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kottke.org posts about Evan Puschak

How France’s Film Industry Works

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 31, 2024

The film industry in France works a little differently that the American film industry. In this video, Evan Puschak explains how France treats filmmaking as a public good to be invested in at all levels.

One of the most interesting things is that the government gives grants to filmmakers that are specifically untethered to box office success in order “to support an independent cinema that is bold in terms of market standards and that cannot find its financial balance without public assistance”. Filmmakers who have made their early work with this public assistance include Agnes Varda, Celine Sciamma, and Claire Denis.

Why Henry VIII’s Codpiece Is So…Monumental

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 02, 2023

Perhaps the most prominent part of the most well-known painting of Henry VIII (a now-lost work by Hans Holbein the Younger) is the giant codpiece poking through the male-heirless king’s tunic. Evan Puschak analyzes the painting and fills us in on what makes this a particularly effective work of 16th-century propaganda.

Puschak had some fun with this one…I lol’d at “triple dick”, which under no circumstances should you google (like I did) at work or really anywhere else. Although, “triple dick art history” did lead me to this interesting piece on “ostentatio genitalium”:

Ostentatio genitalium (the display of the genitals) refers to disparate traditions in Renaissance visual culture of attributing formal, thematic, and theological significance to the penis of Jesus.

This bit got me laughing again:

…these Renaissance images shock us because they are so frequently ithyphallic: Christ has risen, but not in the way we have come to expect.

The Life Cycle Of Superhero Storytelling

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 07, 2023

In this short video essay, Evan Puschak explores the typical life cycle of superhero storytelling, where things move from standalone stories to crossovers and interconnections, the stakes continually rise, and things get so complicated that entertainment becomes homework. Marvel in particular is in the later stages of this cycle,1 where casual fans are dropping off because they haven’t watched increasingly mediocre movies and full seasons of shows to keep up to date on what’s to come.

  1. Star Wars is getting there too, and Star Trek seems like they’re trying their hardest to catch up.

The Bear’s Best Ingredient Is Tenderness

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 01, 2023

[Note: If you’re reading/watching this, I assume you’ve watched season two or don’t care about spoilers; they abound.] The Bear is an intense show about a group of intense people doing an intense job. It can be tough to watch sometimes because people often communicate by screaming and yelling at each other. As Evan Puschak observes in this perceptive video essay, the second season delves into where some of those behaviors came from (surprise: childhood trauma) and offers a counterbalancing force: tenderness, listening, and paying attention.

When Elites Stopped Dominating Painting

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 25, 2023

Traditionally, the subjects depicted in Western art were either religious or rich — wealthy patrons paid for paintings of themselves or of their religions. As Evan Puschak explains in this brief video essay, that began to change in the 16th century as revolution, reformation, and the development of a merchant class shifted who was worthy of depiction and who could pay.

Will AI Change Our Memories?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 03, 2023

Photographs have always been an imperfect reproduction of real life — see the story of Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother or Ansel Adams’ extensive dark room work — but the seemingly boundless alterations offered by current & future AI editing tools will allow almost anyone to turn their photos (or should I say “photos”) into whatever they wish. In this video, Evan Puschak briefly explores what AI-altered photos might do to our memories.

I was surprised he didn’t mention the theory that when a past experience is remembered, that memory is altered in the human brain — that is, “very act of remembering can change our memories”. I think I first heard about this on Radiolab more than 16 years ago. So maybe looking at photos extensively altered by AI could extensively alter those same memories in our brains, actually making us unable to recall anything even remotely close to what “really” happened. Fun!

But also, one could imagine this as a powerful way to treat PTSD, etc. Or to brainwash someone! Or an entire populace… Here’s Hannah Arendt on constantly being lied to:

If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. This is because lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, and a lying government has constantly to rewrite its own history. On the receiving end you get not only one lie — a lie which you could go on for the rest of your days — but you get a great number of lies, depending on how the political wind blows. And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.

As I said in response to this quote in a post about deepfakes:

This is the incredible and interesting and dangerous thing about the combination of our current technology, the internet, and mass media: “a lying government” is no longer necessary — we’re doing it to ourselves and anyone with sufficient motivation will be able to take advantage of people without the capacity to think and judge.

P.S. I lol’d too hard at his deadpan description of “the late Thanos”. RIP, big fella.

The Impressionish Painter

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 30, 2023

I have to admit that as much as I love Evan Puschak’s Nerdwriter videos, I did not have high hopes for his latest video on John Singer Sargent, a painter I didn’t know a lot about and assumed, mostly based on his name (ugh, I know), that he was some fusty 19th-century painter who was not as interesting as the Impressionists. What a pleasant surprise to discover, right from Puschak’s expertly concise show-don’t-tell opening, that I am Sargent’s newest fan.

Everywhere you look in this painting you see his supremely confident looseness, a kind of painting you maybe wouldn’t think to associate with a realistic representation of the world. And yet that’s exactly the final effect — a realism that is somehow more true than finely detailed painting.

Realism through impressionism? Sign me up. Stay curious, friends…you never know what interesting new (or old!) thing you’re going to discover next.

Why 3D Movies Are Not Immersive

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 28, 2023

The promise of 3D movies is that they are supposed to draw the viewer further into the world of the film — the all-important immersive experience. In this video, Evan Puschak argues persuasively that the 3D effect actually has the opposite effect, for four main reasons:

1. The different focus and convergence points.
2. The darkness of 3D movies
3. 3D glasses shrink the screen
4. 3D forces you to look at only what’s in focus

I’ve long disliked 3D movies so Puschak’s explanation makes me feel vindicated about my stance. I’ve only ever seen two of them that were any good: the original Avatar and Tron: Legacy. Tron in particular was one of my peak movie-going experiences: I saw it, nearly alone, in a 3D IMAX theater from the best seat in the house. When the lightcycle match started, the 3D effect brought the playing field right into the theater a few inches from my nose and I just gaped in wonder like a little kid for the rest of what is essentially a 125-minute Daft Punk music video (nothing wrong with that!). If all 3D movies were like that, sign me up! But otherwise, I’m gonna stick to 2D.

How The Parthenon Marbles Ended Up In The British Museum

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 10, 2023

The Greek government and activists have long been calling for the return of the Parthenon Marbles from the British Museum to Greece. But how did the marbles get to Britain in the first place?

In the early 19th century, a British lord named Elgin removed a significant portion of the remaining marble decoration and statuary from The Parthenon in Athens and brought it back to Britain. To cover his debts, he sold the marbles to the British government and they eventually made their way into the British Museum. In the video above, Evan Puschak provides more detail about how it all went down.

For its part, the British Museum isn’t budging, although their official stance on the matter seems defensive, almost like they know they’re on thin ice, morally speaking. It’s long past time the marbles were repatriated and they should just get it over with already.

Update: This is interesting from David Allen Green: the return of the Parthenon Marbles isn’t up to the British Museum.

The fourth point is that the current legislation does make it difficult-to-impossible for the museum to dispose (to use the legal word) of the marbles as it wishes, either by returning them to Greece or otherwise.

An elaborate legal basis could, perhaps be provided, but — on balance — one suspects an English court would rule such a disposal as unlawful.

This means this is not a matter solely for the trustees of the museum (as I explain here).

For the marbles to be returned properly to Greece would require a change in primary legislation, which in turn means it has to have government support (or at least no government opposition).

(via someone I can’t remember but thank you!)

The Top Gun “Mach 10” Scene Is Like a Perfect Pop Song

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 08, 2022

As I said in my recent media diet post, I really enjoyed Top Gun: Maverick. It’s a movie that’s made to be seen on a big screen with a loud sound system — I ended up seeing it in the theater twice. The movie just felt…good. Like a really well-crafted pop tune. In this video, Evan Puschak takes a look at the first scene in the film where (spoilers!) test pilot Maverick needs to achieve Mach 10 in an experimental plane and compares it to the structure of a pop song. His comparison really resonated with me because I listen to music and watch movies (particularly action movies) in a similar way: how movies and music feel and how they make me feel is often more important than plot or dialogue or lyrics.

How Postwar Italy Created The Paparazzi

posted by Jason Kottke   May 03, 2022

From film fan Benito Mussolini and the postwar explosion of Italian filmmaking to a financial rule with big effects and Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, Evan Puschak tells the story of how the paparazzi was created.

The history of celebrity paparazzi disrupted the highly manicured image movie stars had enjoyed since the golden age of Hollywood. They brought these gods of our culture down to the messy earth. Interestingly though, this didn’t dampen our obsession with fame, as you might expect. No, it turbo charged it. Something about seeing our celebrities brought low — catching a glimpse of their flaws and pains — it didn’t push the famous off these weird pedestals we put them on. It only intensified our fixation with them.

Seeing Faces on the Big Screen

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 01, 2022

In this video essay, Evan Puschak argues that explode-y superhero movies aren’t the only movies worth seeing on the big screen, asserting that “massive faces emoting on massive screens is just as epic, if not more epic, than explosions and battles”.

Update: Meant to mention The Spielberg Face here. “If Spielberg deserves to be called a master of audience manipulation, then this is his signature stroke.”

What Movies Can Teach Us About Mozart’s Music

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 01, 2021

Typically, we think of music in movies in terms of what the music adds to the visuals. Music often tells us how to feel about what we’re seeing — it sets the mood and provides an emotional context. But, as Evan Puschak details in this video, you can also learn something about music (Mozart, in this case) from the way in which talented directors and music producers deploy it in movies, particularly when they use it unconventionally.

[These films and TV shows] teach us something about the Lacrimosa. They open up doors in the music that maybe even Mozart didn’t see. This is what’s so cool about movies — they bring art forms together and, in these collisions, it’s possible to see some really beautiful sparks.

Leonardo da Vinci’s Best Painting (Is Not The Mona Lisa)

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 02, 2021

For the latest episode of Nerdwriter, Evan Puschak (after briefly introducing his forthcoming book) discusses his favorite Leonardo da Vinci painting, The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne.

In this way, moving from the apex of the pyramid to its bottom right corner is actually a trip through time, from the past to the present to the future. And that timeline also extends along a three-dimensional axis — the lamb is in front of Jesus, who’s in front of Mary, who’s in front of Anne. But on this axis, it goes even further — behind Anne, we’re launched into the geological past. These mountains, these bones of the Earth, suggest a deep time — so deep that it conflicts with the Christian sense of the age of the world. Now that reflects a larger conflict in the Renaissance between religion and a growing appreciation for natural science, which is embodied in no person more than Leonardo da Vinci, the insatiably curious polymath.

The Short Horror Film Hidden in Spider-Man 2

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 04, 2021

I love Evan Puschak’s short analysis of a two-and-a-half minute scene from Sam Raimi’s 2004 film, Spider-Man 2. Raimi, a horror movie veteran, basically snuck a tight horror sequence into a PG-13 superhero movie — it’s a little cheesy, bloodless, and terrifying.

Cléo from 5 to 7

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 08, 2021

I keep tabs on a few trusted film school-ish YouTube channels and while I like when they cover films I’ve seen or those directed by my favorite directors, it’s more valuable when they introduce me to something new. Evan Puschak’s Nerdwriter is a particular favorite guiding light and in his latest video, he talks about Agnès Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7, a film I now want to watch as soon as possible. A synopsis via Wikipedia:

Cléo from 5 to 7 follows a pop singer through two extraordinary hours in which she awaits the results of a recent biopsy. The film is superficially about a woman coming to terms with her mortality, which is a common auteurist trait for Varda. On a deeper level, Cléo from 5 to 7 confronts the traditionally objectified woman by giving Cléo her own vision. She cannot be constructed through the gaze of others, which is often represented through a motif of reflections and Cléo’s ability to strip her body of “to-be-looked-at-ness” attributes (such as clothing or wigs). Stylistically, Cléo from 5 to 7 mixes documentary and fiction, as had La Pointe Courte. The film represents diegetic action said to occur between 5 and 7 p.m., although its run-time is 89 minutes.

I’ve added Cléo from 5 to 7 to my HBO Max queue but you can also find it on Kanopy (accessible with a library card) and The Criterion Channel.

Frida Gets Personal

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 01, 2021

Evan Puschak looks at how the personal nature, intimacy, and stylistic approachability have given Frida Kahlo’s work enduring and increasing popularity.

Titanic: Melodrama Done Right

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 27, 2021

As an unapologetic fan of James Cameron’s Titanic, I really enjoyed Evan Puschak’s video love letter to the film and the genre it embodies: melodrama.

The term “melodrama” literally means drama accompanied by music, which is why film is maybe the best most natural medium for it — aside from opera. What’s important to note is that the moral core of melodrama doesn’t intellectualize the story; it adds to the emotion by giving it the flavor of virtue. You know that Rose and Jack should be together, so when they get together it feels right and righteous. And when Jack dies at the end, it’s a heartbreak that makes the whole universe seem wicked.

Miiight be time for a rewatch.

What Gordon Parks Saw

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 02, 2020

Gordon Parks was a novelist, poet, musician, composer, painter, and film director, but he was best known for his photography. In this video, Evan Puschak takes a look at Parks’ photography, from his FSA photos taken in the 40s to his photo essays for Life magazine. What a life, what a career. Here are just a few of Parks’ photos; I encourage you to check out the rest.

Gordon Parks

Gordon Parks

Gordon Parks

Gordon Parks

Worldizing - How Walter Murch Brought More Immersive Sound to Film

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 31, 2020

I love echo - any kind of reverberation or atmosphere around a voice or a sound effect that tells you something about the space you are in.

That’s a quote from legendary film editor and sound designer Walter Murch. In the 70s, he pioneered a technique called worldizing, for which he used a mix of pristine studio-recorded and rougher set-recorded sounds to make a more immersive soundscape for theater audiences. He used it in The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, and American Graffiti:

George [Lucas] and I took the master track of the two-hour radio show with Wolfman Jack as DJ and played it back on a Nagra in a real space — a suburban backyard. I was fifty-or-so-feet away with a microphone recording that sound onto another Nagra, keeping it in sync and moving the microphone kind of at random, back and forth, as George moved the speaker through 180 degrees. There were times when microphone and speaker were pointed right at each other, and there were other times when they were pointed in completely opposite directions. So that was a separate track. Then, we did that whole thing again.

When I was mixing the film, I had three tracks to draw from. One of them was what you might call the “dry studio track” of the radio show, where the music was very clear and sharp and everything was in audio focus. Then there were the other two tracks which were staggered a couple of frames to each other, and on which the axis of the microphone and the speakers was never the same because we couldn’t remember what we had done intentionally.

Parasite’s Perfect Montage

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 02, 2020

From Evan Puschak, this is an analysis of a tightly edited five-minute montage in the middle of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite in which a family of schemers removes the last obstacle in their way of a luxurious life of service.

(This next bit is way off topic…I am not even going to try and connect it to the movie or Puschak’s thoughts on editing.) In looking for an appropriate quote from the video, I went searching in YouTube’s automatically generated transcript of the video and instead discovered whatever fancy AI program they’ve employed for transcription had some problems with the Korean language spoken in the video:

well the Kogi’s held on crew could to work a contra cut under something crazy kangaroo hot lava could carry yours a tiny car would cause a huge bang engines in his element saw cars motherfuckers Christian wear boxers and couvent a easy call it to Minaj Monica City on criminals chief juniper gun and a car don’t belong back in case come on Joey tell him to cool on the cloud Coronas our tornado man hold it up on watch from Atlanta

Also, peaches are a thing now in movies!

Spotlight and the Difficulty of Dramatizing Good Journalism

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 22, 2019

For the lastest episode of Nerdwriter, Evan Puschak reviews the history of movies about journalism and shows how the makers of Spotlight (and also All the President’s Men) show the often repetitive and tedious work required to do good journalism

I loved Spotlight (and All the President’s Men and The Post), but I hadn’t realized until just now how many of my favorite movies and TV shows of the last few years are basically adult versions of Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day?

Speaking of, watching this video I couldn’t help but think that David Simon1 faced a similar challenge in depicting effective police work in The Wire. Listening to wiretapped conversations, sitting on rooftops waiting for drug dealers to use payphones, and watching container ships unloading are not the most interesting thing in the world to watch. But through careful editing, some onscreen exposition by Lester Freamon, and major consequences, Simon made pedestrian policing engaging and interesting, the heart of the show.

  1. Puschak shared a quote from Simon near the end of the video and Spotlight director Tom McCarthy played the dishonest reporter Scott Templeton in season five of The Wire.

Succession’s Preoccupation with the Power of Words (or Lack Thereof)

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 23, 2019

Have you been watching Succession? I feel bad about enjoying watching rich people be horrible to each other, but I do love the show. Evan Puschak rewatched both seasons with a careful eye and noticed the show’s preoccupation with language and how it is used and misused by the characters in the show.

Kendall: Words are just nothing. Complicated airflow.

One of the things I like most about the show is that I can’t figure out whether it’s a comedy or a drama. It’s bitingly funny and satirical but the whole thing is packaged like a drama and there are genuine emotional moments. I felt the same way about Fleabag and Transparent…the combination and subversion of these two familiar buckets of storytelling is part of what makes all of these shows great.

Pixar’s Fake Real Cameras

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 03, 2019

Pixar is always trying to push the envelope of animation and filmmaking, going beyond what they’ve done before. For the studio’s latest release, Toy Story 4, the filmmakers worked to inject as much reality into the animation as possible and to make it feel like a live-action movie shot with real cameras using familiar lenses and standard techniques. In the latest episode of Nerdwriter, Evan Puschak shares how they did that:

As I learned when I visited Pixar this summer,1 all of the virtual cameras and lenses they use in their 3D software to “shoot” scenes are based on real cameras and lenses. As the first part of the video shows, when they want two things to be in focus at the same time, they use a lens with a split focus diopter. You can tell that’s what they’re doing because you can see the artifacts on the screen — the blurring, the line marking the diopter transition point — just as you would in a live-action film.

They’re doing a similar thing by capturing the movement of actual cameras and then importing the motion into their software:

To get the motion just right for the baby carriage scene in the antique store for TS4, they took an actual baby carriage, strapped a camera to it, plopped a Woody doll in it, and took it for a spin around campus. They took the video from that, motion-captured the bounce and sway of the carriage, and made it available as a setting in the software that they could apply to the virtual camera.

Now, this is a really interesting decision on Pixar’s part! Since their filmmaking is completely animated and digital, they can easily put any number of objects in focus in the same scene or simply erase the evidence that a diopter was used. But no, they keep it in because making something look like it was shot in the real world with real cameras helps the audience believe the action on the screen. Our brains have been conditioned by more than 100 years of cinema to understand the visual language of movies, including how cameras move and lenses capture scenes. Harnessing that visual language helps Pixar’s filmmakers make the presentation of the action on the screen seem familiar rather than unrealistic.

  1. Q: How do you know when someone has recently visited Pixar?

    A: Oh don’t worry, they’ll tell you.

How Art Arrived at Jackson Pollock

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 26, 2019

From Evan Puschak, this explanation of how art went from almost fully representational painting to abstract impressionism in about 100 years is a 6-minute whirlwind tour of modern art, from Édouard Manet to Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings. I always love when Puschak dips back into art…the first video of ever posted of his was about Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Socrates.

How Ian McKellen Acts With His Eyes

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 22, 2019

In the latest episode of Nerdwriter, Evan Puschak examines how Ian McKellen does a lot of heavy lifting with his eyes, especially in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. On his way there, I really liked Puschak’s lovely description of the physical craft of acting:

Part of that craft is understanding and gaining control of all the involuntary things we do when we communicate — the inflection of the voice, the gestures of the body, and the expressions of the face.

P.S. Speaking of actors being able to control their faces, have you ever seen Jim Carrey do wordless impressions of other actors? Check this out:

The Jack Nicholson is impressive enough but his Clint Eastwood (at ~1:15) is really off the charts. Look at how many different parts of his face are moving independently from each other as that jiggling Jello mold eventually gather into Eastwood’s grimace. Both McKellen and Carrey are athletic af in terms of their body control in front of an audience or camera.

Van Gogh’s The Night Café Was Among His “Ugliest Pictures”

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 07, 2019

In a letter to his brother Theo, Vincent van Gogh called his 1888 oil painting The Night Café “one of the ugliest pictures I have done”.

Van Gogh Night Cafe

In this video, Evan Puschak looks at what van Gogh meant by that and how he used discordant colors together to suggest a mood.

van Gogh wrote of his intentions for the painting to his brother:

I have tried to express the terrible passions of humanity by means of red and green. The room is blood red and dark yellow with a green billiard table in the middle; there are four lemon-yellow lamps with a glow of orange and green. Everywhere there is a clash and contrast of the most alien reds and greens, in the figures of little sleeping hooligans, in the empty dreary room, in violet and blue. The blood-red and the yellow-green of the billiard table, for instance, contrast with the soft tender Louis XV green of the counter, on which there is a rose nosegay. The white clothes of the landlord, watchful in a corner of that furnace, turn lemon-yellow, or pale luminous green.

The Making of an Iconic Photograph: Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 31, 2019

At the end of a long day in March 1936, Dorothea Lange stopped in a migrant workers camp in California for just 10 minutes and took six photos of a woman and her children. The final photo, known as Migrant Mother, became one of the most iconic photographs of the Great Depression.

Migrant Mother

In this video, Evan Puschak details not only the context the photo was created under (FDR’s administration wanted photos that would shift public support towards providing government aid) but also how Lange stage-managed the scene to get the shot she wanted.

As Puschak notes, the photo we are all familiar with was retouched three years after its initial publication to remove what Lange saw as a detriment to the balance of the scene: the thumb of the woman’s hand holding the tent post in the lower right-hand corner.

It is easy to tell whether a print of “Migrant Mother” was made before 1939, because that year Ms. Lange had an assistant retouch the negative and remove Ms. Thompson’s thumb from the bottom right corner, much to the chagrin of Roy Stryker, her boss at the Farm Security Administration. While that was a fairly common practice at the time, Mr. Stryker thought it compromised the authenticity not just of the photo but also of his whole F.S.A. documentary project, Ms. Meister said. But Ms. Lange considered the thumb to be such a glaring defect that she apparently didn’t have a second thought about removing it.

Here’s what it looked like before the alteration:

Migrant Mother Unretouched

There are some other things about the photo that may prompt us to think about the objectivity of documentary photography. The cultural story of Migrant Mother is that this is a white woman who came west during the Great Depression for migrant work. The real story is more complicated. The woman was identified in the late 1970s as Florence Owens Thompson, and as she told her story, we learned some things that Lange didn’t have time to discover during her fleeting time at the camp:

1. Thompson was a full-blooded Cherokee born in Indian Territory (which later became the state of Oklahoma). As this NY Times review of Sarah Meister’s book on the photograph says, if people had known the woman wasn’t white, the photo may not have had the impact it did.

“We have never been a race-blind country, frankly,” Ms. Meister said. “I wish that I could say that the response would have been the same if everyone had been aware that she was Cherokee, but I don’t think that you can.”

2. The family were not recent migrants to California and had actually moved from Oklahoma in 1926, well before the Depression started. The family briefly moved back to Oklahoma because Thompson was pregnant and afraid the father’s family would take the baby from her, but returned to California in 1934.

3. Thompson’s first husband died in 1931 of tuberculosis while she was pregnant with her sixth child. A seventh child resulted from a brief relationship with the father mentioned above. An eighth child followed by a new husband in 1935. But it was Thompson who provided for the family while taking care of 8 kids:

By all accounts, Jim Hill was a nice guy from a respectable family who never could seem to get his act together. “I loved my dad dearly,” Norma Rydlewski said, “but he had little ambition. He was never was able to hold down a job.” The burden of supporting the family, and of keeping it together, fell on Florence.

4. The ultimate goal of Lange taking Thompson’s photo for the FSA was to stimulate public support for government aid to people who were out of work because of the Depression. But Thompson herself didn’t want any aid:

“Her biggest fear,” recalled son Troy Owens, “was that if she were to ask for help [from the government], then they would have reason to take her children away from her. That was her biggest fear all through her entire life.”

5. Thompson and her family weren’t actually living at the pea pickers camp when Lange photographed them there. They had just stopped temporarily to fix their car and were only there for a day or two.

In the field notes that she filed with her Nipomo photographs, Lange included the following description: “Seven hungry children. Father is native Californian. Destitute in pea pickers’ camp … because of failure of the early pea crop. These people had just sold their tires to buy food.”

Owens scoffed at the description. “There’s no way we sold our tires, because we didn’t have any to sell,” he told this writer. “The only ones we had were on the Hudson and we drove off in them. I don’t believe Dorothea Lange was lying, I just think she had one story mixed up with another. Or she was borrowing to fill in what she didn’t have.”

“Mother always said that Lange never asked her name or any questions, so what she [Lange] wrote she must have got from the older kids or other people in the camp,” speculates daughter Katherine McIntosh, who appears in the Migrant Mother photo with her head turned away behind her mother’s right shoulder. “She also told mother the negatives would never be published — that she was only going to use the photos to help out the people in the camp.”

So what are we to make of what we thought we knew about this photograph and what we know now? In 2009, Errol Morris wrote of the FSA photos:

Rothstein, Lange and Evans have been accused of posing their photographs, in short, of manipulating them to some end. And yet all photographs are posed. There is no such thing as pure documentary photography. The problem is not in what any of them have done, but in our misunderstanding of photography. No crimes were committed by the F.S.A. photographers. They labored as employees of an organization dedicated to providing propaganda for the Roosevelt administration. And they created some of the greatest photographs in American history. Photographs can be works of art, bearers of evidence, and a connection with the past for individuals, families and society as a whole. It should not be lost on any of us that these controversies are still with us. The Photoshop alteration of a photograph “documenting” the launching of Iranian missiles, the cropping of a Christmas get-together at the Cheney ranch. These are just the latest iterations. In 1936, Roosevelt was reelected in a contentious election. Photography played a controversial role, reminding us that wherever there are intense disagreements, particularly political disagreements, there will be disagreements about photography, as well.

The stories we tell about photographs change as we change and as our culture changes. Yes, Migrant Mother is a symbol of the hardship endured by many during the Great Depression. But Migrant Mother is also the portrait of a fiercely independent Native American single mother who fought to provide for her family and keep them together during the most difficult time in our nation. That’s a story worth hearing today.

Both prints above are courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division: with thumb and without. You can also explore the rest of the LOC’s FSA collection.

The Art of Film Grain

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 05, 2018

Like Instagram filters and vinyl records, the use of film grain in movies is now a conscious choice on the part of media creators and consumers. In this video featuring the recent Nic Cage horror movie Mandy (which I hadn’t even been aware of), Evan Puschak discusses how film grain can function as an integral part of a film’s story & mood, not just as a “byproduct of chemical processing”. I found Steven Spielberg’s comment about film grain especially interesting:

The grain is always moving, it’s swimming, which means that even in a still life, let’s say a flower on a table, that flower is alive even if it’s not moving.

Why The Night Watch Is Rembrandt’s Masterpiece

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 02, 2018

Ok folks, it’s time for some game theor- I mean, art history. In this video, Evan Puschak explains what makes Rembrandt’s The Night Watch so compelling from both a historical and artistic perspective.

Rembrandt Night Watch

When I was in Amsterdam last year, I saw The Night Watch at the Rijksmuseum. As Puschak notes, it’s an impressive painting — for one thing, it’s more than 12 feet tall and weighs more than 740 pounds. However, I was even more keen on a nearby early self-portrait though.

Rembrandt Self Portrait 1628

Rembrandt painted this when he was 22 and while it lacks the subtle mastery of his later work, I couldn’t stop staring at it and kept looping back for one more view. If you look at a larger view of the painting, you can see where Rembrandt used the butt of his brush to scratch the wet paint to accentuate his curly hair. Something about seeing those tiny canyons on the canvas…I could almost see the young artist standing right where I was, flipping his brush around to scrape those marks before the paint dried, making his dent in the universe.

P.S. My absolute favorite piece at the Rijksmuseum was Vermeer’s The Milkmaid. Holy moly, what a painting.