Some older photos I posted to Twitter:
Evanston, Illinois July 2003 (II)
Soulard, St. Louis, Missouri, May 2005
Evanston, Illinois July 2003 (I)
Two Greenhouses, April 2003
Rebekah von Rathonyi, October 2003
Illinois River, May 2003
Self Portrait c. March 2003
Brooklyn, New York, March 2013
Conté and graphite drawing, March 27, 2013, in A3 Sketchbook.
When I think of iron, I think mass and assertiveness; when I think of chromium, I picture an aging car decked out in more gaudy accessories than good taste can make sense of; when I think of uranium, I experience a note of foreboding and mentally watch the b-roll of a missile bursting out of Arctic water, seemingly warhead laden. And, of course, silver to me is the traditional blood of photography.
And so Hugh Aldersey-Williams’s book Periodic Tales: A Cultural History of the Elements, from Arsenic to Zinc attracted me right away. And it didn’t disappoint. It reaffirmed my knowledge of several elements (neon, platinum, aluminum, sulfur, chlorine, etc) and introduced me to the histories and associations of elements of which I was aware, but with which I was not familiar (mercury, magnesium, cobalt, cadmium, tin, etc). And I learned about a few entirely new to me that, evidently, are of great ubiquity and importance (yttrium and the other rare earths, and many more). Each, whether poisonous, pungent, inert, noble, or manmade, has a personality, a “reputation,” that begs metaphor and linguistic significance.
Aldersey-Williams, trained as a chemist, cites the requisite stories of antiquity and Shakespeare passages, but also often nods to contemporary art and pop culture. I found his style a bit rambling at times, though never off topic. The stories surrounding the great French, English, American, German, and Swedish chemists who discovered the elements are not misplaced. (The underappreciated Swede Jöns Jacob Berzelius, in addition to several other achievements, invented the letter-abbreviation system). What threw me occasionally was his lack of explanation regarding how exactly an element is proved to be such—there is talk of spectroscopy and other processes, but no real elaboration (a footnote would do)—and the fact that the book, strangely, contains no reproduction of the periodic table itself (why not put this in the book?).
When he sums up what an element means to us, the author is at his best: “The world today is cocooned in copper wire, and notwithstanding the advent of optical fibres and satellites and wi-fi, more than half the copper mined is still drawn into wire or otherwise employed in communications and electrical applications. Though largely hidden from view, copper has become the symbol of civilization…” I must admit I had associated copper with pennies (which it turns out are actually copper-plated zinc), but Aldersey-Williams’s statement is vastly truer in terms of scale and in that it reflects our contemporary obsession with communication, spurred by the initial laying of trans-Atlantic copper cables more than a century ago.
The elements are how we live like we do. (The screen on which you’re reading this works in part because of the rare earth europium it contains; maybe there’s a gold ring on your finger.) So it’s fair to say that our values and our history are in the elements, and they of course are in us.