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The question to ask is not, "What does this new technology allow us to do?" but rather, "What is it that people have always wanted to do that this technology enables them to do better?"
—Dr. Rudy Burger, Founding CEO, MIT Media Lab Europe
To set the stage for our twenty-first-century Going Visual success stories, we have assembled a brief history that illustrates how humankind has used technology to communicate with images through the ages. By studying this history, we have identified three basic elements that mark the evolution of visual communication as a useful medium:
VISUAL COMMUNICATION 19 PERFORMANCE ELEMENTS OF VISUAL COMMUNICATION
1. Skill level. Level of expertise necessary to create an image that communicates.
2. Time requirements. How long it takes to create the image.
3. Audience reach. How many individuals can view the image.
Elements 1 and 2 determine the cost of creating an image. Element 3 has a direct bearing on the value of that image as a means of communication. This book examines how the value of visual communication has soared, while its cost has fallen dramatically.
As far back as 16,000 to 9,000 B.C., in the Altamira caves of northern Spain, humans used natural pigments like ochre and zinc oxides to paint multicolored pictures on the rock walls. These paintings required a high degree of skill, were created slowly and carefully, and, because of their location, deep in the darkest caves, were viewed by very few people.
The Egyptians and Mayans developed carving technology and skills to render their visual messages in stone. These were very refined, labor-intensive images, created by highly skilled craftsman and viewed only by people who stood before them at the location.
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Altamira cave painting
Centuries later, the Western world embraced painting on canvas, wood, and plaster as its means of visual expression. As a visual communication technology, painting, while far superior to what had come before, had severe limitations, as exhibited by reviewing the three performance elements:
1. Skill level. The level of skill necessary to create a realistic rendering of a physical reality—a portrait, a landscape, a city scene—was exceedingly high, and only a few individuals practiced the art.
2. Time requirements. The time it took to create a painting was typically measured in days, weeks, or even months. Therefore the power of paintings to communicate was the province of very few: the rich, who could afford to commission the creation
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Stone carvings at Palenque, Mexico
of images (most often likenesses of themselves and their families), and church and political leaders, who commissioned paintings of religious or historical scenes as part of their exercise of power.
3. Audience reach. The physical image itself—the painting—was unique and could be seen only in person, severely limiting the number of people who could be reached by its message.
The advent of silver halide photography in the early 1800s changed the equation. True, the level of skill required to use the
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Painting requires a very high level of skill and investment of time from the artist in return for a very limited audience reach.
medium in its infancy was not dramatically lower than was the case for painting. However, photography was a breakthrough in two respects. First, the time required to create an image was distinctly reduced. A picture could be captured in minutes and converted into a viewable reproduction within hours, through a repeatable process. Since time, even then, was money, the effect was to lower the economic barriers to the creation of images, giving birth to the first incarnation of the photography industry—the portrait studios that, for the first time in history, enabled ordinary people to have likenesses of themselves made for posterity. In addition, it also made possible field photography and the chronicling of the Civil War.
Second, an equally important breakthrough was the introduction of the first negative/positive methods that made it possible to reproduce multiple copies of an image. This allowed these images to be
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distributed for hundreds—and, with the emergence of newspapers, thousands—to see. As a communication technology, early photography enabled the creation of unprecedented numbers of images and gave these images unprecedented reach: No longer confined to the walls of the cave, the church, or the homes of the wealthy, images began conquering the world.
The main breakthrough of nineteenth-century photography was the reduced time to create an image.
The introduction of easy-to-use film cameras in 1900, epitomized by the Kodak Brownie and the slogan, “You press the button, we’ll do the rest,” began democratizing image capture. A picture could be captured in less than a second, by a person with modest skills, and printed very inexpensively using mass-production machines. The great illustrated magazines—Life, Look, and others—that came into being as a result of this technology made images an integral part of the mass-market culture.