Affinity Photo Review

There’s a new image processor on my computers. Recently the chief developer of one of my favorite image editors, Picture Window Pro (PWP), sent out a sad email letting all PWP users know that he is stopping PWP development. He thanked us for over twenty years of support and as a last gift converted the final version of PWP to freeware. You can now download and run Picture Window Pro without a key. PWP is a superb program! It’s still the fastest and meanest image editor I have ever used and I am constantly trying image editors. If you’re interested in getting a free copy of PWP download the program before the distribution website shuts down.

I was saddened by this news but all good things eventually end. With PWP going away I decided, for the nth time, to look for alternatives. I reconsidered Photoshop. I’ve used full-blown Photoshop but frankly, I’ve never been impressed. It’s expensive and slow! I use an old copy of Photoshop Elements, mainly to remove blemishes on film scans, but in my opinion, the only Adobe image processing product worth paying for is Lightroom. Adobe is the evil image processing empire. They squeeze you with sluggish performance and abusive subscription payment models and then act like they’re doing you a favor. It didn’t take me very long to abandon Photoshop (again) and keep looking for PWP alternatives. Lucky for me there’s this thing called DuckDuckGo that quickly led me to Affinity Photo.

Affinity Photo is a relatively new image editor that got started in the Mac world and, as of November 2016, is also available for 64 bit Windows systems. Affinity has snagged dozens of positive reviews and, unlike Photoshop, is reasonably priced. I decided to give myself a little Christmas present and bought Affinity Photo.

The Affinity Windows download file is large: over 200 megabytes. Affinity Windows depends on  .Net 4.6.2 which is also installed if it’s not on your machine. It took a few minutes to suck down and install all the required bytes but things went smoothly and I eagerly started the program.

Before relating my impressions of Affinity Photo I will describe my binary image format philosophy. Image editors typically create and manipulate vendor specific proprietary binary image files. Binary image files like PSDs, NEFs, DNGs, and now Affinity’s AFPHOTOs, have a nasty tendency to evolve on vendor whim. This poses fundamental long-term image storage problems. Even if you conscientiously backup and archive your original image files you may discover, a decade hence, that you can no longer load them with current software. I hate this! Photography is for the ages, not the marketing cycles of software and camera companies! If you have ever wondered why the lowly JPG image format still reigns supreme despite its abundant technical deficiencies stop wondering. The JPG format is an open and well described eight-bit channel format. Any competent programmer can write software to read and write JPGs. The same holds for TIFs, PNGs and a few other open formats. This is not true for vendor dominated formats. The specifications, even if disclosed, can change on a moment’s notice.

How can photographers deal with transient binary image formats? There are two basic approaches. You can convert all your images to an open image format. Some photographers convert camera RAW files to high bit TIFs. Converting large numbers of image files is a tedious and resource hungry process but it’s probably the best bet for long-term storage. I use the second lazier approach: maintain at least two independent image programs that can read and write the binary image formats you work with. I use Nikon cameras; they crank out proprietary NEF binaries. Currently, I have four programs on this machine that can read NEFs: PWP, Lightroom, Affinity and ThumbsPlus. I will tolerate proprietary binaries if and only if I have options. Don’t let software and camera companies box you in.

I started using image editors about fifteen years ago. My first editor came with my first digital camera: a one megapixel HP. I cannot remember the name of this program; I only used it long enough to discover its appalling deficiencies. Within a week I had purchased my first version of Photoshop Elements (PE). I was happy with PE until I encountered posterization (read the link for the gory technical details). Posterization wreaks prints and it’s easy to posterize eight-bit channel images. The answer then, as it is now, is to increase your working bit depth. Adobe recommended upgrading from PE to full Photoshop. Why fork over $70 bucks when you can fork over $500? Photoshop Elements has a long history of half-assed support for sixteen-bit channel images and the reason is painfully obvious. If Photoshop Elements fully embraced sixteen-bit channel images there would be very little need for full Photoshop. You could save yourself hundreds of dollars. Adobe decided not to compete with themselves and adopted the time-tested pseudo-monopolistic practice of sodomizing the customer. I did not embrace the butthurt! I started looking for low-cost programs that properly handled sixteen-bit images. It didn’t take me long to find PWP.

This early experience shaped my entire image processing approach. Instead of adopting a single monolithic “industry standard” program and joining the nerd herd I decided to go my way and use many small programs. Instead of a Goliath, I went with many Davids.1 When you take the David approach interoperability moves to the top of the stack. The output of one program must effortlessly become the input of another. How programs play together matters. Additionally, when you apply the David approach, you never look to completely replace your tool set. General purpose tools like Affinity may be able to do all the things more specialized tools can do but probably not as efficiently or as well.

So, before adding Affinity to my trusted tools I asked:

  1. Does Affinity play nice with others?
  2. Is Affinity’s user interface (UI) tolerable?
  3. Does Affinity streamline common tedious tasks?
  4. What new capabilities does Affinity offer?

With these points in mind let’s look at Affinity Photo.

Does Affinity play nice with others?

One of the first things I look for in image processors is tolerable loading times. Part the reason I’ve never been able to stick with full Photoshop is because it takes forever to get the damn thing up. Affinity on Windows easily beats full Photoshop but it’s still slower than good old C coded PWP. PWP comes up in a flash. It’s one of the many reasons I stuck with it for over a decade. Affinity’s loading speed is comparable to GIMP, Photoshop Elements and Lightroom: fast enough to not drive me crazy.

After loading Affinity, I immediately started testing the program’s ability to read and write sixteen-bit TIF files. The basic single layer sixteen-bit TIF file format is one of the best supported lossless image formats. It’s often the only way to move information from one program to another without trashing bits. JPGs are universal, but every time you write a JPG you lose data: that’s the lossy part of JPG compression. Lossy image formats are fine for the web and final presentation but are a total disaster for image editing. Affinity can read and write sixteen-bit TIFs. It can also read and write a number of other important formats like Photoshop Elements PSDs. Affinity converts PSD layers to AFPHOTO layers. It also handles JPGs, PNGs and many RAW formats like Nikon’s NEFs. Affinity plays well with others.

Is Affinity’s user interface UI tolerable?

Once I had satisfied myself that I could slosh bits through Affinity I started evaluating the program’s user interface. UIs have ruined many editors. I’m immediately suspicious when reviewers start lauding a program’s UI before spending a few hundred hours using it. UIs either help or hinder. Affinity’s UI is decent. If you have ever used a layer oriented image editor you will quickly adjust to how Affinity works. I strongly recommend watching the Affinity tutorial videos; they are among the best video tutorials I’ve seen and quickly show what the program can do.

Once Affinity is loaded it’s pretty zippy. Common image handling operations are fast enough to fly under my annoyance radar. Image processing can be very demanding. Don’t expect to stitch 500-megabyte panoramas from original RAW files instantly. With current hardware and software, some things will take time. It’s fair to say that Affinity’s performance compares favorably to other image processors. I can put up with Affinity’s user interface.

Does Affinity streamline common tedious tasks?

After playing with Affinity for a few days I used the program to help restore some old scanned slides. Old pictures are always damaged; they all need a bit, or a lot, of retouching. The problems most people associate with old pictures, tears, color changes, and loss of tone are usually easily fixed in most editors. The biggest job is removing thousands of scratches, spots, and stains. Most restorers give up and crop or blur away such defects but I’m with Lady Macbeth: “out, out damn spots.” Any tool that helps me hunt down and exterminate spotty pests will be lovingly embraced.

The Affinity inpainting brush works a lot better than the corresponding Photoshop Elements healing brush. In particular, it crosses linear backgrounds, buildings, fabric patterns, and so forth without unduly destroying detail. Removing long linear scratches that cross regular structured detail is a soul draining chore. Whenever I see such defects I typically give up and find another picture to restore; I have a big backlog of scans awaiting restoration! This slide of the southern end of Beirut Lebanon, taken by my

I am still exploring the Affinity Photo image editor. I used it to restore this scan of a Kodachrome slide my father shot from a hotel window of the south coast of Beirut Lebanon in 1968. The Continental Hotel is visible in the lower left corner of this image. My mother often stayed in the Continental when she visited me in Beirut. I fondly remember having continental breakfast in the Continental. The original slide was overexposed and covered with splotches and sky fingerprints. The retouching tools in Affinity Photo are better than corresponding tools in Photoshop Elements. I particularly like the Affinity inpainting brush; it works well on textured and linear subjects. I was able to remove long scratches cutting through the buildings in this image without unduly wreaking building detail. I also used the inpainting tool to remove a cutoff street light and a car it was shading on the bottom of the image. It's easier to remove objects with Affinity Photo than it is in Photoshop Elements.

I am still exploring the Affinity Photo image editor. I used it to restore this scan of a Kodachrome slide my father shot from a hotel window of the south coast of Beirut Lebanon in 1968. The Continental Hotel is visible in the lower left corner of this image. My mother often stayed in the Continental when she visited me in Beirut. I fondly remember having continental breakfast in the Continental. The original slide was overexposed and covered with splotches and sky fingerprints. The retouching tools in Affinity Photo are better than corresponding tools in Photoshop Elements. I particularly like the Affinity inpainting brush; it works well on textured and linear subjects. I was able to remove long scratches cutting through the buildings in this image without unduly wreaking building detail. I also used the inpainting tool to remove a cutoff street light and a car it was shading on the bottom of the image. It’s easier to remove objects with Affinity Photo than it is in Photoshop Elements.

father in 1968, is typical of many images in my backlog. There were dozens of long linear scratches running through the buildings. It would have taken hours to fix them with PE. All it took was a few passes with Affinity’s inpainting brush to remove them. I was impressed. This single tool significantly speeds up restoring scratched and spotted images and justifies Affinity’s purchase price all by itself.

Another Affinity tool that streamlines common image processing tasks is the Affinity panorama tool. Most modern image editors have fairly decent panorama tools and building a panorama is easier than it used to be. In the image editing Dark Age, you had to manually select control points and master blend masks to build decent panoramas. It could take hours to align a single image. Current editors use effective automatic control point detection and advanced blending algorithms. In most cases, it’s a simple matter of using good capture technique followed by loading the individual images into a panorama tool to generate decent to excellent results.

We are living in a panoramic golden age but there are still problems. I shoot entirely in RAW because RAW preserves the most information and affords the greatest post processing options. Panoramas often encompass scenes of high contrast. Image tones will vary from extremely bright to very dark. It’s not uncommon for ordinary panoramas to span twelve or more stops of dynamic range. When processing high dynamic range pictures it’s extremely advantageous to do all your work on sixteen-bit or thirty-two-bit channel images. Blending eight-bit panoramas can release the posterization Kraken; trust me, you don’t want that monster savaging your scenes.

Unfortunately, the Photoshop Elements panorama tool is inherently eight-bit. This means I must do all my major tone adjustments in Lightroom before panorama stitching. Adjusting the tones of a single image is tedious, doing it for many panorama frames is cruel and unusual punishment. Adobe’s answer is always the same; give us a lot of money and we’ll release you from eight-bit Hell! Lucky for us Affinity gets us out of eight-bit panorama Hell for a lot less.

The following panorama of the mountains near the eastern entrance of Glacier National Park was directly generated from Nikon NEF RAW files. All feature detection and blending calculations were high-bit. Tone adjustments were aided by regular tone mapping. Tone mapping is like an automatic Zone System. Compared to what I used to put up with ten years ago Affinity panorama building is almost as easy as scanning scenes with an iPhone. Affinity significantly streamlines routine retouching and panorama building.

Looking west from just outside the eastern side of Glacier National Park near Saint Mary. The weather was grim and dark, just the way I like it, when I braved the rain to snap the frames that went into this panorama. I built this panorama directly from Nikon NEF files in the Windows version of Affinity Photo. My favorite image processor, Picture Window Pro, is being retired and I am exploring alternatives. I rather like this result.

Looking west from just outside the eastern side of Glacier National Park near Saint Mary. The weather was grim and dark, just the way I like it when I braved the rain to snap the frames that went into this panorama. I built this panorama directly from Nikon NEF files in the Windows version of Affinity Photo. My favorite image processor, Picture Window Pro, is being retired and I am exploring alternatives. I rather like this result.

What new capabilities does Affinity offer?

So far, the features I’ve discussed are common to most image editors. Does Affinity offer anything new or special? There is one Affinity feature, the FFT (Fast Fourier Transform) Denoise filter, that greatly mitigates one of my long-standing retouching nightmares: regular patterns.

Many old portraits were printed on patterned paper. The following is a crop of an old (1935) baby picture of my mother.

evelynpattern

My mother as a seven-week-old baby. This 1935 picture was printed on patterned paper. Patterned paper often adds luster and depth to photographs but it also makes it more difficult to retouch them. The Affinity Photo FFT (Fast Fourier Transform) Denoise filter can remove regular patterns without unduly softening images.

As you can see the entire picture is covered with tiny regular hexagons. Patterned prints were popular in the early and mid-20th century. The pattern adds depth and luster and has the nice side effect of making prints difficult to copy. Patterns also make retouching difficult. Retouching spots and scratches on patterned backgrounds tends to make them more, not less conspicuous. If only there was some way to remove the damn pattern before retouching. Affinity’s FFT Denoise filter does just that.

I applied the FFT Denoise filter to my mother’s baby picture and then ran through my regular retouching regime: see the following before and after diptych.

For some restorations, the ones that please or annoy me, I create a before and after diptych. I want to convince myself that my restoration work was worthwhile. Most of the time the restored image is better but in more cases than I would like the original scan is superior. And, every now and then, I cannot decide which one I like the best. This rendering of an old faded patterned print of my mother as a baby is one of those images. The original print is on patterned paper. The pattern imparts a quality that the restoration lacks. Ansel Adams once wrote that the negative is the score and the print is the performance. For restorers, the scan is the score and the restoration is the performance. Sometimes the music is glorious and clear and sometimes it's rap – rhymes with crap!

For some restorations, the ones that please or annoy me, I create a before and after diptych. I want to convince myself that my restoration work was worthwhile. Most of the time the restored image is better but in more cases than I would like the original scan is superior. And, now and then, I cannot decide which one I like the best. This rendering of an old faded patterned print of my mother as a baby is one of those images. The original print is on patterned paper. The pattern imparts a quality that the restoration lacks. Ansel Adams once wrote that the negative is the score and the print is the performance. For restorers, the scan is the score and the restoration is the performance. Sometimes the music is glorious and clear and sometimes it’s rap – rhymes with crap!

Affinity Conclusion

Affinity, like PWP, is a great value. The first Windows version is already superior to every version of Photoshop Elements I’ve ever used. It’s not as comprehensive as full Photoshop, but if you subtract the marginal features of Photoshop and keep the essential core elements, you’ve basically described Affinity’s feature set. Affinity is a layer editor but it’s not a Photoshop clone. The UI is completely modern, RAW development is built in, sixteen-bit layers are the default, and useful stack operations like automatic alignment are a click away. Affinity also supports thirty-two-bit HDR file formats and high dynamic range composites. There’s a lot of bang for the buck: strongly recommended!


  1. If you remember what happened to Goliath siding with David doesn’t seem like much of a risk.

Milliblog: Photo Captions

This blog is still alive and kicking. I post when I post. Currently, my energies are deployed on other fronts. If you absolutely must get your Analyze the Data not the Drivel fix look over my extensive millibloggy photo captions.  Here’s a typical example:

The “miraculous staircase” in the Loretto Chapel. After paying your three dollar entrance fee you can enter the chapel and see the staircase. When I was there people were milling around while a recorded message told the breathless story of the miraculous staircase. The story goes something like this. The chapel needed a staircase. Some nuns prayed to the sky fairy of carpenters and low and behold a carpenter showed up with a bag of simple tools. Over the next month this remarkably skilled carpenter fashioned this beautiful wood staircase using only his simple tools. Apparently he constructed the staircase from the floor to the upper level without central supports. Even now the staircase lacks the standard central beam of spiral staircases. The masses were amazed! How could the staircase stand without a central support? Surely this is the work of the divine. This is what passes for a miracle among sky fairy believers. It’s the same type of magical thinking that invokes aliens to explain the pyramids. Just maybe the carpenter knew what he was doing and had the technique to pull it off. Occam’s razor people: It cuts deeply.

The “miraculous staircase” in Santa Fe’s Loretto Chapel. After paying your three dollar entrance fee you can enter the chapel and see the staircase. When I was there people were milling around while a recorded message told the breathless story of the miraculous staircase. The story goes something like this. The chapel needed a staircase.  So some nuns prayed to the sky fairy of carpenters and low and behold a carpenter showed up with a bag of simple tools. Over the next month this remarkably skilled carpenter fashioned this beautiful wood staircase using only his simple tools. Apparently he constructed the staircase from the floor to the upper level without central supports. Even now the staircase lacks the standard central beam of spiral staircases. The masses were amazed! How could the staircase stand without a central support? Surely this is the work of the divine. This is what passes for a miracle among sky fairy believers. It’s the same type of magical thinking that invokes aliens to explain the pyramids. Just maybe the carpenter knew what he was doing and had the technique to pull it off. Occam’s razor people: it cuts deep.

What is Required: Print Captions on the back of Photographs

I am tired of waiting for “the market” to exploit painfully obvious opportunities so I will now provide guidance, in the form of milliblog entries, that tell our less imaginative entrepreneurs just what some of us would buy if we could.

Here’s a deep request. How about printing captions on the back of photographs?

I just went through the excruciating ordeal of ordering about one hundred prints from SmugMug. SmugMug prints meet my high standards but their online ordering software is clunky and clearly geared toward very small print runs. If you have hundreds of pictures, of varying and custom sizes, the software will punish you. The obvious steps of setting a paper type, selecting all your images, and then letting the software work out the paper size from image aspect ratio is not available. You must go image by image setting one easily derived parameter after another. I would print a lot more if it wasn’t such a frigging chore.

As annoying as SmugMug print-ordering is at least I get the prints I want with one major exception. If you check out my online photographs you’ll see I use captions like nanoblog entries. Many people have told me they really like my captions. One of my pet peeves is unlabeled photographs. I have wonderful hundred-year-old photographs of elegantly posed complete strangers because nobody left a clue on the back.

So, in addition to printing timestamps and file names on the back of photographs, include captions as well!

P.S. It takes about five years for the market to meet my obvious requirements; don’t hold your breath.

Photospheres Away!

Photographers are notorious gear-heads. Everybody has a favorite lens, camera or tripod and, no matter how much gear we have, more is always better! Hey, somebody has to stimulate the moribund Obama economy. Gear lust is not entirely irrational. Good cameras really do take “technically” better pictures than mediocre or poor cameras but here’s the infuriating thing. Technical merit does not make the image!

Image quality depends of many things and changes over time. If you doubt this imagine you have an old locket that frames a Daguerreotype of your great-great-grandmother. I’d bet that every single portrait on your shiny new iPhone is “technically” superior to that old Daguerreotype but I’d also bet you’d chuck your iPhone before giving up that old Daguerreotype.  An image’s quality goes far beyond MTF curves and pixel counts.  Photography and geometry are both bereft of royal roads.

In the early days of photography gear was a serious constraint. Getting a good picture was a technical and artistic struggle. Imagine shooting a panorama using large glass plates covered with a home-brewed ASA 0.5, (you read that right ASA 0.5), blue light-sensitive emulsion. Despite such limitations early photographers managed to create some great images. Imagination and gumption have always been the most important photographic tools with good lenses as a distant third.  Well, the 150 year reign of the lens has ended, software has displaced the lens as the primary modern photographic tool and Google’s Photosphere cell phone application neatly demonstrates this technological shift.

A photosphere is a panorama on steroids. It’s a complete 360 degree look around image. The Google photosphere app derives from Google Maps street view. Street views are shot with special multi-lens cameras that look everywhere at once but some bright spark in Google realized that you could get roughly the same result from a single lens if the photographer was willing to endure a vertigo inducing dance. Shooting a photosphere takes at least three twirling 360 degree passes. You have to shoot the ground, horizon and sky.  It takes about twenty frames to build a photosphere.

There is nothing new about multi-frame panoramas. Photographers started shooting multi-frame panoramas shortly after the camera’s invention. I shot them when I was teenager. Panorama software isn’t new either; it’s been around for decades. Two “new” developments make photospheres possible: photosphere viewers and cameras (cell phones) that are more software than camera.

gert-driveway

I shot this panorama in the 1960’s. I rotated in my grandfather’s driveway shooting an entire roll of film with my Instamatic camera. Many years later I scanned the prints and used panorama software to stitch the images together. Click on the image for more panoramas.

The sphere cannot be mapped onto the plane without distortion. This mathematical fact limits how wide-angle your wide-angle shots can be before they are unnaturally distorted. A flattened 360 degree view of common rectilinear subjects looks wonderfully, or horribly, weird: straight lines become curves and areas lose proportionality. Many natural vistas can tolerate such torments but average street views cannot.  Photosphere viewers fix this problem by simulating how we look around.  Every time you browse a Google street view you are running a photosphere viewer.

Shooting panoramas and photospheres is like any other type of photography. It takes lots of practice! It was hard to “practice” shooting such images before cell phones could run stitching and viewing software because you couldn’t see what you had until you took your twenty frames back to the “lab” and tediously put them together.  Ten years ago panorama software required a lot of manual intervention. I spent hours putting three or four frames together. I didn’t put a twenty frame panorama together until I snapped my first iPhone Photosphere.

The iPhone lens is a pretty crappy short focal length lens. Any decent camera lens easily outclasses it yet I cannot shoot photospheres with my expensive Nikon’s while my cruddy little cell phone can.  What’s the difference?  Software!

iPhone Google photospheres are fun but they’re flaw ridden. You can easily see stitching errors, blending artifacts, ghost people, and other blemishes. Now that we can shoot photospheres the race is on to shoot quality photospheres! Software will dominate but hardware has to catch up to make this happen.  Before long you will be able to buy a special multi-lens photosphere ball camera that you can literally throw into the air. This ought to fix the viewpoint problem for people with good pitching arms and the rest of us can drop the little sucker from a drone. Photospheres away!

Panono Ball Camera

The Panono ball camera is a small multi-lens camera that shoots 360 photospheres by simultaneously capturing images from all its lenses and stitching the result together. It is designed to be thrown into the air. Photosphere baseball is going to be huge!

Review: Finding Vivian Maier

I suffer from SLAM (Spouse that Likes Art-house Movies).  I’m sure you’re familiar with this common affliction. It strikes when you want to see Spider-Man 2 but, because you dearly love your spouse, you settle on some “uplifting work of art” that can only be seen in a cramped, look around the pretentious fathead ahead in front of you, dingy art-house cinema. SLAM suffers get a break in St. Louis; there are only two art-house cinemas and their usual yard-sale like fare is dull even by art-house standards. But, as any yard-sale addict will tell you, there are diamonds in the debris and Finding Vivian Maier is a gem.

vivian-maier-small

Vivian Maier 1956. Vivian enjoyed self-portraits and mirrors. This is not vanity. All photographers fall prey to self-reflections. I am certainly guilty.

Finding Vivian Maier is a documentary about a great street photographer, Vivian Maier (1926 –2009) that you have probably never heard of. I had never heard of her and I’m a keen amateur photographer with a nagging interest in the history and technology of photography. I’ve read all three of Ansel Adams classic camera books, plowed through many giant histories of photography, and endured as many Photoshop and image restoration tomes as I can stomach.  I’m not an artist; I’m a technisté! A technisté is someone who has technical artistic skills but is not phony enough to be an artiste. Vivian Maier is an anti-technisté. She’s a true photographic artist that showed astonishingly low levels of interest in the craft and technology of photography.

Her story, as one lady in the film noted, is more interesting than her work. Nobody had heard of Vivian before 2007. She isn’t mentioned in giant histories of photography published before 2007 so it’s not surprising I missed her. She worked most of her life as a nanny. She didn’t hang around with other photographers and she apparently never made a serious effort to show her photographs. Even stranger, she rarely printed her pictures and shot thousands of frames that she never developed. She must have been content to look at her negatives if even that. This astounds me!  I cannot tell if I have a good shot until I “develop” it.  For most of her long life she snapped away in the background and it’s likely that her astonishing body of work would have vanished if John Maloof hadn’t bought a lot of her negatives at an auction in 2007.

For Vivian the act of capture sufficed and what wonderful captures they are. Her work is being exhibited around the world. I will certainly be looking out for the next show coming my way. You can see some of her pictures here and, for those of you that care, Finding Vivian Maier is much better than Spider-Man 2.

Minnie’s Pictures

Minnie E. Raver 1881-1977

While going through my late mother’s pictures I came across a box of my great-grandmother Minnie’s old photographs. When my great-grandmother died in 1977 my grandmother Hazel took her pictures and stuffed them in her Hoarder’s level junk filled basement.1 After Hazel’s death my mother recovered Minnie’s pictures from Hazel’s hoard and promptly filed them with her pictures where they remained until I found them. Minnie’s pictures have already seen off three generations of my ancestors and I’m next in line. Are they worth it?

Many of Minnie’s pictures are over a hundred years old. The oldest probably date to the 1870’s or 1880’s. Despite their age they’re in excellent condition. Obviously Minnie took care of her pictures and thankfully Montana basements and attics are often high and dry. I spent an entire day studying Minnie’s pictures. Her old portraits are superb examples of small studio 19th and early 20th century photography, see the following wedding portrait, and her snapshots are candid shots of the people she knew and loved. All of which brings me to my current problem. I don’t know who these people are!

Callie Davis Frank Smelser wedding 1905

Callie Davis (Minnie’s sister) and Frank Smelser wedding portrait 1905.

I have never had much of an interest in family trees or the entire quasi-delusional undertaking of genealogical research for the simple reason that most of it is bullshit. The basic genealogical problem is simple: people have always screwed around and then lied about it. When you get right down to it you cannot be certain, without DNA testing, that your own parents are your biological parents. There are good reasons to suspect that at least 1% to 5% of children result from cuckolding and for some social classes it may be as high as 30%. In other words your daddy may not be who you think it is! Cuckolding varies with culture, time, socio-economic status and so forth but it’s rarely zero. A cuckolding rate of 5% implies that by the time you’ve traced your ancestors to the great-great-grandparent level there is a 19% chance that an alleged, perfectly documented, ancestor is not really an ancestor. By the time we get back to the time of Christ, roughly 100 generations, there’s a 99.99% chance that any alleged ancestor is not really any ancestor. Genealogy without DNA is a hollow dead-end.

As bad as cuckolding is it’s the least of our genealogical problems. Genealogical records are incomplete, contain serious errors and are often complete frauds. As late as the 19th century the settlement of estates was very sensitive to birth order. If you were a first-born son you got everything while your baby brother got squat. It was even worse for women; they got less than squat. In such an environment there is a powerful incentive to forge records. Old handwritten documents may look official to modern eyes but you cannot assume they’re accurate. With a well-placed bribe first-born Johnnie suddenly disappears from the record. People have always lied about the important things.

Given all these obvious problems I usually ignore people going on about the exploits of their glorious ancestors. Your roots are unreliable people! You really don’t know who your great-great-great granny was and if you insist on telling tales about her I will insist on DNA evidence. I know that many of the dead in Minnie’s pictures are probably blood relatives and some are probably direct great-great or greater grandparents. I cannot be 100% sure they’re genetic ancestors but I can follow obvious document breadcrumbs and learn enough about these people to attach stories to their pictures.

I wasn’t looking forward to the giant chore of scanning, restoring and researching Minnie’s pictures2 but following breadcrumbs was more interesting than expected. It turns out that there’s a lot of dead people on the internet. When I started looking for death and marriage records I immediately came across a cemetery record for my own recently deceased mother. It was surprising to find her so soon. There’s an active world-wide ghoulish group of people photographing cemetery monuments and posting their findings online. It’s ironic but a Facebook for the dead preceded the Facebook for the living. Starting with my mother I backtracked through my alleged ancestors looking for a “Lydia.”  “Lydia” was scrawled on the back of what looked like the oldest of Minnie’s pictures.

Lydia Jane Ayres

Lydia Jane Ayres 1839-unknown

If the records are correct I believe this “Lydia” is Lydia Jane Ayres. There is a very good chance that Lydia is one of my great-great grandmothers. Lydia married Albert F. Raver in 1863 in Brant Ontario. Albert was the mother of Minnie’s husband Bert Raver.

I didn’t find any pictures of Albert Raver in Minnie’s collection and that’s too bad because I suspect Albert had an eye for the babes. I looked for his death record and found this confusing census entry. Here was an Albert F. Raver with exactly the same age and birth origin remarried to a Lydia L. Raver. At first I thought it was a mistake but Albert’s marriage to Lydia L. Ayres was in 1906. That did not compute. Then I remembered a story my grandmother Hazel told me years ago when we were talking about her grandparents. She told me that one of her grandfathers married twice to two women with the same first and last names. She complained about how difficult this made sorting Christmas and birthday cards. I cannot remember if the name was Lydia Ayres but what are the chances? It seems Albert married  Lydia Jane Ayres in 1863. Somehow they parted ways and later, at the age of 68, Albert remarried in 1906 a younger Lydia L. Ayres. Having been divorced and remarried myself I can only marvel at Albert’s ingenuity. The last thing you want to do in your senile dotage is call a second wife by your first wife’s name. Before social security that could have been a fatal mistake. Randy old Albert neatly dodged that bullet.

The randiness was not confined to the Raver branch. Equally intriguing is this old portrait of “dad’s old sweetheart.” Here Minnie is likely referring to her own father and my great-great granddaddy Howell Cobb Davis. Screwing around, contrary to boomer mythology, wasn’t invented in the 1960’s.

Dad's old sweetheart

“Dad’s old sweetheart.” Probably an old girl friend of Howell Cobb Davis.

Minnie lived to 96. I was in my twenties when she died so I remember some of the people in her snapshots. Here’s Minnie with her first-born son Vernon standing in Marble Canyon Arizona in 1949. I knew Vernon as a boy. He always posed exactly like you see him her.

Vernon and Minnie Raver Marble Canyon Arizona 1949

Vernon and Minnie Raver Marble Canyon Arizona 1949

You can read the poor guys mind. “Do you really need another picture? Well if that’s how it’s going be I’m going to assume my petulant spoiled fat boy pose.” You cannot blame Vernon. His photographic life got off to a dreadful start. Look at this gem.

Vernon F. Raver 1904-1964

Vernon F. Raver 1904-1964

In the early 20th century women liked to dress up their baby boys as girls. Vernon got the full girly treatment. You cannot blame him for being scarred for life after such trauma. Here’s a clue ladies. Boys are not girls. Gender is not arbitrary. People that assert the contrary are idiots. Sorry if that sounds like mansplaining; the truth is not always polite.

I doubt I’ll ever get through Minnie’s pictures. There are hundreds of images to scan, restore and research. I just don’t have the time or energy but in the years ahead I will occasionally pick out and upload attractive images. Here’s the gallery to follow if you’re interested.


  1. If Hazel was alive today she would be a star on TV’s Hoarders.
  2. Despite their good condition it was still a lot of work to restore the images posted here. To judge what I had contend with browse this gallery of before and after diptychs.

Yellowstone and Me

Mali by the Yellowstone Roosevelt Gate

My wife in front of the Roosevelt Gate that marks the northern entrance to Yellowstone. The road to Mammoth Hot Springs and the Lamar valley are open during the winter. Most of the park is snowed under.

I have moved so often that I am no longer from anywhere, but if asked, one place, Livingston Montana, has the strongest claim. Every summer, from infancy to late adolescence, I spent long happy months with my grandparents in Livingston. If you look at a map you’ll see that Livingston is close to Yellowstone National Park. In the late 19th and early 20th century the town billed itself as the gateway to Yellowstone. In those days most people reached the park by train and the train went through Livingston on the way to Gardner and the northern park entrance where the famous Teddy Roosevelt arch stands to this day.

Being close to Yellowstone we made frequent family trips to the park. I don’t know how many times I’ve entered Yellowstone. We’d make at least one trip every year and some years we went two or three times. We thought of Yellowstone as our own private national park and we were intensely proud of the place. This hasn’t changed. People that live near the park today are as fiercely devoted to Yellowstone as my grandparents and parents ever were.

When I was a child the park service did things differently. In the 1950’s and 1960’s rangers didn’t chase bears into the woods so they hung out on park roads begging food from tourists. Seeing bears closeup was always a thrill. Of course, you weren’t supposed to feed bears. Signs were everywhere reminding Boobus americanus that bears were dangerous wild animals, but the largely ignorant public ignored the warnings with predictable results. Every year at least one moron was killed by a bear. In good years two or three would succumb. Since most of the dead were clueless tourists locals viewed Yellowstone bear attacks as a form of imbecile euthanasia. We were sad when rangers had to put down offending bears. You don’t see a lot of bears in the park these days. When they show up the rangers shoo them into the woods; it’s easier to train bears than tourists.

Family outing in Yellowstone

In the summer of 1967 I snapped this photo of my parents, maternal grandparents and siblings with an Instamatic camera. I was only a teenager but I was already a veteran Yellowstone visitor. We made frequent trips to the park and we all loved the place.

After bears geysers were the next biggest thrill. Yellowstone is world-famous for its geysers. Some estimate that half of the world’s active geysers are bubbling away atop Yellowstone’s massive caldera. The immense size and power of the Yellowstone super-volcano was not fully understood in those days, but you could see the park was a special, almost magical, place with your own eyes. One geyser, Old Faithful, is emblematic of Yellowstone and most of our park trips included a stop at it.

Old Faithful is not the most spectacular large geyser in the park, but it’s the most dependable. By some rare geological quirk Old Faithful has been venting at regular intervals ever since it was named in 1870.1 The interval changes a bit from time to time. The Madison earthquake tweaked the frequency and times vary more than many believe, but if you go to Old Faithful and invest a few hours the geyser will not disappoint. The most dramatic eruptions occur during the winter when super-heated geyser steam blasts into freezing mountain plateau air. Old Faithful in the winter is pure bucket list material. I’ve watched Old Faithful shoot off dozens of times. I’ve seen Old Faithful with my parents, my siblings, my grandparents, my children, my nieces, in-laws and some good friends. My experience is not unique. If you’ve seen Old Faithful I’m betting it was with someone special.

There’s more to Yellowstone than bears and geysers. It harbors the largest high altitude lake in North America. It is home to a variety of North American plants and animals. It has one of the most spectacular river canyons and waterfalls anywhere and it shelters, in scalding geyser waters, rare ancient extremophiles that are among the oldest life forms on Earth. The park doesn’t need me to sell it. It’s one of the world’s very special places.

My kids waiting for Old Faithful

My kids waiting for Old Faithful to erupt in the summer of 2000. Watching Old Faithful is like a family reunion for me. I’ve seen it shoot off with most of the special people in my life and even when I was by myself I was always thinking how others would love this particular eruption.

As I entered my teenage years we moved to Iran where I spent a year before moving to Lebanon for school. During this time I saw large chunks of the Middle East, Egypt, Turkey, most of Western Europe and England. We returned to Canada. From Canada I moved to Ghana, then Denmark, then Barbados, then western Canada, then eastern Canada, then back to the US. I’ve seen dozens of national parks in many countries and many are spectacular. With so much to compare it against I started thinking of Yellowstone as, “a been there, done that”, “nothing to see here”, “not worth the hassle,” bore! Doesn’t everyone have a boring old Yellowstone in their backyard? I was blasé about Yellowstone for years until two notable events and advances in geology made me reassess my feelings about the park.

Remember the great Yellowstone forest fires of 1988. Dramatic images of vast fires filled newscasts for weeks. The park service endured abuse from all quarters for letting the fires rage. Fire has always been important for North American evergreen forests. Years of fire suppression in the US and Canada slowly produced dense tinderbox forests that blaze when set alight. The great Yellowstone fires of 1988 punctuated this point. We now understand that fire is necessary for the long-term health of forests, but explaining this to outfitters, tour operators and other businesses that depend on moving tourists in and out of parks remains a hard sell. A few years after the great 1988 fires I visited the park with my young children. I was expecting a burned out wasteland, but I was surprised by verdant undergrowth and the largest fattest elk herds I had ever seen. Between the black timbers lush ferns and other plants burst forth by the billions. It was a good time for ungulates. I know it pisses people off when experts are right, but the experts were right about forest fires. Fortunately, the braying nitwits soon had something even more controversial to whine about.

The most famous animal in the park these days was absent during my youth. I am talking about wolves. Wolves had been exterminated in Yellowstone for the usual fallacious bullshit reasons in the early 20th century. When people started seriously entertaining the idea of reintroducing wolves to the park every brain-dead rancher in the west decided to go on TV and show the world that westerners are every bit as ignorant as Yellowstone bear-food tourists. I remember one particularly eye-rolling twit going on about how kids waiting for school buses at lonely winter ranch gates would fall prey to bloodthirsty wolves. It didn’t matter that there have been very few authenticated wolf attacks on people or that there were good ecological reasons for reintroducing wolves. Ranchers the world over subscribe to what I call rancher ecology. If it’s not a cow or a rancher shoot it! I’ve endured this sentiment in the US, Canada, Brazil and Ghana. Grow up people; you’re embarrassing us! If you’re really this stupid having bloodthirsty wolves pick off your idiot spawn would help us maintain our species IQ.

The park service ignored the loons and brought the wolves back. What happened, just the biggest and most successful species reintroduction in national park history? Watching wolves reestablish themselves has made it crystal clear how important top predators are to functional ecosystems. Before the wolves came back the elk and deer, like welfare recipients, had gotten stupid and lazy. Their biggest problem was avoiding traffic. The wolves changed all that. Now if they’re not on their hooves they’re probably going to get eaten. The presence of wolves has had many unexpected benefits. The elk no longer clear out the underbrush near streams; this has led to a profusion of wild flowers and other plants that were rarely seen before wolves. The denser plant growth has provided habit for insects that feed birds. The slower moving waters are more suitable for native fish and beavers. The park is in better shape than it has been at any time in my life and we can credit the work of Canis lupus for a lot of it.

Bison on the high plains of Yellowstone National Park.

Most of Yellowstone is a high elevation plateau. It’s great habitat for deer, elk, bears and now wolves. There are mountains in the park but they are not as impressive as the Tetons to the south or the Absaroka range to the north.

And, despite the western whining, the biggest beneficiaries of wolf reintroduction have been, you guessed it: Homo sapiens. Lots of people are making money on Yellowstone wolves. Every winter thousands of people make their way into the Lamar valley to watch and hear wolves. People come from far and wide and occasionally the wolves put on a riveting show for them. Yes they occasionally stray from the park and there have been livestock losses. Whenever a sheep of calf gets eaten the rancher press covers it like a mini 9/11 terrorist attack. In some cases the attacks occur in the park. It’s not widely known that domestic animals graze national forests and parks. Hey, if your cow is eating state subsidized grass stop whining about occasional losses to wildlife. You’re damn lucky the stupid public tolerates grazing on public lands. In pure economic terms wolf introduction has been a rare government money-maker. Perhaps if Congress assholus were reintroduced to their natural habit, prison, similar benefits would ensue.

Wolf reintroduction put Yellowstone back in the news but advances in geophysics and geology vaulted the park’s status to global icon. There aren’t very many super volcanoes in the world and there are even fewer active super-volcanoes. This is probably a good thing. Too many of these puppies blowing off would seriously depress the market and no amount of quantitative easing would excavate your baked ass from cubic kilometers of volcanic ash. Geologists have been aware of Yellowstone’s violent volcanic past for decades but it wasn’t until the age of high precision GPS monitoring and satellite radar that the alarming dynamism of the park made headlines. We’re not used to landscapes “breathing” but something like that is going on in the Yellowstone caldera. The entire plateau goes up and down in amazingly short times. It takes a lot of energy to move a few hundred square kilometers of rock in a matter of years. Yellowstone ground movements have been monitored since the 1920’s and they are so marked that even the public notices. Now that we better understand the monster that lurks under the park everyone expects it to wake one day and blow the joint sky-high. Maybe we’ll get lucky and see it blow in our lifetime. The last time the Yellowstone super-volcano erupted Homo erectus walked the Earth. They we’re on the other side of the world but super-volcanoes make themselves felt at great distances. I’m willing to bet that evidence of large Yellowstone eruptions will eventually be detected in ancient African or Asian hominid fossils. Yellowstone’s super-volcano gives the park real sex appeal. Let’s face it, chicks dig bad boys, and bad boys that can waste entire countries are volcanically hot!

View of Yellowstone Lake from West Thumb.

Yellowstone Lake from West Thumb. Yellowstone Lake is large and deep and most of it lies within the Yellowstone caldera which covers an area three times larger than the lake. Imagine this entire landscape erupting. They’re not called super-volcanoes for nothing!

Yellowstone’s enduring importance has nothing to do with landscapes, geysers, bears or volcanoes. Its major contribution is the idea of a national park. In 1872 the US Congress took time out from their usual whoring and profiteering, work they assiduously pursue to this day, and accidentally did something worthwhile; they created the world’s first national park: Yellowstone. Despite modern whitewashing this wasn’t an act of a farsighted and wise people. Yellowstone was too far away, too high for agriculture, had no known mineral deposits and wasn’t even in a state at the time. How the hell can you deliver pork to nonexistent districts? Congress couldn’t see how to pillage and profit from Yellowstone so they gave in to a small but determined movement that wanted a park. The congress of 1872 was probably less corrupt and venal than our modern degenerates but they weren’t freaking saints and it annoys the hell out of me that partisan revisionists are constantly citing Yellowstone as a wonder of big government. Yellowstone was a product of the corrupt and incompetent Grant2 administration for Christ’s sake. The same dolts that brought you Custer’s last stand.

Judging the motivations of the long dead is pure hubris but evaluating the results of their actions is how we learn from history. By any standard Yellowstone was a glorious result. The congress of 1872 set a precedent that spread worldwide. Ken Burns argues that national parks are the single best idea the US government has ever had and I agree. I shudder to think what Yellowstone would be like if it wasn’t a national park. It would probably be the biggest hive of luxury spas and posturing celebrity scum on the planet. Imagine Aspen, Cannes, Bath, Monte Carlo, Dubai and Hollywood all whored up with natural boiling mud and geyser waters. Instead of being proud of Yellowstone I would be advocating nuking the place. The nukes wouldn’t damage the super-volcano but they would cauterize the celebrity infestation. Thank the all squiggling FSM that this nightmare was aborted in 1872. National parks have aborted many such nightmares all around the globe.

In my ideal world parks would cover at least a third of Earth’s lands and oceans. We’re not there yet, but when we are, people will still look at Yellowstone, the world’s first national park, and my personal favorite, as one of the very best.


  1. Nobody knows who first discovered Old Faithful. It was known to Native Americans long before it was named “Old Faithful.”
  2. Unlike the current occupant of the White House Grant did something that mattered before he was elected president.