Brain Pickings

Thomas Edison and the Invention of the Movies


Today marks the 164th birthday of Thomas Edison — inventor, businessman, scientist and idea maverick of gargantuan historical proportions. We may know him from science class as the man who invented the light bulb, but his contribution to creative culture and the moving image was his true passion and, many would argue, his greatest legacy. He invented the phonograph and developed the first motion picture camera. Geroges Méliès may have been the first cinemagician, but Edison was the man who made film both a mass communication medium and a creative craft, framing many of the conventions of modern cinema.

Edison – The Invention of the Movies (1891-1918) is an ambitious collaboration between Kino Video and MoMA, celebrating Edison’s legacy and the birth of cinema with 140 of the first moving pictures ever seen. The four-disc treasure chest features not merely the masterfully restored films, but also over two hours of insightful interviews with scholars, museum archivists and cultural critics.

Edison’s films include such rare gems as boxing women…

…boxing cats (presaging the kind of cat-related interwebz entertainment by over a century)…

…and the only known footage of Mark Twain.

From the fascinating technology that fueled Edison’s films to the sociology and cultural anthropology of the era’s stereotypes depicted in the films, Edison – The Invention of the Movies (1891-1918) is a priceless slice of creative and cultural history.

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Douglas Coupland on Marshall McLuhan’s Prophecy


We love iconic futurist and media theorist Marshall McLuhan, most famous for popularizing “the medium is the message.” Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!, the newish McLuhan almost-biography by prolific Canadian novelist and design writer Douglas Coupland (of Generation X fame), reveals McLuhan’s genius with unprecedented intimacy and, in the process, engages one of today’s most heated intellectual discussions: How are new media changing the way we think? Half a century before Facebook, Twitter and “information overload,” McLuhan presages the end of print culture and the rise of “electronic inter-dependence” with uncanny accuracy, outlining not only the technological developments of this revolution but the complex shifts in social cognition that it begets.

More than anything, it paints McLuhan as a masterful dot-connector and voracious cross-disciplinary thinker, a curious octopus if you will — the kind of intellectual disposition at the root of our own mission.

One must remember that Marshall arrived at these conclusions not by hanging around, say, NASA or I.B.M., but rather by studying arcane 16th-century Reformation pamphleteers, the writings of James Joyce, and Renaissance perspective drawings. He was a master of pattern recognition, the man who bangs a drum so large that it’s only beaten once every hundred years.” ~ Douglas Coupland

The Medium is The Message

Illustration by Abbott Miller

More than an engrossing read, Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work! is an absolute cultural necessity that not only frames the legacy of modern media but projects, with astounding prophetic accuracy, its sociocultural and technological future.

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The Universal Now: Vintage Book Plate Collages


What London landmarks have to do with quantum physics and vintage photography.

Nearly two years ago, we looked at examples of exploring layers of the present through images of the past in Photographic Time Machine. In The Universal Now, UK artist Abigail Reynolds takes this approach to an entirely new, more conceptually elaborate and aesthetically sophisiticated level. She collects vintage tourist guides, then search for photographs taken from a similar vantage point and printed at similar scale. When she finds these matching book plates, she cuts and folds the pages into a single surface, arranging the images in chronological order based on the publication dates of the books, with the first serving as the “base” of the collage.

Tower Bridge 1946 / 1979

Piccadilly Circus New Years Celebrations 1951 / 1961

Sibelius 1985 / 1973

The Universal Now works operate as a resurrection of the unregarded book plates and forgotten photographers that have stood in the same places at a different times, bringing these moments into a dialogue and into the present.” ~ Abigail Reynolds

Big Ben 1935 / 1982

Post Office Tower 1989 / 1999

Waterloo Bridge 1948 / 1966

Olympic Stadium Tower 1951 / 1961

The Universal Now takes its name from the world of quantum physics and its debates about the nature of the time continuum, which only adds to the project’s thoughtfulness and conceptual merit.

More of Reynolds’ inspired work can be found in The Map as Art: Contemporary Artists Explore Cartography, a fantastic anthology you may recall from pickings past.

Thanks, Amy

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Saul Bass on Money, Quality Work & Creative Legacy


We’re big fans of iconic designer Saul Bass. This triad of interviews, filmed shortly before Bass’s death in 1996, offers a rare peek at the machinery of his creative genius as he shares priceless and often unexpected insight on the tradeoff between making money and doing quality work, his legacy, and the fundamental competency responsibilities of young designers.

I don’t give a damn if the client thinks it’s worth anything, or whether it IS worth anything — it’s worth it to me. It’s the way I wanna live my life. I wanna make beautiful things, even if nobody cares.” ~ Saul Bass

Learn to draw! If you don’t, you’re gonna live your life getting around that and trying to compensate for that.” ~ Saul Bass

The full 90-minute documentary is available on 2-disc DVD from the filmmaker and designer Archie Boston’s site. Meanwhile, don’t miss Bass’s absolutely fantastic Why Man Creates animated feature, a deeper investigation into the origin of creative impetus.

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