Alvy Ray Smith was the quintessential 1970s dropout. A native of New Mexico, he had been a New York University computer professor until abandoning his promising academic career to drive a white Ford Torino cross-country in pursuit of the muse of abstract art.
(Michael A. Hiltzik: Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age)
Alvy Ray Smith is best known as the cofounder (with Ed Catmull) of Pixar, and for his pioneering early computer graphics work. I first heard about him when I read Michael Hiltzik’s book ‘Dealers of Lightning’, about the history of Xerox PARC, the famous Palo Alto research centre which gave us such things as laser printing, ethernet, bitmap graphics and the GUI (the graphical user interface of overlapping windows and icons we all know and love).
When I read those lines, I suddenly felt reassured. I had been to art school and had just quit my job at an art centre in the Northern Territory to study computer science. Just maybe, I thought, there was a corner of computer science for artist hippie types after all. Ones that can learn to program, that is. People like Smith, who might
…take a color test pattern and step it through a programmed sequence of the 256 color values so it resembled the skin of a chameleon placed against a kaleidoscopic background, or bleed the pattern across the screen in a psychedelic wash. (‘Dealers of Lightning’)
He was just the kind of role model I needed. So last Thursday I decided to send him an email.
And what would you know, he replied.
Coincidentally, my wife and I just returned from a couple of weeks in Sydney. She was presenting at a Hume conference at Sydney Uni and we lived in an Airbnb in Camperdown. We love Sydney…
Well, I should have sent that email earlier! But I’ll let him tell some history.
I learned to paint from my artist uncle when I was a kid. So I painted in oils and acrylics until I discovered computers in the 1960s (I made my first computer graphic in 1964 in New Mexico where we lived).
For Smith, computers are a medium for creative expression, not entirely different from paint and canvas. He was an artist moving from one medium to another.
I was very good with computers, even the painfully slow monsters of that era. I got a PhD in computer science from Stanford and went to New York City for my first job, professing computer science at New York University. But then I broke my leg (my right femur) in a bad skiing accident in New Hampshire. Laid up in bed in a full-body cast for three months, I rethought my life. It became clear that I was on the wrong path. I was doing nothing about my art. I resolved to drop out of academia when I recovered and go to California “where something good would happen.” I actually implemented that impulsive “plan.”
The good something turned out to be an invitation from a dear friend to join him at Xerox PARC… and make art on his new SuperPaint program. Art AND computers. Perfect! It changed my life and I’ve been making art, or helping others make art, on computers ever since.
That friend was Dick Shoup, and SuperPaint was his pioneering 1973 graphics program. SuperPaint introduced many things we take for granted today in graphics programs, such as virtual paintbrushes and pencils, a preset colour palette and auto-filling of areas with colour. One of the keys was assigning 8 bits to each pixel, which allowed a range of 256 colours. To manipulate each pixel in a 486 by 640 frame took a computer the size of two five-foot cabinets, holding 36 memory cards each. But images could be grabbed from various media and manipulated, a bit like Photoshop today. Says Smith:
Even though I was hired as an artist there, I contributed the HSV (or HSB) color transform that is still in use in many apps. I remember going to Dick Shoup … and asking him how to get pink from RGB = Red, Green, and Blue. I told him it was easy in the art world: choose a hue, say red in this case, and desaturate it with white. Easy. How do you do that with RGB? He replied, “Well, nobody’s ever done that.” So I did.
HSV (Hue, Saturation and Value) is a way of representing and altering RGB colours that is regarded as one of Alvy Ray Smith’s major contributions to the field of computer graphics. In this case, it took an artist’s understanding of how colours work in the physical medium of paint to create a more intuitive method of manipulating colours on a screen.
“Then PARC fired me because Xerox decided not to do color! I found my way, with an artist partner, David DiFrancesco, to New York Institute of Technology (NYIT) … to develop the new art form of raster graphics…
PARC was the only place that had the necessary equipment, but we soon learned that the crazy owner of NYIT was buying the next such equipment”
And that was the beginning of the group that became Pixar. The “crazy owner of NYIT”, Alex Schure, established a Computer Graphics Lab in 1974. The first employees were Ed Catmull and Malcolm Blanchard, followed some months later by Alvy Ray Smith and David DiFrancesco. Several years later they decided they needed to do a real movie together, and gradually resigned from NYIT to join The Graphics Group at Lucasfilm, which started in 1979. The Graphics Group developed the Pixar Image Computer in 1986, and history continued on its course.
What my art background gave me that most computer folks don’t have is complete comfort with artists. Artists, animators, actors, etc. are MY people! And yet I could talk tech to the equally creative technical people. Importantly, I didn’t distinguish the two kinds of creativity. Both groups were equally creative. This thought was a basis of success for Pixar. It was a mutual admiration society.
There’s something in that, a mutual admiration society. Developers and designers love to disparage each other, but a company like Pixar would never have come out of a culture like that. Products like Pixar’s are made when art and technology work very closely together, with “mutual admiration”.
Although I made lots of art back in those days, I think my main creative contribution was the company and its mentality.
After this personal history, Smith had some final thoughts to add:
“I always urge artists to learn the machine. It’s hard to do, but that’s the only way they are ever really going to master the medium. Otherwise they are always going to be using “the Man’s” software and that unnecessarily limits what the artist can do. The computer is The Most Malleable Tool ever invented by mankind. It can do anything we ask it carefully to do. Artists should be the ones exploring those edges and informing the rest of us what’s out there.”
At first this reads like a celebration of fine artisanship, on the order of painters who grind their own pigments. And it’s true, the more digital photographers and artists know about the nature of a pixel and compression algorithms, the more precise and powerful their expression can be. But more generally its about the unlimited freedom of expression that the computer provides to anyone who knows how to “ask it carefully” with a well written program. The sentiment is also applicable to things like conceptual and performance art.
I’m thinking of artworks like performance artist Miranda July’s “Somebody” (http://somebodyapp.com/), a messaging app which allowed people to deliver messages to people via strangers located nearby. From 2014 to 2015, an average of 10,000 people a day used the app. That’s also an artist “exploring those edges” between computers and society. Imagine the crazy things more artists doing a dual degree in computer science, or using computers as their medium of choice, would come up with. Or perhaps just us computer science students thinking a little like artists sometimes. Using our full, crazy creative abilities on “The Most Malleable Tool ever invented by mankind”.
Smith’s advice to “learn the machine” and not rely on “the Man’s” software makes as much sense today as it ever did (regardless of the gender bias in that term). But the 1970s were a time when for even more young students, computers were seen as a tool of The Establishment. Destined to turn us into slavish automatons feeding them binary instructions, probably to calculate missile trajectories in Vietnam. It was people like Alvy Ray Smith and the Xerox PARC team that started to bridge that gap, conjuring computers to do delightful, personal, colourful tasks and bringing them down to human scale.
Many thanks to Alvy Ray Smith. First published in ‘Beta’, the UNSW Computer Science Newsletter. “Hackers and Artists” title adapted from the essay “Hackers and Painters” by Paul Graham.