The Professor Looks Back: Cameras 1994


[the opening spread of the "infoscape" column devoted to cameras—and how they have changed the way that we see]

[the opening spread of the 4-page “infoscape” column devoted to the new significance of cameras—and how they have changed the way that we see, Graphis magazine, p.7 – 8, #298 july/august, 1995]

Toward the end of 1993, Graphis magazine offered The Professor a project to produce a column on products. It was a bold move on the part of Graphis to look outside of their editorial comfort zone and put their faith in The Professor. The magazine had a reputation as the staid grand dame of graphics publications: elegant, enduring, tightly controlled, classy, pledged to stiff consistency and living by high standards. No post-modern playfulness there.

The Professor further inquired to the Publisher as to whether they would trust him with the entire concept, text and lay-outs: The Professor wished to completely conceptualize, photograph, write and design four pages in each issue [with art director Gregory Hom]. The response from Graphis was ‘Yes,’ and their leap of faith cinched the deal. The Professor decided to call it “infoscape” [‘information landscape’] and its focus was on expressing how the emerging paradigm of new media were influencing old media; how the internet and the web were specifically inspiring printed publications to change, grow and further develop their accessibility, hierarchy and information quotient. Put another way, look at the page as a graphic user interface.

It looked to be too good of an opportunity to pass up, a chance for The Professor to contemplate the nature of what designers do from the inside looking-out; it turned out to be a two-and-a-half-year experiment in what he and Gregory could get away with within the hallowed pages of Graphis, It also turned out that [to be brutally honest] during the entire 12-part lifespan of the column that few people read or even acknowledged its existence; readers supposedly thought it was an advertorial and flicked past it and The Professor received only the barest trickle of feedback.

In 1995, after already having produced a number of infoscape columns, The Professor was searching [as he most often did in those days, and still aims to] for a pattern that would connect work coming from the U.S. west-coast-based Art Center College in Pasadena with that coming out of the eminent Royal College of Art in London. He ended up writing about compelling concept cameras from both schools; he then combined the student projects with a number of the more boundary-pushing yet commercially-available professionally-designed units to show where he felt the use and design of cameras was going. Cameras were moving away from the use of overt geometry to express the machine precision of the camera mechanism writ large, and toward a new, still-evolving form language premised more on human anatomy [curvilinear shapes] and manufacturing and technology advances.

The Professor’s focus was on how cameras had become ubiquitous and how, in the process, they became little laboratories of creative exploration; new form factors, newly miniaturized sensors, tech advances in storage, and more. As we have discovered when we closely examine other advanced products, cameras are far from being a benign technology; they have both direct effects and unintended consequences.

These cameras from the mid-1990s prefigured the ascent of today’s personal cameras, especially their integration with cell phones and their growing embrace of digital technologies. No one that The Professor was aware of was looking at cameras in 1994 as a key info appliance [either as a dedicated photo device or as an adjunct to a feature-rich electronic product]. Just as they had done before, cameras changed how we understood ourselves in the 1990s, how we interacted with the world, how we determined what was real, and how we constructed the strange, the audacious, the newly beautiful and even the sometimes questionable. Why? Because that’s where the art was.

Part and parcel of this transformation was The Professor’s ongoing thesis that the visual literacy of young adults and children has been inexorably on the rise since the early 1980s, and that hardware-software combinations [such as these cameras represented] tied directly into the rise of visual literacy. So, when The Professor looked back at this particular column recently, he found that much of what was said then was still germane now. We should extrapolate what works from those mid-1990s cameras and integrate that into other consumer products. This column on cameras also represents one of the earlier published instances wherein The Professor proposed the “blobject” as a new formal archetype; in this look at cameras, the natural focus was on blobjects that could be easily held, displayed, used, put away, and personally [or emotionally] identified with.

Further, The Professor had proposed the concept of “emotional ergonomics” in the mid-1980s and never really developed it; this infoscape column “Smile and Say ‘Cheese’” provided a chance to look further into how that approach was being expressed, especially in the student work [since it operated outside of market concerns]. It is The Professor’s intent to eventually present all 12 of the infoscape columns again at this web location. They will be presented unchanged from the original, with any idiosyncracies, misspellings and punctuation errors left intact and unchanged [despite The Professor’s gritted teeth].

To view the original visual essay [pictured above and below as jpg’s] in PDF go here: graphiscameras_originalpages.pdf

If you would like to read the “infoscape” column “Smile and Say ‘Cheese’” right here, it lies below; it is presented in all lower-case type as it was when printed because that was The Professor’s thing back then [italics added in 2014 to differentiate the 1995 article from The Professor’s present-day paragraphs, and bold added in 2014 to emphasize key concepts in the original text]:

“talk about your hot interfaces! talk about your man-machine-media interactions! no, not personal computers. look instead in the camera department of an electronics superstore. that’s where you’ll find intimate ergonomics. that’s where you’ll see products that fit the idiosyncratic morphology of the hand and the protuberant/recessive roundness of the face. that’s where you’ll feel shapes that are athletically bulgy, three-dimensionally cartoony, techno-friendly, materially amphibious, and even texturally voluptuous.”

“early cameras only minimally dealt with such human interaction problems. typically, the result was camera-as-cartesian-box. new cameras solve [and enrich] this interaction problem by seeing it as an opportunity to mutate the box into a series of biomorphic blobjects. the product isn’t just designed—the whole experience is. distinguished by their coordinated blending of complex curves, blobject cameras are intended to caress the hand, fit the face, and cradle the eye. They have become playful cybernetic imaging appendages capable of transforming our notion of what interaction with electronics products can be.”

[the second spread of the infoscape column devoted to the new significance of cameras]

[the second spread of the 4-page “infoscape” column devoted to the new significance of cameras—and how they have changed the way that we see; Graphis magazine, p. 9-10, #298, july/august 1995]

“perceptually, we have entered the age of ‘electrobricollage’ according to william j. mitchell, author of m.i.t. press’s the reconfigured eye. like rock-and-roll, rap and MTV, photography has become a hyper-fluid, globally expressive language. we live vicariously through the lens of the camera, and, in the process, it has changed the way that we weave our narratives and tell our stories. we know leonardo da vinci from the photo-reproductions flashed on classroom walls and printed in books—not from the pages of his notebooks. in the sheer acceleration of images produced by cameras, we have lost the possibility of visual silence.”

“immersed to the point where image addiction and information overload coexist as a normal part of daily life, we live in both the most visually literate and imagistically neurotic time ever. ‘the camera,’ as Malcolm Muggeridge noted, ‘far more than even nuclear weapons is the destructive force of our time.'”

“photography has given way to a fragmented, non-linear, ceaselessly-montaged, post-symbolic [post-photographic] communication that has displaced the old relationship between words, images and pages. from the art of jeff koons to the films of robert altman, our hypermedic culture has intermingled the real and the artificial. photographs [and videos] have assumed the authority over our imagination that the printed and spoken word had years ago.”

“blobject cameras embody the paradox that comes from being simultaneously part prosthetic and part icon. as photographs have assumed the stature once reserved for cameras, we as a society have become less corporeally bound. our cameras and our culture have taught us to aspire to the nonchalant flatness of an image. just at the moment when ‘visual truth’ has lost its relevance, digitization has created an image world that is forever manipulable.”

“never before have so many photographers taken so many photographs containing so much meaning. yet, never before has such a potential for visual disinformation existed. photography’s apparent ease has become its most frightening delusion. what was once a little black box called a ‘brownie’ has become an eye-box-based blobject with attitude—a micro-mechanistic, biologically-derived, memory-collecting machine that offers [to paraphrase albert einstein] both ‘a perfection of means and a fertile confusion of goals.'”

That’s what he was thinking 20 years ago—and that’s why they call him The Professor.

n.b. The term “electrobricollage” is from the book by William J. Mitchell: The Reconfigured Eye, “Beginnings,” p.7, MIT Press, 1992. The quote from Malcolm Muggeridge is from the only book given [the year it came out] to The Young Professor by his Grandmother Humphrey: Things Past: An Anthology, ed. By Ian A. Hunter, “Newzak,” p. 210, William Morrow and Company, 1979. It has occurred to The Professor since then that the social critic Malcolm Muggeridge can be seen as the anti-McLuhan, someone who saw the dangers inherent in the rampant propagation of the self-image, someone who saw cameras specifically [and media technology in general] as a dehumanizing, debilitating and stupidity-engendering force whereas Marshall McLuhan saw the optimistic possibilities for progress and the liberation and extension of what it means to be human through media. It is The Professor’s belief that they are both correct.




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