Posts filed under ‘History’

I’m in heaven

How good is this!! The World Digital Library has just been launched by UNESCO and 32 partner institutions. It’s a free access digital library of primary, cultural materials from around the world – maps, manuscripts, rare books, films, sound recordings, architectural drawings, prints, musical scores and…..photographs! The library is available in 7 languages: English, Portuguese, French, Russian, Arabic, Chinese and Spanish. This is such a great collection for serendipity; for students; for scholars. I got lost in it for hours (the photographs of course).

The objectives of the WDL are “to promote international and inter-cultural understanding and awareness, provide resources to educators, expand non-English and non-Western content on the Internet, and to contribute to scholarly research”. Apparently, this wonderful project was sparked off by Librarian of Congress, James H. Billington, who proposed the establishment of a World Digital Library in a speech to the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO in June 2005. Even Google gave some money towards the project (that’s a brownie point to Google from me).

Go here to browse the WDL by item type. But just let me show you some amazing stuff. Here’s a photograph of a Chola woman (from Bolivia) taken in 1911 by Max T. Vargas.

This is a map of Australia from 1826 created by Adrien Hubert Brué, who accompanied the French explorer, Nicolas Baudin, on his 1803 voyage to Australia.

Of the books available, wow, is all I can say. There’s a fabulous book called Curious Designs – a 1624 book by Giovanni Battista Braccelli, which depicts a suite of 50 etchings that celebrate the human figure in geometric forms. A pamphlet that is Thomas Jefferson’s personal copy of A Summary View of the Rights of British America, which he originally drafted in July 1774 as a set of instructions for the Virginia delegates to the first Continental Congress. And something I can’t wait to read: Theodore Roosevelt’s 1914 book, Through the Brazilian Wilderness, with photographs by Kermit Roosevelt.

And OMG: you can browse by time or topic – under Philosophy & Psychology, I found a fabulous photograph, taken in 1865-1872, of Tajik women engaged in fortune telling.

And under Literature & Rhetoric, I found London Town (1883) by Felix Leigh – a late Victorian book of children’s poetry, which presents a bright and cheery view of London at the height of its imperial glory.

You can browse by place and I leave you with a WWI promotional poster to mobilise the war effort. The poster says “Australia has promised Britain 50,000 more men: will you help us keep that promise”.


April 28, 2009 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

The story of American women

Photos and history – can’t get any better for me (well, possibly the perfect lipgloss would do it).  And now I can read all about the fabulous history of American women online. Discovering American Women’s History Online is a digital collection of primary sources (photos, letters, diaries, artifacts, etc.) that document the history of women in the United States. You can search by subject, time periods, States and primary source type.

I checked out some of the oral history collections. Fascinating to read oral history transcripts of disaster victims from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, particularly this one. Showing the creativity of librarians and what they can do, check out the online exhibit, which is arranged into five rooms containing digitized copies of original historical artifacts.

And there’s a great collection of photographs. Loved the Alaska Digital Archive and the first-person accounts of slavery along with black and white photos of former slaves. Really you can get lost for hours browsing through the digital collections, reading oral histories and looking at photos.

I have shamelessly ganked the image from the website.

February 20, 2009 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

State Library of NSW on Flickr

Great to see the State Library of NSW is making available some of its archival images on Flickr. The collections satisfy two things for me – they construct a visual history of Australia and they provide some marvellous old photographic images. History and photography wrapped up together – can’t get better than this for me!

There are a number of collections you can quite easily get lost in – Australian Aviation Firsts; Australian Political Firsts; Australians in WWI; First Australian Antarctic Expedition (1911-1914); Sydney Harbour Bridge First Shots; First Australian commercial photographer; Australian Women’s Firsts – to name a few.

Have a look, you’ll find some truly stunning images. My interest was piqued by the More Australian Firsts  collection. There’s just something so dramatic and haunting about old film images. Here’s a few to whet your appetite:

Ushers and one nurse line up in the foyer, Capitol Theatre. Silver gelatin photoprint. 1928. Ah, the glamour days of theatre when people dressed up in finery. Now, we slouch in movie theatres dressed in jeans and T-shirts, sitting amongst popcorn debris and usually with some idiot answering a mobile phone call.

From the Sydney Harbour Bridge Firsts set. First cars & trains across Sydney Harbour Bridge. Glass photonegative. You can see the old “red rattler” trains Sydney used to have up until (I think) the 1970s or early 1980s.

From the Australian Women’s First set. This is a photo of Australia’s first Hollywood star of the silent era – Louise Carbasse who was also known as Louise Lovely. Silver gelatin photoprint c.1913. How incredibly gorgeous is this photo!

And finally, a photo that is simply breathtaking.

First Australasian Antarctic Expedition, 1911-1914. Silver gelatin photoprint.

I think modern digital photography sometimes pales when compared to the sweeping drama of images from the early era of photography. Just in case you don’t know, the National Library of Australia also has a pretty extensive photographic collection (more than 130,000 images). I often go there to get inspiration for my own photography. The NLA collection features rare historical maps and artwork as well. My personal favourite is the 1960s collection from photographer John Mulligan. I can’t show you any photos from the NLA collection as I’d need special permission – but go to their fabulous picture collection site and browse. Wish they’d put their stuff on Flickr.

October 19, 2008 at 12:34 am 4 comments

The original redhead

I have had reddish hair all my life. It is (shall we say) somewhat colour-enhanced now but back when I was a teenager, I had reddish blonde hair. More on the auburn hued side than blonde. I’ve always loved red hair, particularly titian coloured. I can’t imagine having black hair – although I like it. And blonde hair, well sorry girls (and guys) I find it vapid, dull, lacklustre. At least people can’t say to me that I’m having a “blonde moment”.

I’ve had comments hurled at me from time to time like “carrot top” or people assume that I have a fiery temper because of the reddish tinge (actually, I don’t have much of a temper at all). Fabulous red hair is caused by recessive genes and apparently, only 1-2% of the human population has this colour hair. Well, I’m awfully glad to be in that minority as I like to be different! So it’s the rarest natural hair colour. Red heads usually have pale skin (yep, tick I have that), freckles (nope, not really) and a sensitivity to ultra-violet light (yep, tick). In Wales, where my dad was from, up to 10% of the population are ginger heads.  When I visited the Samburu in Kenya years ago on a safari trip, they wanted to touch my hair. They braid their hair and colour it with red ochre so guess they thought I was doing the same. A popular myth is that redheads will become extinct, kaput – possibly by 2060 –  because of global intermingling, which broadens the base of potential partners.  No more gingers, no more carrot tops. Redheads on the endangered species list!

It only takes one parent with the recessive genes to produce a ginger-haired baby. If two parents have the recessive genes, then it’s double red trouble. So yes, global intermingling could reduce the gene pool as two redheads are less likely to meet each other. Red hair might become less common. The prediction is that redheads will fall from the current 1 in 8 in Scotland to 1 in 640,000.

Perhaps I have another thing to worry about. Blue eyes are on the way out. Apparently, around half of the US population born at the beginning of the 20th Century had blue eyes. By the middle of the 20th Century, only a third of the population had blue eyes. And now? Only 1 in 6 Americans have blue eyes. Again, it’s all to do with intermingling. Blue eyed immigrants to the US (mainly from Western Europe) married each other but by mid-20th Century, and with the influx of immigrants from Asia and Latin America, there was a wider genetic pool from which to select a potential partner.

But don’t despair! The ginger-headed blue-eyed person can be rescued from the brink of extinction!  The original redhead has been found through ancient DNA. I must digress at this point and tell you that I can literally spend hours contemplating ancient people. Okay, my undergrad degree is in History, so I have a natural inclination to contemplete old stuff. But I often ponder things like:

  • before the arrival of knock-out drugs, how on earth did people put up with the pain of the nerve/root  dying off in teeth?
  • what kind of games did kids play in say 900 AD?
  • what were the Sumerian fashions like?
  • what kind of make-up did women wear in say Carthage? did they know about lip gloss?!!

And the grand question: how odd-looking did Neanderthals look? Neanderthals co-existed with humans until they went kaput around 45,000 years ago. I’ve always felt sorry for our ancient cousin, Homo neanderthalensis. When we use the word “Neanderthal” to describe someone it usually carries with it connotations of stupidity, brutishness and sloping foreheads (mind you, I reckon I’ve worked with a few Neanderthals!)  But Neanderthal man was surprisingly innovative and whatever snuffed them out in the Middle Palaeolithic period is unknown. Wonder what it would have been like for a Neanderthal to come face to face with a homo sapien?  Did they intermingle or keep to themselves because they were largely outnumbered by humans?

We probably have an image of a Neanderthal as being squat and “ape-like” like this picture:

But scientists, using DNA from 43,000 year old bones, have discovered that some Neanderthals had red hair, pale skin and freckles! The first model of a Neanderthal has been created based on DNA evidence and shows the very human face of a woman, christened Wilma (after the Flintstones character). Here she is:

Wilma appears on the cover of the October 2008 issue of National Geographic (hey, the original red-headed covergirl!).

Assuming someday scientists can extract ancient DNA and recreate Neanderthals – maybe we could save homo sapiens from extinction (given the utter stupidity of modern humans, we’ll probably snuff it); or repopulate the Earth with Neanderthals (who toughed out an Ice Age so they might be hardy enough to tough out global warming); and twig the recessive red-hair genes so all Neanderthals have glorious titian coloured hair!

So redheads of the world unite! Neanderthals may yet save us.

Image credits: National Geographic; Wikipedia

September 25, 2008 at 2:00 am 3 comments

1952, 2008: what’s the difference?

Some of you might have been around in 1952 (no, I wasn’t!). Seems like it was a pretty interesting year. In 1952, these things happened:

  • King George VI of England snuffed it and the present Queen Elizabeth stepped up to the throne
  • Dwight D. Eisenhower became US Prez
  • Stalin ruled the former USSR with an iron fist
  • the hydrogen bomb was detonated for the first time
  • and…in Washington….the sniffer out of “reds under beds” – Senator Joseph McCarthy, Republican from Wisconsin – whipped up a frenzy by exposing communists in government and even in the entertainment industry. A wave of anti-communism, known as McCarthyism, swept the US and even Australia. I seem to remember my father carrying on about Dr Jim Cairns and whether he had “connections” with Russia and the KGB (I never bothered to check out if he did or not!).

And what I believe is happening is that there is a new wave of McCarthyism threatening to engulf us. Consider this very famous quote by Adlai Stevenson from 1952 (US politician):

The tragedy of our day is the climate of fear in which we live, and fear breeds repression. Too often sinister threats to the bill of rights, to freedom of the mind, are concealed under the patriotic cloak, of anti-communism.”

Now, just strike out “anti-communism” and replace with “war on terror”. I was reading a book about US history that covered the McCarthy era and it struck me that there’s not much difference between 1952 and 2008: fear of Communists has simply been replaced by fear of terrorists.

April 27, 2008 at 3:14 am 4 comments

The curious case of the Mexican suitcase

As ThinkingShift readers know by now, I love a gripping mystery; anything curious or bizarre. And today’s post really intrigues me as it also involves my current obsession – photography – as well as history, drama and plot twists.

You’ve probably heard that Hemingway’s early manuscripts vanished mysteriously from a train station in 1922 (damn fine mystery that is!). His first wife, Hadley, somehow lost his Paris manuscripts (guess that might have led to the divorce). I seem to recall from my American literature classes at Uni that Hemingway called her “feather cat” and I suspect that nickname was changed to something less cute following the missing manuscripts incident.

Anyway, I digress. Because there’s another curious mystery that has a Hemingway connection- the case of the “Mexican Suitcase”. Picture this: rumours have been swirling since the early 1990s that thousands of negatives of pictures taken by Robert Capa and thought to have been lost still exist. But who has them and where are they?

Robert Capa was a dashing globe-trotting war photographer, who hung out with Hemingway during the Spanish Civil War. Capa died in 1954. He took dramatic and poignant pictures of the Spanish Civil War, WWII, the first Indo-China war and other conflicts. He was Jewish and had to leave Berlin for Paris in 1933 because of the rise of Nazism. Ultimately, as the Nazi stain spread across Europe, he fled for America leaving behind the contents of his Paris darkroom.

And from this point the mystery deepens. Naturally, Capa thought that his negatives would go up in smoke along with Europe during the conflagration that was WWII and he died never knowing that in fact 3500 negatives had survived. The story goes that the negatives came into the hands of a Mexican general and diplomat who served under Pancho Villa. The precious negatives travelled from Paris to Marseille, eventually arriving with the general in Mexico City where they remained hidden until January 2008. A final trip to Manhattan took place when ownership of the negatives was transferred to the Capa estate from descendants of the Mexican general. Although Wikipedia refers to an anonymous Mexican film-maker but I think this film-maker might be a descendant of the general.

Robert Capa’s brother, Cornell, is also a photographer and still alive. Cornell founded the International Center of Photography in Manhattan and this is the final resting place for Capa’s lost photos. A real coup was that amongst the lost Capa negatives were Spanish Civil War images taken by photo-journalist, Gerdo Taro, Capa’s business partner and real-life lover. Also found in the suitcase (which consisted of three pretty fragile cardboard valises) were photos by David Seymour who, along with Capa, founded the Magnum photo agency.

And then there’s the REAL mystery. Was one of Capa’s famous photographs, known as The Falling Soldier, staged? Here’s the photo taken in 1936.

Allegations of fakery swirled for years. The photo shows a Spanish Republican (or Loyalist) militiaman collapsing in the final moments of life. After a bit of sleuth work on my part, I found that the reason for the allegations would appear to be that when the photo was published in September 1936 in French magazine, Vu, another very similar picture by Capa also appeared. Here they are:

The so-called falling solider is the photo on the left. I suppose at first glance they do appear to be one and the same person, which was the allegation levelled at Capa. Were they two different men who fell in death on exactly the same spot (in Cordoba) or was it one and the same man posing? The allegation of a staged photo cropped up in a 1975 book by Phillip Knightley called “The First Casualty: From the Crimea to Vietnam; The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist, and Myth Maker”. A South-African journalist, O.D.Gallagher, had once shared a hotel room with Capa and he recounted to Knightly that “there had been little action for several days, and Capa and others complained to the Republican officers that he could not get any pictures. Finally … a Republican officer told them he would detail some troops to go with Capa to some trenches nearby, and they would stage some manoeuvres for them to photograph.” So the finding of the negatives could solve the mystery if the sequence of shots before and after the Falling Soldier show war scenes rather than a staged manoeuvre.

Conservation experts are now trawling through the 70-year old nitrate stock that is said to be in remarkably good condition. And experts are wondering whether some of the images were actually taken by Taro, who met her end in Spain in 1937 in a tank accident whilst she busy snapping away. Her real name incidentally was Gerta Pohorylle and Capa’s was Endre Friedmann.

If you have a look at Capa’s D-Day photographs, you almost feel a part of the war scene. An amazing photographer indeed.

Image credits: Wikipedia. Sources: The New York Times and American Masters.

February 3, 2008 at 2:00 am 3 comments

Flickr and Library of Congress

Kim photoI’ve only recently started putting my photos on Flickr as I’ve been using another photo sharing site. Seems the Library of Congress is the same as me: a late starter on Flickr. Whilst rummaging around on Flickr, I found the Library of Congress is making copyright-free images and photos of historical and cultural interest available so that the public can tag content. It’s a pilot project but there’s already some amazing stuff:

  • the 1930s and 1940s in colour collection
  • 1500 photos from 1900-1920 New York depicting disasters, sports events, strikes and celebrities (yep, even way back then, we were celebrity-obsessed apparently)

And what is really exciting is that a trio of photos had been incorrectly labelled by the Library of Congress as images from the administration of Ulysses S. Grant in 1869. A user was browsing through the online collection of photos and alerted the Library to the high probability that the photos were from 1865 and therefore from the Lincoln administration. The Library checked the negatives and confirmed that the podium shown in the photos was that of Lincoln and not Grant.

According to the Library of Congress blog, there are more than 14 million photos and other visual materials but the project is starting off modestly with the two collections mentioned above. The Library is hoping that key information sometimes missing from photos, such as who took the photo or where the photo was taken, will be provided by the public tagging items.

Flickr has created a new publication model for publicly held photographic collections called “The Commons”. If you want to participate, here’s the FAQ site.

I spent hours on the Library of Congress Flickr site. Here are just some of the images that caught my eye and I’m tempted to answer the question “How would you tag this photo?”:

There’s something about the power and drama of an old black and white photo that (IMHO) modern DSLRs can’t quite match. Have a browse through the collection – you’ll wonder what people’s lives were like and you’ll become caught up in the history and stories.

Source: Los Angeles Times

January 29, 2008 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

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