Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘photography’

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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02 FEBRUARY, 2012

Lost in Learning: Celebrating the Art and Spirit of Discovery


What Galileo has to do with Columbus, The Library of Congress, and rediscovering the great purpose of art.

For four years, Bulgarian-born, Boston-based photographer Eva Koleva Timothy traveled the world, from Oxford’s libraries to Florence’s cathedrals, to pin down the ghosts of the intellectual restlessness that made humanity turn its gaze into the heavens, point its lens across the seas, and channel its fervor onto the canvas. The result is Lost in Learning: The Art of Discovery — a beautiful project-turned-book that breathes new life into historical photographs, manuscripts, and other archival materials to reveal timeless insights on curiosity, creativity, and intellectual inquiry based on the work and legacy of iconic thinkers from the Age of Discover, including Sir Isaac Newton, Leonardo da Vinci, Christopher Columbus, and Galileo Galilei.

Alongside each striking black-and-white image, playing with light and refraction to an incredibly dimensional effect, are Timothy’s poetic meditations on the minds and mindsets responsible for some of our civilization’s most significant feats of discovery, and what they reveal about the nature and future of contemporary creative thought.

Far from a mere lens on nostalgia and the romantic past, at the project makes a passionate case for resuscitating the cult of discovery as a driving force of culture’s future. British poet Ralph Windle writes in the foreword:

For all its rich evocation of history, however, this monograph looks forward more than back… Something much more important is happening here, and it connects in an exciting, novel way with one of the mainstream developments in contemporary literature and art.”

At its heart, Lost in Learning, which Timothy calls “an art book for the Dreamers,” is a beautiful crusade to rediscover discovery and reinstate curiosity as the great purpose of art and the great gift of the artist.

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01 FEBRUARY, 2012

Pasta by Design: Finding Whimsy in the Geometry of Food


Phylogeny of the pantry, or what architecture has to do with anellini.

In 2010, London chef extraordinaire Jacob Kenedy with award-winning British graphic designer Caz Hildebrand explored the geometry of pasta — a journey into the science, history, and philosophy of Italy’s most iconic pasta dishes through a minimalist, design-driven cookbook. Now comes Pasta by Design, an even more ambitious design dissection on the beloved carb staple, exploring the intricate, beautiful, almost whimsical geometrical shapes of more than 90 different types of pasta.

(After all, if geometry is good enough a lens for love, it’s certainly good enough for pasta.)

Pasta, it turns out, is a surprisingly apt vehicle for the elements of great design. MoMA’s Paola Antonelli () writes in the introduction:

Pasta, that simple and yet surprisingly versatile mixture of durum wheat-flour and water, shaped by hand or machine, is a delicious example of great design. Just like any other indispensable invention, pasta matches the available resources (wheat — one of the most widely produced cereals in the world) with goals (the human need not only to eat, but also to have a somewhat diversified diet). As well as being a design born out of necessity, it is also such a simple and strong concept that it has generated an almost endless variety of derivative pasta types — and an even greater number of dishes made from them. Moreover, it has proven to be a timeless design; although pasta’s production tools may have been updated across the centuries, its basic forms have remained the same. It is also a global design, easy to appropriate and adapt to local culture — as can be seen from the many regional varieties of pasta dishes across the world. Finally, pasta is a universal success with both critics and the public, thus also passing the market-driven design test.”

Given the astounding variety of pasta types and the often confusing nomenclature of their classification, the book takes an approach inspired by the science of phylogeny — the study of relatedness between groups of forms in nature — to pare down 92 different types based on their morphological features, then charts them in a family tree.

Each shape is described in a meticulous mathematical formula, and expressive minimalist photographs and drawings zoom in on the hidden genius of the classic pantry mainstay.

Quirky in spirit yet rigorously researched and beautifully produced, Pasta by Design at once humanizes mathematics and exposes the captivating complexity of one of the world’s most beloved foods, revealing the dimensionality of design as a cross-disciplinary cultural lens.

Images courtesy of Thames & Hudson; photographs via IJP

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