Magic Lessons Ep. 202: "Make the Brutal Into the Beautiful" Featuring Brandon Stanton

Magic Lessons with Elizabeth Gilbert #BigMagic
Brandon Stanton

This week on Magic Lessons Elizabeth Gilbert advises Anne, a photographer in Pennsylvania. For the last few years Anne has been documenting her brother's life. He's a veteran with PTSD and a recovering drug addict. She imagines turning all this material into a photo-essay exhibit or book, but she's afraid to take the next steps to make it happen. To help guide Anne, Liz calls up her friend Brandon Stanton, the photographer and creator of the photo series "Humans of New York.” Several weeks later, Anne reveals what she's been up to since getting all this advice.

Special Guest: Brandon Stanton is the photographer and creator behind Humans of New York. He is also the author of two number 1 New York Times-bestselling books, Humans of New York and Humans of New York: Stories. Find out more about him at

Errol Morris: Believing Is Seeing (Observations on the Mysteries of Photography)


What does this photograph suggest to you? If I told you that it was taken in South Dakota in 1936 by a man named Arthur Rothstein who was working for the Farm Security Administration, would that impact your answer? This picture was quite a source of social and political controversy in its day as many felt it had been posed to raise sympathy and support for FDR's programs. So what is this work of art, really? A meditation on light and form? Straightforward documentation of farm and weather conditions? Or subtle propaganda?

One man who has a unique talent for getting to the bottom of mysteries like this is filmmaker Errol Morris. His new book, "Believing Is Seeing (Observations on the Mysteries of Photography)", contains a series of essays that investigate the hidden truths behind a series of documentary photographs. Including this one.

The review from the LA Times summarizes it beautifully, saying: "[A]t its core . . ."Believing Is Seeing" is an elegantly conceived and ingeniously constructed work of cultural psycho-anthropology wrapped around a warning about the dangers of drawing inferences about the motives of photographers based on the split-second snapshots of life that they present to us. It's also a cautionary lesson for navigating a world in which, more and more, we fashion our notions of truth from the flickering apparitions dancing before our eyes."

Noe Montes: Borders at THIS Los Angeles


Noe Montes, the official photographer for MaxFunCon in 2009 and 2010, will be exhibiting his work in a show titled "Borders" that will premiere at THIS Los Angeles starting on September 1st. The opening will be from 7 to 10 pm on the 1st, but the show featuring his photos will continue at THIS throughout September.

All of the details are here - come check it out!

Noe Montes on Twitter


The official photographer of MaxFunCon and is Noe Montes.

Noe emailed me a few years ago and said he'd heard I'd moved to LA, and offered to shoot some photos of me. I agreed, and was happy to meet one of my new best friends, and a very gifted artist. Noe's a big man with a quiet manner, and he's a gifted portraitist. He takes pictures of people in LA that make me think that maybe living in LA isn't so bad.

In addition to his web presence, Noe shares pictures on his twitter feed, @NoeMontes. Follow him if you want a regular dose of what's beautiful about people.

Shellac in Chicago, photographed by Christopher Rogers


Shortly after Steve Albini was a guest on our live show in Chicago, his band, Shellac rocked the city live in concert. Luckily for us, my friend Christopher Rogers was in attendance, and took some really beautiful photographs that I wanted to share with you. Some samples above, or check out Chris' Flickr stream here. Special bonus: some nice shots of the Kids in the Hall reunion at SF Sketchfest!

Interview: Robert Jackson, The Art of the American Snapshot 1888 - 1978.


The Art of the American Snapshot 1888 – 1978” is currently running in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, until 31st December 2007. The exhibition features photos from the collection of Robert E. Jackson from Seattle, one of the country’s premier snapshot collectors. I spoke to Robert about the exhibition and all things ‘snapshotty’ – here’s what he had to say.

EMcD: How would you define a snapshot?

RJ: The snapshot can be defined as a democratic photographic phenomena arising out of the technological advances in the mechanics of camera processing. This produced a product which allowed the amateur to take photos with some of the same degree of ease and sophistication as found in professional photography at a cost which was affordable. The act of taking a snapshot is personal response to a moment involving telling a story using the camera as a surrogate for memory.

EMcD: How did you go about accumulating these photographs over the years?

RJ: My interest in snapshots grew out of an earlier interest in paper ephemera. I liked the content of the snapshots--the tricks, the odd poses and costumes, the small jewel-like nature of the medium. And probably most importantly snapshots were inexpensive relative to other types of photographic mediums, and they were plentiful which meant I could build a collection with some ease. One can collect fingers obscuring the lens, photo emulsion mistakes, gay interest photographs, badly tinted photos, photos where faces have been scratched out, photos of pit bulls, photographer shadows, the notations on the backs of photos. Also this most democratic of photographic mediums could have only been built using the internet and most specifically Ebay which allowed me to network with dealers and be exposed to items from around the United States and often the world on a daily basis.

EMcD: You've assembled a huge array of photos spanning a 90 year period in American history. What themes does the exhibition explore?

RJ:The exhibition explores the creativity of the snapshooter and how cultural influences impacted the ways in which the photographer interacted with the times as well as with friends and family. The personal, intimate nature of the snapshot and the often voyeuristic impulses of the snapshooter are highlighted through the portrayal of sleeping photos throughout the time period. The issue of remembrance, narrative, and rituals within the snapshot genre are shown via the presentation, through the decades, of birthday cakes.

EMcD: What impact did the introduction of easily accessible photography have on life in America during the period examined?

RJ: It provided the general population an affordable means to create a narrative of their life. Their ability to record the world around them and to interact, via taking a picture, in the historical and familial events by which they were surrounded allowed for the preservation of a slice of American life which we now can experience and attempt to understand from a sociological and aesthetic vantage point.

EMcD: Since 1978 technology has improved dramatically and the way we now view images has totally changed. Does the fact that we now view many of our photos via computers and not captured as actual physical prints ruin the concept of the snapshot?

RJ: Technology has not necessarily improved in relation to the creation of the snapshot, but rather has changed, and via such change has impacted our way of thinking about the taking and making of a snapshot. Once the price decreases and the ease of taking and editing a snapshot increases, photos which don’t fit within the accepted canon of what a “good” snapshot should be are often eliminated (in that sense one could say something has been “ruined”). Thus the manner in which we interact with our snapshots, our memory, has changed. Snapshots are not viewed anymore as private documents, but rather are viewed as something to exhibit in the public sphere via websites such as Flickr.

As part of the exhibition, the documentary “Other People’s Pictures” will screen on November the 21st and 23rd at 1.00pm in the Gallery. The 53 minute piece tracks nine collectors as they hunt for images of people they do not know. Co-producer of the documentary Lorca Shepperd was a previous guest on TSOYA.
Listen to the interview with Lorca Shepperd

Benjamin Donaldson's "Summerland"

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Mal Sharpe points us to this amazing series of photographs by Benjamin Donaldson. The series, called "Summerland," depicts people hypnotized into believing they are in the most beautiful landscape imaginable.

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