Small dioramas, big issues

Compare and contrast these two recent posts from Web Urbanist. Similar levels of ingenuity and skills, but eliciting very different emotional responses.

Refugee Baggage: Suitcase dioramas show dark scenes from countries fled
The project of a Syrian-born artist and architect and an Iraqi-born author, this installation invites viewers to imagine what refugees leave behind when the pack up the few things they can carry and flee an oppressive regime or war-torn country.

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The UNPACKED: Refugee Baggage installation by Mohamad and Ahmed Badr “sculpturally re-creates rooms, homes, buildings and landscapes that have suffered the ravages of war. Each is embedded with the voices and stories of real people — from Afghanistan, Congo, Syria, Iraq and Sudan — who have escaped those same rooms and buildings to build a new life in America.”

Some really important stories being told. Meanwhile, over in Japan, Tanaka Tatsuya is continuing his miniature photography series. It’s been going since 2011.

Miniature Calendar: Micro-city scenes made daily from household objects
It takes just one artist to raise this annual micro-village, putting out a fresh scene daily featuring miniature people going about their everyday lives, navigating repurposed objects designed for different purposes at larger scales.

The new Miniature Calendar by Tastuya Tanaka is the latest in a series of 7, each one featuring 365 snapshots of lives lived small. The figures are often framed by items that are easy to recognize and yet also simple to reimagine in context.

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Making of MINIATURE CALENDAR

A year of (mostly bad?) news

They say we all love bad news, which is all we ever get these days.

The media exaggerates negative news. This distortion has consequences
News is about things that happen, not things that don’t happen. We never see a journalist saying to the camera, “I’m reporting live from a country where a war has not broken out”— or a city that has not been bombed, or a school that has not been shot up.

And so we have another something of the year article, this time a hundred news photographs from Reuters.

Pictures of the year 2018

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Lots of shouting, lots of people in dreadful situations, lots of heart-wrenching tragedies. None of it I really want to show here, to be honest.

It wasn’t all like that, though, thankfully. Remember these, for instance?

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And if you want more, there’s this year’s Atlantic In Focus series:

2018 in photos: How the first months unfolded

2018 in photos: A look at the middle months

2018 in photos: Wrapping up the year

Will 2019 look any different, I wonder.

* of the year

December’s not quite here yet, but the best somethings of the year articles are starting already. Here are two I’ve spotted recently.

National Geographic’s best photos of 2018
National Geographic’s 100 best images of the year—curated from 107 photographers, 119 stories, and more than two million photographs.

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As well as the usual, and often quite grisly, natural history images, there are some remarkable human interest stories here too.

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Books of the year 2018: the TLS contributors decide
From autofiction to ‘unbooks’ and ‘Ancient Mariner novels’.

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Having spent much of the past three years writing about a fictional piano-tuner I thought I had had enough of the instrument. Then along came Paul Kildea’s fascinating Chopin’s Piano: A journey through Romanticism (Allen Lane) and I was hooked again. The starting point for this beguiling journey is a somewhat basic piano – a pianino – made in Majorca in the 1830s on which Chopin composed and polished his 24 Preludes.

[…]

Hastings’s indictment of Washington policy after the South Vietnamese military coup of 1963 is lethal. America’s prolongation of the war was a mutilating act of self-harm which took generations to heal. It happened because US policymakers lied to the electorate, which is usual enough, but more culpably also lied to close colleagues and lied to themselves. In this sense, at least, Brexit is Britain’s Vietnam.

[…]

Schnackenberg has everything except (a) a snappy name, and (b) a recital voice powerful enough to overcome the uproar of gerbils mating. Listen to her on YouTube and you’ll think that the Americans are developing a new weapon: Stealth people. 

Sound mirrors

With parallels to that giant, concrete speaker in Taiwan, photographer Piercarlo Quecchia has tracked down all of Britain’s remaining strange and sculptural sound mirrors, built after World War 1 to detect incoming enemy aeroplanes.

Acoustic defense: photo series reflects on derelict British “sound mirrors”
“They represent an incredible demonstration of how sound can generate a physical form: both the curvature radius and the dimensions of the dishes are studied and designed according to the sound frequency that they must reflect,” explains the photographer. He hopes the series will continue to raise awareness of these artifacts.

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There are more images of these brutalist-looking structures on his website.

Sound Mirrors’ Portraits – Piercarlo Quecchia
They consist of concrete parabolas with a diameter of a few meters. In the twenties of the last century, their use combined with microphones, allowed to intercept planes directed towards the coast, discovering in advance any possible attacks. The need to be positioned near the coasts mainly in raised areas, the strong materiality of the concrete and their huge dimensions make them spectacular and extremely fascinating structures, able to dominate the entire surrounding landscape.

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There are cameras everywhere

There is such a high level of surveillance in our society. There are cameras everywhere, but they’re our cameras.

The ubiquity of smartphones, as captured by photographers
With so many devices in so many hands now, the visual landscape has changed greatly, making it a rare event to find oneself in a group of people anywhere in the world and not see at least one of them using a phone. Collected here: a look at that smartphone landscape, and some of the stories of the phones’ owners.

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What an odd world we live in.

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The real world isn’t really real unless there’s a screen between us and it.

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But then you come across a photo like this.

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Such a strong image. The difference between surveillance and sousveillance.

Sousveillance
Sousveillance is the recording of an activity by a participant in the activity, typically by way of small wearable or portable personal technologies. The term “sousveillance”, coined by Steve Mann, stems from the contrasting French words sur, meaning “above”, and sous, meaning “below”, i.e. “surveillance” denotes the “eye-in-the-sky” watching from above, whereas “sousveillance” denotes bringing the camera or other means of observation down to human level, either physically (mounting cameras on people rather than on buildings), or hierarchically (ordinary people doing the watching, rather than higher authorities or architectures doing the watching).

Soviet photography

Following on nicely from yesterday’s post about Soviet balalaika music, I’ve just come across a link to a lot of Soviet photography.

Download 437 issues of Soviet Photo Magazine, the Soviet Union’s historic photography journal (1926-1991)
The early years of the Soviet Union roiled with internal tensions, intrigues, and ideological warfare, and the new empire’s art reflected its uneasy heterodoxy. Formalists, Futurists, Suprematists, Constructivists, and other schools mingled, published journals, critiqued and reviewed each other’s work, and like modernists elsewhere in the world, experimented with every possible medium, including those just coming into their own at the beginning of the 20th century, like film and photography.

These two mediums, along with radio, also happened to serve as the primary means of propagandizing Soviet citizens and carrying the messages of the Party in ways everyone could understand. And like much of the rest of the world, photography engendered its own consumer culture.

Out of these competing impulses came Soviet Photo (Sovetskoe foto), a monthly photography magazine.

It’s interesting to note how the politics of the country affected the art form, and the magazine.

The aesthetic purges under Stalin—in which artists and writers one after another fell victim to charges of elitism and obscurantism—also played out in the pages of Soviet Photo. “Even before Socialist Realism was decreed to be the official style of the Soviet Union in 1934,” Nouril writes, “the works of avant-garde photographers,” including Rodchenko, “were denounced as formalist (implying that they reflected a foreign and elitist style).” Soviet Photo boycotted Rodchenko’s work in 1928 and “throughout the 1930s this state-sanctioned journal became increasingly conservative,” emphasizing “content over form.”

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You can browse 437 complete issues of ‘Soviet Photo’ magazine online
Dig deep enough, and you’ll find some really interesting (and surprisingly familiar) things in there. From standard street photography, to architecture, rooftopping, and (unfortunately) train track portraits, to conflict photography, even some pretty amazing photojournalism, and gear/equipment ads.

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Had the magazine continued to the year 2000 (collapse of the Union notwithstanding), the secret photographer Masha Ivashintsova might have been included.

NASA’s impossible images

You know those Golden Records NASA sent into space in the 70s, on the Voyager spacecrafts? They contained images, music and sounds from Earth, as well as greetings in 55 languages. If any alien were to come across these disks, accessing their contents is far from straightforward.

Decoding images from the Golden Record
You might think that the images were included in some printed or digital form, such as a .jpeg or .tiff. But back in 1977, there was no technology available to put images on analog disks. Voyager’s computer systems could only hold 69 kilobytes of information, barely enough for one image, let alone 115. So NASA invented a way to include image data on the LPs.

By projecting images onto a screen, recording them with a television camera, and then turning those video signals into audio waveforms, the images could be properly pressed onto the records. The reversal process — turning that image data back into images — is what any extraterrestrial (or curious human) would have to figure out how to do.

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Nevermind the contents of these records, the instructions alone will have the aliens scratching their heads. If they have heads, of course.

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Lines of flight

Spanish photographer Xavi Bou has created some incredible images of birds in flight, layering thousands of shots to capture their movements and patterns.

Unseen movements: multi-shot photography captures the complex trails of birds
Bou’s ‘Ornitographies’ series arises from his interest in “questioning the limits of human perception,” combining simple observation of bird behavior from the ground with photography to see what our eyes can’t show us. He takes inspiration from chronophotography, a Victorian technique capturing movement in a series of frames for the purpose of scientific study. Bou’s focus on the birds is less about science and more about the grace of their movements and their unintentional creativity.

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These are such wonderful pictures. It’s a shame, though, that we’ll never see anything like this with our own eyes. Mumurations might come close, I guess.

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There are many more on his project website.

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A modern take on spirit photography

Those spirit photographs I mentioned just after Halloween? It seems AI is having a go at those, too.

An artificial intelligence populated these photos with glitchy humanoid ghosts
Two of the MIT researchers behind the provocative Deep Angel project, an algorithm that digitally erases objects from photos, have now delivered a strange and beautiful system to “conjure phantasms into being.” According to the project developers Matt Groh and Ziv Epstein, the phantasmagoric AI Spirits manifested by their code are meant to “commemorate those missing via algorithmic omission.”

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Should have posted this yesterday

A little late, but better late than never.

The spirit photographs of William Hope
Known as “spirit photographs”, they were taken by a controversial medium called William Hope. Born in 1863 in Crewe, Hope started his working life as a carpenter, but in 1905 became interested in spirit photography after capturing the supposed image of a ghost while photographing a friend. He went on to found and lead a group of six spirit photographers known as the Crewe Circle. Following World War I, support for the group, and demand for its services, grew as the grieving relatives of those lost to the war sought a means of contacting their loved ones.

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He was later exposed as a fraudster, but could count Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as one of his supporters, so there you go.

What can a linguist learn from a gravestone?
The key running theme of gravestone inscriptions is that they are for the living, and even for a more specific task: they reaffirm and reiterate membership in a group, and the beliefs that are part of the culture of that group. This does not necessarily mean that they are particularly informative about the life of the specific deceased, but they are full of useful, sometimes subtle cues about the community the deceased belonged to, and what they valued.

And what movies they liked?

The Mummy: the story of the world’s most expensive movie poster
Auction house Sotheby’s is currently accepting bids for one of three remaining original posters of 1932’s The Mummy. It is expected to sell for somewhere between $1-1.5m, making it the world’s most expensive movie poster. It’s a scary amount of money.

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I’m sure audiences at the time would have been terrified by that film, but could we say the same about this one, from Méliès? I don’t think so.

The Infernal Cauldron (1903)
Short film by Georges Méliès, released through his Star Film Company, featuring demons, flames, spectres, and a brilliant array of the film-maker’s usual arsenal of tricks. As Wikipdia sums up: “In a Renaissance chamber decorated with devilish faces and a warped coat of arms, a gleeful Satan throws three human victims into a cauldron, which spews out flames. The victims rise from the cauldron as nebulous ghosts, and then turn into fireballs. The fireballs multiply and pursue Satan around the chamber. Finally Satan himself leaps into the infernal cauldron, which gives off a final burst of flame.” Enjoy!

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And I can’t imagine this scaring anyone either. Sounds good, though.

Silly Symphony – the skeleton dance 1929 disney short

So let’s end with an exploration of that devil’s interval, and how it moved from the Classical and Romantic eras into the mainstream.

Spooky music
During the 19th century, composers like Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner cracked the code of creepiness. The sonic dread they pioneered involved two key ingredients that horror movies and metal bands still use today: a forbidden sequence of notes known as “Satan in music,” and a spooky little ditty that Gregorian monks sang about the apocalypse.

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No going back

As a photography student in the 1970s, Edward Burtynsky was told to find “evidence of man”. He’s still at it, creating what could be called quite a depressing collection of photographs, though this Wired journalist sees them more positively.

The devastating environmental impact of human progress like you’ve never seen it before
By and large, Burtynsky is still at work on that first-year assignment, only now he uses better cameras and criss-crosses the globe. His images are vast and uncanny landscapes of quarries, mines, solar plants, trash piles, deforestation and sprawl – pictures of depletion and desecration that are testament to the collective impact of humankind. Yet Burtynsky’s photos are not depressing. They are reverential and painterly, capturing gargantuan industrial processes in fine detail.

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There are many more of his extraordinary photos on this article from the BBC.

Striking photos of human scars on Earth
“Most people would walk by a dump pile and assume that there’s no picture there,” Burtynsky has said. “But there’s always a picture, you just have to go in there and find it.” One of his famous sequences depicts mountains of discarded tires in California. Another shows mountains of poached ivory being burnt. Waves of rock curve into an unsettling symmetry in his photo of Chuquicamata, one of the world’s largest open-pit mines. There is dark irony in his radically anti-idyllic view of the world.

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And on a similar theme, some more remarkable images of the impact we have on our environment, from a slightly higher perspective.

These stunning satellite images show how growing cities change the planet
In a satellite image of Las Vegas in 1976, the city still looks relatively small. By 2015, after the population had grown more than six times, another image shows the sprawl of streets, houses, and golf courses into the surrounding desert. In a new book of stunning images of cities shown from above, the picture of Vegas is cropped to include nearby Lake Mead, its primary water source. “You actually see Lake Mead retreat and the city grow,” says Meredith Reba.

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A dark side

Stephen Shames’ best photograph: Robert Kennedy in his final days
There are clear parallels for me with what’s happening right now. Most 21 year olds are idealistic. Everyone grows up a patriot. You’re in school, you salute the flag, you read the sanitised history in your textbooks. Then there’s a polarising moment like this that shoves you into the real world.

In the US, beyond the election of Trump, which was a fluke, Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the supreme court is one such moment. Young people here having their eyes opened. They are realising there’s a dark side to the United States. Their idealism is being shaved away.

Beautiful libraries, inside and out

Libraries are remarkable buildings.

Experience the beauty of libraries around the world through this instagram series
Over the past two years, Savoie has traveled from his home city of Montréal, to Berlin, Amsterdam, Budapest, Rome, Riga, Paris, Moscow, and several other cities photographing the stunning architecture of libraries. Encountering language barriers and even intense security, Savoie’s dedication to taking the perfect photo has resulted in a stunning collection of images.

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The world’s most beautiful libraries
In a new Taschen book, the Italian photographer Massimo Listri travels around the world to some of the oldest libraries, revealing a treasure trove of unique and imaginative architecture.

But, of course, it’s what’s on the inside that counts.

Every library has a story to tell
But whatever form a library takes, someone had to have chosen the books in it, which reveal the secrets of heart and mind—their cares, their greeds, their enthusiasms, their obsessions.

‘Spectacular’ ancient public library discovered in Germany
It is not clear how many scrolls the library would have held, but it would have been “quite huge – maybe 20,000”, said Schmitz. The building would have been slightly smaller than the famed library at Ephesus, which was built in 117 AD. He described the discovery as “really incredible – a spectacular find”.

The secret libraries of history
“The new technique is amazing in that it shows us fragments – medieval text – that we could otherwise never see because they are hidden behind a layer of parchment or paper,” wrote Kwakkel in a blog post about his Hidden Library project. While the technology needs to be improved, it hints at a process that could reveal a secret library within a library. “We might be able to access a hidden medieval ‘library’ if we were able to gain access to the thousands of manuscript fragments hidden in bindings.”

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Watch Umberto Eco walk through his immense private library: it goes on, and on, and on!
We can only imagine how many such citadels of knowledge Eco visited in his travels all over the world, but we don’t have to imagine the one he built himself, since we can see it in the video above. Though not infinite like the library of all possible books imagined by Borges, Eco’s private home library looks, from certain angles, nearly as big. The camera follows Eco as he passes shelf after packed shelf, some lining the walls and others standing free, eventually finding his way to one volume in particular — despite the fact that he apparently shelved very few of his books with their spines facing outward.

(That last line about his books not facing outwards? Reminded me of this post from a couple of months back.)

It’s ok to just be ok

Here’s a piece from the New York Times on what might be putting people off taking up hobbies — we might be a bit naff at them.

In praise of mediocrity
If you’re a jogger, it is no longer enough to cruise around the block; you’re training for the next marathon. If you’re a painter, you are no longer passing a pleasant afternoon, just you, your watercolors and your water lilies; you are trying to land a gallery show or at least garner a respectable social media following. When your identity is linked to your hobby — you’re a yogi, a surfer, a rock climber — you’d better be good at it, or else who are you? […]

Especially when it comes to physical pursuits, but also with many other endeavors, most of us will be truly excellent only at whatever we started doing in our teens. What if you decide in your 40s, as I have, that you want to learn to surf? What if you decide in your 60s that you want to learn to speak Italian? The expectation of excellence can be stultifying.

I enjoyed reading this, and found it personally quite encouraging. Photography is a hobby of mine, and I’ve enjoyed documenting family life for many years now. I like taking photos much more than I like looking at the photos I’ve taken, however. I’m often disappointed that they never quite match the ideas in my head. But that’s fine.

And I guess this blog is another hobby of mine that I enjoy doing but aren’t really that good at, judging by my blog stats. But you know what, that’s fine too.

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Woof woof

After many years of cajoling and persuading from the family, I’ve relented: we’ll soon be joined by a puppy, sweet little cocker spaniel. Not a glasses wearer, though.

Uncanny resemblances between classic dog breeds and humans captured by Gerrard Gethings
For the memory game Do You Look Like Your Dog? Gethings spent a year creating images that examine the classic trope of owners looking just like their canine friends. The new game presents 25 matches, which include a long-haired Afghan and equally silky-haired owner, a messy-haired kid and his scruffy puppy, and Schnauzer with a matching beard to his leather jacket-clad owner.

Bought!

The breeds, personalities, temperaments and physical traits of the beloved pet dogs of Ancient Rome
In a tail-wagging video essay, Julien Blarel of Invicta History takes a look at an often ignored facet of daily ancient Roman life – their pet dogs. Blarel explains the type of breeds available along with their physical traits, personality and temperament with the help of wonderful illustrations by Beverly Johnson.

How They Did It – Pet Dogs in Ancient Rome

Photos of our world — and elsewhere

Some incredible images from around the place.

Getty Images announces winners of annual photojournalism grant
Weddings in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the conflicting beauty and isolation of an Aerotropolis are just some of the images that winners of the Getty Images reportage grant have explored.

Photobox Instagram photography awards shortlist
Shortlisted images in the running to be crowned Photobox Instagram photograph of the year range from furry friends to the Holi festival to the meaning of love. Judges, including the Guardian’s former picture editor Eamonn McCabe, have whittled down 180,000 submissions to unearth a shortlist that celebrates the best of social media.

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Parallel lives: matching portraits from South and North Korea
Jones said of his photos: “You can put the pictures side by side but the people can’t stand side by side in real life and there’s something inherently captivating about that.”

And something from much further afield.

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Hayabusa 2 rovers send new images from Ryugu surface
One of the principal concerns for deployment was Ryugu’s rougher-than-expected surface, which is carpeted with boulders and has very few smooth patches. The 1kg rovers are equipped with wide-angle and stereo cameras to send back pictures. Spine-like projections from the edges of the hoppers are sensors that will measure surface temperatures on the asteroid.

 

Up against it

I’ve not really been following the Kavanaugh’s nomination story — he sounds just as horrible as the rest of them — but I was really struck by the photo the New Yorker had on this article.

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What would a serious investigation of Brett Kavanaugh look like?
There should be little doubt that a credible allegation of sexual assault is relevant to evaluating a Supreme Court nominee’s qualifications. Supreme Court Justices are the ultimate arbiters of the law, and that law determines how we deal with wrongdoing. But, as Hill noted in the Times this week, “the Senate Judiciary Committee still lacks a protocol for vetting sexual harassment and assault claims that surface during a confirmation hearing.”

A very strong image, as heavy and as serious as the event it’s describing. It’s by Mark Peterson, an award-winning photographer whose political work has been published across a variety of magazines and outlets. He’s on Instagram, and you can see the rest of his work on his website. His Political Theatre portfolio (Amazon link) is especially striking.

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I’ve always liked photos that show the photography process at work. They remind us not to take an image solely at face value. Behind every image is an image maker, and every image has been selected or manufactured for a reason.

The hidden lives of ordinary things

I’ve just found a new (to me) corner of the web, full of interesting things to read.

Object Lessons
Object Lessons is an essay and book series published by The Atlantic and Bloomsbury about the hidden lives of ordinary things, from sardines to silence, juniper berries to jumper cables.

Each Object Lessons project will start from a specific inspiration: an anthropological query, ecological matter, archeological discovery, historical event, literary passage, personal narrative, philosophical speculation, technological innovation—and from there develop original insights around and novel lessons about the object in question.

I love that domain name. Some of the essays I’ve bookmarked to catch up on later include:

How the 50-mm lens became ‘normal’
It’s often called the optic that best approximates human vision, but approximation is relative.

The case for locking up your smartphone
Lockers and sleeves for phones can feel like an infringement on personal rights, but they also might save people from their worst habits.

How the index card cataloged the world
Carl Linnaeus, the father of biological taxonomy, also had a hand in inventing this tool for categorizing anything.

And this poignant, tricky one, too.

Why it’s okay to throw your children’s art away
There’s a moment when a child first presents you with her art, holding it out with the last split second of attention she can muster after completing it. That moment contains a burst of pride on both your parts, and a frisson of mutual love. But in the end, your pride lasts longer than the child’s does. Eventually, and soon, it must move on to another venture. Theirs always does, but yours lingers, heartstrings tugged.

It’s the wish to prolong this moment artificially, I think, that motivates the urge to keep and curate your children’s art for posterity. You convince yourself there’s some future where your child will want to return to that moment of pride and love through the act of witnessing the thing she made so long ago.

Don’t fall for it. You’re only trying to make yourself feel better. You’ll never quite be able to tell which moment your children will remember, and it’s not as if you can regulate that memory on their behalf anyway. And besides, childhood is made from a thousand moments just like this. There’s no way to hold on to all of them.

Perfect pairings

Buffalo Bill Gates makes celebrity portraits like you’ve never seen
Buffalo Bill Gates, aka Swedish artist Kalle Mattsson, a creator whose work is very much perfect for the part of the web made up of memes, idol irreverence and anarchic art. His weirdo celebrity portraits mash up famous faces with other celebrity identities or even fictional entities to create offbeat hybrid personalities like Putintin featured here.

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As well as being really funny, I love how perfectly these faces line up. It must have taken ages to find photos with just the right angle.

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Wet paint

Bringing Baroque painting into the twenty first century — but without the paint.

Baroque underwater photography by Christy Lee Rogers
Photographer Christy Lee Rogers produces luminous scenes of swirling figures swathed in colorful fabrics. She creates a painterly quality in her large-scale images not by using wet pigments, but rather by completely submerging her subjects in illuminated water and photographing them at night.

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Some incredible imagery. This video gives you an idea of her process, and what her models have to go through.

Muses Underwater by Christy Lee Rogers

It reminded me of David Bickley’s Swim piece, though that’s more Impressionism than Baroque.