybody to buy one. My 5-year-old niece has a big, pink digital camera. Great photography can come from anyone, anytime. Sometimes, it's being at the right place at the right time. However, that doesn't mean that everyone is a photographer, just because he or she has a digital camera. I can hold a scalpel and cut things, but I'm no heart surgeon. Not to say I'm saving lives with my photography. But to me, it's all about taste. It's what you do with composition, color, contrast, lighting, etc. These are some things that differentiate between solid and not-so-solid photography. And more, how the photographer interacts (or doesn't interact) with the subject that counts in the end.


DI: Of all the celebs you've shot, who has been the most challenging?

KS: I've been fortunate to have had some really successful people sit for me. And amazingly, the vast majority have been kind, generous, and humble. I can think of a few exceptions, but only a few. What made them difficult was their lack of enthusiasm, and unwillingness to be photographed. And I get it. The photo shoot isn't the creative part of their job. Making films or music (or whatever) is. The photo shoot is just a part of promoting their work. It's a tedious part of their job. That said, get over it and do your job! I will say that some of my many favorites have been Jodie Foster, Daniel Day-Lewis, Tilda Swinton, Kevin McDonald (from comedy troupe Kids in the Hall), and Pau Gasol of the Lakers.


DI: Who has been the most down-to-earth? How did that down-to-earthness express itself?

KS: The favs I mentioned are among the most down-to-earth. Also, James McAvoy, Ethan Embry, Beck, and Cate Blanchett. They all TALKED to me. And not talking, like "How do you want me to pose?" Talking about...just stuff. McAvoy told me about his favorite Scotch Whiskey (something I've been known to sip on occasion), Gasol told me about making the doorways in his new condo taller, McDonald about one of his (and my) favorite characters from Kids in the Hall, the King of Empty Promises. "Will do."


DI: For the tech-heads in the blog, what's in your camera bag these days? What kind of lenses do you prefer for different situations?

KS: I keep three lenses in my bag. I use the 24-70 2.8 for most work. I'll use the 70-200 2.8 (or is it 80-200?) about 30% of the time. And for emergencies, I have a 50 1.4. That's in case of a low-light location and I can't use my lights for some reason.

DI: Who's your dream subject and why?

KS: I think I have several. In music, it'd have to be Radiohead. The quality of work they release over and over again commands much respect from me. In film, the Coen Brothers are high on the list, for the same reason. Also Jim Carrey. And Audrey Hepburn, circa 1953. But I don't think I was born yet. And I'll add Tiger Woods to that list.

DI: Are there any similarities between playing music and shooting pictures?

KS: I would say there's a close relationship between a photo shoot and recording music (rather than performing live). When I was playing in the band, I co-produced our records with our drummer. That process of "recording" or documenting music is very similar to photography. There's the initial capture and the prep work that goes into it. There's the post-production (the mixdown for music, and processing [printmaking with film or digital processing] for photography). And distribution is similar. MySpace features music and photography, for example.

DI: What advice do you have for aspiring photographers?

KS: For aspiring career photographers, understand business. There are great photographers who don't know how to run a business, and thus aren't as successful as they could be. And there are decent photographers who are extremely successful because they are excellent businesspeople. For those who just want to take better pictures, don't be afraid to "shoot from the hip." Just aim the camera and fire away. I find that the subjects don't stiffen up as so many people do when I raise the camera to my eye. You might catch a much more spontaneous moment that way!

DI: You're from Pittsburgh. Care to place a bet on your Steelers this year?

KS: I have visions of the Steelers beating the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl.


Browse through past Creatively Speaking posts here >>

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
June 21, 2017
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.