Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘vintage’

28 JULY, 2011

Ethnic Diversity in Russia 100 Year Ago, Restored in Color

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From peasants to emirs, or nomads have to do with the political cornerstones of world history.

The Library of Congress is a treasure trove of archival gems — from antique maps of the universe to the vintage design gems of the Works Progress Administration to fascinating films from the 1940s romanticizing bookmaking. Today, we turn to The Empire That Was Russia, a curious online exhibition of life in Russia in the beginning of the 20th century. Culled here are some remarkable archival images of ethnic diversity in Russia during that period, which at the time included not only all the countries that would eventually become the Soviet Union, but also present-day Finland and Poland. With its 150 million people, of whom only about half were ethnic Russians, the country was home to some fascinating subcultures, captured here in restored and colored negatives by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii , photographer to the Tsar, with captions by the exhibition team.

The Emir of Bukhara, 1911

The Emir of Bukhara, Alim Khan (1880-1944), poses solemnly for his portrait, taken in 1911 shortly after his accession. As ruler of an autonomous city-state in Islamic Central Asia, the Emir presided over the internal affairs of his emirate as absolute monarch, although since the mid-1800s Bukhara had been a vassal state of the Russian Empire. With the establishment of Soviet power in Bukhara in 1920, the Emir fled to Afghanistan where he died in 1944.

Russian Peasant Girls, 1909

Young Russian peasant women offer berries to visitors to their izba, a traditional wooden house, in a rural area along the Sheksna River near the small town of Kirillov.

Nomadic Kazakhs on the Steppe, 1911

Many Central Asiatic peoples, for example the Kirghiz, Kazakhs, and Uzbeks, lived nomadic lives on the steppes, valleys, and deserts, migrating seasonally from one place to another as opportunities for obtaining food, water, and shelter changed. Shown here is a young Kazakh family in colorful traditional dress moving across the Golodnaia (or 'Hungry') steppe in present-day Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

Profile of a Nomad, ca. 1907-1915

In this portrait, Prokudin-Gorksii captures the traditional dress, jewelry, and hairstyle of an Uzbek woman standing on a richly decorated carpet at the entrance to a yurt, a portable tent used for housing by the nomadic peoples of Central Asia. After conquering Turkestan in the mid 1800s, the Russian government exerted strong pressure on the nomadic peoples to adopt a sedentary lifestyle and settle permanently in villages, towns, and cities.

Portrait of a Dagestani Couple

A couple in traditional dress poses for a portrait in the mountainous interior region of Gunib on the north slope of the Caucasus Mountains in what is today the Dagestan Republic of the Russian Federation.

Prisoners in a Zindan with Guard, ca. 1907-1915

Five inmates stare out from a zindan, a traditional Central Asian prison--in essence a pit in the earth with a low structure built on top. The guard, with Russian rifle and bayonet, is attired in Russian-style uniform and boots.

Jewish Children with their Teacher, 1911

Samarkand, an ancient commercial, intellectual, and spiritual center on the Silk Road from Europe to China, developed a remarkably diverse population, including Tajiks, Persians, Uzbeks, Arabs, Jews, and Russians. Samarkand, and all of West Turkestan, was incorporated into the Russian Empire in the middle of the nineteenth century and has retained its ethnic diversity up to the present. Prokudin-Gorskii captures here a group of Jewish boys, in traditional dress, studying with their teacher.

Chinese Foreman at the Chakva Tea Farm, ca. 1907-1915

A Chinese foreman poses with established tea plants and new plantings at a tea farm and processing plant in Chakva, a small town just north of Batumi. The semi-tropical climate of the Black Sea coast in modern-day Georgia was ideal for growing tea.

Study of a Dagestani Man, ca. 1907-1915

Dagestan, meaning 'land of mountains' in the Turkic languages, contains a population consisting of many nationalities, including Avars, Lezgi, Noghay, Kumuck, and Tabasarans. Pictured here is a Sunni Muslim man of undetermined nationality wearing traditional dress and headgear, with a sheathed dagger at his side.

Russian Children on a Hillside, ca. 1909

Children sit on the side of a hill near a church and bell-tower in the countryside near White Lake, in the north of European Russia.

Russian Settlers in the Borderlands, ca. 1907-1915

Ethnic Russian settlers to the Mugan Steppe region, south of the Caucasus Mountains and west of the Caspian Sea, established a small settlement named Grafovka. The region is immediately north of the border with Persia. Settlement of Russians in non-European parts of the empire, and particularly in border regions, was encouraged by official government policy and accounts for much of the Russian migration to Siberia, the Far East, and the Caucasus regions.

Learn more about the fascinating process of making color images from Prokudin-Gorskii’s negatives, a technique known as “Digichromatography,” made all the more challenging by the fact that no known replica or illustration of the camera that Prokudin-Gorskii used exists today.

Hat tip @brennanyoung

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25 JULY, 2011

7 (More) Obscure Children’s Books by Famous “Adult” Lit Authors

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What a magical car engine has to do with social justice, a parrot named Arturo and the history of jazz.

After the first installment of 7 little-known children’s books by famous authors of “grown-up” literature, on the trails of some favorite children’s books with timeless philosophy for grown-ups, here come seven more, based on reader suggestions and belated findings from the rabbit hole of research surrounding the first installment.

ALDOUS HUXLEY

Aldous Huxley may be best known for his iconic 1932 novel Brave New World, one of the most important meditations on futurism and how technology is changing society ever published, but he was also deeply fascinated by children’s fiction. In 1967, three years after Huxley’s death, Random House released a posthumous volume of the only children’s book he ever wrote, some 23 years earlier. The Crows of Pearblossom tells the story of Mr. and Mrs. Crow, whose eggs never hatch because the Rattlesnake living at the base of their tree keeps eating them. After the 297th eaten egg, the hopeful parents set out to kill the snake and enlist the help of their friend, Mr. Owl, who bakes mud into two stone eggs and paints them to resemble the Crows’ eggs. Upon eating them, the Rattlesnake is in so much pain that he beings to thrash about, tying himself in knots around the branches. Mrs. Crow goes merrily on to hatch “four families of 17 children each,” using the snake “as a clothesline on which to hang the little crows’ diapers.”

The original volume was illustrated by the late Barbara Cooney, but a new edition published this spring features artwork by Sophie Blackall, one of my favorite artists, whose utterly lovely illustrations of Craigslist missed connections you might recall.

GERTRUDE STEIN

Writer, poet and art collector Gertrude Stein is one of the most beloved — and quoted — luminaries of the early 20th century. In 1938, author Margaret Wise Brown of the freshly founded Young Scott Books became obsessed with convincing leading adult authors to try their hands at a children’s book. She sent letters to Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and Gertrude Stein. Hemingway and Steinbeck expressed no interest, but Stein surprised Brown by saying she already had a near-complete children’s manuscript titled The World Is Round, and would be happy to have Young Scott bring it to life. Which they did, though not without drama. Stein demanded that the pages be pink, the ink blue, and the artwork by illustrator Francis Rose. Young Scott were able to meet the first two demands despite the technical difficulties, but they didn’t want Rose to illustrate the book and asked Stein to instead choose from several Young Scott illustrators. Reluctantly, she settle don Clement Hurd, whose first illustrated book had appeared just that year. The World Is Round was eventually published, featuring a mix of unpunctuated prose and poetry, with a single illustration for each chapter. The original release included a special edition of 350 slipcase copies autographed by Stein and Hurd.

The wonderful We Too Were Children has the backstory.

JAMES THURBER

In the 1940s and 1950s, celebrated American author and cartoonist James Thurber, best-known for his contributions to The New Yorker, penned a number of book-length fairy tales, some illustrated by acclaimed French-American artist and political cartoonist Marc Simont. The most famous of them was The 13 Clocks — a fantasy tale Thurber wrote in Bermuda in 1950, telling the story of a mysterious prince who must complete a seemingly impossible challenge to free a maiden, Princess Saralinda, from the grip of the evil Duke of Coffin Castle. The eccentric book is riddled with Thurber’s famous wordplay and written in a unique cadenced style, making it a fascinating object of linguistic appreciation and a structural treat for language-lovers of all ages.

For a cherry on top, the current edition features an introduction by none other than Neil Gaiman.

Thanks, stormagnet

CARL SANDBURG

In 1922, nearly two decades before the first of his three Pulitzer Prizes, poet Carl Sandburg wrote a children’s book titled Rootabaga Stories for his three daughters, Margaret, Janet and Helga, nicknamed “Spink”, “Skabootch” and “Swipes,” respectively. Their nicknames occur repeatedly in some of the volume’s whimsical interrelated short stories.

The book arose from Sandburg’s desire to create the then-nonexistent “American fairy tales,” which he saw as integral to American childhood, so he set out to replace the incongruous imagery of European fairy tales with the fictionalized world of the American Midwest, which he called “the Rootabaga country,” substituting farms, trains, and corn fairies for castles, knights and royatly. Equal parts fantastical and thoughtful, the stories captured Sandburg’s romantic, hopeful vision of childhood.

In 1923, Sandburg followed up with a sequel, Rootabaga Pigeons, telling tales of “Big People Now” and “Little People Long Ago.”

Thanks, Rachel

SALMAN RUSHDIE

Indian-British novelist Salman Rushdie has had his share of acclaim and controversy, but one thing that has remained constant over his prolific career is his penchant for the written word. In 1990, he turned his talents to children’s literature with the release of Haroun and the Sea of Stories — a phantasmagorical allegory for a handful of timely social and social justice problems, particularly in India, explored through the young protagonist, Haroun, and his father’s storytelling. The book received a Writer’s Guild Award for Best Children’s Book that year.

One of the book’s unexpected treats is breakdown of the meanings and symbolism of the ample cast of characters’ names, an intriguing linguistic and semantic bridge to Indian culture.

Twenty years later, just last winter, Rushdie followed up with his highly anticipated second children’s book, Luka and the Fire of Life: A Novel.

Thanks, SaVen

IAN FLEMING

Ian Fleming is best-known as the creator of one of the best-selling literary works of all time: the James Bond series. A few years after the birth of his son Caspar in 1952, Fleming decided to write a children’s book for him, but Chitty Chitty Bang Bang didn’t see light of day until 1964, the year Fleming died. It tells the story of the Potts family and the father figure, Caractacus, who uses money from the invention of a special candy to buy and repair a unique, magical former race car, which the family affectionately names Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Fleming’s inspiration came from a series of aero engines built by racing driver and engineer Count Louis Zborowski in the early 1920s, whose first six-cylinder Maybach aero engine was called Chitty Bang Bang.

The original book was beautifully illustrated in black-and-white by John Burningham and was soon adapted into the 1968 classic film of the same name starring Dick Van Dyke.

LANGSTON HUGHES

Prolific poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist Langston Hughes is considered one of the fathers of jazz poetry, a literary art form that emerged in the 1920s and eventually became the foundation for modern hip-hop. In 1954, the 42-year-old Hughes decided to channel his love of jazz into a sort-of-children’s book that educated young readers about the culture he so loved. The First Book of Jazz was born, taking on the ambitious task of being the first-ever children’s book to review American music, and to this day arguably the best. Hughes covered every notable aspect of jazz, from the evolution of its eras to its most celebrated icons to its geography and sub-genres, and made a special point of highlighting the essential role of African-American musicians in the genre’s coming of age. Hughes even covered the technicalities of jazz — rhythm, percussion, improvisation, syncopation,blue notes, harmony — with remarkable eloquence that, rather than overwhelming the young reader, exudes the genuine joy of playing.

Alongside the book, Hughes released a companion record, The Story of Jazz, featuring Hughes’ lively, vivid narration of jazz history in three tracks, each focusing on a distinct element of the genre. You can hear them here.

For more on rare and out-of-print children’s books by famous 20th-century “adult” authors, I really can’t recommend Ariel S. Winter’s beautifully written, rigorously researched We Too Were Children enough.

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21 JULY, 2011

How Alex Steinweiss Invented the Album Cover

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A brief history of music for the eyes, or how to go from brown paper to design revolution in 7 pounds.

Alex Steinweiss, father of the album cover, lived to be ninety-four, but his legacy will endure for centuries to come. The record sleeves and album artwork we know and love, and have come to take for granted, owe their existence to the iconic designer, who in 1940 created the first illustrated 78 rpm album package as a young art director at Columbia Records. The company took a chance on his idea — to replace the standard plain brown wrapper with an eye-catching poster-like illustration — and increased its record sales eightfold in mere months. His covers, blending bold typography with elegant, graphically ambitious artwork, forever changed not only the way albums were sold, but also the way audiences related to recorded music. He made, as critics now frequently say, “music for the eyes.”

I love music so much and I had such ambition that I was willing to go way beyond what the hell they paid me for. I wanted people to look at the artwork and hear the music.” ~ Alex Steinweiss

Steinweiss’ extraordinary work and legacy live on in Alex Steinweiss: The Inventor of the Modern Album Cover — a lavish Taschen volume by triple Grammy Award-winning art director Kevin Reagan and prolific design writer Steven Heller (yes, him again), cataloguing three decades’ worth of Steinweiss’s magnificent classical, jazz and popular records, as well as logos, labels, advertising ephemera and even his very own typeface, contextualized with essays that illuminate their historical importance, visual innovation and cultural legacy.

And because it’s Taschen, the 420-page tome weighs in at 7 pounds and is also available as a lust-worthy ultra-limited-edition of 1,500 copies, each signed by the artist and including a serigraph print, for $700. (Cue in donation prompt…)

Promotional card sent to Steinweiss' clients, ca. 1952.

Image courtesy of Taschen

Equal parts visual poetry, music and design history, and blueprint for creative entrepreneurship, Alex Steinweiss: The Inventor of the Modern Album Cover is an absolute treat from cover to glorious cover. For more on Steinweiss, you can explore the remarkable range of his work in Columbia Records’ Birka Jazz Archive.

Hat tip to studiomate Rob Weychert; images courtesy of Taschen

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