Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘photography’

17 SEPTEMBER, 2012

Charles Bukowski, Arthur C. Clarke, Annie Dillard, John Cage, and Others on the Meaning of Life

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“We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.”

The quest to understand the meaning of life has haunted humanity since the dawn of existence. Modern history alone has given us a plethora of attempted answers, including ones from Steve Jobs, Stanley Kubrick, David Foster Wallace, Anais Nin, Ray Bradbury, and Jackson Pollock’s dad. In 1988, the editors of LIFE magazine posed this grand question head-on to 300 “wise men and women,” from celebrated authors, actors, and artists to global spiritual leaders to everyday farmers, barbers, and welfare mothers. In 1991, they collected the results, along with a selection of striking black-and-white photographs from the magazine’s archives that answered the question visually and abstractly, in The Meaning of Life: Reflections in Words and Pictures on Why We Are Here (public library). Here is a selection of the answers.

Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Dillard:

We are here to witness the creation and abet it. We are here to notice each thing so each thing gets noticed. Together we notice not only each mountain shadow and each stone on the beach but, especially, we notice the beautiful faces and complex natures of each other. We are here to bring to consciousness the beauty and power that are around us and to praise the people who are here with us. We witness our generation and our times. We watch the weather. Otherwise, creation would be playing to an empty house.

According to the second law of thermodynamics, things fall apart. Structures disintegrate. Buckminster Fuller hinted at a reason we are here: By creating things, by thinking up new combinations, we counteract this flow of entropy. We make new structures, new wholeness, so the universe comes out even. A shepherd on a hilltop who looks at a mess of stars and thinks, ‘There’s a hunter, a plow, a fish,’ is making mental connections that have as much real force in the universe as the very fires in those stars themselves.

Ralph Morse

Albert Einstein's study shortly after his death, Princeton, New Jersey

Legendary science writer Stephen Jay Gould:

The human species has inhabited this planet for only 250,000 years or so-roughly.0015 percent of the history of life, the last inch of the cosmic mile. The world fared perfectly well without us for all but the last moment of earthly time–and this fact makes our appearance look more like an accidental afterthought than the culmination of a prefigured plan.

Moreover, the pathways that have led to our evolution are quirky, improbable, unrepeatable and utterly unpredictable. Human evolution is not random; it makes sense and can be explained after the fact. But wind back life’s tape to the dawn of time and let it play again–and you will never get humans a second time.

We are here because one odd group of fishes had a peculiar fin anatomy that could transform into legs for terrestrial creatures; because the earth never froze entirely during an ice age; because a small and tenuous species, arising in Africa a quarter of a million years ago, has managed, so far, to survive by hook and by crook. We may yearn for a ‘higher’ answer — but none exists. This explanation, though superficially troubling, if not terrifying, is ultimately liberating and exhilarating. We cannot read the meaning of life passively in the facts of nature. We must construct these answers ourselves — from our own wisdom and ethical sense. There is no other way.

Bill Owens

Graduation dance

Frank Donofrio, a barber:

I have been asking myself why I’m here most of my life. If there’s a purpose I don’t care anymore. I’m seventy-four. I’m on my way out. Let the young people learn the hard way, like I did. No one ever told me anything.

Leonard Freed

Harlem summer day

Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke:

A wise man once said that all human activity is a form of play. And the highest form of play is the search for Truth, Beauty and Love. What more is needed? Should there be a ‘meaning’ as well, that will be a bonus?

If we waste time looking for life’s meaning, we may have no time to live — or to play.

Franco Zecchin

Sicily

Literary icon John Updike:

Ancient religion and modern science agree: we are here to give praise. Or, to slightly tip the expression, to pay attention. Without us, the physicists who have espoused the anthropic principle tell us, the universe would be unwitnessed, and in a real sense not there at all. It exists, incredibly, for us. This formulation (knowing what we know of the universe’s ghastly extent) is more incredible, to our sense of things, than the Old Testament hypothesis of a God willing to suffer, coddle, instruct, and even (in the Book of Job) to debate with men, in order to realize the meager benefit of worship, of praise for His Creation. What we beyond doubt do have is our instinctive intellectual curiosity about the universe from the quasars down to the quarks, our wonder at existence itself, and an occasional surge of sheer blind gratitude for being here.

Abbas

Fireman at scene of bomb explosion, Belfast, Northern Ireland

Poet Charles Bukowski:

For those who believe in God, most of the big questions are answered. But for those of us who can’t readily accept the God formula, the big answers don’t remain stone-written. We adjust to new conditions and discoveries. We are pliable. Love need not be a command or faith a dictum. I am my own God.

We are here to unlearn the teachings of the church, state and our educational system.

We are here to drink beer.

We are here to kill war.

We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.

We are here to read these words from all these wise men and women who will tell us that we are here for different reasons and the same reason.

Myron Davis

A boy and his dog, Iowa

Avant-garde composer and philosopher John Cage:

No why. Just here.

Duane Michals

The Human Condition

The Meaning of Life is a cultural treasure in its entirety, and the screen does the stunning photographs no justice — do grab yourself an analog copy.

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22 AUGUST, 2012

August 22, 1969: The Beatles’ Final Photo Shoot

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The Fab Four with Yoko Ono and Linda McCartney at Tittenhurst Park.

It’s a been a booming era for rediscovered Beatles photos, from the famous lost Beatles photographs taken by their tour manager to Linda McCartney’s tender portraits to Harry Benson’s luminous black-and-white photos of the Fab Four.

On this day in 1969, two days after their final recording session, the Beatles gathered at Tittenhurst Park, where John Lennon and Yoko Ono resided, for a photo shoot they didn’t realize would be their last — an instance of those bittersweet “unknown lasts” that wedge themselves between our lived experience and our memory, sometimes violently and other times with the tender wistfulness of nostalgia.

The cast of characters on that fateful August 22, captured by photographers Ethan Russell and Monte Fresco and Beatles assistant Mal Evans, included the Fab Four, Yoko Ono, a very pregnant Linda McCarney (a photographer herself), Apple Corps’ press officer Derek Taylor, Paul McCartney’s sheepdog Martha, and two donkeys Lennon and Ono kept on the property.

Linda shot some 16mm footage on my camera. That turned out to be the last film taken.” ~ Paul McCartney

It was just a photo session. I wasn’t there thinking, ‘OK, this is the last photo session.'” ~ Ringo Starr

Beatles Bible

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20 AUGUST, 2012

How Children Learn: Portraits of Classrooms Around the World

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A revealing lens on a system-phenomenon both global in reach and strikingly local in degree of diversity.

Since 2004, Julian Germain has been capturing the inner lives of schools around the world, from England to Nigeria to Qatar, in his large-scale photographs of schoolchildren in class. Classroom Portraits (public library) is part Where Children Sleep, part Bureaucratics, part What I Eat: Around the World in 80 Diets, part something else entirely — a poignant lens on a system-phenomenon that is both global in reach and strikingly local in degree of peculiarity, revealed through more than 450 portraits of schoolchildren from 20 countries.

Jessore, Bangladesh. Year 10, English.

Image courtesy Julian Germain

Brazil, Belo Horizonte, Series 6, Mathematics

Image courtesy Julian Germain

USA, St Louis, Grade 8, Geography

Image courtesy Julian Germain

Nigeria, Kano, Ooron Dutse, Senior Islamic Secondary Level 2, Social Studies

Image courtesy Julian Germain

Taiwan, Ruei Fang Township, Kindergarten, Art

Image courtesy Julian Germain

St. Petersburg, Russia. Year 2, Russian

Image courtesy Julian Germain

The extent of concentration and mutuality required for each portrait offer a beautiful metaphor for the teaching-learning process itself. Germain writes:

I never tell the students how they should look but ensuring that everybody has a clear view of the camera requires concentration and patience. Each pupil has to be aware of their place in the picture.

In order to achieve sharp focus in both fore- and background, the exposure time is usually a quarter or half a second so the pupils have to be ready for the moment the shutter is released. I am waiting for them and they are waiting for me. The process itself generates an atmosphere and the time captured in the portrait seems significant.

England, Seaham, Reception and Year 1, Structured Play

Image courtesy Julian Germain

Tokyo, Japan, Grade 5, Classical Japanese

Image courtesy Julian Germain

Havana, Cuba. Year 2, Mathematics.

Image courtesy Julian Germain

Lagos, Nigeria. Basic 7 / Junior Secondary Level 1, Mathematics

Image courtesy Julian Germain

England, Keighley, Year 6, History

Image courtesy Julian Germain

England, Washington, Year 7 (first day), Registration

Image courtesy Julian Germain

Holland, Drouwenermond, Primary Year 5, 6, 7 & 8, History

Image courtesy Julian Germain

Qatar, Grade 8, English

Image courtesy Julian Germain

Bahrain, Saar, Grade 11, Islamic

Image courtesy Julian Germain

Peru, Cusco, Primary Grade 4, Mathematics

Image courtesy Julian Germain

Cuba, Havana, Playa, Year 9, national television screening of film ‘Can Gamba’ (about Cuban participation in Angolan Revolution)

Image courtesy Julian Germain

The Netherlands, Rotterdam, Secondary Group 3, Motor Mechanics

Image courtesy Julian Germain

Yemen, Manakha, Primary Year 2, Science Revision

Image courtesy Julian Germain

Argentina, Buenos Aires, Grade 4, Natural Science

Image courtesy Julian Germain

(Is it just me, or do the kids in Natural Science class seem most mischievously engaged? Perhaps every child is a scientist.)

Complement Classroom Portraits with where kids around the world sleep and what they eat.

feature shoot

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19 JULY, 2012

The Burning House: What People Would Take if the House Was on Fire

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A pictorial meditation on how we construct our identity through objects and material possessions.

If your house suddenly caught on fire, what would you grab as you fled out the door? That’s precisely the question Foster Huntington asked himself, so he gathered the belongings he himself would take and photographed them, then asked a few friends to do the same. Then, on May 10 of 2011, he launched The Burning House with 10 such photographs. Within a few hours, he got his first submission from a complete stranger. Within a few days, he was making headlines. But he soon realized the self-selection implicit to the project engendered a certain psychographic homogeneity in the responses he was receiving and, driven to make people of various walks of life feel included, he decided to seek out more diverse submissions himself.

So, for five months, he drove thousands of miles up and down the West Coast and around the Rockies, in search for people “other than typical blog readers,” in an effort to expand the project generationally, geographically, and socioeconomically. Using Richard Avedon’s In the American West as inspiration, he set out to find those rare specimens who “had never heard of Tumblr, had never seen an iPad” — in other words, the kinds of people with whom he would’ve never crossed paths had he stayed in Manhattan. The results — rich, surprising, refreshingly human, from people separated by 80 years and spanning six continents — are now gathered in The Burning House: What Would You Take? (public library), based on the Tumblr of the same name and a fine addition to this running list of blog-turned-book success stories.

Huntington writes in the introduction:

Today, developed countries are consuming more than ever before. This culture of consumption is often fueled by people’s desire to define themselves by the possessions they amass. The Burning House: What Would You Take? takes a different approach to personal definition. By removing easily replaceable objects and instead focusing on things unique to them, people are able to capture their personalities in a photograph.

What emerges is part Material World, part Things, part wholly singular lens on the human condition, bridging the practical and the sentimental in a way that bespeaks our constant see-saw between rationality and intuition.

Name: Miguel

Age: 36

Location: Porto

Occupation: Bike shop owner

List:

The picture you gave me and the leather box we found together.

Mom and dads old camera and mom and dads old leather bag.

The shoes I can’t live without.

Your smell #1 and your smell #2.

The notebook where I draw while you laugh.

My iPod to listen to beautiful tunes while thinking in our next home.

Name: Brody

Age: 6

Location: New Hampshire

Occupation: A kid

List:

Wedgehead

Garfeild cup

Lego helicopter

Bumblebee Transformer

Chip

yellow belt

piggybank

wallet

weaving

(not pictured) Lego Camera used to take photo

Name: Kate Molins

Age: 26

Location: London, UK

Occupation: Clapper / Loader

List:

Buster Kitten - 2 yr old cat

My mum’s ashes

Photo album / scrap book

iPhone

Grandmother’s watch

Dad’s watch

My watch - 16th birthday present from my mum

Macbook

Passport

8mm Camera - 24th birthday present from all my friends

Dad’s “I Love Tits” Mug - in small print, “from the British Ornithological Society”

Limited edition GONZO, Hunter S. Thompson photo book - 21st birthday present from my mum

Lemmy, Buster Kitten’s brother

My uncle’s old Leica CL

Diary & notebook of VALUABLE ideas & info from the past year

Portable hard drive with millions of photos and other important things

Name: Joshua Lee Bacon

Age: 20

Location: Boone, Iowa

Occupation: Student

List:

Favorite pants.

Favorite underwear.

iPhone.

Box full of all my prints and negatives.

Buffalo box full of treasures and special snapshots.

Passport.

Chinese cigars.

Some cash.

Photo of my grandparents.

Photo of a friend.

Field notes and pens.

Vivitar and telephoto lens.

I would want to take more records, but the first one I would grab would be this Envy Corps 7 inch.

Some old letters.

Wallet.

Name: Brenda Bell

Age: 60

Location: Pinetop, Arizona White Mountains (wild fire country May/June)

Occupation: Homemaker

List:

My dog, Baby Val and treats for him

My husband Larry and treats for him

Peanut butter and crackers, peanuts, candy and gum

Bumblebee Transformer

A spork (spoon/fork)

Hand warmers

Wool hat

Lots of money (small dimensions) and change

Emergency first aid kit and zip lock bags

Matches

Name: Kristi Dahlstrom

Age: 27

Location: Germany

Occupation: Literature Teacher

List:

Great Aunt’s Violin (& Bow)

US Passport

Photograph of Siblings

2 Letters

Journal

New American Standard Bible

Rilke’s Book of Hours

T.S. Elliot Collected Poems

MacBook Pro

Black Flipflops

Name: Luca

Age: 42

Location: Edinburgh, Scotland

Occupation: Pricing analyst

List:

My collected writings

My Field Notes still to be used

My current notebook

the Midori Travellers Notebook On Writing by Stephen King

From Hell by Alan Moore

Important photographs

The stove moka I had for the past 10 years (because nothing looks as bad after a proper coffee)

The belt my dad had when he was in the army

The beret I had when I was in the army

Fountain pen and pencil, with my favourite brown ink

My grandad’s petrol lighter

Opinel knife Bookbinding tools

Reading glasses and sunglasses

iPhone 4S (used to take the picture)

Name: Alejandro Sosa

Age: 36

Location: Venezuela

Occupation: Technology consultant

List:

Everything is recoverable, except my daughter

And in case you were wondering, here’s what I would take:

  1. Wallet (recycled newspaper and plastic bag, from HOLSTEE)
  2. 1935 edition of Ulysses with sketches by Henri Matisse and 22-karat gold accents (Sure, the hefty tome would weigh me down — but I decided against the replaceable iPad and pair of giant Canon cameras in its favor.)
  3. Glasses
  4. Passport
  5. MacBook Air
  6. Phrenology bike helmet hand-painted by artist Danielle Baskin
  7. Makerbot-printed space invader, a gift from a dear friend
  8. Two-finger yellow LEGO ring from C+
  9. iPhone
  10. 1993 edition of Gertrude Stein’s 1938 children’s book, The World Is Round
  11. Owl necklace from the 1950s, found in a middle-of-nowhere California vintage shop en route back from TED
  12. 1 TB external hard drive with all my personal data, 15 years of photos, 100GB of music, and just about every piece of digital content I’ve ever owned (Western Digital My Passport Essential SE 1 TB USB 3.0/2.0, for the record)
  13. Original drawing of Paula Scher, one of my big design heroes, by my friend and illustrator extraordinaire Wendy MacNaughton. It reads: “Impossible happens.”
  14. My Vibrams

You can submit your own on the project site.

Donating = Loving

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