Some think that Walker Evans can travel through time just by holding up a camera.

Walker Evans, Sidewalk scene in Selma, Alabama, 1935. (Public Domain Image, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives.)

In 1974, the sociologist Jib Fowler coined a concept called “Chronocentrism”. It describes “the belief that one’s own times are paramount, that other periods pale in comparison”.

I noted down the term when I read about it, as I found it particularly relevant for today; particularly descriptive of something I’ve myself experienced during this global pandemic, culture war, and climate emergency. …

Each era’s dominant technology shapes how we picture it. With Apple embracing wide-angle lenses, the next years are going broaden our horizons.

Peggy Bacon in mid-air backflip (Copyright-free image from The State Library of New South Wales)

When we look at photographs, the perspective is determined by what was the dominant imaging technology of their age. The most obvious example for this is photographic film: Starting out in black and white, later turning into color, the whims of film manufacturers determined the chromatics of an entire era.

The same is true for cameras and camera lenses in particular: Analog SLRs often came with a 50mm lens, which was believed to be the closest equivalent of what the human eye sees. …

Between 1978 and 1997, a Polish photographer tried capturing every household in her homeland. She got quite far. Did she also get carried away?

Zofia Rydet, reflected in a mirror, a recurring motif of her work. All photos used with permission.

An epic quest

It’s 1982 in the Polish People’s Republic. Time seems to stand still in the countryside near Kraków. An old woman with a crooked back walks from house to house, dragging behind her a tripod and a camera.

She knocks on doors, tells the startled inhabitants that she is there to take their picture. “It’s for the pope,” she’ll insist, and the God-fearing countryfolk reluctantly agree to let her in. With quiet efficiency the photographer sets up her tripod, arranges the subjects before the tapestry of their own living rooms, instructs them not to smile, and snaps a picture.

Her name…

The future of the camera is algorithmic. But as technical constraints tumble, a crucial part of photography might be getting lost.

A long exposure from 1942, part of the Farm Security Administration’s vast archive.

Earlier this week, Google showed off an impressive new technology. Called “Night Sight”, it’s a software solution that makes it possible to take smartphone photos in virtual darkness — with impressive results.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the future of cameras is algorithmic: As digital sensor advancements have largely plateaued, the notion of what constitutes a camera is redefined by software — turning cameras into connected lenses that are slowly beating dedicated cameras at their own game.

Shocking results

I believe that we’re witnessing the next step in the digital disruption of cameras, a step that’s leveraging computational power to tear down…

Riding the ropeways of Stalin’s impossible mining city.

Stalin had a utopian streak.

The Soviet Union’s second leader is rightly known for his brutality in crushing enemies and dissidents alike. But in the 1950s he used some of his might to build a “workers’ paradise”: It’s a mining city called Chiatura, located in the Caucasus mountains of Georgia.

A city in which you travel through the sky suspended on steel wires.

I traveled to Stockholm to ask photographer Anders Petersen how he takes his photos—and got a some very different answers than I expected.

Anders Petersen in his Stockholm studio.

For the newest episode of Available Light (Apple Podcasts/Soundcloud/Google Play), I spoke with Swedish photographer Anders Petersen about his unique approach to photography. I was inspired to interview him after seeing a particular image of his:

Why looking at the past in color is such an uncanny experience.

Berlin, 1937. A photo by Thomas Neumann in Agfa Color. Courtesy of the National Archives of Norway.

We tend to think of the past in black and white. Since color photography only became mainstream in the 1970s, anything from before is usually pictured in monochrome. Flip through an old photo album and you see smiling grey faces, people in grey clothes, driving grey cars. But prior to the advent of color film, inventors had long toyed with technologies to capture the world in all the colors they saw it in.

The past, slightly more accurate

As far back as in 1903, the (aptly-called) Lumière brothers in France patented a process for color pictures: It was called Autochrome…

How a Mexican photographer captured something that can’t be seen.

Qué chiquito es el mundo, 1942
Qué chiquito es el mundo, 1942
Manuel Alvaréz Bravo. Qué chiquito es el mundo, 1942

Here’s a simple but curious photo, taken by the photographer Manuel Álvarez Bravo: A black and white shot of a street scene. We see an exposed brick wall under a dark sky with diagonal power lines cutting through the clouds above it. In the foreground there’s a sidewalk, gleaming in the sunshine. On it, you see a woman and a man, walking towards one another.

They’re most likely just random pedestrians, but the way they’ve been captured makes it look as though they’re about to meet. …

Why bad writing undermines great design — and what to do about it.

I have a favorite definition of the word ‘design’: “to do or plan something with a specific purpose in mind.” It’s a broad definition, sure, but I like that it puts concrete outcomes first — even before aesthetics and functionality.

The reason I’m rehashing it here is start a discussion about the crucial relationship between design and writing. All too often, I see the ‘specific purpose’ design aims to fulfill undermined by bad writing. That’s why I believe that as designers we need to sharpen our eye for copy — and stop considering text as mere filler.

‘Content’ is misleading

In recent years…

In the 1950s, early color photography was widely scorned. Now it’s the default. What happened?

Black and white, meet color. A composite made from one of the earliest, impractical color photos.

Prologue: No Space for Dreams

In 2015, Leica released a beautiful, ridiculous ad. It was for a special product in their lineup; a digital camera that only takes black and white photos.

The clip itself is strangely compelling. Set to hypnotizing black and white patterns, a calm voiceover says B&W is purer than color. The hyperrealism of color, it points out, isn’t just overly crass, it’s unnecessary. Color is an aid for people without imagination: “In the color world, there’s no space for dreams.”

Of course this is wrong. If anything it’s the other way around: color is actual, we don’t see in monochrome. Insisting…

Lars Mensel

I write about visual culture and host the photo podcast Available Light.

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