Archive for the ‘Multimedia’ Category

London on film, now and then

Friday, May 2nd, 2014

Last year when I posted about Claude Friese-Greene’s rare natural color films of Britain in the mid-1920s restored and preserved by the British Film Institute, one of the commenters (hi Karen!) noted that she kept looking up locations in the period film on Google Maps to compare what they look like now to what they looked like 90 or so years ago. Someone else had a similar idea, only he kept to the same medium.

Short film director Simon Smith spent much of 2013 following in Claude Friese-Greene’s footsteps. Smith took modern versions of the Biocolour camera and with an impressive attention to detail, placed himself precisely where Friese-Greene had shot his scenes of London in 1927 at the end of his three-year cross-country journey. The result is a side-by-side before-and-after view of London in 1927 and in 2013.

The shooting angles are so well-matched, even where there are more street lanes or a completely different skyline. It’s remarkable how similar old and new London vistas are despite all the new construction.

Simon Smith didn’t stop at Friese-Greene’s film. Next he turned to another film in the BFI National Archive, Wonderful London, filmed in 1924 by Harry B. Parkinson and Frank Miller. Parkinson was General Manager of Master Films, a production company that focused on creating cheap, short melodramas, romances and action pictures until 1924 when the company folded. Parkinson and Miller had worked together before on Master Films’ 1922 anthology Tense Moments from Famous Plays, which I would dearly love to see because it sounds awesome.

(I would also do unspeakable things to see Parkinson’s unreleased 1928 The Life Story of Charlie Chaplin, a pictorial history of Charlie’s poor childhood on the streets of London. Parkinson shot the neighborhoods Chaplin grew up in, the schools he went to, old music hall artists young Charlie performed with, and contrasted them with his luxurious accommodations at The Ritz during his triumphant 1921 return to the London of his youth. Apparently the movie was never released because Chaplin got wind of it and prevented its distribution. The original film was discovered in the attic of one of Parkinson’s relatives in 1997 and sold at Christie’s for $28,552. As far as I can tell, whoever bought it has not published it. Boo!)

After Master Films went out of business, Parkinson and Miller focused on travelogue shorts, starting strong with Wonderful London, a series of 20 short films each about 10 minutes long that capture London’s lesser known attractions and non-touristy neighborhoods along with the famous sights.

This time, Smith went for a more unusual approach. Instead of the side-by-side, he embeds the 1924 film into the middle of the modern scenes he shot to match. It’s eerie and cool to see the modern world blend into the sepia world like someone opened a rift in space-time. I do miss the split screen in one way, though: I wish I could see the entirety of the 1924 footage instead of just a little chunk of it amidst the London of today.

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Exact 3D replica of King Tut’s tomb opens

Thursday, May 1st, 2014

An exact 3D facsimile of King Tutankhamun’s tomb opened outside the entrance to the Valley of the Kings Wednesday. This ground-breaking approach to heritage preservation and sustainable tourism has been a long time in the making. Zahi Hawass was still in charge in November of 2008 when the Supreme Council of Antiquities approved a project to thoroughly document and reproduce three endangered tombs in the Valley of the Kings, those of Seti I, Queen Nefertari and Tutankhamun. Seti’s and Nefertari’s were already closed to the public due to their precarious conditions. King Tut’s was and is in grave danger from the changes in temperature and humidity caused by up to 1,000 tourists visiting the tiny burial chamber daily. For its own good, Tut’s tomb is going to have to be closed too, and in fact should already be closed. Only its value to the tourist trade is keeping it open right now.

Madrid-based Factum Arte, which as early as 2001 was studying the tombs and developing technology specifically for scanning them, began work on the tomb of Tutankhamun in March, 2009. Over the course of five weeks, the FA team scanned the walls, ceiling and sarcophagus using a low intensity red light laser 3D laser scanner that captures the surface at 100 micron resolution with 100 million independently measured points per square meter, the highest resolution ever reached on such a large scale. The mechanics of this scanner made it impossible to record the entirety of the cramped tomb with it, so a white light 3D scanner with a resolution of 250 to 700 microns was brought in to scan the entire burial chamber and sarcophagus. The space was then photographed using low level cold lights to take pictures of the reliefs at a 1:1 ratio. The last step was a close analytical observational study of the surface.

When the recording of the tomb was complete in May, Factum Arte took the data back to its facilities in Madrid where the team set to work analyzing the 3D data and the high resolution images, running routing tests and ensuring exact color matching using samples from the tomb. The reliefs were routed out of panels made from low-density polyurethane resin. The tiles were then put together in sections and cast with a rigid backing. The paintings on the tomb surface were applied with an adhesive transfer. The first attempt failed because the elastic material resisted settling into the 3D surface, so in 2012 the team devised a new thinner elastic material that is held in place with a low contact adhesive and then cured under pressure in a vacuum bag. The result was not only perfectly sealed, but the print quality improved significantly.

Meanwhile, political upheaval in Egypt blocked the final implementation of the plan. The facsimile tomb would be stuck in limbo in Madrid until November of 2012 when it finally made its way to Cairo to mark the 90th anniversary of Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb. The facsimile was set up in a covered outdoor space in Cairo’s Conrad Hotel. You can see the walls go up in this video:

Now the final stage of the project has been completed. The replica tomb of Tutankhamun has been built next to the house of Howard Carter at the entrance to the Valley of the Kings.

The replica tomb was so accurate that some Tutankhamun experts among the Egyptologists and dignitaries burst into tears while attending the opening in Luxor today.

“We are not talking virtual reality, it is a physical reality,” Mr Lowe told The Independent from Egypt. “To have an emotional response to something you know to be a copy is an extraordinary moment.”

The hope is that tourists will have the same reaction so they won’t mind having to make do with the facsimile when Tut’s real tomb is closed. There are great advantages to the replica, like museum-style information and the ability to get close to the surfaces. A replica of the pre-historic Lascaux cave in France has been a smashing success, attracting 10 million visitors since it opened in 1983, and it doesn’t have the benefit of high resolution, 3D laser-scanned reproduction. Egyptian authorities plan to ease into the replacement, keeping the original tomb open for now but gradually reducing the number of people allowed in.

A 30-minute special on the replica tomb will air on BBC2 Friday and BBC News Saturday. Here’s a video explaining the scanning and printing process from Factum Arte:

This is raw footage of the production of the replica, from software combining the laser scanning data with the digital photography to the printers carving out panels of the tomb with a router:

Here is a very long, silent video journey through the photographic data, but if you’d like to explore the high resolution photography of the walls without having to sit through all that, Factum Arte’s website has an excellent Flash viewer that allows you to zoom in wherever you’d like and even compare the photography to the laser scanned relief. Click the up arrow at the bottom of the window to navigate between the four walls, the pictures and the scans. The level of detail is truly something to behold.

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Help catalog British Museum’s Bronze Age artifacts

Sunday, April 20th, 2014

Okay, I promise I’m not actively working to ensure that none of you ever leave your homes again. After all, there are always laptops, coffee shops with free wifi and libraries. It’s just that I can’t get enough of really fiddly detail work that helps bring hoary old museum collections into the Internet era.

In this case the collection is the British Museum’s hoards of Bronze Age metal objects and thousands of index cards documenting other pre-historic metal objects. In collaboration with University College London, the museum has created a crowdsourcing platform that gives history nerds with OCD and time on their hands the chance to digitize the objects and records.

This record contains over 30,000 Bronze Age tools and weapons that were discovered during the 19th and 20th centuries, and complements the current Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) database of metal object finds.

The catalogue contains index cards detailing object find spots and types, alongside detail line drawings and a wide range of further information about the object’s context of discovery. The catalogue itself also has a long and special history. It was a major archaeological initiative first founded in 1913 and then moved to the British Museum in the 1920s. For over 70 years, it represented the highest standards of Bronze Age artefact studies.

“This information has long been known to be an extremely important untapped resource,” says curator Wilkin, “Metal finds are not only crucial forms of evidence for dating Britain’s prehistoric past, but also tell us a great deal about prehistoric society and economy. Once we have digitised the thousands of objects in this catalogue, they can be incorporated into the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) website. The result will be the largest national database of prehistoric metal finds anywhere in the world and a near-comprehensive view of what we currently know about such finds in the UK. This will allow rethinking of almost everything we currently know about the use of metal in Bronze Age Britain, giving us a far more comprehensive view of our prehistoric past.”

Here’s the crowdsourcing website where the magic happens. They’ve already done the hard work of scanning all these records, but to make them searchable and categorizable in an online database, the handwritten information needs to be entered into standard fields. Character recognition is still fairly unreliable which is why our eyeballs and fingers are necessary to make this great project come together. I’ve done a handful of cards and found them eminently readable. There are no doctor’s scribbles or chickenscratch. The only part that can be a little challenging is when the fields on the index cards don’t match the database fields, and that’s a minority of the records.

If data entry sounds a little dry an occupation for your free time, the project has a another goal of creating 3D models of Bronze Age artifacts in the British Museum. All you have to do to contribute to this goal is draw an outline around an artifact in a scanned photograph. It’s like the lasso tool in Photoshop. You click around the edge of the object every time the angle changes creating a polygonal outline. If the shape is odd and you feel the need to make multiple overlapping polygons, that works too. They don’t want any background pixels surrounding the artifact — they have dozens of pictures of each object to create the 3D model, so any slender losses along one edge will be recovered from a different view — so be sure to click along the inside edge rather than the outside.

You can register on the website if you want your work credited to a single account and if you’d like to seek help/fellowship on the community forum, but you don’t have to register to help out. Just click on an application and dive right in. A window will pop up with instructions. Once you get into a record, there are further tips in the database fields and on the photographs to help you out as you go along.

I found it meditative and genuinely enjoyable. There are some beautiful drawings of the artifacts on the index cards, and it’s amazing to see the remote areas where these artifacts have been found. Out of the five I did, three of them were from outside of the UK (two from France, one from Hungary). Every card and picture is a micro-lesson in the Bronze Age archaeological record.

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All of British Pathé’s film archive now on YouTube

Saturday, April 19th, 2014

If you thought the New York Public Library’s map release was a time sink, you’d best settle your affairs and fully stock your bomb shelter because British Pathé has released its entire archive of 85,000 newsreels, documentaries and raw footage on YouTube.

British Pathé was once a dominant feature of the British cinema experience, renowned for first-class reporting and an informative yet uniquely entertaining style. It is now considered to be the finest newsreel archive in existence. Spanning the years from 1896 to 1976, the collection includes footage – not only from Britain, but from around the globe – of major events, famous faces, fashion trends, travel, sport and culture. The archive is particularly strong in its coverage of the First and Second World Wars.

This is a great, great day. I have long harbored resentment that the vast panoply of film riches on Pathé’s website were so inaccessible. They could only be viewed in low resolution 400 x 320-pixel windows on the website itself. Many of the videos were watermarked and there was no way to embed them. If you wanted to get a decent look at one, you had to buy it for £30. Even stills from the film had to be purchased to the tune of £20 apiece.

And so I was grudgingly forced to link to the films on the website instead of embedding the greatness of Cygan the robot, the 1941 bombing of St. Paul’s Cathedral and the interview with Titanic survivor Edith Rosenbaum of singing toy pig fame. Well goodbye sad links to budget videos. Hello high resolution embeds!

Cygan the Robot:

The bombing of St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1941:

Titanic Disaster Documentary with Edith Rosenbaum:

The main British Pathé YouTube channel has just over 81,000 videos uploaded, and they’re helpfully arranging them in playlists and according to topics like Pre-1910 Footage, Weird Newsreels and A Day That Shook the World which features some of the most important events in the 20th century history. They also have specialized channels for War Archives, Vintage Fashions and Sporting History, although those channels haven’t been expanded in the recent spate of uploads.

You don’t have to settle for Pathé’s categories. Just search the channel for a subject of interest. Click the magnifying glass to the right of About on the top menu and type in a keyword. Searching for Titanic, for instance, returns ten Titanic newsreels and documentaries, and then derails very entertainingly into footage of a lion eating at an outdoor table with a proper English lady and her husband in 1959, Icelandic lava fields from 1930 and a helpful 1921 instructional on how to make a bra from two handkerchiefs (warning: not for the lady who requires any kind of actual support).

It’s a playground. A beautiful, disturbing, hilarious, compelling playground of history and society on film.

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Free online course on the archaeology of Portus

Saturday, April 12th, 2014

Researchers from the University of Southampton have been excavating the ancient man-made harbour of Portus in modern day Fiumicino, 20 miles southwest of Rome, since 1998. In collaboration with experts from the British School at Rome, the University of Cambridge, and the Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Roma, they have explored the warehouses of Septimius Severus, the imperial palace, cisterns, an amphitheater, a massive shipyard, a bath complex and more.

The Portus Project website describes the immense historical significance of this site.

Portus (Fiumicino) was the maritime port of ancient Rome and, together with the neighbouring river port at Ostia, was the focus of a network of ports serving Imperial Rome between the mid-1st century AD and the 6th century AD. It was established by Claudius in the mid-1st century AD, enlarged by Trajan, and subsequently modified during the 3rd and 4th centuries AD. The port began to enter a period of slow decline from the late 5th century AD onwards, although it was the scene of a major struggle between Byzantine and Ostrogothic troops during the Gothic wars (AD 535-553).

Portus was critically important for supplying the city of Imperial Rome with foodstuffs and materials from across the Mediterranean from the 1st century AD onwards. It also acted as both a point of export for supplies and products from the Tiber Valley to the north of Rome, and a major hub for the redistribution of goods from ports across the Mediterranean. It must also have acted as a major conduit for people visiting Rome from around the Mediterranean.

Now the University of Southampton is giving all us little nerd urchins (nurchins?) a chance to do more than press our faces against the glass. It’s offering a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on the archaeology of Portus. The course is open to everyone free of charge and will include access to all the Portus Project’s research data so that students can explore the nuts and bolts of Portus and the archaeological process.

On this course you will chart a journey from the Imperial harbour to its connections across the Mediterranean, learning about what the archaeological discoveries uncovered by the Portus Project tell us about the history, landscape, buildings, and the people of this unique place. Although the site lies in ruins, it has some of the best-preserved Roman port buildings in the Mediterranean, and in this course you will learn to interpret these and the finds discovered within them, using primary research data and the virtual tools of the archaeologist.

Largely filmed on location at Portus, the course will provide you with an insight into the wide range of digital technologies employed to record, analyse and present the site. In addition to the lead educators, our enthusiastic team of student archaeologists will support your learning.

To register click here, fill in your name and email address and check the privacy policy and code of conduct boxes. The course starts on May 19th and is divided into six week-long classes. Once it’s open, you can go through the whole program in a weekend, if you want, or you can stretch it out longer than six weeks to suit your schedule. There are discussion modules with technology that allows you to follow particular learners. There’s a handy dandy Twitter hashtag (#UoSFLPortus) to carry on the conversation on social media. There are quizzes, scored tests and what looks like some really awesome homework.

So how about it? Shall we take a Roman archaeology class together? :boogie:

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National Museum’s Viking Ireland video series

Wednesday, April 9th, 2014

The National Museum of Ireland has put together a wonderful video series based on their Viking Ireland exhibit. It’s a tour of Viking history in Ireland as seen through some of the artifacts on display. Each of the eight videos is short and eminently digestible, a sort of capsule history on topics like Viking swords and trade. It also makes you want to go to the museum something fierce, which is obviously the entire point, so job well done, National Museum of Ireland!

The first video is about the Viking battle axe. The stars are three axe heads found together in 2013 in a boat in Lough Corrib, Galway, that date to the 11th or early 12th century. They are three different sizes and, thanks to the survival of small parts of the cherry wood handles still attached to the axe heads and other wood fragments from the rest of the handles, researchers are able to hypothesize that the two smaller ones were probably wielded by one hand, while the largest was probably a two-handed weapon. They’re late enough in date that they almost certainly belonged to Irish warriors, not Vikings. It was the Vikings who brought the battle axe to Ireland. Before that they had axes tools, built heavy to help split wood, but the Viking weapons were designed to be light and sharp, with the maximum amount of cutting edge for minimum amount of weight.

Next is the Viking sword, a more expensive weapon than the axe and every warrior’s most prized possession. The video focuses on a sword discovered in the River Shannon near Banagher in 2012. It dates to between 925 and 975 A.D. The blade may be of German manufacture while the hilt was made in Scandinavia. The coolest part of the video is the X-rays of the sword which gave conservators information about which areas needed work and provided more details about manufacture like the use of silver wire in the hilt.

The Viking Wealth & Trade video has some neat shiny stuff like some pretty huge penannular brooches that were both status symbols for the men who wore them and a means of portable wealth. I loved the set of woven silver cones found in a cave in Kilkenny. They aren’t very heavy in silver so they were purely decorative rather than a potential source of bullion. They were probably attached and hung as tassel from the edges of cloth and worn by a woman.

It was Vikings who introduced coin to Ireland. Before they came Ireland was a barter economy, with cattle as the primary currency. The Vikings were introduced to coin by trade with the Byzantine Empire and Arabic merchants and by plundering the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms which minted coins starting in the 7th century. The video shows one of the first coins struck in Ireland, a silver penny from 995-997, struck in Dublin by King Sitric Silkenbeard.

The Viking Women in Ireland video is a little thin on details. You see some beautiful ornaments found in graves from pre-Christian burials — large oval brooches used to fasten straps of traditional Scandinavian pinafore with glass bead chains strung between them. The highlight for me is a whalebone plaque similar to the one unearthed in Lilleberge (see this post) which the British Museum speculated might be used for food service, but the National Museum of Ireland thinks were used in textile production, maybe to stretch linen or other fabrics, in conjunction with a glass smoother.

Arrival of Vikings & Beliefs is centered on remains and artifacts found in burials in Islandbridge, Dublin, the largest Viking burial site outside of Scandinavia. Featured is a skeleton buried with a sword and spearhead, one of the earliest preserved Viking burials in Ireland. There’s also a splendid collection of swords, axes, spearheads and bosses from shields excavated from the 19th century on. Islandbridge excavations are still making new discoveries, including early single-edged sword from the 9th c., a spearhead, ringpin and the human remains of male 18-20 who grew up outside of Ireland and came to the island a couple of years before his death.

The Irish & the Vikings video is about how the two cultures came together. The Vikings created an urban commercial culture with Dublin as the center of trade and manufacture, while the Irish remained rural and agricultural, living in small groups on crannogs and in ringforts. The presence of urban Viking settlements provided new markets for Irish agriculture, cattle, leather, wool. There are some fabulous surviving textiles in the video.

Despite their disparate living arrangements and cultures — the Irish spoke a different language, had different legal and political systems — there was significant overlap in the material culture as the Irish quickly adopted Viking weapons, tools, jewelry. Not to be missed at the 2:51 mark is the Hnefatafl gaming board, a Chinese checkers or draughts sort of game with pegholes in the board decorated in Viking style.

Also striking is the late 10th c./early 11th c. slave chain found near Ardakillen crannog in County Roscommon. There was slavery in Ireland before the Vikings, mainly prisoners of war, but the Vikings made it into a thriving industry. They set up slave emporiums in Dublin, tapping into a vast trade network that meant an Irish war captive could end up anywhere from Scandinavia to north Africa.

Daily Life in Viking Ireland looks at the two best preserved Viking settlements: Dublin and Waterford. Because the environment is water-logged, the most exceptional organic remains have been found, like bedding that is still green after 1,000 years. Through a scale model drawn from a Dublin excavation, you see the dawn of the European town design, the six different types of houses, the layout of streets and defenses. Artifacts show the daily life in these towns. Pieces of of walrus bone and tusks were worked there, and there was a huge amber trade. More than 3,000 pieces of Baltic amber from the Viking era have been found in Dublin, the second greatest amount of amber found in Europe.

It’s not just about Vikings and the Irish. There’s an amazing leather scabbard at the 4:13 mark that was made by an English man. We know this because he so generously engraved his name on it: Edric me fecit (Edric made me). Around 4:50 you get an awesome tour of tools — his own and ones for other trades — made by a Dublin blacksmith, including the earliest datable spurs and stirrups in Ireland.

Last but not least is the Legacy of the Vikings in Ireland. By the 10th century, the Viking settlers had intermarried with the Irish and the hybrid Hiberno-Norse brought together Viking and Christian design elements. The Crozier of Clonmacnoise looks like a stylized Viking horse head. The Shrine of the Cathach, a decorated gold box meant to hold a 6th century Irish psalter thought to have been written by Saint Columba himself, is inscribed with the name of its maker: Sitric Mac Maghe (no idea if I’m spelling that correctly), a Scandinavian first name and an Irish family name.

Then there’s the jaw-dropping beauty of the Cross of Cong, a processional cross from the 12th century that was created to hold a fragment of the True Cross. It’s an outstanding example of the late Viking Urnes art style which features stylized animals in combat with snakes symbolizing the battle of good against evil.

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New York Public Library puts 20,000 maps online

Thursday, April 3rd, 2014

The New York Public Library, in addition to having a glorious Beaux Arts main building, has a vast collection of historic images. More than 800,000 images are available for perusal in its Digital Collections, an invaluable resource on the history of New York. I would have made much use of it in this blog but high resolution images are only available for a fee of at least $50 apiece which is rather pricey for works out of copyright.

This has bummed me out for years, so when I read that the NYPL was releasing more than 20,000 digitized maps, I assumed that we’d only be to view these cartographical works in versions too small to appreciate the details, which is bad enough with pictures of people or buildings but is infinitely worse with maps. Something something ass u me, because the entire collection can be viewed in exquisitely high resolution on the website and can even be downloaded! All you have to do is create an account free of charge on the NYPL’s Map Warper site and once that’s done, you see an Export tab on each map entry from which you can download the high resolution file.

Fair warning: the Map Warper takes ages to load, or at least it has for me at various times over several days. Everything I’ve accessed has eventually loaded without errors, but it took minutes. I suggest opening it in a new tab to wait out the load time. Once you have your account, be prepared to wait again for the maps to load. From the comments on the NYPL’s blog entry announcing the release, it appears to be your basic birthing pains and they have top men on it. Top. Men.

In any case, gems like these are worth the wait.

We’ve been scanning maps for about 15 years, both as part of the NYPL’s general work but mostly through grant funded projects like the 2001 National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) funded American Shores: Maps of the MidAtlantic to 1850, the 2004 Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) funded Building a Globally Distributed Historical Sheet Map Set and the 2010 NEH funded New York City Historical GIS.

Through these projects, we’ve built up a great collection of: 1,100 maps of the Mid-Atlantic United States and cities from the 16th to 19th centuries, mostly drawn from the Lawrence H. Slaughter Collection; a detailed collection of more than 700 topographic maps of the Austro-Hungarian empire created between 1877 and 1914; a collection of 2,800 maps from state, county and city atlases (mostly New York and New Jersey); a huge collection of more than 10,300 maps from property, zoning, topographic, but mostly fire insurance atlases of New York City dating from 1852 to 1922; and an incredibly diverse collection of more than 1,000 maps of New York City, its boroughs and neighborhoods, dating from 1660 to 1922, which detail transportation, vice, real estate development, urban renewal, industrial development and pollution, political geography among many, many other things.

One of the neatest features the Map Warper offers is the ability for members to rectify a map, meaning overlay it as accurately as possible over a modern digital Google Map using control points on both maps. Here’s a handy tutorial on how to rectify:

And here’s a before and after of a particularly warp-heavy map from sea to shining sea:


I love this one of New Orleans because the 1860 map is basically identical to the modern map only of course the city boundaries have sprawled much further afield now:


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1940s Chicago in living color

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014

A rare color film of Chicago made in the 1940s was discovered at an estate sale in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood on the south side of Chicago by a professional film colorist, fortuitously enough. The canister was labeled “Chicago Print 1″ which was intriguing enough to entice Jeff Altman to spend $40 to buy the film even though nobody at the sale knew what it was or what kind of condition it was in.

The film turned out to be a 32-minute tour of the city sponsored by the Chicago Board of Education with footage of everything from the glamour of the Wrigley Building to the manufacturing plants of the South Shore. Street scenes are interspersed with dramatic aerial footage shot from United Airlines planes. It was in good condition but needed some color adjustments which its new owner just happened to have the skills to make.

Chicago – A Film from the Chicago Board Of Education from Fading Dyes on Vimeo.

The city looks great — the aerial views of the lakefront are particularly breathtaking — and I’m a sucker for that fabulously stentorian narratorial tone that was so prevalent in publicity films and newsreels from the 1940s. The shots of the L moving through skyscrapers (around the 3:50 mark) look like something from Metropolis.

There are no references in the footage or narration to what the specific purpose of the film was, probably attracting tourism or maybe new businesses, which would explain the unusual coverage of the industrial areas of the city. The Board of Education has so far been unable to locate any records of the production in their archives, but the date can be extrapolated from what we see and hear. The sad fate of that wonderful narrator is a key piece of evidence.

It’s unclear exactly when the video was produced, but portions of it seem to have been filmed in 1940s, judging by the models of cars and what seems to be a marquee for the 1945 Humphrey Bogart film “Conflict.”

The video was likely released between January 1945 and September 1946, as John Howatt, credited as the board’s business manager, was elected to the post on Jan. 8, 1945, while narrator Johnnie Neblett died on Sept. 15, 1946, according to Chicago Public Schools spokeswoman Lauren Huffman.

The 1945/6 is confirmed by one of the comments on Vimeo points out that you can see the USS Sable aircraft carrier anchored on Lake Michigan. It was decommissioned at the end of 1945 and broken up for scrap in July 1946.

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Voyage to the center of Piranesi’s imaginary prison

Sunday, March 16th, 2014

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, the son of stonemason and nephew of an engineer, first trained under that uncle as an architect maintaining the intricate waterworks of his native Venice. Even though he only ever got one job as an architect in his all too short life, he never lost the passion for buildings. It was as an artist that he made his name. He learned etching in Rome and combined his artistic talent with his favorite subject matter to create views of the city that became popular among Grand Tourists. Piranesi’s etchings of ancient Roman architecture were not only captured with the meticulous understanding of the builder, but were drawn with such powerful chiaroscuro dynamism that Goethe, for one, who first came to know the city through Piranesi’s books, was actually disappointed when he saw the real thing.

Piranesi didn’t limit himself to depictions of Rome and its ruins for the pilgrims and tourists. In 1745, he began work on an entirely new vision, combining his artistic style and understanding of ancient monumental construction to create a unique group of etchings called Carceri d’Invenzione (Imaginary Prisons). The imaginary part is that they bear no relation to any actual prisons of the era which were mostly cramped dungeon cells in the towers and palaces of the Church and aristocracy. Piranesi’s invented prisons were cavernous labyrinths peppered with intimidatingly suggestive mechanisms where human figures are barely present and dwarfed by their surroundings.

The first edition of Carceri d’Invenzione was published in 1750. It was a collection of 14 untitled etchings drawn in a rough sketch-like style. You can see all 14 of the original Carceri in order here. Ten years later, he would return to his imaginary prisons and do a major revamp of the etchings. He added two new ones and fleshed out the others with even more complex architectural features, increased contrasts of shadow and light, arches, staircases and vaults that lead nowhere.

The prison etchings were part of an artistic tradition called the capriccio, a fantasy aggregation of structures and art works that doesn’t exist in real life. These sorts of imaginary viewpoints were popular with tourists because they compressed the “must see” ruins and artworks into one painting. What Piranesi did with the form, however, was entirely new. The prisons were expressions of visions in his mind, not of tourist bullet points. They wouldn’t be purchased as pre-photography postcards, but the prisons’ tenebrous atmosphere and emotional impact were highly influential for the Romantics of the late 18th/early 19th centuries. The irrational elements like infinitely regressing passageways would later inspire the Surrealists and if Escher’s Relativity doesn’t owe Piranesi a huge debt, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle.

In 2010, the Sale del Convitto in Venice held an exhibition Le Arti di Piranesi: architetto, incisore, antiquario, vedutista, designer (The Arts of Piranesi: architect, engraver, antiquarian, vedutista, designer) to coincide with the Venice Biennale of Architecture. The Carceri etchings played a central part in the show, and graphic artist Gregoire Dupond of Factum Arte brought them to virtual life with an absolutely riveting animation. He took the 16 prints of the second edition and transformed them into a three-dimensional space so viewers can travel deep into Piranesi’s imagination.

It’s 12 minutes long and it’s nothing short of riveting.

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The first film of a New York City snowstorm

Monday, February 10th, 2014

Mired in a winter that keeps insisting on snapping back to sub-freezing temperatures and traffic-clogging snow and ice, it warms the cockles of my frozen heart to see the first film footage of New York City during a monster snowstorm. It was filmed for the Edison Manufacturing Co. on February 17, 1902, by Edwin S. Porter, a groundbreaking director who pioneered techniques like dissolves, cross-cutting and close-ups. It records a view of Madison Square, back when Madison Square Garden was actually on Madison Square, buried under massive snowdrifts.

Those are the New York Fire Department’s horse-drawn engines trying to negotiate the snowy terrain. You can see the trolleys trying to keep on schedule, a myriad dedicated pedestrians, carts hauling large barrels of what I assume are spirituous beverages but really could be anything, the snow-covered statue of William Seward and the luxurious Fifth Avenue Hotel, once host to US Presidents and crowned heads of Europe but in decline by the time the film was shot. The always awesome Bowery Boys think the beams at the end of the film are a glimpse of the construction site of the iconic Flatiron Building which would be completed just a few months after the film in the summer of 1902.

I think my favorite part is the hansome cab that appears horse-first at 1:24. Patented by Joseph Hansom in England in 1834, by the end of the 19th century these small, fast, highly maneuverable carriages were ubiquitous in cities like London and New York. Cab is short for cabriolet, the type of carriage, and when automated taximeters were added to calculate fares, the hansomes became known as taxicabs. That low little one-horse carriage is the progenitor of the yellow cars that are ubiquitous in New York today. You can see in the film that the era of the hansome cab was already winding down in 1902. By the 1920s, motor vehicles had taken over.

Edison titled the film “New York City in a Blizzard,” but he was being dramatic. The storm didn’t actually rise to the blizzard level. Although this snowstorm produced crazy drifts up to five feet high, on the whole New York City wasn’t actually hit that hard. Winds of 40 miles an hour and deep snow caused traffic, train and shipping delays, but there were no major accidents which is impressive considering you can see the horses struggle to keep their footing in the film. Temperatures hovered around 30 degrees, keeping the snow relatively wet and conditions bearable. The blizzard of March 1888 saw temperatures drop to six degrees below zero, winds of 60 miles an hour and two feet of snowfall. Compared to that, the 1902 storm was a cakewalk. Connecticut and the rest of New England were hit much harder.

The year after he shot the snow storm, Edwin S. Porter would move very far beyond the shots of daily life and secure his place in film history by directing the seminal picture The Great Train Robbery.

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