By George Fifield

Views, The Journal of Photography in New England

Vol 3 Number 1

Copyright © 1981 Photographic Resource Center, reprinted with permission


“What’s the use of having names, “ the gnat said, “if they won’t answer to them?”

“No use to them,” said Alice, “But it’s useful to the people that name them, I suppose.  If not, why do things have names at all?’

“I can’t say,” the gnat replied.

– Through the Looking Glass


All names contain an attempt at magic, like art. No matter how secular, when we use one name over another one, it is in the hope that the object will take some attributes of the symbol.  Electrographics, electrophotography, xerography, copy art, instant art — all names describe the same medium, as used by different people.  The problem, of course, is too many magicians, not too few, so you will not read here a new coining or alternative, but I will examine the contenders, and some of their attributes.

Electrographics is an accurate term.  Just as conventional photography and filmmaking are major chemical/light mediums that artists have access to.  In both chemical and electrical mediums there are minor others, but they are generally too expensive and/or limiting to be of common use.  The electrical basis is the phenomenon of photo-emission.  When light strikes the surface of certain metals, electrons are emitted.  If one metal is used, a change occurs.  If two metals are used, in a vacuum tube, for instance, you get a current.  The first is xerography; the second is television (the video tube.)  Chester Carlson achieved success with the first “Xerox” machine in 1938.  Actually, Chester first called his invention ‘electrophotography,” probably the most accurate term.  Almost all copying machines are electrical cameras, but when was the last time you heard video referred to as “electrocinema”?

However, as the name implies, the future of electographics lies in the fusion with other electro-media.  The growing importance of television and computers means the electrographic art of the future will be the end of product/documentation of some computer video hybrid thereby completing the electro circle.  These directions are being explored by a number of individuals and corporations. The following two are exemplary.

Tom Norton, working in the Visible Language Workshop at MIT, uses the 3M Color-in-Color copying machine. He replaces the glass with a video monitor, feeding the image from a small black and white camera either through a set of color filters or through a video synthesizer timed to correspond to the three color passes of his machine.  The resulting electrophotograph combines the colors and stability of the print with the immediacy and texture of video-a final color print rendered solely in electronic terms.

The Xerox Corporation, soul fixed firmly in the future, has come up with an attachment to their 6500 color Copier that laser scans visual computer information from inside the copier and transfers it to paper.  This produced quick, full color hard copy from any compatible computer program.

Xerography is my favorite term in spite of (perhaps because of its silliness.  From the Greek (“dry-writing”), it was coined by a local professor for the Haloid Company in Rochester for their new product.  Then their wizards got hold of it and came up with XeroX.  So Haloid’s XeroX Standard Camera #1 and #4 were introduced to the world.

The term is not accurate.  There are a number of copying machines that use liquid toners to print their electrically generated image. But Xerox, as if by magic, has never used a liquid toner.  In fact, the only difference between Haloid’s standard Camera (1949) and today’s most sophisticated machine the Xerox 6500 Color copier, is that Xerox has changed the fully manual process of the Standard into a monstrous (but lovable) robot whose many logic circuits, wires, brushers, and pulleys use the same process to make the same thing in color.

In 1958, the Haloid Company introduced their first little robot, the 914 copier.  The following year they changed the company name to Xerox Corporation.  With these acts they unleashed a total revolution in corporate paper work.  It is said that in the Pentagon, regulations state that a copy must be made of all obsolete records before they are destroyed.  This record keeping madness caused the phenomenal growth of Xerox.  It also caused their name to be the one most firmly affixed to all forms of electrographics.  Unfortunately, this was to prove a liability.  Leather- winged lawyers continually descend from the big X to decry against “xerox art” or other nonproper noun use.  If “Xerox” becomes generic (“Xerox a copy of this for me, please.”), the company loses their trademark rights, just as the Bayer Company lost their trademark “aspirin.”  The fact that the word has already become generic seems to have escaped the company’s attention.

Copy art is perhaps the most unfortunate term.  The two words grate against one another with all the appeal of fingernails on a blackboard.  How can art be a copy?  Where’s the original?  It does acknowledge that the lowly workhorse of office equipment, the simple copier, is the daguerreotype of the electronic movement.  There is a major difference; while early  (and primitive) camera equipment was only in the hands of a few chemical pioneers, the office copier is one of the most prevalent machines in the land.  Anyone can use it and most people have access to one.  Some of the most exciting electrographic art I have seen was produced by interesting people in boring jobs, who found them selves with half an hour to kill next to the office copier.  Besides, the very mundaneness of the tool provides some of the “outlaw” thrills of being copy artist.  This thrill neatly dovetails with a variety of other new artist’s directions; mail art, artists books cheaply printed or copied at copy centers, even graffiti/poster art advertising any thing from punk concerts to political events.  All these directions take art out of its more formal traditions and return to it some of that spontaneity and innocence which the outlaw shares with the revolutionist.

The Academy accused the moderns of not learning the elements of painting.  Painters accused photographers of relying on easily learned mechanical skills.  And in this atmosphere, Alfred Stieglitz once publicly asked the rhetorical question “Can a photograph have the significance of a work of art?” to which Marcel Duchamp replied “I would like to see it make people despise painting until something will make photography unbearable.”

This brings us to the phase of instant art.  It works equally well as an accusation and a banner of rebellion. “Instant” somehow connotes haphazardness in “instant gratification”).  There is no discrimination in the choice.

But instant and haphazard do not preclude complex.  In an age of nuclear decisions, instant choices produce far-reaching and complex results.

Maybe the act of naming is like the magic of standing in front of this electrosymbol of robot technology, arranging and rearranging and then pushing “PRINT.”  Maybe this is as close as art can be in attempting to take on some of the attributes of electoreality.