Celebrating two innovative photographic artists

Today, 11 June, is quite a big day in photographic history – it is on this day that we celebrate the births of two great photographers, Julia Margaret Cameron (11 June 1815 to 26 January 1879) from Great Britain, and the American Jerry Uelsmann (born 11 June 1934).

Cameron and Uelsmann operate in very different photographic domains – while Julia Cameron was a groundbreaking portrait photographer, Uelsmann is known for his fantastical darkroom creations, and is considered the forerunner of the photomontage technique.

Portrait of the English mathematician, astronomer, chemist, and experimental photographer/inventor Sir John Herschel, by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1867. This portrait illustrates Cameron's trademark tightly cropped, soft focus style, and her uncanny ability to bring out the character of her subjects.  [Public domain - copyright expired]
Portrait of the English mathematician, astronomer, chemist, and experimental photographer/inventor Sir John Herschel, by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1867. This portrait illustrates Cameron’s trademark tightly cropped, soft focus style, and her uncanny ability to bring out the character of her subjects.
[Public domain – copyright expired]

Julia Margaret Cameron was a key figure in the development of the modern portrait style. Her influence in this field is particularly significant if one takes into account that her photographic career only spanned eleven years – she only took up photography at the late age of 48 when she received a camera as a present from her daughter. She took to the discipline with great vigour and had an obvious knack for photography, quickly becoming a prominent member of the Photographic Societies of London and Scotland. In her short career she photographed many famous celebrities and historical figures, and she is also known for allegorical works featuring religious and literary themes.

One of the innovations Cameron brought to portrait photography was cropping her portraits much more tightly than was the norm at the time. Another interesting technique she used, was to photograph her subjects intentionally slightly out of focus, and using long exposures, thus creating images that also contained motion blur. While this led some of her contemporaries to ridicule her work, she remained extremely prolific, leaving behind a very comprehensive portrait library for her time.

Besides her technical and artistic innovations, Cameron also brought her innovative nature to bear on the business side of photography – she registered each of her photos with the copyright office, and kept detailed records of all her work. This careful bookkeeping has resulted in a large number of her works surviving today.

While Cameron is an influential figure in portrait photography, her influence only came to bear long after her death – as mentioned before, many of her contemporaries found her soft-focus, closely cropped portraits ridiculous and unacceptable. Things have changed, though, with many claiming her to be one of the portraiture greats – Imogen Cunningham said “I’d like to see portrait photography go right back to Julia Margaret Cameron. I don’t think there’s anyone better”, while Getty Images have stated “Cameron’s photographic portraits are considered among the finest in the early history of photography”.

Untitled (Tree House), by Jerry Uelsmann, 1982. It is quite unbelievable to think that Uelsmann's photo montages were done using film negatives in the darkroom, without any modern digital processing.
Untitled (Tree House), by Jerry Uelsmann, 1982. It is quite unbelievable to think that Uelsmann’s photo montages were done using film negatives in the darkroom, without any modern digital processing.

Unlike Julia Cameron, Jerry Uelsmann’s interest in photography started at the much younger age of 14. While still at school he started landing a few minor photography jobs, and after completing his tertiary studies in photography, he took up a job teaching photography at the University of Florida in 1960.

From early in his career Uelsmann developed an interest in darkroom image manipulation, creating composite images from multiple negatives. Some of his creations, done using his large archive of negatives, were amazingly intricate, often requiring him to work with multiple enlargers during the same session. Referring to his works as “allegorical surrealist imagery of the unfathomable”, he never cared about the boundaries suggested by the photographic realists of hie time. Instead, he opted to use components of a number of different photographs to create and share the images he saw in his mind, thus developing the photo montage technique to an amazingly advanced technical level.

What made the impact of his work even greater was that he created his photo-fantasies at a time when such montages weren’t at all a common concept – photos were essentially considered realistic documentary interpretations of scenes and events. As such, Uelsmann’s avant grade photographic visuals helped to greatly expand the boundaries of photography as an art form.

To this day, despite the proliferation of digital processing tools and techniques, Uelsmann continues to use traditional equipment and his almost magical darkroom skills have resulted in works of breathtaking intricacy – a visit to his website to look through some of his works from the past decade (and earlier) is well worth your time.

Like Cameron, Uelsmann’s work was initially not looked upon kindly by his contemporaries. Like Cameron, however, Uelsmann’s work has stood the test of time and is now being acknowledged for their groundbreaking disregard for the styles, norms and trends of the time – as such playing an important role in advancing the art of photographic.

Both Julia Margaret Cameron and Jerry Uelsmann have succeeded, in very different ways, to move beyond mere photography to create original works of art – in Cameron’s case, vividly personal, yet almost impressionistic portraits, and in Uelsmann’s case, surrealistic visions from the mind of their creator.

Inspiring stuff!

Celebrating books, authors, publishers and readers

Today we celebrate World Book and Copyright Day, also known as World Book Day. The day serves as a celebration of books and authors all over the world, and involves activities to “encouraging everyone, and in particular young people, to discover the pleasure of reading and gain a renewed respect for the irreplaceable contributions of those who have furthered the social and cultural progress of humanity.”

In celebration of World Book and Copyright Day, my humble attempt at spine poetry (a wonderfully fun art form that I first heard about from A Little Blog Of Books And Other Stuff). (© All Rights Reserved)
In celebration of World Book and Copyright Day, my humble attempt at spine poetry (a wonderfully fun art form that I first discovered through A Little Blog Of Books And Other Stuff).
(© All Rights Reserved)

In addition to being a tribute to authors, the day also serves to promote publishing and the protection of intellectual property through copyright.

In her message for the Day, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova said: “All forms of books make a valuable contribution to education and the dissemination of culture and information. The diversity of books and editorial content is a source of enrichment that we must support through appropriate public policies and protect from uniformity.”

Definitely a day – and a cause – well worth supporting. To quote Charles W. Eliot, “Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counsellors, and the most patient of teachers.”

Creativity and innovation, cornerstones of scientific and artistic progress

It’s World Creativity and Innovation Day today. In fact, the whole preceding week, 15-21 April, is celebrated as World Creativity and Innovation Week. To quote the website, “World Creativity and Innovation Week, April 15-21, celebrates the unlimited potential of people to be open to and generate new ideas, be open to and make new decisions, and to be open to and take new actions that make the world a better place and make your place in the world better too.”

The importance of creativity and innovation can hardly be overestimated. Throughout the history of science and art, progress was sparked by the innovations of those individuals who nurtured and positively exploited their creativity.

Creativity and innovation - weighty subjects that impact on every aspect of our lives, from art to science, from mathematics to literature. (© All Rights Reserved)
Creativity and innovation – weighty subjects that impact on every aspect of our lives, from art to science, from mathematics to literature.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Of course loads have been said about the art of innovation, and many clever people have devoted their lives to the study of creativity. Yet these remain elusive subjects, with much disagreement as to what constitutes creativity, and how you can increase/improve your own creative abilities.

I’ve featured many inspirational individuals, who have been responsible for amazing creativity and innovation, on this blog in the past, and hope to feature more in future. Rather than attempting to turn this post into a meaningful, comprehensive overview on the science of creativity (which would be pretty much impossible anyway), let me rather simply applaud all those innovators who have dazzled the world with their creative contributions, however big or small – may the river of human innovation never run dry, and may every day be a creativity and innovation day.

Celebrating art and creativity on World Art Day

In commemoration of the birth of Leonardo da Vinci (15 Apr 1452 – 2 May 1519), the 15th of April has been declared World Art Day. The idea was born at the 2012 General Assembly Meeting of the International Association of the Arts (IAA) in Guadalajara, Mexico.

As the World Art Day website notes, “the turmoil our world is currently living through, needs the power that freedoms of thought, and speech can bring to this tumultuous world. And who better to lead this effort than the artists of this world.”

It is hoped that the day will help in spreading an international awareness of the arts.

Art, making the world a better place. (© All Rights Reserved)
Art, making the world a better place.
(© All Rights Reserved)

By having World Art Day coincide with the birth of da Vinci, rather than any number of other equally renowned and deserving artists, the day also hints at the importance of the arts, and artistic thinking, beyond the strictly fine arts domain. In addition to being a brilliant painter and sculptor, da Vinci excelled as a philosopher, mathematician, architect, engineer and inventor. The great Renaissance Man, da Vinci showed that greatness could be achieved at the intersection between art, science and technology. As such, da Vinci’s birthday is the perfect day “to commemorate the role of art in the contemporary world, with its complex artistic, social and political layers.”

So join me in taking some time to remind ourselves of the key role art plays in our lives, and to show appreciation for the artists who make the world a better, more meaningful and more aesthetically agreeable place. I don’t even want to begin imagining the emptiness and poverty of a world bereft of art.

Celebrating the art of handwriting

It’s Handwriting Day today. National Handwriting Day, to be exact, but as I’m prone to do, I’ll just ignore the ‘National’ bit, and claim this US day for the rest of us.

Handwriting – a unique expression of personality, with stylistic nuances making each person’s writing different. Sadly, writing is an art that seems to be fast dying away as we type our way through the day. Where people used to take pride in drafting artfully crafted hand-written letters, our modern-day fingers are much more adept at finding their way across a keyboard or touch-screen.

When last did you write an entire page of text by hand?(© All Rights Reserved)
When last did you write an entire page of text by hand?
(© All Rights Reserved)

Writing some Christmas cards a while ago, I was reminded again how bad and inconsistent my handwriting has become, and how quickly my hands started getting painfully tired. If I were to subject myself to a handwriting analysis right now, I’m sure there’d be serious questions asked about my character.

At least I don’t have to feel alone in the bad handwriting department – most doctors beat me by a country mile when it comes to illegible scribbling. I’ve never been able to understand why bad handwriting appears to be a prerequisite for entering the medical profession. Yet it seems to be the case – according to a 2007 article in Time Magazine, doctors’ sloppy handwriting directly resulted in the death of no less than 7000 people in the US per year (based on a July 2006 report from the National Academies of Science’s Institute of Medicine). According to the article, “…preventable medication mistakes also injure more than 1.5 million Americans annually. Many such errors result from unclear abbreviations and dosage indications and illegible writing on some of the 3.2 billion prescriptions written in the U.S. every year.”

If these are the figures for the US, imagine what it must be internationally!? If that is not a good argument to get doctors using tablets (tablet computers, I mean) and typing e-prescriptions, then I don’t know what is!

Whether you are a perfectly consistent scribe, or the proud owner of an illegible scribble, today is the day to celebrate your handwriting style – it’s one of the things that make you uniquely you. Perhaps Handwriting Day is just the time to make a commitment to writing more by hand – losing this special skill will surely be a terrible tragedy.

Look inwards and get creative on Make Your Own Head Day

So today, according to the holiday websites, is Make Your Own Head Day. Bit of a clumsily named day, if you ask me, but apparently the day is all about getting creative, with a bit of self-reflection thrown in. Grab a pencil, or a heap of clay, or whatever material strikes your fancy, and start creating an image in your likeness.

If your drawing looks more like a particularly abstract Rorschach test than a self-portrait, don’t worry – it’s all about self-expression, and there’s no prizes for the best artwork. After all, if you subscribe to the American developmental psychologist Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, spatial intelligence (‘picture smart’) is just one dimension of intelligence. This type of intelligence – the ability to think and express yourself in three dimensions – is shared between the creative types who express themselves spatially, like artists, architects and designers, and people who are skilled at orienting themselves spatially like pilots, sailors etc.

OK, a bit of a cheat from my side – this is not my artwork, but at least it is my head (as drawn by my spatially intelligent better half).
(© All Rights Reserved)

If spatial intelligence is not your thing, perhaps you have naturalistic intelligence, musical intelligence, logical-mathematical intelligence, interpersonal intelligence, bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, linguistic intelligence, intra-personal intelligence, or even existential intelligence.  There are many sites containing in-depth discussion of these, but for a simple, succinct summary of Gardner’s different intelligences, have a look at The Nine Types of Intelligence.

Given the above, perhaps we should expand Make Your Own Head Day to incorporate the other intelligences. If you’re a mathematical whizz you can calculate the volume of your head, or model it’s shape (and don’t go for the ‘Let’s assume a perfectly spherical head’ cop-out!). If you have body-smarts, perhaps you can express your personality through dance.  The musical types can write a self-referential song, the linguists can create their self-portrait through poetry or prose, and so forth.

And those with existential intelligence can just sit back and think about it all.

Whatever you do, enjoy this day of self-reflective creative expression!

Frederick Bowen and the fascinating ferns

Today we celebrate the birthday of one Frederick Orpen Bower, born 4 November 1855. Bower, an English botanist, was famous for his studies of the origins and evolution of primitive land plants such as ferns and mosses. In his research, published in books like Origin of a Land Flora (1908), Ferns (1923-28), and Primitive Land Plants (1935), Bower concluded that these plants had evolved from algal ancestors.

Ferns, the subject of much of Bower’s research, is a fascinating plant in many ways. Unlike mosses, ferns are vascular plants with stems, leaves and roots. Unlike other vascular plants, however, they reproduce via spores rather than flowers and seeds.

The shape and structure of young fern fronds can provide endless visual fascination.
(© All Rights Reserved)

While we typically associate ferns with moist, shady areas, they can be found in a wide variety of habitats, from desert rocks to mountains to water bodies. They can prosper in marginal areas where many flowering plants fail to grow. This tenacity make certain fern species serious weeds, such as the Bracken Fern in Scotland, and the giant water fern, one of the world’s worst aquatic weeds.

From a biochemical point of view, ferns can be particularly useful in fixing nitrogen from the air into compounds usable by other plants, and for removing heavy metals from the soil.

Another beautiful young frond, appearing almost animal-like.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Patterns and motives based on fern shapes are popular in traditional art and culture. In New Zealand, for example, the silver fern is a very prominent cultural symbol, featured often in traditional art. The leaf of the silver fern is also the proud emblem of many of the country’s top sporting teams such as All Blacks (rugby) and Silver Ferns (netball).

On a more esoteric level, ferns are a wonderful embodiment of mathematics in nature, with young fern fronds unrolling in stunning Fibonacci spirals. The patterns and structure of fern leaves can also be simulated by means of iterative mathematical functions.

Definitely a plant that fascinates on many levels. No wonder Frederick Bowen committed his life to studying these wonderful plants!

World Smile Day: Do an act of kindness. Help one person smile!

Today, being the first Friday of October, is World Smile Day. The idea for the day comes from Harvey Ball, artist from Worcester Massachusetts USA, and the guy whose claim to fame is the creation of the iconic Smiley Face in 1963.

(Pumbaa, Wikimedia Commons)

As the smiley face gained popularity, Ball felt it lost its original meaning. This resulted to the creation of World Smile Day – the smiley face shows no discrimination in terms of politics, geography or religion, and Ball felt that, for at least one day a year, we should put aside our prejudices as well. World Smile Day asks of you to “Do an act of kindness. Help one person smile!”

When Ball died in 2001, the Harvey Ball World Smile Foundation was created in his honour. The foundation, whose slogan is “Improving this world, one smile at a time”, remains the official sponsor of World Smile Day activities in Ball’s hometown.

On the subject of smiling – earlier in the year, on SCUD Day, I wrote a blog post about the psychological benefits of smiling, and how even just pulling your face into a smile can ‘fool’ you into feeling better.  It seems, however, that the benefits of smiling does not stop there.

Conclusive proof of the contagious nature of a smile – it’s impossible to not smile while looking at these happy faces!
(© All Rights Reserved)

I found an excellent article on the Forbes website, where Ron Gutman, founder and CEO of HealthTap, discusses many of the scientifically researched benefits of smiling. Here’s some of the results I found particularly interesting:

A 30-year longitudinal study done at the University of California Berkeley measured smiles of students in old yearbooks, and used this to predict future happiness – how happy their marriages would be, how well they would score on standardized well-being and happiness tests, and how they would inspire others. It turns out, perhaps not surprisingly, that the widest smilers in college turned out to be the happiest people in life.

A similar study at Wayne State University looked at baseball card photos of Major League players from 1952, and found that the span of their smiles served as a fairly accurate prediction of life-expectancy! The non-smilers lived to an average age of almost 73, while the smilers on average made it to almost 80.

Smiling is one of the most basic, and most universal, human expressions. In cultural studies on Papua New Guinea’s Fore Tribe, who had no contact with western culture and is known for their cannibalism, it was found that even in that very remote culture smiles were used very similar to how we use it.

Studies done in Sweden show that other people’s smiles suppress the control we usually have over our own facial muscles, causing us to smile involuntarily. Apparently it is also very difficult to frown when looking at someone smiling.

And here’s the clincher – according to a UK research study, it was found that a smile could generate an equivalent amount of ‘feel good activity’ in the brain as 2000 chocolate bars!

Have a look at Gutman’s article – it’s a most amusing read.

Have a brilliant World Smile Day, everybody. I think the wise Mother Teresa said it best: “Everytime you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing.”

Having your name up in lights, thanks to Georges Claude.

If it wasn’t for today’s birthday boy, French chemist, engineer and inventor Georges Claude (24 Sep 1870 – 23 May 1960), the streetscapes of New York, Las Vegas, and many other cities, might have looked unimaginably different – among other achiements, Claude gained fame as the inventor of neon tube lighting.

Claude, who is sometimes called ‘the Edison of France’ was a prolific inventor and innovator, and his early focus fell on the industrial liquefaction of air. This process, which enabled the production of industrial quantities of liquid nitrogen, oxygen and argon, also produced neon as a by-product. In order to exploit this by-product, he came up with the neon tube light, a tube filled with neon that generates light when an electrified current is passed through the gas.

Neon lights quickly gained popularity for advertising and promotion purposes, both indoors and outdoors. What made it particularly effective was its strikingly visibility even in daylight, and the fact that the sealed tubes could be shaped and combined to form impressive glowing signage.

The traditional red neon sign – a classic example of vintage advertising.
(© All Rights Reserved)

While original neon light referred specifically to a sealed neon-filled tube light, the term has become generic for any electric light involving sealed glass tubes containing gas, be it mercury vapor, argon or a range of other gases. Original neon tubes glow red, while other gases are used to produce a range of other colours, e.g. yellow (helium), white (carbon dioxide), or blue (mercury).

Early neon signs, such as the signs sold by Georges Claude’s French company Claude Neon to the Packard car dealership in the United States in 1923, proved huge tourist attractions, with people reportedly staring for hours at the amazing ‘liquid fire’ signs. Neon signage caught on like wildfire in the 1930’s and 40’s, particularly in the ‘States, with neon signs popping up all over the place, often to rather gaudy effect. After the heyday or neon lighting in the early to mid 20th century, it’s popularity declined somewhat. In recent years, however, neon signage has seen something of a revival in art and architecture, becoming popular for its retro effect.

Getting solarised on Man Ray’s birthday

Today we celebrate the birthday of one of the great avant-garde photographers of the modern era – the enigmatic Man Ray. Born Emmanual Radnitzky (27 Aug 1890 – 18 Nov 1976) in Pennsylvania, US, he was the oldest child of Russian Jewish immigrants.

He changed his named to Man Ray in his early 20’s – ‘Ray’, a shortened form of Radnitsky, was something his brother came up with in reaction to the anti-Semitism prevalent at the time, while ‘Man’ came from his childhood nickname ‘Manny’.

Interested in art from an early age, Man Ray pursued a career as an artist after leaving school. Starting with painting as his medium of choice, he soon developed an interest in the avant-garde movement and became involved with the Dadaists in New York. He started investigating alternative image-making methods, including photography, as well as experimenting with various new artistic forms and techniques, including readymades (influenced by his friend Marcel Duchamp) and kinetic art.

In 1921 he relocated to the Montparnasse quarter in Paris, France, an area favoured by artists of the time. Over the next 20 years, he focused on photography, becoming an influential photographic artist and photographing many of the key figures in the art world, from James Joyce to Jean Cocteau.

While he made a notable contribution as painter, he is perhaps best remembered for his photography – he is responsible for some of the most iconic photographic images of the 20th century. Together with his assistant and lover Lee Miller, herself a surrealist photographer of note, he ‘reinvented’ the technique of solarisation when Lee accidentally over-exposed an image in his darkroom.

A digitally ‘solarised’ image. Given my science photography focus, I’ve opted for a scientific image to subject to the solarisation treatment.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Solarisation is the partial reversal of an image which occurs when a film or print is subjected to a brief period of extreme over-exposure. The effect was first discovered in the early 19th century and was already identified by photographic pioneers such as Daguerre and Draper, so Man Ray definitely didn’t invent the concept. He did, however, recognise the creative potential of this ‘accidental technique’, which usually occurs when a film or print is accidentally exposed to brief flash of light (like briefly switching on a light in the darkroom). He spent a lot of time and effort perfecting the technique, and produced some of the classic examples in this style.

While the solarisation technique is a physical, chemical process achieved during the development of a piece of photographic film or print, various digital processing techniques have been developed to mimic the solarisation effect – Adobe Photoshop even has a readymade ‘Solarize’ filter. A decent digital approximation of the solarisation effect can be achieved using tools like Photoshop, but it’s not quite the same as the real thing. It is definitely less exciting in the sense that you are almost in too much control of the effect – you can precisely control the levels of ‘digital solarisation’, unlike the physical situation where you are partially at the mercy of the chemistry of your medium, and the element of chance becomes an integral part of the artistic process.

Flowers make excellent subjects for solarisation.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Of course art is not just about the tools – whether you use a flash of light or a photoshop tweak to achieve a creative result, the technique will always be subservient to the artistic inspiration. In the words of Man Ray himself:

“… there will always be those who look only at technique, who ask ‘how’, while others of a more curious nature will ask ‘why’. Personally, I have always preferred inspiration to information.”