Tadao Takano: Cybergrams 1982-1988 @Higher Pictures

JTF (just the facts): A total of 34 black-and-white photographs, hung unframed behind glass against white walls in the divided gallery space. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, made between 1986 and 1988. Physical sizes are 20×16 inches each and all of the prints are unique. (Installation and detail shots below.)

Comments/Context: If you spend much time on the photographic Internet these days, it’s hard not to come across some of the wild-looking images that have been generated by AI systems. Artists will of course make art with whatever tools they have at their disposal, and as the new software functions continue to roll out, the AI experimentation has become fast and furious, with the resulting images moving into a new artistic whitespace somewhere beyond what we have typically called “photographic”.

This ongoing transformation of photography (and image making more broadly) has its roots back in the analog to digital revolution in the medium several decades ago now, when the underlying guts of photography became more computational. And as photography has become more algorithmic, its connections to the previously discrete areas of computer art, digital art, networked art, and other forms of generative art have become more intriguing. Part of the history that we now need to better understand is how computers and photography have been deliberately connected by artists over time, and how those artists (many of which weren’t entirely recognized for their innovations at the time) have used algorithmic techniques (or software) to create different kinds of photographs.

Given all the experimentation that took place at the Institute of Design/New Bauhaus in Chicago under László Moholy-Nagy in the 1940s and 1950s, it isn’t surprising that one of its students would go on to be interested in the unexplored possibilities of mixing computing and photography. Tadao Takano got his degree from the ID in 1952 (having studied with Harry Callahan, among others) and went on to work as a graphic designer and typographer, before becoming a professor himself at the nearby University of Illinois at Chicago, where he went on to teach for the next three decades.

While generative art ideas had been percolating around in various forms since the early 1960s, it wasn’t really until the 1980s when early personal computers became a little more widely available that the intersections between code and photography started to bubble more strongly. In Europe, artists like Gottfried Jäger (here) and Karl Martin Holzhäuser (here) were among a group of artists who coalesced around “Concrete Photography”, a movement blending data processing with experimentation with optics and light. Half way across the globe, Takano was innovating along his own similar but parallel path, using a computer to drive a hand-built robotic apparatus that made precisely controlled photographic exposures.

Takano’s BIGS machine was essentially an easel-like structure hung from the ceiling of his lab that carried a light source and lens above an XY grid, using a stepping motor to move the apparatus along the axes; BIGS was connected to an IBM 5160 PC-XT, and so was software-driven. Takano used the system to make camera-less multiple exposure abstractions of various kinds which he called “cybergrams”, some with several thousand individual exposures on a single sheet of gelatin silver paper. In this way, Takano’s “cybergrams” can be connected to a range of early generative drawing and printmaking techniques, albeit that Takano was working with light as his output medium, in a fundamentally photographic manner.

As seen in this small survey show, Takano seems to have generally worked in series, taking an aesthetic or compositional idea and then iterating it through multiple versions using the same underlying mark making approach. Ten images from the “Pale” series are hung together in a grid on one wall, each work made up of hundreds of individual rectangular exposures. Up close, each grey block is largely visible, stuttering along from one exposure to the next in broken/overlapped progressions of lines and curves; from afar, these blocks resolve into repeated gestural lines, almost like hard edged calligraphy made by an insistent and emphatic hand.

Two other projects create ribbon-like structures of lines, one with hard-edged precisely-aligned straightness, the other with more squiggling movement. In each case, iterations create dense layers of overlapped lines, the more jittery versions (like shredded strips of ticker tape paper) seeming to wander down the page with faint echoes reverberating out to the sides, almost like topographical maps or seismic measurements. In other experiments, the “Flog” works use the repetition of lines more loosely, creating undulating curves and rounded surfaces, like the kind kids used to make with a spirograph toy. And the “Trip” works are much more boldly dark and gestural, with dark masses repeated and overlapped creating a tiled snake-skin like effect, the overall movement mimicking the appearance of a Japanese ink drawing.

Along the way, Takano developed ways to mask certain areas of his compositions, thereby enabling “filled” areas with alternate effects. A grid of nine works offers three possibilities, one building up a simmering near fractal arrangement of different sized squares, another arranging squares and triangles in connected schemes (almost like unfolded boxes), and a third opting for more organic curved shapes. Layered exposures then create gradient like sweeps of light and dark in the different areas, like shiny stainless steel or mylar covered in faint lines.

Seen together, these various photographic abstractions are a testament to Takano’s persistent inventiveness. Each series seems to have required a new way of thinking, where potential visual outcomes were then translated back into instructions that the computer and robotic machine could successfully execute. This mechanistic artistic problem solving thrums through these works with a kind of contagious enthusiasm. Each iteration feels like an experiment, where variables are tweaked, constraints are tightened or loosened, and improvisation and chance enter the process with each individual choice. The resulting artworks are the physical evidence of an intricately controlled process, each endpoint the outcome of trying to push the medium of photography somewhere it hadn’t been before.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced at $4000 each. Takano’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by Poursuite Editions (here). Softcover, 21 x 29 cm, 144 pages, with 107 black-and-white and color reproductions. Includes an essay by Clément Ghys ... Read on.

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