The truly Old Masters, Volume 1

van-gogh-picassoThe story of a great artist whose life is tragically cut short, like Raphael, Van Gogh, or Caravaggio, is one of the most popular themes in art history. But what about the artist who lived a rich, full life? There are far more great artists who lived to be 75 or older than those who never reached 40. In fact, there are so many that we will need more than one installment to highlight them all. ‘Volume 1’ of The truly Old Masters features artists who lived all or most of their lives before the twentieth century and were not Americans.

The popular idea that the greatest work of any artist is already done by the age of thirty, flies in the face of countless examples of mature works of genius. Why should anyone be surprised that a talented artist will benefit from longer study of any art form? The colorful paper cut-outs in Matisse’s Jazz and Michelangelo’s Dome of St. Peters are just two examples of a tour-de-force by truly old masters.

Hokusai (1760-1849) [89], Self-portrait at the age of 80

Hokusai (1760-1849) [89], Self-portrait at the age of 80

The maxim of Hippocrates, Ars longa, vita brevis (Art is long, life is short), is both a blessing and a curse for artists. That’s because so many, like the great Edo era artist Hokusai, are never satisfied with their past works and count on reaching a ripe old age to finally become successful. He explained,

“From the age of 6, I had a mania for drawing the shapes of things. When I was 50, I had published a universe of designs. But all I have done before the the age of 70 is not worth bothering with. At 75, I’ll have learned something of the pattern of nature, of animals, of plants, of trees, birds, fish and insects. When I am 80, you will see real progress. At 90, I shall have cut my way deeply into the mystery of life itself. At 100, I shall be a marvelous artist. At 110, everything I create; a dot, a line, will jump to life as never before. To all of you who are going to live as long as I do, I promise to keep my word. I am writing this in my old age. I used to call myself Hokusai, but today I sign my self ‘The Old Man Mad About Drawing.”

While Hokusai only lived to be 89, he somehow managed to create over 30,000 works before his death. Among them are some of the most famous Japanese woodcuts, like the iconic “The Great Wave.” He also invented a revolutionary genre of sketchbooks called manga, whose influence continues to today.

But still Hokusai wished to live longer to make even better works. He would have understood completely what Leonardo da Vinci is reputed to have said as he lay dying in the arms of the King of France at the age of 67 — “I have offended God and mankind because my work did not reach the quality it should have.”

Below is a gallery with later work by artists who may have thought life is too short but lived long enough to truly become old masters. [Click on an image to begin slide show.] Continue reading

The Horse from the Battle of Little Big Horn

D17 Horse Effigy

Joseph No Two Horns, He Nupa Wanica (Hunkpapa Lakota), Horse Effigy, c. 1880. Wood (possibly cottonwood), pigment, commercial and native-tanned leather, rawhide, horsehair, brass, iron, bird quill. Length: 38 1/2 in. South Dakota State Historical Society, Pierre.

Joseph No Two Horns‘s Horse Effigy is not only a powerful sculpture, but a portrait of a beloved horse ridden to victory in the Battle of the Little Big Horn. In a recent exhibition of Plains Indian art with hundreds of objects at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, it regularly drew the biggest crowds. His horse’s death in that battle haunted the artist for the rest of his life.

Joseph No Two Horns, 1939.  Notes from Colonel A.B. Welch.

Joseph No Two Horns, 1939. Notes from Colonel A.B. Welch.

In 1876, No Two Horns or He Nupa Wanica, was a 24 year old Hunkpapa Lakota warrior following his chief and cousin, Sitting Bull, when he fought in the most famous battle of the Great Sioux War. Popularly known as Custer’s Last Stand, it is called The Battle of Greasy Grass by the Lakota. On June 25th, General George Armstrong Custer and his Seventh Cavalry were scouring the Montana territory looking for about 800 “hostiles” as reported by his scouts. Custer expected to easily drive them back into their reservations. Instead, when the Seventh Cavalry attacked what they thought was a small village, Custer and his men found themselves facing the combined forces of thousands of Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors.

Drawing by Joseph No Two Horns. c. 1876.

Joseph No Two Horns, Death of Blue Roan Horse. c. 1876. Drawing on paper, 8 x 10 “. State Historical Society of North Dakota.

In the battle, No Two Horns’s blue roan suffered seven bullet wounds before collapsing, but not before carrying No Two Horns to victory over the army of General George Custer.  For the rest of his life, until his death in 1942, he portrayed this event in colorful drawings and paintings, as well as sculptures.

horse close-upThis wooden sculpture from 1880 shows his galloping horse is in the midst of battle. It stretches and strains, fighting to keep moving as death nears. His eyes are brass tacks, his leather ears are pulled back. Bullet wounds across his body run red. His mouth is covered in blood and red dyed horse hair dangles to represent blood running from his mouth.  Like a skilled animator, No Two Horns pulls the horse’s torso into the long line of its motion path.

The love of horses is an important part of Plains culture and one of the many atrocities of General Custer’s Seventh Army was their systematic slaughter of Plains Indian ponies. The Lakotas were a warrior society and these effigies or Dance Sticks were used in ceremonies and dances to prepare for battle or celebrate victories. This is, however, the only existing Dance Stick that shows the entire body of a horse.

hs_logoNo Two Horns remains one of the most famous artists of the Plains Indians and his effigies the model for many other Plains artists. Today, his Horse Effigy is not only the most prized object in the collection of the South Dakota State Historical Society but their symbol.

While a veteran of more than forty battles, Joseph No Two Horns did not brag about his exploits. In 1926, No Two Horns participated in the ceremonies honoring the 50th Anniversary of the Battle of the Little Big Horn.  He said he danced for the ‘soldiers who were so brave and foolish.’

[Thanks to Danyelle Means for corrections to this story.]

 

Guess What? How the teacup got its fur

Méret_Oppenheim_Object

Méret Oppenheim, Object (Luncheon in Fur), 1936. Fur covered cup, saucer, and spoon

The concept for Méret Oppenheim‘s most famous sculpture, Object (Luncheon in Fur), was born in a conversation with Pablo Picasso at a Paris café.

As Rebecca Mead tells it in the March 23rd issue of The New Yorker:

In 1936, Meret Oppenheim, the Swiss Surrealist artist, had tea with Pablo Picasso at the Café de Flore, in Paris. Oppenheim was wearing a bracelet, of her own design, that was clad in ocelot fur. Picasso admired it, noting that one could cover anything with fur. Soon afterward, Oppenheim produced her most famous work: a teacup, saucer, and spoon covered with the creamy-tan fur of a Chinese gazelle. The piece is now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, and is celebrated for its suggestive conjunction of the domestic and the erotic.

After Picasso’s casual observation, Oppenheim, who was just finishing her tea, reportedly joked “even this cup and saucer.” As the idea took hold, she turned and called out, to the amusement of all, “Waiter, a little more fur!”

Object is rich in sexual connotations, its back story in art world connections.  Also seated at the table during the conversation was the photographer, Dora Maar — she and Picasso were then lovers. Maar posed for some of the most intense paintings Picasso ever made. Oppenheim herself had posed for their friend, the photographer Man Ray.

Méret Oppenheim by Man Ray (American, 1890–1976) 1932. Gelatin silver print (solarized)

Méret Oppenheim by Man Ray (American, 1890–1976) 1932. Gelatin silver print (solarized)

The unforgettable sculpture came to life when André Breton, the leader of the French Surrealists, asked Oppenheim to exhibit something in their next exhibition in Paris. Oppenheim went to a local department store to purchase the cup and saucer and the marriage of fur and teacup was consummated. It was Breton who came up with the name “Luncheon in Fur” (Déjeuner en fourrure), as a reference to Édouard Manet’s famously scandalous painting of 1863. The imaginative bracelet that caught Picasso’s eye was later bought from the struggling, young artist for a few Swiss francs by the Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli.

Object was later exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which purchased it in 1946. Its fame has only grown since then.

If all the talk of the eroticism of Object eludes you, simply imagine drinking hot liquid from the furry cup.

Cold? Rembrandt’s studio was probably colder.

Rembrandt Artist in his studio MFAIn Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, there is a small Rembrandt of an artist at work in his studio that symbolizes the difficulty of making art. The dark, large canvas on the easel seems huge and forbidding.  With thick, spread legs, it dominates the picture and looms over the artist, who appears to have backed away from it, perhaps in fear.

However, this painting has taken on a whole new meaning for me because of this frigid winter in the Northern U.S.  While I never gave it a thought in the past, the artist (who resembles Rembrandt) is clearly unnaturally bundled up in heavy clothing even though he is inside.

Artist in his studio detailWhat is going on? Is the studio cold because the artist lacks the money to heat it? Or is it something else?

Painted around 1628, when Rembrandt was in his early twenties, the studio’s bareness could simply depict a struggling, young artist and the tools of his trade.  We can see his palettes hanging behind him, brushes and a maul stick in his hands.  To the right, is a large grinding stone where he makes his paints. To the left, is a table probably with jugs of oil and solvent.Rembrandthuis: grinding stone and materials

If you visit Rembrandt’s studio in Amsterdam – Rembrandthuis — you can see many of the same things and even witness a demonstration of how he ground his dry pigments into a paste by mixing them with oil. This stone looks nearly identical to the one there.

iceage_castle

Hendrick Avercamp, A Winter Scene with Skaters near a Castle, c. 1608–1609, oil on panel, The National Gallery, London

But his clothing is a clue to something else.  In 1628, Europe was in the midst of what is known as “the Little Ice Age.”  By the time of the painting, global cooling had been underway for more than a century.  In winter, the canals of Holland would freeze over and not thaw again until late in the spring. Growing glaciers had crushed small villages in Switzerland. The importance of the North American trade in beaver pelts was a direct result of climate change. Rembrandt’s artist is probably wearing a felt hat quite popular in this era and made from those pelts. [The phrase “mad as a hatter” comes from the dangerous effects of the chemicals used to treat beaver fur.]

At the time of this painting, Amsterdam was rapidly growing and had become the most important port and economic center of Europe.  Homes were heated by burning peat harvested from bogs. Because of the rapid growth of Holland’s population, however, the peat bogs had nearly been exhausted and peat’s cost skyrocketed.

The combination of expensive fuel and the peaking of The Little Ice Age made for a poor time for a young artist to start his career. No wonder he is bundled up and fearful. It was really a cold world out there. I hope he sold the painting.

 

Flash photos in the museum – is everything we thought wrong?

A typical day in front of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre museum in Paris. Photograph: Lydie France/EPA

A typical day in front of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre museum in Paris. Photograph: Lydie France/EPA

In recent years, the battle lines between tourist photography and museum guards have been shifting.  Once entirely verboten, more and more museums have given up the cause under an onslaught of mobile phones with built-in digital cameras.  First, the old cry of “No photo!” gave way to “No Flash!” Now, is this last bastion about to fall, too?

I must admit that for some time I have been engaged in a private mission to protect masterpieces from the threats of a thousand suns exploding.  Horrified at the laissez faire attitude of museum guards (the Louvre is a prime offender) unable or unwilling to stop the fireworks, more than once I’ve thrown myself between a tourist’s flash and a Monet Waterlilies or a Van Gogh landscape. I’ve even felt compelled to berate an innocent father and lecture startled teenagers on the dangers they posed to the artwork they purported to love. I reminded them of the fate of the colored construction paper on their elementary school bulletin boards at the end of each school year.  Remember when the teacher pulled the posters off, you could see how much the colors had faded because of the bleaching effect of sunlight? Passionately, I’d rant, “imagine what that beautiful Matisse is going to look like in a couple of years after being blasted by hundreds of sunbursts every single day!”

no-flashBut recently, I was startled while reading an aside in a discussion on controlling photography in the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) forum.  An Executive Director, who shall remain unnamed, wrote, “There used to be some concern about damage to textiles from camera flashes, but that’s not an issue with smartphones [my italics].”

Huh?

After doing some research (on the web, of course), I found the big question put succinctly on reddit.com’s Ask Science forum, “To what degree, and how, does flash photography damage museum exhibits?”  To my horror, the answer appears to be — it doesn’t.

While ultraviolet light or strong sunlight does bleach colors,

In general…the light from a properly UV-filtered flash is no more harmful to art than the ordinary gallery lighting, but many galleries and museums maintain a ban on flash photography out of an excess of caution.

Apparently, almost all flash units on cameras today have UV filters on them. Especially consumer grade cameras. Not because manufacturers share our concern about art. They are trying to avoid lawsuits by protecting people’s eyes from being damaged.

Museumgoers snapping photos of Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night, 1889, at MoMA. ©2013 REBECCA ROBERTSON

Museumgoers snapping photos of Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night, 1889, at MoMA. ©2013 REBECCA ROBERTSON

In 1995, the National Gallery in London conducted experiments that concluded that flash photography was dangerous to artworks.  But their conclusions have since been disputed. One problem with their study was they tested only with watercolors, which are notoriously light-sensitive and generally kept in darkened rooms. They used some heavy artillery, too. Powerful flash guns were set to fire every seven seconds from three feet away and they even removed the UV filter from one of them. After months of this and more than a million flashes, the only visible damage was to the watercolor hit by flashes from the unfiltered gun.

Martin H. Evans, a British researcher, after examining this study and others points out with irony that, despite the scientific evidence, curators continue to ban “photographing things like Pharaonic Egyptian relics that have been bathed in the intense UV light of desert sunlight for over 3000 years.”

Reddit.com has a long discussion on this topic.  I encourage you to read it. While much of what I once believed lies in tatters on the ground, I take some small comfort that there remains general agreement that flash photography is unnecessary and annoying. Of course, there is also the fact that flash photographs of art generally look terrible.

Still, if I could only find that humiliated father in the Metropolitan Museum to apologize to….

Turner the “Fire King” and Accounting

JMW Turner, Burning of the Houses of Parliament, 1835.  Philadelphia Museum of Art.

J.M.W. Turner, Burning of the Houses of Parliament, 1835. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Oddly, one of J.M.W. Turner‘s greatest subjects, the Burning of the Houses of Parliament, was the result of the modernization of accounting.

According to the October 17, 1834 issue of the Times of London:

“Shortly before 7 o’clock last night the inhabitants of Westminster…were thrown into the utmost confusion and alarm by the sudden breaking out of one of the most terrific conflaglarations that has been witnessed for many years past…The Houses of the Lords and Commons and the adjacent buildings were on fire.”

The inferno was not an act of terrorism, but a result of human error – overloading a furnace with too much wood. The wood was not ordinary fire wood, however. Two cartloads of tally sticks have been jammed in the furnaces of the House of Lords by an impatient workman.

Tally sticks were one of the earliest accounting methods, perhaps going as far back as the Stone Age. Debts were marked with cuts on a thin piece of wood, the depth of a cut corresponding to the seriousness of the debt. After the cutting was complete, the stick was split lengthwise. The loaner was given the longest part (or ‘stock‘ — the source of the word, “stockholder”), the debtor getting the smaller half or, in essence, “the short end of the stick.”

Tallying didn’t require literacy and was tamper-proof. No notches could be added later by an unscrupulous money-lender because the halves wouldn’t match. As an extra safety measure, one could check that the grain of the wood across the parts tallied.

English tally sticks.

English tally sticks.

In England, the official use of tally sticks went back nearly to William the Conqueror. His son, King Henry I, established the system when he took the throne in 1100 AD and expanded its use to the collection of taxes (by sheriffs, like the villainous Sheriff of Nottingham). For more than 700 years, the British Empire’s financial backbone depended on these thin slices of wood, so accuracy was critical. The Chancellor of the Exchequer prescribed the following system of cuts:

“The manner of cutting is as follows. At the top of the tally a cut is made, the thickness of the palm of the hand, to represent a thousand pounds; then a hundred pounds by a cut the breadth of a thumb; twenty pounds, the breadth of the little finger; a single pound, the width of a swollen barleycorn; a shilling rather narrower than a penny is marked by a single cut without removing any wood”.

The tally stick system was abolished in 1826 and replaced by paper notes backed with gold controlled by the new Bank of England (though in some small European towns, tally sticks continued to be used into the twentieth century).

But how did they cause such a terrible fire eight years later? We’ll let Charles Dickens explain:

…In 1834 it was found that there was a considerable accumulation of them; and the question then arose, what was to be done with such worn-out, worm-eaten, rotten old bits of wood? ….The sticks were housed in Westminster [Parliament], and it would naturally occur to any intelligent person that nothing could be easier than to allow them to be carried away for fire-wood by the miserable people who lived in that neighbourhood. However, they never had been useful, and official routine required that they should never be, and so the order went out that they were to be privately and confidentially burnt. It came to pass that they were burnt in a stove in the House of Lords. The stove, overgorged with these preposterous sticks, set fire to the panelling; the panelling set fire to the House of Lords; the House of Lords set fire to the House of Commons; the two houses were reduced to ashes…

Turner, The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 1834, watercolour study (Tate Gallery, London)

Turner, The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 1834, watercolour study (Tate Gallery, London)

J.M.W. Turner was one of the tens of thousands of Londoners who lined the south bank or crowded onto bridges across the Thames River to witness the burning of the Houses of Parliament. He filled two sketchbooks. He made drawings and watercolors from several positions, even hiring a boat to take him down the river. He would complete two oil paintings in his studio based on the national tragedy,earning him the nickname ‘the fire King.’

Detail, Turner, The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons,  (Philadelphia Museum) Photo: Wayne Stratz

Detail of The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons (Philadelphia Museum) Photo: Wayne Stratz/Flicker

Once can easily see why the scene so captivated Turner, a man who believed in nature’s sublime and terrible magnificence. What a subject for a Romantic artist! The brilliant fire’s golden light illuminates the night, sending sparks across the canvas, reflecting in the water below, framed by a vortex of billowing clouds of smoke.  What better symbol of the awesome power of nature, one that makes the hordes of people who line the edges look quite small and insignificant? The sturdy and impressive Westminster Bridge on the right appears to disappear near the hellish blaze. The Houses of Parliament, a symbol of Western civilization and government, are no match for nature’s fury and seems puny in contrast to the flames. These grand Gothic buildings that had housed the British governing body for centuries (and English kings before them), the center of the great British Empire, are quickly swept away.

Rebuilding took thirty years and millions of pounds. Turner, as well as the architects, would not live to see construction completed. In a strange irony, the terrible fire resulted, not just in a masterpiece of Romantic painting, but in the creation of London’s most famous symbol, the new Parliament’s clock tower by Augustus Pugin, known today around the world as ‘Big Ben.’

Note: Mr. Turner, Mike Leigh’s biographical picture on the great English painter, opened in the U.S. on December 19th and continues to receive excellent reviews.

How to Nap like Dalí

Salvador Dali, Sleep, 1937

Salvador Dalí, Sleep, 1937

While dreams were the source of his imagery, Salvador Dalí felt that sleep was a great waste of time. Whenever he was getting sleepy, he would sit in a stiff, Spanish “bony” armchair with a metal key in his hand.  Just below his hand, he placed a dinner plate.  As soon as he nodded off, the key would slip out of his hand, hit the plate with a loud “CLANG!” and wake him up.  According to Dalí in his 50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanshipanyone who followed his method of “slumber with a key” would “wake up inspired!”

This kind of very brief nap is called by scientists “hypnogogic” and is known for releasing a rush of creative thoughts.  Other famous nappers who believed in only sleeping a few hours a day were Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, Albert Einstein, Aristotle, and Leonardo da Vinci.

Edison's technique.  (Illustration by Jeff Warren)

Edison’s technique. (Illustration by Jeff Warren)

Da Vinci is reputed to have had a method, known as polyphasic, where he slept fifteen minutes every four hours, never going beyond a total of five hours a day.  Lord Byron, Thomas Jefferson, and Napoleon are also said to have used this approach, which causes vivid dreams.

Dalí wrote, “At the age of six I wanted to be Napoleon – but I wasn’t.” At least, he later slept like him.

Salvador Dali sleeping on a couch

Salvador Dalí sleeping on a couch

George Nakashima: From Internment to New Hope

George Nakashima (Photo: L. Barry Heatherington)

George Nakashima (Photo: L. Barry Heatherington)

George Nakashima credited a dark chapter in our nation’s history for his success as one of the twentieth century’s greatest furniture designers.  Born in Spokane, Washington, the child of Japanese immigrants and descendants of samurai, Nakashima first studied forestry but later earned degrees in architecture from the University of Washington and MIT.  After receiving his Masters, he sold his car, bought a round-the-world steamship ticket and traveled around the globe seeking inspiration.  First came a year in France, then a visit to North Africa and two years in an Indian ashram. He landed finally in Japan, where he immersed himself in Japanese culture.

In Tokyo, he met the American architect Antonin Raymond, Frank Lloyd Wright’s chief assistant on his Imperial Hotel. Nakashima was hired by Raymond and gained his first experience designing furniture on a dormitory project.  He also met Marion Okajima, like him an American of Japanese heritage, and they soon married.

With the threat of war looming, the young couple returned to the United States in 1940 and started a small furniture workshop in Seattle.  After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Nakashima, his wife, and baby daughter were rounded up and forced into an internment camp, like 100,000 other Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast.  The family was sent to the Minodoka War Relocation Center in Idaho. Years later, many internees would remember these lost years with justifiable sadness and bitterness. Despite being loyal Americans, they were taken from their homes and imprisoned without trials or due-process. But George Nakashima remembered these years differently.

In this isolated desert camp, Nakashima met a traditional Japanese craftsman in his forties, Gentaro Hikogawa, a meeting that would change his life.  The man became his master and trained the young architect in traditional Japanese wood-working tools and techniques. For Nakashima, the Idaho camp’s unhurried pace, isolation, and peaceful existence were essential to his mastering the craft of furniture making.

Hikogawa stressed the importance of patience and reaching for perfection.  Nakashima, who had once studied forestry, recognized a natural combination between ancient wood-working techniques and respect for the spirit of the tree.  For him, furniture making was a partnership and his role was to provide the tree with ‘new life.’

In 1943, Antonin Raymond convinced government officials to release Nakashima and his family, acting as their sponsor and arranging for him to work at Raymond’s studio in New Hope, Pennsylvania. His plan was to create a studio that combined the practices of the International School of architecture with traditional Japanese techniques.

After the end of World War II, Nakashima established his own furniture studio in New Hope and became world-famous as one of the fathers of the American Crafts Movement. Each piece of furniture was finished by hand and custom designed to reflect each commission and the unique quality of the wood. Today, his work is in private collections, like the Rockefeller family’s, and many museums, including the Metropolitan Museum, the Philadelphia Museum, and Morikami Museum. In 1983, he was declared a “sacred treasure” by the Emperor of Japan.

His philosophy of furniture making is best expressed in his own words:

A visit to Matisse’s ‘crowning achievement’

For the conclusion of his 2010 BBC documentary, Modern Masters: Matisse, the British critic Alastair Sooke visited Matisse’s Vence Chapel in the south of France for the first time. In this segment, Sooke is overwhelmed by emotion, while he contemplates how the old, frail artist managed to have a final burst of creative energy at the very end of his life.

Designing the Chapel began in the late 1940s. Matisse, already in his late seventies, was recovering from surgery for intestinal cancer and had nearly died.  His nurse was a former model, Monique Bourgeois, now a novice Dominican nun, Sister Jacques Marie.

The project confused his friends like Picasso, who knew Matisse was an atheist. Yet Matisse called the Chapel his ‘crowning achievement.’

Matisse in bed working on Vence Chapel c. 1950

Matisse drawing a head for the decoration of Chapelle du Rosaire in Vence (The Matisse Chapel) in his studio/room in the Hotel Regina, in Nice-Cimiez, 1950. Photo by Walter Carone/Paris Match.

To celebrate the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition, The Cut-Outs, which opened this month, the Café presents Sooke’s moving tour of the the Dominican Chapel of the Rosary in Vence, France.  Or as most of the world knows it — Matisse’s Chapel.

Florence: Mother of the Renaissance and Instagram

Instagram of Florence from jen.baxter.com

Instagram of Florence from jen.baxter.com

Florence, Italy is known as the birthplace of the Renaissance, but it also is where the Instagram app was born.  Kevin Systrom, the co-founder of Instagram, was a Stanford junior studying abroad in Florence and, like many before him, the lovely city changed the way he saw the world. While taking a photography course, his teacher took away his expensive SLR camera and insisted he use a cheap plastic one instead. Systrom fell in love with the camera’s square format, the soft focus,“the beauty of vintage photography and also the beauty of imperfection.”

Systrom told Time Magazine the story in April 2012:

When I studied abroad my teacher set what I do know in motion by saying, “Give me that camera of yours.” He took my camera away and gave me a little, plastic camera. I was studying in Florence at the time and he told me that I wasn’t allowed to use my camera for the rest of the class. I had to use this plastic camera with a terrible lens. He said I was too focused on sharpness and “I feel like you’re more artsy than that.” He said, “I want you to use this Holga,” this plastic camera with a plastic lens that had this cult following in the ’80s and ’90. I was blown away by what it could do to photos. My photography teacher was totally right. I was too focused on being meticulous with these really beautiful, complex architectural shots. It helps to see the world through a different lens and that’s what we wanted to do with Instagram. We wanted to give everyone the same feeling of discovering the world around you through a different lens.

The Florence experience also may have saved Systrom from taking the wrong direction later in his career.  In 2006, he chose to work the espresso machine at Palo Alto’s Caffé del Doge instead of taking a job offer by Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook. Zuckerberg wanted Systrom to build a photo app for the new social media website, which would certainly have earned him millions of dollars in stock options. Only someone infected with the love of Florence would choose perfecting cappuccinos over riches. [He also turned down a high paying position at Microsoft and later quit a job at Google.]

Living in a cheap beach house in Baja California, he began to write the software that would recreate the effects of his cheap camera.  It was Instagram’s first filter. Many more would follow.  In 2010, Instagram was launched as an Apple app and 25,000 people downloaded it in the first 24 hours. Today, it is estimated that more than 100 million people are using it. In April 2012, Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook returned and bought Systrom’s company for $1 billion in cash and stock.