Brain Pickings

On Loving Animals: A Visual Study of Affection and Its Extremes

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What in-bred pugs and retired show cats have to do with the human capacity for selflessness and solipsism.

A few weeks ago, we contemplated the secret emotional lives of animals in the wild, but what about the emotional lives of domesticated animals and their human companions? Whether or not those frequent humorous allegations of physical resemblance between pets and their owners are true, one thing is certain — there’s undeniable emotional synchronicity between human and animal that comes with owning and loving a pet. That’s exactly what Dutch photographer Isabella Rozendaal explores in On Loving Animals — a visual chronicle of what Rozendaal calls “the Dutch and their obsessive, sentimental and sometimes inconsiderate love of animals.” From retired show animals to post-op cats to long-haired dogs with braids and barrettes, these portraits are sometimes tender, sometimes traumatic, and always unabashedly intimate, capturing the rich nuances of what it means to share a life with another being.

[The project’s] aim is to show how the animals are part of our lives, and how we project our own needs onto these beasts.” ~ Isabella Rozendaal

Many of the photographs capture the tragicomic disconnect between the owner’s intention and the pet’s felt experience, as in the case of this clearly not bemused retriever undergoing a doggie spa treatment:

Or the more systemic issues of humans projecting their superficial preferences on nature, as with pugs — dogs once bred to resemble adorable puppies, a “design” that has resulted in troubled breathing due to their compact snouts (which is why you often hear pugs snort), in addition to a host of other health issues stemming from inbreeding.

Visually simple and conceptually rich, the project is as much a voyeuristic tour of other people’s lives as it is a reflection on universal human needs and fault lines on the edges of love and its mutations.

But, ultimately, On Loving Animals is more a portrait of human psychology, with all its capacity for selflessness and propensity for solipsism, spanning the full spectrum of affection and its obsessive extremes.

Images courtesy of Isabella Rozendaal

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Library of Dust: Reflections on Life Through the Unclaimed Dead

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Psychiatry’s ghosts, the poetry of the metaphysical, or what tree bark has to do with chemical corrosion.

I’m spending some time in Bulgaria this month, keeping my grandfather company as he wanes through the final stages of cancer. So death and mortality are on my mind a lot, underpinned by the inevitable question of what remains of us after we breathe our final breath. I was reminded of the work of photographer David Maisel, who explores the subject from an unusual, almost surreal angle in Library of Dust — an artful depiction of copper canisters containing the cremated remains of individual patients from the Oregon State Insane Asylum, a state-run psychiatric hospital, who died there between 1883 and the 1970s, their bodies never claimed by their families. Maisel photographed many of the 3,500 canisters with incredible detail, their multicolor blooming corrosion reminiscent of nature’s wonders like vibrant sunset skies or rich bedrock textures or the aurora borealis.

Among my concerns with Library of Dust are the crises of representation that derive from attempts to index or archive the evidence of trauma; the uncanny ability of objects to portray such trauma; and the revelatory possibilities inherent in images of such traumatic disturbances. While there are certainly physical and chemical explanations for the ways these canisters have transformed over time, the canisters also encourage us to consider what happens to our own bodies when we die, and to the souls that occupy them.” ~ David Maisel

Asylum 16, Oregon State Hospital, Salem, OR

Asylum 4, Lounge/Meeting Room, Ward 66, abandoned portion of J Building, Oregon State Hospital, Salem, OR

Asylum 2, Doctor's Office, Ward 66, abandoned portion of J Building, Oregon State Hospital, Salem, OR

A closer look at the canister details brings to mind Cedric Pollet’s incredible photos of tree bark:

Poignant, poetic and just the right amount of unsettling, Library of Dust is the kind of project that will give you pause as you find in its physical splendor an existential meditation on the metaphysical.

Images courtesy of David Maisel

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The Homosexuals: A CBS “Documentary” from 1967

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A vintage signpost for how far we’ve come and how far we have yet to go.

In 1967, CBS aired an episode of the network’s CBS Reports series exploring homosexuality, a topic so taboo and controversial at the time that it took three years in the making, several revisions and a change of two producers to finally air the program. Titled The Homosexuals, the hour-long broadcast was anchored by Mike Wallace, whom you may recall from his provocative conversation with Ayn Rand on morality and love as a business deal, and was the first American network documentary to ever explore the topic of homosexuality on national television. It featured interviews with a number of gay men from San Francisco, Philadelphia, Charlotte and New York, legal experts, cultural critics, priests and psychiatrists, as well as footage of young men interacting in a gay bar and a teenager being arrested during a police sting operation, complete with psychoanalysis that pegged it all on the inevitable domineering mother.

Particularly poignant is this short interview with a young man identified as “Warren Adkins,” who is in fact the prominent gay rights activist Jack Jichols, founder of the Mattachine Society:

The innermost aspects of a person’s personality is his sexual orientation, and I can’t imagine myself giving this up, and I don’t think most other people who are sure of their sexuality, whether they’re homosexuals or heterosexuals, can imagine giving that up either.”

When asked about the “cause” of his homosexuality and whether he dwells on it, Nichols responds with a kind of quiet bravery certainly far ahead of its time and in many ways still more evolved than the opinions of many on the subject even today:

I have thought about it, but it really doesn’t concern me very much. I never would imagine if I had blond hair that I would worry about what genes and what chromosomes caused my blond hair, or if I had brown eyes… My homosexuality to me is very much in the same category. I feel no more guilt about my homosexuality or about my sexual orientation than a person with blond hair or with dark skin or with light skin would feel about what they had.”

As part of the research for the broadcast, CBS conducted a survey that found 90% of Americans saw homosexuality as an illness and the vast majority favored legal punishment even for homosexual acts done in private between two consenting adults. But what’s most fascinating is that the segment portrays gay men — and, mind you, completely neglects gay women as part of the homosexual community — as inherently promiscuous, incapable of sustaining long-term monogamous relationships. And yet, even as we cringe at the general trauma and civil rights failures around the issue in 1967, here we are nearly half a century later, still debating gay marriage and questioning the rights of those men and women who do want to legally enact these loving long-term monogamous relationships. One has to wonder whether a documentary on today’s gay rights opponents would sound just as foreign and antiquated half a century from now.

But, hey, one thing we’ve made unabashed progress on is gay rights sign design.

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