Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

28 FEBRUARY, 2012

From Invisible Ink to Cryptography, How the American Revolution Did Spycraft and Privacy-Hacking

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What personal data has to do with George Washington’s dabbles in chemistry.

Our personal data is among today’s most valuable information currency. It’s often hard to determine what part companies own, what part the government owns, and what part, if any, is entirely our own — provided a third party hasn’t already sold it to someone else.

These intrusions of privacy aren’t new. For centuries, the post office had every intention of reading your mail. Beginning in 16th-century France, the “black chamber” or cabinet noir was set up in governments throughout Europe to scan incoming mail for traitorous or politically useful correspondence. The “black chambers” were run by the government and hidden from the public, even though their presence was obvious to all: letters were opened, copied, their seals re-waxed by specialists.

“In the eighteenth century, there was no expectation of privacy when the postal system was used,” writes John Nagy in Invisible Ink: Spycraft of the American Revolution — a fascinating lens on the Revolutionary War as a war of information, where no correspondence could be sent that wasn’t first encrypted and whichever side hid theirs the best would come out on top. Here are five key ways the British and the Americans duped each other:

INVISIBLE INK

Invisible ink, far from the magical compound pop culture has made it out to be, has been around for ages — a book on invisible writing was published in 1653. Invisible ink involves any acid which will weaken the paper, causing it to darken and burn if heated. Benedict Arnold used it in his traitorous correspondence with the British, and the Americans used it just as often.

Instead of heat, George Washington used a chemical form of agent and reagent, and he was quite often on the verge of running out of one or the other as he moved from camp to camp. When he would write to his supplier requesting more, he would always refer to the solution as “medicine.” Eventually, a lab was set up for the express purpose of making invisible ink for the general.

An invisible ink letter treated with a chemical reagent from British spy Benjamin Thompson, 1775 (From the Collection of the Clements Library)

ENCRYPTION

Codes were perhaps the most common form of encryption, and they ranged from the simple substitution of one letter for one number, or a shifted alphabet, to the diplomatic ciphers practiced by Benjamin Franklin, who chose for his cipher text an appropriately obscure snippet of French prose. Washington used at least four cipher alphabets: one transposition, one substitution, and two varieties of the pigpen cipher, which was derived from Freemasonry. (At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Thomas Jefferson even used a special cipher just for the Lewis and Clark expedition.)

Four ciphers used by Washington, the pigpen cipher is on the bottom. (Library of Congress)

MASKING

For his personal correspondence, British General Henry Clinton would handwrite a regular letter and then create a mask for it, a cutout either in the shape of an hourglass or a paper with little windows in it, which would fit over the original letter to reveal the secret message. Presumably sent separately, the mask, or “cypher paper,” would sometimes not make it to the recipient, causing one friend in England to muddle through a letter from Clinton for “some time, and not until several readings, ere I found there was a secret centre.”

A masked letter sent by General Henry Clinton, 1777

THE DICTIONARY

The most popular mode of encipherment was something both sides had access to: Entick’s Spelling Dictionary. Diplomat John Jay used it heavily to creative elaborate codes with page numbers, dots, and substitutions. With thirteen editions in existence at the time of the war, it was essential that both parties have the same version. Sometimes, the key reference book was less well known: Benedict Arnold used the first volume of the fifth Oxford edition of the Commentaries on the Laws of England for his coded correspondence.

An 1802 edition of Entick's Spelling Dictionary, which was also pocket-sized

DECEPTION

Washington couldn’t spend as much money on spies as the British, but he could at least trick any spy that might report on the American army: he would ship sand and pretend it was gunpowder, he prepared inflated troop returns to hand off to double agents, he famously had his troops dress as Indians.

George Washington, 1772

In addition to offering a fascinating slice of history, Invisible Ink is also a reminder that access to information was, and remains, a game-changing bargaining chip of power.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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24 FEBRUARY, 2012

A Brief History of Children’s Picture Books and the Art of Visual Storytelling

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From cave paintings to Maurice Sendak, or what modern ebooks can learn from mid-century design icons.

Back in the fifteenth century, Leonardo da Vinci made the following remark about visual storytelling:

And you who wish to represent by words the form of man and all the aspects of his membrification, relinquish that idea. For the more minutely you describe the more you will confine the mind of the reader, and the more you will keep him from the knowledge of the thing described. And so it is necessary to draw and to describe.”

Finished artwork for Ajubel's Robinson Crusoe.

From very early on, we both intuit and learn the language of pictorial representation, and most modern adults, the picturebook was our first dictionary of this visual vocabulary. Yet the picturebook — defined by its narrative framework of sequential imagery and minimalist text to convey meaning or tell a story, and different from the illustrated book in which pictures play a secondary narrative part, enhancing and decorating the narrative — is a surprisingly nascent medium.

In Children’s Picturebooks: The Art of Visual Storytelling, illustrator Martin Salisbury and children’s literature scholar Morag Styles trace the fascinating evolution of the picturebook as a storytelling medium and a cultural agent, and peer into the future to see where the medium might be going next, with case studies of seminal works, a survey of artistic techniques, and peeks inside the sketchbooks and creative process of prominent illustrators adding dimension to this thoughtful and visually engrossing journey.

Though pictorial storytelling dates back to the earliest cave wall paintings, the true picturebook harks back to a mere 130 years ago, when artist and illustrator Randolph Caldecott (1846-1886) first began to elevate the image into a storytelling vehicle rather than mere decoration for text. Maurice Sendak, widely regarded as the greatest author of visual literature (though he refuses to identify as a “children’s author”), once wrote of Caldecott’s “rhythmic syncopation” and its legacy:

Caldecott’s work heralds the beginning of the modern picture book. He devised an ingenious juxtaposition of picture and word, a counter point that never happened before. Words are left out — but the picture says it. Pictures are left out — but the words say it. In short, it is the invention of the picture book.”

Even early on, tensions between the creative vision and marketability of picturebooks captured the same friction between artist-storyteller and publisher that continues to plague children’s — if not all — publishing. Walter Crane (1845–1915), another Victorian-era picturebook innovator, famously grumbled about printer-publisher Edmund Evans’ approach to publishing:

“…but it was not without protest from the publishers who thought the raw, coarse colours and vulgar designs usually current appealed to a larger public, and therefore paid better…”

(Evans, per Crane’s remark, seemed to have taken on the role of a “circulation manager” of books, and with that came the same perception of compromised editorial integrity we’ve previously seen in the context of newspapers.)

Lewis Carroll's The Mouse's tale is an early example of text taking the visual form of that which it describes or alludes to.

But the picturebook didn’t fully blossom until the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, when new developments in printing technology, changing attitudes towards childhood, and a new class of exceptional artists catapulted it into a golden age. The first three decades of the twentieth century germinated such timeless classics as Curious George and the Babar stories. But as war consumed Europe, resources dwindled and the paper shortages of the post-war era placed new demands for keeping publishing costs low. Yet despite, or perhaps because of, the austerity of the time, there was a profound longing for color as escapism, which reined in the neo-romantic movement.

Then, in the 1950s, a peculiar cultural shift began to take place — the line between artist and author started to blur, and a crop of famous graphic designers set out to write and illustrate picturebooks as a way of exploring visual thinking. (Just this week, one of the most celebrated such gems, the only children’s book by the great Saul Bass, resurfaced to everyone’s delight.) Among the highlights of this new frontier was a series of children’s picturebooks by legendary graphic designer — and, paradoxically, notorious curmudgeonPaul Rand.

He and his then-wife, Ann, produced Sparkle and Spin (1957), Little 1 (1962), and Listen! Listen! (1970), all an exercise in demonstrating “a playful but sophisticated understanding of the relationship between words and pictures, shapes, sounds, and thoughts.” (It was in the same period that Italian novelist and philosopher Umberto Eco introduced young readers to semiotics, the study of signs and symbols.)

André François's Crocodile Tears (Universe Books NY, 1956) uses an extreme landscape format to reflect and emphasize the subject matter. It was François's first picturebook as author-artist.

In Um Dia Na Praia flat color without line is used with careful attention to the placement of every element in order to develop a wordless text. The very simple shapes need to carry the entire weight of a subtle pictorial narrative.

But many of these pioneering picturebook storytellers, just like Sendak does to this day, had an aversion to identifying as “children’s book” authors. Salisbury and Styles write:

Of course, many of the best picturebook artists would not describe themselves exclusively as such. André François was born in Hungary, in an area that became part of Romania after World War I. But it was as a French citizen that he spent his working life as a graphic artist, spanning visual satire, advertising and poster design, theater set design, sculpture, and book illustration. François’s work exhibited a childlike awkwardness that belied a highly sophisticated, biting eye.”

(Sound familiar?)

In the 1960s, as a generation of British artists emerged from art school, picturebooks entered a new era of vibrant paint and color, with many artists combining book illustration and painting to make a living. (Including, as we’ve seen, Andy Warhol.) It was in that era that some of the most influential picturebooks were born, including Maurice Sendak’s most beloved work and Miroslav Šašek’s timeless This Is… series.

Miroslav Sasek's 'This is…' series introduces children to countries and cities around the world. What distinguished them from many such books was the artist's eye for the anecdotal detail of different cultures. This is London was published by MacMillan in 1959.

(Don’t miss Šašek’s lesser-known 1961 gem, Stone Is Not Cold, in which he brings to life famous sculptures from London, Rome and the Vatican City in irreverent vignettes from everyday life.)

Maurice Sendak may be the greatest illustrator for children of all time and was certainly one of the earliest to make an impact on educators and scholars, as well as on children, parents, and the artistic community. Where The Wild Things Are (Harper & Row, 1963) was not Sendak’s first picturebook, but it was the first one to make a huge impression on children and adults alike. Interestingly, it caused a furor when it was published, with many critics anxious that it would be too terrifying for children.”

Vladimir Radunksy's swirling vortex of type and image perfectly complements Chris Raschka's rap text in Hip Hop Dog.

(You might recall Vladimir Radunsky, above, from his fantastic illustrations for Mark Twain’s Advice for Little Girls.)

But the book’s most fascinating feat is its discussion of the socially constructed and increasingly fluid criteria for what is suitable for children, with complex themes like violence, sex, death and grief, and human rights violations turning picturebooks into a powerful crossover storytelling medium for all ages. Even some of the most beloved storytelling of all time, like The Brothers Grimm fairy tales and Arabian Nights, was aimed at children but often featured dark, even savage, themes, and picturebooks have a documented history of radical politics.

The bleak, uncompromising visual and verbal text of Wolf Erlbruch's Duck, Death and the Tulip.

No Hay Tiempo Para Jugar / No Time to Play (text Sandra Arenal, illustrations Mariana Chiesa; Media Vaca, 2004). Produced in typical Media Vaca hardback format, the book gives voice to the child laborers of Mexico in words and pictures

Paradoxically — and disappointingly to those of us who celebrate the cross-pollination of genres, ideas, and narratives — traditional booksellers and the marketing departments of major publishers have remained oddly stringent about how picturebooks are labeled and sold, confining them strictly to children’s literature. (For an example of just how short that sells them, see Blexbolex’s fantastic, layered, remarkably thoughtful People, as delightful to kids as it is thought-provoking to adults — yet it remains shelved in the children’s section at the Big Corporate Bookstore.)

Color woodcuts by Isabelle Vandenabeele from Geert De Kockere's Vorspel Van Eeen Gebroken Liefde (De Eeenhoom, 2007)

The CJ Picture Book Festival in South Korea seems to get this crossover evolution, stating in its manifesto:

Picture books, in the present era, enjoy a status as a culture form to be enjoyed by people of all ages. It is a precious and versatile art that has already left the confines of paper behind, shattering the boundaries of its own genre and fusing with various other forms of art and imagery.”

The unique developmental capacities of children, Salisbury and Styles point out, also shape the stylistic suitability of visual texts, presenting their own set of paradoxes and challenges:

Many publishers and commentators express views about the suitability or otherwise of artworks for children, yet there is no definitive research that can tell us what kind of imagery is most appealing or communicative to the young eye. The perceived wisdom is that bright, primary colors are most effective for the very young. The difficulty is that children of traditional picturebook age tend not to have the language skills to express in words what they are receiving from an image. They can also be suggestible and prone to saying what they imagine adults want to hear. So, even with the best designed research projects, the world that children are experiencing will inevitably remain something of a mystery to us.”

In her Chain of Happiness illustration, Marta Altes screen-prints with three colors.

So where is this ever-evolving medium headed? Salisbury and Styles cite gaming developer turned children’s book illustrator Jon Skuse, who articulates both the tragedy and infinite potential of today’s children’s ebooks beautifully:

The eBook isn’t about winning or losing. It’s about an ‘exploration,’ and experience, rather like a pop-up book. What many publishers are doing wrong at the moment is just copying printed picturebooks on to this format, which does both media a disservice. It’s just like looking at a PDF. Children will simply flick through. A printed picturebook is a particular kind of physical experience that can be savored and revisited. The eBook needs to exploit its own particular characteristics and strengths to evolve as similarly special but distinct experience.”

The authors conclude with a metaphor for the future of picturebooks borrowed from Lane Smith’s fantastic It’s a Book:

Perhaps the last word (or, rather, the last word and picture) should go to that modern master of the idiom, Lane Smith. In his new picturebook, It’s a Book (Roaring Book Press, 2010), Smith’s ape tries to explain to Jackass that the thing he is holding is called a book. Among the stream of questions asked by Jackass are: ‘How do you scroll down?’, ‘Does it need a password?’, ‘Can you tweet?’ and ‘Can you make the characters fight?’. When Jackass eventually gets the hang of this strange object, ape is forced to enquire ‘Are you going to give my book back?’. ‘No,’ replies Jackass.”

As fascinating and rich as Children’s Picturebooks is, it suffers one conspicuous contradiction — with its concern with the format and future of the book, and its multitude of references to other books and historical materials, a kind of baked-in framework for truly networked knowledge, it would have, and should have, easily lent itself to the digital medium, where each of the dozens of books mentioned would be linked and explorable in rich media. Still, it remains a rigorously researched and compellingly curated survey of a tremendously important storytelling medium, one that equips young minds with a fundamental understanding not only of the world but also of its visual language.

Captioned images courtesy of Lawrence King Publishers

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23 FEBRUARY, 2012

The Dawn of the Color Photograph: Albert Kahn’s Catalog of Humanity

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How an early-twentieth-century French banker shaped your favorite Instagram filters.

In 1909, millionaire French banker and philanthropist Albert Kahn decided to enlist the era’s burgeoning photographic technology in a mission far greater than aesthetic fetishism, and set out to use the new autochrome — the world’s first true color photographic process, invented by the Lumière brothers in 1903 and marketed in 1907 — to produce a color photographic record of human life on Earth as a way of promoting peace and fostering cross-cultural understanding. For Kahn, photography was a way of cataloging the human “tribes” of the world and constructing a vibrant, colorful quilt of our shared humanity.

Over the next two decades, until he was ruined by The Great Depression, Kahn dispatched a crew of photographers to more than 50 countries around the world, shooting over 100 hours of film footage and 72,000 images in what became the most important and influential collection of early color photographs of all time. Yet, for decades, the collection — which spanned everything from religious rituals to cultural customs to watershed political events — remained virtually unknown, until it was rediscovered in the 1980s.

In The Dawn of the Color Photograph: Albert Kahn’s Archives of the Planet, BBC tells the story of Kahn’s ambitious project and its monumental legacy, exploring how his collection and vision came to shape everything from the visual vocabulary of photojournalism to your favorite Instagram filters.

Marne, France

Paris, France

Finistère, France

Norway

Sweden

Greece

Macedonia

Switzerland

Turkey

Serbia

Greece

Montenegro

India

India

India

Mongolia

Mongolia

India

Vietnam

Syria

Djibouti

Republic of Benin (formerly Dahomey)

Vietnam

This excerpt from the BBC program on Kahn, on which The Dawn of the Color Photograph is based, takes a fascinating look at how Kahn’s photographs helped frame the Balkans — my homeland — as the layered, multifaceted set of cultures they were, rather than the lump-sum caricature the world had seen them as after the fall of the Ottoman Empire:

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