The “Humans of New York” Photo Project Becomes a 13-Part Video Documentary Series: Watch It Free Online

New York, New York—there are many ways of assessing whether or not you’ve “made” it here—these days it includes an appearance on photographer Brandon Stanton’s wildly popular blog, Humans of New York, in which a spontaneous street portrait is anchored by a personal quote or longer anecdote.

Following several books and a UN-sponsored world tour to document humans in over twenty countries, the project has morphed into a 13-episode docu-series as part of Facebook’s original video content platform.

Aided by cinematographer Michael Crommett, Stanton elicits his customary blend of universal and specific truths from his interview subjects. Extending the moment into the video realm affords viewers a larger window onto the complexities of each human’s situation.

Take episode four, “Relationships,” above:

An ample, unadorned woman in late-middle age recalls being swept off her feet by a passion that still burns bright…

An NYU grad stares uncomfortably in her purple cap and gown as her divorced parents air various regrets…

A couple with mismatched views on marriage are upstaged by a spontaneous proposal unfolding a few feet away…

La Vie en Rose holds deep meaning for two couples, despite radically different locations, presentations, and orientations.

A little girl has no problem calling the shots around her special fella…

I love you, New York!!!

Other themes include Money, Time, Purpose, and Parenting.

One of the great pleasures of both series and blog is Stanton’s open-mindedness as to what constitutes New York and New Yorkers.

Some interviews take place near such tourist-friendly locales as Bethesda Fountain and the Washington Square Arch, but just as many transpire alongside noticeably Outer Borough architecture or the blasted cement heaths aproning its less sought after public schools.

Those who live here will nod with recognition at the cherry blossom selfies, "showtime" in the subway, and the Bushwick vibe of the groom who proposed to his bride at Coney Island, under the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest Wall of Fame.

Ditto the appearance of such local celebrities as Jimmy Webb, emeritus manager of the punk boutique, Trash and Vaudeville and Blackwolf the Dragonmaster, the city’s unofficial wizard.

Below, Stanton explains his goal when conducting interviews and demonstrates how a non-threatening approach can soften strangers to the point of candor.

It's well know 'round these parts that certain segments of the local populace would gnaw off limbs to be immortalized by Stanton, but he cleaves to the pure serendipity of his selection process. Asking to have your picture taken ensures that it won’t be. Luck puts you in front of his lens. Sharing your truth is what makes you human.

Watch Humans of New York: The Series here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Carl Van Vechten’s 9,000 Portraits of Great 20th Century Cultural Icons: Billie Holiday, Orson Welles, Dizzy Gillespie & Beyond

Image above and below by Carl Van Vechten, via Wikimedia Commons

Americans have long considered New York City, at least during its relatively inexpensive eras or in its relatively expensive areas, a haven for every type of artist and members of all subcultures. The density of its population, by American standards, also presents its denizens with the opportunity to cross between one artistic or subcultural realm and another with ease — or with geographical ease, anyway. Few New York figures crossed as many such boundaries as creatively in the early 20th century as a Cedar Rapids-born writer and photographer named Carl van Vechten.

"When Van Vechten first arrived in New York, in 1906, there were few signs that he would ever attempt to appoint himself bard of Harlem," writes Kelefa Sanneh in New Yorker piece on Van Vechten's life. "He was a self-consciously sophisticated exile from the Midwest, and he was quickly hired by the Times as a music and dance critic." In addition, to his criticism, "he also published a series of mischievous novels that were notable mainly, one critic observed, for their 'annoying mannerisms.'" (The critic? Probably the author himself.) And the longer Van Vechten lived in New York, "the more interested he became in the sights and sounds of Harlem, where raucous and inventive night clubs were thriving under Prohibition."

The white Van Vechten wrote a novel about black life in Harlem, insisting on a title that I doubt I can even type here. It expressed what Sanneh calls "his conviction that Negro culture was the essence of America," which went with "his simultaneous fascination with the avant-garde and the broadly popular; and his string of sexual relationships with men, which were an open secret during his life. Van Vechten’s tastes were varied: his bibliography includes an erudite cultural history of the house cat, and in his later decades he became an accomplished portrait photographer." Black, white, or otherwise, nearly every major figure in the American culture of the day seems to have sat for his camera: actors, writers, musicians, intellectuals, architects, magnates, and many other types besides.

Some of the subjects of Van Vechten's over 9,000 portraits, all browsable online at Yale's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, were his friends: Gertrude Stein, and Langston Hughes, for instance, both of whom expressed great enthusiasm for Van Vechten's writing on black culture. Others created that black culture, now known as the Harlem Renaissance: Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holliday, James Baldwin. Others made up the culture of global celebrity, then only in its infancy: Orson Welles, Lotte Leyna, Laurence Olivier.

They, and more so Van Vechten himself, knew that to become an icon in the 20th century, you needed to do much more than excel in the human realm: you had to transcend it, ascending into that of the image. If you sufficiently fascinated Van Vechten, it seems, he was only too glad to help you on your way there. See thousands of his portraits at this Yale website.

Portraits in order of appearance on this page include: Billie Holliday, Orson Welles, James Baldwin, Gertrude Stein, and Dizzy Gillespie. All come courtesy of the Van Vechten Collection at Library of Congress.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The First Known Photograph of People Sharing a Beer (1843)

It should go without saying that one should drink responsibly, for reasons pertaining to life and limb as well as reputation. The ubiquity of still and video cameras means potentially embarrassing moments can end up on millions of screens in an instant, copied, downloaded, and saved for posterity. Not so during the infancy of photography, when it was a painstaking process with minutes-long exposure times and arcane chemical development methods. Photographing people generally meant keeping them as still as possible for several minutes, a requirement that rendered candid shots next to impossible.

We know the results of these early photographic portraiture from many a famous Daguerreotype, named for its French inventor, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre. At the same time, during the 1830s and 40s, another process gained popularity in England, called the Calotype—or “Talbotype,” for its inventor William Henry Fox Talbot. “Upon hearing of the advent of the Daguerreotype in 1839,” writes Linz Welch at the United Photographic Artists Gallery site, Talbot “felt moved to action to fully refine the process that he had begun work on. He was able to shorten his exposure times greatly and started using a similar form of camera for exposure on to his prepared paper negatives.”

This last feature made the Calotype more versatile and mechanically reproducible. And the shortened exposure times seemed to enable some greater flexibility in the kinds of photographs one could take. In the 1843 photo above, we have what appears to be an entirely unplanned grouping of revelers, caught in a moment of cheer at the pub. Created by Scottish painter-photographers Robert Adamson and David Octavius Hill—who grins, half-standing, on the right—the image looks like almost no other portrait from the time. Rather than sitting rigidly, the figures slouch casually; rather than looking grim and mournful, they smile and smirk, apparently sharing a joke. The photograph is believed to be the first image of alcoholic consumption, and it does its subject justice.

Though Talbot patented his Calotype process in England in 1941, the restrictions did not apply in Scotland. “In fact,” the Metropolitan Museum of Art writes, “Talbot encouraged its use there.” He maintained a correspondence with interested scientists, including Adamson’s older brother John, a professor of chemistry. But the Calotype was more of an artists’ medium. Where Daguerreotypes produced, Welch writes, “a startling resemblance of reality,” with clean lines and even tones, the Calotype, with its salt print, “tended to have high contrast between lights and darks…. Additionally, because of the paper fibers, the image would present with a grain that would diffuse the details.” We see this especially in the capturing of Octavius Hill, who appears both lifelike in motion and rendered artistically with charcoal or brush.

The other two figures—James Ballantine, writer, stained-glass artist, and son of an Edinburgh brewer, and Dr. George Bell, in the center—have the rakish air of characters in a William Hogarth scene. The National Galleries of Scotland attributes the naturalness of these poses to “Hill’s sociability, humour and his capacity to gauge the sitters’ characters.” Surely the booze did its part in loosening everyone up. The three men are said to be drinking Edinburgh Ale, “according to a contemporary account… ‘a potent fluid, which almost glued the lips of the drinker together.'" Such a side effect would, at least, make it extremely difficult to over-imbibe.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

See the First Photograph of a Human Being: A Photo Taken by Louis Daguerre (1838)

You’ve likely heard the reason people never smile in very old photographs. Early photography could be an excruciatingly slow process. With exposure times of up to 15 minutes, portrait subjects found it impossible to hold a grin, which could easily slip into a pained grimace and ruin the picture. A few minutes represented marked improvement on the time it took to make the very first photograph, Nicéphore Niépce’s 1826 “heliograph.” Capturing the shapes of light and shadow outside his window, Niépce’s image “required an eight-hour exposure,” notes the Christian Science Monitor, “long enough that the sunlight reflects off both sides of the buildings.”

Niépce’s business and inventing partner is much more well-known: Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, who went on after Niépce’s death in 1833 to develop the Daguerreotype process, patenting it in 1839. That same year, the first selfie was born. And the year prior Daguerre himself took what most believe to be the very first photograph of a human, in a street scene of the Boulevard du Temple in Paris. The image shows us one of Daguerre’s early successful attempts at image-making, in which, writes NPR’s Robert Krulwich, “he exposed a chemically treated metal plate for ten minutes. Others were walking or riding in carriages down that busy street that day, but because they moved, they didn’t show up.”

Visible, however, in the lower left quadrant is a man standing with his hands behind his back, one leg perched on a platform. A closer look reveals the fuzzy outline of the person shining his boots. A much finer-grained analysis of the photograph shows what may be other, less distinct figures, including what looks like two women with a cart or pram, a child’s face in a window, and various other passersby. The photograph marks a historically important period in the development of the medium, one in which photography passed from curiosity to revolutionary technology for both artists and scientists.

Although Daguerre had been working on a reliable method since the 1820s, it wasn’t until 1838, the Metropolitan Museum of Art explains, that his “continued experiments progressed to the point where he felt comfortable showing examples of the new medium to selected artists and scientists in the hope of lining up investors.” Photography’s most popular 19th century use—perhaps then as now—was as a means of capturing faces. But Daguerre’s earliest plates “were still life compositions of plaster casts after antique sculpture,” lending “the ‘aura’ of art to pictures made by mechanical means.” He also took photographs of shells and fossils, demonstrating the medium’s utility for scientific purposes.

If portraits were perhaps less interesting to Daguerre’s investors, they were essential to his successors and admirers. Candid shots of people moving about their daily lives as in this Paris street scene, however, proved next to impossible for several more decades. What was formerly believed to be the oldest such photograph, an 1848 image from Cincinnati, shows what appears to be two men standing at the edge of the Ohio River. It seems as though they’ve come to fetch water, but they must have been standing very still to have appeared so clearly. Photography seemed to stop time, freezing a static moment forever in physical form. Blurred images of people moving through the frame expose the illusion. Even in the stillest, stiffest of images, there is movement, an insight Eadweard Muybridge would make central to his experiments in motion photography just a few decades after Daguerre debuted his world-famous method.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness


Two Million Wondrous Nature Illustrations Put Online by The Biodiversity Heritage Library

Are we truly in the midst of a human-caused sixth mass extinction, an era of “biological annihilation”? Many scientists and popular science writers say yes, using terms like “Holocene” or “Anthropocene” to describe what follows the Ordovician, Devonian, Permian, Triassic, and Cretaceous periods. Peter Brannen, author of extinction history The Ends of the Earth has found at least one scientist who thinks the concept is “junk.” But Brannen quotes some alarming statistics. Chilling, even. “Until very recently,” he writes, “all vertebrate life on the planet was wildlife. But astoundingly, today wildlife accounts for only 3 percent of earth’s land animals; human beings, our livestock, and our pets take up the remaining 97 percent of the biomass… almost half of the earth’s land has been converted into farmland.”

This state of affairs does not bode well for the millions of remaining species getting edged out of their environments by agribusiness and climate change. We learn from extinctions past that the planet rebounds after unimaginable catastrophe. Life really does go on, though it may take millions of years to recover. But the current forms of life may disappear before their time. If we want to understand what is at stake besides our own fragile fossil-fuel based civilizations, we need to connect to life emotionally as well as intellectually. Short of globe-hopping physical immersion in the earth’s biodiversity, we could hardly do better than immersing ourselves in the tradition of naturalist writing, art, and photography that brings the world to us.

The Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL), an “open access digital library for biodiversity literature and archives,” has for many years been making it easy for people to connect to nature through nature writing and illustration. In 2012, they announced the “success story” of their Flickr streams, both containing thousands of illustrations and photographs uploaded by the BHL staff and readers from their huge collections of books.

The first stream, currently at 122,281 images, has been carefully curated, and includes searchable galleries and albums divided by book title or subject, such as “Exotic botany illustrated,” “The Birds of Australia v.1,” and “Bats!” The second stream, consisting of over 2 million images, is a massive grab-bag of photos, illlustrations from nature, advertisements, and imaginative renderings.

Though far less useful for the scholar—or the very purposeful user—this second photostream offers more potential for chance discovery, through the aimless wandering that often leads to serendipitously sublime experiences. The formal BHL stream does not disappoint, though it may offer fewer surprises. Both of these image archives offer expansive views of humanity's encounter with the natural world, not only through statistics and academic jargon, but through the artistic recording of wonder, scientific curiosity, and deep appreciation.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Google’s Free Photo Editing Software, the Nik Collection, Has Been Acquired by DxO & Will Live Another Day

In March of 2016, readers thrilled when Google announced that it made the Nik Collection, its professional photo editing software, free to download and use. Previously priced at $149, the now-free software gives users access to "seven desktop plug-ins that provide a powerful range of photo editing capabilities -- from filter applications that improve color correction, to retouching and creative effects."

If there was cause for celebration, it didn't last that long. Earlier this year, Google followed up with another announcement--that it planned to discontinue development of the Nik Collection, and essentially let it wither on the vine.

Now here's the latest chapter in the story. A seemingly good one. The image processing company DxO has acquired the Nik Collection from Google. Jérôme Ménière, DxO's founder and CEO, declared in a press release, “DxO revolutionized the image processing market many times over the years with its innovative solutions, and we will continue to do so with Nik’s tools, which offer new creative opportunities to millions of photographers.” Apparently the Nik Collection gets to live another day.

If you head over to DxO's website, you can still download the current Nik Collection for free. You simply need to provide your email address, and they'll send a download link to your inbox.

Also on the DxO website they've announced plans for a future iteration of the Nik Collection, saying "The new 'Nik Collection 2018 Edition' will be released mid-2018, please leave your email below to be informed when it's available." Whether that 2018 edition will stay free remains to be seen.

via Petapixel

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Eerie 19th Century Photographs of Ghosts: See Images from the Long, Strange Tradition of “Spirit Photography”

We might draw any number of conclusions from the fact that rats’ brains are enough like ours that they stand in for humans in laboratories. A misanthropic existentialist may see the unflattering similarity as evidence that there’s nothing special about human beings, despite our grandiose sense of ourselves. A medieval European thinker would draw a moral lesson, pointing to the rat’s gluttony as nature’s allegory for human greed. And a skeptical observer in the 19th and early 20th centuries might take note of how easily both rats and humans can be manipulated; the latter, for example, by pseudo-phenomena like Spiritualism, which encompassed a wide range of claims about ghosts and the afterlife, from seances to spirit photography.

One such skeptical observer in 1920, Millaias Culpin, even wrote in his Spiritualism and the New Psychology of the “’scientific’ supporters of spiritualism,” most of them “eminent in physical science.” They are easily convinced, Culpin thought, because “they have been trained in a world where honesty is assumed to be a quality of all workers. A laboratory assistant who played a trick upon one of them would find his career at an end, and ordinary cunning is foreign to them. When they enter upon the world of Dissociates, where deceit masquerades under the disguise of transparent honesty, these eminent men are but as babes—country cousins in the hands of confidence-trick men.”

Such adherents of Spiritualist beliefs were taken in not because they were naturally credulous or stupid, but because they had been “trained” to trust the evidence of their senses. So-called spirit photographs, like those you see here, allowed people to “show material evidence for their beliefs.” Photographers who created the images, Mashable explains, could "easily make two exposures on a single negative, manipulate the negative to create ghostly blurs, or overlap two negatives in the darkroom to produce an extra face within the resultant frame."

The audience for this work was "vast," and many fit Culpin's generalizations. In 1921, for example, paranormal investigator Hereward Carrington wrote of “a number of ‘spirit’ and ‘thought’ photographs, the evidence for which seemed to me to be exceptionally good.” In describing other pictures as “obviously fraudulent” or “extremely puzzling,” Carrington made critical distinctions and appeared to use the methods and the language of science in the evaluation of objects purporting to prove the existence of ghosts.

It may seem incredible that spirit photography had widespread appeal for as long as it did. The photographs first began appearing in the 1860s, emerging “from a small Boston portrait studio” and first made by William H. Mumler, the genre’s inventor and “most prominent early proponent,” writes Mashable.

Mumler was neither a photographer nor a medium. He originally worked as a silver engraver, while dabbling in photography in the local studio of a woman named Mrs. Stuart. One day in 1861, in the midst of developing a self-portrait, Mumler reported that the dim figure of a young cousin who had died twelve years earlier emerged in the final print.

These ghostly images continued to appear—on their own, the story goes—and the studio’s receptionist, a part-time medium, helped popularize them. Soon Mumler “received visitors from across America, including the recently widowed Mary Todd Lincoln.” Most of these visitors did not work as scientists or professional paranormal investigators. They were ordinary people bereaved by the mass death of the Civil War and deeply motivated to accept physical confirmation of an afterlife. Moreover, before the rise of Fundamentalist Evangelicalism in the 1920s, Spiritualism was on the front lines of an earlier culture war: spirit photography was “a tangible symbol of the overarching argument of mysticism versus science and rationalism.”

The three images at the top of the post date from the earliest period of spirit photography, between 1862 and 1875, and they were all produced by Mumler in Boston and New York, where he moved in 1869, and where he was charged with fraud, then “acquitted of all charges because they could not be sufficiently proven.” (See many more of his photos at Mashable and the Getty Museum online archive.) Though his business suffered, spirit photography only grew more popular, particularly in Spiritualist circles in Britain, where Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the hyper-rational Sherlock Holmes, was one of the most ardent of Spiritualist believers.

Doyle supported a British photographer named William Hope, who began taking spirit photographs in 1905, founded a group called the Crewe Circle and later “went on to prey on grieving families,” writes River Donaghey at Vice, “who lost loved ones in WWI and desperately wanted photographic proof that their relatives were still hovering around in spectral form.” Even after Hope and his crew were exposed, Doyle continued to support him, going so far as to write a book called The Case for Spirit Photography. The four photographs above and below are Hope’s work (see many more at Vice and the Public Domain Review). They are seriously creepy—in the way movies like The Ring are creepy—but they are also, quite obviously, photographic fictions.

Even as viewers of photography became savvier as the century wore on, many people thrilled to Hope’s work until his death in 1933, maybe for the same reason we watch The Ring; it’s a fun scare, nothing more, if we suspend our disbelief. As for the true believers in spirit photography—they are not so different either from us 21st century sophisticates. We’re still taken in all the time by hoaxes and frauds, maybe because it’s still as easy to push the buttons in our brains, and because, well, we just want to believe.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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