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30 AUGUST, 2011

An Emergency in Slow Motion: A “Psychobiography” of Diane Arbus

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From dwarfs to giants, or what therapy has to do with the pinnacle of postmodern photography.

Iconic photographer Diane Arbus is as known for her stunning, stark black-and-white square photographs of fringe characters — dwarfs, giants, nudists, nuns, transvestites — as she is for her troubled life and its untimely end with suicide at the age of 48. Barely a year after her death, Arbus became the first American photographer represented at the prestigious Venice Biennale. In the highly anticipated biography An Emergency in Slow Motion: The Inner Life of Diane Arbus, psychologist Todd Schultz offers an ambitious “psychobiography” of the misunderstood photographer, probing the darkness of the artist’s mind in an effort to shed new light on her art. Shultz not only got unprecedented access to Arbus’s therapist, but also closely examined some recently released, previously unpublished work and writings by Arbus and, in the process, fought an uphill battle with her estate who, as he puts it, “seem to have this idea that any attempt to interpret the art diminishes the art.”

Schultz explores the mystery of Arbus’s unsettled existence through five key areas of inquiry — her childhood, her penchant for the marginalized, her sexuality, her time in therapy, and her suicide — underpinned by a thoughtful larger narrative about secrets and sex. Ultimately, Schultz’s feat is in exposing the two-sided mirror of Arbus’s lens to reveal how the discomfort her photographs of “freaks” elicited in the viewer was a reflection of her own unease and self-perception as a hopeless outcast.

Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967

Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, New York City, 1962

Eddie Carmel, Jewish Giant, taken at Home with His Parents in the Bronx, NY, 1970

Poignant and provocative, An Emergency in Slow Motion: The Inner Life of Diane Arbus offers an entirely new way of relating to and understanding one of the most revered and influential postmodern photographers, in the process raising timeless and universal questions about otherness, the human condition, and the quest for making peace with the self.

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30 AUGUST, 2011

Major Movements in Philosophy as Minimalist Geometric Graphics

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From relativism to absolutism, or what the geometry of knowledge has to do with negative space.

I have a soft spot for minimalist graphic representations of complex concepts. (Previously: famous lives in pictogram flowcharts; famous personalities in vector illustrations; famous songs as typographic reductions; world statistics as minimalist infographics; anticonsumerist aspirations.) And it hardly gets more complex than the entire school of Western philosophy. But that’s exactly what designer Genis Carreras explores with remarkable visual eloquence in his Philographics project — a series of posters each capturing a single philosophical ideology through simple geometric shapes.

Relativism

Points of view have no absolute truth or validity, having only relative, subjective value according to differences in perception and consideration. Principles and ethics are regarded as applicable in only limited context.

Absolutism

An absolute truth is always correct under any condition. An entity's ability to discern these things is irrelevant to that state of truth. Universal facts can be discovered. It is opposed to relativism, which claims that there is not an unique truth.

Positivism

The only authentic knowledge is that which is based on sense, experience and positive verification. Scientific method is the best process for uncovering the processes by which both physical and human events occur.

Empiricism

Knowledge arises from evidence gathered via sense experience. Empiricism emphasizes the role of experience and evidence, especially sensory perception, in the formation of ideas, over the notion of innate ideas or tradition.

Humanism

Human beings can lead happy and functional lives, and are capable of being ethical and moral without religion or dogma. Life stance emphasized the unique responsibility facing humanity and the ethical consequences of human decisions.

Hedonism

Pleasure is the only intrinsic good. Actions can be evaluated in terms of how much pleasure they produce. In very simple terms, a hedonist strives to maximize the pleasure and minimize the pain.

Solipsism

Knowledge of anything outside one's own specific mind is unjustified. The external world and other minds cannot be known and might not exist.

Holism

The properties of a given system cannot be determined or explained by its parts alone. Instead, the system as a whole determines in an important way how the parts behave.

Authoritarianism

Submission to authority and opposed to individualism and democracy. An authoritarian government is one in which political power is concentrated in a leader who possesses exclusive, unaccountable, and arbitrary power.

Scepticism

True knowledge or certainty in a particular area is impossible. Sceptics have an attitude of doubt or a disposition of incredulity either in general or toward a particular object.

Determinism

Events within a given paradigm are bound by causality in such a way that any state of an object or event is determined by prior states. Every type of event, including human cognition (behavior, decision, and action) is causally determined by previous events.

See the full series here, though sadly not at a scale that makes the copy legible.

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30 AUGUST, 2011

Lip Service: The Science of Smiles

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What crow’s feet have to do with authenticity and why you don’t remember your first smile.

Years ago, I did an undergraduate thesis on nonverbal communication and facial expression, a large portion of which revolved around the Duchenne smile — a set of anatomical markers that differentiate an authentic smile from a feigned one. The science of smiles is, of course, far more complex than the mere fake vs. real dichotomy — the universal expression of positive disposition lives on a rich spectrum of micro-expressions and nuances. That’s exactly what Marianne LaFrance explores in Lip Service: Smiles in Life, Death, Trust, Lies, Work, Memory, Sex, and Politics — a fascinating new book drawing on the author’s research at Yale and Boston College, alongside a wide array of cross-disciplinary studies from psychology, anthropology, biology, medicine and computer science, to reveal how smiles impact our inter-personal dynamics and our life experience as social beings.

Facial expressions triggered by electric stimulation, from Mécanisme de la Physionomie Humaine by Guillaume Duchenne, 1862

Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons

From Darwin’s famous early dabbles in the science of facial expressions to Duchenne’s legacy, from evidence of babies practicing smiling in the womb to studies suggesting a positive correlation between smiling and longevity, LaFrance blends a researcher’s rigor with a social scientist’s humanism in an intelligent yet highly readable narrative, complete with 38 illuminating black-and-white illustrations. LaFrance writes:

Smiles are universally recognized and understood for what they show and convey, yet not necessarily for what they do. Smiles are much more than cheerful expressions. They are social acts with consequences.

Wired has an excellent interview with La France, for a taste of the book’s fascination:

People think they can tell by looking at what the overall face looks like, but in fact there is one muscle [that shows sincerity]. It’s a muscle, called the obicularis occuli, that encircles the eye socket. Most people don’t pay very close attention to and it’s very hard to deliberately adopt. So when people genuinely smile, in a true burst of positive emotion, not only to the corners of the mouth, controlled by the zygomaticus major, but this muscle around the eye also contracts. This causes the crows feet wrinkles that fan out from the outer corners of the eyes and its also responsible for folds in the upper eyelid. Most people can’t do that deliberately.

Lip Service is part Liespotting, part The Exultant Ark, part whole new way of looking at our most powerful nonverbal expression of shared humanity.

Thanks to Flickr Commons for the endless bounty of public domain images

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