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Posts Tagged ‘photography’

12 NOVEMBER, 2014

The Mirror and the Meme: A 600-Year History of the Selfie

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How glass, tin, and mercury converged on a Venetian island in the 15th century to fundamentally change the way we look at ourselves.

In 1977, long before the social web as we know it existed, Susan Sontag foresaw a new dawn of “aesthetic consumerism” sparked by photography’s social aspect. Today, nowhere is this phenomenon more glaring than in the ubiquitous selfie. But how did we end up with this peculiar Möbius strip of self-image, turning our gaze inward and outward at the same time?

In How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World (public library | IndieBound) — which also gave us the mind-stretching story of how Galileo invented timeSteven Johnson peels back history’s curtains to reveal the unsuspected causal chains of innovation behind “that iconic, early-twenty-first-century act: snapping a selfie on your phone.” We might be apt to celebrate innovations like the evolution of photography and the rise of the social web as the impetus for the selfie revolution — but these, Johnson points out with his penchant for the unexpected sociocultural twist, can’t hold a candle to the true breakthrough that makes it all possible: glass. He explains:

Glass supports this entire network: we take pictures through glass lenses, store and manipulate them on circuit boards made of fiberglass, transmit them around the world via glass cables, and enjoy them on screens made of glass. It’s silicon dioxide all the way down the chain.

We already know that glass is a remarkable material that planted the seed for the innovation gap between East and West, but the role of glass in the journey of our self-image extends beyond the technology and into how we think about the human countenance itself. Even though the self-portrait is a fixture of Renaissance art and early modernism, Johnson points out that it practically didn’t exist as an artistic convention until the beginning of the 15th century. “People painted landscapes and royalty and religious scenes and a thousand other subjects,” he notes. “But they didn’t paint themselves.”

And then something happened — glassmakers on the Venetian island of Murano figured out how to combine glass with a new technological breakthrough in metallurgy, which allowed them to coat the back of a piece of glass with a medley of tin and mercury, producing a highly reflective surface. The result was the mirror, which forever changed how we see ourselves. Johnson writes:

For the first time, mirrors became part of the fabric of everyday life. This was a revelation on the most intimate of levels: before mirrors came along, the average person went through life without ever seeing a truly accurate representation of his or her face, just fragmentary, distorted glances in pools of water or polished metals.

Mirrors appeared so magical that they were quickly integrated into somewhat bizarre sacred rituals: During holy pilgrimages, it became common practice for well-off pilgrims to take a mirror with them. When visiting sacred relics, they would position themselves so that they could catch sight of the bones in the mirror’s reflection. Back home, they would then show off these mirrors to friends and relatives, boasting that they had brought back physical evidence of the relic by capturing the reflection of the sacred scene. Before turning to the printing press, Gutenberg had the start-up idea of manufacturing and selling small mirrors for departing pilgrims.

But the most momentous impact of the mirror, Johnson argues, was a secular one — in revolutionizing the art of seeing, it invariably revolutionized art itself:

Filippo Brunelleschi employed a mirror to invent linear perspective in painting, by drawing a reflection of the Florence Baptistry instead of his direct perception of it. The art of the late Renaissance is heavily populated by mirrors lurking inside paintings, most famously in Diego Velázquez’s inverted masterpiece, Las Meninas, which shows the artist (and the extended royal family) in the middle of painting King Philip IV and Queen Mariana of Spain. The entire image is captured from the point of view of two royal subjects sitting for their portrait; it is, in a very literal sense, a painting about the act of painting. The king and queen are visible only in one small fragment of the canvas, just to the right of Velázquez himself: two small, blurry images reflected back in a mirror. As a tool, the mirror became an invaluable asset to painters who could now capture the world around them in a far more realistic fashion, including the detailed features of their own faces.

'Las Meninas' by Diego Velázquez, 1656

Even Da Vinci extolled the creative value of the mirror in his notebooks:

When you wish to see whether the general effect of your picture corresponds with that of the object represented after nature, take a mirror and set it so that it reflects the actual thing, and then compare the reflection with your picture, and consider carefully whether the subject of the two images is in conformity with both, studying especially the mirror. The mirror ought to be taken as a guide.

Johnson considers the role of this breakthrough as a sensemaking device in an era when we were using glass to orient ourselves to the cosmos and, thanks to the mirror, to orient ourselves to ourselves:

At the exact moment that the glass lens was allowing us to extend our vision to the stars or microscopic cells, glass mirrors were allowing us to see ourselves for the first time. It set in motion a reorientation of society that was more subtle, but no less transformative, than the reorientation of our place in the universe that the telescope engendered.

[…]

The mirror played a direct role in allowing artists to paint themselves and invent perspective as a formal device; and shortly thereafter a fundamental shift occurred in the consciousness of Europeans that oriented them around the self in a new way, a shift that would ripple across the world (and that is still rippling).

The Hall of Mirrors at Versailles Palace

This rippling, Johnson points out, was a perfect example of the hummingbird effect at work as various sociocultural forces converged to unleash its full potential for transformation:

The self-centered world played well with the early forms of modern capitalism that were thriving in places like Venice and Holland (home to those masters of painterly introspection, Dürer and Rembrandt). Likely, these various forces complemented each other: glass mirrors were among the first high-tech furnishings for the home, and once we began gazing into those mirrors, we began to see ourselves differently, in ways that encouraged the market systems that would then happily sell us more mirrors…

The mirror doesn’t “force” the Renaissance to happen; it “allows” it to happen.

[…]

Without a technology that enabled humans to see a clear reflection of reality, including their own faces, the particular constellation of ideas in art and philosophy and politics that we call the Renaissance would have had a much more difficult time coming into being.

Peering into the history of the mirror and the future of its modern progeny — which includes, notably, the selfie — Johnson leaves the trajectory of its sociocultural impact open-ended:

The mirror helped invent the modern self, in some real but unquantifiable way. That much we should agree on. Whether that was a good thing in the end is a separate question, one that may never be settled conclusively.

How We Got to Now is an illuminating read in its totality. Complement it with 100 ideas that changed art.

Public domain photographs via Flickr Commons

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29 OCTOBER, 2014

At Home with Themselves: Sage Sohier’s Moving Portraits of Same-Sex Couples in the 1980s

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A tender, thoughtful lens on life and love in the margins.

By the second half of the twentieth century, same-sex love had undergone a tumultuous journey — in the middle ages, widely held male bonding ceremonies condoned the same love that would become punishable by death just a couple of centuries later; and yet in the 19th century, America’s first gay bar appeared, while women engaged in “romantic friendships” and even married each other, all within society’s transparent closet; but by the early twentieth century, the closet had become increasingly opaque — even luminaries like Virginia Woolf, Oscar Wilde, and Margaret Mead celebrated their same-sex love only in private and queer couples lived in secret; those who dared not to conceal their lives were persecuted and punished — public tragedies like the fate of computing pioneer Alan Turing were only the tip of a chilling iceberg of injustice.

And yet love being love, perhaps the most remarkably resilient phenomenon the human heart will ever know, it persevered. The 1970s brought the first pride parades and a new era of civil rights for the LGBT community commenced.

The mid-1980s were a time of particular upheaval for the plight of same-sex families — a time when kids were writing Judy Blume endearing and exasperated letters about being gay, a time when the world saw its first children’s book about a two-mom family, a time when today’s inclusive ideas about what makes a family, not to mention the prospect of marriage equality in the eyes of the law, seemed like a radical proposition yet defined the daily reality of those courageous queer families who withstood the bigotry of the mainstream and lived their lives, at once extraordinary and extraordinarily ordinary, with dignity and grace.

Stephanie and Monica, Boston, 1987

Photograph © Sage Sohier courtesy of the artist

It was at this peculiar point in history that photographer Sage Sohier began her tenderly thoughtful project At Home with Themselves: Same-Sex Couples in 1980s America — a series of intimate photographs and interviews, documenting the simple human truths behind the cultural complexities of queer love.

Chuck and Jerry, Methuen, MA, 1986

Photograph © Sage Sohier courtesy of the artist

Sheila and Dorothy, Santa Fe, 1988

Photograph © Sage Sohier courtesy of the artist

The project sprang from a deeply personal place — a few years earlier, Sohier had found herself at once startled and unsurprised to learn that her father was gay. Her cousin had spotted him dancing with a young man in a New York City nightclub and the incident instantly made him make sense — Sohier parents had divorced when she and her sister were still toddlers, and despite being a handsome and eligible bachelor, her father had never remarried. Sohier writes in the introduction:

My sister and I began reinterpreting history and realized that somewhere in our teens the beautiful young women he brought out to dine with us were replaced by beautiful young men, each one introduced as “a colleague from my law office.”

Craig and Bob, Provincetown, MA, 1986

Photograph © Sage Sohier courtesy of the artist

But despite the discovery, Sohier’s father didn’t come out to her and “it became increasingly clear that he didn’t intend to” — the wall between father and daughter may have suddenly become transparent, but it was still a wall and still a source of anguishing separation. The project became Sohier’s way of knowing her father, of offering him the implicit acceptance for which he was too timid or terrified to ask. She writes:

Some years later, a means of tackling this subject with some degree of indirection presented itself. In the spring of 1988, I was just finishing my same-sex couples project. It had taken me almost halfway into the project to realize that I had been inspired to a great extent by my lifelong curiosity about my father and more recent curiosity about his lifestyle. I was in New York showing the work to galleries and museums, and decided to call and see if my father was in town. He invited me over for lunch the next day; I had my portfolio with me, but figured I would never get up the nerve to show it to him. His partner, Lee, answered the door when I rang…. Lee made sandwiches for us while I chatted with my father. I mentioned my project and, after some urging from Lee, showed them my photographs. My father appeared to be interested, amused, and touched. As we kissed goodbye later, his eyes teared up. His emotion and relief at my coming out for him was palpable.

This compassionate curiosity for her father’s lifestyle and inner life is what Sohier brings to the many couples she photographs in the project — a kind of quiet humility before their love and unconditional celebration of its many dimensions, from the romantic to the sexual to the domestic.

Herb (38) and Dana (29), together almost 2 years. Quincy, MA, March 1988

Photograph © Sage Sohier courtesy of the artist

DANA: I didn’t want to grow old and grab somebody out of desperation. I wanted to grow old with somebody.

Pinky (31) and Diane (39), together 8 years. Kenner, Louisiana, April 1988

Photograph © Sage Sohier courtesy of the artist

DIANE: If I put on a dress I feel like a drag queen. There’s nothing feminine about me. I’ve given birth 8 times, I’m a good mother, I love my children dearly — I don’t want to be their father, I am their mother — but dresses aren’t my thing you know; make-up’s not my thing, even when I was married to my husband.

Steve (31) and Tom (29), together 4 years. Key West, Florida, March 1987

Photograph © Sage Sohier courtesy of the artist

TOM: When I met Steve, I was very rebellious with the church, and it fascinated me that Steven was gay and involved with the church at the same time. I had a very fundamentalist background, so it was very hard for me to come out ’cause I had all these religious friends who told me I was going to hell. [I went to a] Bible college, so I didn’t have a pretty time at first. I was running around with friends that drank and took drugs, and Steven rarely drank, wasn’t into drugs, so that fascinated me. And he was very sweet and gentle.

What makes the project so wonderfully disorienting is that it reminds us, ever so subtly, that we are always a product of our era’s normative biases — cultural, social, political, even technological. It is hard to imagine today, in our age of selfies and the general compulsion to share every sliver of the self on social media, just how much courage it must have taken for these couples to face the camera with their most intimate, private, vulnerable selves as same-sex couples. And yet the act of doing so channels the simple, profound sentiment Andrew Sullivan would come to write in his pioneering essay on the subject a few years later: “Silence, if it does not equal death, equals the living equivalent.”

To see and be seen, I continue to believe, are the greatest gifts we can give one another. Sohier’s project is a masterwork of generosity.

Jean (37) and Elaine (67), together 4 months. Santa Fe, New Mexico, June 1988

Photograph © Sage Sohier courtesy of the artist

Her choice of black-and-white film also adds an element of timelessness, as if to remind us that love, whatever its permutations, has always been the single most immutable presence in the human journey. Flowing from Sohier’s lens are what Isaac Asimov called “the soft bonds of love” — the same invisible threads of belonging that pulled our cave-dwelling ancestors toward one another and continue to bind every couple who ever lived.

Brian (68) and Hanns (65), together 28 years. Key West, Florida, January 1988

Photograph © Sage Sohier courtesy of the artist

Sohier reflects on the pioneering bravery of her subjects:

[In some photographs] there’s a tentativeness, in others a kind of not-to-be-taken-for-granted raw tenderness. People in my father’s generation had grown up feeling that being openly gay was just not an acceptable option. In my generation that began to change, and I was grateful to be witness to it.

It’s a wonderful step forward for the civil rights of this country and our collective humanity that same-sex relationships and marriages have become accepted and celebrated. It’s important, though, to recognize that these relationships have always existed, and, in many cases, thrived. They were often discreet, and many lived their lives in the margins. But the success of the same-sex marriage movement would not be possible without the efforts of all those couples who came before and who worked to achieve this goal. Their private love, and their persistence in going public with it, should never be forgotten.

Captivated by “the visual novelty yet total ordinariness of these same-sex relationships,” Sohier decided to complement the photographs with extensive interviews. Echoing Susan Sontag’s unforgettable insight into the “aesthetic consumerism” of photography — Sontag, appropriately, was busy subverting sexual stereotypes at that very moment — Sohier writes:

A photograph derives its strength from the singularity of its assertion, but people’s lives and beliefs are more complex than that.

At Home with Themselves is many layers of beautiful and thoughtful in its entirety. Complement it with The Invisibles, Sébastien Lifshitz’s spectacular portraits of same-sex couples in Europe in the early twentieth century, then revisit Edith Windsor, perhaps the single most important person in the modern marriage equality movement, on what equality really means.

Thanks, Wendy

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19 JUNE, 2014

The Invisibles: Moving Vintage Photos of LGBT Couples in the Early 20th Century

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Archival images — sometimes poignant, sometimes playful, invariably tender — of gay and lesbian couples privately celebrating their love in an era that denied it.

Any form of excess can usually be traced to the seed of a basic human longing. Before photography turned into excessive “aesthetic consumerism,” long prior to the narcissistic golden age of the selfie, it was a miraculous medium that granted one simple, fundamental human wish — the desire to be seen and, in the act of seeing, to be understood. Perhaps that is why photography, in its dawning decades, had a particularly poignant role for individuals and groups who were largely invisible to society. It was the role photography played for the LGBT community between the time of the medium’s invention and the first-ever Pride parades as it came to document, and validate by making visible, the love of queer couples — love reserved not only for such famous lovers as Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, Oscar Wilde and Sir Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, and Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, but also experienced by a great many ordinary men and women alike.

That’s precisely what French screenwriter and director Sébastien Lifshitz explores in The Invisibles: Vintage Portraits of Love and Pride (public library), a remarkable collection of archival photographs — sometimes poignant, sometimes playful, invariably tender — of gay and lesbian couples privately celebrating their love in the early twentieth century. Each couple, Diane Ackerman wrote in her sublime natural history of love, gets to redefine love, and these are some humble and humbling, beautifully human, immeasurably yet quietly courageous redefinitions

For Lifshitz, the project began somewhat serendipitously: As a longtime collector of vintage amateur photos, he chanced upon a photo album that belonged to two elderly women, “very bourgeois, very ‘old France.’” It didn’t take him long to realize that they were in a lifelong lesbian relationship. He found himself fascinated by such family albums by openly gay couples and was surprised by the freedom and happiness they exhibited in those photos, despite living in eras of extreme social intolerance toward LGBT people. Looking back over the first half of the twentieth century, Lifshitz set out to interview gay women and men born between the two World Wars, seeking to understand what life was like for them — people like the great Edith Windsor, who belongs to that generation and has done for marriage equality more than any other individual in history.

The book is a companion to Lifshitz’s 2012 film, Les Invisibles.

This touching trailer offers a taste:

Complement The Invisibles with history’s most moving LGBT love letters and Edie Windsor on what equality really means.

HT MetaFilter

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