Let’s get eggheady about the pixel for a minute, then look at some fascinating photos that use pixels, but also recall a time where there was no such thing.
According to the dictionary, a pixel is “the smallest element of an image that can be individually processed in a video display system.” This is obviously a product of recent technology, though the concept of a smallest component piece, something indivisible, has been around at lease since 400 BC — the word atom comes from the Greek word atomos, which means ‘unable to cut’.
Google doesn’t index information before the 19th century yet, but the data do seem to support the relative ages of the two words:
Here are two projects that mashup the idea of pixels and photography in two very different ways, each a product of the time the artists lived in. And each makes for a good meditation on individual vs. group dynamics.
Arthur Mole and His Old-Timey Pixel Play
1915: While the US at large was arguing whether we should fight in the Great War, the US military was realizing it was in no shape to fight anyone. As part of a PR and morale-boosting campaign, the military commissioned photographer Arthur Mole to shoot a series of patriotic group portraits of servicemen, which Mole called “living photographs“.
As described in The Public Domain Review, to make a photo was a military exercise itself, and took a week or more:
Firstly, the desired image would be traced with wire onto a glass plate mounted to Mole’s camera, which he would then take to the top of an 80 foot high viewing tower. Looking through the template, armed with a megaphone and large pointing stick, Mole would then oversee the laborious nailing down of miles and miles of lace edging, tracing out the pattern. The next stage was fairly straight forward, the servicemen would then simply need to fill the design.
Making use of anamorphic perspective, the images would not make much sense from overhead or on the ground, but only become intelligible at one particular vantage point — where Mole would be positioned atop his tower with his 11 x 14-inch view camera. This would make for some wonderful skewing of numbers, and itself, acts as a great example of perspective at work. The Statue of Liberty image, for example, required a total of 18,000 men: just 17 at the base but, more than half a mile away, 12,000 in the torch.
The scale of these images, where each pixel is a person can be kind of hard to absorb: a ‘portrait’ of President Woodrow Wilson, for instance, took 21,000 men:
Spencer Tunick’s large scale (nude) group portraits, are puny by comparison. Mole would continue to make his living photographs for the next six years, moving from patriotic, to religious themes. To zoom in even further on the project, check out this large-format book Mole produced late in life.
Christian Faur and New-Fangled Pixel Play
Fast-forward 100 years, and artists are still tweaking the underlying bits that make up a portrait, using braille-like texture for blind people, living grass, and even sunburns. Christian Faur uses crayons:
For this body of work I have assembled more than 100,000 hand cast crayons of varying colors and shades to produce a body of work that, to the best of my knowledge, is unlike anything done before in art. These individual “pixels” of wax are precisely stacked into specific locations inside of wooden frames to produce a new art form that uniquely balances the qualities of both photography and sculpture. Further, I have developed a mapping system that translates the English alphabet into 26 discrete colors and I use these crayon “fonts” to add words and language to each of the pieces in the show.
Faur has produced a number of crayon projects, each more densely layered with theory and coded signals than the next. (Fun extra credit: check out his Mating Jacket — “a white dinner jacket covered with painted rectangles of color alphabet “text” to write out sentences which are male oriented come-ons, pick up lines, slogans, and macho self promotion.”
Maybe like his crayon series, and Mole’s living photographs, you need to stand way back to get the full effect.