Images and Words: An Online History of Photography

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Focal PressRobert Hirsch Exploring Color Photography, Fifth edition (Focal Press, 2011)
Chapter: 2 Section: 33
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2.33. Digital Imaging

In 2002 CNET . com calculated that of an estimated 100 billion photographs made that year, 25 percent were digital, and almost all were in color. The Photo Marketing Association’s (PMA) US Photo Industry 2009 Review and Forecast gives 20.5 billion as the estimated number of “Prints Made by US Consumers” in 2008. Of those, 14.8 billion are digital and 5.7 billion are traditional prints, flipping the analog to digital image capture percentage in just six years. 1 [1|2|33|1500]

Computer images, like their sister analog images, are shaped by technology. Knowing the challenges early computer imagemakers faced can deepen appreciation of their work and provide the framework to contemplate an evolving medium. Although the first electronic digital computers were built between 1937 and 1942, text and images had been digitized and electronically transmitted via fax for more than 30 years by then. Scottish physicist Alexander Bain created a proto-facsimile machine in 1843, but it was not until 1902 that Arthur Korn demonstrated a practical photoelectric scanning facsimile. The system used light-sensitive elements to convert different tones of an image into a varying electric current. Using the same basic principles employed by scanners today, these early fax machines digitized an image by assigning the area a number, such as “0” for white or OFF and “1” for black or ON. The fax then transmitted, via telephone lines, the signal to another facsimile receiver that made marks on paper corresponding to the area on the original image. Commercial use of Korn’s system began in Germany in 1908 by means of two synchronized, rotating drums, one for sending and the other for receiving, which were connected via the telephone. An image was mounted on the sending drum, scanned by a point light source that converted the image to electrical impulses, which were then transmitted to the receiving unit. By 1910, Paris, London and Berlin were all linked by facsimile transmission over the telephone network. Facsimile then made slow but steady progress through the 1920s and 1930s, and in 1935 the Associated Press introduced a wire photo service. [1|2|33|1501]

2.34. The Birth of Computing

The first electronic computers, such as Britain’s Colossus of 1943, were used to decipher codes and calculate weapons trajectories. In 1946 the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC), the first large-scale, general-purpose electronic digital computer, was built in the United States. ENIAC weighed 30 tons, had 500 miles of wire, and used 18,000 vacuum tubes, which burned out at the rate of one every 7 minutes. [1|2|34|1502]

The computers of the early 1950s were room-sized machines marketed to the government, military, and big business. Even though access to the machines was limited, early scientist-artists found ways to make pictures. In 1950 Ben F. Laposky made the first artistic electronic image, Oscillon Number Four – Electron Abstraction , which was an analog wave pattern photographed from an oscilloscope. In the mid-1950s Russell A. Kirsch and his colleagues at the National Bureau of Standards made a proto-drum scanner that could trace variations in intensity over the surfaces of photographs. These recordings of light and shadow were converted into binary digits but, unlike the facsimile machines of the time, this information was processable electronic digital information. Such activities reveal the unintended consequences that accompany new ideas, as it is doubtful that these scientist-artists, who were developing new technologies mainly for military applications, imagined that their work might one day revolutionize photography. [1|2|34|1503]

By 1957 IBM was marketing the disk drive, a stack of 50 disks that could store 5 million characters. By the end of the decade transistors made computers cheaper, smaller, faster, and more readily available. An important innovation for imagemakers was the 1959 introduction of the first commercial ink output printing device, the plotter. Plotters used a pen that moved across a sheet of paper to draw lines. The pen was controlled by two motors that moved the pen on x-and y-axes in a manner like an Etch-a-Sketch. Plotters could not draw curves so images were composed of lines and broken curves, and were generally black-and-white. Angular geometric shapes were the dominant visual language and compositions were frequently made up of rotated and scaled copies of themselves. As the pioneering photographers before them, scientist-artists looked to painting for inspiration and many of these early computer artworks resembled cubist and constructivist art. [1|2|34|1504]

2.35. The 1960s: Art in the Research Lab

In the 1960s anyone wishing to create computer-generated images needed either to be a programmer or to work closely with one. Working blind, unable to see their work until it was output, scientist-imagemakers mathematically mapped out an image before beginning to work on the computer. Mathematical instructions were inputted into another computer using 4 × 7-inch punch cards that contained information to drive a plotter. It could take boxes of cards to represent a single image and if the image did not come out as planned, the whole process had to be repeated. [1|2|35|1505]

During the 1960s, NASA developed digital technology for recording and transmitting images from outer space. By 1964 NASA scientists were able to use digital image-processing techniques to remove imperfections from the images of the lunar surface sent back by spacecraft, giving the public its first introduction to digital imaging. Later NASA projects, such as the Hubble Space Telescope and Cassini Saturn mission, are the legacy of these early efforts. [1|2|35|1506]

Moon: False Color Mosaic
Inkjet print
Courtesy of NASA/JPL.
NASA uses color imaging as a tool in much of its photographic work, allowing scientists and others to understand data through the application of synthetic, symbolic color. This image was made from a combination of 53 photographs taken by the spacecraft Galileo. The artificial colors in this composite image represent geographical variations in the Moon’s landscape.

In the arena of popular culture, in 1968 Life commissioned John Mott-Smith, a physicist with the Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratories, to create computer images, which the editors described as being “intricate and jewel-like, reminiscent of stained-glass windows which medieval craftsmen made for their cathedrals.” 2 By today’s standards, Mott-Smith’s process was primitive. He programmed his computer to move points of light in patterns on the face of an oscilloscope. Watching the screen, he edited the patterns to create different effects and then photographed the screen image using colored filters as well as multiple and time exposures. Mott-Smith observed, “Although I set the program, it’s hard to predict what I will see. As I watch the screen a sort of symbiosis develops between me and the computer.” 3 [1|2|35|1507]

2.36. The 1970s and 1980s: Computers Get Personal

In 1970 a Xerox research team at the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) divided the computer screen into a mosaic of phosphor dots that were turned on or off by a beam of electrons that swept the screen methodically row by row. They called the rows “raster” after a row of type. Raster graphics were revolutionary because they allowed users to create realistic-looking computer images by filling in selected areas of a screen. Xerox researchers took advantage of raster graphics to develop an interface that used image icons to create a virtual desktop, the forerunner of the Macintosh and Windows operating systems. The interface worked best with a device called a mouse, which had been invented a decade earlier. [1|2|36|1508]

In the 1970s personal computers became available as kits, leading to the formation of information-sharing clubs. In 1975 Steve Wozniak brought a circuit board he built to a gathering of the Homebrew Computer Club. Friend and fellow member Steve Jobs was so impressed that he proposed a partnership that eventually became the Apple Computer Company. Their Apple II computer was a breakthrough in terms of its cost, superior color graphics capabilities, and art applications. Apple’s combination of art and business applications paved the way for the desktop computer transformation of the 1980s that brought sophisticated machines to the home, office, school, and artist’s studio. By the end of the 1980s, new equipment and software designed for artists resulted in the appearance of books, magazines, and exhibitions of computer art, and digital imaging. [1|2|36|1509]

In 1975 Kodak researchers, led by electrical engineer Steven J. Sasson, spent most of the year creating an unwieldy “handheld electronic still camera” and playback system using stock components, including one of the first commercially available charge coupled device (CCD) imagers, and specially designed circuitry. Late that year, the black-and-white image they made for display on a conventional television was the first taken with what is now known as a digital camera. The prototype camera and playback system were patented in 1978 but otherwise remained undisclosed until 2001. [1|2|36|1510]

Todd Walker
1995 (ca)
Digital file
Walker Image Trust
Todd Walker was a pioneer of digital photography. Having experimented since the 1960s with alternative photographic processes, he began utilizing computers as a tool for image-processing in the early 1980s. His daughter, Professor Melanie Walker, tells us,
“Even before his foray into digital photography, Walker had been dissatisfied with the formal options offered by conventional photographic media … Walker’s work not only demonstrates his prescience, but reveals the visually and formally stunning possibilities that existed before digital imaging became [commonplace].”

In 1981 Sony introduced a prototype of its Mavica (magnetic video camera), an electronic still video camera. Unlike the Kodak, Mavica recorded images in analog (a continuously variable scale) rather than digital signals, by capturing stills from video output on magnetic disks and playing them back on a monitor. Over the next few years, several other manufacturers developed their own prototypes, though it remains unclear whether Sony or Canon was first to produce its camera commercially. In any case, the still video camera’s high cost, low image quality, and expensive output limited its practical application. [1|2|36|1511]

The world had to wait for the first true digital still cameras until 1991, when Kodak brought out its Digital Camera System (DCS), the first professional model, which included a separate digital storage unit, and Dycam began selling its Model 1, the first consumer model. These cameras sold for about $20,000 and $1,000, respectively. Since then, manufacturers have introduced greatly improved, lower-cost digital cameras and backs for film cameras. The research firm Gartner Dataquest projects that consumer digital still cameras now have a U.S. household penetration of 80 percent, thus continuing the rapid decline of silverbased photography in everyday applications. [1|2|36|1512]

2.37. Digital Imaging Enters the Mainstream

In the 1980s and early 1990s the rapid growth of personal computers and consumer imaging software made computergenerated and -manipulated imaging an option for others besides the scientist-artist. Again, computer artists looked to older forms of artwork for inspiration. The computer coupled with a scanner and/or digital camera was the perfect tool for montage, a favorite technique of Dadaist and Surrealist artists. Coupled with these advances was the development of affordable desktop inkjet printers for the making of photographic-quality color prints at home or in the studio. [1|2|37|1513]

The Internet, which began in 1969 for the exclusive use of research labs and universities, was now hosting the World Wide Web. Before public access to the Internet, during the day people used one computer at their place of work, and in the evening used another to balance their checkbook, look at photographs, and to play games at home. Today we have access to a single Internet-connected device, whether a computer, personal digital assistant, or cell phone, which can also act as our news source, reference and personal libraries, jukebox, television, movie theater, art gallery, playground, and artist’s studio. [1|2|37|1514]

Since the Abu Ghraib Prison digital snapshots made during the Iraq War became public in 2003, the cell phone camera has irreversibly altered photojournalism, allowing private messages to become public news that can circumvent the restrictions of both the military and the mainline media. Such images also have shown that the veracity of digital images can be authenticated within the guidelines of reliable journalistic practice. [1|2|37|1515]

Location and source information requested

As more artists utilized computers, a debate began as to whether digital imaging was another photographic tool that, combined with analog methods, would define the future of photography or if digital imaging was a separate entity that would supplant previous notions of what constitutes photography. As the discussion continues digital imagemakers have come to realize that they cannot escape the way computer-generated images are indelibly affected by the multiple characteristics of the computer. Artists have been responding to this challenge by developing aesthetics and ethics that are uniquely digital and have built on the abilities of the computer to combine media, including still and moving images plus sound. Evolving technology and conventions, including new visual values inspired by the vernacular of online dialogue on YouTube, Google, and Facebook, is not only providing new tools for artistic creation, but also fresh subjects for social commentary and innovative ways of reflection. We are experiencing a paradigm shift brought about by groundbreaking technology that opens the possibility for new ways of storytelling, novel forms of creation, and fresh ways of contemplating a subject, all while cultivating new audiences. Major photographic companies, such as Agfa, Ilford, Kodak, and Polaroid, have faced bankruptcies, reorganization, and a curtailing of chemical-based products. Stay tuned as we witness an expansion in directions and uses of color images. [1|2|37|1516]

Unknown photographer (Iranian)
Neda Salehi murdered by Basiji Sniper in Tehran on 20th June 2009
2009, 20 June
Video still, from cellphone
Neda Salehi Agha Soltan was a 26-year-old Iranian philosophy student in Tehran who was senselessly murdered by a sniper during street confrontations between Iranian security forces and opposition Green protesters. The amateur-quality cellphone video that captured her bloody demise was posted online and quickly went viral, making her death a worldwide symbol of what can happen to those who dare to speak out against Iran’s strict theocracy. Just as the photographs from Abu Ghraib Prison shamed America, “This is an image that will be burnt into the Iranian psyche,” one Iranian analyst said. “It will haunt the regime forever.”

    A footnote to this report states that digital prints include prints from received images and camera phone prints. There is no attempt to further define the distinction between these categories or specify what percentage are inkjet, dye sublimation, or chromogenic. Based on this information, digital seems to refer to image capture rather than the printing process.
  2. “The Luminous Art of the Computer” Life , 1968, 65 (19): 53
  3. “The Luminous Art of the Computer” Life , 1968, 65 (19): 53



 2.1The First Color Photographs: Applied Color Processes 2.2Direct Color Process: First Experiments
 2.3The Hillotype Controversy 2.4The Additive Theory: First Photographic Image in Color
 2.5Maxwell’s Projection Process 2.6Direct Interference Method of Gabriel Lippmann
 2.7Additive Screen Processes 2.8Joly Color
 2.9Autochrome 2.10Finlay Colour Process and Paget Dry Plate
 2.11Dufaycolor 2.12Polachrome
 2.13Additive Equipment - Additive Enlargers 2.14Digital Enlargers
 2.15Television 2.16The Subtractive Method
 2.17Primary Pigment Colors 2.18The Subtractive Assembly Process: Heliography
 2.19The Kromskop Triple Camera and Kromskop Viewer 2.20Carbro Process
 2.21Color Halftones 2.22Dye-Imbibition Process/Dye Transfer Process
 2.23Subtractive Film and Chromogenic Development 2.24The Kodachrome Process
 2.25Chromogenic Transparency Film 2.26Chromogenic Negative Film
 2.27C-41: Chromogenic Negative Development 2.28Additional Color Processes - Silver Dye-Bleach/Dye-Destruction Process
 2.29Internal Dye Diffusion-Transfer Process 2.30The Polaroid Process: Diffusion-Transfer
 2.31Color Gains Acceptance in the Art World 2.32Amateur Systems Propel the Use of Color
=> 2.33Digital Imaging 2.34The Birth of Computing
 2.35The 1960s: Art in the Research Lab 2.36The 1970s and 1980s: Computers Get Personal
 2.37Digital Imaging Enters the Mainstream  

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