Commentary on the history of "Photomosaic" pictures
By John R. Vollaro
Below is a series of email messages between me and William
Hunt. William has a website that includes a brief history of
photomosaic pictures. He mentions a project that I was involved in with
Leon Harmon when
I worked at Bell Telephone Laboratories. It is interesting to note how
this scientific project influenced at least two notable artists,
(Salvatore Dali and Lillian Schwartz), and in a lark produced an image
deemed worthy to exhibit at the NY Museum of Modern Art. I have also
included some pertinent references.
Link to Hunt's history of photomosaic pictures: http://home.earthlink.net/~wlhunt/History/History.html
"The Recognition of Faces" by Leon D. Harmon, November, 1973 issue of Scientific American, Vol. 229, No.5.
Email messages between John Vollaro and William Hunt in March 2006 follow:
John Vollaro March 2006
I enjoyed reading your history of photomosaic pictures. I can solve
one small mystery for you. The original picture of Lincoln used by
Harmon was not from a $5 bill. It was from a library in Clinton NJ
that no longer exists. I know this because I was Leon's technical aide
when the images of Lincoln were processed. Leon asked me to find a
picture of Lincoln to use and I chose the one from the Clinton library
where I lived at the time. Leon photographed the picture and I
digitized and processed it.
The first famous photomosaic that I know of is the predecessor to
Lincoln. It is of a reclining nude. Leon and I produced it in similar
fashion and a scaled up version of it hung in MOMA for some time. The
story behind its origin is an interesting anecdote. If you have not
already heard it, let me know and I will relate it to you from my
memory of the circumstances.
John Vollaro, 941-924-4507, John@Vollaro.com
Very interesting. I have not heard the story of a predecessor to Lincoln.
I would be interested to hear what you recall.
Thanks for this info.
William L Hunt
In the mid 60's at Bell Labs it was the custom, much as it is today in
many corporations to celebrate a transition in, out, or within the
company with a party or luncheon. In this case it was the birthday of
a VP. The technical staff at Bell Labs being loaded with world class
talent would often use these occasions to flaunt their technical
ability and would spare no effort to make these larks impressive. Leon
had just begun the project that would eventually lead to the face
recognition experiments that were published. I was charged with fine
tuning the flying spot scanner that was used to digitize pictures. It
was a home brew device roughly the size of a double wide refrigerator
and used vacuum tube technology. It took about 15 minutes to digitize
a 35 mm slide with 1 meg pixels that were 12 bits each (gray scale
only) and stored on magnetic tape.
You can imagine my surprise as the new kid on the block when Leon
walked up to me one day and handed me several slides of a nude woman
to digitize. They came with this story. The wife of the VP of research
was throwing a surprise birthday party for her husband and she had
mentioned to Leon that all he was interested in was sex, math, and
electronics. She wanted to surprise him with a unique present and Leon
proposed the following. He volunteered to make an image of a nude that
was composed of math and electronic symbols (resistors, transistors, +
- ... Thus "sex, math, and electronics"). When she agreed, Leon hired
a model to pose for the original image. This was done at his home (off
premises) and paid for out of pocket so as not to break any corporate
policy. Leon was a great photographer and he took the pictures
himself. Thus there were several shots of a reclining nude with her
head held back so her face was not visible. There were also shots of
her sitting. I dutifully digitized the pictures and having recently
completed a course in Fortran, wrote a program to re-quantize
(re-sample) the images. I then made up the electronic symbols used to
modulate the picture. This was done on a PDP-11 that had a graphics
terminal (very rare at the time). The symbols were binary images
designed to have specific black to white ratios corresponding to 8 or
12 different levels of gray. From that point on it was a relatively
simple process to modulate the image with the appropriate symbols.
Note that the "private" area was discretely dubbed in black (to keep
people from staring).
One nice feature of these images as you know is that they scale
perfectly. I'm not sure how the final product was produced but it
ended up as a 12 foot long poster. I'm not sure how it got to the NY
MOMA either but Leon new how to get the maximum mileage out of his
work. I have no idea where it is now or if it still exists.
The original film is long gone but I still have a 35mm binary slide of
the reclining nude. A poor copy is attached. If you want to put it on
your site I can get a higher res copy for you. I think it would be a
fine tribute to Leon Harmon. I don't believe the nude is copyrighted
but it may be. You will have to check on that first. The sitting nude
was impressive too but I lost track of her. I think there may be a
copy in Lillian Schwartz's book. I don't know who got Leon's cache
after he died. None of the originals ever made it to the Bell Labs
There is another story about the Lincoln too but I'll be brief. Bell
Labs at one point was ready to sue Dali for using the copyrighted
(re-sampled) image of Lincoln without permission. I'm not sure if they
followed through with it.
Sorry for being so wordy but now you know, (yeah you guessed it) "the
rest of the story".
Thanks for the picture and the background story. It is all quite
interesting. I'll have to update my history page now with some of these
Concerning Dali and copyrights - Dali never retained a copyright release
for the paintings he sold. The image rights are held by the painting's
owner. His estate (if he ever had one) gets nothing for the use of these
images. My recollection is after painting and selling his original Lincoln
he came to the US and there was interest in mass marketing a print. But he
didn't have the picture or the image rights. In similar fashion with
several other of his paintings, his solution was to just paint another. So
there are two versions of his Lincoln in DaliVision, each just slightly
different from the other.