Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘photography’

20 APRIL, 2015

North Brother Island: Haunting Photographs of the Last Unknown Place in New York City

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An otherworldly portrait of the eternal dance between life and death, wilderness and civilization.

“New York blends the gift of privacy with the excitement of participation,” E.B. White wrote in his timeless love letter to the city. In the middle of the East River between the Bronx and Rikers Island, in strange proximity to New York’s ample participatory excitements, there exists a glorious yet invisible pocket of privacy — an almost otherworldly twenty-acre islet, at once ghostly and full of life. Abandoned in 1963 and closed to the public since, it remains virtually unknown even to New Yorkers.

In North Brother Island: The Last Unknown Place in New York City (public library), photographer Christopher Payne — who has previously documented the haunting world of 19th-century mental asylums — captures this striking parallel universe that exists just outside the world’s most exciting city.

The island was once the flat and bare hospital campus for treating smallpox victims, then became a juvenile drug treatment center, and is now a lush wildlife sanctuary with overgrown greenery taking its posthumous revenge on civilization. (A curious intersection, given Payne’s previous project: Riverside Hospital, the island’s original resident, migrated there from Blackwell’s Island, currently known as Roosevelt Island — the site of pioneering Victorian journalist Nellie Bly’s landmark 1887 exposé of asylum abuse.)

Taken over a period of years with the city’s permission, Payne’s photographs — a gutted house through which the forest peeks; a morgue in an overrun building; a boiler house engulfed in a thick coat of kudzu, the coiling perennial vine that has colonized the area — reveal the island as a kind of heavenly purgatory reconciling civilization and wilderness, death and life.

Complement Payne’s altogether enchanting North Brother Island with a history of New York in 101 objects and Jane Dorn’s haunting photographs of abandoned buildings in the South, then revisit the story of how a vintage children’s book saved New York’s little red lighthouse.

Photographs courtesy of Christopher Payne

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08 APRIL, 2015

The Power of Aesthetic Force: Anna Deavere Smith and Sarah Lewis on Beauty as a Tool of Justice and a Catalyst for “Nonselfing”

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“The law represents a part of the people’s will but … the people’s will is moved by beauty.”

“Beauty, as a conscious element of experience, as a thing to be valued and explored, has gone into abeyance among us,” Marilynne Robinson wrote in her exquisite reflection on beauty. In our visually voracious culture of accelerating “aesthetic consumerism,” is there still room for beauty not as a trifled commodity but as both an elevating force of transcendence and a grounding force of moral solidity?

That’s what Harvard art historian Sarah Lewis, author of the excellent The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery (public library) — one of the best psychology books of 2014 — explores in the final segment of her altogether fantastic New York Public Library conversation with artist, playwright, actor, and MacArthur genius Anna Deavere Smith.

Oe of the most piercing parts of the conversation calls to mind Susan Sontag — “The subtraction of beauty as a standard for art hardly signals a decline of the authority of beauty,” Sontag wrote in her characteristically elegant argument against the argument against beauty. “Rather, it testifies to a decline in the belief that there is something called art.” Smith reads from her 2009 interview with Harvard’s famed English and aesthetics professor Elaine Scarry, contemplating the role of beauty as a moral agent and a tool of justice:

We also know the limits of the law… That in the end the law represents a part of the people’s will but that the people’s will is moved by beauty.

[..]

[Scarry] is talking about beauty and she says, “Beauty was for a long time [was] not only eliminated from universities, but even from museums… Lots of different museum directors have told me that for a while it was as if you weren’t supposed to be talking about beauty, which is hard to imagine if you’re teaching literature or if you’re a museum curator, but I mean one thing is just the way in which beauty … does lead people I think to be concerned with justice. Beauty brings about what Iris Murdoch called “a nonselfing.” She said that when you suddenly see something beautiful — her example was suddenly seeing a bird lift off — it brings about a nonselfing. You can see beauty pressing us towards justice. There are certain attributes that beautiful things have. Some people would say symmetry. Any definition of justice always involves at its heart some idea of balance or symmetry. Even if you look back over lots of philosophers who are talking about forms of justice, they always have this idea, say, equal pay for equal work, that’s a symmetry.”

Okay, that’s my favorite part. But this is an important part. “But sometimes people will say to me, well, first of all that they believe that it’s right, that the whole unselfing part is right, but they don’t believe in symmetry, and I really do believe in it because — and I think part of the reason why in this country we don’t like to talk anymore about symmetry in art or in justice is because we’re so asymmetrical, with so much money and so many weapons and, you know … if we had to start saying the heart of beauty is symmetry everybody would have to say, ‘gee, you know, we’ve got a big problem.’”

And she calls beauty a life pact. But that whole idea of the nonselfing — you see, when you talk about that you’re there but you’re not quite there, I think that’s a really creative moment because it is that moment when you, like a bird, take that lift-off. You’re not here and you’re not there. You’re in the rise… It seems to me a kind of a lift.

Lewis, who notes that beauty “slips in the back door of our rational thought and gets us to see the world differently,” examines the subject in greater depth in one particularly fascinating chapter of her book — a penetrating look at the legacy of Frederick Douglass, who paved the way for contemporary visual culture and pioneered the power of “aesthetic force.” Lewis writes:

The words to describe aesthetic force suggest that it leaves us changed — stunned, dazzled, knocked out. It can quicken the pulse, make us gape, even gasp with astonishment. Its importance is its animating trait — not what it is, but what it does to those who behold it in all its forms. Its seeming lightness can make us forget that it has weight, force enough to bring about a self-correction, the acknowledgment of failure at the heart of justice — the moment when we reconcile our past with our intended future selves. Few experiences get us to this place more powerfully, with a tender push past the praetorian-guarded doors of reason and logic, than the emotive power of aesthetic force.

The Rise, which I’ve previously admired in greater detail, is a superb read in its entirety. Treat yourself to Lewis and Smith’s full conversation below — a wide-ranging and enormously stimulating dialogue exploring the role of failure in the conquest of greatness, the crucial difference between success and mastery, and what it takes to stay encouraged through rejection and roadblock in creative work — then please consider supporting The New York Public Library in making such ennobling cultural discourse possible and freely available to the public.

Instinct is your highest form of intelligence.” ~ Sarah Lewis

Find more of Smith’s galvanizing genius in her enduring wisdom on how to listen between the lines in a culture of speaking, what self-esteem really means, how to stop letting others define us.

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08 APRIL, 2015

Stunning Victorian Cyanotypes of Sea Algae by Anna Atkins, the First Female Photographer and a Pioneer of Scientific Illustration

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Beautiful blueness from a trailblazing woman in science.

English botanist and photographer Anna Atkins (March 16, 1799–June 9, 1871) is considered the first woman to take a photograph and the first person to publish a book illustrated with photographic images. This she accomplished in an era when women’s formal foray into science was yet to come.

Less than a year after the great polymath Sir John Herschel invented the cyanotype photographic process — one of the 100 ideas that changed photography, which was originally used for architectural sketches and which lent its azure tint to the origin of the word “blueprint” — 44-year-old Atkins began applying the technique to sea algae, determined to overcome “the difficulty of making accurate drawings” of these marine species and ushering in a whole new medium for scientific illustration. In October of 1843, she self-published the resulting images in the pioneering volume Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, dedicating the book to her father — the British chemist, mineralogist, and zoologist John George Children, who had given her a scientific education uncommon for women at that time. “To my dearest Father this attempt is affectionately inscribed,” read the first page.

Over the decade that followed, Atkins produced and self-published three volumes of these simple yet strangely beautiful algae illustrations. Today, the original books are extremely rare — only seventeen are known to survive: a few are held by some of the world’s great cultural institutions, including the British Library and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and a private copy occasionally surfaces at a rare books auction to be sold for a six-figure sum. All reproductions of the cyanotype plates, however, are in the public domain and were eventually included with the rest of Atkins’s major work in the altogether stunning posthumous monograph Sun Gardens: Victorian Photograms (public library).

Here are some of the most mesmerizing, generously digitized by the New York Public Library, which houses one of the surviving copies.

In this wonderful episode of Objectivity, host Brady Haran joins Rupert Baker of The Royal Society to take an intimate look at one of the surviving copies of Atkins’s masterwork:

Complement the luminously beautiful Sun Gardens with 500 years of stunning scientific illustrations from the Rare Books Collections of the American Museum of Natural History, then revisit astronomer Maria Mitchell’s trailblazing crusade for women in science.

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20 JANUARY, 2015

Mary Oliver on What Attention Really Means and Her Moving Eulogy to Her Soul Mate

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“Attention without feeling … is only a report.”

Mary Oliver is one of our era’s most beloved and prolific poets — a sage of wisdom on the craft of poetry and a master of its magic; a woman as unafraid to be witty as she is to wise. For more than forty years, Oliver lived on Cape Cod with the love of her life, the remarkable photographer Molly Malone Cook — one of the first staff photographers for The Village Voice, with subjects like Walker Evans and Eleanor Roosevelt, and a visionary gallerist who opened the first photography gallery on the East Coast, exhibited such icons as Ansel Adams and Berenice Abbott, and recognized rising talent like William Clift. (She was also, living up to her reputation as “a great Bohemian American,” the owner of a bookshop frequented by Norman Mailer and occasionally staffed by the filmmaker John Waters.)

Mary Oliver (b. 1935, right) with Molly Malone Cook (1925–2005) at the couple's home in Provincetown, Massachusetts

When Cook died in 2005 at the age of eighty, Oliver looked for a light, however faint, to shine through the thickness of bereavement. She spent a year making her way through thousands of her spouse’s photographs and unprinted negatives, mostly from around the time they met, which Oliver then enveloped in her own reflections to bring to life Our World (public library) — part memoir, part deeply moving eulogy to a departed soul mate, part celebration of their love for one another through their individual creative loves. Embraced in Oliver’s poetry and prose, Cook’s photographs reveal the intimate thread that brought these two extraordinary women together — a shared sense of deep aliveness and attention to the world, a devotion to making life’s invisibles visible, and above all a profound kindness to everything that exists, within and without.

Oliver — who refers to Cook simply as M. in most of her writings — reflects in the opening essay:

Though you have known someone for more than forty years, though you have worked with them and lived with them, you do not know everything. I do not know everything — but a few things, which I will tell. M. had will and wit and probably too much empathy for others; she was quick in speech and she did not suffer fools. When you knew her she was unconditionally kind. But also, as our friend the Bishop Tom Shaw said at her memorial service, you had to be brave to get to know her.

[…]

She was style, and she was an old loneliness that nothing could quite wipe away; she was vastly knowledgeable about people, about books, about the mind’s emotions and the heart’s. She lived sometimes in a black box of memories and unanswerable questions, and then would come out and frolic — be feisty, and bold.

Amish schoolroom, late 1950s (Photograph: Molly Malone Cook)

Oliver writes of the affair Cook had in the late 1950s, shortly before they met:

She had … an affair that struck deeply; I believe she loved totally and was loved totally. I know about it, and I am glad… This love, and the ensuing emptiness of its ending, changed her. Of such events we are always changed — not necessarily badly, but changed. Who doesn’t know this doesn’t know much.

The following year, Cook met Oliver and they remained together, inseparable, for more than four decades. That encounter — which calls to mind the fateful first meetings that occasioned such iconic literary couples as Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas or Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes — took place at Steepletop, the home of Edna St. Vincent Millay, where Oliver had landed the day after her high school graduation at the age of seventeen and stayed for several years.

Inside the library at Steepletop, the home of the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, late 1950s (Photograph: Molly Malone Cook)

One evening in 1959, when Oliver was twenty-four and Cook thirty-four, the young poet returned to the house and found the photographer sitting at the kitchen table with a friend. She describes their encounter with her signature elegance of unpeeling the mundane to reveal the momentous:

I took one look and fell, hook and tumble. M. took one look at me, and put on her dark glasses, along with an obvious dose of reserve. She denied this to her dying day, but it was true.

Isn’t it wonderful the way the world holds both the deeply serious, and the unexpectedly mirthful?

Mary Oliver in 1964 (Photograph: Molly Malone Cook)

It turned out that Oliver and Cook, in their regular lives beyond Steepletop, lived right across the street from each other in New York’s East Village. So they began to see one another “little by little,” and so their great love story began.

Chess players, Washington Square, New York City, late 1950s (Photograph: Molly Malone Cook)

But perhaps the greatest gift of their union was the way in which they shaped each other’s way of seeing and being with the world — the mutually ennobling dialogue between their two capacities for presence:

It has frequently been remarked, about my own writings, that I emphasize the notion of attention. This began simply enough: to see that the way the flicker flies is greatly different from the way the swallow plays in the golden air of summer. It was my pleasure to notice such things, it was a good first step. But later, watching M. when she was taking photographs, and watching her in the darkroom, and no less watching the intensity and openness with which she dealt with friends, and strangers too, taught me what real attention is about. Attention without feeling, I began to learn, is only a report. An openness — an empathy — was necessary if the attention was to matter. Such openness and empathy M. had in abundance, and gave away freely… I was in my late twenties and early thirties, and well filled with a sense of my own thoughts, my own presence. I was eager to address the world of words — to address the world with words. Then M. instilled in me this deeper level of looking and working, of seeing through the heavenly visibles to the heavenly invisibles. I think of this always when I look at her photographs, the images of vitality, hopefulness, endurance, kindness, vulnerability… We each had our separate natures; yet our ideas, our influences upon each other became a reach and abiding confluence.

[…]

I don’t think I was wrong to be in the world I was in, it was my salvation from my own darkness. Nor have I ever abandoned it — those early signs that so surely lead toward epiphanies. And yet, and yet, she wanted me to enter more fully into the human world also, and to embrace it, as I believe I have. And what a gift [that she] never expressed impatience with my reports of the natural world, the blue and green happiness I found there. Our love was so tight.

'My first clam,' 1964 (Photograph: Molly Malone Cook)

To lose the love of one’s life is something few have dared to live in public — the most memorable such bravery being Joan Didion’s — but Oliver brings to death’s darkness her familiar touch of emboldening light:

The end of life has its own nature, also worth our attention. I don’t say this without reckoning in the sorrow, the worry, the many diminishments. But surely it is then that a person’s character shines or glooms.

Oliver ends with a breath-stopping prose poem that brings full-circle her opening reflections on never fully knowing even those nearest to us — a beautiful testament to what another wise woman once wrote: “You can never know anyone as completely as you want. But that’s okay, love is better.”

THE WHISTLER

All of a sudden she began to whistle. By all of a sudden
I mean that for more than thirty years she had not
whistled. It was thrilling. At first I wondered, who was
in the house, what stranger? I was upstairs reading, and
she was downstairs. As from the throat of a wild and
cheerful bird, not caught but visiting, the sounds war-
bled and slid and doubled back and larked and soared.

Finally I said, Is that you? Is that you whistling? Yes, she
said. I used to whistle, a long time ago. Now I see I can
still whistle. And cadence after cadence she strolled
through the house, whistling.

I know her so well, I think. I thought. Elbow and an-
kle. Mood and desire. Anguish and frolic. Anger too.
And the devotions. And for all that, do we even begin
to know each other? Who is this I’ve been living with
for thirty years?

This clear, dark, lovely whistler?

Boy with telescope, New York Cruises, late 1950s (Photograph: Molly Malone Cook)

Our World is a sublime read in its entirety — the kind that enters the soul like a deep breath and remains there as an eternal exhale. Complement it with Oliver on how rhythm sweetens life and her beautiful reading of her poem “Wild Geese.”

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