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John and James Whitney

Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

The Whitney Brothers at work on an early film. Photo: Carl Machover.

John and James Whitney were pioneering artists and experimental filmmakers; here’s a link to an excellent survey of their work, and of abstract imagist filmmaking. The Whitney Brothers were among the very first, and the most inventive, in harnessing the power of computers to create images of dazzling, trancelike beauty, as in James Whitney’s Lapis (1966). I’m also partial to their earlier works, such as John Whitney’s Celery Stalks at Midnight (1952), an abstract animation set to a popular song of the period.

As this very interesting website notes, “In the early 1960s digital computers became available to artists for the first time (although they cost from $100.000 to several millions, required air conditioning, and therefore located in separate computer rooms, uninhabitable studio’; programs and data had to be prepared with the keypunch, punch cards then fed into the computer; systems were not interactive and could produce only still images). The output medium was usually a pen plotter, microfilm plotter (hybrid bwn vector CRT and a raster image device), line printer or an alphanumeric printout, which was then manually transferred into a visual medium. [The] two main centers of computer art activities [at the time were]: The Murray Hill lab, Bell Laboratories, New Jersey, us (now AT&T) and Technische Universitat Stuttgart, de (Max Bense).”

Click on the image above to see James Whitney’s Lapis (1966) in its entirety.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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