Brain Pickings

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

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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

Norway

Sweden

Greece

Macedonia

Switzerland

Turkey

Serbia

Greece

Montenegro

India

India

India

Mongolia

Mongolia

India

Vietnam

Syria

Djibouti

Republic of Benin (formerly Dahomey)

Vietnam

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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The Disappearing Bicyclist: A Vintage Puzzle to Tickle Your Brain

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“Which boy has vanished? Where did he go?”

Chess player Sam Loyd (1841-1911) had a knack for mind-bending puzzles, which his New York Times obituary described as “a real gift… for the fantastic in mathematical science.” Among his most famous feats was a vanishment puzzle titled Get Off the Earth. It depicted a rectangular background, topped with a circular card — the “world” — which could be rotated. Along the rim of the circle sit 13 Chinese men. When the world is oriented with the large arrow pointing to the North East, you could count 13 men. But when you turned the Earth slightly so that the arrow pointed to the North West, there were suddenly only 12 men.

This decidedly less racist version of the puzzle, known as The Disappearing Bicyclist, offers the same intentional discombobulation:

Turn the disc so the arrow points to A — and count 13 boys. Then move the arrow to B — and there are only 12 boys in view.

Which boy has vanished? Where did he go?

The genius of Loyd’s puzzle? Each of the many bodyparts — arms, legs, heads, flags — has tiny slivers missing. When the disc rotates, these slices get ever so slightly rearranged, so that each boy gains a part from his neighbor — a clever puzzle, certainly, but also a playfully poetic reminder that our perception of reality is but a function of our angle, and that everything is connected to everything else.

Find more such delightful discombobulators in The Universal Book of Mathematics: From Abracadabra to Zeno’s Paradoxes and the 1959 Loyd original Mathematical Puzzles of Sam Loyd.

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Henry Miller’s 11 Commandments of Writing and Daily Creative Routine

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“When you can’t create you can work.”

After David Ogilvy’s wildly popular 10 tips on writing and a selection of advice from modernity’s greatest writers, here comes some from iconic writer and painter Henry Miller.

In 1932-1933, while working on what would become his first published novel, Tropic of Cancer, Miller devised and adhered to a stringent daily routine to propel his writing. Among it was this list of eleven commandments, found in Henry Miller on Writing — a fine addition to these 9 essential books on reading and writing, part of this year’s resolution to read more and write better.

COMMANDMENTS

  1. Work on one thing at a time until finished.
  2. Start no more new books, add no more new material to ‘Black Spring.’
  3. Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
  4. Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
  5. When you can’t create you can work.
  6. Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
  7. Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.
  8. Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.
  9. Discard the Program when you feel like it—but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.
  10. Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.
  11. Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

Under a part titled Daily Program, his routine also featured the following wonderful blueprint for productivity, inspiration, and mental health:

MORNINGS:
If groggy, type notes and allocate, as stimulus.

If in fine fettle, write.

AFTERNOONS:

Work of section in hand, following plan of section scrupulously. No intrusions, no diversions. Write to finish one section at a time, for good and all.

EVENINGS:

See friends. Read in cafés.

Explore unfamiliar sections — on foot if wet, on bicycle if dry.

Write, if in mood, but only on Minor program.

Paint if empty or tired.

Make Notes. Make Charts, Plans. Make corrections of MS.

Note: Allow sufficient time during daylight to make an occasional visit to museums or an occasional sketch or an occasional bike ride. Sketch in cafés and trains and streets. Cut the movies! Library for references once a week.

For more of Miller’s obsessive recipes for creative rigor, dig into Henry Miller on Writing.

HT Lists of Note

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