Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

08 AUGUST, 2011

Photography Speaks: 150 Photographers On Their Art

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What cubism and Lewis Carroll have to do with the foundations of modern photojournalism.

There’s something about photography that makes its fundamental ethos spill over into a multitude of disciplines and resonate on a deep human level. In 1989, Brooks Johnson set out to unearth that x-factor by hunting down the writings of yesteryear’s greatest photographers and asking the era’s greatest living ones to reach within and extract the essence of their art. The result was Photography Speaks: 66 Photographers on Their Art, followed by Photography Speaks II: 76 Photographers on Their Art in 1995 and the 2004 crown jewel, Photography Speaks: 150 Photographers On Their Art — a remarkable anthology of micro-essays by icons like Robert Frank, Cindy Sherman, Eadweard Muybridge, Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange and a wealth more. Each glorious double-page spread features one image from each photographer on the right-hand page, facing biographical background and a short, insightful personal reflection on the left.

Ilse Bing, American (b. Germany), 1899-1998

John Guttman, American (b. Germany), 1905-1998

Jan Groover, American, 1943-

Besides the rockstar photographers, the tome is also sprinkeld with cross-disciplinary surprises, creators like Lewis Carroll, René Magritte and David Hockney better-known for an art other than photography but whose photographic pursuits are nonetheless unmissable works of art.

Almost all cubist pictures are about things close to us. They don’t jump off the wall at you. You have to go to them, and look, and look. The camera does not bring anything close to you; it’s only more of the same void that we see. This is also true of television, and the movies. Between you and the screen there’s a window, you’re simply looking through a window. Cubism is a much more involved form of vision. It’s a better way of depicting reality, and I think it’s a truer way. It’s harder for us to see because it seems to contradict what we believe to be true. People complain that when they see a portrait of Picasso where, for instance, somebody has three eyes! It’s much simpler than that. It’s not that the person had three eyes, it’s that one of the eyes was seen twice. This reads the same way in my photographs. The fact that people can read photographs in this way made me think we’ve been deceived by the single photograph—by this image of one split second, in one fixed spot. I now see this fault in all photographs, and I can tell when drawings or paintings have been made from photographs. You can sense when the picture is not felt through space.” ~ David Hockney

From the practicalities of photography to the grandest theories of art, Photography Speaks is an extraordinary time-capsule for the cognition and emotion that fueled history’s most timeless and influential photographs, a rare backdoor into the minds of the creators who envisioned them and brought them to life.

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05 AUGUST, 2011

Typography in 7 Minutes: A PBS Micro-Documentary

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Visibility, invisibility, and what the spirit of letters has to do with the meaning of text.

On Monday, we featured 10 essential books on typography. Today, we turn to this fantastic short documentary on, you guessed it, typography from the excellent Off Book series by PBS Arts. In just 7 minutes, the film explores type — ubiquitous yet often unnoticed and misunderstood — through the work of some of today’s most iconic type designers and freshest voices, from Brain Pickings favorite Paula Scher to our friends at Hyperakt, masters of the infographic form, as well as legendary duo Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones, and Pentagram prodigy Eddie Opara.

Words have meaning and type has spirit, and the combination is spectacular.” ~ Paula Scher

From the selection and sometimes bespoke creation of fitting typefaces for every print publication, website, movie, ad and public message, to how computers have liberated and democratized typography, to the design decisions behind creating compelling infographics, the microdocumentary offers a succinct case for the power of typography as a communication medium and a storytelling device.

The most challenging part of working on an infographic is taking all the available data and deciding what is the most important bit of information that we need to communicate. Infographics are about typography getting out of the way of the message.” ~ Deroy Peraza

I determine how I design something based on the audience and what the audience would bear. Evoke the response you want while pushing the audience to see something perhaps in a new way.” ~ Paula Scher

For more, feast your type-loving heart on these 10 timeless books about typography.

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04 AUGUST, 2011

Happy Birthday, Louis Armstrong: What a Wonderful World

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Celebrating a timeless voice with a timely message.

Just last month, we commemorated 40 years since the world lost the great Louis Armstrong with Satchmo, the fascinating documentary about his life and legacy. But there’s no reason not to also celebrate his birth, which happens to have taken place exactly 110 years ago today. And there’s hardly a better way to do that than by taking delight in one of his most iconic performances, his remarkable rendition of “What a Wonderful World” — with the added joy of serving up a simple reminder of optimism, amidst a particularly difficult year framed by news of every kind of global tragedy, from environmental disaster to large-scale violence to financial and political disillusionment. Sing it, Lou.

For more on the life and work of the iconic musician, look no further than Terry Teachout’s excellent Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong.

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04 AUGUST, 2011

Driving with Plato: Life Lessons from History’s Greatest Minds

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“Life is hard,” the actress Katherine Hepburn once quipped, adding, “after all, it kills you.” Given the unavoidable end to the enterprise, then, it’s a good thing we can draw courage from the intelligence of the ages.

We’ve long been interested in the hard-won wisdom of our elders. Earlier this year, in fact, we put together a list of life advice from luminaries, which contained a great read called Breakfast with Socrates. Now its author, Robert Rowland Smith, has returned with a sequel of sorts. Bearing its own catchy title, Driving with Plato: The Meaning of Life’s Milestones, Smith’s latest provides an equally entertaining and insightful consideration of what the greats might have to say about such passages of life as going to school.

Where Breakfast with Socrates took as its structural unit a typical (Western) day, Driving with Plato considers the benchmarks of an entire life — both biological and culturally constructed — from birth onward. One chapter, for example, examines the challenge of first learning to ride a bike:

You have to embrace what in Kierkegaardian philosophy is the madness of decision, the vertiginous split second when reason must, in the name of action, go into suspense. In this critical instant of changeover, success arises only if you go at a considerable speed, if you seize the challenge of creating your own forward momentum… As Einstein (whom we’ll come to later) put it, when comparing riding a bicycle with life, “To keep your balance you have to keep moving!”

A cynic might say that Smith and his publishers were looking to exploit a clever conceit, but the book’s research and writing belie this charge. In fact, it’s altogether to the author’s credit that he creates a coherent narrative out of such disparate cultural, literary, and philosophical material.

Driving with Plato selects an appealingly wide range of sources, from Noam Chomsky to Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Smith’s prose smoothly carries the reader over the road he’s delineated. On the bain of human experience — moving — he offers this:

Probably the worst accidents at home must be those involving fire, but they’re not always such a bad thing. Rumi, the great thirteenth-century Sufi mystic, has a poem in which his house burning down makes him grateful. Why? It affords a better view of the rising moon.”

From losing one’s virginity to the ultimate loss of life itself, Driving with Plato is delightful proof of how wisdom provides ballast amidst the chaos we all have no choice but to confront.

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs, but when not working spends far, far too much time on Twitter. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

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