Amir joins your hosts Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt to consider this common act that can stretch from the mundane to the sublime. How have our various purposes for photography changed with the advent of digital technology, the introduction of social media, and the ready access to video? What determines what we choose to take pictures of, and how does taking photography more seriously change the way we experience? We touch on iconic and idealized images, capturing the specific vs. the universal, witnessing vs. intervening via photography, and more.
See more of Amir’s work at amirzaki.net.
A few of the articles we looked at to prepare included:
The image above may at first look like a plate from a Jules Verne novel, or perhaps a still from one of Georges Méliès’ more fantastical moving pictures. It does indeed come from fin de siècle France, a time and place in which Verne, Méliès, and many other imaginative creators lived and worked, but it is in fact a genuine underwater photograph — or rather, a genuine underwater portrait, and the first example of such a thing in photographic history. Taken in the 1890s (most likely 1899) by biologist and photography pioneer Louis Boutan, it depicts Boutan’s Romanian colleague Emil Racovitza holding up a sign that reads “Photographie Sous Marine,” or “Underwater Photography.”
Such an outlandish concept could hardly have crossed many minds back then, and fewer still would have dreamt up practical ways to realize it. To start with the most basic of challenges, there is, as David Byrne sung, water at the bottom of the ocean — but not a whole lot of light, especially compared to the burdensome requirements of late 19th-century cameras. This necessitated the development of what Petapixel’s Laurence Bartone calls a “crazy underwater flash photography rig,” one powerful enough that it “could easily double as a bomb. The creation involved an alcohol lamp on an oxygen-filled barrel. A rubber bulb would then blow a puff of magnesium powder over the flame, creating a flash.”
Photography enthusiasts will understand the magnitude of Boutan’s achievement (made with the help of his brother Auguste and a laboratory technician named Joseph David). Some have gone so far as to recreate it, an effort you can see in the Barcelona Underwater Festival video just above. Not only are there fish and other sea creatures swimming everywhere, a feature of the environment not visible in Boutan’s original shot, but the re-enactors face the pressure of curious passersby, young and old, who walk through a nearby transparent underwater tunnel, not a consideration for Boutan and his collaborators. That groundbreaking success in underwater portraiture came 54 years after a Philadelphia chemist named Robert Cornelius first turned his camera on himself. Has photographic history recorded how long it took humanity after Boutan’s famous picture to snap the first underwater selfie?
New Yorkers have borne witness to a noticeable uptick in the number of shiny, new buildings going up in the city over the last few years, crowding the waterfront, rising from the ashes of community gardens and older, infinitely more modest structures.
Their developers have taken care to top load them with luxury amenities—rooftop cabanas, 24-hour fitness clubs, marble countertops, screening rooms.
But one thing they can’t provide is the sense of lived history that imbues every old building with a true sense of character, mystique, and oft-grubby charm.
Every dot represents a Works Progress Administration photograph of a New York City building, snapped between 1939 and 1941 as a means of standardizing the way in which property values were assessed and recorded.
There are 4,282,000 dots, spread out between five boroughs.
Does that sound densely packed?
You should see it today… there’s been a lot of vertical build.
This unassuming fuel oil plant near Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal has given way to a 430-unit building boasting a yoga room, spin studios, and valet services for those in need of dry-cleaning, laundry, apartment cleaning, or dog walking…though sadly, no on-premises motor oil. We find that omission somewhat surprising for such a full-service residential development on the banks of a Superfund site, whose clean up is estimated to tip the scales at $500 million.
We also wonder what the occupants of the above buildings would have made of the glassy 25-story complex that opened on their coordinates earlier this year. Is it just us, or does it seem a bit disingenuous of its developers to trumpet that its location is “the epitome of New York City’s authenticity, with over a century of rich history, where the world’s sartorial and culinary trends are born”?
(You can find us a few blocks away muttering into our chopped liver at Russ and Daughters, a venerable food shop that looks much the same today as it did in 1940, though you’ll have to confirm with a bit of research on your own if you don’t want to take our word for it, the WPA “dot” revealing little more than a man with a stick and several moving vehicles.)
Our final stop is one of many architectural ghosts to haunt the Hudson Yards colossus, the self-described “epicenter of Manhattan’s New West Side… a beacon for creative professionals, a hub for fashion, design, communications and art.” In addition to a much reviled $200 million shawarma-shaped “3-dimensional public space” and state of the art wine fridges, amenities now include diagnostic and antibody testing “performed by top medical professionals.”
It’s telling that in the summer of 2020, prospective tenants were offered incentives including two months’ free rent and a $2,000 gift card.
“I am a man of motion,” tragic modernist ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky wrote in his famous Diary, “I am feeling through flesh…. I am God in a body.” Nijinsky suffered the unfortunate onset of schizophrenia after his career ended, but in his lucid moments, he writes of the greatest pain of his illness—to never dance again. A degree of his obsessive devotion seems intrinsic to ballet.
Misty Copeland, who titled her autobiography Life in Motion, thinks so. “All dancers are control freaks a bit,” she says. “We just want to be in control of ourselves and our bodies. That’s just what the ballet structure, I think, kind of puts inside of you. If I’m put in a situation where I am not really sure what’s going to happen, it can be overwhelming. I get a bit anxious.” As Nijinsky did, Copeland is also “forcing people to look at ballet through a more contemporary lens,” writes Stephen Mooallem in Harper’s Bazaar.
Copeland has been candid about her struggles on the way to becoming the first African American woman named a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, including coping with depression, a leg-injury, body-image issues, and childhood poverty. She is also “in the midst of the most illuminating pas de deux with pop culture for a classical dancer since Mikhail Baryshnikov went toe-to-toe with Gregory Hines in White Nights” (a reference that may be lost on younger readers, but trust me, this was huge).
Like another modernist artist, Edgar Degas, Copeland has revolutionized the image of the ballet dancer. Degas’ ballet paintings, “which the artist began creating in the late 1860s and continued making until the years before his death, in 1917, were infused with a very modern sensibility. Instead of idealized visions of delicate creatures pirouetting onstage, he offered images of young girls congregating, practicing, laboring, dancing, training….” He showed the unglamorous life and work behind the costumed pageantry, that is.
Photographers Ken Browar and Deborah Ory envisioned Copeland as several of Degas’ dancers, posing her in couture dresses in recreations of some of his famous paintings and sculptures. The photographs are part of their NYC Dance Project, in partnership with Harper’s Bazaar. As Kottke points out, conflating the histories of Copeland and Degas’ dancers raises some questions. Degas had contempt for women, especially his Parisian subjects, who danced in a sordid world in which “sex work” between teenage dancers and older men “was a part of a ballerina’s reality,” writes author Julia Fiore (as it was too in Nijinsky’s day).
This context may unsettle our viewing, but the images also show Copeland in full control of Degas’ scenes, though that’s not the way it felt, she says. “It was interesting to be on shoot and to not have the freedom to just create like in normally do with my body. Trying to re-create what Degas did was really difficult.” Instead, she embodied his figures as herself. “I see a great affinity between Degas’s dancers and Misty,” says Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem. “She has knocked aside a long-standing music-box stereotype of the ballerina and replaced it with a thoroughly modern, multicultural image of presence and power.”
Even those who know nothing else about Istanbul know that it used to be called Constantinople. The official renaming happened in 1930, meaning that the photographs you see here, all of which date from around 1890, were taken, strictly speaking, not in Istanbul but Constantinople. But under any name, and despite all the other changes that have occurred over the past 130 years, the Turkish metropolis on the Bosphorus remains recognizable as the gateway between East and West it has been throughout recorded history. This is thanks in part to its oldest landmarks, above all the cathedral-turned-mosque-turned-museum known as Hagia Sophia, pictured above.
In the 1890s Hagia Sophia was still a mosque, and as we recently posted here, it has just this year become one again. But as a historically rich structure even by the standards of such a historically rich city, it will no doubt remain Istanbul’s prime tourist attraction in the 2020s, much as it must have been in the 19th century.
For those who couldn’t make the trip in those days — or who could make the trip and wanted to bring home souvenirs that could convey as richly as possible what they’d seen on their travels — there were Photocrom prints. Though not technically a color photography process, Photocrom could produce fairly convincing images by applying color to black-and-white pictures.
Hence Photocrom’s use in capturing vistas from the great European cities, including Rome, Venice, and Paris, all previously featured here on Open Culture. Photocrom prints, explains the Library of Congress’ web site, “are ink-based images produced through ‘the direct photographic transfer of an original negative onto litho and chromographic printing plates,'” a technology that allowed for the mass production of images that could then be widely distributed. Thanks to the ventures of licensees like the Detroit Publishing Company, those on the other side of the world could behold a city like Istanbul — or rather Constantinople — through what looked “deceptively like color photographs.”
We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness… —Thomas Jefferson, 3rd President of the United States of America
Many of the American participants in photographer Drew Gardner‘s ongoing Descendants project agreed to temporarily alter their usual appearance to heighten the historic resemblance to their famous ancestors, adopting Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s lace cap and sausage curls or Frederick Douglass’ swept back mane.
“I didn’t want to become Jefferson,” states LaNier, whose great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother, Sally Hemings, was written out of the narrative for most of our country’s history.
An enslaved half-sister of Jefferson’s late wife, Martha, Hemings was around sixteen when she bore Jefferson’s first child, as per the memoir of her son, Madison, from whom LaNier is also directly descended.
But there are no photographs or painted portraits of her, nor any surviving letters or diary entries. Just two accounts in which she is described as attractive and light-skinned, and some political cartoons that paint an unflattering picture.
The mystery of her appearance might make for an interesting composite portrait should the Smithsonian, who commissioned Gardner’s series, seek to entice all of LaNier’s female and female-identifying cousins from the Hemings line to pose.
While LaNier was aware of his connection to Jefferson from earliest childhood, his peers scoffed and his mother had to take the matter up with the principal after a teacher told him to sit down and stop lying. As he recalled in an interview:
When they didn’t believe me, it became one of those things you stop sharing because, you know, people would make fun of you and then they’d say, “Yeah, and I’m related to Abraham Lincoln.”
His family pool expanded when Jefferson’s great-great-great-great-grandson, journalist Lucian King Truscott IV—whose fifth great-grandmother was Martha Jefferson—issued an open invitation to Hemings’ descendants to be his guests at a 1999 family reunion at Monticello.
Monticello is committing an act of equality by telling the story of slave life there, and by extension, slave life in America. When my cousins in the Hemings family stand up and proudly say, we are descendants of Thomas Jefferson, they are committing an act of equality…. The photograph you see here is a picture of who we are as Americans. One day, a photograph of two cousins, one black and one white, will not be seen as unusual. One day, acts of equality will outweigh acts of racism. Until that day, however, Shannon and I will keep fighting for what’s right. And one day, we will win.
Watch a video of Jefferson descendant Shannon Lanier’s session with photographer Drew Gardner here.
See more photos from Gardner’s Descendents project here.
Just look at this photo. Just look at this young girl’s smile. We know her name: O-o-dee. And we know that she was a member of the Kiowa tribe in the Oklahoma Territory. And we know that the photo was taken in 1894. But that smile is like a time machine. O-o-dee might just as well have donned some traditional/historical garb, posed for her friends, and had them put on the ol’ sepia filter on her camera app.
But why? What is it about the smile?
For one thing, we are not used to seeing them in old photographs, especially ones from the 19th century. When photography was first invented, exposures could take 45 minutes. Having a portrait taken meant sitting stock still for a very long time, so smiling was right out. It was only near the end of the 19th century that shutter speeds improved, as did emulsions, meaning that spontaneous moments could be captured. Still, smiling was not part of many cultures. It could be seen as unseemly or undignified, and many people rarely sat for photos anyway. Photographs were seen by many people as a “passage to immortality” and seriousness was seen as less ephemeral.
Presidents didn’t officially smile until Franklin D. Roosevelt, which came at a time of great sorrow and uncertainty for a nation in the grips of the Great Depression. The president did it because Americans couldn’t.
Smiling seems so natural to us, it’s hard to think it hasn’t always been a part of art. One of the first thing babies learn is the power of a smile, and how it can melt hearts all around. So why hasn’t the smile been commonplace in art?
Historian Colin Jones wrote a whole book about this, called The Smile Revolution in Eighteenth Century Paris, starting with a 1787 self-portrait by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun that depicted her and her infant. Unlike the coy half-smiles as seen in the Mona Lisa, Madame Le Brun’s painting showed the first white, toothy smile. Jones says it caused a scandal–smiles like this one were undignified. The only broad smiles seen in Renaissance painting were from children (who didn’t know better), the filthy plebiscite, or the insane. What had happened? Jones credits the change to two things: the emergence of dentistry over the previous hundred years (including the invention of the toothbrush), and the emergence of a “cult of sensibility and politeness.” Jones explains this by looking at the heroines of the 18th century novel, where a smile meant an open heart, and not a sarcastic smirk:
Now, O-o-dee and Jane Austen’s Emma might have been worlds apart, but so are we–creatures of technology, smiling at our iPhones as we take another selfie–from that Kiowan girl in the Fort Sill, Oklahoma studio of George W. Bretz.
In her 1938 essay “Three Guineas,” Virginia Woolf wondered “whether when we look at the same photographs we feel the same things.” Woolf half-hoped that grisly images of the dead from the Spanish Civil War might help put an end to the spreading global conflict. She recognized, writes Susan Sontag in Regarding the Pain of Others, photography’s ability “to vivify the condemnation of war” and to “bring home, for a spell, a portion of its reality to those who have no experience of war at all.”
Mathew Brady, the man credited as the “father of photojournalism,” had no such lofty ambitions at the beginning of the Civil War. At first, he offered to photograph soldiers before they left for the battlefield, to preserve their pre-war image for posterity should they not return. (He cynically advertised his services with the line, “You cannot tell how soon it may be too late.”) Brady was already a successful photographer and had taken portraits of Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Jackson, Daniel Webster, and Edgar Allan Poe.
Having studied under Samuel Morse, who brought the daguerreotype technique to the U.S., Brady opened his first studio in New York in 1844 and became highly sought after. He might have safely waited out the war in the city, operating a thriving business, but, as he remembered later, “I had to go. A spirit in my feet said ‘Go,’ and I went.” Brady took his petition all the way to Lincoln, who approved it on the condition that Brady finance the documentation himself. “At his own expense,” notes the American Battlefield Trust, “he organized a group of photographers and staff to follow the troops as the first field-photographers.”
Soon after, “in 1862, Brady shocked the nation when he displayed the first photographs of the carnage of the war in his New York Studio in an exhibit entitled ‘The Dead of Antietam.’ These images, photographed by Alexander Gardner and James F. Gibson, were the first to picture a battlefield before the dead had been removed and the first to be distributed to a mass public.” The New York Times responded as Woolf would seventy-six years later, writing of the photos:
Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along the streets, he has done something very like it.
Shocked the nation may have been, but the war dragged on three more years. Brady and his team not only photographed the dead—they captured everything from hot-air balloons to pontoon bridges to breastworks to winter huts and wagon trains. Brady went bankrupt funding the making of over 10,000 plates, many of them harrowing depictions of the war’s brutality, before the U.S. government finally bought them for $25,000.
The Public Domain Review has another harrowing collection of Brady’s daguerreotypes—portraits he took before the war that have decayed and distorted, as have a great many of Brady’s photos of the war dead. These images “were extremely sensitive to scratches, dust, hair, etc, and particularly the rubbing of the glass cover if they glue holding it in place deteriorated.” Despite photographers’ promises to the contrary, “this fixing” of the image for posterity “was far from permanent.” See more of Brady’s Civil War photographs at the National Archives.
Get the best cultural and educational resources on the web curated for you in a daily email. We never spam. Unsubscribe at any time.
FOLLOW ON SOCIAL MEDIA
Open Culture scours the web for the best educational media. We find the free courses and audio books you need, the language lessons & educational videos you want, and plenty of enlightenment in between.
Open Culture (openculture.com) and our trusted partners use technology such as cookies on our website to personalise ads, support social media features, and analyze our traffic. Please click below to consent to the use of this technology while browsing our site.
Necessary cookies are absolutely essential for the website to function properly. This category only includes cookies that ensures basic functionalities and security features of the website. These cookies do not store any personal information.
Any cookies that may not be particularly necessary for the website to function and is used specifically to collect user personal data via analytics, ads, other embedded contents are termed as non-necessary cookies. It is mandatory to procure user consent prior to running these cookies on your website.