Reel-to-Reel is the sixth of seven technologies I’ve explored in Prior Art: analog media manipulation and vintage virtual reality.
“Software has eaten music production. It’s gotten much cheaper, more dematerialized, and extremely powerful. And it’s become sterile, automated, and over-produced. My work tries to make digital music seem analog, to blur the 1s and 0s with waves and voltages, noise and decay. When I see these Old School reel-to-reel tapes I hear the room noise hissing like electric snakes on a Summer lawn, the rich magnetic warmth of tape head transduction, and the slight aperiodic wobble of the motors resolutely unknowable in the face of unyielding digital perfection.”
Chris Arkenberg // @chris23 // harryselassie.bandcamp.com
Early audio used cylinders or disks to capture recording, until the middle of the 20th century when advances in tape recording provided a higher fidelity than ever before. Recordings were primarily made onto tape until the advent of digital recording. Tape recording allowed performers, who previously could only perform live, to record and edit their shows. It also enabled producers to create multi-track recordings where individual performers could record their parts and the producer could have greater control over how they combined into the final recording.
Recording studios used reel-to-reel tapes to capture individual performances and layer sounds. It also enabled editors to include sound effects like laugh tracks. In addition to the dedicated recording studios, radio stations would often have their own sound recording and mixing equipment as well. This was used for recording interviews and live performances at the station. It was also a way to create advertisements or underwriting spots that were pre-recorded and could be played between songs
Advances in tape technology were a closely-guarded secret during World War II. German engineers had accidentally discovered a much higher-fidelity form of recording than previously thought possible, and this was used to allow Hitler to broadcast supposedly “live” speeches from other cities. At the end of the war, U.S. Army Signal Corps member Jack Mullin came across two Magnetophon machines at a radio station in Frankfurt that he brought back home and reverse-engineered to develop the machines for commercial use.
One early adopter was Bing Crosby, who was a popular radio star who had grown weary of a live recording schedule. He saw the potential in pre-recording shows and promptly invested in the technology, becoming the first American performer to use it. Further development led to stereo and multitrack audio recorders. One of the first musicians to use those was Les Paul who also invented the electric guitar. These two inventions set the stage for the explosion of rock and roll music.
Editing a reel-to-reel recording is a manual process of cutting and combining tape. Some machines included tape splicers directly on them, but editing could also be done simply with a steady hand, a sharp blade, and tape.
The angle of the cut affects the nature of the transition. A “hard cut” is a strict transition from one tape to another where the tape is cut at a 90-degree angle. For a softer transition, editors use a “soft cut” of 45 degrees or a “super soft cut” of 30 degrees.
Transfers are the fifth of seven technologies I’ve explored in Prior Art: analog media manipulation and vintage virtual reality.
“My art/graphic design education began when Macs were quaint little upright boxes, and most layout work required Exacto knives and hot wax. Ah, those were the days. This work is faster and easier now, but part of me misses the meditative physicality of this work.”
Deb Aoki // debaoki.com
Just as typesetting made book creation more efficient by eliminating the need to write each one by hand, graphic designers and illustrators have also sought technologies to make their results more predictable and efficient. Transfers provided these shortcuts for fonts, clip art, and patterns.
One type of transfer is the “dry transfer” of rub-on (rubdown) screens: decals applied with pressure. These are used by placing them upside down on the paper and applying pressure by carefully burnishing the letter (or art) the artist wishes to use.
Another type is screentones: printed sticker-like sheets that artists cut pieces from and stick directly onto their art. Companies like Zip-A-Tone, Chart-Pak, and Letraset created halftone hatches, dots, and lines to provide texture for black and white art.
Comic artists have relied on screentones as a way to add depth and texture to black and white illustration. Screentones can range from simple dot and line patterns to action-evoking speed lines to elaborate backgrounds of stars, foliage, or cityscapes. Precisely trimming screentones and aligning their patterns is a skill unto itself.
In Japan, comics (manga) have a large and diverse reader base that includes comics created for a range of ages. A group of female artists in the 1970s created manga aimed at women that explored complex emotional themes in a variety of genres. Though not an official group, they were dubbed the “Year 24 Group” since many of them were born in 1949 (Showa Year 24 in the Japanese calendar).
Traditionally, comics are drawn on Bristol board with blue pencils since the blue marks will not be seen when it is scanned for reproduction. Screentones are a quick way to add texture and depth for something even as simple as a gray gradient.
In 1976, Dean Morris (then 16) created a hand-drawn font and submitted xeroxed copies to the Letraset company in the hope they might be interested in it.
“Letraset must have wanted it real fast (fifties nostalgia and disco were WHITE HOT then, remember), because they did the finished art themselves at 5” high (they can’t have known my age, maybe they had no confidence in my technical talent).”
Many of these pre-digital fonts were converted to digital, so Dean Morris’s Quicksilver lives on to evoke the disco era.
Darkrooms are the fourth of seven technologies I’ve explored in Prior Art: analog media manipulation and vintage virtual reality.
“As a digital photographer, the world of film has always been cloaked with the mystery of alchemy and magic. Exploring a working film lab was fascinating, and Lynde was so generous in explaining different aspects of development – the process is much more rich and complex than I had imagined.”
Jillian Cocklin // epoxystudios.com
The darkroom is a workshop to allow photographers to develop film and make prints. Since film development relies on careful control of light, a safelight is the only lighting used for illumination. Many black-and-white papers are sensitive primarily to blue or blue-green light, so a red or amber- colored light will keep the paper from accidental exposure. A variety of chemicals are used to develop and set the film, usually in conjunction with a trough-style sink and plastic trays. An enlarger, which looks somewhat like a vertically-mounted camera, is used create prints by projecting light through a piece of film onto exposure-sensitive paper for a precise amount of time.
Correct exposure depends on the content of the photo as well as the sensitivity of the paper. To get the right tone, photographers will take a test strip of paper and progressively expose portions of it for set durations of time. That way, they can evaluate a range of results to identify the right exposure time to use for that particular photo and paper.
The amount of time a photo is exposed to light before it is “set” determines how light or dark it will be. Photographers can selectively expose or mask areas of photos to create particular effects.
“Dodging” involves using a cutout shape on the end of a thin stick to prevent portions of a photo from being exposed to light. Since exposure to light makes a photo darker, those protected portions remain lighter. “Burning” creates the opposite effect: using a mask or hole for light to pass through to create extra exposure to light (and therefore darker results). A quick way to do this is with one’s hand, but it can also be done with any object that can selectively expose light.
To create consistent results, film producers created a reference photo to represent an ideal range of colors and tones. In addition to showing basic colors and a grayscale range, these also included a person for reference. One early model was a Kodak employee named Shirley, so they became known as “Shirley cards”.
However, each reference only included one model that was always a caucasian female. This resulted in chemical calibrations that had very little nuance in brown tones, so all other skin tones turned out off-balance with distorted colors and often too dark to capture detail. Amazingly, film producers didn’t start including a wider range of brown tones until they received complaints from furniture and chocolate manufacturers that they couldn’t differentiate their range of products in photos. Later reference cards were updated to include multiple multiracial models.
Zoëtropes are the third of seven technologies I’ve explored in Prior Art: analog media manipulation and vintage virtual reality.
“As a storytelling device first and foremost, I was always drawn to how animation can capture energy, possibility and emotion all at once…and in the most fantastical way. To paraphrase Steven Spielberg, ‘…with animation, fantasy is your friend’.”
Marcela Cordon // Instagram: @cordon3
Though progressions of drawings to indicate movement have been around for a millennium, the technologies to animate them developed rapidly in the late 19th century leading up to the advent of film. One of the first was the phenakistoscope (or stroboscope disc, or phantasmascope) in 1833. This arranged drawings radially on a disc, though its inventor Simon Stampfer imagined they could also be on a cylinder or loop of paper/canvas. Later inventions improved on this with similarly colorful names: the dædaleum, the zoëtrope, the praxinoscope, and the zoopraxiscope.
Zoëtropes have been built small enough to be held in one’s hand, and large enough to hold hundreds of people within them. Typically a zoëtrope can be viewed by multiple people at once since the slits surround all sides of the cylinder. More recently, artists have created 3D zoëtrope animations (using sculptures instead of drawings) and subway zoëtropes (using the motion of passing trains).
William Horner, inventor of the dædaleum, described his invention “as imitating the practice which the celebrated artist of antiquity [Dædalus] was fabled to have invented, of creating figures of men and animals endued with motion.” It’s unclear whether the name (which also translates as “cunning one”) or the content (one popular animation had a devil in it) led to its nickname: the “Wheel of the Devil”.
A Milton Bradley employee, William E. Lincoln, improved upon the invention by shifting the viewing slits up so that new strips of animations could be easily swapped out. In a savvy marketing turn, he also called his invention the “zoëtrope” which translates to “Wheel of Life” – a much more family-friendly name.
Before film could capture motion, no one could prove for certain how particular motions occurred. Eadweard Muybridge, a photographer, was commissioned in 1872 by Leland Stanford to photograph horses to help settle a $25,000 bet as to whether a racehorse’s hooves all leave the ground at once when running.
After years of technological and personal setbacks, Muybridge succeeded in rigging a series of specially-designed equipment with tripwires to rapidly capture a series of images documenting one full gallop. Two of those sixteen images definitively revealed that all four hooves were off the ground. Muybridge spent the rest of his life improving on this technique for creating motion studies.
Stereoscopes are the second of seven technologies I’ve explored in Prior Art: analog media manipulation and vintage virtual reality.
“The painting and photographs we were looking at reminded me of a museum of photography we saw in Marrakech. Photography had just entered this exotic land and an unknown culture had been communicated to the world. The stereoscopes made me feel just like those Berber tribes experiencing some unknown technology.”
Omid Mirshafiei // Instagram: @sacafotos
“My aunt has always collected quirky antiques, and I remember gently playing with an old stereoscope when I thought nobody was watching. Looking through your beautiful wooden and metal stereoscopes that day with the Egyptian travel pictures made me feel like I was looking through somebody’s old record collection. You could tell from the edges which ones were the most loved.”
Ashlea Mittelstaedt // Instagram: @clarokaysee
“Stereo” viewing is the ability to converge two images from slightly different viewpoints into one image with a perceived depth. Some people are able to view stereo imagery without the aid of a device, though it may cause eye strain and fatigue. A stereoscope is a device that arranges these images in a way to easily create this optical illusion. There have been many variations on this kind of device for nearly two centuries.
The stereoscope gained wide adoption as personal entertainment with the invention of the Holmes stereoscope. Oliver Wendell Holmes created – and deliberately did not patent – his device in 1861. According to him: “There was not any wholly new principle involved in its construction, but, it proved so much more convenient than any hand-instrument in use, that it gradually drove them all out of the field, in great measure, at least so far as the Boston market was concerned.”
Early stereograph cards focused primarily on virtual tourism to show landscapes of far-off places, but this was not the only use of them. Dr. John Adamson, a medical doctor, was also a photographer who invented one of many early innovations for developing photos.
Adamson was commissioned to create stereoscope photographs by the University of St. Andrews as they explored these new technologies. He took what may be the first stereographic self-portrait in which he chose to strike an intellectual pose with a book.
The View-Master stereoscope, patented in 1939, uses rotating cardboard disks with the stereo images split across the opposite sides of the disk. With the invention of cheap color photography, its popularity exploded.
Like earlier stereoscopes, it was originally popular as a kind of virtual tourism. It later shifted to become more of a toy, and in 2008, the original company stopped producing tourism reels altogether in favor of the much more popular animated character reels.
Typesetting is the first of seven technologies I’ve explored in Prior Art: analog media manipulation and vintage virtual reality.
“No matter how intellectual a pursuit it becomes, Design is most rewarding when you’re simply making it: setting the type, framing the shot, writing the code.”
Emilio Passi // epassi.co
The earliest words were written by hand: stamped in clay, etched with charcoal, drawn with ink. As scrolls developed into books, stories were collected through the painstaking and time consuming process of transcription. But this was a luxury, and only the wealthy could afford it.
Typesetting enables these stories to be composed by arranging pieces of type: physical stamps of letters and symbols that make up written language. This not only enables faster and cheaper reproduction of text, but also a consistent appearance. Instead of bearing the mark of the scribe, these printed materials now bear the distinctive look of a font (the design of those letters themselves). Print shops keep large wooden shelves with hundreds (or thousands) of pieces of type for a range of fonts and sizes.
Letterpress machines create the means of adding ink to a set of letters and transferring it to a piece of paper. The letter stamps are arranged into a tight block to preserve the format. This block is called a “lock up” because it is tightened by hand with a key to keep the pieces from moving around. Ink is spread onto one of the forward cylinders, and a piece of paper is aligned with the rst cylinder to begin. With a turn of a crank, the cylinders roll out to spread ink on the lock up, and roll the paper across it to create an inked impression.
The first system of movable type was invented in the 11th century by Bi Sheng in China. He shaped clay into pieces representing hundreds of Chinese glyphs which he baked into a ceramic material. This material, a fine porcelain, was sturdy enough for the rigors of printing.
There are a few ideas about why this origin of type is less well known. As a commoner, Bi Sheng’s history was not recorded. We only know of his invention through a book printed at the time. The sheer number of glyphs for the Chinese language also made the process of creating a font onerous. Centuries later, when Johannes Gutenberg introduced mechanical movable type to the Western world, he had a much smaller glyph set to reproduce – a boon for mass production.
Johannes Gutenberg combined a number of innovations for movable type, oil-based ink, and adjustable molds to enable mass production of printed material. Since the printed result would contain a reverse image of what was laid out, a skilled typesetter would need to be able to read the text backwards (or use a mirror) to lay it out properly.
Gutenberg saw great potential in this mass production for the creation of Bibles, and is best known for his high-quality Gutenberg Bible. He spoke of these advancements here: “Let us break the seal which seals up holy things and give wings to Truth in order that she may win every soul that comes into the world by her word no longer written at great expense by hands easily palsied, but multiplied like the wind by an untiring machine.”
My first solo show, Prior Art, is now up at Kaleid Gallery in downtown San José from now ’til November 25th. The theme of the show is “analog media manipulation and vintage virtual reality.” I’ll be posting the stories about the art in the show every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for the next few weeks. I’ve been working on this project (the theme, the art, the book) for most of the year and it’s great to see it all together. Thanks to everyone who made it out to the reception, and if you haven’t seen it yet definitely check it out while it’s all up together!
Here’s more details about the art in the seven themes of the show:
I found these nice sleeves printed in the style of the “carte de visite”, the collectible trading card craze of the mid-19th century. Slightly larger than modern trading cards, this style of card was used for portraits of friends, family, and celebrities.
It’s been a little while since I’ve done watercolor so I created a bunch of tiny portraits based on photos that would have been the right era for these styles (mid-1850s). Because it’s Halloween, and I wanted to loosen up a bit, I leaned a bit more towards caricatures and intentionally skewed them to look creepy.
It’s the first day of summer, an excellent time to debut more work in the Bathers series. There are now six! Here are all of them.
I found these little frames with comic-strip-like sections and thought it would work well with a three-part phrase. I immediately thought of Elvis Costello singing “what’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding?” I thought about tattoos as a way to show these words, and a few small sketches later came up with this.
I didn’t use any photo references on this one so it’s a little more cartoony than my recent work. I wanted to use realistic-looking tattoo styles and locations, with each piece seen as tattoos are often seen: as the decorative pieces peeking out from clothes.
The arm tattoo I imagined as “Rest In Peace” with a calavera, a decorated skull just barely visible. The ankle tattoo: “Love Kills”, with the V as a dagger into a heart. The back tattoo I never fully figured out beyond “Understanding is the only way” but I imagined it has another few words there.
I used this to test out some new watercolor pencils and quickly realized I should have used thicker paper if I wanted to treat it like a true watercolor. After I added the ink outlines, I filled in more texture, color, and contrast with regular Prismacolor pencils instead.