Why we love retro photos

1949 Colour photograph of Piccadilly Circus Taken on Kodachrome by Chalmers Butterfield, this picture is bright enough and sharp enough to look like a digital photograph. People aren’t used to a past that looks this crisp, which is why the picture got shared so much. Photograph: Chalmers Butterfield. Shared by Retronaut

From the Guardian:

It was the sign advertising Brylcreem that got me. It can be seen in one of Chalmers Butterfield’s colour photographs of Piccadilly Circus in 1949. Why did it move me? Brylcreem’s range of hair styling products for men is still very much with us. Personally, though, it always means the red plastic pot of the stuff my dad kept ever-ready in the bathroom of our home in the 1970s. It spoke then, and does now, of his youth in austerity Britain, skiffle-board Britain, Teddy Boy Britain.

What is nostalgia? For me it’s triggered by the sense that my parents might be young people in Butterfield’s deep colour vistas of the West End of London. For enthusiasts who post historic photographs on Twitter, it’s more broadly scattered. These pictures reveal the wealth of photographic documents, memories and arcana that these sites have dragged into the 21st-century limelight, from an 1890s portrait of Cornelia Sorabji, India’s first female advocate and the first woman to study law at Oxford University, to the building of the Hoover dam in Roosevelt’s America.

History and nostalgia are not the same thing. Looking again at Piccadilly Circus in 1949, its historical evidence is crisp and unsettling. In its eerily immediate colours, you can see an underlying chromatic order. All the people are wearing brown, grey, black or a daring dark blue. Buses provide a refreshing redness, but cars mainly come in any colour you like so long as it’s black. Austerity is not something the historians made up – you really can see, in this picture, the limitations of life in a postwar Britain regulated by ration books. No wonder everyone smoked (another habit of the age my parents took with them to later life). A giant cigarette in an ashtray advertises Craven “A” high above Piccadilly Circus. It’s a reminder that George Orwell published Nineteen Eighty-Four in the year Butterfield took his pictures – the relentless smoker’s ads resemble his totalitarian hoardings for Victory cigarettes.

Read in full

Sarla Thakral, the first Indian woman to fly. In 1936 she earned her pilot’s licence and flew a Gypsy Moth. Photograph: Viv Chavan. Shared by IndiaHistoryPic

Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii was paid by the Tsar to capture images of the Russian Empire. The colour wipes away the years like polish wiping away tarnish from a ring. Here, three young women offer berries to visitors to their izba, a traditional wooden house, in a rural area along the Sheksna River, near the town of Kirillov, circa 1909. Photograph: Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii/Library of Congress. Shared by Retronaut

Unidentified man takes photo of himself in booth for 30 years

From New Republic:

The man sat down in the booth, pulled the curtain shut, posed, and waited for the click. He repeated the process at least 445 times over the course of 30 years, from the time of the Great Depression well into the 1960s.

Now, his impressive collection of photobooth snaps is unveiled for the first time at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers, as part of “Striking Resemblance: The Changing Art of Portraiture,” an exhibition on display through July.

Don Lokuta, a photography historian, stumbled on these images at an antiques show in New York in 2012. When the dealer told him there were hundreds more like them, he was stunned. “I knew this was very rare, but on a deeper level, I wondered, ‘Why would somebody want to take almost 500 photos of himself in a photobooth?’ he toldRutgers in an interview.

The snapshots themselves, seen as a collection, are startling: the same face etched into the silver gelatin prints over and over again. Sometimes he’s smiling, at times he looks stern, pensive, or inquisitive. These images force the viewer to seek out the minute differences in his expressions and aging appearance—the evolution from dark, slicked-back hair to a grayish white.

Slow television is a thing

From Kottke.org:

Slow television is the uninterrupted broadcast of an ordinary event from start to finish. Early efforts included burning Yule logs on TV around Christmas and driver’s views of complete British rail journeys (not to mention Andy Warhol and the pitch drop experiment), but Norwegian public television has revived the format in recent years. The first broadcast was of a 7-hour train trip from Bergen to Oslo, which was watched at some point by ~20% of Norway’s population. You can watch the entire thing on YouTube.

Not content with that, in 2011 an entire ship voyage was broadcast for 134 continuous hours. The entire voyage is available for viewing, but you can watch a 37-minute time lapse of the whole thing if you can’t spare the 5½ days:

As the show progressed and the ratings climbed (half of the Norwegian population tuned in at some point), the show became an interactive event, with people meeting the ship along to coast in order to appear as extras in the cast. Some even followed in smaller boats, filming as they went along in the ship’s wake.

A history of the theory of mass extinction events

I had no idea that the theory of mass extinction events only came to be accepted within my lifetime. From the Washington Post, an interview with New Yorker science writer Elizabeth Kolbert.

Brad Plumer: Let’s start by walking through the history of science here. Back in the 18th century, no one even knew that there wereany extinct species. How did we get from there all the way to realizing that there had been five of these mass extinction events in Earth’s history?

Elizabeth Kolbert: There is an interesting history there. Up until the early 1800s, the concept of extinction didn’t really exist. Even early in the 19th century, you had Thomas Jefferson hoping that when he sent Lewis and Clark to the Northwest, that they would find mastodons roaming around. Mastodon bones had been unearthed — there was a very famous one unearthed in New York and displayed in Philadelphia — and people thought they must still exist somewhere.

But right around that time, a French naturalist named Georges Cuvier came to the realization that look, if these animals were out there, we would have seen them by now. They are not there. And that made sense of a lot of things. There were these bones that were very, very hard to explain. And more and more of them as Europeans colonized the New World, they were getting these bones shipped to them. It made sense of these weird nautical creatures that had been found that no one ever found.

S0 extinction actually predated the concept of evolution by about half a century — people knew that things went extinct, even though they didn’t really understand how species came into being. But there was still some debate. Cuvier thought that when extinctions happened, it must be because the Earth changed quickly and catastrophically. Why else would an animal that was perfectly suited to life on this planet go extinct? His theory became known as “catastrophism.” And Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin came along and said, that’s ridiculous, the Earth changes slowly, we’ve never seen a catastrophe, that’s because they don’t exist.

That paradigm persisted until the 1980s and 1990s. That was when Walter Alvarez and his father Luis Alvarez came up with the theory that an asteroid impact had done in the dinosaurs. And that idea was actually resisted for the same reasons — the dominant view was that the Earth does not change quickly. But then it was proven.

And so now the prevailing view of change on planet Earth, as one paleontologist put it, is that the history of life consists of long periods of boredom interrupted occasionally by panic. It usually changes slowly, but sometimes it changes fast, and when it does, it’s very hard for organisms to keep up.

Read the rest here.

Hitoshi Mimura believes in what he does

An amazing story about actions over words in NYT:

Surreptitiously, Mimura made soles of two slightly different thicknesses, to compensate for the fact that Takahashi’s left leg was eight millimeters — about a third of an inch — longer than her right leg. She had tried a pair of the uneven soles before the Sydney Olympics, but felt uncomfortable.

Still, Mimura felt Takahashi needed such shoes to win and to avoid a recurrence of pain caused by the disparity in her legs. Without Takahashi’s knowledge, Mimura gave her the uneven soles, then wrote a letter of resignation, in case she failed to win gold.

“I decided to take full responsibility because I made this pair against her wishes,” Mimura said of the letter. “I didn’t have to hand it over. It’s still in my desk.”

Marketing the moon

From Brain Pickings:

One year after the surprise launch of Sputnik, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was founded. The U.S. space program was determined to be markedly different from the Soviets — it would be an “open program” in which facts and data would flow freely between the agency and the public using an extensive public relations program, explain authors David Meerman Scott and Richard Jurek in Marketing the Moon: The Selling of the Apollo Lunar Program (public library). It was a radical proposition: NASA, not the military, would release information and information would be released before, not after, a mission — an antithesis to the typical military strategy of confidentially. Tragedy would be reported alongside success.

Despite the somewhat cynical title, Marketing the Moon is not simply a story of the “selling” of the space program or the “spinning” of the NASA public relations machine — rather, it’s a rigorous and unvarnished look at one of the largest and most successful disseminations of science education in the twentieth century.

Polish posters for the circus from the Communist era

From Slate:

These circus posters come from an unlikely flowering of artistic expression in Communist Poland. The visual style of the Polish School of Posters, funded and sponsored by state commissions, was characterized by vibrant colors, playful humor, hand-lettering, and a bold surrealism that rivaled anything similar artists in the West were doing at the time. Poland’s state-run circus began commissioning designers in 1962 in what Ylain Mayer, of New York’s Contemporary Postersdescribes as a campaign to improve its image.


From the Washington Post:

The Germans call it wanderlust. Don Quixote called it knight-errancy. Kipling called it roguing and ranging. A whole genre of literature sprang from the call of the road and the lure of adventure. Think “Robinson Crusoe” or “Treasure Island” or even “Lord Jim.”Now, imagine a man who travels day after day, relentlessly, not because he wants to or because he is paid to, but because he absolutely has to: because roads are his master, and he their slave. This is what psychiatrists call “dromomania,” ambulatory somnambulism — the traveling fugue. The patient who brought that condition to full clinical light, the most notorious dromomaniac in history, was Jean-Albert Dadas, a gas-fitter who deserted the French army in 1881 and criss-crossed Europe in a trance for five years, making his way on foot to Berlin, Prague, Moscow, even Constantinople.
He had no memory of it.

Johnny Cash interview

An incredible interview with Johnny Cash from the archives:

“That’s some cotton from Dyess, Arkansas,” he said offhandedly as we passed it, as though just any city superstar would be as likely to have erected some little shrine to childhood hard times—a roach or a rat in formaldehyde, say.

At my request, he enacted picking cotton, and he did it with no self-consciousness or hesitation. He bent over and began picking, his legs spread and his heavy trunk overhanging a cotton row, humped, fingers flying, cotton to sack, cotton to sack. “You take these fingers here in between the burrs and pull the cotton out. Just kind of twist it out, something you have to learn to do real fast. The burrs stick you in the fingers. If you pick cotton all day, your fingers are stuck all over with wounds from the burrs.”

He came erect, his body suddenly huge with pride, rearing his thick-maned head back, his mouth sucked in, judging me and challenging me to come across the line and understand what was in his heart then, what was in his blood, and I think I did: His eyes were bright with the romance of his blessed childhood stigmata.

Read the rest.

Bands in Lego

I’m not sure how it is I still love Lego when my six and three year-old sons, Oscar and Mateo, make such an incredible mess with the stuff. I suppose it’s my fault for topping-up their collection so frequently, which I have to confess gives me as much pleasure as it does them (at least during the building phase). Now, if only I could encourage them not to leave several hundred pieces scattered all over the floor every day…

Anyway, I thought this was great. Brilliant bands captured in Lego by artist Adly Syairi Ramly, as originally featured by Stereogum.


A 26-story history of San Francisco

I really enjoyed this epic article on the history of San Francisco as seen through the windows of 140 New Montgomery, an Art Deco 26-story building in the SoMa district. The writer is Alexis Madrigal. Read it now!

The building looks like it is made of stone, perhaps granite blasted out of the Sierra Nevada range to the east. And at the very base, there is stone.

But it ends about five and a half feet up the facade. After that, it’s terra cotta to the top: clay.

The company that made it is called Gladding, McBean, headquartered in Lincoln, up north of Sacramento. They made the cladding for many of the buildings at Stanford. They’re still around.

Their work is ubiquitous in the old downtown core of the city. In the 1920s, Gladding McBean averaged work on more than 20 buildings a year in San Francisco. By 1928, the year after 140 New Montgomery was completed, the San Francisco Examiner declared “with clay from a hole in the ground in Lincoln, California, the modern city of San Francisco has come.”

Nonetheless, the point remains: the building isn’t made of stone. It just looks that way.

Recently, a company that makes software to manage computer memory moved its headquarters to the 15th floor. It’s called  Terracotta.

Read the rest.

American prison lights

From the Atlantic Cities:

Like many towns around the country facing economic hardship, a string of job losses in the 1980s and ’90s led Galesburg, Illinois, to embrace the construction of a prison on what was previously nearby prairie land. Galesburg is where Boston-based photographer Stephen Tourlentes grew up, and on a visit back there nearly two decades ago, he became fascinated by the new prison facility and the way it lit up his old hometown at night.

Tourlentes photographed the local state prison on that trip, and the more he thought about what he’d seen, the more he wanted to know. After his father, a former state psychiatric hospital director, mentioned that some of his old patients had ended up in the new prison, the photographer began a journey that has since taken him to penitentiaries all over the country.

He’s not done yet, but 17 years worth of the resulting photographs can be seen in Of Length and MeasuresTourlentes’ haunting collection of the U.S. prisons he’s shot at night, usually from afar. While the photographs are visually interesting on their own, Tourlentes says he now knows that these facilities, often built on the periphery of small towns with weak economies, say something much deeper about the odd relationship between economic development and the judicial system in the United States.


Finding Vivien Maier

I can’t wait to watch Finding Vivien Maier. From the New York Times:

An exciting electric current of discovery runs through “Finding Vivian Maier,” a documentary about a street photographer who never exhibited her work. She scarcely shared it even with those who knew her. Then again, many of her acquaintances when she was taking some of her remarkable images, particularly in and around Chicago in the 1950s and ’60s, were the children she cared for while working as a nanny. Later in her life, some of those children took care of her in turn, first by moving her into an apartment and then the nursing home where she died in 2009. What rotten timing: She was on the verge of being discovered, first as a curiosity and then as a social-media sensation and a mystery.

It’s no surprise that Maier is now the subject of a documentary, given the quality of her work, the nominal exoticism of her life and the secrets that still drift around her. She’s a terrific story — part Mary Poppins, part Weegee — who was at once emancipated and in service. She was introduced to the world, as it were, by John Maloof, one of this movie’s directors, who bought a box of her negatives at a Chicago auction in 2007 for about $400. The auction house, he explains, told him the work was by Maier, but he found nothing about her on Google. He had purchased the negatives for a book he was working on, but after deciding that they were of no use, he stashed the box away.

And then he took it out again, scanned some images and put them up on Flickr.

Designs for learning Chinese characters

From the Guardian:

“Two’s company, three’s a crowd” may be a proverb for those scared of groups, but it’s also a handy way of remembering your Chinese. The character for person looks a bit like someone walking in profile: 人. Take three of these, huddled in a little group, and you’ve got a crowd: 众

Such is the beautiful graphic logic revealed in a new book, Chineasy, which shines a spotlight of childlike clarity on the seemingly impenetrable world of Chinese ideograms. For anyone who’s tried to learn Mandarin (and I am one of them), the painful hours of repeating stroke after stoke, until those tiny knots of random scratches are carved into your memory, can be enough to make you give up – particularly given the daunting fact that an average Chinese adult will have mastered around 5,000 such characters. Never mind the 50,000+ that await.

But in the hands of author ShaoLan Hsueh and graphic genius Noma Bar, the process is broken down into a visual story, depicting exactly why these mysterious bunches of lines are the way they are, and how they combine to form different words. It doesn’t quite make Chinese easy, but the prospect of learning it has never been so visually appealing.

The Alvin Brass Bullet

Well, I’m sold. From Wired:

First popularized by German pencil-sharpening giant Möbius & Ruppert, the Alvin Brass Bullet has been honing graphite writing implements for more than a century. Mechanically, it’s as simple as it gets: Twist the pencil against the low-angled razor to sculpt a perfect point. But what sets the Bullet apart is its design. Made of solid brass, with a diamond-knurl grip, it won’t show its age for decades. Dull blades are easily replaced, and the off-center alignment of the sharpening chamber allows for shaping a needle-fine tip without breaking the lead. It’s an honest tool, heavy and rough like a carpenter’s handshake. It won’t make you a better writer, but the sweetness of its rewards—the satis­fying scrape, the long curl of shaved wood that emerges as you twist—will make you want to write more.

Google Street View of London blended with paintings from the 1700s

From Wired:

Redditor Shystone has laid old paintings over Google Street View photographs to create a series of perspective-bending composite images of old and new London. Modern sculptures dominate a plaza that was once wide open; neon signs reside on the same block as gas-lit streetlights; and a bridge covers over a river that was once filled with sailboats.

We’ve seen projects similar to this before, but it works particularly well in a city like London, where history is built into infrastructure and architecture. Buildings that existed in the 18th century are still standing today, which gives the images a ghostly feeling. It really is incredible how well paintings from artists like Canaletto and Balthazar Nebot reflect current-day London. It certainly helps that Shystone made sure to line up the edges of buildings and streets for maximum effect.

Call Me Burroughs

This looks like a good read. From the Atlantic, a review of Barry Miles’s new biography of William S. Burroughs, Call Me Burroughs:

Laid out for us in Barry Miles’s enormous new biography, Call Me Burroughs, is the stringent program of dependency, disorientation, and artistic dereliction by which Burroughs brought himself, in 1959, at the age of 45, to the authorial climax of The Naked Lunch. Perhaps disorientation is the wrong word, actually, because Burroughs always knew where he was, knew himself to be a citizen—perhaps one of the few conscious citizens, at the time—of a floating, borderless nation-state whose shrines hovered invisibly over pharmacies and late-night diners and whose laws were enacted in rented rooms, in low company, with super-heavy eyelids.

The end of the microwave age

From Quartz, the story of the microwave oven, which sales figures show is in decline:

The microwave, like many ingenious inventions before it, was birthed by mistake.

Before microwave radiation melted cheese, it served as the magic behind radars, which sent microwave signals out to objects to gauge their distance. But in 1945, Percy Spencer, an engineer at Raytheon, the maker of the first microwave, noticed something peculiar while experimenting with the technology. The high-powered radar turned a chocolate bar in Spencer’s pocket into goo. He then deliberately experimented with—you guessed it—popcorn. And it worked. Next, he tried an egg, which promptly exploded (onto a nearby coworker, as the story goes.)

“The microwave energy is like rubbing your hands together, only it rubs the molecules of food together as they are vibrating three thousand million times a second,” Norman Krim, a former vice president at Raytheon explained in a documentary about the device.

Shortly after Spencer’s discovery, Raytheon invested heavily in developing the first commercial microwave. It was called the Radarange, and it was ridiculously powerful. It could, according to its manual, fry an egg in only 12 seconds. But it was also the size of a refrigerator, stood almost six feet tall, weighed over 700 pounds (320 kilograms), and cost $3,000.

Richard Ayoade on getting it done

I loved Submarine, and the feedback for The Double is great too, so I’m really looking forward to seeing it. From a recent Guardian interview with director Richard Ayoade – I definitely get what he means about getting past the point of enjoyment.

Ayoade’s direction is assured and meticulous; he spent five months on the sound alone, creating just slightly off-kilter effects to match the film’s aesthetic. He might have envisaged that his experience on Submarine would make some aspects of the production more straightforward, but that turned out not to be the case. Thus it was that a film whose first draft was completed in 2008 took more than five years to finish.

“It’s a completely gut-churning experience but it’s really exhilarating at well,” says Ayoade, who co-wrote the screenplay with Avi Korine, Harmony’s brother. “And it’s sort of continually terrifying because it’s just always evaporating. I heard Stanley Kubrick describe it in an interview as one of those games where you are trying to get all the balls in the hole. If you spoke to someone playing that game and said, ‘Are you enjoying that?’ He’d go, ‘What are you talking about? I just need to get the balls in the hole!’ You reach a point where any enjoyment has gone and you just have to do it.”

Now with categories

If you stop by here on a regular basis I’m pleased to say there are now categories, which should make it much easier to discover related content.

If you’re on a big screen device like a laptop you’ll see the new categories section over on the right. If you’re on a smaller screen there is of course no space for a column over on the right, so just scroll down to the bottom of the page instead.

If there’s anything else you’d like to see to make navigating the content here easier just let me know at guy.cookson@respondhq.com

Google brought down to earth

From Pando Daily:

Something in all of us wants to believe that big tech companies, the ones we provide with reams of personal data everyday, are doing something noble with that information. That’s what made Google’s flu tracker, Flu Trends, so appealing. Here’s Google, taking time out of its busy day of selling our data for profit to apply those millions of Google searches and location trackers to something useful for humanity: Tracking the spread and severity of flu outbreaks across the United States.

There’s only one problem: Flu Trends is wrong.

According to a new Science study, Google overestimated flu outbreaks by 50 percent in the 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 seasons. As TIME’s Bryan Walsh writes, “If you wanted to project current flu prevalence, you would have done much better basing your models off of 3-week-old data on cases from the CDC than you would have been using GFT’s sophisticated big data methods.”

Read the rest here.

Flo: Portrait of a Street Photographer

From New York Times:

As a young, self-described “hot chick” in the ’70s and ’80s, Flo Fox hung out at Studio 54 and Area, in the same social circle as Andy Warhol and photographers like Andre Kertesz and Lisette Model. Today, worlds away from those underground art parties, she lives in an apartment building for disabled people, surviving with the help of Medicaid and Social Security.

Ms. Fox was born blind in one eye and was orphaned as a teenager. At 26, she purchased her first camera and embarked on a career in photography. When she turned 30, she developed multiple sclerosis. Now she has lost much of the vision in her other eye, is triplegic, and several years ago was given a diagnosis of lung cancer. Yet she is as sassy as ever and continues to do what she loves most: take photographs. When holding the camera became impossible, she started to instruct her aides to take photographs for her. Her often humorous and ironic (and sometimes raunchy) photographs depict the gritty side of New York City street life.