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The iconic work of photographer Dorothea Lange is thoughtfully considered in a new documentary.

Dorothea Lange – Grab a Hunk of Lightning was directed by Dyanna Taylor, granddaughter of Lange, which gives the film unique insight and access. Taylor traces back Lange’s beginnings as a young girl in New Jersey who was left with a limp after contracting polio. Despite the slight disability, Lange grew up to be an adventurous woman who landed in San Francisco where she opened a portrait studio and became part of the artistic community which included painter Maynard Dixon. They married and had two kids, and the film explores Lange’s deep battle in finding a balance between her work and her family.

The beginning of the Depression marked her foray into documentary photography. Being on the street gave Lange a different perspective than the portrait photography she was accustomed to, and she soon found herself in the middle of breadlines and protests. Labor economist Paul Taylor noticed her images at an exhibit and hired her to document the labor conditions in California (under the guise of a typist). Working together they produced a report on migrant labor—and fell in love. Lange divorced Dixon and married Taylor with whom she worked to document the Dust Bowl and western migration. The poverty they witnessed astounded Lange and along with her photos, she began taking down extensive captions and quotes from the people she captured. She and Taylor were awarded funding by the Farm Security Administration, which is how she came to take her best known photo, Migrant Mother. Of the image Lange comments, “I see it printed all over, prints I haven’t supplied, but it doesn’t belong to me anymore, it belongs to the world.”

She went on to document Japanese internment camps (a job the military hired her for and then fired her for after seeing the images she was making) and the construction of the Monticello dam in California, a project that illustrated the destructiveness of progress. Her journal entries expand on an intense desire to document despite many health problems as well as the personal struggles (and victories) she bore a as wife and a mother.

Throughout the film, as Lange’s black and white images flash across the sky, her process, style, and the meaning of the work take shape. She composed people within the frame, many of whom were living in desperate conditions, in a way that was simultaneously representative of an era and timeless. The photos also exhibit a sense of dignity towards her subjects and many contribute to her legacy as both an artist and activist. Reflecting on her work, Lange comments, “I believe I can see, that I can see straight and true and fast.”

The documentary is airing as part of the "American Masters" series on PBS and can be streamed here.

Photo by Dorothea Lange, Farm Security Administration



A new documentary chronicles both the silly and the serious sides of George Takei's life.

To Be Takei is a surprisingly charming documentary that looks at the life and times of actor and activist George Takei. His humor and likability come across in everyday scenes with his partner Brad Altman as well as in interviews with people he’s worked with throughout his career like Leonard Nimoy, whom he acted alongside in Star Trek.

The film also has a serious side that is important to understanding Takei’s life. As a child, his family was sent to Japanese-American internment camps which were authorized by FDR following the attack on Pearl Harbor. He recalls the armed guards in the Arkansas camp as well as reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in the camp’s school. His family was later sent to a high security camp in California. The footage shown is dismaying, revealing the loss of freedom and blatant racism that was present. Following their release, Takei remembers how difficult it was for his father to get a job and find housing for the family. Despite the damaging experience, Takei utilizes the Japanese concept of Gaman (to endure with dignity) to move forward. Decades later, he testified before Congress about the internment and a formal apology as well as restitution for survivors was eventually issued by President Reagan. The documentary also shows Takei’s recent involved in the development of the play Allegiance which chronicles a family in the internment camps.

Another significant aspect of Takei’s life is his relationship with Altman. Although Takei realized he was gay at a young age (fifth or sixth grade he says), it’s something that he hid, at first out of confusion and later to protect his career in Hollywood. Altman was understanding, but when California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a same-sex marriage bill, Takei felt compelled to come out. Since then, he’s been a strong advocate for marriage equality and gay rights. He and Altman married in 2008.

Many other elements are covered throughout the film, such as his relationship with his parents and his legacy as an Asian-American actor. Also touched upon are Takei’s feud with William Shatner, his colossal Facebook following, and friendships with people from his barber to Howard Stern. All in all, the film strikes a good balance between the silly and the serious, with its appeal attributed to Takei himself who possesses both accessibility and a unique star quality.

Photo by Scott Smithson, licensed under Creative Commons.



Art with an environmental slant is rapidly maturing.

In the 20th century, the relationship between art and activism became closer with the two spheres overlapping during the civil rights and antiwar movements. Art was found to convey both a message and emotion that helped activists gain supporters and make change.

Now that relationship is being developed within the environmental movement as issues like climate change take center stage. In the 1970’s, eco-art began to emerge, however it was often carried out by individuals working on specific, local issues. And while art genres like outdoors photography had combined the aesthetic with the natural, it usually lacked a message linked to ideas like conservation. Today environmental art is rapidly evolving in a variety of forms, some overt and some more subtle.

At the California College of the Arts (CCA), painting and fine arts professor Kim Anno is leading the way by developing a degree that covers the intersection of art, science, and the environment. CCA was the also first college to participate at the United Nations’ Climate Summits. Anno notes, “There is a distinction between art and activism. They do have overlaps, but they also have differences. Sometimes viewers discount the images of activism if they are too pat, too quickly understood. Art slows perception down and deepens the viewer's experience." And conservationist Carl Safina points out, “Science does a pretty good job of telling us what the world is but not what to think or feel about it. That is the job of art.”

Street artists, world-famous designers, photographers, installation artists, and private companies have worked together to address issues such as Hurricane Sandy, tar sands, and pollution. Some artists are even integrating art and restoration projects. English sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor created underwater works that become artificial coral reefs while Daniel McCormick and Mary O’Brien made sculptures that act as habitats in waterways for uprooted oysters and salmon. Foundations and galleries are also showing increased interest which bolsters opportunities for artists. Amy Westervelt who writes for the Sierra Club concludes, “Mounting evidence suggests that in the coming decades, environmental art will have the same sort of disruptive impact that social and political art have had.”

Photo by Oxfam International, licensed under Creative Commons.



The remarkable career and mission of oceanographer Sylvia Earle is profiled in new documentary

In the Neflix documentary Mission Blue, oceanographer Sylvia Earle says, "If I seem like a radical, it may be because I see things others do not." Throughout her career, Earle has explored oceans teeming with life— from studying seaweed for her dissertation to diving at record-breaking depths to behold bioluminescent creatures. But in her lifetime, she has also witnessed the manmade consequences the oceans have endured including the destruction of coral reefs, overfishing, and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. 

The film documents Earle's life starting with her fascination with nature as a child and the effect her family's move to Florida has had on her life. With the Gulf in her backyard, she became an explorer and eventually a scientist which led her to expeditions from the Indian Ocean to the Galapagos to the Great Barrier Reef. That she was a woman in a field dominated by men was often noted by the media who at times questioned how she balanced the personal (she had three children) with the professional, and at other times acknowledged the glass ceiling she was breaking through. Technologies also played a role in her career as diving instruments were developed further, taking explorers to never before seen depths for longer periods of time. Earle even played a hand in improving the design of the manipulator arms on one of the suits, to improve underwater dexterity.

Another important part of Earle’s life was her role as Chief Scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), where she became known as the “Sturgeon General.” In the position however, she found her voice censored, with politics and bureaucracy stifling efforts at protecting the oceans and marine life. So she resigned, opting for life as a citizen who could speak freely rather than a government official with talking notes.

The footage and statistics that the documentary reveals is telling, from Earle’s grim trip to a Tokyo fish market to the fact that we went from one dead zone in 1975 to presently over 500. The assault on the ocean has led Earle to advocate for its preservation in the form of "hope spots"—areas that are protected from fishing and dumping. Her goal is to get 20 percent of the ocean protected by 2020 (currently less than 3 percent is protected). Although she recognizes the vast challenge in such a mission, she also knows that with "No oceans, no life; no oceans, no us."

Photo by wanderlasss, licensed under Creative Commons.


neil hamburger

Comedian Neil Hamburger is back with an album of jokes and music that showcases his acerbic approach to making people laugh.

This one’s for all the shut-ins, diabetics, and people with uncomfortable foot conditions.

“America’s Funnyman,” comedian Neil Hamburger, has been known to rattle off a near-encyclopedic list of ailments (such as the aforementioned maladies) that might prevent people from coming to see his stand-up shows. With that in mind he’s bringing the laughs to you with First of Dismay (Drag City), a collection of his usual acerbic jokes about celebrities and one-liners that seem poorly constructed or like non-sequitors on the surface, but are brilliant in their simplicity. And, as any student of comedy will tell you, delivery and timing are just as important as the material. Hamburger is the type of comedian that can make a crowd laugh with excessive throat clearing and knock-knock jokes about the Red Hot Chili Peppers; in other words, his delivery is finely polished. 

First of Dismay opens with Hamburger berating a heckler who loses his courage to interrupt once he’s called out. From there he turns the vitriol upon himself with the disc’s first song “Your Town U.S.A.” A country-western lament about a busted career and self-loathing, the tune tells us your town—yes yours, dear listener—is the one in which laughter grows on the vine and gives a broken down comedian all he needs to keep going. While the songs may be written off by some as novelty, they are far from pointless indulgences. Delivered by a rock solid band, dubbed “The Too Good For Neil Hamburger Band,” the songs draw laughs but would be right at home on a dance floor full of two steppers. “Nickel Candy” and “Endless Roll” are the highlights, the latter a disco-funk complaint letter about a huge box of subpar trash bags. 

But of course, the biting celebrity jokes are Hamburger’s bread and butter. The celebrities here are some easy targets such as Steven Tyler and Carrot Top. Others are a bit more innocuous, such as Bobby McFerrin, who finds himself in the middle of a joke about buying used toilets on Craigslist. And lest one thinks Hamburger is a one-trick pony who tells jokes about easy targets, “He Spoke” is a five minute exercise about an historic Hollywood theater in which countless legendary entertainers performed, all wrapped up with a delightfully vulgar bit about world-famous mime Marcel Marceau. 

Neil recently took some time out of his busy schedule to speak with us over the phone about the new record, his hard life on the road, and his utter disdain for Pringles and Steven Tyler:

Photo courtesy Rich Jones, licensed under Creative Commons


the antlers

“Meditation has been pretty influential. I became really interested in the structure of it—the way you are led into it, the way you sink deeper and deeper into it, and the way you are pulled out of it, back to reality.” –Peter Silberman, The Antlers

The depth of that into which Silberman finds himself sinking, we may never know; but one thing is for certain: If there exists a suitable soundtrack for life’s most tranquil doings—meditation, yoga, getting properly stoned whilst cooking breakfast tacos on a Sunday—it is The Antlers’ new album, Familiars.

Never before have The Antlers utilized more space or shown more patience in composition than on Familiars, not even on its chilled-out precursor, Undersea—an EP that arguably sounds better rotating at 33 RPM’s than the prescribed 45. Familiars is an expansion on the trio’s most recent work, yet more ambitious and cohesive in vision. “It’s important that we had long instrumental passages to have room to improvise, experiment, and let the mood develop,” Silberman explains during an aimless stroll around the Westport neighborhood in Kansas City, Missouri, moments before the band melted a sold-out Riot Room. “But it comes down to taking risks for the right reasons. You have to have solid intent going into the creative process.”

Subtle risk-taking has remained a vital component of The Antlers’ approachably experimental aesthetic since the release of 2009’s Hospice—an album that struck a near-perfect balance of diverse musicality and raw, relatable lyrical content. Hospice’s inevitable, yet unexpected success acted as a springboard, bequeathing unto The Antlers a myriad of new opportunities, the most fruitful being an enlarged road map for touring. Whereas many spirits are broken on the road, the influx of live shows served as a gelling mechanism and catalyst for true collaboration amongst The Antlers, a project that was initially launched as the sole effort of Silberman. 

By the time Burst Apart was released in 2011, multi-instrumentalist Darby Cicci and drummer Michael Lerner were making sound-shaping contributions to the band’s music, a trajectory that would eventually land them in their current state of interdependency. Silberman described the effect of this dynamic on the writing process during Familiars: “A faith has developed from playing together for so long that we sort of know how to imagine the others while writing. I think that’s why the songs have become more spacious, because we’re leaving room for each other to coexist while writing.” This trust has broadened The Antlers’ creative scope by allowing the strengths of each member to grow individually. Evidence of this mutual development is found throughout Familiars—Silberman no longer defaults to his usual falsetto, Cicci has created a voice of his own with the trumpet, and Lerner’s approach to the drums is as cleanly complicated as any.

On July 2nd, The Antlers stopped in Kansas City to share a live interpretation of their new album with an anxious and at-capacity crowd. Each audience member nodded in unison to an hour of deep-cutting new material, peppered with old favorites. The Antlers played with the brand of energy unique to veteran bands just a few dates into a touring cycle—nothing to prove and everything to give. Allowing the ground to acquiesce beneath their audience and helping them to sink, deeper and deeper, to unfamiliar depth. 

Watch The Antlers perform songs off the new album for an in-studio performance at KEXP in Seattle: 



Tackling endangered species and languages together may be an effective strategy.

Nature and culture are deeply intertwined; just think about the act of gardening which takes into account scientific elements like climate and human values like beauty. Biocultural diversity is a field of study that examines these sorts of linkages and has found a number of surprising parallels. One of these is in the relationship between endangered species and endangered languages. Species and languages both have long evolutionary histories, heavily influenced by geography. They can also be organized in a similar way with species as the key category in terms of biology and languages as a key representation of culture, with subspecies and dialects furthering the parallel.

In recent times, both nature and culture have also been dramatically affected by globalization which has caused habitat loss, climate change, and homogenization. Languages and species are now threatened in alarming numbers. In a report entitled “Biocultural Diversity: Threatened Species, Endangered Languages,” researchers concluded that a minimum of 25 percent of the world’s languages are threatened along with 21 percent of the earth’s mammals. Looking further into these numbers, they created the Index of Language Diversity which surveyed the homogenization of languages. They then superimposed their findings with the Living Planet Index which measures biodiversity and found very similar trends between the two—between 1970 and 2009, both dropped approximately 30 percent. 

While the statistics convey an urgency for the survival of both species and languages, biocultural diversity, by combining the two fields, offers some guidance for strengthening conservation strategies, especially given that places where the environment is threatened is often also where indigenous communities are threatened. In a series of interviews conducted in Canada with tribal members of the Taku River Tlingit First Nation (whose Tlingit language is critically endangered), each were asked to come up with habitat models for the endangered woodland caribou. They compared these answers with ones gathered in a Western model and found that the tribe members had a better understanding of the animal’s habitat. Researchers David Harmon and Jonathon Loh conclude, “If biodiversity organizations joined forces with advocates for linguistic and cultural self-determination, there would be a double payoff.”

Photo by Patrick M., licensed under Creative Commons.

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