Screen. Image. Text.


Tauba Auerbach, RGB Colorspace Atlas. (2011)

I once heard Leon Botstein, the President of Bard College, compare books to stairs. “They’ve invented the elevator,” he said, “but sometimes you still walk up.” There are countless discussions on the future of the book—they are picked up in magazine feature articles, in trade conferences, and in academic roundtables—and in all of these, the future of the printed word seems certain: in a generation or two, print will become obsolete. In this age of changing habits, if print is the stairs and screens the elevator, then what could the escalator be?

This moment in time, and the awareness of the possibilities electronic publishing grant, affect the manner in which we relate to texts in a way that is under constant scrutiny. But images prove to be a different problem. The separation between text and images has a long history. In fact, images have posed a challenge for publishers from the early days of print—be it the cost of printing them; the payments for illustrators, photographers, and designers; or simply contextualizing the images and their relation to the text—but they have become crucial to our understanding of texts. When the Illustrated London News, the world’s first illustrated weekly newspaper, began publishing in 1842, the relationship between the text and the engraved images in the paper was such a novelty that it took the weekly about a decade to stake a hold in that era’s news distribution channels. Once it did, it became one of the most widely circulated newspapers in Victorian Britain. The marriage of text and the engraved image marked a new level of fluency in communication via images, which does away with staples of early print day, even though the separation between image and text lasted for many decades later, and can still be traced today. (Think, for example, of the plate pages, where color images were glued onto the paper, so that the book or magazine would be printed in black and white, adding the color pages later in a way that saves money on printing, but also generates a wholly different relationship with images. These are often associated with encyclopedias, but a large number of artist’s monographs retained this design even after color printing became widely accessible, creating the odd text-image relationship where an artwork is described to the most minute detail, with a comment in parenthesis directing the reader to “color plate 3,” where the mentioned piece could be seen in glossy print.)

The generations to come of age in the days of digital publishing and reading on screens have a much more complicated relationship with images. The human eye-brain system is capable of reading a large number of high quality images in a matter of split seconds, and this, alongside the hand-eye coordination—think about the pleasure of a touch screen versus inky newspaper pages—is rapidly developing to mirror our changing habits of consuming information. So much so that the contemporary heightened sensitivity to the way we read images can lead to an ability to, at times, ignore the quality of the images when inserted into a text, the way our brain glides over a typo in the flow of reading. The way we read images online is only one thing these magazines deal with in the process of publishing, but it is surely an element that dictates a large portion of the reading experience of these publications.



The Tale of the Big Computer


Our poets, especially those commonly called mystics, tend to regard the period immediately succeeding the formation of the Earth as a mighty effort on the part of nature to engender computers directly, without the help of any intermediary. They are alluding to the geological processes which crystallized out many of the substances of which a data machine consists. But the task of bringing forth computers from sterile soil proved too difficult. The tectonic forces which created mountains and differentiated minerals could not produce anything as subtle and complex as a computer. For this a lengthy, troublesome detour was required, and the greatest of all tasks had to be completed step by step. 

- Excerpt from The Tale of the Big Computer: A Vision by Olof Johannesson (Sagan om den stora Datamaskinen,) 1966

Triple Canopy's new issues includes a wonderful essay by artist Anna Lundh beginning with a look at a rare example of Swedish language science fiction, The Tale of the Big Computer, written by the prominent physicist Hannes Alfvén, (later a Nobel prize winner):

Sagan om den stora Datamaskinen was written at the very cusp of the computer age, but today’s perspective has shifted slightly, to that of a society already immersed in computer technology (a dependence that may obscure some of the technology’s implications). Though Alfvén’s story of humanity’s evolution, his ambivalence about technology, and his suspicion of politicians and bureaucrats are firmly rooted in 1960s Sweden, his tale has grown to encompass our 2011 present, exposing it from two directions. Alfvén’s future vision looks back past us but also stretches far beyond us, into the reaches of possibility. The borders between the past, the present, and the future are blurred and overlapping: a cross-contamination of time.

Researching whether The Tale of the Big Computer had been turned into an opera, as the British edition of the book said, Lundh found documentation of Swedish composer Karl-Birger Blomdahl's 1959 operatic adaptation of Harry Martinson’s epic sci-fi poem Aniara, "in which one of the leading roles was sung by the operator of the ingenious instrument Mima (a sort of mechanical brain and the soul of the spaceship), to an imaginative and energetic score that included musique concrête and even some electronic sounds."

Lundh's essay continues with an antic description of Blomdahl's plans to turn The Tale of the Big Computer into an opera. "It’s a rather idealistic and even paradoxical endeavor: to create an opera about future technology, using technology that inevitably belongs to the present."



Triple Canopy's Photography Issue


The first digital camera, built by Eastman Kodak engineer Steven Sasson, 1975

Photographs viewed online suffer from a crushing sameness, without the particular pleasures provided by silver-gelatin, chromogenic, or ink-jet prints. As I’ve edited the issue, the question preoccupying me has been whether it’s possible to have what Michael Fried calls an “absorptive” experience with a photograph online, in which the image can obliterate one’s consciousness of viewing it. And though this condition isn’t related exclusively to form, it requires a certain minimum size and richness of detail—enough to monopolize one’s attention and reveal the photograph’s complexities in the moment of viewing. The challenge here is to charge the JPEG—among other low-grade image-file formats common to the Web—with this task.
What a digital space lacks, it makes up for in the potential for recombination. A tactic common to the projects in this issue is emphasizing relationships among images, whether those belonging to a discrete set authored by the photographer or to the vast cache of vernacular imagery readily accessible online. This is true of Boru O’Brien O’Connell and Simone Gilge’s variations on the slide-show format, Dan Torop’s textual interventions, and Daniel Gordon’s automated amalgamations of his own photographs and those found on the Web. “I wish that each picture…was not forced to be surrounded by just two others,” Geoff Dyer writes in The Ongoing Moment, his book on photography. “Ideally some sections would be adjacent to four or eight or even ten others,” and the book would “emulate the aleatory experience of dipping into a pile of photographs as far as is compatible with the constraints of binding.” Online, liberated from the mechanics of actual space, photographs flash and dissolve, are animated and stilled, merged and isolated, replicated and excerpted. Their vitality is contingent.


More from Triple Canopy's new issue on photography.