Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘photography’

14 APRIL, 2014

The Oldest Living Things in the World: A Decade-Long Photographic Masterpiece at the Intersection of Art, Science, and Philosophy

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What a 13,000-year-old eucalyptus tree reveals about the meaning of human life.

“Our overblown intellectual faculties seem to be telling us both that we are eternal and that we are not,” philosopher Stephen Cave observed in his poignant meditation on our mortality paradox And yet we continue to long for the secrets of that ever-elusive eternity.

For nearly a decade, Brooklyn-based artist, photographer, and Guggenheim Fellow Rachel Sussman has been traveling the globe to discover and document its oldest organisms — living things over 2,000 years of age. Her breathtaking photographs and illuminating essays are now collected in The Oldest Living Things in the World (public library) — beautiful and powerful work at the intersection of fine art, science, and philosophy, spanning seven continents and exploring issues of deep time, permanence and impermanence, and the interconnectedness of life.

Llareta

3,000 years | Atacama Desert, Chile

Baby llareta

With an artist’s gift for “aesthetic force” and a scientist’s rigorous respect for truth, Sussman straddles a multitude of worlds as she travels across space and time to unearth Earth’s greatest stories of resilience, stories of tragedy and triumph, past and future, but above all stories that humble our human lives, which seem like the blink of a cosmic eye against the timescales of these ancient organisms — organisms that have unflinchingly witnessed all of our own tragedies and triumphs, our wars and our revolutions, our holocausts and our renaissances, and have remained anchored to existence more firmly than we can ever hope to be. And yet a great many of these species are on the verge of extinction, in no small part due to human activity, raising the question of how our seemingly ephemeral presence in the ecosystem can have such deep and long-term impact on organisms far older and far more naturally resilient than us.

Pando (quick aspen)

80,000 years | Fish Lake, Utah, USA

Alerce (Patagonian cypress)

2,200 years | Patagonia, Chile

Above all, however, the project raises questions that aren’t so much scientific or artistic as profoundly human: What is the meaning of human life if it comes and goes before a patch of moss has reached the end of infancy? How do our petty daily stresses measure up against a struggle for survival stretching back millennia? Who would we be if we relinquished our arrogant conviction that we are Earth’s biological crown jewel?

Sussman offers no answers but invites us, instead, to contemplate, consider, and explore on our own — not as creatures hopelessly different from and dwarfed by the organisms she profiles, but as fellow beings in an intricately entwined mesh of life. What emerges is a beautiful breakage of our illusion of separateness and a deep appreciation for the binds that pull us and these remarkable organisms in an eternal dance — our only real gateway to immortality.

Dead Huon pine

10,500 years | Mount Read, Tasmania; Royal Tasmanian Botanical Garden, Hobart

Indeed, it is this capacity for questioning that makes Sussman’s perspective particularly powerful. She herself, adding to history’s most beautiful definitions of art, considers it the supreme responsibility of the artist:

The role as an artist [is] to answer some questions, but to ask many more.

Bristlecone pine

5,068 years | White Mountains, California, US

Bristlecone pine detail

5,068 years | White Mountains, California, US

Sussman writes in the preface:

What does it mean when the organic goes head-to-head with the geologic? We start talking about deep time and the quotidian in the same breath, along with all the strata in between. All of these organisms are living palimpsests: they contain myriad layers of their own histories within themselves, along with records of natural and human events; new chapters written over the old, year after year, millennium after millennium. When we look at them in the frame of deep time, a bigger picture emerges, and we start to see how all of the individuals have stories, and that all of those stories are in turn interconnected — and in turn, inextricably connected to us all.

[…]

The oldest living things in the world are a record and celebration of the past, a call to action in the present, and a barometer of our future.

Brain coral

2,000 years | Speyside, Tobago

Baobab

2,000 years | Limpopo, South Africa

Welwitschia Mirabilis

2,000 years| Namib-Naukluft Desert, Namibia

To be sure, the project has resonance far deeper and wider than a purely artistic pursuit. In a culture where 40% of people don’t believe the world is more than 6,000 years old — a kind of faith-washing known as Young Earth Creationism — Sussman’s work brings to light tangible, irrefutable, gloriously alive evidence of the scientific reality. After all, when beholding a majestic 13,000-year-old Eucalyptus tree, how can human arrogance dare deny its reality under the blindness of dogma?

Indeed, the exploration of deep time is one of the most powerful elements in Sussman’s work — certainly a scientific concept, in terms of being concerned with biology, geology, and astrophysics, but also very much a philosophical one raising enormously important, if unsettling, existential questions: Why are we here? How can we matter if we’re gone in the blink of a cosmic eye, the metaphorical minute of a Bristlecone Pine’s day? And, most importantly, what gives us the arrogance to consider ourselves atop the hierarchy of living organisms? We extol our intelligence as the uniquely human faculty that sets us apart from other animals, but even our definitions of intelligence are narrowly anthropocentric and based on things we humans happen to be good at. Surely there’s a special kind of biological and existential intelligence in an organism capable of such remarkable resilience — an organism that can outlive us by millennia and witness all of our fleeting struggles while it remains unflinchingly rooted in its particular corner of the ecosystem.

Soil sample containing Siberian actinobacteria

400,000-600,000 years | Kolyma Lowlands, Siberia

Chestnut of 100 Horses with fresh lava

3,000 years | Sant'Alfio, Sicily

Because of its unique cross-disciplinary slant and dimensional scope, the book comes with two introductory essays — an art one by art-world legend and curator extraordinaire Hans Ulrich Obrist and a science one by Carl Zimmer, one of the finest and most respected science writers working today.

Obrist elegantly applies the late and great philosopher Eric Hobsbawm’s notion of “the protest against forgetting” to Sussman’s work and celebrates it as a living archive of remembrance. He writes:

The oldest living things may well not be a clear category science-wise, but it is a category that is defined by curiosity, humane character, a fascination with deep time, and the courage of an explorer.

In the science essay, Zimmer explores how lives become long and why the remarkable timescale of these organisms’ lifespans matters — not just scientifically, but also culturally:

The durable mystery of longevity makes the species in this book all the more precious, and all the more worthy of being preserved. Looking at an organism that has endured for thousands of years is an awesome experience, because it makes us feel like mere gastrotrichs. But it is an even more awesome experience to recognize the bond we share with a 13,000-year-old Palmer’s oak tree, and to wonder how we evolved such different lifetimes on this Earth.

Lower slope leading to Palmer's Oak

13,000 years | Riverside, California, USA

Box Huckleberry (Bibleberry) branches stripped by deer

8,000 to 13,000 years | Perry County, Pennsylvania, USA

Stromatolites

2,000-3,000 years | Carbla Station, Western Australia

Even more fascinating than how much we know, however, is how much we don’t — many of these organisms stand as a testament to the “thoroughly conscious ignorance” that drives science. In a book chapter exploring the 2,000-year-old Stromatolites of Western Australia — a species composed of bound cyanobacteria that formed about 3 billion years ago and undertook the Herculean task of oxygenating our then-oxygen-poor planet — Sussman observes:

It’s remarkable that we know so little about the origins of life on our planet. We know more about surfaces of other planets than we do about the beginnings of life on our own.

The Senator (bald cypress)

3,500 years | Seminole County, Florida

One of the most moving stories in the book is that of the Senator tree in Florida, one of the oldest Cypress trees in the world, which Sussman originally wrote for Brain Pickings a few years ago. She had photographed the Senator in 2007, but upon developing the film — Sussman shoots with a medium-format film camera for her high-quality fine art prints — she found herself unhappy with the result and resolved to return to the tree down the line. Since it was one of the most easily accessible organisms in her stable — what’s a sunny flight to Florida next to a harrowing weeklong voyage to Antarctica’s icy cliffs? — and since the tree had been around for 3,500 years, she figured it could wait.

Then, in January of 2012, news broke that a mysterious fire had burned the Senator to the ground. Unsettled and full of unease, Sussman immediately got on a plane to shoot the charred remains of the mighty tree, the only sign of its former brush with Forever. She poignantly observes:

Extreme longevity can lull us into a false sense of permanence. We fall into a quotidian reality devoid of long-term thinking, certain that things which have been here “forever” will remain, unchanging. But being old is not the same as being immortal. Even second chances have expiration dates. The comparative ease of access and the seeming lack of urgency bred a complacency in my return to the Senator.

The charred remains of the Senator Tree, February 8, 2012

The most devastating part? It was later discovered that the cause of the fire was a group of twenty-somethings who had broken into the park after dark, high on meth, climbed inside the tree, and lit matches or a lighter to “see the drugs better,” setting the Senator ablaze and erasing thousands of years of natural wisdom under the influence of synthetic senility.

But this story, too, is one of optimism. Sussman writes:

For the Senator, there is a chance at a second life: clippings from the tree were taken years ago and successfully propagated in a nursery. In February 2013, after a careful root-stabilization process, a forty-foot grafted tree was successfully transplanted back into the Senator’s original spot and has already sprouted fresh growth and gained in height. Four artisans and several institutions were selected to make works honoring the Senator’s legacy. The stump has been incorporated into the playground area.

In this beautiful short trailer by filmmaker Jonathan Minnard offers glimpse of Sussman’s extraordinary world:

Interwoven with Sussman’s photographs and essays, brimming with equal parts passion and precision, are the stories of her adventures — and misadventures — as she trekked the world in search of her ancient subjects. From a broken arm in remote Sri Lanka to a heart-wrenching breakup to a well-timed sip of whisky at polar explorer Shackleton’s grave, her personal stories imbue the universality of the deeper issues she explores with an inviting dose of humanity — a gentle reminder that life, for us as much as for those ancient organisms, is often about withstanding the uncontrollable, unpredictable, and unwelcome curveballs the universe throws our way, and that resilience comes from the dignity and humility of that withstanding.

Antarctic moss

5,500 years | Elephant Island, South Georgia

The Oldest Living Things in the World is absolutely remarkable in its entirety — a true masterpiece of compassionate curiosity and cross-disciplinary brilliance. A limited collectors’ edition is also available, housed in a gorgeous handcrafted, cloth-encased box, including a signed print of the Spruce image on the cover.

For more, see Sussman’s 2010 TED talk:

All photographs © Rachel Sussman published exclusively with the artist’s permission

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09 APRIL, 2014

The Public Library: A Photographic Love Letter to Humanity’s Greatest Sanctuary of Knowledge, Freedom, and Democracy

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“When a library is open, no matter its size or shape, democracy is open, too.”

“A library is many things,” E.B. White once wrote in a letter to the children of a little town to inspire them to fall in love with their new library. “But particularly it is a place where books live, and where you can get in touch with other people, and other thoughts, through books… Books hold most of the secrets of the world, most of the thoughts that men and women have had.”

As the daughter of a formally trained librarian and an enormous lover of, collaborator with, and supporter of public libraries (you may have noticed I always include a public library link for books I write about; I also re-donate a portion of Brain Pickings donations to the New York Public Library each year) I was instantly enamored with The Public Library: A Photographic Essay (public library | IndieBound) by photographer Robert Dawson — at once a love letter and a lament eighteen years in the making, a wistful yet hopeful reminder of just what’s at stake if we let the greatest bastion of public knowledge humanity has ever known slip into the neglected corner of cultural priorities. Alongside Dawson’s beautiful photographs are short reflections on the subject by such celebrated minds as Isaac Asimov, Anne Lamott, and E.B. White. From architectural marvels to humble feats of human ingenuity, from the august reading room of the New York Public Library to the trailer-library at Death Valley National Park, braving the glaring sun at one of the hottest places on earth, from the extraordinary vaulted ceilings of LA’s Children’s Library to the small shack turned into a book memorial in the country’s only one-person town, the remarkable range reveals our elemental need for libraries — as sanctuaries of learning, as epicenters of community, as living records of civic identity, and above all as a timelier-than-ever testament that information and human knowledge belong to everybody; not to corporate monopolies or government agencies or ideological despots, but to the people.

Reading room, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, New York Public Library, 2008

More than twelve hundred languages and dialects, ancient and modern, are represented in the collections, emblematic of the rich diversity of the city that built it.

The Globe Chandelier near Children's Library, Central Library, Los Angeles, California, 2008

The chandelier is a model of the solar system. Signs of the zodiac ring the globe, along with forty-eight lights around the rim, which represent the forty-eight United States in 1926, when the building opened. It was designed by Goodhue Associates and modeled by Lee Lawrie. The mural beneath the chandelier by John Fisher is titled 'Sesquicentennial.'

Dale Chihuly sculpture, titled 'Fiesta Tower,' in Main Library, San Antonio, Texas, 2011

Central Branch Library in former Union Pacific railroad station, Caliente, Nevada, 2012

In the foreword, the great Bill Moyers — who has long championed the power of reading and self-initiated education — echoes Ray Bradbury’s assertion that libraries are essential for democracy and writes:

The library is being reinvented in response to the explosion of information and knowledge, promiscuous budget cuts in the name of austerity, new technology, and changing needs. Who knows where the emerging new commons will take us? But Robert Dawson shows us in this collection what is at stake: when a library is open, no matter its size or shape, democracy is open, too.

Destroyed Mark Twain Branch Library, Detroit, Michigan, 2011

Main Library, Duluth, Minnesota, 2012

Beehive-shaped bookcase containing student theses, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Library, San Jose State University, San Jose, California, 2009

Redwoods, Mill Valley Public Library, Mill Valley, California, 2012

George Washington Carver Branch Library, Austin, Texas, 2011

This mural by John Fisher covers a wall of the branch library. It depicts the horrors of the slave trade and celebrates African American culture. Black citizens in East Austin had strongly advocated for a library in their community, and this was the first branch library to serve them.

Entrance to the Central Library, Brooklyn, New York, 2009

Grand Canyon Community Library, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, 2012

Library, Death Valley National Park, California, 2009

This remote library in a trailer is the only library for hundreds of miles. The roof is shaded to lessen the intense summer heat of the hottest place on earth.

Rudy's Library, Monowi, Nebraska, 2012

The entire population of this town consists of one woman, Elsie Eller. It is the only incorporated municipality in the United States with such a demographic. She acts as mayor and runs the only business in town, a local roadhouse. Over the years she watched all the other town residents move or pass away. When her husband, Rudy Eller, died in 2004, she became the town's last resident. Because Rudy had collected so many books, she decided to open Rudy's Library in a small shed next to her home. This memorial to Rudy is free and open to all. Patrons can check out books by signing a notebook. A wooden sign in the corner simply states 'Rudy's Dream.'

Some years ago, I came across a wonderful effort by a librarian in the small city of Troy in Michigan, which had just opened its first public library. To get the children in the community excited about books and reading, Marguerite Hart reached out to some of the era’s most celebrated minds — writers, actors, senators — and asked them to write letters to the children of Troy, extolling the value of libraries and the joy of books. To her surprise, she got an astounding 91 responses. I spotlighted those letters — including ones from Dr. Seuss, Isaac Asimov, Neil Armstrong, and E.B. White — a few years ago and was delighted to see some of them included in Dawson’s book. Curiously, however, there appears to be a factual error: Dawson lists the city as Troy, New York, whereas in fact it was Troy, Michigan.

But no matter the human error, the heartening humanity of the letters speaks for itself:

John Steinbeck Library, Salinas, California, 2009

The library made national headlines in 2004 and 2005, when all three branches in the struggling farm community of Salinas were slated for closures because of insufficient funding.

One of the most beautiful reflections comes from the inimitable Anne Lamott, who celebrates her 60th birthday on April 10. Her poignant essay “Steinbeck Country” chronicles how Lamott and some friends — writers and artists from all over the West Coast — banded together to save the libraries at Salinas, one of California’s poorest communities, after the government had threatened to close them. This would’ve made Salinas the largest city in the United States to lose its libraries to budget cuts. Lamott writes:

A free public library is a revolutionary notion, and when people don’t have free access to books, then communities are like radios without batteries. You cut people off from essential sources of information — mythical, practical, linguistic, political — and you break them. You render them helpless in the face of political oppression.

Writers and actors poured in from all over. A poet drove nearly 200 miles from Sacramento. Another writer flew all day to get there. Lamott herself hitched a ride from the Bay Area with the celebrated Buddhist artist and teacher Jack Kornfield. The group staged a 24-hour “emergency read-in” to raise awareness — not just for libraries as cultural institutions, but also for the human capital that powered them. Lamott writes:

We were there to celebrate some of the rare intelligence capabilities that our country can actually be proud of — those of librarians. I see them as healers and magicians. Librarians can tease out of inarticulate individuals enough information about what they are after to lead them on to the path of connection. They are trail guides through the forest of shelves and aisles — you turn a person loose who has limited skills, and he’ll be walloped by the branches. But librarians match up readers with the right books. . . .

Ultimately, they managed to rally up enough media attention, which in turn garnered enough money to keep the library open. Lamott remembers:

A bunch of normally self-obsessed artist types came together to say to the people of Salinas: We care about your children, your stories, and your freedom. Something has gone so wrong in this country that needs to be fixed, and we care about that. Reading and books are medicine. Stories are written and told by and for people who have been broken, but who have risen up, or will rise, if attention is paid to them. Those people are you and us. Stories and truth are splints for the soul, and that makes today a sacred gathering. Now we were all saying: Pass it on.

Richard F. Boi Memorial Library, First Little Free Library, Hudson, Wisconsin, 2012

Little Free Library is a community movement in the United States and worldwide started by Todd Boi and now co-directed by Rick Brooks. Boi started the idea as a tribute to his mother, who was a book lover and schoolteacher. He mounted a wooden container designed to look like a schoolhouse on a post on his lawn. The Little Free Libraries operate under a mantra often inscribed on the book-boxes: 'Take a Book. Leave a Book.'

In the afterword, Ann Patchett — a modern-day sage of writing and life — concludes with a plea so earnest, so urgent, and so deeply necessary:

Know this — if you love your library, use your library. Support libraries in your words and deeds. If you are fortunate enough to be able to buy your books, and you have your own computer with which to conduct research, and you’re not in search of a story hour for your children, then don’t forget about the members of your community who are like you but perhaps lack your resources — the ones who love to read, who long to learn, who need a place to go and sit and think. Make sure that in your good fortune you remember to support their quest for a better life. That’s what a library promises us, after all: a better life. And that’s what libraries have delivered.

The Public Library is absolutely wonderful in its entirety, at once an ode to the glory of our most democratic institutions and a culturally necessary prompt to defend them like we would defend our freedom to live, learn, and be — a freedom to which the library is our highest celebration.

Photographs © Robert Dawson courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

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03 APRIL, 2014

The Presence of Absence: Jane Dorn’s Haunting Photographs of Abandoned Buildings in the South

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A poignant reminder of our impermanence and the beauty of accepting life’s cycles of growth and decay.

UPDATE: Dorn’s photos are now available on society6. Click each image below for the respective print.

“While a painting or a prose description can never be other than a narrowly selective interpretation,” Susan Sontag wrote in her timeless meditation on photography, “a photograph can be treated as a narrowly selective transparency.” Early photography advocate Frederick Douglas spoke of photography’s singular power to reveal the unseen as “aesthetic force,” and yet in today’s image-overloaded culture, how easily that aesthetic force can slip into what Sontag called “aesthetic consumerism” as we devour timeline visuals and telepresence stand-ins for our friends, our communities, and our own experiences of reality. The need for an antidote is precisely what makes the work of Greenville-based photographer Jane Dorn so compelling. Like a contemporary Eudora Welty of the camera, Dorn captures the mesmerizing intersection of place, presence, and absence in her project Empirical Evidence — a series of haunting photographs of abandoned houses, churches, schools, and other once-inhabited buildings across the American South.

Emanating from Dorn’s photographs is a disquieting sense of impermanence as one beholds these derelict structures once erected as assurances of permanence. And yet a quiet beauty slips in through the cracked back door, gently reminding us of the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi — the awareness that life’s beauty comes from accepting imperfection and welcoming the natural cycles of growth and decay.

Dorn writes:

Looking is benign. Seeing has teeth and comes with consequences. You see it, you own it. Sometimes it owns you.

I think of photographs as proof. Empirical evidence of both what is and what is not. Through the camera, I see not what is present, but what is missing. I see evidence of absence through the presence of what remains.

See more of Dorn’s work, which is so striking it belongs in a gorgeous photography book and it’s a miracle it isn’t yet in one, on her site and follow her on Tumblr, where she is a consistently stimulating presence.

Images © Jane Dorn courtesy of the artist

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.