Why Nobody Smiles in Old Photos: The Technological & Cultural Reasons Behind All those Black-and-White Frowns

We've all heard stories of kids who ask their parents if the world was really black-and-white in the 1950s, or maybe even been those kids ourselves. With that matter cleared up, children who've seen even older colorless photographs — say, from around the turn of the 20th century — may follow up with another question: hadn't they invented smiling back then? If they ask you (or if you've wondered about it yourself), you can take care of it in just three minutes by pulling up this Vox explainer on why people never smiled in old photos. Why, in the words of Phil Edwards writing on the video's accompanying page, "did people in old photos look like they'd just heard the worst news of their life?"

"We can't know for sure, but a few theories help us guess what was behind all that black-and-white frowning." The first, and the one you may already know, has to do with the camera technology of the day, whose "long exposure times — the time a camera needs to take a picture — made it important for the subject of a picture to stay as still as possible. That way, the picture wouldn't look blurry." But by the year 1900 that problem was more or less solved "with the introduction of the Brownie and other cameras," which were "still slow by today's standards, but not so slow that it was impossible to smile."

Other theories explaining the smile-free photographs of old include the lingering influence of the painted portrait on the photographic portrait; the dominant idea of photography as a "passage to immortality" that "meant the medium was predisposed to seriousness over the ephemeral"; and that Victorian and Edwardian culture itself took a dim view of smiling, supported by a survey of smiling in portraits conducted by Nicholas Jeeves at the Public Domain Review that "came to the conclusion that there was a centuries-long history of viewing smiling as something only buffoons did." Yet late 19th-century and early 20th-century photography isn't a completely smile-free zone, as the Flickr group The Smiling Victorian proves.

Edwards includes a picture, taken circa 1904, of a man smiling not just unmistakably but hugely. He does so as he prepares to dig into a bowl of rice, that being an important part of the cuisine of China, where Asian-language scholar Berthold Laufer took an expedition to capture the everyday life of the Chinese people on film. "His rice-loving subject may have been willing to grin because he was from a different culture with its own sensibility concerning photography and public behavior," Edwards writes. Whatever the reasons for the smile on that Chinese face or the lack of one on all those Victorians and Edwardians, we must prepare ourselves to answer an even more difficult question from posterity: one about why, exactly, we're doing what we're doing in the billions of photos we now take of ourselves every day.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, 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.

Beautiful Hand-Colored Japanese Flowers Created by the Pioneering Photographer Ogawa Kazumasa (1896)

Ogawa Kazumasa lived from the 1860s to almost the 1930s, surely one of the most fascinating 70-year stretches in Japanese history. Ogawa's homeland "opened" to the world when he was a boy, and for the rest of his life he bore witness to the sometimes beautiful, sometimes strange, sometimes exhilarating results of a once-isolated culture assimilating seemingly everything foreign — art, technology, customs — all at once. Naturally he picked up a camera to document it all, and history now remembers him as a pioneer of his art.

At the Getty's web site you can see a few examples of the sort of pictures Ogawa took of Japanese life in the mid-1890s. During that same period he published Some Japanese Flowers, a book containing his pictures of just that.

The following year, Ogawa's hand-colored photographs of Japanese flowers also appeared in the American books Japan, Described and Illustrated by the Japanese, edited by the renowned Anglo-Irish expatriate Japanese culture scholar Francis Brinkley and published in Boston, the city where Ogawa had spent a couple of years studying portrait photography and processing.

Ogawa's varied life in Japan included working as an editor at Shashin Shinpō (写真新報), the only photography journal in the country at the time, as well as at the flower magazine Kokka (国華), which would certainly have given him the experience he needed to produce photographic specimens such as these. Though Ogawa invested a great deal in learning and employing the highest photographic technologies, they were the highest photographic technologies of the 1890s, when color photography necessitated adding colors — of particular importance in the case of flowers — after the fact.

Some Japanese Flowers was re-issued a few years ago, but you can still see 20 striking examples of Ogawa's flower photography at the Public Domain Review. They've also made several of his works available as prints of several different sizes in their online shop, a selection that includes not just his flowers but the Bronze Buddha at Kamakura and a man locked in battle with an octopus as well. Even as everything changed so rapidly all around him, as he mastered the just-as-rapidly developing tools of his craft, Ogawa nevertheless kept his eye for the natural and cultural aspects of his homeland that seemed never to have changed at all.

via Public Domain Review

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, 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 Cringe-Inducing Humor of The Office Explained with Philosophical Theories of Mind

"I'm a friend first and a boss second," says David Brent, middle manager at the Slough branch of paper company Wernham-Hogg. "Probably an entertainer third." Those of us who've watched the original British run of The Office — and especially those of us who still watch it regularly — will remember that and many other of Brent's pitiable declarations besides. As portrayed by the show's co-creator Ricky Gervais, Brent constitutes both The Office's comedic and emotional core, at once a fully realized character and someone we've all known in real life. His distinctive combination of social incompetence and an aggressive desperation to be liked provokes in us not just laughter but a more complex set of emotions as well, resulting in one expression above all others: the cringe.

"In David Brent, we have a character so invested in the performance of himself that he's blocked his own access to others' feelings." So goes the analysis of Evan Puschak, a.k.a. the Nerdwriter, in his video interpreting the humor of The Office through philosophical theories of mind.

The elaborate friend-boss-entertainer song-and-dance Brent constantly puts on for his co-workers so occupies him that he lacks the ability or even the inclination to have any sense of what they're thinking. "The irony is that Brent can't see that a weak theory of mind always makes for a weak self-performance. You can't brute force your preferred personality onto another's consciousness: it takes two to build an identity."

Central though Brent is to The Office, we laugh not just at what he says and does, but how the other characters (which Puschak places across a spectrum of ability to understand the minds of others) react — or fail to react — to what he says and does, how he reacts to their reactions, and so on. Mastery of the comedic effects of all this has kept the original Office effective more than fifteen years later, though its effect may not be entirely pleasurable: "A lot of people say that cringe humor like this is hard to watch," says Puschak, "but in the same way that under our confidence, in theory of mind, lies an anxiety, I think that under our cringing there's actually a deep feeling of relief." When Brent and others fail to connect, their "body language speaks in a way that is totally transparent: in that moment the embarrassment is not only palpable, it's palpably honest." And it reminds us that — if we're being honest — none of us are exactly mind-readers ourselves.

You can get the complete British run of The Office on Amazon here.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, 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.

How Obsessive Artists Colorize Old Photographs & Restore the True Colors of the Past

The art of hand-coloring or tinting black and white photographs has been around, the Vox video above explains, since the earliest days of photography itself. “But these didn’t end up looking super realistic,” at least not next to their modern counterparts, created with computers. Digital colorization “has made it possible for artists to reconstruct images with far more accuracy.”

Accuracy, you say? How is it possible to reconstruct color arrangements from the past when they have only been preserved in black and white? Well, this requires research. “You now have a wealth of information,” says Jordan Lloyd, a master digital colorist. “It’s just knowing where to look.”

Historical advertisements, diaries, documents, and the assessments of historians and ethnographers, among other resources, provide enough data for a realistic approximation. Some conjecture is involved, but when you see the amount of research that goes into determining the colors of the past, you will most surely be impressed.

This isn’t playing with filters and settings in Photoshop until the images look good—it’s using software to recreate what scholarship uncovers, the kind of digging that turns up important historical facts such as the original red-on-black logo of 7Up, or the fact that the Eiffel tower was painted a color called “Venetian red” during its construction.

Unless we know this color history, we might be inclined to think colorized photographs that get it right are wrong. However, the aim of modern colorizers is not only to make the past seem more immediate to us in the present; they also attempt to restore the colors people saw when photographs from the 19th and early 20th centuries were taken.

The software may not dictate color, but it still plays an indispensable role in how alive digitally colorized photographs appear. Colorizers first use it to remove blemishes, scratches, and the signs of age. Then they blend hundreds of layers of colors. It’s a little like making a digital oil painting. Human skin can have up to 20 layers of colors, ranging from pinks, to yellows, to blues.

Without “an intuitive understanding of how light works in the atmosphere,” however, these artists would fail to persuade us. Color is produced by light, as we know, and light is conditioned by levels of artificial and natural light blending in a space, by atmospheric conditions and time of day. Different surfaces reflect light differently. Correctly interpreting these conditions in a monochromatic photograph is the key to “achieving photorealism.”

Critics of colorization treat it like a form of vandalism, but as Lloyd points out, the process is not meant to substitute for the original artifacts, but to supplement them. The colorized photos we see in the video and at the links below are of images in the public domain, available to use and reuse for any purpose. Colorization artists have found their purpose in making the past seem far less like a distant country.

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

How Dorothea Lange Shot, Migrant Mother, Perhaps the Most Iconic Photo in American History

When we visualize the Great Depression, we think first of one woman: Native American migrant worker Florence Owens Thompson. Few of us know her name, though nearly all of us know her face. For that we have another woman to thank: the photographer Dorothea Lange who during the Depression was working for the United States federal government, specifically the Farm Security Administration, on "a project that would involve documenting poor rural workers in a propaganda effort to elicit political support for government aid."

That's how Evan Puschak, better known as the Nerdwriter, puts it in a video essay on Lange's famous 1936 photo of ThompsonMigrant Mother. (For best results, view the video below on a phone or tablet rather than on a standard computer screen.) Reaching the migrant workers' camp in Nipomo, California where Thompson and her children were staying toward the end of another long day of photography, Lange at first passed it by.

Only about twenty miles later did she decide to turn the car around and see what material the 2,500 to 3,500 "pea pickers" there might offer. She stayed only ten minutes, but in that time captured what Puschak calls the photograph that "came to define the Depression in the American consciousness" — it even heads the Great Depression's Wikipedia page — and "became the archetypal image of struggling families in any era."

Over time, Migrant Mother has also become "one of the most iconic pictures in the history of photography." But Lange didn't get it right away: it was actually the sixth portrait she took of Thompson, each one more powerful (and more able to "evoke sympathy from voters that would translate into political support") than the last. Puschak takes us through each of these, marking the changes in composition that led to the photograph we can all call to mind immediately. "A lesser photographer would have milked the children's faces for their sympathetic potential," for instance, but having them turn away "communicates that message of family" without "taking away from the central face, or the eyes, which seem at last to let down their guard as they search the distance and worry."

These and other actively made choices (including the removal of Thompson's distracting left thumb in the darkroom) mean that "there is very little spontaneous in this iconic image of so-called documentary photography," but "whether that diminishes its power is up to you. For me, being able to actually see the steps of Lange's craft enhances her work." Whatever Lange's process, the product defined an era, and upon publication convinced the government to send 20,000 pounds of food to Nipomo — though by that point Thompson herself, who ultimately succeeded in providing for her family and lived to the age of 80, had moved on.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, 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 Getty Digital Archive Expands to 135,000 Free Images: Download High Resolution Scans of Paintings, Sculptures, Photographs & Much Much More

J. Paul Getty was not a billionaire known for his generosity. But since his death, the Getty Trust and complex of Getty museums in L.A. have carried forth in a more magnanimous spirit, ostensibly adhering to values that transcend their founder: “service, philanthropy, teaching, and access.”

A collection first gathered for private investment and consumption (sometimes under a cloud of scandal) has expanded into galleries that millions pass through every year; a Conservation Institute dedicated to preserving the world’s art; and a Research Institute proclaiming a social mission: a devotion to expanding “our knowledge of the history of art, of all countries, of all languages,” according to its director Thomas Gaehtgens, who also says, “a society without art cannot really survive.”

Put another way, as one of the Getty’s art market competitors was once quoted as saying, “They just want people to like them.” He didn’t mean it as a compliment, but if you are an art lover—and not a billionaire art collector—you may genuinely appreciate this quality. And you may like them even more now that their open access digital collections have almost doubled to 135,000 high-resolution images since we last checked in with them five years ago.

Like the Getty museum, it reflects its founder's tastes in Classical, Neo-Classical, and Renaissance art. Download Andrea Mantegna’s Adoration of the Magi (top), for example, at the highest resolution (8557 X 6559) and get closer to a virtual version than you ever could to the real thing. Learn the painting’s provenance and exhibition history, read an informative description and a bibliography. The painting is one of hundreds from European masters and their lesser-known apprentices. You’ll also find several hundred images of sculpture, both classical and modern—like Paul Gaugin’s sandalwood Head with Horns, above—as well as drawings, manuscripts, pottery, jewelry, coins, decorative arts, and much more.

But the bulk of the digital collection consists of photographs, with 112,261 images and counting in the archive. The Getty has “assembled the finest and most comprehensive corpus of photographs on the West Coast” in its photography collection (not to be confused with Getty’s son’s media empire), with “substantial holdings by some of the most significant masters of the 20th century.” The collection is also “particularly rich in works dating from the time of photography’s invention” and its development in the mid-19th century.

Download and study Dorothea Lange’s desolate Abandoned Dust Bowl Home. Or journey back to the early days of the medium, when gentleman amateurs like Scottish nobleman Ronald Ruthven Leslie-Melville took up photography as an avid pursuit, and documented the landscapes, architecture, and personages of their age. (See Ruthven-Melville’s 1860's photograph Roehampton below.)

Like all digital collections, the Getty’s cannot replicate the experience of seeing physical works of art in person, but it does magnanimously expand access to thousands of images usually hidden from the public, as well as thousands of pieces currently on display in one of its many museums. Completely free, the online archive serves as an invaluable teaching and learning tool, a vast repository preserving international art history online.

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

Free: Download Thousands of Ottoman-Era Photographs That Have Been Digitized and Put Online

“Turkey is a geographical and cultural bridge between the east and the west,” writes Istanbul University’s Gönül Bakay. This was so long before Constantinople became Istanbul, but after the rise of the Ottoman Empire, the region took on a particular significance for Christian Europe. “The Turk” became a threatening and exotic figure in the European imagination, “shaped by a considerable body of literature, stretching from Christopher Marlowe to Thomas Carlyle.” Images of Ottoman Turkey were long drawn from a “mixture of fact, fantasy and fear.”

With the advent of photography in the mid-nineteenth century, those images were supplemented, illustrated, and countered by prints depicting Turkish people both in everyday life circumstances and in Orientalist poses.

In the final decades of the Ottoman Empire, as modernization took hold all over Europe, viewers might encounter photos of women in poses reminiscent of the Odalisque and street scenes of bustling, cosmopolitan Constantinople, with signs in Ottoman Turkish, English, French, Armenian, and Greek.

Photos of Enver Pashade facto ruler of the Ottoman Empire during World War I and “highest-ranking perpetrator of the Armenian genocide,” writes Isotta Poggi at the Getty’s blog—circulated alongside images like that below, a group of Turkish tourists posed near the Sphinx. These and thousands more such photographs of Ottoman Turkey at the turn of the century and into the first years of the Turkish Republic—3,750 digitized images in total—are now available to view and download at the Getty Research Institute.

The photos come from French collector Pierre de Gigord, who acquired them during his many travels through Turkey in the 1980s. They were taken by photographers, some of whose names are lost to history, from all over Europe and the Mediterranean, including Armenian photographers who played a “central role,” notes Poggi, “in shaping Turkey’s national cultural history and collective memory.” (Read artist Hande Sever’s Getty essay on this subject here.) The huge collection contains “landmark architecture, urban and natural landscape, archeological sites of millennia-old civilizations, and the bustling life of the diverse people who lived over 100 years ago.”

Despite the loss of materiality in the transfer to digital, a loss of “formatting, or sense of scale” that changes the way we experience these photos, they “enable us to learn about the past,” writes Poggi, “seeing Turkey’s diverse society” as photography’s early viewers did, and to better understand the present, "observing how certain sites and people, as well as social or political issues, have evolved yet still remain the same.” Enter the Pierre de Gigord collection at the Getty here.

via Hyperallergic/The Getty

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

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