November 13: Data

Date #13November 13: Do we need to know that photographs are data, or to analyse that data, when we are concerned with the medium as an art form?

Technology has always been closely tied in to the development of art. For Aristotle, techne means both art and technology. As they became different subjects they still fed on each other. New technological discoveries were taken up and used by artists and you are all familiar with the contributions of artists to technology.

The contemporary artist reads with ease the technical trade magazines. The new chemical material is hardly developed before it gets used by an artist. Today the artist tends to adopt the new material or the new industrial process as [their] insignia.

The artist’s work is like that of a scientist. It is an investigation which may or may not yield meaningful results, in many cases we only know many years later.

Those are the words spoken in 1966 by engineer Billy Klüver, who was born on this date in 1927 (†2004) two years before scientist Bryce Bayer, who died on this day, 2012 (*1929).

Bayer is known to anyone who has read the technical manual of their camera to discover that it is equipped with a Bayer filter, without which, claims Larry Scarff, former chairman of the Camera Phone Image Quality Standards Group, in an interview with the New York Times after Bayer’s death, “we’d still be getting only black-and-white pictures from our digital cameras.”

His patent US3971065 A, filed 5 Mar 1975, and granted and published on 20 Jul 1976 was intended for video cameras – there being no digital cameras at the time. He describes “A sensing array for color imaging” with a single imaging array which handles luminance and chrominance data at the same time and has advantage over previous solutions employed then by video camera manufacturers which resort to “splitting the image beam and providing multiple image scanners in order to achieve a satisfactory type and quality of color video signal.”

Path, Wiltshire
Nevil Story-Maskelyne (c.1845) The Roman Walk

Colour rendition had been a problem in photography from its earliest days. Nevil Story-Maskelyne, as a young man of 22 in 1845, impressed inventor of negative/positive photography Henry Fox Talbot, with his solution for the poor rendering of foliage by the calotype; leaves came up black on the paper negatives and therefore nearly white in the print (as they do in monochrome infra-red photographs) which is certainly unnatural to the human eye. He realised that of the three available salts of silver only silver bromide was sensitive to the red end of the spectrum and therefore could render the large amounts of what he called ‘extreme red’ (infra-red, discovered by John Herschel in 1800) given off by leaves (though it was not known at the time that this was due to chlorophyll in the leaves);

Yesterday in the street I met Mr Fox Talbot. At first we were polite and distant. I told him about my improvement in the process and also of a little notion of mine of using green liquid medium [i.e. a filter] in the camera to prevent the solarization [overexposure] of bright objects. This tickled his fancy, and he shook hands with me, saying, “I congratulate you upon that thought, it is one of the most ingenious ideas I have ever heard of.” He was pleased so much at my idea that he has ever since been most kind to me. Murray, [scientist Michael] Faraday’s assistant, said he never saw him treat anyone so before.

Talbot was especially impressed with the effect in The Roman Walk (above), so Maskelyne presented it to him.

The problem in rendering colour as tones that make sense to the human eye continued until in 1873 Dr. Hermann Wilhelm Vogel (1834–1898) introduced the use of sensitizers in the form of coloured aniline dyes in his orthochromatic (‘correct’ colour),  also called Isochromatic, emulsions to increase the range of colour rendered by dry plates. This increased sensitivity into the green, and in part yellow, but blues were still white in prints and reds and oranges were reproduced too dark, with the result that tomatoes are almost black and oranges very dark grey. Walter J. Phillips (1884–1963), a Canadian printmaker (rather belatedly) notes the effect;

…the ordinary plate makes an unholy mess of colour in its tone relations. Yellow becomes black, and blue white. Black sunflowers against a white sky – what a travesty!

Vogel also discovered that some cyanine derivatives confer sensitivity to the whole visible spectrum.

Madame Yevonde (1937) Self-portrait with Vivid tri-colour camera.

This panchromatic emulsion, in use today, was not taken up until around 1913 because of its expense, but the movie industry, concerned to have its stars looking their best, drove its adoption.

Panchromatic film was necessary in order to successfully achieve colour photography, since the first colour processes required monochrome negatives for each of three colours; red, green and blue.

The same principle is applied in every current digital camera, all of which require a Bayer mosaic of this arrangement in order to render colour in a manner that the human eye will accept as ‘realistic’.

Without it, cameras would require three separate sensors (as did the systems in the early video cameras that Bayer’s invention made obsolete), and that would make them as cumbersome as the tri-colour camera of the 1930s (above).

Bayer’ arrangement of color filters on an imaging sensor.

Early in digital imaging, attempts were made to apply a CYGM filter as an alternative in Canon Powershot and Nikon Coolpix cameras up until 2000. It also uses a mosaic of pixel filters, but of cyan, yellow, green and magenta instead of RGB. Though it gives more accurate luminance information than the Bayer filter, hence a wider dynamic range, colour is rendered less accurately, so despite its reduction in the camera output resolution it remains with us after 42 years, a tribute to the prescience of its inventor.

At the same time as Bayer’s breakthrough, Billy Klüver in 1978 was researching material on the artists of Montparnasse in the 1910s and 1920s for his book Kiki’s Paris, and started collecting photographs of the period. Examining them them he astutely noticed some that appeared to have been made together, with people dressed the same in each, down to accessories and the wrinkles in their clothes.

Amadeo Modigliani,Max Jacob, Manuel Ortiz de Karate, on a bench. André Salmon leans over the back.

Other photographs of the same events and places came to him and on seeing this one (above) in a 1981 Modigliani exhibition, he wondered if it might be possible to determine the exact date when the pictures were taken by reading the shadows like a sundial.

What he then proceeded to do was to discover 24 of these photographs and, with the most remarkable and ingenious detective work, give us entree into a day with remarkable creative people, sequencing events as they converse, eat and drink together and join together in fun, play-acting for the camera. From their actions and expressions we sense that this is not ordinary life on the streets of Paris, but the meeting of extraordinary minds. Klüver’s process is empirical art-history making through the application of scientific research to the image that illuminates the contribution of interpersonal relations of a small group in Paris to vital era in Modernism. His research methodology is exemplary of the way that image research might be done to extract the maximum data, employing a broad range of disciplines.

His first step was to look for clues inside the images; a uniformed man suggested that it was during WW1, the foliage on the trees indicated late spring or summer, and determining the location was made easier by his recognising the awning of the Cafe de la Rotonde. He could identify Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), Amadeo Modigliani (1884–1920) and Moïse Kisling (1891–1953) and by consulting their biographies realised they could not have been in Paris together in 1914, 1915, 1917 or 1918. He confirmed that there was an exhibition in which all three participated; the Salon d’Antin of July 1916 in which Picasso showed Demoiselles d’Avignon, thus narrowing the timing.

Though he could not discover opening or closing dates for the exhibition, surrounding events indicated that around the end of July was the most likely period in which these photographs could have been made.

In this detail of photograph No. 21, the length of shadows underneath the window sill and the angle of the sunlight in the cellar windows give an excellent measure of the time.

At that point in his investigations he set out to test whether measurements of the angles and lengths of shadows in the photographs could yield a closer date. He had already identified all the buildings in the background as being those on Boulevard du Montparnasse, with most unaltered since 1916.

Using maps he established where each photograph was taken and with some difficulty took photographs and made measurements on the buildings, their ledges or window insets, from which he calculated the sun’s positions and plotted the results to get a spread of three weeks, with the most probable date being August 12.

Detail of photograph No. 4 showing the shutter peg above Picasso’s head and the shadows in the windows used to determine the time.

Unable to achieve a finer accuracy himself, in 1983 he sought the help of Liliane Bergeal and Patrick Rocher at the Bureau des Longitudes but they also found that it was not possible to determine the date closer than within 20 or 30 days, but that August 12 did fall within that period.

He decided to fall back on a search for the photographer to find other circumstantial historical evidence. Parisian magazines Paris-Montparnasse and Bravo of the late 1920s helped identify André Salmon, Manuel Ortiz de Zarate, and Max Jacob, and referred to the woman in some of the photographs as “Mlle. P… “, though the identities of the man in the uniform and the other woman remained elusive.

A book of drawings by Jean Cocteau came his way in which two drawings resembled the photographs, and in which Mlle. P… was identified as Paquerette, a model for the designer Paul Poiret, so he contacted Pierre Chanel, author of Album Cocteau (H. Veyrier, 1979) who confirmed that “Of course the photographs were taken by Cocteau,” and provided a further six photographs from the series, writing;

When I classified the archives of Jean Cocteau at Milly-la-Foret after his death in 1963, I found the negatives of most of the photographs taken by Cocteau in Montparnasse. I published one in Album Cocteau which I was preparing at the time. I dated the phbtographs to 1916 based on Cocteau’s preface in his book on Modigliani.

In this book Cocteau had written:

In 1916 during the war, it was Montparnasse. I was there through the mediation of Picasso. His windows overlooked the graves of the Montparnasse cemetery…. We went out and visited studios of the cubists. Our promenade took us to the Cafe de la Rotonde. The Rotonde, the Dome, and a restaurant at the corner of boulevards Raspail and Montparnasse formed a town square, where the vegetable sellers stopped their small carts and grass grew between the paving stones …. Nothing documents this except some photographs I took one morning at the Rotonde.

Autographic Kodak Junior, manufactured 1914-1927, value 100 francs in 1916.

Now knowing the photographer gave Klüver access to further information, and some of  the negatives. The photographs had come to him in various forms but now when he had tracked down some of the negatives he discovered that though they were from a roll-film Kodak (confirmed by the edge-fogging), most likely an Autographic Kodak Junior (Cocteau mentions a Kodak given to him by his mother while he was fighting at the Front). Each negative had been cut from the roll and thus were of little assistance in sequencing the photographs. A commercial photo lab had processed all of the films together however, and used a hole-punch numbering system to identify them. That confirmed that Cocteau had shot four rolls of 6 frames each.

Chanel’s consultation with other personalities of the period, then in their last years, brought Klüver the final identifications; Chilean painter Manuel Ortiz de Zarate (1887–1946)  the military person who was Dadaist poet Henri-Pierre Roche (1979–1959), and the other woman was Russian painter Marie Wassilieff (1884–1957). Two photographs Cocteau had taken of Erik Satie and Valentine Gross were, given the dating of Cocteau and Satie’s collaboration on Parade, shot before August 12, but on the same roll as the photographs he took in Montparnasse. Correspondence between Gross and Cocteau narrowed that to August 10 or 11 and Klüver was able to use measurements of the shadows taken on the balcony to determine the time. Kluver’s book A Day With Picasso justifiably won Best Critical Study, 1998 Golden Light Book Award.

Here are all 24 of Cocteau’s photographs, with commentary on the means by which they were dated.

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Yvonne Rainer and Merce Cunningham performing Variations V
Yvonne Rainer and Merce Cunningham performing Variations V, 1964.

After migrating in to America from France Klüver, born in Sweden, was awarded Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from the University of California, Berkeley in 1957. From the early 1960s he contributed his electrical engineering know-how in collaborations with artists including John Cage in Variations V for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (1964) in which  a system of photocells which controlled sound output as dancers cut the light beams with their movements; for Yvonne Rainer who wanted to use the sound of her own breathing as she was dancing,  his solution was a contact mike on her throat transmitting to speakers via small FM transmitter that he constructed. Such technology we now take for granted in performances.

Klüver, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Whitman, and Fred Waldhauer founded Experiments in Art and Technology in 1966 as a not-for-profit service organization for artists and engineers supporting a Technical Services Program to provide artists with technical information and assistance by matching them with engineers and scientists who can collaborate with them. Numbers of such collaborative organisations around the world, such as the Australian Network for Art and Technology, have followed this model. Klüver’s lecturing and writing on art and technology, including A Day With Picasso are an enduring legacy.

Photography demonstrates that artists are technicians, and that images are data.

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