HARMON-KNOWLTON’S “THE NUDE” OVERSHADOWS ALL
A. Michael Noll
August 28, 2022
Copyright © 2022 A. Michael Noll
Newspapers have been using a mosaic of dots with gray-scale values to reproduce photos. In 1967, Leon Harmon and Kenneth Knowlton did it, using a digital computer to assign gray-scale values to photos. Harmon and Knowlton worked in the research area as Members of Technical Staff at Bell Telephone Laboratories, Incorporated (Bell Labs) in Murray Hill, New Jersey. Knowlton had a doctorate in what today would be computer science from MIT.
At Bell Labs, Knowlton had pioneered the use of mosaic graphics for computer animation, and developed a programming language BEFLIX for computer animation. Harmon and Knowlton got the idea to use little images as mosaics to create a gray scale for a much larger overall picture. Each little pixel was itself a little image.
If you were close to the large picture, you saw only all the little mosaics images. Only when backing far away (or looking at it through a reverse telescope) was the “big picture” seen. The little mosaics were comprised of math symbols and electric circuit symbols. The graphic output from the mainframe digital computer was created on 35 mm microfilm by a Stromberg Carlson SC-4020 plotter.
One of the works Harmon and Knowlton created was “Gargoyle – Studies in Perception III” from 1967. I always liked “Gargoyle,” and I reproduced it in my Leonardo survey paper of early computer art at Bell Labs.[i]
“The Nude” At Bell Labs
Harmon was good at publicity and realized that a nude would garnish much more attention than a gargoyle. So, a dancer (Deborah Hay) was paid to pose full-frontal nude for a photo. Harmon and Knowlton then digitized the photo and reproduced it with a gray scale using their mosaic graphics. Harmon and Knowlton had used a digital computer to process a photograph of a nude woman and perhaps turn it into art. They called the result “The Nude – Studies in Perception I.” They created a huge print that was about 12-feet long, mounted on thin board.
The Executive Director at Bell Labs of the division in which Harmon and Knowlton worked was Edward E. David, Jr. He was out of his office, and Harmon and Knowlton hung “The Nude” on a wall in his office as a surprise for when he returned. David was indeed “surprised’ – but also concerned about the controversy of a huge nude on the wall in his office. He decided it had to go. I was one of those who removed it from his office in the evening and carried it down the staircase (it was too big for the elevator in Building 3) and out Bell Labs in Murray Hill. Ed David left Bell Labs in August 1970 to become Science Advisor to President Nixon. I joined Ed in Washington a year later.
“The Nude” History
I did not follow the path of “The Nude.” It might have gone to Ed’s home for a while, and then off to NTC artist Robert Rauschenberg, where it was seen by a reporter for the New York Times. It was reproduced on the front page of a section of The New York Times for October 11, 1967. This gave it much attention and publicity, and some sort of legitimacy. Even Bell Labs’ owner – the ultra-conservative AT&T – paid attention and seemed to approve.
In late 1968, “The Nude” was exhibited in an addendum to “The Machine” show at the Museum of Modern Art. It was one of the collaborative works in art and technology that was exhibited and chosen in a competition for engineers and artists. The catalogue of the show describes “Studies in Perception, I 1968 Computer-processed photographic print, 30 x 60 [inches.” Harmon was credited as the artist, and Knowlton was credited as the engineer.[ii] This assignment was determined, according to Knowlton, by the toss of a coin.[iii] E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology) was responsible for the competition and addendum.
A copy of “The Nude” was also shown at the exhibit “Cybernetic Serendipity” in London in 1968, curated by Jasia Reichardt.[iv] “The Nude” is well copied and reprinted today, and still attracts much attention.
It is not clear who took the original photo. At an event in New York City in November 1998, Max Mathews stated that Leon Harmon took the photo.[v] A web historian writes that he contacted Deborah Hay, and she said that Max Mathews took the photo.[vi] Perhaps both Harmon and Mathews were there with Hay, with both taking photos.
Was “The Nude” innovative or perceptual research? In the 1960s, Impact printers (also called a line printer) in computer centers were being used to create images, with each ASCII character being assigned a grey-scale value. These images were known as ASCII artwork. Such images as Mona Lisa and Marilyn Monroe were used – and so too were nudes – known as ASCII porn. But they did not make it to The New York Times. And, as stated in the beginning of this piece, newspapers have always used dots as a gray scale for photos. “The Nude” does not seem to have been a study in perception either.
“The Nude” was a conventional photograph of a nude woman that was then digitized and represented using little pixels as a gray scale. It had little to do with computer art or generative art. The computer was not programmed to create an image of a nude.
All the attention on “The Nude” seems to have been – and seems to still be today – just because the image was a nude female. Back then; it might have been just a bunch of guys at Bell Labs looking for an excuse to photograph a nude woman. It seems that the nude bodies of women still generate publicity and much visual interest even today. “The Nude” still overshadows all.
Nudes were sensational in the 1960s, which was the time of the Playboy centerfold nude, and even a topless cellist. Hence, the Harmon-Knowlton “The Nude” received much attention. The problem is that by attracting that kind of attention, other computer and generative art, then in its infancy in the 1960s, was eclipsed and seen as not being serious.
Perhaps I was somewhat displeased at the time by all the attention that “The Nude” received. My abstract, generative, computer art, such as “Gaussian-Quadratic” simply could not compete with a nude. However, given that my work was abstract, perhaps I should have claimed that it was a nude!
[i] A. Michael Noll, “Early Digital Computer Art at Bell Telephone Laboratories, Incorporated,” LEONARDO, Vol. 49, No. 1 (February 2016), pp. 57.
[ii] K. G. Pontus Hultén, The machine,” The Museum of Modern Art (1968), p. 207.
[iii] Ken Knowlton, “On the Frustrations of Collaborating with Artists,” (SIGGRAPH) Computer Graphics, Vol. 35, No. 3, August 2001, pp. 20-22.
[iv] A print of “The Nude” can be seen toward the end of this presentation of photos taken of the exhibition “Cybernetic Serendipity” –https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5mH9DysESqo
[v] https://ethw.org/Archives:Bell_Labs_&_The_Origins_of_the_Multimedia_ Artist#Transcript