Culture Analytics @ UCLA Institute for Pure & Applied Mathematics

This spring, I was invited to speak at the Culture Analytics long program at UCLA’s Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics, during the first workshop week, “Culture Analytics Beyond Text: Image, Music, Video, Interactivity, and Performance.” It was great to hear about so many projects from around the world, with people who work in computer vision, data analysis, art history, etc. all in the same room figuring out how to talk across disciplinary lines. Here’s the video of my talk on image analysis in the Vogue Archive.

Review of Diane von Furstenberg: A Life Unwrapped

Much has been written about Diane von Furstenberg’s fairytale life–she is a princess and millionaire businesswoman who conquered New York, partied at Studio 54, took famous lovers, and was the subject of Andy Warhol portraits. In her new biography, Gioia Diliberto manages to dig into the parts of DVF’s career we’ve forgotten: ill-fated forays into fragrance, licensing deals at JcPenney and the Home Shopping Network. After a royal marriage that gave her the now-famous name, her love life has taken many unconventional turns as well. DVF seems to breeze blithely past setbacks, using what she has to start over again, and perhaps this is what makes her story so fascinating.

The iconic wrap dress is popular again after more than 40 years, having sold (according to legend) 25,000 copies per week in its 1970s heyday. It was the subject of a 2014 exhibition in Los Angeles called “Journey of a Dress.” Diliberto and DVF herself agree that its appeal lies in its ease and simplicity: one flattering piece that travels well and slips on and off easily, suiting the sexy, modern woman on the go. Like Chanel’s Little Black Dress or Dior’s New Look, it’s a stellar example of fashion fitting the zeitgeist.

My verdict (all LJ reviews end with a verdict): “A roller coaster of a life full of love and work, told as a juicy tale, will be of interest to DVF fans, fashion historians, and aspiring designers alike.”

You can read the full review online at Library Journal’s website.

Text and Data Mining Webinar for CRL

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On July 29, Peter Leonard and I presented the webinar “Text and Data Mining in the Humanities and Social Sciences: Strategies and Tools” as part of the Center for Research Libraries‘ ongoing series on text and data mining. We had over 175 virtual attendees from a variety of institutions and fielded a number of excellent questions, many too complicated to answer via live chat or in the short Q&A sections (CRL added some of the chat questions into the video). It was great to see such interest in the topic. The range of questions provided a good reminder that we are still in the early days of establishing standards and practices for TDM, especially related to copyright and fair use. The CRL website has more information on the webinar, including our slides.

Network Analysis at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute

I had the good fortune to be able to attend the Digital Humanities Summer Institute last month in Victoria, British Columbia. As a pleasant contrast to muggy New England summers, the Pacific Northwest greeted me with beautiful blue skies and moderate, breezy weather. UVic has totem poles on campus, and a deer pressed her nose to the auditorium window as I was giving my colloquium presentation. It all felt very idyllic and charming.

Inner Harbour, Victoria

The impetus for my DHSI trip was Scott Weingart’s class called “Data, Math, Visualization, and Interpretation of Networks: An Introduction.” Scott’s lectures included plenty of space for discussion, as well as scheduled breaks, exercises, and time to try things out on our own. He was admirably both organized and flexible. We spent quite a bit of class time on the theory of network analysis, and some on the math behind the calculations that the various software packages perform, but this was with an eye toward knowing what was happening when we pushed buttons in the programs. We looked at many different types of data that can be usefully organized in network structures. This is perhaps an especially network-y moment in history–all the more reason to be aware of what we are doing and not put data into networks simply because we have Gephi and NodeXL to make spiffy diagrams.

Scott explained a power-law distribution by having us introduce ourselves to each other based on a rule that would be iterated across everyone in the class. Beginning with two people, who introduce themselves to each other, each new person comes to the group and chooses someone random, and then that person introduces the new person to someone they’ve already met. We drew the resulting connections as a graph on the board, then went outside and played a complicated game of catch in which each person could only throw the ball to someone they’d met in the earlier exercise. After person #2 in the network had caught the ball 40 times, we went back inside to graph the results in NodeXL, recreating the calculations we had done by hand. Person #2 (who luckily was good at catching the ball) had exponentially more connections than just about everyone else except person #1. Those of us who were introduced to someone else with fewer connections would ourselves not have as many connections.

Working in groups, we tried to create networks representing just six days in the Diary of Samuel Pepys, based on the original text. How to encode his various relationships and connections using nodes and edges? How to begin to keep track of all of the different people? Clearly, as Scott pointed out, the map is not the territory.

We read Franco Moretti’s Stanford Literary Lab pamphlet on character networks in Hamlet, and then set out to recreate his experiment, starting from scratch. Using the text of the play, we created a collaborative spreadsheet recording characters who speak to each other within given scenes. Interesting discussion followed about how much simplification is involved in saying that two characters speak to each other or don’t–and yet even that determination is not necessarily clear cut. (We also learned some valuable lessons about data-gathering in the process of creating the spreadsheet.) We then examined the graphs in NodeXL, removing Hamlet, Claudius, Horatio, etc. as Moretti did. We looked at the six principal characters within the court who have a 100% clustering coefficient–they form a tight network in which every character speaks to every other character. It is possible to treat literary experiments like these as hypotheses on data, and they can be repeated. What do network analyses of humanities data bring to light, and what do they obscure or reduce?

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When I recounted some of the highlights of the DHSI class for colleagues in the DHLab back at Yale, they were particularly interested in the critiques of network analysis as interpretation–how do you know when a network is the right approach? What do you get from it that makes the labor of data entry and wrestling with Gephi worthwhile? As Scott put it, “Many types of information can be fit into networks; that doesn’t mean they should be.” Still, networks are clearly useful in looking at patterns of influence and the exchange of ideas, both of which play into any number of DH projects in history, literature, art, etc.

Review of Vogue: The Gown

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Small talk directed from non-librarians to librarians often includes the question, “Aren’t books all electronic now, anyway?” The short answer is NO, followed by extra laughing if the librarian you’re talking to is an art librarian. This is in part because of massive, lavish books like Vogue: The Gown, by Jo Ellison, with its hundreds of color plates. Just try to get this gorgeous satiny cover with silver foil embossing, and its matching cover, in e-form. (My editor at Library Journal jokingly apologized for any possible drool on the book.)

Beyond its beautiful packaging, however, I appreciate Ellison’s book for its illuminations of visual and conceptual connections from the archives through clever juxtapositions of pictures and thematic essays.

My verdict: “This extravagant compilation will seduce anyone who is drawn to powerful photographic images and the visual sweep of Vogue’s history.”

The full review is featured in “Fashion Statements” on Library Journal’s website and also via the subscription version of LJ.

For more geeking out about Vogue, see the project site for Robots Reading Vogue.

Cecil Beaton: Portraits and Profiles, and Stephen Tennant: Work in Progress

In March 2014, I was lucky enough to be asked to give a short talk at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library in conjunction with the exhibition Stephen Tennant: Work in Progress. The exhibition featured letters between Tennant and his longtime friend Cecil Beaton, so I chose to focus my talk on their relationship. Much has been written on these two colorful characters (more so on Beaton), and I read Hugo Vickers’ biography of Beaton and Philip Hoare’s biography of Tennant, among other things.

Beaton, the son of a lumber merchant, had to work for a living; Tennant, the son of a baron, did not. Beaton wanted to “get in with” the crowd of smart, artistic, and wealthy people, and succeeded. Clearly they both paid attention to glamour and fashion, but Beaton made a career of that, working for British, French, and American Vogue for over fifty years, beginning around the time he met Tennant in 1926, and later becoming a set and costume designer, and going on to win three Oscars for Gigi and My Fair Lady.

After meeting at a party, Tennant and Beaton wrote to each other about people and things they saw, read, visited, etc. There were four letters between Beaton and Tennant in the exhibition, including one with the fantastic salutation “Cecil my Treasure Trove,” in which Tennant’s excitement about actresses he’s seen is made visible with his extravagant penmanship in two different colors of ink and manic underlining. We can just make out some phrases: “lots of snappy dialogue,” “rehearsals in progress,” “Theda Bara,” “Irene Bordoni.” His enthusiasm practically jumps off the page. Interestingly, Beaton and Tennant both wanted to be playwrights, but failed in their efforts.

In another letter, Tennant writes: “Dearest Cecil—I’m working on a most exciting drawing room comedy, called Forbidden Fruit or Pertinacious Paprika—risqué. Ella, the heroine, is thought too exotic, too capricious by her bourgeois family, and decides to take the bull by the horns and escape. ‘I want to be free!’ she says wistfully—to really live! (Is anyone free? I doubt it)…” A little later he writes, “One does gain in skill Cecil Dear if one goes on scribbling and spinning outrageous yarns for the theatre…”

In a 1929 letter from Beaton to Tennant, Beaton lives up to the image we have of him: “It certainly is lovely to be so appreciated, but one is almost nauseated by the awful incessant meaningless gush about one’s work. If people kept on saying “I do think you are good-looking,’ instead of ‘I do think your work is good,’ one would be much more pleased.” He also mentions having seen Noel Coward in this letter, which makes me wonder whether Beaton influenced any of Coward’s characters. We know that Tennant inspired characters in novels of the time by Nancy Mitford, Evelyn Waugh, and V.S. Naipaul.

Beaton certainly succeeded in becoming sought after by the aristocracy—in 1937 he covered the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, in 1953 he became the official photographer for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, and he was knighted in 1972, about as good as it gets for someone not born into the nobility.

Meanwhile back at Wilsford Manor, Tennant was working on Lascar. He began this novel about sailors, brothels and tattoo parlors in Marseilles sometime in the 1930s, and wrote at least seven versions of it, half a million words, but never got it satisfactorily close to completion. In the later decades of his life, he became a recluse, and for the last 20 years he mostly stayed in bed, receiving visitors and continuing to work on, but not finish, the novel. He did publish some prose and poetry, mostly through vanity presses, and exhibit some of his art at galleries in his younger years, but critical reception of his work is divided.

Later in life, the two friends seem to have had a role reversal, where Tennant felt he had failed to achieve anything and envied Beaton his success and position in society. Beaton brought famous friends like Christopher Isherwood and David Hockney to visit Tennant at Wilsford Manor. At this point, Beaton was world-famous, while Tennant’s social life was increasingly limited to people who would come visit him.

We can say that both Tennant and Beaton are very concerned with appearances—it is a defining characteristic of both of their lives. We might also say they were similarly vain and narcissistic. Beaton kept a diary throughout his life, from childhood until his stroke at the age of 70, which added up to 150 volumes. Hugo Vickers, Beaton’s literary executor and biographer, published the edited diaries in six volumes.

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The November 15, 2014 issue of Library Journal includes my review of Vickers’ newest book on Beaton, Cecil Beaton: Portraits and Profiles (Frances Lincoln, 2014). It is a starry collection of photographs and commentary from Beaton on his subjects, and includes a few of Beaton’s many images of Tennant–first as a Bright Young Thing, and later as an eccentric invalid.

My verdict: “Beaton’s sharp eye and sharper pen continue to fascinate in this handsome coffee-table survey of his work.”

Read the full review from Library Journal.

Review of Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History

My review of Rhonda Garelick’s impressive and fascinating new 608-page Chanel biography (Random House, 2014) is in the September Issue … not in Vogue, in Library Journal. The verdict (all LJ reviews end with a verdict):

“With more rigor and less hyperbole than its predecessors, this exhaustively researched yet highly readable biography secures a prominent place among countless books on Chanel.”

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The full review is paired with a review of Meryle Secrest’s Schiaparelli bio in a feature called “Design Doyennes” on the Library Journal website. (I don’t think Coco or Schiap would like getting double billing with each other!) If your library subscribes to  Library Journal, you can also read the full review here.

Review of Louise Blanchard Bethune: America’s First Female Professional Architect

I reviewed Louise Blanchard Bethune: America’s First Female Professional Architect, by Johanna Hays (McFarland, January 2014):

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Louise “Jennie” Blanchard Bethune (1856-1913) was the first woman in the United States to become a professional architect, establishing her own practice in Buffalo, New York, in 1881. The successful firm she founded with her husband, Robert Armour Bethune, whom she married in 1881, became known as Bethune, Bethune & Fuchs in 1883, and produced more than a hundred schools, residences, and institutional, industrial, and commercial buildings. Elected to the American Institute of Architects in 1888, Bethune became a Fellow in 1889.

Read the rest of the review on the ARLIS/NA site.

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