TEDxUCLA 2018: Waves
Many images, many possibilities: expanding our history
Louise Sandhaus is the former Program Director and current faculty in the Graphic Design Program at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). Her book on the most ecstatic and distinctive California graphic design, Earthquakes, Mudslides, Fires and Riots: California and Graphic Design 1936-1986, published in late 2014 by Metropolis Books and Thames & Hudson, received laudatory attention from The New York Times, The Guardian (London), The Los Angeles Review of Books, and Eye magazine, among many others. In 2015, the book received the Palm D’argent from The International Art Book and Film Festival (FILAF). Her book on the prolific designer and American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) medalist, Gere Kavanaugh, co-written and designed with Kat Catmur, will be published Spring 2019 by Princeton Architectural Press. She is currently working with AIGA on Making History, a national initiative to build and preserve graphic design history through crowd-sourcing and utilizing a digital platform/tool.
It’s 1962. Pittsfield, Massachusetts. I love my school, my friends, my house. And then we move from Pittsfield, Massachusetts to Orlando, Florida, pre-Disney World, pre-Epcot. It’s a Cleaver family kind of Orlando.
For the first time, I become aware. I become aware of my stick-like arms, my chopped-off hair that my mother had cut to combat the heat and humidity, my ugly glasses, and being Jewish. I am officially an outsider. I feel like I need to become some ideal image in order to be accepted, to find happiness, to be happy, to fit in, that I need to become the image that in my imagination is the one that the culture expects.
And then I find her. Miss America.
Now it’s the late 1980s. I’m attending Massachusetts College of Art in Boston. I’m also sneaking into classes at Harvard. I begin to see that that ideal image is just that: an image. It’s an image I had seen so often in magazines, on billboards, in movies, and on TV that in my head it’s been the only image.
And now I get it. It’s not the only image by which I have to define myself. Classes in feminism, political science, and art history open me up to possibility. I can now see possibility in so many more images of what I can be. Where once I had thought the only option was to repeat and replicate ideals, ideal images like beauty queens, now I begin to see images as if they’re pairs of glasses. They shape our assumption about the world, often selling it short. If there were more images, I wonder: how would I think about the world differently?
Now it’s 1998. Los Angeles. A graduate degree in graphic design is behind me, and I’m designing an exhibition for the LA County Museum of Art. This exhibition is all about the many images and many ideas of California in the 20th century. These images show me all kinds of ideas about California. There are green and gold landscapes. There are sunsets and surfers and orange groves. There’s urban graffiti. There’s photos of Japanese internment camps and striking farm workers.
Then there are images that confound me. I see zines from the 1950s with peyote plants and a figure of gender ambiguity on the cover. A poster for the Black Panther presidential candidate. I see a landscape reimagined through mind-altering mescalin. I see a parade of colorful dots becoming music.
These images are a revelation of so many mediums in so many different points of view, expressed not just through what is depicted, but through the diversity of visual expressions themselves. All the ways people have used a paintbrush or a camera, different letterforms, illustrations or animations to show us what they were both seeing and feeling.
And this is just like back when I realized there is no single image of beauty or happiness. I can now see there’s no single image that can represent a place. What we think of as California is made up of many images.
That exhibition ignites me. I am a girl on fire.
I wonder what other images of California might be out there, and how might those other images expand my idea of this place? Images that have been overlooked by official repositories like art museums. I wonder about the power of everyday images created by graphic designers like me. Images used to inform, to protest, to educate. Infographics, political posters, magazines, signage, flyers, album covers, film titles, plus all the images created by people not usually recognized as artists. People without degrees in art and design but driven by a passion to communicate.
Could more images created by more people provide an even more diverse perspective on California’s complex identity? What to do?
It’s 2014. Ojai, California. I reached the end of a ten-year-long labor of love resulting in a book on the history of California graphic design. Four hundred and twenty pages. It wins a big award in France. It sells out in art museums. It gets not one but two articles in The New York Times. The accolades go on and on and I think, “Wow. Phew. Done. Mission accomplished.” But that celebration doesn’t last long.
People start sharing images they found. I see stuff so fantastic my heart breaks for having missed it. I remember all the images in my book that I had to cut because there wasn’t room. I realize that, instead of creating a bigger view of our visual and cultural history, a bigger view of ourselves, I’ve just created another limited idea of California as represented in images, the very thing I was trying to overcome. #irrelevant
I’m overwhelmed. Even if I cloned myself a thousand times and wrote thousands of books, I still wouldn’t capture at all. I’d miss the low-rider magazines, I’d miss the comics, I’d miss the bodega signage, I’d miss the stuff I don’t even know to miss because it’s not part of my world.
I panic. There aren’t enough museums, historians, archives, much less obsessive amateur researchers like me, to unearth all these expressions. I know that so many of these images with no place to go will end up in dumpsters. Gone. Lost forever.
I have to find another way. There has to be another approach.
- I come across a talk. A TEDx talk by Chimamanda Adichie, the Nigerian writer and MacArthur Genius. She talks about being a child in Nigeria reading stories about blue-eyed children playing in the snow. So as a seven-year-old, she writes stories about blue-eyed children playing in the snow.
I can see that Adichie also had her own experience with the ideal image, although a much different one than my beauty queen. She also begins to realize that she’s shaping her idea of others based on her ideal images of them.
The danger of the single story is Adichie’s point, the danger of the single story. I feel exactly the same way about images, that more images, like more stories, empower and humanize because they convey the richness and diversity of who we are.
We desperately need more of them. More images. I am not alone.
And then it hits me. What if finding this vast wealth of images becomes a collective effort? What if this history is crowdsourced? What if anyone from any community, what if each of you could determine what images you thought were worth preserving? Could we realize a digital collection of images each of us values? A collection that wipes out old ideas of what we’ve been told are good images and should value?
And that’s why we started the Making History Initiative. If we work together, we can create a giant archive that shows how massively diverse we are. We make a bigger and more detailed and more nuanced picture of history from the ground up. What we end up with is what we could call a “cloud museum,” a resource for anyone and everyone, a seed bank for our future, images that become the seeds of new stories and new truths. And I’m not just talking about California anymore, I mean everywhere. Anywhere.
So let’s all imagine we’re in that future. We have that cloud museum. With whatever technology we have at this point, I search for “girl.” I search for “beauty.” And what comes up is not one image but many, hundreds, maybe even thousands. Images that surprise me. Images I’ve never seen before and until now couldn’t dream of. Images that, thanks to a collective effort to find, to tag, to identify, to fill in the facts, now can be seen.
And among those hundreds of thousands of images: me. That little girl who thought there was only one idea, one image, one possibility, would know many images, many possibilities. Thank you.