03/16/2016 12:28 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Transparency of Camera Lenses and Higher Education


When everyone else promotes an idea, I am automatically skeptical. The latest catchphrase is "transparency." For many years, I was a higher education administrator. That is a field with proliferating demands for more data. Like many law professors, I reason by analogy. I have taken up photography after a lengthy hiatus, and constantly looking at the world through lenses has prompted me to think about transparency in a literal sense.

I am on the side of people who hold leaders accountable. That is what democracy is all about. Yet I wonder if we have thought through what we believe we prefer. With cameras anyway, transparency is not what it appears.

I recently bought a vintage lens. I thought I was being frugal and clever, searching out a Zeiss Contax 45mm "Planar" that was reputed to be the second-best lens ever manufactured. On the used market, it is fraction of what it once was. Affixing an adapter, I can mount it to the latest digital mirrorless body.

After I received my purchase, however, I realized it had a slight problem. I actually had not noticed it initially, until a professional in the field pointed it out. There was a fingerprint, except on the inside, of the twenty-five year old article. My teacher said it was probably not a human mark but rather some sort of fungus growing. No matter how well cared for, an older lens can harbor such a blossom. It might not even affect image quality, displeasing as it definitely is. There it was, a disfigurement on an object otherwise pristine, giving pause when one held up the lens to admire.

Since the Contax brand is defunct despite having designed the most sophisticated rangefinders, I had to search for a specialist who was continuing to work on this item. Satisfied by the internet testimonials for one fellow, I sent the thing in. He pulled off his magic, and he returned the piece back via priority mail.

The lens still lives up to the years of hype. It shoots sharp corner to corner as they say, but it produces "bokeh" (background blur) as desired. I liked it before, and I love it now.

There are two aspects of the experience that should be generalized beyond optics.

First, the expense of the service was not insignificant. The original lens itself cost less than its repair, a differential that I should have expected but am tempted to conceal from my spouse.

The craftsman who did it, who received much praise in reviews, deserves what he charges. His task requires a high level of skill. It is painstaking. The very practice of restoration is at odds with our post-modern lifestyle of purchasing a series of disposable commodities. These arts will not last another generation without enthusiasts who support them.

Second, when you start to study lenses, you learn that what you see is not what you get. It is possibly the opposite. It is easy to be fooled.

The expert who polished my lens sent back a note explaining in detail how to perceive properly. Others have showed the same. They caution that the "flashlight test" of shining a brilliant beam through a camera lens can be deceptive. Chances are it reveals dust, bubbles, haze, scratches, etc.

A lens that seems flawless to the eye likely is gimcrack; it merely boasts a surface that is appealing. Among the finest models there can be variation between individual units, and a specimen that displays what could be mistaken for blemishes may be in fact superlative. Signs of use are not defects; they confirm that the lens was prized.

Both of these points extend to higher education and beyond. Transparency is not free. Data calls for interpretation.

Each time we mandate transparency, we have in our heads a laudable goal. We want to ensure students make informed decisions; we want to facilitate career placement; we want to reduce sexual assault on campus; and so on.

So we enact legislation and promulgate regulations. We insist on metrics. We pledge to publish outcomes. We establish standards, sorting, comparing, and ranking.

By doing so, we impose a regulatory burden. An institution has to set up an office and hire personnel. The numbers do not calculate themselves into a spreadsheet.

We also create a culture. It characterizes students as consumers. Specific incentives are thereby offered for behavior by all. The temptation is familiar, that teachers will teach to the test.

The quantification might correlate to the criteria about which we really care -- or it might be an approximation, the illusion of precision. Unintended consequences abound.

It takes training and experience to comprehend what a technical report means or a table of figures suggests. The most important aspect of knowledge is awareness of its limits. Ignorance does not know itself. Statisticians have not settled everything. They are acknowledging the messiness of measurement.

That is not to suggest we should accept the assertion of authority in lieu of disclosure. To appreciate transparency, we should ask how the facts were ascertained, verified, and why we value these particulars instead of others. Otherwise, we risk wasting resources to compile nonsense or passing judgment based on misunderstanding. We need to be guided by a purpose, to know what it is we want to do with this intelligence.

As I improve as a photographer, I become more mindful of the interplay of light, dark, and shadow. What matters is not the technology I have bought, but the technique I apply. A camera lens must be transparent to function. But how a lens performs depends on so much more.

Transparency is the minimum, not the maximum. Above all, it is a means to an end.

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