The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Toward the end of a long day last week, tired of looking at and thinking about still pictures, I decided to take a break to check out what kinds of videos about photography had been posted on YouTube. The key word "photo" yielded 885,000 videos and feeling a little daunted, I started scanning the first couple of hundred to see what turned up. All the how-to videos about technical issues were pretty much what you’d expect them to be. I was surprised, and after a while I wasn’t, by the volume of videos uploaded to document—and further publicize—the process of celebrity photo shoots. And while videos that collect and animate sequences of self-portraits, shot one-a-day, have become a cliché, one that crammed 17 years worth of self-regard into a couple of minutes seemed almost as poignant as it is narcissistic.
Interestingly, the video that was the most fun to watch was a Tonight Show riff (made during Jay Leno’s reign) on the classic Candid Camera stunt of photographing people when they least expect it. But in this case, the inadvertent featured players were photographed as they entered a photo booth and as the supposedly automated camera started telling them exactly what to do . . .
This post is second in a series that highlights some of our most popular photos on the Flickr Commons.
This photo of Einstein pictured with a group of intellectuals is one of our most popular images on the Flickr Commons. As many of our Flickr users have noted, and as a kind of illustration of Einstein’s renown, he is the only identified scientist in this group portrait of venerable scholars titled, "Portrait of Albert Einstein and Others." Einstein is possibly the most celebrated scientist, or for that matter public figure, in popular culture. He’s immediately recognizable, like Elvis and Madonna, which got me thinking: beyond his undeniable brilliance, why is Einstein’s face (rather than that of myriad other scientists) so etched in our visual consciousness?
One reason is that he simply looked the part—something clearly evident in the contrast between him and his combed colleagues in our photo. Einstein had the crazy hair, the rumpled jacket, and the slightly bewildered demeanor that now sum up the "absent-minded professor" stereotype. Einstein became world-famous in 1919 when measurements made during an eclipse confirmed his prediction of how much gravity bends light, immediately causing a press sensation. This was at a time when publicity was still deemed distasteful by most (shocking in 2009, I know!), and when Einstein allowed his portrait to be printed in a book on relativity, fellow scientists and friends were dismayed. And while he could’ve refused to give interviews or pose for photographs at this point, he did not. In fact, though Einstein publicly played coy and pooh-poohed the press, he and his wife did court the press to some degree.
The photo above was taken in 1931 while Einstein was a visiting scholar at California Institute of Technology. Headlines from his visit to California, some reminiscent of Us Weekly headlines, reveal the star power of Einstein and his own push-pull relationship with the press: "EINSTEIN PROVES HE'S PROFESSOR; Scientist Absent Mindedly Strolls Into Dining Room in Pajamas," "Dr. Einstein Gets 'Kick' Out of Press Quiz; REPORTERS QUERY WIZARD," "EINSTEIN WAVES ASIDE LURING MOVIE OFFERS," "Einsteins Guests of Charlie Chaplin At Dinner at Hollywood Home." The press liked Einstein—his forgetfulness was charming, his "twinkling brown eyes" and good sense of humor made his brilliance accessible, and they could always count on him for some quip or pithy quote. And the visibility of Einstein in the press was only magnified with the development of new media practices emerging during that time: he appeared in popular news magazines, photographs of him were circulated widely to newspapers across the country via the Associated Press, and newsreels chronicled his travels and discoveries (see a newsreel of his arrival in California here, complete with singing schoolgirls).
However, what continues to make Einstein so memorable beyond his bookish looks and legacy with the press, is that looking at Einstein is like looking at the visual symbol of "genius." This "wizard" of science, able to tease out the universe’s unseen and hidden secrets, possesses something almost magical. As my colleague Marvin mentioned, he’s the only one in our photograph not looking at the photographer, just another indication of "a guy who was in a class, and a world, all his own." And that’s what draws me, at least, back to this photo: I can’t help but imagine that by looking at Einstein, I might access a smidgen of this genius essence.
To celebrate the season, we have a series of posts looking at images of summer in the Smithsonian photo archives and collections. To start things off, Mary Savig, Archives Specialist at the Archives of American Art, describes how artists recharged in the summer months. Like eager vacationers everywhere, artists have long escaped to the beach on hot summer days. The shore provided an invigorating environment free from the distractions and stress of cities. These sojourns also allowed artists, critics and writers to discuss their lives and art as they wiggled their toes in the sand. The Archives of American Art contains in its collections hundreds of snapshots of artists’ summer excursions. Explore this virtual photo album for a sampling. Modernist painters Konrad Cramer and Andrew Dasburg recline along a Provincetown, Massachusetts beach with journalist and prominent Communist leader, John Reed. Provincetown was an intellectually stimulating gathering place for poets, artists and writers from New York. Abstract Expressionist painters Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner worked in a studio in East Hampton, just a short distance from the beach. On this occasion, they were joined by fellow painter Helen Frankenthaler and influential critic Clement Greenberg. All of the artists shared the technique championed by Greenberg of dripping, pouring or flicking paint against large canvases. Perhaps the rhythmic crashing of the waves reminded the artists of their own dramatic gestures performed while painting; after all, it was Pollock who famously stated, "I am nature." The summer sun and sandy beaches also enticed artists to concentrate fully on their work. Rather than sending emails from a lawn chair, they set up easels and tripods along picturesque vistas. Photographer Brett Weston spent hours along the craggy beaches of California to capture images of waves and clouds. Friend and painter Harry Bowden took this snapshot of Weston as he balanced himself and his camera on rocks to snap the perfect shot. Provincetown was home to the Cape Cod School of Art, founded in 1889 by Charles Webster Hawthorne. This was one of the nation’s first summer schools to hold classes outdoors. Students painted en plein air, or in the open air, along boardwalks and beaches. Other schools began cropping up as it became more popular for students and teachers to leave their city studios for an energizing destination each summer. Watercolorist Millard Sheets was a keen observer of people and the environment. He drew from the vibrancy of the California sunshine as he painted a model on a timeworn boat. His paintings were modernist for his time, but his technique of painting en plein air was classic. Beach settings proved inspirational to a dynamic mix of artists working in abstraction, figuration or photography. The communal environment also instigated critical thinking and advanced life-long friendships. Renewal and reconnection are vacation goals shared by us all as we head off for our vacations. Just remember to bring a camera!
Mary Savig of the Smithsonian Archives of American Art
It was 3 o’clock in the morning and something out of the ordinary was happening. And good neighbor that she is—although it might not seem that way to all of you—Terry Mann grabbed her camera then started waking people up. There wasn’t anything wrong in the neighborhood, but she knew they’d want to witness something as spectacular as it was unusual, an aurora lighting up the Ohio sky with waves of vivid, changing colors. Terry, current president of the Astronomical League, a group of over 240 local amateur astronomical societies across the country, writes about the surprising differences between what she could see in person and in the photographs she took in the middle of the night, in a piece recently posted on click! photography changes everything . . .
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