Obsessed with visual pleasure

In 1971, photographer Sheila Turner-Seed interviewed Henri Cartier-Bresson. The transcript was long stored away in a time capsule, but was unearthed by her daughter in 2013. The New York Times Lens blog published it as a two-part series that I can’t recommend enough. Cartier-Bresson was a veritable quotation machine, seemingly putting out memorable sentences with every other answer. Here are some from Part 2 of the interview:

Freedom for me is a strict frame, and inside that frame are all the variations possible.”

“Photography as I conceive it, well, it’s a drawing — immediate sketch done with intuition and you can’t correct it. If you have to correct it, it’s the next picture. But life is very fluid. Well, sometimes the pictures disappear and there’s nothing you can do. You can’t tell the person, ‘Oh, please smile again. Do that gesture again.’ Life is once, forever.”

“The difference between a good picture and a mediocre picture is a question of millimeters — small, small differences — but it’s essential. I didn’t think there is such a big difference between photographers. Very little difference. But it is that little difference that counts, maybe.”

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No known copyright restrictions

One of the internet’s most wonderful places is tucked away in the menu of a fading social network. Flickr, the pioneering photo sharing site, hosts not just photos its users have uploaded, but also a treasure trove of historic photographs, illustrations, and visual artifacts.

By the National Library of Ireland

E. River

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Started as a side-project in the mid-2000s, The Commons is Flickr’s ongoing partnerships with museums and libraries across the world, hosting an endless amount of their archival images. The plan was for the Flickr community to annotate those images, identify unknown places or people, and make that knowledge available to the world.

There were some early efforts to do that, but it appears that the attention of Flickr’s management has long turned elsewhere, rendering The Commons a curious, if wonderful relic of a bygone internet era.

A treasure trove of stunning photography and positively weird illustrations

Go ahead and visit that page, whose design has never been updated and looks like the Internet of 2006. Try to locate the tiny search box, enter something, and watch as it unearths some utterly random historic imagery.

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You’ll quickly realize that this might be one of the most overlooked resources of the Internet, a treasure trove of stunning historic photography, illustrations, and positively weird artifacts. You can enter almost anything you want and chances are you’ll find a photo that surprises or delights you, something you have never seen or didn’t know existed.

The photography on the Commons is mostly black and white, a grainy and sometimes bitterly low-resolution affair. It stings when the image is particularly great, but it makes it feel even more like the digital equivalent of browsing through an antique book shop, flea market, or box in your grandparent’s attic.

But the best part is the copyright for these images has long expired, meaning that you can use them for just about anything. Some of these images no adorn the walls in my apartment, I use others over at The Idea List, or as an inspiration for writing. And maybe that’s why The Commons feels like such a relic: The internet isn’t really like it any more. That spirit of sharing, remixing and repurposing has become rare, the internet (in the words of Destroyer) “a tight and perfect digital palace”, meant to be consumed rather than interacted with.

And I can’t help but feel that it might be temporary, with Yahoo! now acquired and Flickr’s future all but certain. It will be a sad day when this corner of the internet gets closed down, the end of a chapter.

Vagabonds

I just stumbled upon this sweeping 2007 review of Bolaño’s Savage Detectives by Daniel Zalewski of the New Yorker. It talks not just about the writer’s twisted and tragic life story, but also about his rejection of literary mainstream and his dislike for Magic Realism – only to introduce a new term that I couldn’t agree more with:

When “The Savage Detectives” was published, Ignacio Echevarría, Spain’s most prominent literary critic, praised it as “the kind of novel that Borges could have written.” He got it half right. Borges, whose longest work of fiction is fifteen pages, would likely have admired the way Bolaño’s novel emerges from a branching tree of stories. But what would he have made of the delirious road trip, the frenzied sex, the sloppy displays of male ego? Bolaño fills his canvas with messy Lawrencian emotions but places them within a coolly cerebral frame. It’s a style worthy of its own name: visceral modernism.

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Berlin Blue

Cyanotype
ˈsʌɪənə(ʊ)tʌɪp
A photographic printing process that produces a cyan-blue print. Engineers used the process well into the 20th century as a simple and low-cost process to produce copies of drawings, referred to as blueprints.

Cyanotypes were developed in 1842, the third ever process to produce stable photographic prints. Conceived as a way of copying documents, it was repurposed for photography by the British scientist Anna Atkins, who some consider the first female photographer.

Prints created with the process have a distinct blue color. In English, it’s sometimes called Prussian Blue, but I am partial to the German translation “Berliner Blau”. According to Wikipedia, it’s the “first modern color pigment not present in nature”. And just like the city, it’s in equal parts artificial, modern, and captivating.

Now if only it wasn’t so toxic.

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Storying

I know a person that takes a rigorous approach to social media: Whenever he posts a status, he tries to mention as many people as possible in the comments to get their attention. He has also been known to call others with the request to “please like my post” – and to delete it in case it bombs.

Such obsession is obviously an extreme, but that underlying fear of being overheard is very real.

Last week, as Instagram first copied and then apparently replicated the success of Snapchat, I heard several people making a certain argument to explain the move: Sharing, they said, has become too much of a high-stakes game. People no longer dare to just casually post – for fear of falling on dead ears.

And it’s true: As networks like Facebook and Instagram have matured, they have gone through a transformation: Away from a democratic directory and towards an online celebrity death match, a space where the best, most engaging “content producers” dominate. Much of that has to do with networks’ switch from linear timelines to algorithmic feeds: Now content had to perform well, or it would be mercilessly washed away with the next wave of updates, relegated to the bottom of an endless feed.

Snapchat’s Stories had become an antidote to all that that: A space largely without rules where everybody could just happily share everything and anything, a place where users have a more tightly selected group of actual friends, and where they weren’t dealing with the anxiety of appearing too casual or oversharing

Just compare the visual language of regular Instagram with that of Snapchat: On the latter, posts aren’t just raw but often deliberately silly. I long found its stickers, lenses, and quickly drawn annotations visually jarring, but I failed to register that this was exactly what made them a success: They show that you aren’t taking yourself too seriously – they say “casual” with the same fervor as a tacky Hawaiian shirt.

Over the years, the photos people shared on Instagram went from badly-lit cellphone shots with cheesy filters towards perfectly symmetric, pastel-colored lifestyle dioramas. The app is still one of the most popular in the world, but users have stopped sharing as frequently, putting pressure on the company to make a move that would boost engagement.

Enter Stories: They are essentially a network with the network, a small space for ephemeral moments that gracefully vanish after 24 hours, keeping each users grid of photos intact. Want to have your cake and eat it too? Effectively, you now can.

Writer Geoff Dyer has called the quest of photography the “constant moment”, and that term has never seemed more appropriate than it does today: Photography has moved from static images towards a perpetual broadcast, where larger and larger chunks of life are becoming footage. The constant moment is also the battleground of social networks, and advertisers, an ever-growing space to compete for eyeballs and to milk for revenue.

Is it going to work? To me, Stories still appear as a curiosity. For one, they shatter the illusion so carefully crafted by people over the years; having shared just their very best moments and shots, the people I follow on Instagram have seemed to live lives full of wonder and amazement. But their Stories are an endless stream of normalcy, of uncensored, often mundane everyday moments. And while there can undoubtedly be beauty in the mundane, these moments are so different to what I am used to seeing that watching them feels like stealing glances at strangers on the street.

That effect will surely wear off. But as it does, I’ll wonder if we’ll tired of the mundane as we do of the perfectly curated? Since Instagram Stories are a copy, they don’t tread on new territory. And the real question here is what app will make the next step in broadcasting the constant moment.