When proclaiming the advent of a new photo-driven mass communications vernacular, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy coined the neologism TYPOPHOTOGRAPHY in the mid-1920s. The label may not have stuck. But the conviction that underwrote it did: namely, that offset lithography, photography, telegraphy, telephony, radio, moving pictures (and, later, video, television, and electronic data networks), shaped by and shaping, in turn, new social needs and expectations, had disrupted the galaxy of the Gutenberghian book and created the preconditions for a communications revolution. A gulf had opened up between the printed page–with its well-oiled typographic geometries, its subordination of image to text, and cognitive linearity–and contemporary life, with its simultaneity, accelerated cadences, and overloaded sensorium. The solution was to bridge the gulf by means of a mode of communication better suited to the requirements of an era in which the multitudes were history’s (distracted) masters. In other words, to forge a new visual–verbal vernacular.
Moholy was persuaded that “philosophical works would use the same means.” (From Le Corbusier in Vers une architecture to Archigram with its space comics to today’s authors of philosophical graphic novels, some have sought to prove him right).
Right or wrong, I often muse about the transformative potential of such an endeavor in the domain of humanities scholarship, especially when merged with the genre of the essay, the most porous and public genre of learned writing. What if the visual-vebal essay were to become one of the defining short genres of intellectual debate in the human sciences? Or is it already–if not in print then at least in public speaking–beckoning toward a fusion of the horizons of the verbal and visual, thanks to the increasing ubiquity of slide shows in the delivery of professional papers? (If only the use of Powerpoint and Keynote were more typophotographic and less, well, pedestrian.)
Below you’ll find an experimental iteration of the genre that was embedded into Speed Limits, the companion volume for an exhibition of the same
name, hosted by the Canadian Center for Architecture (2009) and the Wolfsonian-FIU (2010-2011).