Posts Tagged ‘blog: true stuff from old books’.

True Stuff: Idealized vs. Realistic Portraiture

In my last post on the ethics of photo retouching, and how it’s been prevalent since the birth of photography, commenter Pelotard mentioned the official Soviet portraits of Gorbachev:

…And how they always conveniently seemed to leave something out.

This got me thinking about idealized portraiture in general. It goes back as long as portraiture itself, of course; early classical portraits of emperors and such tended to cycle through emphasis on either a rugged, realistic appearance (as would befit a warrior and statesman) or an angelic, unblemished appearance (as would befit a god). In the same way, later emperors (such as Constantine) saw value in associating themselves in the public eye with prior, well-regarded emperors. Constantine went so far as to wear the same haircut as Trajan:

(In my interview with the world’s foremost beard expert, Dr. Christopher Oldstone-Moore discusses a similar trend in the history of beards. Alexander the Great wished to be seen as a god, i.e. youthful and athletic, so he wore no beard. Hadrian, however, wished to be seen as a philosopher and thinker, so he did wear a beard. It was a cyclical fashion.)

There are cycles in contemporary fashion too, of course: the recent few years have seen a huge rise in oversharpened, deliberately un-airbrushed celebrity portraits like those of Martin Schoeller. But as you might imagine, I’m personally particularly interested in how people felt on the subject 100+ years ago.


True Stuff: The Ethics of Retouching

Modern-day photo retouching (as in here and here) is a big business in the world of magazines and advertisements and mass media, and every now and then there’s an outcry about how fake it all is. It distorts perceptions of beauty and reality, and elevates celebrity onto weird unblemished pedestals.

Before lumping this into “a problem with our modern world” too fast, though, remember that it was always thus: kings and queens were flattered by their bust-sculptors and portrait-painters, and as soon as photography was invented, there were retouchers. Drawing onto negatives with a pencil to prompt prints to come out lighter, or delicately scratching away emulsion to prompt prints to darken, they removed stray hairs, straightened noses, and erased double chins from the very first.

Here’s a bit from “A Magazine of Photographic Information,” March 1900 edition:

Retouching has been much condemned, alike by those who cannot practise it, and by those of artistic trend; we must admit that in many hands its use is pushed far beyond its legitimate scope, and with deplorable results. If, however, we judge a process by its abuse, then all photography must be placed under the ban, for certain it is, that many things photographic are produced which are without any merit whatsoever beyond the negative one of probable impermanence.

The article continues on to be quite prescient:

The Coming Retouching

What retouching should be, it is impossible to say. The retouching of the future is a matter of gradual evolution, rather than of demonstration. Probably the amateur will suggest it in part, but it should come more from the steady worker who day by day steadily pencils over his pile of negatives. It may safely be said that, far from being superseded, retouching, in a modified form, will be more universal in the future than in the past. Possibly it will often be nearer “faking” than retouching, but there will be few pictures, save those of beginners, which will be “straight prints from straight negatives.”

Here’s a bit from the 1898 book Amateur Portraiture at Home, which realizes it has to dip into the subject of retouching, but sure isn’t happy about it:

True Stuff: ‘Beauty and the Beard,’ 1939

Here’s an article I came across in the London Times, 1939, regarding the inherent beauty of the beard as a subject for photography.

Coincidentally (or not?), 1939 is the same year of LIFE Magazine’s epic double-page photo-spread exalting every type of beard! What a year to be alive!

Full transcript of the article below. (more…)

True Stuff: Socrates vs. the Written Word

Previously, I shared a curmudgeonly 1889 article about the menace of electricity and the telephone and its spiritual cousin, a fifteenth-century screed lamenting the printing press. I’m collecting data here in service of a hypothesis that progress is universally despised, that the “get off my lawn you whippersnappers” feeling that we all occasionally experience is more tied to our makeup as humans than the technology and the changes themselves. These feelings, I posit, are universal, and perhaps make us feel disconnected — we see others doing things differently, and experiencing life in a different way, and we can’t understand it, or all we can see is what they’re missing. If only they would realize! But those people are not bad — they are simply native to the next thing, perhaps, and they experience the world slightly differently. And so the world turns.

When I mentioned that I supposed this curmudgeonly sentiment against progress was common all throughout history, some commenters pointed me to the Phaedrus, a Socratic dialogue of around 370 B.C.

In it, Socrates recounts to Phaedrus the Egyptian legend of Theuth, the god who invented “numbers and arithmetic and geometry and astronomy, also draughts and dice, and, most important of all, letters.” Theuth presents the Egyptian king Thamus with his many inventions, and Thamus

…said many things to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts, which it would take too long to repeat; but when they came to the letters, “This invention, O king,” said Theuth, “will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories; for it is an elixir of memory and wisdom that I have discovered.”

But Thamus replied, “Most ingenious Theuth, one man has the ability to beget arts, but the ability to judge of their usefulness or harmfulness to their users belongs to another; and now you, who are the father of letters, have been led by your affection to ascribe to them a power the opposite of that which they really possess.

“For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.” (Phaedrus 274c-275b)

To which Phaedrus calmly replies: “Socrates, you easily make up stories of Egypt or any country you please.”


True Stuff: Monk vs. the Printing Press

In our recent discussion regarding the menace of the telephone (and electricity, and progress in general), I mentioned that there surely existed an exhortation against even the printing press, just as there seem to be curmudgeonly railings against every form of progress, in every generation. And the commenters came through!

“Yoyo” mentions the fifteenth-century abbot Johannes Trithemius, author of the work De laude scriptorum manualium — “In Praise of Scribes.” (And yes, he grudgingly had to consent to get the tract printed in order to get people to read it.) Trithemius, a lexicographer who was also deeply interested in cryptography and steganography (the art of hiding messages), understood the benefits the printing press could bring to the scholar and the layman alike, but didn’t want it to replace the work that monks and scribes were doing, or become an excuse for monks to become lazy and neglect the devotional aspect of their work.

In that day, books (codices) were artifacts. They were large, and tremendously expensive and laborious to create, and made to be durable and to last forever. Fifteenth-century monastic scribes were the latest in a long line of clergy and learned-types sharing a bibliophile tradition stretching back to the Greeks, Persians and Romans of the pre-Christian era. And when books are rare and expensive, a library becomes no different from a cathedral slathered in gold and bedecked with stained glass: the bigger and more elaborate the collection, the more impressive. And a good library was a physical testament to the character of the collector. Trithemius was definitely on the side of books in general.

But in his tract, he homes in on the hand-writing of manuscripts in specific and meaningful ways. For example, much like a painter must begin his training by copying the masters, it is only by the act of copying the Scriptures can a scribe become truly in touch with the Word of God:

[The writer,] while he is writing on good subjects, is by the very act of writing introduced in a certain measure into the knowledge of the mysteries and greatly illuminated in his innermost soul; for those things which we write we more firmly impress upon the mind…While he is ruminating on the Scriptures he is frequently inflamed by them.

Plus, it was okay that the act of copying was hard. It built character, in Trithemius’ opinion, the same way as chopping wood (though to this “interior exercise,” i.e. exercise of the spirit, he assigned far more importance). For monks, labor was part and parcel of devotion, and if you weren’t good at writing, you could do binding, or painting, or for heaven’s sake practice. And it goes even further: the labor of manuscript writing was something for monks to do — for there was no greater danger for the devout soul than idleness.

For among all the manual exercises, none is so seemly to monks as devotion to the writing of sacred texts.

And this is really the crux of Trithemius’ argument.

He does spend some time talking about practical reasons that printed books weren’t anything to get bothered about: their paper wasn’t as permanent as the parchment the monks used (he even advocates the hand-copying of “useful” printed works for their preservation); there weren’t very many books in print, and they were hard to find; they were constrained by the limitations of type, and were therefore ugly. All perfectly functional reasons considering the circumstances of the time.

But the real kicker for him is what it means to hand-write a book even in the age of printing.

In a way, there’s a nobility to this. I can appreciate the tactile, artifact qualities of a book, or work of art that is hand-wrought even though machinery exists to create it. The idea that we as a culture place a giant premium on an item’s difficulty of creation has always been fascinating to me.

Think about it in terms of plagiarism: If I write an article that’s perfectly interesting, but you later learn that I plagiarized it, you don’t value the article anymore. You care less about the content of the article than you care about how I didn’t do the work.

People make the exact same argument about modern art: “My kid could do that!” If something doesn’t seem difficult, it doesn’t have worth.

Trithemius applies this as a gauge of devotion:

He who ceases from zeal for writing because of printing is no true lover of the Scriptures.

In other words, the way it has always been done is better, and the harder you have to work to keep doing it the old way, the more it proves you really care.

And I say that sentiment makes him a curmudgeon. Do you agree?

Quotes taken from The Abbot Trithemius (1462-1516): The Renaissance of Monastic Humanism by Noël L. Brann

Next week: Socrates vs. the written word itself!