Brain Pickings

Noma Bar’s Minimalist Vector Portraits of Cultural Icons

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What Shakespeare’s unanswered questions have to do with Einstein’s unkempt hair and Britpop.

Israeli illustrator Noma Bar, he of Negative Space fame, is a longtime Brain Pickings favorite. Turns out, our friends at Mark Batty (previously) have had a soft spot for him for a while as well. In 2007, they released a fantastic volume of Bar’s most iconic negative space portraits of cultural icons. Guess Who?: The Many Faces of Noma Bar features over 50 minimalist vector illustrations that encapsulate, with brilliant subtlety and visual eloquence, the essence of famous politicians, philosophers and pop culture legends — a masterpiece of capturing character and sentiment with uncanny precision.

The book is divided into four parts — Cultural Icons, Hollywood Heads, Political Figures, Britpop Stars, and The Musicians — with an introduction by Steven Heller. (Previously: I II III.) Though the captions for each image leave much to be desired in tone and style, they do give an appropriate context of allusions and symbolism, making Bar’s creative feats all the more palpable.

CULTURAL ICONS

Albert Einstein

Commissioned by The Economist for a cover story about 100 years of Einstein. Though the illustration was never printed, Bar considers this a perfect example of combining two icons, which results in something that is 'almost like a logo.' Einstein's famously unkempt hair and the atomic symbol, with the molecules as eyes, for this famous face.

William Shakespeare

The first face Bar ever published, a full page for Time Out London related to a feature article about a BBC program called 'The Search for Shakespeare.'

['The Search for Shakespeare'] revolved around new biographical discoveries and all the questions these raised. I received this commission about 5 hours before a flight to Italy. All of a sudden the question mark idea linked the theme of the program to one of the most significant philosophical questions of all time: To be or not to be? I chose ‘to be’ and sent the final portrait off about two hours after receiving the assignment.” ~ Noma Bar

Harry Potter

We've all been exposed to the Harry Potter hype. The success of this image is how it speaks directly to the fictional Harry Potter story, as well as the reality of this multi-million dollar industry. The centerpiece of the illustration is the wand, which evokes fanciful magic, as well as the almighty dollar.

HOLLYWOOD HEADS

Woody Allen

This illustration was done for an article about Woody Allen's Film Match Point, which was shot in London. Bar's use of London architectural landmarks for the legend's already iconic face is a unique and effective touch. Nicknamed the gherkin, for its resemblance to a pickle, this noticeable Norman Foster building replaces Allen's nose, the Tate Modern forms an eyebrow over one of the skyline's newest structural icons, the London Eye.

Bill Murray

As Bar started work on Bill Murray, he was pleased to discover that in profile, Murray's face created a ghoulish figure in the negative space. The Ghostbusters icon for an eye is a rather obvious, but effective choice.

John Travolta + Samuel L. Jackson

Two faces may not be better than one, but they are harder to draw. Illustrating a duo like these two Pulp Fiction characters is a challenge for Barr because he still needs to render them as a single connected unit. Clearly, in this example, Bar conjoins the two with the gun. Travolta's mouth, Jackson's eyebrow and nose.

Charlie Chaplin

When Bar works with black and white, he relies on negative space to 'create forms that allow elements to float.' Here, Bar uses one of Charlie Chaplin's most famous on-screen moments to define his face, though there are few actual lines . Inspired by Chaplin's shoe-eating scene in The Gold Rush, Bar turns a shoelace sum spaghetti strand into Chaplin's eye and nose; the shoe works double duty as both moustache and mouth.

POLITICAL FIGURES

Joseph Stalin

The hammer and sickle get rearranged into Joseph Stalin's nose and mouth. That these two icons can be taken out of context, but remain in context in that they possess such associative power that the viewer will know who this feature face is, bolsters the effectiveness of Bar's approach to illustration.

Nelson Mandela

Many of Bar's subjects become his subjects because of dubious behavior. Nelson Mandela's anti-apartheid activism, however, i s a story of incredible strength in the ace of imprisonment and injustice that concluded with triumph. Mandela was South Africa's first president to be voted into office in a representative democratic election. Mandela figuratively broke the shackles that imprisoned him for 27 years, and it is this strength that Bar celebrates with this illustration.

Adolf Hitler

This portrait of Hitler accompanied James Delingpole's article 'Mein Kash: Milking the Third Reich,' written for Esquire UK. The piece examined the publishing trend to release books about Hitler (which number close to 1,000 on Amazon). For such an article, Bar's choice to convert the moustache into a barcode was spot-on.

Margaret Thatcher

The smoking torch that defines Margaret Thatcher's face in this illustration remarks on the fading political power of her Conservative Party, descended from the Tory Party. Equally adored and maligned as England's Prime Minister from `975 to 1990, the end of her tenure was spurred by internal struggle within the party. In assessing her legacy, Bar appropriated the old Tory logo to give a visual representation of flagging power. The old Tory logo was a flaming torch, while Bar's interpretation smolders.

Kim Jong-Il

Known the world over for his cavalier rhetoric about North Korea's nuclear capability, missile contrails make for the glasses of Kim Jong-Il. Commissioned by the Guardian, Bar was under a deadline, and to this day when he looks at this illustration, he wishes he had had the time to use only one missile. Be that as it may, the illustration works, as it looks like Kim and also incorporates what he is known for, weaponry and antagonizing the United States.

BRITPOP STARS

Ricky Gervais

Through his roles in shows like The Office and Extras, Ricky Gervais, for Bar, embodies the black humor of 'loser culture.' Using smiley faces in a truly ironic fashion, Bar provides a portrait of a 'contemporary, classic sad clown.'

Jamie Oliver

Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has probably spent as much time on TV and book tours as in the kitchen. An advocate of simple, healthy home cooking, a mortar for a mouth and a pestle for a nose make this face recognizable.

David Beckham

These days, the dollar sign would be just as appropriate for David Beckham's face as the British pound symbol. The soccer star and money -making machine that is Beckham now spans across the Atlantic Ocean, all the way to Los Angeles. We'll see if one man can make Americans soccer fans, but even if he can't, he'll still be rich.

THE MUSICIANS

Michael Jackson

Over the years, Michael Jackson has made headlines for an array of reasons, from number one hits to run-ins with the law. Here, Bar riffs on Jackson's purported pedophilic tendencies, by placing an image of a young child in the pop star's face. Jackson has never been found guilty of these accusations in a court of law, though the media frenzy that surrounded the case seems to have made the eccentric icon that much more reclusive.

Bob Dylan

A true cultural icon, Bob Dylan is no stranger to being interpreted. Bar keeps this one simple, using three of Dylan's tools of the trade: musical notations, guitar, harmonica. That Bar can invest such age and mystery into a face that is primarily white negative space is yet another example of his ability to see subjects as more than just people -- they are their careers.

Delightful and timeless, Guess Who? captures some of modernity’s most famous and infamous characters through the eyes of one of the most original artists of our time.

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Ethnic Diversity in Russia 100 Year Ago, Restored in Color

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From peasants to emirs, or nomads have to do with the political cornerstones of world history.

The Library of Congress is a treasure trove of archival gems — from antique maps of the universe to the vintage design gems of the Works Progress Administration to fascinating films from the 1940s romanticizing bookmaking. Today, we turn to The Empire That Was Russia, a curious online exhibition of life in Russia in the beginning of the 20th century. Culled here are some remarkable archival images of ethnic diversity in Russia during that period, which at the time included not only all the countries that would eventually become the Soviet Union, but also present-day Finland and Poland. With its 150 million people, of whom only about half were ethnic Russians, the country was home to some fascinating subcultures, captured here in restored and colored negatives by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii , photographer to the Tsar, with captions by the exhibition team.

The Emir of Bukhara, 1911

The Emir of Bukhara, Alim Khan (1880-1944), poses solemnly for his portrait, taken in 1911 shortly after his accession. As ruler of an autonomous city-state in Islamic Central Asia, the Emir presided over the internal affairs of his emirate as absolute monarch, although since the mid-1800s Bukhara had been a vassal state of the Russian Empire. With the establishment of Soviet power in Bukhara in 1920, the Emir fled to Afghanistan where he died in 1944.

Russian Peasant Girls, 1909

Young Russian peasant women offer berries to visitors to their izba, a traditional wooden house, in a rural area along the Sheksna River near the small town of Kirillov.

Nomadic Kazakhs on the Steppe, 1911

Many Central Asiatic peoples, for example the Kirghiz, Kazakhs, and Uzbeks, lived nomadic lives on the steppes, valleys, and deserts, migrating seasonally from one place to another as opportunities for obtaining food, water, and shelter changed. Shown here is a young Kazakh family in colorful traditional dress moving across the Golodnaia (or 'Hungry') steppe in present-day Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

Profile of a Nomad, ca. 1907-1915

In this portrait, Prokudin-Gorksii captures the traditional dress, jewelry, and hairstyle of an Uzbek woman standing on a richly decorated carpet at the entrance to a yurt, a portable tent used for housing by the nomadic peoples of Central Asia. After conquering Turkestan in the mid 1800s, the Russian government exerted strong pressure on the nomadic peoples to adopt a sedentary lifestyle and settle permanently in villages, towns, and cities.

Portrait of a Dagestani Couple

A couple in traditional dress poses for a portrait in the mountainous interior region of Gunib on the north slope of the Caucasus Mountains in what is today the Dagestan Republic of the Russian Federation.

Prisoners in a Zindan with Guard, ca. 1907-1915

Five inmates stare out from a zindan, a traditional Central Asian prison--in essence a pit in the earth with a low structure built on top. The guard, with Russian rifle and bayonet, is attired in Russian-style uniform and boots.

Jewish Children with their Teacher, 1911

Samarkand, an ancient commercial, intellectual, and spiritual center on the Silk Road from Europe to China, developed a remarkably diverse population, including Tajiks, Persians, Uzbeks, Arabs, Jews, and Russians. Samarkand, and all of West Turkestan, was incorporated into the Russian Empire in the middle of the nineteenth century and has retained its ethnic diversity up to the present. Prokudin-Gorskii captures here a group of Jewish boys, in traditional dress, studying with their teacher.

Chinese Foreman at the Chakva Tea Farm, ca. 1907-1915

A Chinese foreman poses with established tea plants and new plantings at a tea farm and processing plant in Chakva, a small town just north of Batumi. The semi-tropical climate of the Black Sea coast in modern-day Georgia was ideal for growing tea.

Study of a Dagestani Man, ca. 1907-1915

Dagestan, meaning 'land of mountains' in the Turkic languages, contains a population consisting of many nationalities, including Avars, Lezgi, Noghay, Kumuck, and Tabasarans. Pictured here is a Sunni Muslim man of undetermined nationality wearing traditional dress and headgear, with a sheathed dagger at his side.

Russian Children on a Hillside, ca. 1909

Children sit on the side of a hill near a church and bell-tower in the countryside near White Lake, in the north of European Russia.

Russian Settlers in the Borderlands, ca. 1907-1915

Ethnic Russian settlers to the Mugan Steppe region, south of the Caucasus Mountains and west of the Caspian Sea, established a small settlement named Grafovka. The region is immediately north of the border with Persia. Settlement of Russians in non-European parts of the empire, and particularly in border regions, was encouraged by official government policy and accounts for much of the Russian migration to Siberia, the Far East, and the Caucasus regions.

Learn more about the fascinating process of making color images from Prokudin-Gorskii’s negatives, a technique known as “Digichromatography,” made all the more challenging by the fact that no known replica or illustration of the camera that Prokudin-Gorskii used exists today.

Hat tip @brennanyoung

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A Field Guide to the North American Family: A Meditation on Humanness

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A poetic reflection on the human condition, or what fiscal responsibility has to do with freedom.

It doesn’t take long to realize fiction isn’t exactly a fixture on Brain Pickings. But A Field Guide to the North American Family, the literary debut of Garth Risk Hallberg, is a genre-bender that makes it delightfully uncomfortable to classify it as strict fiction. Through 63 interlinked fictional vignettes, each accompanied by a visual interpretation by a different artist, Hallberg tells the story of two struggling suburban Long Island neighbor families, the Hungates and the Harrisons, who are forced to adapt to a new reality when the patriarch of one family dies unexpectedly — but he uses the allegory of their specific circumstances to explore general, universally human concepts like love, happiness, belonging, freedom, and a wealth more, with equal parts poetic contemplation and ironic humor. Part photoessay, part Choose Your Own Adventure novel, part meditation on human nature, it’s a fine piece of literary innovation rare to come by and bound to stick around, the kind of book you keep returning to over and over again until it begins to feel like an intimate part of your own family.

Each double-page spread covers a specific facet of the human condition — from mortgage to mythology to midlife crisis — and features a short, poignant textual vignette on the left, with a cleverly captioned image on the right, treating each phenomenon as the subject of a National Geographic nature documentary for an effect that’s both humorous and deeply human.

Optimism

'Optimism lives so long as to seem, to the human observer, practically immortal -- but unlike that of other creatures, the development of Optimism proceeds in reverse. That is, Optimism is enormous at birth, and gradually shrinks to its microscopic adult size.'

Adulthood

'Adulthood can be distinguished from Maturity by its tendency to cling to the chrysalis. On occasion, Adulthood has even been known to disappear back into Adolescence following an unsettling foray out into the world.'

Midlife Crisis

'An erratic Maturity pattern characterizes the Midlife Crisis: it may remain a manageable size for years, only to reach its full stature in a few turbulent days.'

Holiday

'Holiday may be observed as many as eight times a year. A peaceable creature, it abhors confrontation; all conflicts within the pack are settled via high-frequency communications inaudible to the human ear.'

Depression

'Having evolved from a ruminant species known as Melancholia, Depression now dominates the animal kingdom. Its explosive growth curve remains unaccounted for, but some Family-watchers have pointed to a concurrent surge in Search for Meaning.'

Divorce

'Due to a growth curve similar to that of Depression, a robust Divorce population has become common wherever Love dwells in large numbers.'

Boredom

'Once thought to be nonexistent where Entertainment was present, this harmless parasite is now known to be present, to some degree, in every ecosystem.'

Love

'Though hardly the most visible member of its kingdom, Love has never been as endangered as alarmists would have us believe. Without it, new research confirms, the entire Family would cease to function.'

Sibling Rivalry

'The Sibling Rivalry hunts in groups of two or more. With its tremendous longevity, it may hibernate for years between periods of activity. This Rivalry, like species on other continents, tends to lose some of its vitality with age.'

Grief

'Slow to adapt to the ecological upheavals of the American century, Grief now thrives only in isolation. The study of Grief is further complicated by its nocturnal Habits, and by the fact that no Grief is like any other.'

Almost as interesting and thought-provoking as the book itself is Hallberg’s discussion of the economics of Amazon reviews over on Slate, triggered by his discovery of a strange subculture of power-reviewers through the Amazon page of his own book, namely one Grady Harp.

A Field Guide to the North American Family comes from Mark Batty Publisher, the latest chapter of our love affair with the indie powerhouse.

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