Brain Pickings

The Lost Photographs of Captain Scott: 100 Years of Polar Mystery

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What ponies and glaciers have to do with London bars.

In April, these rare photos of the first Australian expedition to Antarctica circa 1911-1914 quickly became one of the most read and circulated photography articles on Brain Pickings all year. This glimpse of early polar exploration, however, was preceded by another, the legend of which endured for over a century. In 1910, Captain Robert Falcon Scott and a small crew of men embarked upon the infamous Terra Nova Expedition to the South Pole, only to arrive there on January 17, 1912, and discover that a Norwegian expedition had beaten them to the feat. To add tragedy to letdown, the crew never made it home — they perished on the way back in the grip of starvation, exhaustion, and extreme cold. Though it was known that Captain Scott documented the ill-fated expedition in a wealth of photos, the location of most of them remained a mystery for nearly a century.

The Lost Photographs of Captain Scott: Unseen Images from the Legendary Antarctic Expedition brings these brave men’s story to light, and does so with an incredible story of its own. Several years ago, as polar historian David M. Wilson was having a drink at a London salon, he was approached by an art collector by the name of Richard Kossow, who claimed that in 2001 he had purchased a portfolio of Antarctic photographs from the early 1900s. Wilson was already intrigued, but when Kossow informed him that the photos were from Robert Falcon Scott’s 1910-13 expedition, whose ill-fated crew featured Wilson’s great-uncle, Edward Wilson, and they were taken by Scott himself, Wilson nearly choked on his gin and tonic. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.

Self-portrait by professional travel photographer Herbert Ponting, hired by Scott, as he photographs the Terra Nova in pack ice, December, 1910.

The hut at Cape Evans provide, captured by Scott in a photograph used chiefly to practice using lenses, filters, and other photo equipment, yet an invaluable record of the expedition. October, 1910.

Crew members from the Terra Nova expedition, 1910

The ponies rest in the sun, the line of sledges leading the eye out into the great beyond. November 19, 1911.

The ponies straggle in the icy wilderness on a trek from which many of the men and none of the ponies would not return.

Scott's lens looks in the direction of the crew's journey out from the Lower Glacier Depot. December 11, 1911

On December 20, 1911, Scott captured these striking geological features of the mountains around Mount Wild.

Equal parts inspirational and heartbreaking, The Lost Photographs of Captain Scott is as much a rugged lesson in early extreme photography as it is a priceless lens on the history of polar exploration, at last free of the fog of mystery.

All images by Robert Falcon Scott courtesy of Little, Brown and Company via The New York Times

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What is Generative Art? A 7-Minute PBS Micro-Documentary

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The rhetoric of data, or how to reconcile human and algorithm in the age of collective intelligence.

After their fantastic 7-minute documentary on typography, the fine folks at PBS Off Book are back with another micro-documentary, this time spotlighting generative art and featuring creators like generative composer Luke Dubois, game designer Will Wright, and software artist Scott Draves, who discuss everything from new narratives in visual storytelling to negotiating the relationship between humans and algorithms to the rhetoric of data.

This century is the century of data, that’s the defining thing. Last century was the century of electricity.” ~ Luke Dubois

For more on this ever-fascinating and increasingly relevant subject, don’t miss this omnibus of 7 essential books on data visualization and generative art.

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Tantra Song: Rare 17th-Century Indian Paintings That Look Like 20th-Century Western Art

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What a deadly bus accident has to do with Paul Klee, Paris, and the poetry of abstraction.

We’ve previously explored some fragments of the spectrum of art inspired by the Hindu tradition, from beautiful artisanal artwork based on Indian mythology to Meena women’s Mandana public art to a Pixar animator’s playfully stylized, Westernized takes on Hindu deities. Now, from the fine folks at Siglio, who brought us the lovely Everything Sings, comes Tantra Song: Tantric Painting from Rajasthan — a striking collection of rare, abstract Tantric paintings based on 17th-century illustrations from Indian religious texts that bridge Eastern spirituality with Western 20th-century art in their haunting reminiscence of the likes of Paul Klee, Agnes Martin, and Daniel Buren.

The images were discovered by French poet Franck André Jamme in 1970 while rummaging through the catalogs of a Parisian art gallery. He became so transfixed by these esoteric artworks that in the 1980s, he traveled to India to find their origins. In 1985, his quest nearly killed him in a bus accident whilst on the Tantric trail across the deserts of Rajasthan. He suffered a series of comas, spent three weeks in a Parisian hospital and six months at home in a hospital bed, and found his mind as broken as his body, unable to live with the memory of what he considered a painful failure. After a long and painful recovery, his obsession with the artworks led him back to India, where he earned the trust of tantrikas — the authentic practitioners of the Tantric tradition — and set out to better understand their meditative art form.

Jamme reflects on why these images spoke to him so powerfully :

It was strange that such modern, occidental-looking patterns already existed in India during the 17th century, and they were so simple, so powerful, so quietly and naturally abstract, so near, as well, to my own field, which was already something like poetry. Poetry is so often like that, isn’t it? Playing with words, using words in such a natural abstract way.”

The stunning images abstract key symbols of Tantric metaphysics and cosmogony, from the bindu, a dot symbolizing the undifferentiated absolute, to the negative space of the shunya, the absolute void of the supreme deity. But what makes these works extraordinary is the poetic contrast between the seeming simplicity of their minimalist geometric forms and the complex, textured humanity of their handmade paper, water stains, and imperfect text — two opposing currents, which ebb and flow in a delicate osmotic balance that could never be achieved digitally, on a sterile screen. Lawrence Rinder observes in the introduction:

It’s not just a desire for the antique or a nostalgic patina that makes the incidental marks so important, it’s precisely that ideal forms — forms plumbed from the depths of the mind, of the soul — need to co-exist with randomness and the emptiness of chance.”

Aesthetically breathtaking and framed in a powerful story about curiosity, creative restlessness, and obsession, Tantra Song is a singular convergence of East and West, bound to mesmerize.

Images courtesy of Siglio; some images via The New York Times Magazine

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