Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘photography’

15 OCTOBER, 2013

Humans of New York: A Vibrant Photographic Census of Diversity and Dignity

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There is something especially magical about framing these moments of stillness and of absolute attention to the individual amidst this bustling city of millions, a city that never sleeps and never stops.

The ever-evolving portrait of New York City has been painted through Gotham’s cats and its dogs, its buildings and its parks, its diaries and its letters. Underpinning all of those, of course, are the city’s true building blocks: its humans.

In the summer of 2010, Brandon Stanton — one of the warmest, most talented and most generous humans I know — lost his job as a bond trader in Chicago and was forced to make new light of his life. Having recently gotten his first camera and fallen in love with photography, he decided to follow that fertile combination of necessity and passion, and, to his parents’ terror and dismay, set out to pursue photography as a hobby-turned-vocation. (For his mother, who saw bond trading as a reputable occupation, photography “seemed like a thinly veiled attempt to avoid employment.”) Brandon recalls:

I had enjoyed my time as a trader. The job was challenging and stimulating. And I’d obsessed over markets in the same way I’d later obsess over photography. But the end goal of trading was always money. Two years of my life were spent obsessing over money, and in the end I had nothing to show for it. I wanted to spend the next phase of my life doing work that I valued as much as the reward.

In photography, he found that rewarding obsession. Approaching it with the priceless freshness of Beginner’s Mind, he brought to his new calling the gift of ignorance and an art of seeing untainted by the arrogance of expertise, hungry to make sense of the world through his lens as he made sense of his own life. And make he did: Brandon, who quickly realized that “the best way to become a photographer was to start photographing,” set out on a photo tour across several major American cities, beginning in Pittsburgh and ending up in New York City, where he had only planned to spend a week but where he found both his new home and his new calling.

And so, in a beautiful embodiment of how to find your purpose and do what you love, Brandon’s now-legendary online project documenting Gotham’s living fabric was born — at first a humble Facebook page, which blossomed into one of today’s most popular photojournalism blogs with millions of monthly readers. Now, his photographic census of the world’s most vibrant city spills into the eponymous offline masterpiece Humans of New York (public library) — a magnificent mosaic of lives constructed through four hundred of Brandon’s expressive and captivating photos, many never before featured online.

These portraits — poignant, poetic, playful, heartbreaking, heartening — dance across the entire spectrum of the human condition not with the mockingly complacent lens of a freak-show gawker but with the affectionate admiration and profound respect that one human holds for another.

In the age of the aesthetic consumerism of visual culture online, HONY stands as a warm beacon of humanity, gently reminding us that every image is not a disposable artifact to be used as social currency but a heart that beat in the blink of the shutter, one that will continue to beat with its private turbulence of daily triumphs and tribulations even as we move away from the screen or the page to resume our own lives.

The captions, some based on Brandon’s interviews with the subjects and others an unfiltered record of his own observations, add a layer of thought to the visual story: One photograph, depicting two elderly gentlemen intimately leaning into each other on a park bench, reads: “It takes a lot of disquiet to achieve this sort of quiet comfort.” Another, portraying a very old gentleman in a wheelchair with matching yellow sneakers, shorts, and baseball cap, surprises us by revealing that this is Banana George, world record-holder as the oldest barefoot water-skier.

Some are full of humor:

Damn liberal arts degree.

Something horrible has happened to Elmo.

Others are hopelessly charming:

I’m eighty years old. An eighty-six-year-old man was just speaking to me in a flirtatious manner, I believe. But his daughter pulled him away.

When I walked by, she was really moving to the music — hands up, head nodding, shoulders swinging. I really wanted to take her photo, so I walked up to the nearest adult and asked: “Does she belong to you?”

Suddenly the music stopped, and I heard: “I belong to myself!”

Others still are humbling and soul-stirring:

My wife passed away a few years back. Her name was Barbara, I used to call her Ba. My name was Lawrence, she used to call me La. When she died, I changed my name to Bala.

I stepped inside an Upper West Side nursing home, and met this man in the lobby. He was on his way to deliver a yellow teddy bear to his wife. “I visit her every day,” he said. “Even when the mind is gone, the heart shows through.”

Then there are the city’s favorite tropes: Its dogs

…and its bikes…

I’m ninety years old and I ride this thing around everywhere. I don’t see why more people don’t use them. I carry my cane in the basket, I get all my shopping done. I can go everywhere. I’ve never hit anyone and never been hit. Of course, I ride on the sidewalk, which I don’t think I’m supposed to do, but still…

…and the deuce delight of dogs on bikes:

Above all, however, there is something especially magical about framing these moments of stillness and of absolute attention to the individual amidst this bustling city of millions, a city that never sleeps and never stops.

Whatever your geographic givens, Humans of New York is an absolute masterpiece of cultural celebration, both as vibrant visual anthropology and as a meta-testament, by way of Brandon’s own story, to the heartening notion that this is indeed a glorious age in which we can make our own luck and make a living doing what we love.

Find more such daily mesmerism on the Humans of New York site, then complement and contrast it with this photographic census of the world’s last living nomads.

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16 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Aesthetic Consumerism and the Violence of Photography: What Susan Sontag Teaches Us about Visual Culture and the Social Web

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“Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted.”

Ever since its invention in 1839, the photographic image and its steady evolution have shaped our experience of reality — from chronicling our changing world and recording its diversity to helping us understand the science of emotion to anchored us to consumer culture. But despite the meteoric rise of photography from a niche curiosity to a mass medium over the past century and a half, there’s something ineffably yet indisputably different about visual culture in the digital age — something at once singular and deeply rooted at the essence of the photographic image itself.

Though On Photography (public library) — the seminal collection of essays by reconstructionist Susan Sontag — was originally published in 1977, Sontag’s astute insight resonates with extraordinary timeliness today, shedding light on the psychology and social dynamics of visual culture online.

In the opening essay, “In Plato’s Cave,” Sontag contextualizes the question of how and why photographs came to grip us so powerfully:

Humankind lingers unregenerately in Plato’s cave, still reveling, its age-old habit, in mere images of the truth. But being educated by photographs is not like being educated by older, more artisanal images. For one thing, there are a great many more images around, claiming our attention. The inventory started in 1839 and since then just about everything has been photographed, or so it seems. This very insatiability of the photographing eye changes the terms of confinement in the cave, our world. In teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe. They are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing. Finally, the most grandiose result of the photographic enterprise is to give us the sense that we can hold the whole world in our heads — as an anthology of images.

The lens, one of 100 ideas that changed photography. Click for more.

More than anything, however, Sontag argues that the photographic image is a control mechanism we exert upon the world — upon our experience of it and upon others’ perception of our experience:

Photographs really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood. To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge — and, therefore, like power.

What makes this insight particularly prescient is that Sontag arrived at it more than three decades before the age of the social media photostream — the ultimate attempt to control, frame, and package our lives — our idealized lives — for presentation to others, and even to ourselves. The aggression Sontag sees in this purposeful manipulation of reality through the idealized photographic image applies even more poignantly to the aggressive self-framing we practice as we portray ourselves pictorially on Facebook, Instagram, and the like:

Images which idealize (like most fashion and animal photography) are no less aggressive than work which makes a virtue of plainness (like class pictures, still lifes of the bleaker sort, and mug shots). There is an aggression implicit in every use of the camera.

Online, thirty-some years after Sontag’s observation, this aggression precipitates a kind of social media violence of self-assertion — a forcible framing of our identity for presentation, for idealization, for currency in an economy of envy.

Even in the 1970s, Sontag was able to see where visual culture was headed, noting that photography had already become “almost as widely practiced an amusement as sex and dancing” and had taken on the qualities of a mass art form, meaning most who practice it don’t practice it as an art. Rather, Sontag presages, the photograph became a utility in our cultural power-dynamics:

It is mainly a social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power.

She goes even further in asserting photography’s inherent violence:

Like a car, a camera is sold as a predatory weapon — one that’s as automated as possible, ready to spring. Popular taste expects an easy, an invisible technology. Manufacturers reassure their customers that taking pictures demands no skill or expert knowledge, that the machine is all-knowing, and responds to the slightest pressure of the will. It’s as simple as turning the ignition key or pulling the trigger. Like guns and cars, cameras are fantasy-machines whose use is addictive.

The camera obscura, one of 100 ideas that changed photography. Click for more.

But in addition to dividing us along a power hierarchy, photographs also connect us into communities and nuclear units. Sontag writes:

Through photographs, each family constructs a portrait-chronicle of itself — a portable kit of images that bears witness to its connectedness.

One has to wonder, however, whether — and how much — the family circle has been replaced by the social circle as we construct our online communities around photostreams and shared timelines. Similarly, Sontag notes the heightened use of photography in tourism. There, images validate experience, which raises the question of whether we engage in a kind of “social media tourism” today as we vicariously devour other people’s lives. Sontag writes:

Photographs … help people to take possession of space in which they are insecure. Thus, photography develops in tandem with one of the most characteristic of modern activities: tourism. For the first time in history, large numbers of people regularly travel out of their habitual environments for short periods of time. It seems positively unnatural to travel for pleasure without taking a camera along. Photographs will offer indisputable evidence that the trip was made, that the program was carried out, that fun was had.

[…]

A way of certifying experience, taking photographs is also a way of refusing it — by limiting experience to a search for the photogenic, by converting experience into an image, a souvenir.

Out of those souvenirs we build a fantasy — one we project about our own lives, and one we deduce about those of others:

Photographs, which cannot themselves explain anything, are inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation, and fantasy.

But Sontag’s most piercing — and perhaps most heartbreaking — insight about leisure and photography touches on our cultural cult of productivity, which we worship at the expense of our ability to be truly present. For most of us, especially those who find tremendous fulfillment and absorption in our work, Sontag’s observation about the photograph as a self-soothing tool against the anxiety of “inefficiency” rings terrifyingly true:

The very activity of taking pictures is soothing, and assuages general feelings of disorientation that are likely to be exacerbated by travel. Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter. Unsure of other responses, they take a picture. This gives shape to experience: stop, take a photograph, and move on. The method especially appeals to people handicapped by a ruthless work ethic — Germans, Japanese, and Americans. Using a camera appeases the anxiety which the work-driven feel about not working when they are on vacation and supposed to be having fun. They have something to do that is like a friendly imitation of work: they can take pictures.

Man on Rooftop with Eleven Men in Formation on His Shoulders (Unidentified American artist, ca. 1930)

From 'Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop.' Click image for more.

At the same time, photography is both an attempted antidote to our mortality paradox and a deepening awareness of it:

All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.

This seems especially true, if subtly tragic, as we fill our social media timelines with images, as if to prove that our biological timelines — our very lives — are filled with notable moments, which also remind us that they are all inevitably fleeting towards the end point of that timeline: mortality itself. And so the photographic image becomes an affirmation of our very existence, one whose power is invariably addictive:

Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted.

[…]

It would not be wrong to speak of people having a compulsion to photograph: to turn experience itself into a way of seeing. Ultimately, having an experience becomes identical with taking a photograph of it, and participating in a public event comes more and more to be equivalent to looking at it in photographed form. That most logical of nineteenth-century aesthetes, Mallarmé, said that everything in the world exists in order to end in a book. Today everything exists to end in a photograph.

On Photography remains a cultural classic of the most timeless kind, with every reading unfolding timelier and timelier insights as our visual vernacular continues to evolve. Complement it with 100 Ideas That Changed Photography, the curious legacy of image manipulation before Photoshop, and the history of photography, animated.

For more of Sontag’s brilliant brain, see her wisdom on writing, boredom, sex, censorship, and aphorisms, her radical vision for remixing education, her insight on why lists appeal to us, and her illustrated meditations on art and on love.

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29 AUGUST, 2013

The Art of NASA: Andy Warhol, Annie Leibovitz, Norman Rockwell, and Other Icons Celebrate 50 Years of Space Exploration

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Celebrated artists translate NASA’s mission “to reach for new heights and reveal the unknown” into stunning images.

Recently, while researching something only marginally related, I chanced upon a buried treasure of the finest variety — remnants of NASA’s Art Program, which began in 1962 and enlisted some of the era’s greatest visual artists across various disciplines and backgrounds in conveying to the public the Space Agency’s cutting-edge research in ways more vibrant and less sterile than research reports. Among the images, found in NASA’s Flickr Commons archive — which also gave us these gorgeous black-and-white photos of vintage space facilities — are artworks by such legends as Andy Warhol, Norman Rockwell, and Annie Leibovitz. (Alas, much like in space exploration itself, in space art women remain a minority, only a fraction of the selected artists being female.) The art was featured in a Smithsonian traveling exhibition celebrating NASA’s 50th anniversary in 2008 and was subsequently collected in NASA/ART: 50 Years of Exploration (public library), featuring an afterword by none other than Ray Bradbury, tireless champion of space exploration.

To make the collaborations as powerful and authentic as possible, NASA gave the participating artists unprecedented access to the agency’s facilities and, in some cases, even lent them prized equipment to ensure true-to-life portrayal. NASA’s second administrator, James Webb, who directed the launch of the program, remarked:

Important events can be interpreted by artists to provide unique insight into significant aspects of our history-making advances into space. An artistic record of this nation’s program of space exploration will have great value for future generations and may make a significant contribution to the history of American art.

Indeed, the project is beautifully aligned with NASA’s mission “to reach for new heights and reveal the unknown so that what we do and learn will benefit all humankind,” yet it bears a bittersweet hue of lamentation as we remember to wonder how, in its present state of neglect, funding for space exploration will continue to support such inspired fringes. But at least we have these vintage gems to make our cosmic-kindled hearts glow. Enjoy.

'Moonwalk 1' by Andy Warhol, 1987 (silkscreen on paper)

The famous image of astronaut Buzz Aldrin standing on the Moon has become an icon of popular culture. The American hero with the U.S. flag became material for Warhol's silkscreen series of nationally known images printed on vibrant, retro, poster colors.

'Gemini Launch Pad' by James Wyeth, 1964 (watercolor on paper)

In the early days of manned spaceflight, technicians responsible for a launch worked in a domed, concrete-reinforced blockhouse, protected from accidental explosions. Although surrounded by cutting-edge technology, the technicians relied on a bicycle for check-up trips to the launch pad.

'Power' by Paul Calle, 1963 (oil on panel)

This painting depicts the first seconds of lift-off of the Saturn V moon rocket. Each of the 5 F-1 engines could encompass a full grown man standing up, and produced over 1.5 million pounds of thrust.

'Mike Collins' by Paul Calle, 1969 (felt tip pen on paper)

Paul Calle was the only artist with the Apollo 11 astronauts in the early morning hours of July 16, 1969, when they put on their spacesuits in preparation for the historic journey to land on the Moon.

'First Steps' by Mitchell Jamieson, 1963 (acrylic, gauze, and paper on canvas)

In a silver-colored spacesuit, astronaut Gordon Cooper steps away from his Mercury spacecraft and into the bright sunlight on the deck of the recovery ship after 22 orbits of Earth. Mitchell Jamieson documented Cooper's recovery and medical examination and accompanied him back to Cape Canaveral.

'Grissom and Young' by Norman Rockwell, 1965

Astronauts John Young and Gus Grissom are suited for the first flight of the Gemini program in March 1965. NASA loaned Norman Rockwell a Gemini spacesuit in order to make this painting as accurate as possible.

'Gemini Recovery' by Robert McCall, mid-1960s (watercolor)

The Gemini V crew, Gordon Cooper and Charles Conrad, bob in a life raft beside their spacecraft as a helicopter comes to the rescue after their Earth orbital mission, which took place in August 1965. It was the longest manned flight to date – 7 days, 22 hours, and 55 minutes. Artist Robert T. McCall documented the return of the crew from the recovery ship USS Lake Champion in the Atlantic Ocean.

'Sky Garden' by Robert Rauschenberg, 1969 (lithograph on canvas)

In 1969 Rauschenberg was invited to witness one of the most significant social events of the decade: the launch of Apollo 11, the shuttle that would place man on the moon. NASA provided Rauschenberg with detailed scientific maps, charts and photographs of the launch, which formed the basis of the Stoned moon series – comprising thirty-three lithographs printed at Gemini GEL. The Stoned moon series is a celebration of man’s peaceful exploration of space as a 'responsive, responsible collaboration between man and technology.' The combination of art and science is something that Rauschenberg continued to investigate throughout the 1960s in what he calls his 'blowing fuses period.'

'Saturn Blockhouse' by Fred Freeman, 1968 (acrylic on canvas)

As a participant in NASA's art program, Fred Freeman gained unlimited access to space facilities during missions. Here, he shows us just how close he was, even depicting his coffee cup resting on the console.

'Suiting Up' by Paul Calle, 1969 (pencil sketch)

This sketch of the Apollo 11 crew 'Suiting Up' stands as a visual record of the activities that took place on the morning of July 16th, 1969.

'Big Dish Antenna' by Paul Arlt, 1968 (acrylic on polyester)

This large antenna was part of NASA's worldwide tracking network. In order to maintain contact with an Earth-orbiting spacecraft, it was necessary to establish communication stations around the world.

'Space Age Landscape' by William Thon, 1969 (watercolor on paper)

The subtropical climate of Florida soon reclaims an early launch tower. As the space program progressed to larger launch vehicles, smaller gantries were abandoned to seabirds, who found them to be ideal nesting places.

'Moon, Horizon & Flowers (Rocket Rollout)' by Jack Perlmutter, 1969 (oil on canvas)

The most advanced technology, along with the subtropical Florida landscape, provided a variety of interesting forms, shapes, and colors for visiting artists during the time of the Apollo Moon-landing program.

'Apollo 8 Coming Home' by Robert T. McCall, 1969

Human eyes directly observed the far side of the Moon for the first time on Christmas Eve 1968. Robert McCall imagines the sight of the rocket engine firing to propel the spacecraft out of lunar orbit for its return to Earth.

'Sky Lab' by Peter Hurd, 1973 (watercolor on paper)

Peter Hurd participated in the early days of the NASA Art Program, documenting the last Mercury flight. He returned ten years later to record the launch of Skylab, a rocket modified to allow astronauts to live and work in orbit. The three separate crews of Skylab astronauts arrived via Apollo command modules.

'When Thoughts Turn Inwards' by Henry Casselli, 1981 (watercolor)

Astronaut John Young reflects pensively as he suits up for launch on April 12, 1981. Casselli conveys a quiet, almost spiritual moment when the astronaut must mentally prepare for his mission. This was the first time that the newly inaugurated space shuttle would carry humans, in this case the two-person crew of John Young and Robert Crippen.

'Lift-Off at 15 Seconds' by Jack Perlmutter, 1982 (oil on canvas)

Martin Hoffman captures astronaut suit-up in a wholly original way -- through the television screens in the media area at the Kennedy Space Center. The launch pad can be seen in the distance beyond Banana River. It is one moment of calm before the frenzy of launch activity.

'Sunrise Suit Up' by Martin Hoffman, 1988 (mixed media)

'Chip and Batty Explore Space' by William Wegman, 2001

William Wegman's signature Weimaraners pose as astronauts. One peers out of a space station while the other conducts a spacewalk. NASA loaned Wegman a model of a spacesuit to use in his work.

'Fluid Dynamics' by Tina York, 1995 (mixed media)

Tina York graphically depicts the principles of fluid dynamics, the movement of gases as a solid body passes through them. York researched this concept at California's NASA Ames Research Center while participating in the NASA Art Program.

'Servicing Hubble' by John Solie, 1995 (oil on canvas)

The painting depicts the historic servicing of the Hubble Space Telescope in December 1992. Kathryn Thorton releases a defective solar panel into the heavens as another astronaut performs duties in the space shuttle Endeavour's cargo bay. The solar array and the wide-field planetary camera were some of the major units serviced during the STS-61 mission.

'A New Frontier' by Keith Duncan, 2001 (mixed media)

Duncan depicts the International Space Station in an allegorical context. Icarus and Daedalus are hovering angelically over the Earth's surface, which is dotted with suspended configurations of the International Space Station and astronauts. Rays of sun emanate and provide a canopy for the floating astronauts and spacecraft.

'Titan' by Daniel Zeller, 2006 (ink on paper)

The basis of Daniel Zeller’s drawing is the intricate surface of Saturn’s moon Titan, as recorded by the Cassini spacecraft. Cassini arrived at Saturn in July 2004 after a seven-year voyage, beginning a four-year mission.

'Remembering Columbia' by Chakaia Booker, 2006 (rubber)

Chakaia Booker used rubber, her signature medium, to commemorate the Columbia crew. Pieces of a space shuttle tire that NASA donated to Booker are incorporated into the work. The resulting sculpture resembles a black star, reflecting mournfully upon February 1, 2003, when Columbia suffered an aerodynamic break-up during reentry.

Portrait of Eileen Collins by Annie Leibovitz, 1999

Annie Leibovitz photographed Eileen Collins at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, during training. Collins was the first female pilot (Discovery in 1995) and first female commander (Columbia, 1999) of a space shuttle program.

NASA/ART: 50 Years of Exploration was co-authored by James Dean, who founded the NASA Art Program and directed it from 1962 to 1974, and NASA curatorial and multimedia manager Bertram Ulrich. Complement it with this pictorial history of space in 250 milestones.

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