Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘photography’

23 FEBRUARY, 2012

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


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



















Republic of Benin (formerly Dahomey)


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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22 FEBRUARY, 2012

Stunning Vintage Photos of Early 1900s Australian Bike Culture


What a handlebar koala has to do with skipping 1000 miles from Melbourne to Adelaide.

As a sworn bike lover, I remain fascinated by the evolution of bike culture and the bicycle as a cultural agent, from its design and engineering history to its beauty to its role in the emancipation of women (only after telling them not to cultivate ‘bicycle face’). While digging through the archive of the State Library of New South Wales, I came across these stunning public domain images of early 20th century bike culture in Australia, equal parts sweet (all those tandems!), inspirational (a record-breaking ride from Sydney to Melbourne in 3 days and 7 hours!), and scandalous (NB: Annie is wearing trousers!)

Brownie (Muriel Long) with bicycle decorated for street procession - Deniliquin, New South Wales

Man on a penny-farthing bicycle being chased by his sister (Maggie & Bob Spiers) - West Wyalong, New South Wales, c. 1900

Billie Samuels leaving to ride from Sydney to Melbourne, in hopes of breaking the women's record in 3 days and 7 hours, on a Malvern Star bicycle, 4 July 1934, by Sam Hood

Close-up of Billie Samuels on the Malvern Star bike showing her koala bear mascot before leaving for Melbourne, 4 July 1934, by Sam Hood

Studio photograph of Annie Dawson Wallace seated on a bicycle - Sydney, New South Wales, 1899

Man on bicycle pillioning boy - Bunaloo, New South Wales

Annie Dawson Wallace with her bicycle. NB: Annie is wearing trousers - Sydney, New South Wales, 1899

Man and woman on a Malvern Star abreast tandem bicycle, c. 1930s, by Sam Hood

Alfred Lee and penny farthing, Glen Street, North Sydney

School teacher (Miss Marley) at Narraburra School - Narraburra, New South Wales, no date, by Eden Photo Studios

Palace Emporium Bicycle Club. Century riders - Sydney area, New South Wales, July 1899

Cyclist Joyce Barry, celebrated throughout the 1930s for her many record-breaking time and distances rides, advertising for Milk Board, September 1939

A. H. Sheppard, Australian Champion, c. 1913

Champion Australian cyclist Reggie 'Iron Man' McNamara (1887-1971), no date

Line up of competitors at Goulburn, Goulburn to Sydney, Dunlop Road Race, c. 1930s

Hubert Opperman eating an ice cream next to a Peter's Ice Cream Reo truck,1936, by Sam Hood

Oppy (Hubert Opperman) and woman, possibly Edna Sayers, on tandem bicycle, by Sam Hood

Four cyclists on speed bicycles on rollers time trials to promote Malvern Star, by Sam Hood

Two men in plus-fours on a tandem, by Sam Hood

Boys of Hoyts Clovelly Theatre 'Spider's Web' Club ride their bikes while 'Spiderman' looks on, by Sam Hood

Skipping champion Tom Morris attempts to skip from Sydney to Brisbane via the Pacific Highway, 28 June 1937, by Sam Hood. He had already skipped from Melbourne to Adelaide and back (1000 miles) and from Melbourne to Sydney in 28 days.

Mr. Waterhouse had the first motorcycle that came to Singleton and he built the front carrier for passenger - Singleton, New South Wales, no date

For a related vintage bike culture treat, see this fantastic short documentary on how the Dutch got their bicycle paths (so they can have royalty ride in them), as well as the excellent Wheels of Change, one of the 11 best history books of 2011.

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17 FEBRUARY, 2012

All the Time in the World


What a charred ancient tree can teach us about impermanence, deep time, and our place in the universe.

The tree had been on fire for over a week before anyone noticed. The Senator, one of the oldest Cypress trees in the world, was killed when a smoldering ignition from an errant lightning strike slowly transformed it into a towering chimney and fuel source in one. Or maybe it didn’t happen like that at all. Perhaps it was an errant cigarette, or a sinister match strategically placed in its hollow berth. The mystery endures, but the fact remains: on January 16, 2012 The Senator collapsed and died, engulfed in flames. It was 3,500 years old.

The Senator; Bald Cypress #0907-0107

3,500 years old; Seminole County, Florida

Back in 2007, I went to Orlando to photograph The Senator as part of The Oldest Living Things in the World, my art and science project consisting of continuously living organisms 2,000 years old and older. I had recently returned home from Africa, where I’d driven around the Limpopo in search of ancient Baobab trees, visited an underground forest in Pretoria amidst a morning threat of ‘smash and grabs,’ and taken a road trip from Cape Town up through Namibia to find the genuinely odd Welwitschia Mirabilis, which looked more like a science fictional sea creature than a primitive conifer punctuating the vast and empty Namib Naukluft. And then I flew to Orlando.

Welwitschia Mirabilis #0707-22411

2,000 years old; Namib Naukluft Desert, Namibia

The Senator was the primary attraction at the aptly named Big Tree Park, just twenty minutes worth of strip malls from downtown Orlando. In fact, it was the original Orlando attraction, BD (‘Before Disney’, if you will), visited via horse and carriage. I drove with a friend in her family car. We parked in an orderly lot, walked a quarter-mile on a planked path through the once-swampy woodland, and arrived at the tree just like that. Named for Senator M.O. Overstreet in 1927, it was impressively tall and robust while not overly gnarly, and kept company with Lady Liberty, which at 2,000 years and a noticeably svelter silhouette – save for a knotty eye-level north side bustle – made for a May-December pairing. Families with cameras looked up and strolled between the two, the children quickly bored and retreating to the playground.

I snapped a digital shot for a couple who asked, out of proximity rather than expertise, that I take their picture in front of the tree. I then took out my medium format film camera and made some photographs of my own. I make large-scale fine art prints of my work, and feel that I get the best of both worlds by shooting film, and making high resolution scans of the negatives and making archival pigment prints. When I got the film back I knew I had missed my mark: there were some interesting compositions, but I hadn’t captured the spirit of this remarkable being. I was coming to see my subjects as individuals, and as such I wanted to make portraits of them rather than landscapes; to encourage anthropomorphism, and create a means to connect to Deep Time – thousands of years of a life distilled into 1/60th of a second.

And with that, I made an unceremonious decision to return to The Senator when opportunity allowed. In the intervening years I traveled to Greenland for lichens that grown only 1cm every hundred years, to Chile for the strange and wonderful Llareta plant growing at 15,000 feet and a desert-cousin of parsley, and to Western Australia for the stromatolites, tied to the oxygenation of the planet and the very beginnings of all life on Earth. I went to Tasmania in search of a 43,000-year-old shrub that is the last of its species left on earth, rending it both critically endangered and theoretically immortal. But in five years, even despite having visited Florida a couple of times to see family, I did not make it back to The Senator. It was too easy. It would always be there. Surely, if The Senator had been around for 3,500 years, it was going to be around for 3,505.

But it wasn’t.

La Llareta #0308-23B26

Up to 3,000 years old; Atacama Desert, Chile

Sagole Baobab #0707-1086

(2,000 years old; Limpopo Province, South Africa)

Extreme longevity can lull us into a false sense of permanence. We fall into a quotidian reality devoid of long-term thinking, certain that things which have been here “forever” will remain, unchanging. But being old is not the same as being immortal. Even second chances have expiration dates. The comparative ease of access and the seeming lack of urgency bred a certainly complacency in my return to The Senator.

On February 8, 2012, just days before I was to ship out for Antarctica in search of 5,500-year-old moss, I returned to what remained of the ancient tree.

I met Jim Duby, Program Manager of the Seminole County Natural Lands Program, at the locked gate of the park. Jim has been to the site every day since the fire. The investigation is considered ongoing, but after speaking with him, it was hard for me to consider the cause of death to be anything but human intention. There was no lightning recorded in the area during the weeks in question, and the tree had been newly fitted with a lightning rod. The idea that it had spontaneously combusted under its own auspices simply seemed absurd. On the other hand, the tree was visibly hollow before the fire, and an opening at the base of the trunk, once filled with concrete, was now large enough for a person to squeeze through and stand inside. Or to drop a match into, and run. The Senator was likely spared the long-ago ax of the logging industry because it was hollow, but the very same defect ultimately sparked its death.

Underground Forest #0707-10333

13,000 years old; Pretoria, South Africa; also deceased

Stromatolites #1211-0512

2,000 years old; Carbla Station, Western Australia

After spending over six years of my life researching, photographing, and traveling all over the world in search of ancient life, it has put my own mortality into perspective. I have a more immediate understanding of the briefness of a single human life in the face of the incomprehensible vastness of ‘forever,’ and at the same time, when standing in front of these organisms, I feel a connection to the moments, small as molecules, that shape a constantly unfolding narrative on both a micro and macro scale. Any given moment matters.

The charred remains of The Senator Tree, February 8, 2012.

For the Senator, there is a glimmering chance at a second life: clippings from the tree were taken years ago and successfully propagated in a nursery. The resulting trees are now 40 feet tall, and could ostensibly be transplanted into the very spot after a long and careful root-stabilization process. There are also seedlings at its base that, with a little paternity testing, could prove to be its clones rather than its progeny, or perhaps some new growth will be forced from the existing root system stimulated by the stress of the fire.

Only time will tell.

Rachel Sussman is a Brooklyn-based artist and photographer. Over the past six years, she has traveled the world to document Earth’s most ancient organisms in her project The Oldest Living Things in the World. Rachel has exhibited across the U.S. and Europe, received numerous awards, and spoken at TED. You can follow her global adventures on Twitter.

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