Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

11 NOVEMBER, 2011

How Darwin’s Photos of Human Emotions Changed Visual Culture

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What disdain and devotion have to do with the dawn of photography, evolution, and Lewis Carroll.

In 1872, some thirteen years after The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin published The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, one of the first scientific texts to use photographic illustrations. Though the work itself was hardly groundbreaking — it was based on the research of French neurologist Guillaume-Benjamin Duchenne, who ten years prior used electrodes to explore the human face as a map of inner states and published Mécanisme de la Physionomie Humaine (The Mechanisms of Human Physiognomy) — Darwin’s book is regarded not only as his main contribution to psychology, but also as a pivotal turning point in the history of book illustration, right up there with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

(More than a century later, psychologist Paul Ekman used Darwin and Duchenne’s research as the basis for his Facial Actions Coding System, or FACS — a codified approach to reading human emotion based on facial micro-expressions — on which I happened to do a decent portion of my undergraduate work and which went on to aid everyone from the CIA to animators. You may also recall the subject from our recent look at the science of smiles.)

Darwin’s contribution to many fields of science, from evolution to geology to botany, are well-known — but it turns out he was also a seminal figure in the history of visual culture. In Darwin’s Camera: Art and Photography in the Theory of Evolution, photography curator Phillip Prodger tells the remarkable story of Darwin shaped not only the course of science but also forever changed how images are seen and made.

Prodger traces Darwin’s tireless quest to capture human emotion at its most visually expressive — not an easy task in an age when photography was both slow and painfully awkward. After scouring countless galleries, bookstores, and photographic studios, Darwin finally found the eccentric art photographer Oscar Rejlander, a titan of creative history in his own right, and recruited him to capture the emotional expressions Darwin intended to study.

A page of photographs by Oscar Rejlander from the Darwin Archive, 1871-1872. Albumen prints.

Infants: Suffering and Weeping. Heliotype print.

At first, photographs were judged in exactly the same way as prints and drawings. The same standards that applied to them — plausibility, authority, skill, and convincingness — applied equally to photographs. But photographic technology improved rapidly… It took approximately fifty years, but during the latter half of the 1800s photography moved into territory traditional drawing and printmaking could not. Once it became capable of taking pictures faster than what the naked eye could see, it began to affect measures of scientific integrity.” ~ Phillip Prodger

Joy, High Spirits, Love, Tender Feelings, and Devotion. Heliotype print.

Low Spirits, Anxiety, Grief, Dejection, and Despair. Heliotype print..

Indignation and Helplessness. Heliotype print.

But what’s perhaps most interesting is Darwin’s remarkable cross-disciplinary curiosity, a quality I believe is the key to combinatorial creativity. Though he never studied art formally, he had an active interest in art, read art history books, visited art museums, and mingled with the artists on his HMS Beagle voyage. Eventually, the sensibilities of art seeped into his work. Prodger takes a closer look at many of Darwin’s curated friendships — Lewis Carroll, iconic photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, celebrated animal painters Joseph Wolf and Briton Riviere, sculptor Thomas Woolner, and many more.

Disdain, Contempt, and Disgust. Heliotype print.

Hatred and Anger. Heliotype print.

Surprise and Astonishment, Fear and Horror. Heliotype print.

Photographic illustration was an inexact process. Because there were no present rules for using photographs in books, Darwin attempted to create them. Working at a time when printmaking still dominated scientific illustration, he internalized prevailing notions about authority and authenticity in picture making. In this regard, he was a transitional figure, with one foot firmly in the past — lessons learned from the books he knew and admired — and one foot in the future, with the enormous potential he recognized in photography.” ~ Phillip Prodger

Researchers at The Darwin Project, an ambitious initiative to digitize Darwin’s legacy and a fine addition to these 7 important digital humanities projects, are currently crowdsourcing Darwin’s experiment on emotions by asking you to name which core emotion each of Darwin’s images conveyed. The experiment features 11 images and can be completed in under a minute — give it a try.

Rigorously researched and eloquently narrated, Darwin’s Camera is an essential missing link in the evolution of visual culture at the intersection of history, psychology, and art.

HT How To Be a Retronaut; images courtesy of Oxford University Press

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10 NOVEMBER, 2011

The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions: Vintage Arsenal of Masonic Pranksters

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What Elks, Moose, and Shriners have to do with a fake guillotine and a goat on wheels.

Freemasonry was born out of medieval craft guilds — working men distinguished by their freedom, not bonded into serfdom, indenture, or slavery. Their ceremonies and regalia were legendary, and their initiations mimicked harsh entries into religious order, initiations which might involve ritual humiliation, pain, or fear. Masons were primarily aristocratic, and if not wealthy, then at least refined. The fraternal lodges of the Elks, the Shriners, the Woodsmen, and the Moose, to name a few, offered a more casual form of brotherhood. Developed with masonic screeds in mind, they populated small towns and suburbs and its provided its members with a reason to get together once or twice a week. What they did each week was up to the members, sometimes they provided food and drink, more often they would debate bylaws and initiation fees (the lodges were originally developed to provide insurance for injured workers). Things could get a little sleepy.

Enter the DeMoulin brothers and their wonderfully strange DeMoulin Brothers catalogs, collected by New Yorker cartoonist Julia Suits in her new book, The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions. In 1892, a Woodsman lodge member asked his friend Ed DeMoulin to make him something that would really shake up dull lodge meetings. DeMoulin owned a local factory that manufactured uniforms, flags, patches, hats, seating, upholstery, and regalia of all kinds, and he was also at heart a trickster. When the Woodmen asked him to come up with a set piece that would really impress and scare the newly initiated, he delivered something darkly delightful: The Molten Lead Test, a flaming pot of seemingly boiling metal that turned out to be nothing more than mecurine powder dissolved in water (an element still not without its hazards). The pledge was convinced he was being burnt with hot lead, and the lodge would laugh uproariously at his misfortune.

The Wireless Trick Telephone

As a gag, the trick telephone was potentially quite dangerous. A 32-calibre blank cartridge was designed to go off in the face of anyone who tried to use the phone.

The Fuzzy Wonder

It was a lodge tradition to have a goat present at initiations, and the introduction of a mechanical goat meant that a live goat would be spared the experience. The wheeled goat was also ridden by lodge members in local parades.

The Ferris Wheel Goat

This version of the mechanical goat was supposed to stimulate a thrilling goat ride. The candidate is strapped in and wheeled upside down, all while remaining astride the goat.

The Electric Branding Iron

The magneto was an electric hand cranked battery that created a spark that could actually be quite painful. Similar batteries were actually used a New York state prison as a form of torture.

The catalogs were only published for thirty years, from the 1890s to the 1930s, but in that time the DeMoulins developed hundreds of patents for some of the most popular and bizarre lodge gags. With membership of nearly 35 million at its peak, almost every fraternal lodge in America, from the Elks to the Shriners to the Moose, ordered from the DeMoulin catalog. Members kept their activities a secret, especially when it came to the two rowdiest forms of lodge fun: initiations and side-work, which were pranks carried out for no reason in particular.

The Throne of Honor

After the candidate was blindfolded, led up and stairs and seated, he was expected to confess his 'moral transgressions.' When finished, the chair and the stairs would collapse and the candidate would slide down to the floor.

The Guillotine

Perhaps the most frightening of the lodge gags, the guillotine blade was designed to stop a few inches from the neck. The catalog suggested spattering it with blood and human hair for a greater effect.

The Saw Mill

Similar to the guillotine, the blade of the saw mill also stops just inches from its intended victim. 'This machine looks real and very dangerous but it is also absolutely harmless.'

The motives were the same as any college fraternity hazing: to scare, humiliate, and confuse the pledge. A lodge could order any number of devices to humiliate, including spanking machines, trick telephones, wobbly floors, and something called Throne of Honor, in which a pledge is led up a set of stairs transformed into an embarrassing slide. Lodges also enjoyed scaring the initiated half to death with trick coffins, fake guillotines, and dangerous-looking saw mills, as well as inflicting some real pain by zapping him with all manner of electric devices: the electric cane, the electric tunnel, the electric bench, or the electric shovel. Some of the offerings were just plain weird, including several variations on a wheeled goat, a lodge favorite that would be ridden in parades.

Electric Carpets

'There are no normal carpets in the DeMoulin fraternal world. As soon as the candidate's feet touch it he wishes he were standing on the hottest sands of the desert.'

Human Centipede

This four person costume was also wired with a jump spark battery which was controlled by the rider at the front, making the other three members of the centipede very unhappy.

Hulu Hula Bull Dance

This costume is for several candidates to perform at once and consists of bells for the wrists, waits, and feet, along with an inexplicable grass skirt. 'There are ten bells representing ten notes including F sharp and B Flat, making it possible to play simple airs.'

As good-natured as most of the pranks were, sometimes they went too far, injuring the initiated. The New York Times reported a prank gone wrong at a 1898 Woodmen meeting:

Plaintiff was blindfolded and subjected to several slight electric shocks. He was thrown off balance and fell hands down upon the magneto battery itself, receiving a shock which rendered him unconscious.”

A treasure chest of curiosity and a history lesson in dark humor, The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions is equal parts bizarre and delightfully bemusing, an essential piece of pop culture’s ritualistic paradigm and a rare glimpse of twentieth-century Americana.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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08 NOVEMBER, 2011

A Manifesto for the Spirit of Journalism circa 1940

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Recentering lessons in idealism for journalism 2.0 from the golden age of journalism 1.0.

As we ponder the future of journalism and grapple with its declining ethical standards, it’s as good a time as any to revisit the history and heart of journalism. This 1940 film from Encyclopedia Britannica Films’ (remember them?) Your Life Work series is as much a fascinating time-capsule of bygone publishing practicalities as it is a timeless, charmingly idealistic manifesto for the deeper ethos of journalism as a calling.

…there’s a real thrill in seeing your own byline over a story when it’s in print, and there’s always the feeling that you’ll try to make the next story just a little better.”

My favorite part is this bit on the qualities and responsibilities of the editorial writer which, despite the era’s near-comic gender bias, remains a powerful reminder of all those things the lack of which accounts for most of today’s Bad Journalism — clarity, curiosity, conviction, and networked knowledge.

The editorial writer must be able to write on many subjects. But instead of merely reporting news, he analyzes it and explains its meaning, often expressing his personal opinions. He must reason accurately and fairly, and write in an interesting manner. To understand and interpret problems of the day, he must read and study continually, in addition to having a great amount of knowledge and experience.”

The film is also available as part of a fantastic though somewhat hard to hunt down DVD compilation, also featuring a fascinating newspaper reporter interview with animation pioneer Max Fleischer.

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08 NOVEMBER, 2011

From Freud’s Couch to Emily Dickinson’s Only Surviving Dress: Annie Leibovitz Catalogs Meta-Cultural Iconography

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What Virginia Woolf’s writing table has to do with Darwin’s countryside cottage and Freud’s final couch.

Annie Leibovitz is one of today’s most prolific and celebrated photographers, her lens having captured generations of cultural icons with equal parts admiration and humanity. Unlike her other volumes, her latest book, out today, features no celebrities, no luminaries, no models. Instead, Pilgrimage is Leibovitz’s thoughtful meditation on how she can sustain her creativity in the face of adversity and make the most of her remaining time on Earth. The quest took her to such fascinating locales and pockets of cultural history as Charles Darwin’s cottage in the English countryside, Virginia Woolf’s writing table, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s home, Ansel Adams’s darkroom, Emily Dickinson’s only surviving dress, and Freud’s final couch.

The kernel of the idea came before Leibovitz’s partner, the great Susan Sontag, died — the two of them had planned to do a book of places that were important to them, which they meticulously compiled in lists. Years after Sontag’s death, upon visiting Niagara Falls with her three young kids, Leibovitz decided to start her own list and do the book on her own.

From the beginning, when I was watching my children stand mesmerized over Niagara Falls, it was an exercise in renewal. It taught me to see again.” ~ Annie Leibovitz

The darkroom in Ansel Adams's home in Carmel, California, now owned by Adams’s son, Michael, and his wife, Jeanne, friends of Leibovitz

Image courtesy of Annie Leibovitz via The New York Times

The Niagara Falls in Ontario

Image courtesy of Annie Leibovitz via The New York Times

Annie Oakley’s heart target from a private collection in Los Angeles, California

Image courtesy of Annie Leibovitz via The New York Times

Emily Dickinson's only surviving dress at the Amherst Historical Society in Amherst, Massachusetts

Image courtesy of Annie Leibovitz via The New York Times

A glass negative of a multiple-lens portrait of Lincoln made on Feb. 9, 1864, by Anthony Berger at the Brady Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Image courtesy of Annie Leibovitz via The New York Times

Sigmund Freud's couch in his study at 20 Maresfield Gardens in London

Image courtesy of Annie Leibovitz via The New York Times

Virginia Woolf’s bedroom in her country home, which is a few miles from Charleston, England

Image courtesy of Annie Leibovitz via The New York Times

A door in the adobe patio wall of Georgia O’Keefe’s home in Abiquiu, New Mexico

Image courtesy of Annie Leibovitz via The New York Times

Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance warehouse in Yonkers, New York

Image courtesy of Annie Leibovitz via The New York Times

Dominique Browning paid Leibovitz a visit to chat about the book and has a lovely piece about it in the Times.

I needed to save myself. I needed to remind myself of what I like to do, what I can do.” ~ Annie Leibovitz

An intimate catalog of cultural meta-iconography, Pilgrimage is as much a photographic feat of Leibovitz’s characteristically epic proportion as it is a timeless cultural treasure chest full of mementos from the hotbed of 20th-century thought.

Images courtesy of Annie Leibovitz via The New York Times

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