BLOCKPIX of Ralph Nader

BLOCKPIX™ of Ralph Nader by Ed Manning

In the accepted sense of the word, the device I use is not a computer. It takes all of the information presented to it in the visual portion of the spectrum (as well as some outside) and, for a discrete area, integrates it. With ancillary sensing equipment, the device is part of a specialized computer. But that is another story and doesn't relate to the art form produced, so let me first answer your questions.

"How/why did you become involved with the computer (in producing art)?"

I became involved with the computer only in the sense that much of what I found printed and called 'computer art' lent itself very well to optical input material for colorful abstractions on the output of the optical processor I built.

"What is your art background?"

Although it was some time ago and I have difficulty remembering, I think I took art in the 4th, 5th and 6th grades. I could never get the hang of it. In my frustration I turned to mechanical drawing and was a skilled draftsman by the time I was 15 and I regularly produced model airplane plans for various model airplane magazines until I entered college.

"What role does the computer play for you...simulation, tool, etc? What is your role?"

In terms of Blocpix abstractions, the computer's role is to dish out some fancy patterns. Even though we can use the processor to make vapid designs colorful, the gigo principle applies.

"Are your computer works related to non-computer art?"

I don't work on a computer.

"Do you have a final image in mind when work begins?"

Some of the abstractions I have created are in my mind when work on the linear input program begins. The output seldom looks like what I had in mind.

"Could your work be done without the aid of a computer? If yes, why use the computer?"

It certainly can be done without the aid of a computer. But the computer produces a mass of material. Out of the mass, we try to elide the mess and use what's good.

"To what extent are you involved in the technical production of your work, for example, in programming?"

Not at all.

"Do you feel art work created with a computer has now or will have an impact on art as a whole in the future?"


"Do you recommend the use of the computer for others in creating works of art?"

I couldn't be so presumptuous.

"Do you intend to continue using the computer to create art pieces?"

I intend to learn how to use the computer to create art, largely in connection with the Blocpix format.

My involvement with what I call Blocpix (which generically can be called block portraits) began at least a couple of years ago when I saw a news release from Bell Laboratories showing a picture of Abraham Lincoln in the block format.

The Lincoln picture was produced by a scientist at Bell Labs named Leon Harmon. I wrote to him, he wrote to me, and I made various suggestions. The picture he had created was produced by scanning an image, manipulating the digitalized information so that it produced an output of discrete tones for discrete areas...in this case, blocks or squares. I suggested to Harmon that the whole thing could be done more easily by optical methods. He said that he had conceived of an optical means of doing so.

Some months later Harmon showed me the output from his optical processor. Two pictures he produced were in the November 1973 issue of Scientific American. I made an arrangement with him to try to exploit the process in cinegraphic form.

At about this time, the very talented optical effects movieman John Whitney, Jr., produced about 2 minutes and 31 seconds worth of cinegraphic block portraiture for the Michael Crichton film "WestWorld". He did this very much in the same manner that Harmon had originally devised at Bell Labs. His operation was described in the November 1973 issue of American Cinematographer. Essentially, he took each 70mm frame of movie stock, color-separated it (3 basic color separations plus black mask), scanned each of these to convert into rectangular blocks. Then he added basic color according to the tone values developed and put the whole thing back together. We were chagrined when WestWorld was released and our idea had evidently been scooped. It was only upon reading the description of how he worked in American Cinematographer that we learned he accomplished what he did in such a difficult manner. To do the same thing with the optical processor would require about 5 minutes worth of filming.

As is readily evident from the 2 block portraits that Harmon prepared for Scientific American in the November 1973 issue, his device had imperfections. We had learned that a Frenchman by the name of Darnowsky was doing some similar work, and since I had considerable background in scientific instrumentation I decided to build an instrument myself. Because Professor Harmon thought that his idea was patentable, he had made no disclosure to me of how his processor worked.

As things turned out, the processor I built was, in principle, very much like Harmon's.

The device is simply an array of optical units each of whose cross-sectional geometry is square. There are 30 units by 40 units for a total of 1200. The unit produces results in real time...instantaneously...with an optical input, usually a projected slide. Obviously, you can project motion pictures just as easily and photograph them on the output.


BLOCPIX™ of Sen. Sam Ervin

On the optical processor we make Blocpix images. Since the total output of the processor I constructed is 1200 squares, we're somewhat limited in what we can do. It lends itself readily to facial images. The information in a photo of a field of daisies is so overwhelming that all we get are beautiful blobs of color. On the other hand, a single rose looks like a rose.

Stratford, Connecticut
October 1975


* Trademark registered U.S. Patent Office by Watson-Manning, Inc.

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