Duck Duck Book

60 – sex collectors
04.7.2009, 12:03 am
Filed under: social sciences

Sex collectors / Geoff Nicholson.
New York : Simon & Schuster, 2006.
[MCL call number: 306.77 N625s 2006; one copy, one hold]

I have long been curious about collectors.  What drives them?  Is their interest in collecting a compulsion, a passion, an emotional or intellectual outlet?  How does one collector’s interest in the pursuit of collecting differ from another’s?  Are there psychological dangers or benefits to collecting?  Is it a byproduct of consumerism?  Can careful amassing of objects or ideas bring collectors to a deeper philosophical or spiritual understanding, or do they just know more about their particular interest than people who are less obsessed? What actually makes someone a collector — does it require a particular degree of passion, a certain number of objects, or a specific approach to the work of gathering things together?  Are people who collect experiences, ideas, or other intangible things truly collectors?

I expected Geoff Nicholson’s Sex Collectors to be essentially a journalistic account of his encounters with individual collectors, descriptions of their collections, and maybe a little discussion of what motivates people to develop sex-related collections.  Nicholson does deliver this — in fact he provides a very rich account of his experiences meeting noted or interesting collectors and visiting museums and archives.  This journey forms the framework for the narrative, and it’s pretty fascinating, but it’s not the book’s only contribution.  Along the way, Nicholson troubles to examine the underlying motivations collectors seem to feel.  He considers possible hallmarks of “true” collectors.  He describes how serious collections change collectors’ houses, affect their personal relationships, and influence the patterns of their lives.  He wonders what defines a sex collection, as opposed to another kind of collection.  And he considers how his interest in sex collecting and sex collections might qualify him as a collector as well.

Sex Collectors is intelligent, clear, and interesting, and it provides a calm but engaged examination of two subjects — sex collections, and the universe of collectors more generally — that, in his narrative at least, are by turns bizarre, wholesome, and titillating.

60 – forgotten arts & crafts
04.7.2009, 12:02 am
Filed under: art & entertainment

The forgotten arts and crafts / John Seymour.
New York : Dorling Kindersley, 2001.
[MCL call number: 745.5 S519f 2001; five copies, no holds]

One side effect of a curious mind is that it can be difficult to shake off idle questions.  How do you properly thatch a roof?  Were there once different kinds of thimbles for different sewing tasks?  Is there a non-electric ancestor to the vacuum cleaner?  But there is hope if your idly questioning mind inclines this particular way — these and many similar questions can be answered by consulting John Seymour’s The Forgotten Arts and Crafts.

In straightforward prose and clear illustrations, Seymour explains how things used to be made and repaired, who did the work, and a bit about their daily experiences.  The book includes traditional arts, crafts and homemade products primarily from the western Europe and the cultures it has spawned, but this narrow focus allows for greater depth – for example, there are two pages on boot and shoemaking, and an additional two pages on clog making.  And there’s a nice sidebar in the clog section about clogs made entirely of wood (with no leather upper part), and how they were called sabots in France, which gave rise to the word “sabotage,” because a clog is a handy weapon when you’re an oppressed worker.  Well, Seymour doesn’t put it exactly like that, but you see what I mean.

The Forgotten Arts and Crafts is nice to leaf through, but it might also prove useful if you really do have a question like “what sort of tools might one use to make large quantities of butter by hand?”  And there is an index, as well as an detailed table of contents and lots of arresting illustrations, so you should be able to find what you need in short order.

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If you need to know more about the workings of mundane technology, with a more modern bent, you would do well to consult David Macaulay’s The Way Things Work, which explains the how of everything from simple machines to the space shuttle.

60 – dawn of the color photograph
04.7.2009, 12:01 am
Filed under: art & entertainment

The dawn of the color photograph : Albert Kahn’s archives of the planet / David Okuefuna.
Princeton : Princeton University Press, 2008.
[MCL call number: 779.092 K12o 2008: six copies, no holds]

In the first few years of the 20th century, brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière invented autochrome photography, a simple, inexpensive method for making color photographs with a standard glass-negative camera (the sort used by professionals at the time).  The autochrome was a radical development — other color photography techniques existed, but they were expensive, complicated, and/or cumbersome.

Inspired in part by this technological development, French banker, pacifist, and philanthropist Albert Kahn conceived of an ambitious project — he recruited and financed professional photographers, provided them with autochrome plates and other equipment, and sent them around the world to photograph everyday life.   From 1908 through the 1930s, these photographers recorded world events, wars (most notably the First World War), political change, religious practice, commonplace cultural events, national festivals, people at work, and of course the landscape of houses, streets, neighborhoods, cities, agricultural land, and the natural world.  The project was named The Archives of the Planet, and eventually grew to more than 72,000 images.

The Archive’s photographers traveled far and wide, to teeny villages as well as important cities in nearly every corner of the world, and their work captures a world that is roughly a century old.  European imperialism, the massive bombing campaigns of the Second World War, the spread of Western popular culture, industrialization, the Cold War, pollution, globalization and many other forces have made changes both to our cultural and physical geography.  The Dawn of the Color Photograph collects hundreds of these pictures and presents them in a geographical arrangement, with David Okuefuna’s meticulous captions showing not only where and what is portrayed in each image, but often explaining how history has treated the buildings, cities, cultural traditions, and communities captured therein.  It’s easier to understand what’s in the pictures with this bit of explication — at times Okuefuna reads quite a lot into the images, making assessments of people’s state of mind from their expressions, for example, but on the whole his captions are helpful and illustrative.

But the pictures themselves are frankly astonishing.  The autochrome process* produces very different images than the color photographs we’re used to.  The images are muted and romantic looking; a bit grainy.  Even scenes that are brightly lit with full sunlight do not seem harsh – colors meld a little, and look more harmonious than they generally do in life.  Autochromes require a long exposure time, so some of the images are clearly posed – and those that are not often include blurred shapes where people or animals moved during the exposure.  The strange colors and long exposure combine to give the photographs a well-put-together look, a bit like theater promotion stills or fashion magazine shots.  And yet most of the images are startlingly natural looking.  The majority capture scenes of life as it is lived — marketplaces, people at work, street scenes — most of these seem as natural as they would captured in a fraction of a modern second by an amateur with a Brownie or an iPhone.

I looked through The Dawn of the Color Photograph several times before I felt ready to write about it.  The first time, I simply flipped through and looked at the pictures.  The second time, I read the introduction and the essays at the beginning of each chapter, and looked at the photographs more carefully.  The third time, I went through the whole book and read each photograph caption.  The fourth time, I flipped through again and revisited the images which had struck me most.  I am not sure that I am done; I’m not sure I have seen even a substantial part of what is available to see in this collection of images.  These pictures are very energetic and lifelike, and even though the people are mostly dead, many of the buildings and communities are scattered or destroyed, and the world is unalterably changed by time and other forces, these people and places do not seem gone.  They seem real, alive, present.  The people seem human, their cultures important, their habits interesting, their perspectives valuable.  I think this is the magic that Albert Kahn was hoping to create.

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* There is an appendix explaining the technical aspects of the autochrome process, which helps illuminate why the images look the way they do — and of course it’s also interesting because autochromes work so very differently than the photographic processes we typically use today.