Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘photography’

12 NOVEMBER, 2012

Changing New York: Berenice Abbott’s Stunning Black-and-White Photos from the 1930s

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A breathtaking time-capsule of this ageless, ever-changing city.

New York City loves its streets, loves its dogs, loves its heat waves, loves its apocalyptic fictions — but, above else, loves its timeless dignity. Between 1935 and 1939, photographer Berenice Abbott (1898-1991) made 307 black-and-white prints of New York City that endure as some of the most iconic images of city’s changing face. In advance of the 1939 World’s Fair, 200 of them were gathered in Berenice Abbott: Changing New York (public library), along with a selection of variant images, line drawings, period maps, and background essays — a lavish time-capsule of urban design organized in eight geographical sections, documenting the social, architectural, and cultural history of the city.

Many of the photographs are now in the public domain and have been made available online by the New York Public Library. Here are some favorite images Abbott took between November 1935 and May 1936, as part of the Federal Art Project (FAP) — a Depression-era government program related to the Works Progress Administration, enlisting unemployed artists and workers in creative projects across advertising, graphic design, illustration, photography, and publishing.

Stone and William Street, Manhattan

Gasoline Station, Tenth Avenue and 29th Street, Manhattan

Seventh Avenue looking south from 35th Street, Manhattan

Ferry, West 23rd Street, Manhattan

Henry Street, Manhattan

Fulton Street Dock, Manhattan skyline, Manhattan

Cliff and Ferry Street, Manhattan

23rd Street Surface Car, West 23rd Street, Manhattan

Oldest apartment house in New York City, 142 East 18th Street, Manhattan

Radio Row, Cortlandt Street, Manhattan

'El', Second and Third Avenue lines, Bowery taken from Division St., Manhattan

Lyric Theatre, Third Avenue between 12th and 13th street, Manhattan

And, hey, is that time-traveling Don Draper?

Department of Docks and Police Station, Pier A, North River, Manhattan

A few blocks around my studio:

Jay Street, No. 115, Brooklyn

Brooklyn Bridge, Water and Dock Streets, looking southwest, Brooklyn

Warehouse, Water and Dock Streets, Brooklyn

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24 OCTOBER, 2012

100 Ideas That Changed Photography

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From the camera obscura to the iPhone, or why photography is an art of continuous reinvention.

Earlier this year, British publisher Laurence King brought us 100 Ideas That Changed Graphic Design, 100 Ideas That Changed Film, and 100 Ideas That Changed Architecture. Now comes 100 Ideas That Changed Photography (public library) — an equally concise and intelligent chronicle of the most seminal developments in the history of today’s most prevalent visual art. From technical innovations like the cyanotype (#12), the advent of color (#23), the Polaroid (#84), and moving pictures (#20) to paradigms like photojournalism (#66) and fabrication (#93) to new ways of looking at the world like aerial photography (#54), micro/macro (#55), and stopping time (#49), each of the ideas is accompanied by a short essay contextualizing its history and significance.

Syracuse University fine art professor Mary Warner Marien writes in the introduction:

Before it materialized as the camera and lens, photography was an idea. The desire to make a special kind of representation, originating in the object itself, is as old as humankind. It appears in the stencil paintings of hands in prehistoric art. In Western culture, the legend of the Corinthian woman who traced the shadow of her lover on a wall before he departed for war has evolved into an origin story for figurative art and, in the 1840s, for photography. Soon after the medium was disclosed to the world in 1839, the word ‘facsimile’ was adapted to describe the photograph’s unprecedented authenticity. Samuel F. B. Morse observed that a photograph could not be called a copy, but was a portion of nature itself. That notion, which persisted throughout the nineteenth century, found new life in the late twentieth-century language theory, in which the photograph was characterized as an imprint or transfer of the real, like a fingerprint.

Marien goes on to illuminate the history of photography alongside the parallel history of innovations in science and technology, as well as social and cultural developments across philosophy, politics, and aesthetics.

IDEA # 1: THE CAMERA OBSCURA

When Christian Gobrecht illustrated the workings of a camera obscura for Abraham Rees’s The Cyclopedia or Universal Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Literature (1805-22), he was careful to show how the device created an inverted image.

IDEA # 2: THE LATENT IMAGE

The latent image was coaxed from the daguerreotype plate by being exposed to mercury fumes in a so-called 'bath' like this one.

IDEA # 4: NEGATIVE/POSITIVE

The negative formed the basis of photography until the digital age. It is based on the reversal of dark and light tone.

IDEA # 9: THE LENS

Specially designed weights or impromptu inventions were attached to the shutter to create timed lens exposures.

IDEA # 12: CYANOTYPE

The cyanotype allowed builders and engineers to create durable and detailed drawings.

IDEA # 12: CYANOTYPE

Anna Atkins was one of the first scientists to use the cyanotype to record delicate specimens, as in Himanthalia lorea, from her 1843 book on algae.

IDEA # 13: COLLODION

Photographers who used the collodion process had to process their glass plates before and after exposure. They brought a portable darkroom and sometimes employed assistants to help.

IDEA # 27: CARTES DE VISITE

Disdéri’s multiple portraits of a ballet dancer is entitled Petipa (c. 1862), for the renowned French dance master and choreographer. Performers and public figures often had cartes de visite made in great numbers, which they either gave away or sold.

IDEA # 46: PROJECTION

In 1925, the French children’s magazine Le Petit Inventeur captured the wonder of projected images.

IDEA # 56: THE PEOPLE'S ART

For the cover of a 1929 issue of the German publication The Worker Photographer, Ernst Thormann chose a close-up of a Roma child.

IDEA # 56: THE PEOPLE'S ART

In this anonymous early Kodak snapshot from about 1888, the maker’s shadow is clearly visible on the lower left side.

IDEA # 77: THE SELF-PORTRAIT

In her 1896 Self-Portrait (as New Woman) successful Washington, D.C. photographer and business owner, Frances Benjamin Johnston, poses cross-legged, as a man might do, while holding a cigarette and a beer stein.

Ultimately, what emerges from 100 Ideas That Changed Photography, besides the fascinating historical perspective, is an underlying message that our present-day fears about the alleged affronts to photography are misplaced, oblivious to the perpetually evolving heart of the art of recording light. As Marien puts it:

While it may seem that a new photo technology is born every day, photography is still what we make it, not what it makes us.

Images and captions courtesy of Laurence King

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23 OCTOBER, 2012

Faking It: A Visual History of 150 Years of Image Manipulation Before Photoshop

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Two-headed daguerreotypes, Dadaist photomontages, and how the subversion of optical reality got its start.

“The painter constructs, the photographer discloses,” Susan Sontag famously asserted in On Photography. But in the quarter century since, the rise of digital photography and image manipulation software has increasingly transmogrified the photographer into a constructor of reality, a reality in which believing is seeing. Still, image manipulation dates much further back — in fact, to the dawn of photography itself. Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop (public library), the companion book to the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition of the same title, traces the evolution of image manipulation from the 1840s to the 1990s, when computer software first began to revolutionize the alteration of photographs.

Man on Rooftop with Eleven Men in Formation on His Shoulders (Unidentified American artist, ca. 1930)

Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Dirigible Docked on Empire State Building, New York (Unidentified American artist, 1930)

Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

A Powerful Collision (Unidentified German artist, 1914)

Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

These images — artful, subversive, unapologetic in their unreality — serve sometimes to amuse and entertain, sometimes to deliberately deceive, sometimes to comment on social and political issues, and always to give pause with how they tease and taunt our assumptions of optical reality and visual representation.

Met curator Mia Fineman writes in the introduction:

Over the past twenty years, photography has undergone a dramatic transformation. Mechanical cameras and silver-based film have been replaced by electronic image sensors and microchips; instead of shuffling through piles of glossy prints, we stare at the glowing screens of laptops, tablets, and mobile phones; negative enlargers and chemical darkrooms have given way to personal computers and image-processing software. Digital cameras and applications such as Photoshop have create, look at, and think about photographs. Among the most profound cultural effects of these new technologies has been a heightened awareness of the malleability of the photographic image and a corresponding loss of faith in photography as an accurate, trustworthy means of representing the visual world. As viewers, we have become increasingly savvy, even habitually skeptical, about photography’s claims to truth.

The Vision (Orpheus Scene) (F. Holland Day, 1907)

Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Aberdeen Portraits No. 1 (George Washington Wilson, 1857)

Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Fading Away (Henry Peach Robinson, 1858)

Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Lenin and Stalin in Gorki in 1922 (Unidentified Russian artist, 1949)

Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec as Artist and Model (Maurice Guibert, ca. 1900)

Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Man Juggling His Own Head (Unidentified French artist, Published by Allain de Torbéchet et Cie. ca. 1880)

Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Two-Headed Man (Unidentified American artist, ca. 1930)

Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Room with Eye (Maurice Tabard, 1930)

Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Hearst Over the People (Barbara Morgan, 1939)

Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Sueño No. 1: Articulos eléctricos para el hogar / Dream No. 1: Electrical Appliances for the Home (Grete Stern, 1948)

Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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