Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘photography’

22 MAY, 2015

Spineless: Susan Middleton’s Mesmerizing Photographs of Marine Invertebrates

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Visual verses celebrating the glorious grandeur of life on our pale blue dot.

The mystery of marine life has compelled humanity for millennia, from ancient Indian mythology to Aristotle, who was the first to outline the distinction between invertebrates and vertebrates in his Historia Animalium. Perhaps because we ourselves sprang from the oceans, these creatures and their habitats have long lent themselves to our tendency toward thinking with animals. Even David Foster Wallace turned to the primordial seas of metaphor in his legendary Kenyon College commencement address, which came to be known as This Is Water after its central clarion call for “awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: ‘This is water. This is water.’”

In Spineless (public library), visual artist, educator, and explorer Susan Middleton turns her luminous lens to one particularly underappreciated aspect of these real and essential invisibilia: the exquisite and enigmatic world of marine invertebrates, which represent 98% of the known animal species in the oceans and are thus the backbone of life on our blue planet, which is itself 97% water. Indeed, this is water.

Red-eye medusa (Polyorchis penicillatus)

© Susan Middleton

Using a special photographic technique she developed, Middleton captures an astounding diversity of creatures, ranging from giant squid to tiny translucent jellyfish to two species so new to science — the Kanola squat lobster and the Wanawana crab — that they have been formally named based on the very individuals in the book. Her photographs are at once austere and deeply alive — against the plain black or white background, these creatures fill the frame with striking intimacy of presence.

Opalescent nudibranch (Hermissenda crassicornis)

© Susan Middleton

Stubby squid (Rossia pacifica)

© Susan Middleton

Middleton’s fascination with marine invertebrates began more than a quarter century earlier, while working on a project to photograph one hundred endangered species. One of them was the shrimp tadpole — a tiny, unassuming, yet utterly remarkable creature that lived on Earth long before fish evolved and has remained practically unchanged for 250 million years, developing clever strategies for survival despite its defenseless body. Middleton writes:

That was the beginning of my obsession with the world of invertebrates.

Ever since, I have been fascinated by the bizarre beauty and inherent mystery of this realm of life. The photographs herein are intended to reveal the exceptional shapes, patterns, textures, and colors of these remarkable creatures. Colorful, quirky, quivery, spindly, spiky, sticky, stretchy, squishy, slithery, squirmy, prickly, bumpy, bubbly, and fluttery, the invertebrates appear almost surreal, even alien.

Gold-banded hermit crab (Dardanus brachyops)

© Susan Middleton

Indeed, the most rewarding aspect of Middleton’s project extends far beyond its undeniable aesthetic mesmerism and into a more profound appreciation of not only the incredible diversity of these life forms but also the incredible diversity among them — each animal is revealed as an individual, with palpably distinctive likeness and behavior, even within a species. We are suddenly reminded that if we are to heed Jane Goodall and truly live our lives in Rilke’s widening circles by continuing to expand our circles of compassion to nonhuman animals, we cannot exclude these weird and wonderful beings.

Pink brittle star

© Susan Middleton

Orange-rimmed flatworm (Mayazoon orsaki)

© Susan Middleton

For Middleton herself, who has dedicated her life to capturing and conveying the realities of creatures quite different from ourselves — often ones gravely endangered by our human solipsism and the destructive entitlement it engenders — this has been a centerpiece of the project. To gaze at life forms with powers of perception so vastly different from — and often superior to — our own is to invariably ask what it’s like to experience the world in this alien way, what life is like for that being. Middleton puts this awareness beautifully:

This recognition has opened me to a larger world and a profound assemblage of energies beyond the human.

White phantom crab

© Susan Middleton

Hanging stomach jellyfish (Stomotoca atra)

© Susan Middleton

Pacific giant octopus

© Susan Middleton

It is almost inconceivable that a photograph could sing to the soul the way a Mary Oliver poem does, and yet embraced by Middleton’s compassionate curiosity, these marvelous creatures join together in a chorus exhorting us to begin belonging to this world immediately, because “There is so much to admire, to weep over. / And to write music or poems about.” Middleton emerges as a poet of photography, each image in Spineless a visual verse that renders us a little more awake to the glorious grandeur of this world we share with so many other beings, a little more reluctant to contribute to its destruction with our small everyday choices, which are the building blocks of our civilizational acts.

Complement this treasure of a book, which features a foreword by oceanic patron saint Sylvia “Her Deepness” Earle, with Jane Goodall on our human responsibility.

Photographs courtesy of Abrams

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05 MAY, 2015

The Antarctic Book of Cooking and Cleaning: The Extraordinary Edible Record of Two Women Explorers’ Journey to the End of the World

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“In Antarctica, everything is stripped down… It is only who you are and what you do that counts.”

“Housekeeping, the art of the infinite, is no game for amateurs,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in 1982 in a fictional piece full of truths, a New Yorker short story about an all-female crew of polar explorers titled “Sur: A Summary Report of the Yelcho Expedition to the Antarctic,” later included in the short story collection The Unreal and the Real.

The pioneering polar explorer Ernest Shackleton would’ve been well-advised to heed Le Guin’s admonition. In 1914, as he was readying to embark upon his heroic Antarctic expedition, he posted the following recruitment ad in the wanted section of a London newspaper:

MEN WANTED for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, nor and recognition in case of success.

Among the responses was one from a young woman named Peggy Pergrine, writing on behalf of a female trio:

We ‘three spotty girls’… beg for you take us with you on your expedition to the South Pole. We are … willing to undergo any hardships that you yourselves undergo. If our feminine garb is inconvenient, we should just love to don masculine attire… We do not see why men should have all the glory … especially when there are women just as brave and capable.

Shackleton replied dryly:

There are no vacancies for the opposite sex on the expedition.

Shackleton expedition photographer Frank Hurley working under the bows of the Endurance, 1915. Before abandoning the ship, Shackleton and Hurley chose 120 glass plates to keep, including this rare color one. They smashed 400 plates; Shackleton feared Hurley would endanger himself by even thinking of returning for them.

Whether the great explorer and his crew survived by merit or miracle remains unknown, but survive they did — however narrowly — not without attention to cuisine. (A year later, Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his crew, who gave us the most enchanting photographic record of early polar exploration, weren’t so lucky — the entire crew perished in the grip of starvation and extreme cold.)

Menu prepared by Frank Hurley for Midwinter Day dinner, June 22, 1912

Courtesy Mitchell Library State Library of New South Wales

Shackleton’s return from Antarctica was the catalyst for a new era of polar exploration — over the course of the century since his voyage, countless expeditions have taken to this 90-percent glaciated island of mystery and magic, which occupies a tenth of our planet and holds most of the world’s fresh water but has remained unknown for most of human history. In the mere century that humans have inhabited the continent, several nations — including Russia, Chile, China, Uruguay, Poland, and Argentina — have set up research stations, which quickly sprouted the most prolific byproduct of our civilization: human mess.

Project Antarctica, VIEW Foundation pilot cleanup at the Polish research station, Carol Devine in center, 1995

In June of 1994, one woman was tasked with the very endeavor Shackleton had so bluntly denied young Peggy Pergrine exactly eight decades earlier: Humanitarian Carol Devine received a handwritten letter from the Polish Academy of Sciences, inviting her to spearhead what would become Project Antarctica — the world’s first major collaborative environmental initiative to clean up the debris that had accumulated since researchers first set foot on this icy wonderland.

It was a singular job that required the marriage of science and housekeeping, and it was — as Le Guin had observed a decade earlier — no game for amateurs.

Photograph by Jean-Baptiste Charcot from the first French expedition to the Antarctic, 1903–1905

As the expedition leader, Devine set out to recruit volunteers — in an era, it should be noted for perspective, when efforts of this sort were coordinated via fax and derailed by such disasters as blowing a slide projector. In addition to a program manager, an Antarctic veteran, and a biologist, she hired Wendy Trusler — a visual artist and chef renowned for cooking at tree-planting camps throughout Northern Canada.

So began a most unusual and vitalizing collaboration between the two women, which would become, twenty years later, The Antarctic Book of Cooking and Cleaning: A Polar Journey (public library) — an extraordinary tome blending the enchantment of Thoreau-like journaling (“A brilliant morning. Sun turns berg in bay into gold.”), the fascination of scientific observation and philosophical reflection (“[The Chilean Commandante] said you can’t write about something of which you are not a part. I disagreed, and agreed.”), and the pure delight of delicious, immensely inventive recipes for meals cooked with minimal ingredients and maximal imagination (“sea cabbage salad made with laminaria [fresh kelp]”).

Carol Devine (right) and Wendy Trusler, Bellingshausen, 1995

Photograph by Lena Nikolaeva

Devine writes in the introduction:

How do you start to clean up some 28 years worth of accumulated rubbish and encourage long-term commitment to cleanup?

[…]

This book is an invitation to experience our and others’ passions, doubts, victories, disasters, concerns, joys, heartbreaks, discoveries, recipes, warnings and encouragement for crossing stormy passages and being (or at least trying to be) good citizens of the world. It’s a call for earth stewardship. Why should future generations have to clean up our collective mess and inherit a planet depleted of biodiversity and resources?

Food is life, food is culture. It shaped old expeditions and shaped ours, and we’re going to use it to tell you this story.

And indeed Trusler’s recipes, written with great warmth and subtle humor, offer a living record of this singular experience.

Fisherman's Fish

Photograph by Sandy Nicholson

No dishes. No forks, You eat Fisherman’s Fish with your hands using your fingers to pull the tender flesh away from the bone. I make it at home using the whitefishes our local fishmonger brings in. Freshly caught bass, trout, pickerel or perch would be even more delectable.

2 whole fish about 1 pound each (whitefish, cleaned, with the skin on) // ¼ cup all-purpose flour // coarse salt // vegetable oil

Cut the fish into ½- to ¼-inch steaks and pat dry. Put the flour on a shallow plate and sprinkle with salt — a few pinches should do. Add enough oil to a large skillet to cover the bottom and place it over medium-high heat.

Dredge the fish steaks in flour on all sides and place them in the pan when the oil is hot, but not smoking. Cook until the fish is golden brown underneath, then turn the steaks and fry the other side until crisply. This should take about two minutes per side.

Serve straight from the pan with wedges of lemon, apples and pears. Have plenty of sweet lemony tea made (vodka shots if it is a special occasion) and be prepared for people to drop by once word gets out.

Makes a meal for six; more if you are serving it as a snack or starter.

The recipes pay homage to the national cuisines of the various research stations — Ukrainian cabbage rolls, Great Wall dumplings, spiced Russian tea. Tucked into them is also a taste of the changing legal and moral conventions surrounding our relationship with nature. Trusler offers a pause-giving appendix to the Fisherman’s Fish recipe:

We strongly encourage using sustainable seafood for this recipe. The Madrid Protocol on Environmental Protection, signed in 1991 and entered into force in 1998, prohibits disrupting wildlife. While the kind of small-scale fishing a few of us did was not yet a breach in 1996, we are aware it was a grey zone and in hindsight are uncomfortable.

Rosemary Maple Borscht

Photograph by Sandy Nicholson

Vladimir the Russian cook made his borscht using a meat stock. My version kept the vegetarian volunteers in camp happy and even got the thumbs up from the Russians. To make vegan Rosemary Maple Borscht just substitute olive oil for butter and hold back on the dollop of crème fraiche or sour cream.

2 pounds beets (around 5 medium) // 3 medium potatoes // 2 tablespoons butter // olive oil // 2 onions // 2 cloves of garlic // 1 celery stalk // 2 large carrots // 1 small cabbage(about 5 cups chopped) // 1 tablespoon caraway seeds // 8 cups water // 3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar // 3 tablespoons maple syrup // 1 can crushed tomatoes (28 ounces) // 1 tablespoons sea salt // pepper // fresh rosemary

Peel and cube the beets and potatoes and put them aside. Heat the butter in a large pot set over medium heat and add the beets and potatoes, tossing to coat them with butter. Reduce the heat and sauté, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon and being careful not to bruise or break the cubes. After about 5 minutes add enough water to cover the vegetables and gently simmer until tender, around 10 minutes.

While the beets and potatoes are cooking, mince the garlic and onions and chop the remaining vegetables. Put the caraway seeds into a large Dutch oven or stock pot and toast them over low heat, pushing them around the pan from time to tie so they don’t burn. When you begin to smell the aroma of the caraway add enough olive oil to generously coat the bottom of the pot. Stir in the onions, garlic and celery, sprinkle with salt and cook over medium heat until the vegetables are soft and translucent. Next mix in the carrots and cabbage and sauté for about 5 minutes before adding the remaining water. Bring briefly to a boil and reduce the heat before making the final additions.

Add the beets and potatoes in their cooking liquid, along with the vinegar, maple syrup, crushed tomatoes and a large sprig of fresh rosemary. Cover and simmer for at least 40 minutes to bring the flavors together. Season to taste and make adjustments to the thickness of the soup by adding water as you see fit. Garnish with rosemary and a dollop of crème fraiche or sour cream and sere with freshly baked bread.

Makes enough for ten to twelve people.

Cooking for small teams of volunteers on King George Island meant I had to scale back my recipes from my bush cook days, but only so far. I love that I can get a few meals from this soup. It keeps for five days and freezes well even if you aren’t in Antarctica.

All-In Pizza

Photograph by Sandy Nicholson

Pizza is a personal thing, so it’s often best to let people make their own. When I recognized the ice-breaking potential for this hands-on meal, I stated to serve it the first night of each camp.

I put out a stack of partially baked pizza crusts with a variety of toppings and let the volunteers and dinner guests do the rest. Make-your-own pizza night encourages creativity, shapes conversation (even when there is little) and is a fabulous way to turn around leftovers.

Pizza Bases

1 batch Honey Oatmeal Bread dough (page 81) made through the first rising // Cornmeal for the pan

When the dough has doubled in size, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface, punch it down and cut it into four equal pieces. Knead each piece a few turns, roll them into uniform balls, and set aside to rest, covered, for about 5 minutes while you grease your baking sheets and preheat your oven to 350° F.

To make pizza crusts that are the same shape and size, roll out a ball of dough into a 14×14 inch square about 1/4-inch thick. Cut four rounds from the dough using a 7-inch pot lid or a bread and butter plate as a template. Continue with the remaining dough. Sprinkle the prepared baking sheets with cornmeal. Transfer the rounds to the baking sheets.

Bake until the bases begin to brown slightly around the edges, 8–10 minutes. Turn out onto racks immediately to cool and repeat with the rest of the dough as baking sheets become available.

If you prefer the look of a more free-form pizza, divide your dough into sixteen pieces and shape each of them into a ball. Proceed with a rolling pin or use your hands to press and pull one of the balls of dough into a pleasing shape. Continue until you have formed and baked all of your pizza crusts.

If you are going to use your bases later that day, they can sit out. If not, airtight container or wrap them in plastic and freeze them until ready to use.

Makes bases for sixteen pizzas.

Paging through the journals of Shackleton and other pioneering explorers, Devine gasps at how they capture “the beauty of our shared humanity, records of the weather and heart, humor and hardship, the shifting inside and outside world, the value of knowledge transfer and a hearty stew” — all things that her own cookbook-cum-travelogue offers in ample portions.

Russian scientist Sasha Diesel serving tea in the watchman's room, Bellingshausen, 1996. 'Sasha Diesel made the best tea,' Trusler writes. 'He spoke less english than I did Russian so we'd default to Spanish, which was equally dubious. Mostly we'd sit in companionable silence making things.'

Photograph by Wendy Trusler

For much of the expedition, Devine and Trusler were the only women amid troves of male researchers — in one emblematic extreme, on the Russian station, they were surrounded by five Sashas and four Vladimirs. This often made for tragicomic encounters bespeaking at once how far we’ve come since Shackleton’s dismissal of the female trio and how far we have yet to go. Devine recounts one such experience on a Russian scientific ship in December of 1995:

Two ship staff were at a table beside us and three others at another, dining with the captain and first mate. We were shocked when the man selling red roses pushed two onto us. I looked over at Tomas’s table and he smiled. Tomas — the macho Polish-Argentinian penguin specialist. Who sent us the flowers? Adorable and ridiculous at the same time. Then Andy walked over to us and said, “Do you ladies want us to chaperone you home?” Was he serious? Is it still 1900?

Indeed, Devine points to the long tradition of pioneering women who had ventured to Antarctica since 1900 — botanist Jeanne Baret, who became the first woman to work in the region’s Falkland Islands in 1766, disguised as a man; Caroline Mikkelsen, a Norwegian whaler’s wife, the first woman to set foot on the actual continent in 1935; marine biologist Maria Klenova, the first Russian woman in Antarctica, who helped map the first Soviet Antarctic atlas in 1956 — the year Admiral George Dufek, the first commanding officer of the U.S. Operation Deep Freeze, declared that women would join the U.S. Antarctic program “over [his] dead body”; geochemist Lois Jones, who led the first all-female scientific team to the continent in 1969; retired nurse Barbara Hillary, who became the first African American woman to reach both poles — the North Pole at the age of 75 and the South Pole at 79.

Jackie Ronne, the first female working member of a U.S. expedition, and Sig Gutenko wrapping pemmican, 1947

Courtesy of Karen Ronne Tupek

Devine considers women’s evolving role in polar research, however glacial the pace of that evolution:

Women are respected scientists, artists, activists, explorers, support staff and more. Today they represent one-third of staff at Antarctic bases, lead and participate in game-changing research, such as Susan Solomon and team who helped identify the cause of the ozone hole. Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were depleting the ozone layer protecting life from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet light. Scientists and politicians acted following the discovery: The Montreal Protocol (1987) was a landmark environmental treaty banning CFCs.

Devine and Trusler soon began to observe the questionable behaviors of the male scientists with an anthropologist’s detached fascination rather than with personal indignation. Devine writes in another journal entry:

Late at night: Sergey told Lena that the guys told Maxim and Yuri that they had to “stay away from our girls.” They had noticed them flirting with us. Group dynamics.

And yet, for all the limitations of extreme weather, paltry supplies, and dated gender norms, Devine and Trusler approached the expedition with an air of expansive possibility — something Trusler captures beautifully in a journal entry shortly after they cast off:

I have this feeling, a strange sense of something unfolding, opening in front of me.

Photograph by Sandy Nicholson

In an entry from the following day, Devine marvels at the gift of the experience:

It is a privilege to live here, get insight into the scientists’ and staff’s Antarctic life and routines.

In one particularly wonderful entry — wonderful for its fusion of science and humanity, for embodying how we think with animals, for its sheer exuberance of being-in-the-worldness — Devine writes:

The seal colony. They stared at us at first but carried on as if we were irrelevant. Scratching their “arms” with their cur-covered “hands.” Two seals were hugging each other. one put its arm over the other’s back and made like a kiss. Then some seals scrapped — males with teeth-marks in their skin, chopped-up fur. We are all seals perhaps.

We moved from the seal colony to a hut of the biologists. Another exquisite experience. The shack was a wagon-like trailer now held not on rocks, but whalebones! It was a shabby hut with green oil paint chipping off in big chunks — sundried cracks all over. Inside were two beds.

Nature mirrors nature. A rock sitting high on another rock looked like an elephant seal.

This is a lesson on minimalism. Every hut is a treasure, is useful. Recycled.

There is also an invigorating geopolitical peacemaking undertone to the project. In one of several wonderful essays accompanying the recipes and journal entires, Devine reflects on the Antarctic Treaty of 1959, which declared the continent “a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science” and was signed by 49 countries by 2012. Remarking what “a rare achievement in a world beset by conflict” it is, she echoes Einstein on the common language of science and marvels:

I love that science is an Antarctic currency and tool of diplomacy.

In another essay, exploring where the garbage collected by the Antarctic cleanup volunteers goes, she examines our ambivalent attitudes toward earth-stewardship:

Maybe there is no morally superior place for garbage.

[…]

I had no idea exactly what we would be doing … but only that we were part of some kind of greater movement. All people who came on our project were willing to work but a few still thought nature was there for them. I had a volunteer from New York in the pilot cleanup at the Polish station the year before who wrote on her feedback form: “Not enough penguins.”

But perhaps most powerful of all is the almost allegorical quality of the project — the way it distills the human experience to its absolute essence, which Devine captures elegantly in the book’s postscript, written nearly twenty years after the expedition:

In Antarctica, everything is stripped down. You have what you have and even less than that materially. It is only who you are and what you do that counts.

Complement The Antarctic Book of Cooking and Cleaning, unsynthesizably dimensional and deeply gratifying in its totality, with Rachel Sussman’s photographic journey in Shackleton’s footsteps and this lovely illustrated chronicle of his famous expedition, then treat yourself to more unusual cross-disciplinary cookbooks: The Modern Art Cookbook, The Alice in Wonderland Cookbook, The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook, The Futurist Cookbook, and Found Meals of the Lost Generation.

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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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