The History of the Fisheye Photo Album Cover

Like gothic script in heavy metal, the fisheye album cover photo seems like a naturally occurring feature of certain psychedelic strains of music. But it has a history, as does the fisheye photograph itself. The Vox video above begins in 1906 with Johns Hopkins scientist and inventor Robert Wood, a somewhat eccentric professor of optical physics who wanted to duplicate the way fish see the world: “the circular picture,” he wrote, “would contain everything within an angle of 180 degrees in every direction, i.e. a complete hemisphere.”

Rather than putting them to underwater use, later scientists employed Wood’s ideas in astronomical observation. Their next stop was the professional photography market: the first mass-produced fisheye lens, made by Nikon, cost $27,000 in 1957. From academic journals to the pages of Life magazine: mass media brought fisheye photography into popular culture. An affordable, consumer-grade lens in 1962 brought it within the reach of the masses. For the way it compresses angles, the fisheye lens “was, and always has been, a handy tool to capture tight quarters, as well as huge spaces.”

The fisheye lens suited the Beatles phenomenon perfectly, compressing backstage hallways and stadium-sized crowds into the same hypnotically circular dimensions. “Perhaps its greatest strength was making rock stars appear larger than life.”

The fisheye photo “reflected the trippiness of the psychedelic era.” Although one of the earliest uses on an album cover was Sam Rivers’ Fuschia Swing Song, it soon adorned the Byrds Mr. Tambourine Man and—of course—the cover of Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced. The iconic band photo of the Experience, taken by graphic designer Karl Ferris, inspired hundreds of psychedelic imitators.

Ferris thought of the fisheye photo with reference, again, not to the ocean but the stars: Hendrix’s music, he said, was “so far out that it seemed to come from outer space.” In order to introduce the band to audiences who hadn’t heard of them yet, he conceived of them as a “group traveling through space in a Biosphere on their way to bring their otherworldly space music to earth.” Inseparable from space travel after NASA’s many fisheye photos of the Apollo missions, the fisheye album cover contains entire worlds in a single droplet, and promises to transport us to the outer reaches of sound.

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

A Recently-Discovered 44,000-Year-Old Cave Painting Tells the Oldest Known Story

Where did art begin? In a cave, most of us would say — especially those of us who’ve seen Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams — and specifically on the walls of caves, where early humans drew the first representations of landscapes, animals, and themselves. But when did art begin? The answer to that question has proven more subject to revision. The well-known paintings of the Lascaux cave complex in France go back 17,000 years, but the paintings of that same country’s Chauvet cave, the ones Herzog captured in 3D, go back 32,000 years. And just two years ago, Griffith University researchers discovered artwork on a cave on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi that turns out to be about 44,000 years old.

Here on Open Culture we’ve featured the argument that ancient rock-wall art constitutes the earliest form of cinema, to the extent that its unknown painters sought to evoke movement. But cave paintings like the one in Sulawesi’s cave Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4, which you can see in the video above, also shed light on the nature of the earliest known forms of storytelling.

The “fourteen-and-a-half-foot-wide image, painted in dark-red pigment,” writes The New Yorker‘s Adam Gopnik, depicts “about eight tiny bipedal figures, bearing what look to be spears and ropes, bravely hunting the local wild pigs and buffalo.” This first known narrative”tells one of the simplest and most resonant stories we have: a tale of the hunter and the hunted, of small and easily mocked pursuers trying to bring down a scary but vulnerable beast.”

Like other ancient cave art, the painting’s characters are therianthropes, described by the Griffith researchers’ Nature article as “abstract beings that combine qualities of both people and animals, and which arguably communicated narrative fiction of some kind (folklore, religious myths, spiritual beliefs and so on).” Given the apparent importance of their roles in early stories, how much of a stretch would it be to call these figures the first superheroes? “Indeed, the cave painting could be entered as evidence into a key aesthetic and storytelling argument of today — the debate between the paladins of American film, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, and their Marvel Cinematic Universe contemporaries,” writes Gopnik.

If you haven’t followed this struggle for the soul of storytelling in the 21st century, Scorsese wrote a piece in The New York Times claiming that today’s kind of blockbuster superhero picture isn’t cinema, in that it shrinks from “the complexity of people and their contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures, the way they can hurt one another and love one another and suddenly come face to face with themselves.” (“He didn’t say it’s despicable,” Coppola later added, “which I just say it is.”) And yet, as Gopnik puts it, “our oldest picture story seems to belong, whether we want it to or not, more to the Marvel universe than to Marty Scorsese’s.” If we just imagine how those therianthropes — “A human with the strength of a bull! Another with the guile of a crocodile!” — must have thrilled their contemporary viewers, we’ll understand these cave paintings for what they are: early art, early storytelling, early cinema, but above all, early spectacle.

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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.

Steve Martin Performs Stand-Up Comedy for Dogs (1973)

In what looks/sounds like his first appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, Steve Martin performs a groundbreaking comedy routine. As you’ll see, you might not get the jokes. But your dogs will. Although recorded 46 years ago (February 15, 1973), the pooches will laugh as hard now as they did then.

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John Coltrane Talks About the Sacred Meaning of Music in the Human Experience: Listen to One of His Final Interviews (1966)

A few years ago, the animated series Blank on Blank released a video with five minutes from one of John Coltrane’s last interviews in 1966, eight months before his death from liver cancer at age 40. In the excerpts, Coltrane tells interviewer Frank Kofsky, a Pacifica Reporter, about his intuitive approach to practicing, his switch to soprano sax, and his desire to “be a force for real good.” As juicy as these tidbits are for Coltrane fans, the full interview, above, is even better—an hour-long encounter with the jazz saint, who opens up to Kofsky in his relaxed, yet guarded way.

Coltrane chooses his words carefully. His refusal to elaborate is often its own subtle form of expression. During their opening banter, Kofsky asks him about seeing Malcolm X speak just before the latter’s death. Coltrane calls Malcolm “impressive” and leaves it at that. Kofsky then asks his first pointed question: “Some musicians have said that there’s a relationship between some of Malcom’s ideas and music, especially the new music. You think there’s anything in there?”

Kofsky had his own reasons for pushing this line. Just a few years later, he published Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music in 1971. The book was reprinted with the more specific, less threatening, title John Coltrane and the Jazz Revolution of the 1960s. Both versions prominently feature Coltrane on the cover. “Dedicated to both John Coltrane and Malcolm X,” notes Soul Jazz Records, the book “places the revolutionary ‘new thing’ music and ideas of Coltrane, Albert Ayler and others in a wider context of 60’s radicalism, African American politics and history.”

An historian and academic who published several books on jazz, Kofsky isn’t subtle about his agenda, but Coltrane is unwilling to be pushed into a political corner, as fans have pointed out in discussions of this interview. He wants to embrace everything. “I think that music, being an expression of the human heart, or the human being itself,” he says, “does express just what is happening. It expresses the whole thing.” He consistently refuses to get drawn into a discussion of racial politics with Kofsky.

When they finally move on to talking about performance, the unflappable Coltrane stops demurring and opens up. We hear him describe his experience of being on stage at one concert as “too busy” to know what was happening in the audience, but the right audience can also be, he says, a participating member of the group. When Kofsky again pushes Coltrane on the relationship between his music and black nationalism, Coltrane coolly replies, “I have consciously made an attempt to change what I’ve found. In other words, I’ve tried to say, ‘this could be better, in my opinion, so I will try to do this to make it better.”

Coltrane’s knack for cutting to the heart of his purpose—to add to the world with his playing, without a need to control what happens afterwards—comes through in the entire hour-long interview. His reticence to engage with Kofsky’s analysis might have something to do with who was asking the questions, but in any case, there’s no doubt that Coltrane was integral to the fierce, uncompromising Black Arts poetry of the 1970s, and many other politically informed movements. He was influential, however, not as the representative of an ideology, but as the inventor—or the vessel, he might say—of an entirely new form of creative expression.

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Why You Should Read Dune: An Animated Introduction to Frank Herbert’s Ecological, Psychological Sci-Fi Epic

A vision of humanity’s future without most of the high technology we expect from science fiction, but with a surfeit of religions, martial arts, and medieval politics we don’t; pronunciation-unfriendly names and terms like “Bene Gesserit,” “Kwisatz Haderach,” and “Muad’Dib”; a sand planet inhabited by giant killer worms: nearly 55 years after its publication, Dune remains a strange piece of work. But applying that adjective to Frank Herbert’s highly successful saga of interstellar adventure and intrigue highlights not just the ways in which its intricately developed world is unfamiliar to us, but the ways in which it is familiar — and has grown ever more so over the decades.

“Following an ancient war with robots, humanity has forbidden the construction of any machine in the likeness of a human mind,” says Dan Kwartler in the animated TED-Ed introduction to the world of Dune aboveThis edict “forced humans to evolve in startling ways, becoming biological computers, psychic witches, and prescient space pilots,” many of them “regularly employed by various noble houses, all competing for power and new planets to add to their kingdoms.” But their superhuman skills “rely on the same precious resource: the spice,” a mystical crop that also powers space travel, “making it the cornerstone of the galactic economy.”

Herbert sets Dune — the first of five books by him and many successors by his son Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson — on the desert planet Arrakis, where the noble House Atreides finds itself relocated. Before long, its young scion Paul Atreides “is catapulted into the middle of a planetary revolution where he must prove himself capable of leading and surviving on this hostile desert world.” Not that Arrakis is just some rock covered in sand: an avid environmentalist, Herbert “spent over five years creating Dune‘s complex ecosystem. The planet is checkered with climate belts and wind tunnels that have shaped its rocky topography. Differing temperate zones produce varying desert flora, and almost every element of Dune’s ecosystem works together to produce the planet’s essential export.”

Herbert’s world-building “also includes a rich web of philosophy and religion,” which involves elements of Islam, Buddhism, Sufi mysticism, Christianity, Judaism, and Hinduism, all arranged in configurations the likes of which human history has never seen. What Dune does with religion it does even more with language, drawing for its vocabulary from a range of tongues including Latin, Old English, Hebrew, Greek, Finnish, and Nahuatl. All this serves a story dealing with themes both eternal, like the decline of empire and the misplaced trust in heroic leaders, and increasingly topical, like the consequences of a feudal order, ecological change, and wars over resources in inhospitable, sandy places. At the center is the story of a man struggling to attain mastery of not just body but mind, not least by defeating fear, described in Paul’s famous line as the “mind-killer,” the “little-death that brings total obliteration.”

The scope, complexity, and sheer oddity of Herbert’s vision has repeatedly tempted filmmakers and the film industry — and repeatedly defeated them. Perhaps unsurprisingly Alexander Jodorowsky couldn’t get his plans off the ground for a 14-hour epic Dune involving Pink Floyd, Salvador Dalí, Moebius, Orson Welles, and Mick Jagger. In 1984 David Lynch managed to direct a somewhat less ambitious adaptation, but the nevertheless enormously complex and expensive production came out as what David Foster Wallace described as “a huge, pretentious, incoherent flop.” Dune will return to theaters in December 2020 in a version directed by Denis Villeneuve, whose recent work on the likes of Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 suggests on his part not just the necessary interest in science fiction, but the even more necessary sense of the sublime: a grandeur and beauty of such a scale and starkness as to inspire fear, much as every Dune reader has felt on their own imagined Arrakis.

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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.

A Visual Introduction to Kintsugi, the Japanese Art of Repairing Broken Pottery and Finding Beauty in Imperfection

Kintsugi, the Japanese art of joining broken pottery with gleaming seams of gold or silver, creates fine art objects we can see as symbols for the beauty of vulnerability. Surely, these bowls, cups, vases, etc. remind of us Leonard Cohen’s oft-quoted lyric from “Anthem” (“There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”) Writer and artist Austin Kleon touches on this same sentiment in a recent post on his blog. “The thing I love the most about Kintsugi is the visible trace of healing and repair—the idea of highlighted, glowing scars.”

Kintsugi, which translates to “golden joinery,” has a history that dates back to the 15th century, as Colin Marshall explained in a previous post here. But it’s fascinating how much this art resonates with our contemporary discourse around trauma and healing.

“We all grow up believing we should emphasize the inherent positives about ourselves,” writes Marshall, “but what if we also emphasized the negatives, the parts we’ve had to work to fix or improve? If we did it just right, would the negatives still look so negative after all?”

A key idea here is “doing it just right.” Kintsugi is not a warts-and-all presentation, but a means of turning brokenness into art, a skillful realization of the Japanese idea of wabi-sabi, the “beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete,” as Leonard Koren writes in Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers. Objects that represent wabi-sabi “may exhibit the effects of accident, like a broken bowl glued back together again.” In kintsugi, those effects are due to the artist’s craft rather than random chance.

When it comes to healing psychic wounds so that they shine like precious metals, there seems to be no one perfect method. But when we’re talking about the artistry of kintsugi, there are some—from the most refined artisanship to less rigorous do-it-yourself techniques—we can all adopt with some success. In the video at the top, learn DIY kintsugi from World Crafted’s Robert Mahar. Further up, we have an intensive, wordless demonstration from professional kintsugi artist Kyoko Ohwaki.

And just above, see psychologist Alexa Altman travel to Japan to learn kintsugi, then make it “accessible” with an explanation of both the physical process of kintsugi and its metaphorical dimensions. As Altman shows, kintsugi can just as well be made from things broken on purpose as by accident. When it comes to the beautifully flawed finished product, however, perhaps how a thing was broken matters far less than the amount of care and skill we use to join it back together.

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

Itzhak Perlman Appears on Sesame Street and Poignantly Shows Kids How to Play the Violin and Push Through Life’s Limits (1981)

I always champion anything that will improve the lives of people with disabilities and put it on the front burner. – Itzhak Perlman

At its best, the Internet expands our horizons, introducing us to new interests and perspectives, forging connections and creating empathy.

The educational children’s series Sesame Street was doing all that decades earlier.

Witness this brief clip from 1981, starring violin virtuoso Itzhak Perlman and a six-year-old student from the Manhattan School of Music.

For many child—and perhaps adult—viewers, this excerpt presented their first significant encounter with classical musical and/or disability.

The little girl scampers up the steps to the stage as Perlman, who relies on crutches and a motorized scooter to get around, follows behind, heaving a sigh of relief as he lowers himself into his seat.

Already the point has been made that what is easy to the point of unconsciousness for some presents a challenge for others.

Then each takes a turn on their violin.

Perlman’s skills are, of course, unparalleled, and the young girl’s seem pretty exceptional, too, particularly to those of us who never managed to get the hang of an instrument. (She began lessons at 3, and told the Suzuki Association of the Americas that her Sesame Street appearance with Perlman was the “highlight of [her] professional career.”)

In the nearly 40 years since this episode first aired, public awareness of disability and accessibility has become more nuanced, a development Perlman discussed in a 2014 interview with the Wall Street Journal, below.

Having resented the way early features about him invariably showcased his disability, he found that he missed the opportunity to advocate for others when mentions dropped off.

Transparency coupled with celebrity provides him with a mighty platform. Here he is speaking in the East Room of the White House in 2015, on the day that President Obama honored him with the Medal of Freedom:

And his collaborations with Sesame Street have continued throughout the decadesincluding performances of “You Can Clean Almost Anything” (to the tune of Bach’s Partita for Solo Violin), “Put Down the Duckie,” Pagliacci‘s Vesti la giubba (backing up Placido Flamingo), and Beethoven’s Minuet in G, below.

Read more of Perlman’s thoughts on disability, and enroll in his Master Class here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, January 6 when her monthly book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domaincelebrates Cape-Coddities by Roger Livingston Scaife (1920). Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Illustrations from the Soviet Children’s Book Your Name? Robot, Created by Tarkovsky Art Director Mikhail Romadin (1979)

As we approach three full decades of a world without the Soviet Union, certain details about life in the societies that constituted it inevitably begin to fade from living memory. But nobody who grew up Soviet could ever forget the children’s books they grew up reading, and recent efforts to digitally archive them — such as Playing Soviet at the Cotsen Collection at Princeton’s Firestone Library, previously featured here on Open Culture — have ensured that future generations will be able to enjoy them too, no matter the regime under which they come of age, or even what language they speak.

Most Soviet children’s books have such captivating illustrations that one need not read them to enjoy them. Take, for instance, Your Name? Robot, a 1979 Soviet picture book featured on book and design blog 50 Watts.

Who could resist the charm of these mechanical creatures displaying their many abilities: picking up signals, playing music, painting pictures, spouting complicated figures, boiling water? With their hypnotically detailed patterns of circuits and wires, the inner workings of these robots also look quite unlike anything else — and certainly unlike the also-popular robot characters who have long figured into stories for American children.

In the mid-20th century, America and the Soviet Union were racing each other to the future: though visionaries in both lands may have disagreed about what exact form that future would take, many saw some kind of utopia made real through high technology dead ahead. And whether worker’s paradise or consumer’s paradise, the rest of the millennium would surely see the development of intelligent robots to assist, educate, and entertain us.

But by the late 1970s, some of these visions had turned dystopian: to borrow the tagline from Zardoz, they’d seen the future, and it didn’t work — itself a grim reversal of American journalist Lincoln Steffens’ optimistic early-20th-century declaration about Soviet Russia.

From Soviet cinema, one less-than-optimistic treatment of the future endures above all: 1972’s Solaris, adapted by Andrei Tarkovsky from the novel by Stanislaw Lem. The production designer who gave that film’s future its look and feel was none other than Mikhail Romadin, the artist who would go on to illustrate Your Name? Robot just a few years later (in an illustration career involving hundreds of books, including volumes by Leo Tolstoy and Ray Bradbury).

“Romadin’s character is hidden, forced deep inside,” said Tarkovsky of his collaborator and friend since film school. “In his best works what often happens is that the outward characteristics of barely ordered dynamism and chaos that one perceives initially, melt imperceptibly into the appreciation of calm and noble form, silent and simple” — an appreciation Your Name? Robot must have done its part to instill in a generation of young readers.

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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.

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