DRAWING LIFE by fred hatt


A Show of Hands


Study of Hands, c. 1474, by Leonardo da Vinci

Study of Hands, c. 1474, by Leonardo da Vinci

You may hear it said that artists hate to draw hands, and I don’t think there is any part of the human body that is more challenging to draw well than the hands. Of course for that very reason artists who relish a challenge love to draw hands. In the drawing classes I supervise, I have often noted that beginning artists tend to draw hands (and feet) too small, while the most accomplished artists often draw hands disproportionately large.

Hands are complicated structures capable of an incredible range of pose and expression. The fingers are the most sensitive as well as the most dextrous part of the body – paragons of both feeling and action. To watch the fingers of a great pianist, guitarist, or violinist, to see the expression that a master actor or painter or dancer conveys through the hands and fingers, is to experience the most profound grace the human being can embody.

Let’s look at images of hands in works of painting, sculpture, cinema and photography. Throughout this post click on the photos to go to the websites where I found them, and click on the titles of works in the commentary to see full versions where I show details, or to find more information about the works pictured.

Lady with an Ermine (detail), 1490, by Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo’s hand of a Lady with an Ermine almost makes you feel the sleek fur and impulsive muscularity of the animal she strokes.

Madonna del Magnificat (detail), 1481, by Sandro Botticelli

Madonna del Magnificat (detail), 1481, by Sandro Botticelli

Botticelli’s Madonna of the Magnificat invokes the holy with beatific faces and delicate hands, portraying the Virgin as scribe.

David (detail), 1504, by Michelangelo Buonarroti

David (detail), 1504, by Michelangelo Buonarroti

Michelangelo’s David has enormous hands with incredible detail of veins and sinews, an image of power in repose.

Study of Hands, 1506, by AlbrechtDürer

Study of Hands, 1506, by Albrecht Dürer

The way Michelangelo carved with a chisel, Dürer carved with black and white line on toned paper.

The Fortune Teller (detail), c. 1594, by Michelangelo Caravaggio

The Fortune Teller (detail), c. 1594, by Michelangelo Caravaggio

Caravaggio’s Fortune Teller, like all of his work, is so vivid you feel the characters are alive before you. The hands are as strikingly present as the faces. Look at the palm-reader’s seductive grasp and stroke.

Hamsa amulet, artist unknown

Hamsa amulet, artist unknown

The Hamsa is a hand-shaped amulet for protection against the evil eye, commonly found in many variants throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The symbol has been around since before the era of monotheistic religions, but it survives in Judaism as the Hand of Miriam, in Christianity as the Hand of Mary, and in Islam as the Hand of Fatima. “Hamsa” means five in Arabic, and it represents five fingers, but it is usually abstracted to be symmetrical, so it appears as a hand with three fingers and two thumbs. As a symbol surviving from antiquity and remaining popular today, it shows the persistence of the idea of the hand representing spiritual power and blessing. (Indeed images of hands are among the earliest surviving human artistic representations.)

Tian Tan Buddha of Po Lin Monastery, Hong Kong, 1993, designed by  Hou Jinhui

Tian Tan Buddha of Po Lin Monastery, Hong Kong, 1993, designed by
Hou Jinhui

In Hinduism and Buddhism, symbolic hand positions called “mudras” are an important aspect of both ritual practice and the iconography of sacred art. There are hundreds of defined mudras, different lists of them for different traditions and disciplines. The gesture of the Buddha figure above is the Abhaya Mudra, the fear-dispelling gesture.

Dance mudras, date and photographer unknown

Dance mudras, date and photographer unknown

Classical Indian dance forms such as Bharata Natyam have their own collections of mudras, essentially a form of sign language for telling a story in dance. (Some dance mudras are demonstrated in the set of photos above.)

Hands of Buddha at Stupa of Dharmakaya, photo by lestermore

Hands of Buddha at Stupa of Dharmakaya, photo by lestermore

Buddha figures also have a whole set of prescribed mudras that represent things like charity, understanding, and asceticism. The right hand of the buddha above is making the sign of debate or discussion.

Mudra sculpture in New Delhi Airport (detail), designed by Ayush Kasliwal

Mudra sculpture in New Delhi Airport (detail), designed by Ayush Kasliwal

The Airport in New Delhi features a public sculpture depicting a variety of traditional mudras. The one shown above is called prana mudra by yogis. In yoga, mudras are like asanas (yoga poses) for the hands. This one is performed to promote the flow of vital energy throughout one’s body.

Christ Giving His Blessing, 1481, by Hans Memling

Christ Giving His Blessing, 1481, by Hans Memling

Mudras are not exclusive to the religions of Southern and Eastern Asia. Christ is frequently depicted giving a gesture of benediction very similar to the hand positions seen in Hindu or Buddhist figures.

Christ as Savior, c. 1614, by El Greco

Christ as Savior, c. 1614, by El Greco

One explanation of this gesture is that the three upraised fingers represent the Trinity, while the two lowered fingers represent the dual nature of Christ as man and God. (Eastern Orthodox representations of Christ feature a different hand position.)

The Creation of Adam (detail), 1512, by Michelangelo Buonarroti

The Creation of Adam (detail), 1512, by Michelangelo Buonarroti

Hands are potent and adaptable symbols in sacred art. Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam shows the vigorous hand of God transmitting the life force to the weaker hand of Adam.

Isenheim Altarpiece (detail), 1516, by Matthias Grünewald

Isenheim Altarpiece (detail), 1516, by Matthias Grünewald

Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece features on one panel the tortured hands of the crucifixion, and on another the raised palms of the luminous Christ rising from the grave.

Study of the Hands of God the Father, 1508, by Albrecht Dürer

Study of the Hands of God the Father, 1508, by Albrecht Dürer

The exquisite drawing above is a preparatory sketch for the Heller Altarpiece, another great hinged triptych painting. The left hand holds the orb of the world, and the right hand crowns the Virgin.

Baton Gestures, illustration by Priscilla Barrett from "Manwatching", 1977, by Desmond Morris

Baton Gestures, illustration by Priscilla Barrett from “Manwatching”, 1977, by Desmond Morris

Let’s get a little more secular now. The illustration above is one of many great pictures in the pop anthropologist Desmond MorrisManwatching: A Field Guide to Human Behavior. It shows “baton signals”, gestures that “beat time to the rhythm of spoken thoughts.” Hand gestures can do as much to inflect human speech as can tone of voice.

George B. Bridgman, illustration from "The Book of a Hundred Hands", 1920

George B. Bridgman, illustration from “The Book of a Hundred Hands”, 1920

Bridgman‘s Book of a Hundred Hands is a whole collection of an artist’s acute observations about hands, presented in both words and sketches. This is the kind of book that can help one learn how to notice things.

Burne Hogarth, illustration from "Drawing Dynamic Hands", 1977

Burne Hogarth, illustration from “Drawing Dynamic Hands”, 1977

Burne Hogarth had a way of expressing the power of motion through a detailed understanding of anatomy.

Burne Hogarth, illustration from "Drawing Dynamic Hands", 1977

Burne Hogarth, illustration from “Drawing Dynamic Hands”, 1977

Hogarth may be best known for transforming the style of superhero comics. His anatomy books are among the best for artists because they depict anatomical structures not in the inert diagrams of typical textbooks, but in vigorous action.

Two Hands, 1885, by Vincent van Gogh

Two Hands, 1885, by Vincent van Gogh

The impressionist and post-impressionist artists tried to show that everyday realities, like these rough peasant hands, can be as full of wonder and beauty as anything holy or heroic.

Baby's First Caress, 1891, by Mary Cassatt

Baby’s First Caress, 1891, by Mary Cassatt

The discovery of touch between a mother and child is surely as powerful a human experience as there is. Lots of artists are good at depicting mystery or vehemence, but it takes rare sensitivity to portray such a subtle moment as Cassatt does in this picture. Look at how the child’s touch to the mother’s face is returned as she holds one of the child’s hands and one of his feet in her hands.

Self Portrait with Hands on Chest, 1910, by Egon Schiele

Self Portrait with Hands on Chest, 1910, by Egon Schiele

Schiele shows the exciting narcissism of youth in his pout, his cockscomb hair, and his dramatic fingers.

Hand with Reflecting Sphere, 1935, by M. C. Escher

Hand with Reflecting Sphere, 1935, by M. C. Escher

This Escher print perfectly distills the unity of hand, eye, and playful mathematical mind that this artist cultivated through all his work.

All Power to the People, poster, late 1960's, artist unknown

All Power to the People, Black Panthers poster, late 1960’s, artist unknown

The fist is the ultimate expression of defiance and determination.

Portrait of Aubrey Beardsley, 1894, photo by Frederick Henry Evans

Portrait of Aubrey Beardsley, 1894, photo by Frederick Henry Evans

Let’s look at some photographic explorations of hands. An artist’s essence is as much in his hands as in his face. Don’t Aubrey Beardsley‘s long, long fingers look like the only fingers that could have produced his efflorescence of flamboyance in black and white?

Georgia O'Keefe, Hands, 1918, photo by Alfred Steiglitz

Georgia O’Keefe, Hands, 1918, photo by Alfred Steiglitz

And here is Georgia O’Keefe, austere and sensuous at the same time.

Profile and Hands, 1932, photo by Man Ray

Profile and Hands, 1932, photo by Man Ray

Man Ray‘s abstracting eye glamorizes the tactile.

Nancy, Danville, Virginia, 1969, photo by Emmet Gowin

Nancy, Danville, Virginia, 1969, photo by Emmet Gowin

Emmet Gowin sees the mystery in the everyday, the family, the land.

Hands on the Beach, 1959, photo by Bill Brandt

Hands on the Beach, 1959, photo by Bill Brandt

For Bill Brandt, the body is monumental, towering.

Interlocking Fingers No. 6,  1999, photo by John Coplans

Interlocking Fingers No. 6, 1999, photo by John Coplans

John Coplans‘ sole subject is his own aging body, seen with the sharp eye a naturalist might direct on some taxonomic oddity of nature.

Still from "Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens", 1922 film directed by F. W. Murnau

Still from “Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens”, 1922 film directed by F. W. Murnau, with Max Schreck

The cinema may be the perfect art form to explore the image of the hand. Nosferatu‘s vampire has rodent teeth, a rigid posture, and the talons of a raptor.

Still from "The Hands of Orlac", 1924 film directed by Robert Wiene

Still from “The Hands of Orlac”, 1924 film directed by Robert Wiene, with Conrad Veidt

In The Hands of Orlac, a pianist receives a transplant – the hands of a murderer.

Still from "Night of the Hunter", 1955 film directed by Charles Laughton, with Robert Mitchum

Still from “Night of the Hunter”, 1955 film directed by Charles Laughton, with Robert Mitchum

In the magical realist classic Night of the Hunter, Robert Mitchum plays a homicidal preacher with LOVE and HATE tattooed on his knuckles.

I’ll conclude this post with a selection of works by Auguste Rodin, an artist who grasped all the expressive possibilities of the human hand, and explored in his work many of the themes we’ve seen in the work of other artists above.

Clenched Hand, 1885, by Auguste Rodin

Clenched Hand, 1885, by Auguste Rodin

Could a face express such anguish? Compare this hand with those in Grünewald’s crucifixion, or with Burne Hogarth’s contorted hands.

The Burghers of Calais (detail), 1889, by Auguste Rodin

The Burghers of Calais (detail: Pierre de Wissant), 1889, by Auguste Rodin

This hand and the face combine to show us the mournful resignation of a man accepting his own death. (This is a detail from the multi-figure “Burghers of Calais“. The story it tells is explained at the link.)

The Hand of God, 1896, by Auguste Rodin

The Hand of God, 1896, by Auguste Rodin

Here Rodin shows us the hand of God as the hand of an artist like himself, modeling living figures out of clay. The position of this hand is very similar to that of the figure just above it,

Cathedral, 1908, by Auguste Rodin

Cathedral, 1908, by Auguste Rodin

Both this work and the next are composed of two right hands. A left and a right hand coming together are the prayer of one. Two rights shows the encounter of two individuals. The “Cathedral” is the potent egg-like space that is created in between the hands of two people who join to dance together.

Hands of Lovers, 1904, by Auguste Rodin

Hands of Lovers, 1904, by Auguste Rodin

There is profound power in this gentle contact. These hands are not grasping, clinging, or controlling. Each hand remains a free individual, with all its senses tuned to the mystery of touching the other.

If you know anything of the story of Rodin and his muse, protegée and fellow sculptor Camille Claudel, you may doubt whether Rodin ever achieved such sensitivity in his own life. But even if he did not, for me, he manages to express it in these moving sculptures.

Below, Rodin’s assemblage of a life-cast of Claudel’s sad and delicate head with a cast of the oversized hand of a figure from the “Burghers of Calais”, four images up.

Assemblage: Mask of Camille Claudel and Left Hand of Pierre de Wissant, 1895, by Auguste Rodin

Assemblage: Mask of Camille Claudel and Left Hand of Pierre de Wissant, 1895, by Auguste Rodin

For the artist, the hand is the extension of the mind. Eyes and thoughts reach out like fingers, touching the world, exploring it, shaping it.


Motion in Stills

Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash, 1912, by Giacomo Balla

Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash, 1912, by Giacomo Balla

Isn’t this a wonderful evocation of the movement of an excited dachshund out for a walk? You can just feel the undulations of the leash and the wagging of the tail, and you can almost hear the clicking of the dog’s toenails on the sidewalk. A camera might capture this scene by freezing an instant. This would give us more surface detail, but none of the jaunty spirit that Balla shares with us here.

In this post I present a variety of modern approaches to capturing movement in the still media of drawing and painting, sculpture, and photography. If you’d like a more systematic approach to the topic, I recommend this excellent overview by James E. Cutting. I have had a longstanding interest in depicting the spirit of movement, especially human movement, through drawing, and my selection here reflects that.

Classical art tends to imply the energy and movement of characters by putting them in poses of dynamic tension, or by depicting the flow of hair or drapery to suggest motion – some great sculptural examples are examined in the earlier post “Stories in the Round”.

Many of the prints in Hokusai’s series of “manga” (sketchbooks) are sharply observed pictures of human movement, sometimes shown in series of little drawings that look very much like the work of an animator.  Surely Hokusai would have made animations if the concept had existed in his time!

Yakko-Odori, c. 1814, by Katsushika Hokusai

Yakko-Odori, c. 1814, by Katsushika Hokusai 

The sculptor Auguste Rodin discusses how he endeavors to endow his works with movement, from the book Rodin on Art and Artists.

Note, first, that movement is the transition from one attitude to another. . . You have certainly read in Ovid how Daphne was transformed into a bay-tree and Procne into a swallow. This charming writer shows us the body of the one taking on its covering of leaves and bark and the members of the other clothing themselves in feathers, so that in each of them one still sees the woman which will cease to be and the tree or bird which she will become. . . It is, in short, a metamorphosis of this kind that the painter or the sculptor effects in giving movement to his personages.  He represents the transition from one pose to another. . . while my Saint John is represented with both feet on the ground, it is probable that an instantaneous photograph from a model making the same movement would show the back foot already raised and carried toward the other. . . this model photographed would present the odd appearance of a man suddenly stricken with paralysis and petrified in his pose. . . If, in fact, in instantaneous photographs, the figures, though taken while moving, seem suddenly fixed in mid-air, it is because , all parts of the body being reproduced exactly at the same twentieth or fortieth of a second, there is no progressive development of movement as there is in art. . . It is the artist who is truthful and it is photography which lies, for in reality time does not stop, and if the artist succeeds in producing the impression of a movement which takes several moments for accomplishment, his work is certainly much less conventional than the scientific image, where time is abruptly suspended.

St. John the Baptist Preaching, 1878, by Auguste Rodin

St. John the Baptist Preaching, 1878, by Auguste Rodin

Rodin is defending the traditional artistic approach of depicting moments against the new, photographically influenced, way of seeing time as a series of instants. Though he aligns himself with the classicists in this, Rodin was more interested in movement than the more academic artists.  He did countless quick sketches, both in clay and in pencil and watercolor, observing figures in motion and capturing the quality of their aliveness with a remarkably free hand.

Psyche, c. 1900, by Auguste Rodin

Psyche, c. 1900, by Auguste Rodin 

The “instantaneous photography” Rodin mentions was a new development in the late 19th Century.  It enabled the analysis of movement too quick for the human eye, much less the drawing hand, to capture. In the 1880’s, Marey in France and Muybridge in California developed technologies for photographing movement in sequences of still photographs. Muybridge’s work was bankrolled by former California Governor Leland Stanford to settle a bet he had going about whether all four legs of a running horse were off the ground simultaneously at some point in the gallop (they are). This was something that could not be determined by naked eye observation. Muybridge went on to photograph analytical movement sequences of many animals and human models performing all kinds of actions, and his pictures are still studied by artists, animators, and anatomists.

Long Jump, 1887, from "Human and Animal Locomotion", photo by Eadweard Muybridge

Long Jump, 1887, from “Human and Animal Locomotion”, photo by Eadweard Muybridge

Where Muybridge’s method produced a series of discrete stills, Marey’s technique superimposed the phases of movement in a single image.

Flight of the Pelican, 1883, photo by Etienne-Jules Marey

Flight of the Pelican, 1883, photo by Etienne-Jules Marey

The photography of Muybridge and Marey is a kind of proto-cinema, and motion picture technology grew out of their work. This study of walking (below) using a black body suit with reflective lines and dots on it even seems to prefigure the “motion capture” techniques used today to transfer movement from live actors to digitally generated characters.

Geometric Chronophotograph of the Man in the Black Suit, 1883, photo by Etienne-Jules Marey

Geometric Chronophotograph of the Man in the Black Suit, 1883, photo by Etienne-Jules Marey

From Marey’s photography Marcel Duchamp took this idea of superimposing temporal instants and combined it with a cubist fragmentation of form to produce his famous “Nude Descending a Staircase”, which caused a sensation – both of outrage and of inspiration – when it was exhibited at the Armory Show of 1913, the first major exhibition of European avant-garde art in America.

Nude Descending a Staircase, 1912, by Marcel Duchamp

Nude Descending a Staircase, 1912, by Marcel Duchamp

Boccioni attempted something similar in sculptural form, distorting the figure to emphasize its dynamism. Boccioni, who also painted, and Balla, whose trotting dachshund leads this post, were members of the Italian Futurist art movement, obsessed with speed and frenzy.

Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913, by Umberto Boccioni

Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913, by Umberto Boccioni

This is an excerpt from the Futurist Manifesto of 1909, by F. T. Marinetti:

  1. We want to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and rashness.
  2. The essential elements of our poetry will be courage, audacity and revolt.
  3. Literature has up to now magnified pensive immobility, ecstasy and slumber. We want to exalt movements of aggression, feverish sleeplessness, the double march, the perilous leap, the slap and the blow with the fist.
  4. We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath … a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.
  5. We want to sing the man at the wheel, the ideal axis of which crosses the earth, itself hurled along its orbit.
Elasticity, 1912, by Umberto Boccioni

Elasticity, 1912, by Umberto Boccioni

The world was being transformed and unsettled by new technologies and new media, and all the conventions of art seemed to lose their power, opening up new worlds of creative possibility.  Among purely abstract painters, Kandinsky seemed to have a special ability to create compositions that felt like they contained leaping, vibrating life force.

Blue Segment, 1921, by Wassily Kandinsky

Blue Segment, 1921, by Wassily Kandinsky 

In the 1930’s, electrical engineer Harold “Doc” Edgerton and Life Magazine photographer Gjon Mili worked together to develop the photographic possibilities of electronic strobe lighting, which made it possible to slice time into increasingly brief instants.

Milk Coronet, 1957, by Harold Edgerton

Milk Coronet, 1957, photo by Harold Edgerton

Stroboscopic photography improved Marey’s sequential superimposition technique, capturing faster motion with ultra clarity.

Bobby Jones Multi Flash, 1938, by Harold Edgerton

Bobby Jones Multi Flash, 1938, photo by Harold Edgerton

These photographers saw themselves as following in the footsteps of Duchamp. Here are two stroboscopic photo homages to the avant-garde master, by Life Magazine photographers Gjon Mili and Eliot Elisofon.

Nude Descending  1942, by Gjon Mili

Nude Descending, 1942, photo by Gjon Mili

Duchamp Descending a Staircase, 1952, photo by Eliot Elisofon

Duchamp Descending a Staircase, 1952, photo by Eliot Elisofon

Strobes distilled the energy and grace of great performing artists into striking images for magazines, the great popular graphic art medium of the era. Below, the dancer and choreographer Martha Graham and the drummer Gene Krupa.

Martha Graham performing "Punch and Judy", 1941, photo by Gjon Mili

Martha Graham performing “Punch and Judy”, 1941, photo by Gjon Mili

Gene Krupa Playing a Drum, 1941, photo by Gjon Mili

Gene Krupa Playing a Drum, 1941, photo by Gjon Mili

Of course, the art of painting is also fundamentally a movement art, as demonstrated here by Picasso, drawing in the air with a penlight, captured by the photographer with a long exposure combined with three strobe flashes.

Picasso Drawing with Light, 1949, by Gjon Mili

Picasso Drawing with Light, 1949, by Gjon Mili

Asian calligraphy had always been taught as an art of expressive movement, but Jackson Pollock was one of the first Western artists to treat painting as a form of dance. Here’s a video clip of Pollock at work.

Jackson Pollock Painting in his Long Island Studio, 1950, photo by Hans Namuth

Jackson Pollock Painting in his Long Island Studio, 1949, photo by Hans Namuth 

Dancers also used drawing and painting to try to show what they feel kinesthetically and proprioceptually. Here’s a sketch by Nijinsky, the dancer of Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun and the original choreographer of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

Dancer, 1917, by Vaclav Nijinsky

Dancer, 1917, by Vaslav Nijinsky

Nijinsky’s painting looks remarkably similar to the analytical drawing below by choreographer Rudolf von Laban. Laban created a system for analyzing and describing bodily movement. Laban described qualities of movement using evocative verbs: Float and Punch, Glide and Slash, Dab and Wring, Flick and Press. Those words could just as easily describe the different kinds of strokes a painter or drawer makes.

Illustration from Sketches of the "Scales", 1920s (?), by Rudolf von Laban

Illustration from Sketches of the “Scales”, 1920s (?), by Rudolf von Laban

For an artist attempting to describe movement, it’s all about the flow of the hand, the rhythm and quality of the line.  The Charlotte Trowbridge sketch below is made in response to the dance of Martha Graham, seen here previously in one of Gjon Mili’s stroboscopic studies.

Martha Graham's "Letter to the World", 1940, by Charlotte Trowbridge

Martha Graham’s “Letter to the World”, 1940, by Charlotte Trowbridge 

This understanding of the expressive power of curved lines is essential in the art of cartoonists and animators.

Illustration from "Advanced Animation", 1947, by Preston Blair

Line of Action, illustration from “Advanced Animation”, 1947, by Preston Blair

Monkey Concepts 2 for "Kung Fu Panda", 2008 film, artwork by Nicholas Marlet

Monkey Concepts 2 for “Kung Fu Panda”, 2008 film, artwork by Nicholas Marlet

Dance photographers also look for those distinctive contours.  Below are two pieces from Lois Greenfield, perhaps the most famous dance photographer of our time.  Greenfield uses strobe lighting (single, not multiple, flashes) to capture the peak moment of a movement, that instant at the top of a leap or the ultimate arc of a gesture.  She also frequently employs the movement of fabrics, hair, or, below, flour (?), frozen in an instant, to magnify physicality with pure physics.

Sham Mosher, 1995, photo by Lois Greenfield

Sham Mosher, 1995, photo by Lois Greenfield

Odara Jaeali-Nash/Philadanco, 2007, photo by Lois Greenfield

Odara Jaeali-Nash/Philadanco, 2007, photo by Lois Greenfield

Greenfield’s shots are always frozen, perfectly sharp.  Other dance photographers use longer exposures to show movement with motion blur.  The challenge with motion blur is to find just the right amount – too little just looks like a mistake, while too much makes the figure disappear.

Motion (one from a series), 2012, photo by Bill Wadman

Motion (one from a series), 2012, photo by Bill Wadman


Motion (one from a series), 2012, photo by Bill Wadman

In the picture below, long exposure blurs are combined with strobe bursts to givc crisp renditions of the extremes of the sequence.

The Red Mistress, 2012, photo by Benjamin Von Wong

The Red Mistress, 2012, photo by Benjamin Von Wong 

So far we’ve seen movement expressed through blurs, stroboscopic multiple images, and expressive lines.  It can also be shown by distortion.  Look at the tire in the photo below.  It seems to lean forward with effort, while the spectators in the background lean in the opposite direction.  This is the effect of a slit shutter, a gap that moves across the frame, exposing parts of it sequentially.  In this image, the shutter exposes the bottom of the frame first and moves upward through a brief interval of time.  The racing car is moving as the shutter goes up, so the upper part of the wheel, which is exposed later, has moved further to the right than the lower part of the wheel that was exposed earlier.  The spectators bend to the left because the camera is panning to the right to try to keep up with the movement of the car, but it isn’t panning as fast as the car is moving.

Grand Prix of the Automobile Club of France, 1911, photo by Jacques Henri Lartigue

Grand Prix of the Automobile Club of France, 1911, photo by Jacques Henri Lartigue 

The “slit scan” shutter is the principle behind the “photo finish” camera.  Such a camera has a slit shutter centered on the finish line of a race.  As the racers approach the line, a photo is made with the shutter opening remaining stationary, while the film moves across in the same direction as the racers. This produces a photograph in which the horizontal dimension shows not space, but time.  Every vertical slice of this photo represents the same vertical slice of space – the finish line – but further to the right is earlier in time, and further to the left is later. The background looks like a streak because it is the same slice of space spread out right to left.  The runners appear distorted because different parts of their bodies are recorded at different times.

Harrison Dillard Winning the 100 Meter Dash at the Olympics, 1948, photo-finish photo

Harrison Dillard Winning the 100 Meter Dash at the Olympics, 1948, photo-finish photo

Some photographers have used slit-scan cameras of this kind to create artistic studies of movement.  If you stuck your hand in a scanner or photocopier and waved it as the scanner moved across, you’d be doing basically the same thing that’s happening in these photos.  The resultant image would show your fingers bending zigzag as the scanner moves laterally through time.

Priscilla Electric Lodge #47-1, 2007, photo by Jay Mark Johnson

Priscilla Electric Lodge #47-1, 2007, photo by Jay Mark Johnson

Temporal Form no. 11, c. 2006, photo by Ansen Seale

Temporal Form no. 11, c. 2006, photo by Ansen Seale

The below images are made by digitally combining “10,000 individual photographs of a dancer”.  I don’t know exactly what that means, but I presume the images are frames from an ultra-high-speed camera such as those used to produce those ultra slow motion videos of bursting water balloons and the like, and that these images are somehow digitally combined.  The result has the smoothness of the blur photographs combined with the sharpness of the stroboscopic images or the slit-scan images.

Nude #6, 2012, photo by Shinichi Maruyama

Nude #6, 2012, photo by Shinichi Maruyama

Nude #4, 2012, photo by Shinichi Maruyama

Nude #4, 2012, photo by Shinichi Maruyama 

The photographer Adam Fuss makes large scale photograms, images made by placing objects on top of film and exposing it directly to light, so that it records the shadow of the object. He uses water to transform the movement of the subject into ripples that show how its movement affects the space around it. It’s a beautiful way to show a snake, or a baby, not as a thing, but as a force in the energy field.

Untitled, 1998, photogram by Adam Fuss

Untitled, 1998, photogram by Adam Fuss

Invocation, 1992, photo by Adam Fuss

Invocation, 1992, photo by Adam Fuss

All the illustrations in this post were found on the web.  Clicking on the photos will take you to the pages where I found them, and often to larger versions, additional work by the same artists, or further information placing the works in historical context or explaining the techniques used.


Faces of Figureworks: Self Portraits

Filed under: My Events: Exhibitions — Tags: , , , , , — fred @ 10:47
Arlene Morris, Self Portrait, oil on board, 16" x 16" x 2", 2011

Arlene Morris, Self Portrait, oil on board, 16″ x 16″ x 2″, 2011

I’d like to invite all my readers who are in the NYC area to visit this group exhibition that includes my work, along with a really diverse selection of fellow artists, contemporaries and some well-known names in 20th Century art.  It’s on view this weekend through the first weekend in March, and the opening reception is on Friday the 11th.  Now I’m going to copy and paste Figureworks’ official announcement about the show:

Figureworks is pleased to open the new year with over 50 self portraits from its contemporary and 20th century list of artists. Please stop in this weekend (Saturday and Sunday from 1-6PM) for a preview and also join us next Friday for the artist’s reception, when all Williamsburg galleries will stay open late to celebrate in the new year.


January 5 – March 3, 2013
Reception: Friday, January 11th from 6-9PM


fine art of the human form
168 North 6th St. (1 block from Bedford Avenue “L” train)
Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY 11211
hours: Saturday and Sunday from 1-6PM
Artists create self portraits for various reasons but frequently it is done as a reflective point in their career. Securing that moment in time when they feel the need to record their presence. Similar to a journal entry, it may manifest in a quick sketch such as the drawing Philip Evergood created in 1944 documenting his life threatening surgery or Byron Browne’s ink drawing of his model with added self at his easel. These sketches were not created for exhibition purposes and are often stashed away with other personal belongings. Oppositely, some are finely executed oils done during long studio hours of self reflection, like those by Ernest Fiene and Joachim Marx. Equally personal, these significant executions are intended to preserve a specific place and time.

Additionally, a number of pieces in this exhibition were created specifically for patrons who commissioned the artist’s portraiture for their collection. This includes the drawings by Red Grooms and Chaim Gross. Others, such as McWillie Chambers and K. Saito, were executed upon request specifically for this exhibition. These types of portraits start from a very different place than those mentioned earlier. The artist, typically just the hand behind the canvas, is asked to now become the subject. Over twenty years ago, Ingrid Capozzoli Flinn had only privately done self portraits. A labor intensive oil painter, this request was very challenging for her as she was forced to spend many hours looking back into the mirror of time.

This exhibition encompasses all of these processes and emotions in a wide range of media from pencil, oil, ink and wood to glass and digital imagery. Artists from different generations and practices are represented. It is also worthy to note the diverse self portraits by couples George & Reina Gillson and William & Marguerite Zorach which reinforces the individuality and personal expression which goes into each work.

Figureworks is located at 168 N. 6th St., Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY11211, one block from the Bedford Avenue “L” train. The gallery is open to the public Saturday and Sunday from 1-6 PM and is dedicated to exhibiting contemporary and 20th century fine art of the human form.

For more information please email harris@figureworks.com, call the gallery at 718-486-7021 or visit us online at www.figureworks.com

Raphael Soyer, Self Portrait, 1975

Raphael Soyer, Self Portrait, 1975

Artists in this exhibition:

Byron Browne

Ingrid Capozzoli Flinn

McWillie Chambers

Marvin Cherney

George Constant

Howard Eisman

Philip Evergood

Bonnie Faulkner

Ernest Fiene

George Gillson

Reina Gillson

Matthew Greenway

Red Grooms

Chaim Gross

Mimi Gross

Bernard Gussow

Abraham Harriton

Bertram Hartman

Fred Hatt

Joseph Kaplan

Benjamin Kopman

Jack Levine

Elim Mak

Irving Marantz

Herman Maril

Fletcher Martin

Felicia Meyer Marsh

Joachim Marx

Michael Massen

Meridith McNeal

Artem Mirolevich

Arlene Morris

Susan Newmark

Rusel Parish

Robert Andrew Parker

Joachim Probst

Ellen Rand

Phillip Reisman

Audrey Rhoda

K. Saito

Jacquelyn Schiffman

Michael Sorgatz

Raphael Soyer

Moses Soyer

Anthony Toney

Mary Westring

David Yaghjian

Barbara Zanelli

Marguerite Zorach

William Zorach



Self-Portrait, Skull, 1958, drawing by Alice Neel

In time for Halloween and the Day of the Dead, I give you a collection of skulls and other personifications of death and horror from the art of the past several centuries.  If you’re sensitive to violent, creepy, disturbing imagery, don’t scroll down.

Totentanz (Dance of Death), illustration by Michael Wolgemut from Liber Chronicarum, also known as the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493, by Hartmann Schedel

In the wake of the famines, plagues and wars of the late medieval period in Europe, there arose a genre of popular allegorical murals, prints, and plays called Totentanz or Danse Macabre, the Dance of Death.  Often there’s a series of images showing corpses or skeletons dancing with commoners and kings, popes and peasants.

Death and the Heathen Woman, from the medieval Preacher Totentanz mural of Basel, copy by Emanuel Büchel, c. 1770

These images say life is fleeting and precarious, death is ever-near.  High-born or low, Death will get you in the end.

Totentanz mural in the Anthony Chapel, St. Nicholas Church, Talinn, c. 1490, by Bernt Notke

Surely the Totentanz was an expression of something deeply felt by the people living in this time, who saw death everywhere around them.  The priest could point to it to urge repentance, since the end could come without warning.  The hedonist could see it as a spur to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh while they last.

Death and the Devil Surprising Two Women, c. 1505, print by Daniel Hopfer

Mortality is not simply an abstract fact for mortals, it is personal.  It comes to take you away from your life and your loved ones.  So it must be personified, and it is often shown as a skeleton or a decaying corpse that is animated, to show the horror we feel at the decay of the flesh.

Dead Lovers, c. 1470, by an anonymous artist

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, a master of deep natural perspective and complex figurative compositions, transformed the simple Totentanz scenes into a panorama of war and executions, famine, torture, and madness.  Click on the image to follow a link to a much larger version of this landscape of hell on earth, big enough to scroll around and see all the horrific details.

The Triumph of Death, 1562, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

The sense of death as a corruption that devours life from within has been expressed by artists closer to our own time.  For a 1945 movie, directed by Albert Lewin, based on Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, Henrique Medina made a straight portrait of actor Hurd Hatfield that was gradually, over the course of filming, transformed by painter Ivan Albright into this image of walking decay.  Click here to see before and after versions.

The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1943, by Ivan Albright

Similarly, Francis Bacon transformed Velasquez’ strikingly realistic portrait of Pope Innocent X into a scream of modern existential dread.

Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1953, by Francis Bacon

A century or two after the era of the Totentanz, the omnipresence of death was perhaps felt with a little more distance, and the prevailing genre of painting meditating on death was the Vanitas, usually a still-life composition incorporating a skull or skulls.  “Vanitas” refers to the line from Ecclesiastes that declares “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity,” so it has some of the same meaning as the Totentanz, but considerably less of the visceral feeling of horror.

Vanitas Still Life, 1672, by Aelbert Jansz. van der Schoor

The Totentanz and the Vanitas are both considered versions of a more inclusive artistic motif called “Memento Mori” – Latin for “Remember you will die.”

Still Life with a Skull, c. 1650, by Philippe de Champagne

Of course artists also study skulls and skeletons as part of learning anatomy, the better to depict the human form full of life, and many artists become fascinated with bones as elegant forms.  Paul Cézanne, the post-impressionist “painter’s painter” made several Vanitas still-life pictures at the turn of the 20th century, as he faced his own mortality.

Pyramid of Skulls, 1901, by Paul Cézanne

During a brief stint in a classical art academy in Antwerp, where skeletons were studied as part of the curriculum, Vincent van Gogh painted this mischievous smoking skeleton.

Skull with a Burning Cigarette, 1886, by Vincent van Gogh

James Ensor, Belgian satirist and proto-surrealist, depicted pointless struggle in the form of skulls with mismatched jaws, wearing military garb and fighting over a bit of fish.

Skeletons Disputing a Smoked Herring, 1891, by James Ensor

Contemporary sculptor Kris Kulski makes ornate monochromatic constructions, many of them incorporating skeletons.  Here a giant skeleton appears to be building a city along its own spine.

The Decision, 2007, sculpture by Kris Kuksi

Yet another often-revisited motif in the Memento Mori tradition is Death and the Maiden.  This gives the artist the chance to contrast youth and beauty with repulsion and decay, combining sex and death in what artists found to be a potent thematic brew, pushing two primal buttons at once for a creepy frisson.  Hans Baldung was an early master of the erotic horror genre.

Death and the Maiden, c. 1519, by Hans Baldung

Throw in morality and religion with the sex and death, and you can really have your cake and eat it too.

Triptych of Earthly Vanity and Divine Salvation, c. 1485, by Hans Memling

The Death and the Maiden theme has also survived into modern art.  How could the famously death- and sex-obsessed Edvard Munch resist it?

Death and the Maiden, 1894, print by Edvard Munch

Käthe Kollwitz sees the theme from a female perspective, and transforms the maiden into a mother holding a child in this image of death as predator.

Death Seizing a Woman, 1934, print by Käthe Kollwitz

For Hans Bellmer, mortality and sexuality are fundamentally linked in the depths of the psyche, and both are arousing and terrifying: Eros and Thanatos.

Instructions to Sexuality II, 1974, print by Hans Bellmer

The medieval view of death and horror was of something intensely real and palpable.  By the age of enlightenment, artists tend to express a romanticized fear of madness, of the unknown, of the supernatural – something we still feel in some part of our psyches where reason’s light fails to penetrate.

The Nightmare, 1791, by Henry Fuseli

Goya obsessively depicted horror and madness and evil, both in the absurdities of human behavior and the very real devastation of war.

Disparate de miedo (Absurdity of Fear), from Los Disparates, 1815-1823, print series by Francisco Goya

Japanese artists of the same period also display a wonderfully vivid imagination for visualizing the stories of ghosts and horror that abound in Japanese folklore and literature.  Here are works from two masters: Hokusai and Kuniyoshi.

Ghost of Kohada Koheiji, c. 1830, print by Katsuhika Hokusai

Detail from Princess Takiyasha summons a skeletal spectre to frighten Mitsukuni, c. 1845, a triptych of prints by Utagawa Kuniyoshi

In the later nineteenth century, death is seen more in a mournful light than one of terror.  No longer the dancing zombie of the middle ages, Death calmly ferries you to the set of a tragic grand opera.

Isle of the Dead, 1883 version, by Arnold Böcklin

Death is a symbol – the Grim Reaper, horseman of the apocalypse.

Death on a Pale Horse, 1865, by Gustave Doré

In our time, pop culture is full of images of avengers, terminators, furious warriors and inhuman killers, but it’s mostly fantasy, not our everyday reality.

The Death Dealer, 1973, by Frank Frazetta

I can’t think of a painting that gives a more realistic image of the act of killing than Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith and Holofernes.  It’s far more brutal and horrifying than Caravaggio’s great version of the same scene, and Caravaggio reputedly had real experience with killing.  But Artemisia was an ambitious female painter in a time when ambitious women got no respect, and she must have put the real murderous fury she felt towards men into this chilling work.

Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1612, by Artemisia Gentileschi

The ancient Mesoamerican religions were based around human sacrifice, and figures of death and blood and the underworld abound.

Mayan God of Death, date unknown, stucco sculpture at Palenque, photo by Sherry Hardage

The skull or calavera image survives in today’s Mexican culture in the jaunty decorative skulls and skeletons of the Day of the Dead or Día de los Muertos,  November 1st, a time to honor ancestors and perhaps to be cheerful in the face of death.

Las Calveras, Cancun, Mexico, contemporary photo by Tiffany Shu

Elaborately decorated calaveras are a tradition with endless variations, such as this visionary Huichol psychedelica.

Huichol Beaded Skull, contemporary creation by Our Exquisite Corpse design team

Posada, a popular Mexican illustrator of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, used the calavera as a basic motif for social satire and political cartoons.  This tarantula-skull is a caricature of General José Victoriano Huerta Márquez, Mexico’s brutal dictator at the time.

Calavera Huertista, 1914, print by José Guadalupe Posada

Through the twentieth century, much of the art of horror and death is about war.  The Great War of 1914-18 harvested vast swathes of Europe’s youth and left many more maimed and traumatized.

The Field of the Slain, 1916, by Evelyn De Morgan

The Victorian image of a dark angel, aesthetically romanticized, survived for a while as the predominant artistic depiction of Death.

Prospect Park War Memorial, 1921, sculpture by Augustus Lukeman, 2003 photo by Fred Hatt

At the same time, through this period, European artists like Picasso with his Demoiselles d’Avignon, composer Stravinsky with Sacre du Printemps, and writer Alfred Jarry with the play Ubu Roi, had been discovering the power of a rawer, more primal approach to expression, and many found it the only way to truly depict the horror of war.

Skull, 1924, by Otto Dix

Of the work below, full of chaotic energy, the artist said, “This is a painting I painted after the defeat of the Republicans in Spain.  This is obviously an ironic title [“Angel of the Hearth”] to denote a kind of animal that kills and destroys everything in its path.  That was the impression I had at the time, of what was possible to happen in the world, and in that I was right.”

I think the title “Angel of the Hearth” may refer to the fact that the violent ideologies of Fascism, Nazism and Stalinism begin from a claim to stand as protectors of the homeland, and of the purity of their cultures and races.

L’Ange du Foyer (Angel of the Hearth), 1937, by Max Ernst

Mexican painter Siqueiros went to spain to fight against the Fascists.  His painted response to the war, from the same year as Ernst’s, expresses a more emotional experience of devastation and loss.

Echo of a Scream, 1937, by David Alfaro Siqueiros

Death taking his victims in his pitiless embrace is a timeless image.  Here’s a version painted by Vietnam veteran William Myles.

Death Taking a Soldier, 1997, by William Myles

Henry Moore’s sculpture “Nuclear Energy” is on the campus of the University of Chicago where the world’s first nuclear reactor was built.  It is an abstract image of power, but it evokes both the skull and the mushroom cloud of the nuclear bomb, perhaps to remind the scientists working on that campus that Death is ever near, just as he was six hundred years ago in the time of the Totentanz.

Nuclear Energy, 1967, by Henry Moore, photographer unknown

All images in this post, except for one that is a photograph taken by me, were found on the web.  Clicking on the photos links to the sites where the pictures were found, and in many cases, to larger versions of these images.


What Will Last?

Filed under: Art and Society,Art History — Tags: , , — fred @ 23:24

Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet, c. 3000 BCE

A friend used to like to say I have a mind like a steel sieve.  My semantic memory (for general knowledge, concepts and facts) is pretty good, but my episodic memory (for my own life experiences) is weak.  My sense of my own history is vague, a collection of hazy dream images.  Perhaps this keeps me feeling young, as I don’t carry around the weight of the past, but it also gives me the sensation everything is always slipping away.  I think this sense, early on, made me interested in documenting and archiving things, collecting images, books, and recordings.  As a kid my favorite toys were the cassette recorder and the 8mm movie camera, tools for capturing fleeting moments.

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about the impulse to save things, and the factors that make cultural products survive or disappear.  In this post I share some of these thoughts for your consideration.  Don’t expect me to offer any good solutions!

I have a room filled with my own drawings and photographs.  I keep boxes of papers, shelves of books and discs and tapes, and several terabytes of digital files.  A few years ago I had to move twice within two years.  Those moves prompted me to get rid of a lot of stuff – I let go of two thirds of my books and most of my music and dumped tons of paper, but the archive remains vast.  If I didn’t live in the city, where space is expensive, I’m sure I’d have kept even more.

Self portrait with my books, 2011, photo by Fred Hatt

I grew up in a house filled with books and records, in a family of intellectual collectors verging on hoarders.  My mother has particularly recognized the necessity of organizing and distilling things into a useable form, and has, over the last several years, assembled a series of beautiful scrapbooks documenting the family history.  Still, I know she feels overwhelmed by the enormity of the task.

Page from Hatt family history scrapbook, assembled by Martha Hatt

We save things to carry what we value of the past into the future.  We still find inspiration in the work of creators and thinkers long dead.  As artists, we hope that something we create may not only speak to our contemporaries, but survive to inspire future generations.  I’d like to see my work preserved after I am gone, but I’m afraid my lack of marketing efforts or serious art-world status may doom it to the dumpster.

In the art supply store, paper is labeled as acid-free and archival, and paint pigments are ranked for permanence.  But stable and durable materials won’t preserve your work after you’re gone unless those who receive it think it’s worth saving.  Cultural change, war and disaster, chance misplacements and discoveries, can doom or save artworks.  Here are a few examples:

Child-Headed Whiplash-Tail Blengins, date unknown, by Henry Darger

The reclusive artist Henry Darger’s obsessional writings and paintings on paper, work he never shared with anyone while he was alive, were preserved only because his landlord, Nathan Lerner, an established photographer/artist, recognized the creative merit of the work found in Darger’s apartment after his death.  Now Darger is much more famous than Lerner.

Pennsylvania Station, Concourse from South, 1962, photo by Cervin Robinson

New York’s Pennsylvania Station was one of the great buildings of the early 20thcentury, a magnificent temple of trains the same size as St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, but in the early 60’s the interstates and the airlines were supplanting the railroads in American travel, and the vast building was razed to build Madison Square Garden.  Neither its massiveness nor its grandeur could save it.

Portrait of Antonio Vivaldi, artist unknown

Antonio Vivaldi was a well-known composer in his own lifetime, but after his death his work was forgotten and was not part of the classical music canon for nearly 200 years until a boarding school, eager to sell off its dusty archives, asked music historian Alberto Gentili to assess the value of its music manuscripts.  This was in 1926.  Today, Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” is one of the most frequently recorded and performed baroque music compositions of all, and it’s hard to imagine that it was unknown in the time of Mozart and Beethoven, but that is the case.

Francois 1, King of France, c. 1530, by Jean Clouet

An art historian once told me a story about François 1, King of France, who was an important patron of the arts in the Renaissance era, supporting Leonardo da Vinci, Andrea del Sarto, and other great artists of the time.  Apparently the king was a bit of a libertine, and constructed Roman style steam baths in his palace at Fontainebleau, where he hosted parties.  He hung many of his favorite paintings in these steam baths, where they were destroyed by the moisture.  (I tried to verify this story by doing a little online research.  I did find references to the King’s having displayed paintings in his baths – nothing about any specific works having been ruined, but surely constant moisture can’t have been good for them!)

Statue of Buddha in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, shown in 1997, left, and after destroyed by the Taliban, 2001, right, photographer(s) unknown

There are so many stories like this.  The painters considered the greatest in the nineteenth century are mostly forgotten today.  Herman Melville died a failure, his work appreciated by almost no one until decades after his death.  The great manuscripts of antiquity were gathered in the Library of Alexandria, which was burned down in an accident of war.  Statues have been melted down to recover the bronze, or destroyed by religious fanatics as forbidden idols.  Films thought to be forever lost have been found in garden sheds and attics.  Works of the creative spirit are always being destroyed or lost or forgotten, sometimes rediscovered or reconsidered.  It all seems incredibly random.  An artist can try to make something that has the potential to last for a long time, and can hope it will be something people will value enough to protect, but nothing is certain.  The future is a crapshoot.

Hall of Bulls, Cave of Lascaux, photo by Sisse Brimberg

The artworks that survive from the Paleolithic era, 40,000 to 10,000 years ago, are carvings in stone or bone and paintings in deep, difficult-to-access caves.  Surely there were carvings or constructions in wood, paintings on bark or animal skins or fabrics, body art, and many other things, but all of that is gone now.  I doubt that the artists thought of the caves as time capsules for their art, though that’s what they became.  The caves may have been secret ritual places, known to only a few in their time, but the art our paleolithic forebears showed in public is gone, while their deep hidden art still inspires many of us today.

I grew up in an era of analog media – vinyl records, chemical photography, movies on film, books on paper.  When I was in college, we studied Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, which argued that mass media had changed the function of art from something rare and precious and ritualistic into something ubiquitous and ephemeral, public and political.  The digital revolution has accelerated this alteration to the point that it’s now hard even to imagine the magical power that images once had.  Even in my youth, finding a rare book or record in a dusty old shop was still exciting, but now almost anything is available by Google search.  We need a new essayist to write a follow-up to Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Media Avalanche”.

Essayist Walter Benjamin, photographer unknown

In the analog media era, mastering a musical instrument or photographic equipment were intensive crafts, and producing and distributing books or movies or records was an expensive industrial undertaking overseen by gatekeepers.  These factors tended to draw clear lines between amateur and professional artists, and to keep the appearance of new material in any artistic field to a manageable flow that an audience could follow.  Digital tools have made the production and sharing of material so easy that we’re all swamped by mediocrities from artists who haven’t paid their dues or done serious time in the woodshed.  Even before the digital revolution, the arts had a bit of a supply/demand problem.  Suddenly there’s this eruption of material, and the gems must be somewhere in that cataract, but finding them, even recognizing them, isn’t easy.

In our digital world, most images, music, and writings increasingly exist only in digital form on hard drives or memory cards, or on servers in “the cloud”.  You sometimes hear the idea that all of this material is protected from loss by the fact that it’s widely distributed and shared.  How can the ubiquitous cease to be?  But I think digital media have striking vulnerabilities.

Fred Hatt projecting 35mm film in the Airstream trailer projection booth at the HBO/Bryant Park Film Festival, 2011

Some of you may know that besides my art and photography and filmmaking, I work as a freelance motion picture projectionist.  It’s a good trade that offers me a certain level of financial stability I’ve never found from my more creative endeavors.  I project old and new films at places like the Museum of Modern Art, the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and the French Institute/Alliance Française.  In the film business, sound recording, film editing, and special effects have been mostly digital for decades now, but until fairly recently most movies were still shot on film and projected on film.  That’s all changing.  Now, when you see a new film at the multiplex, it is almost certainly a digital file played on a server by a high-resolution digital projector, and probably shot with digital cameras as well.  The major film distributors have announced plans to cease production of film prints in the next year or two.

Projectionist with Super Simplex 35mm projector, Capitol Theater, New London, CT, date and photographer unknown

A good 35mm theatrical movie projector will keep working for 50 years if you take good care of it.  Cinema-quality digital projectors cost several times as much and can only be expected to last five to ten years, even if they aren’t rendered obsolete by technological developments before they reach such an advanced age.  Film projectors are 19th century technology, simple mechanical devices, and most things that can go wrong with them can be fixed or at least jerry-rigged by the operator.  The film print is a strip of pictures, 24 projected for every second of running time.  You can look at the film directly and see the pictures on it, and they can be scanned or copied by any potential future technology.  Film prints suffer from some wear and tear, but it’s a gradual deterioration.  A film that has some scratches and dust, or a little color fading, is still watchable.  Technologists use the term “robust” to describe a technology that is reliable and flexible to changing conditions – it bends but does not break, or it deteriorates slowly but still does the job, or it is simple to maintain and fix even while it is running.  35mm is the ultimate example of a robust technology.

Two frames of 35mm motion picture film. The picture is optically “squeezed” to be projected on a wide screen using an anamorphic lens. To the left of the picture area is the analog, optical sound track. A digital sound track is recorded with dots in between the perforations on the left, and another format digital sound track in blue on the edges of the film.  Twenty-four of these frames are projected every second, and the average feature film is about 2 miles or 3 kilometers in length.

The new digital cinema systems, on the other hand, are highly complex and also encumbered by copy-prevention measures that put serious limitations on testing and troubleshooting.  If something goes wrong during projection, the screening usually has to be cancelled, because there is no quick fix.  At this year’s New York Film Festival, a screening of Brian De Palma’s new movie, with the director in attendance, had to be aborted midway due to technical difficulties.  Already most of the projectionists I know have experienced these occasional devastating problems with digital screenings, problems that never happened with film.  Unlike the film print, with its visible image frames, the digital film is nothing but about 150-200 gigabytes of ones and zeroes, highly encrypted.  A small error, a little bit of corruption in such a file can render it completely unplayable, or at least unbearable to watch.

Dolby Cinema Server

All digital files are analog information encoded into binary numbers and recorded microscopically on optical or magnetic media.  Reconstructing the texts, images, or sounds they represent into a form we can use requires both the correct hardware and the correct software – if either one is unavailable, you have a problem.  These technologies are constantly changing.  Already if you have obsolete media like floppy discs, or files recorded in a ten-year-old program, you may have difficulty recovering them today.  These files have become essentially unreadable in a matter of years.  How much more will be lost this way over the course of decades or centuries?

Corrupted jpg camera image file, photo by Sokwhan Huh

Professional archivists suggest that all digital materials should be recopied every few years onto the best available current formats and media.  As long as the speed and efficiency of the technology continues to increase exponentially (as does the quantity of digital material we expect to conserve) this has been possible, but does it really seem completely unlikely that a slowing of the technology, a financial crisis cutting budgets for media archiving, or some other occurrence may erase or render unusable vast quantities of words, images and sounds?  A serious collapse of our technological civilization, even a gradual collapse, due to wars or peak oil or environmental disaster or whatever, would probably completely doom all digital files to extinction.

I envision a time in the twenty-second century when cultural historians will still have great collections of 20th century analog photographs, recordings, films, and printed matter, while much of the 21st century stuff has vanished into a technological memory hole – a digital dark age.

Jpg Corruption, photo by Codell. This is a digital camera file damaged by a loss of power while saving the file.

Perhaps the most permanent material ever discovered for information recording is the clay tablet.  Thousands of such tablets, inscribed in soft clay with a stylus over five thousand years ago, still survive in completely readable form.  Ceramics can be broken, but generally in a way that can be reassembled.  A bull in a china shop can never be as destructive as a corrupt code in a digital system.  Perhaps our creative efforts have a better shot at lasting if they stay closer to earth.

Akkadian Cuneiform Tablet, c. 3000 BCE, photographer unknown

Most of the images in this post were found on the web.  Clicking on a photo links to the site where I found it.

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