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From armadillos to zebras, or what championship chickens have to do with a giant octopus.
It's easy to take this amazing planet we inhabit for granted. While National Geographic's school of nature photography may have its place, there's something remarkable and whimsical that happens when a fine art photographer takes her lens to Earth's creatures – they become poetry. Today, we turn to five such photographers, whose portraits of animals – unusual, otherworldly, kooky, tender, charismatic – make the eye swoon and the heart sing.
ANDREW ZUCKERMAN: CREATURE
Andrew Zuckerman is one of my absolute favorite photographers working today, his Wisdom and Music projects priceless time-capsules of contemporary culture and his thoughts on curiosity and rigor as the key to creativity a beautiful articulation of my own credo. In Creature, Zuckerman brings his exquisite signature style, crisp yet tender, to Earth's beings. With equal parts detail and delight, he captures the spirt of these diverse creatures, from panthers to fruit bats to bald eagles, in a way makes them seem familiar and fresh at once, and altogether breathtaking.
Six banded armadillo
African Crested Porcupine
Blue and Yellow Macaw
The project also features a companion children's alphabet book (and we know how much I love those) titled Creature ABC. In 2008, Zuckerman followed up with the equally exquisite Bird.
TIM FLACH: DOGS
From photographer Tim Flach and Creative Review editor Lewis Blackwell comes Dogs – a series of incredibly artful, soulful portraits of man's best friend, first featured here several months ago.
With a potent blend of playfulness and profound respect, Flach captures the remarkable diversity of dogs, both of appearance and of character, and our complex, 150-century-old relationship with them in a poetic and spellbinding visual narrative.
From shelter dogs to show-winners to dogs who sniff out explosives, the book spans an incredible range of personalities, portrayed in beautiful images generously stretched across full-bleed double-page spreads and lined with insightful commentary on everything from dog racism (did you know that there are more black dogs in shelters than any other fur color?) to historical background on how different breeds came to be and curious facts about them.
They can entertain us, protect us, teach us how to love, do what they are told, and tell us what is going to happen next. They can even extend our lives. We think we train them to do the work, but they have in turn found a way for us to provide for them. This great form that has forged so many different kinds of dog is the inspiration for this book. The result is an unprecedented insight and visualization of what dogs are and can be."
TAMARA STAPLES: FAIREST FOWL
Humans have the beauty pageants. Dogs have the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. But who knew chickens, too, had their own line of competitive narcissism? In The Fairest Fowl: Portraits of Championship Chickens, which you might recall, photographer Tamara Staples documents the fascinating and glamorous world of poultry fanciers and their prized barnyard beauties, from the surprisingly elaborate judging process to the distinct personalities of individual birds. Printed on appropriately lavish paper and garnished with a delicious essay by NPR's Ira Glass illuminating the intricacies of chicken portraiture, the book is equal parts rich anthropology of a curious subculture and remarkable feat of photographic brilliance.
Chickens this amazing don't just happen. People help them along – breed them, nurture them, take them from the humble coop to the top of the poultry world. In what's left of rural America, there is a poultry world. And it's bigger than you think. At a recent national competition, 12,000 birds showed up."
In the world of championship chickens, there's a 100-point scale, and every feature counts. […] The American Standard of Perfection is regularly linked to the Bible. Almost every breeder or judge speaks of the book in such exalted terms. The Standard exhaustively discusses every possible nuance of a show chicken, and there is little to no ambiguity between its covers."
SHARON MONTROSE: MENAGERIE
Fresh off the press just last week, Menagerie by photographer Sharon Montrose is a stunning collection of her most evocative images that will make you see at even the most familiar animals with equal parts astonishment, awe, and endearment.
From lambs to baby porcupines to giraffes, these tender, minimalist portraits exude a certain nakedness that makes the creatures in them appear at once more vulnerable and more relatable.
MARK LAITA: SEA
From photographer Mark Laita, whose superb "parallel portraits" of subcultures you might recall, comes Sea – a masterful piece of visual poetry that captures the creatures of the deep with equal parts cutting-edge photographic technique and imaginative whimsy to explore the extraordinary wonderland that lives beneath the surface of the world's water. From iridescent jellyfish to playful sea horses to prepossessing but deadly puffer fish, the 104 images in the collection reveal the astounding grace, colors, and personalities of these marine characters with unprecedented artistry and passion.
North Pacific Giant Octopus
Blue Blubber Jellyfish
Red Feather Starfish
Full review, along with more images, here.
What the French ideology from 1791 has to do with creative meritocracy and the future of information.
As the editor of what's essentially a public-service curiosity portal, ad-free and supported through reader contributions much in the way public radio and libraries are, I'm the first to cry "Wolf!" at any oversimplified insinuation that putting content behind paywalls is the way to make journalism and entertainment sustainable endeavors. I am a firm believer in content meritocracy and the pay-what-you-will model as the future of publishing, but I am also profoundly saddened by the way editorial and curatorial merit are being hijacked, regurgitated, and spat out as sellable commodities not benefiting the original creator or curator in any way.
(In fact, just this week, the Huffington Post took my recent piece on this Victorian map of woman's heart and did with it what's referred to as over-aggregation – reposting a reworded article with no substantive additional reporting and no prominent via-link for proper source attribution.)
So when I came across Robert Levine's Free Ride: How Digital Parasites are Destroying the Culture Business, and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back, I was ambivalently intrigued. One one hand, it opens with such binary war cries as:
By making it essentially optional to pay for content, piracy has set the price of digital goods at zero. The result is a race to the bottom, and the inevitable response of media companies has been cuts – first in staff, then in ambition, and finally in quality."
Implicit to this argument is the assumption that if we did indeed make it optional for people to pay, most wouldn't. This needn't be the case – the disconnect between price and value is as much about price as it is about value. Most people won't pay for mediocrity but, at least in my experience, will gladly pay if they see value.
But Levine then takes a deeper look at the complexity of the issue, starting by correcting the popular misquotation of Stewart Brand's infamous argument that "information wants to be free." (That's the same Stewart Brand, by the way, who in the 1960s campaigned to get NASA to release the then-rumored satellite image of Earth – something hard to imagine was a point of contention in the age of breathtaking satellite timelapses available to the layman online.) As Levine points out, the full Brand quotation is much more nuanced:
On the one hand, information wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other."
Levine goes on to argue that the real conflict of the web is between the media companies slaving away at the true value-creating work of journalism and entertainment, and the tech companies racing to distribute their content, be it legally or not. But the idea that information will inevitably be free is based on the theory that the price of any good would fall to its marginal cost, and the marginal cost of digital distribution is exponentially approaching zero, bringing down the marginal cost of media along. Levine pokes two main holes in this argument: it's not only a theory, but also one economists developed for commodity goods, and implicit to it is the admission that if the price of culture fell to zero, content creators like movie studios and investigative journalists would have no way of covering their production expenses. At the root of this paradox is a dangerous conflation:
Much of the enthusiasm for free media comes from mistaking the packaging for the product. If you believe people once paid $15 for silver plastic discs, it's only natural to think online distribution will revolutionize the recording business. But if you realize people were paying for the music on those discs, it's obvious that someone still has to make it – and that someone probably wants to get paid."
On the other hand, Levine points out the uncomfortable reality of the tools for extracting value – tools not of device drivers but of human drives:
Reporters can access online databases and interview sources by Skype, but they still have to read the documents and ask the right questions. In cases like this, 'information wants to be expensive.'"
In criticizing the questionable and often outright illegal practices of aggregator sites, Levine scathes:
In Silicon Valley, the information that wants to be free is almost always the information that belongs to someone else."
He wryly observes the predatory paradox of the early ecosystem that laid the foundations for today's information value systems, including the notorious Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998:
For media companies, getting advice from technology pundits was like letting the fox lead a strategic management retreat in the henhouse."
For my part, I started Brain Pickings more than six years ago as what's commonly referred to as a "passion project" (though I don't like the fleeting noncommittal relationship this phrasing suggests) and didn't have a business model – but I did have a crystal-clear editorial model, which remains the same today: get people interested in meaningful cross-disciplinary things they didn't yet know they were interested in, and in the process empower their networked knowledge and combinatorial creativity; break out of the filter bubble, if you will, though conceived long before we had the very vocabulary to articulate it. So when an aggregator like the Huffington Post, a business-model wolf wearing an editorial-authenticity sheep's skin, takes my (ad-free) content and regurgitates it on its (ad-plastered) site, it lives up to the term "parasite" at the heart of Levine's argument, derived from the Greek parasitos and used to describe "someone who ate at someone else's table without providing anything in return."
While Levine rightly recognizes the remarkable creative empowerment that affordable technology has effected, he also...
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"…and a viral clip of a cat doing flips, and the bings, bongs, and beeps of emails and tweets…"
Last month, the web watched with equal parts amazement, amusement, and sheer horror as a one-year-old thought a magazine was an iPad. And just last week, while attending the Futures of Entertainment 5 summit for my MIT fellowship, I was unsurprised to learn that a presenter's toddler cousin walked up to a TV screen and tried to "swipe" it like a giant iPad. So I find myself delighted by the release of Goodnight iPad – "a parody for the next generation" by Ann Droyd (get it?), winking at the long-gone quiet era of the Goodnight Moon classic and "adapting" it for the age of LCD WiFi HD TVs and Facebook.
Whether Goodnight iPad will go the viral way of its conceptual ilk (Go the F**k to Sleep, I'm looking at you) and become a hipster darling is yet to be seen, but one thing is certain: at the heart of this irreverent nursery rhyme, still made very much of paper, is a playful reminder for all of us eternal kids that when the moon goes up, it's not an entirely terrible idea for the power to go down.