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"Radically Recycled Cameras"
Beth Horning

Technology Review Magazine, August 1990


Jno Cook wants to democratize the technology of photography. There are more and cheaper ways to take a picture than the companies that manufacture cameras would lead you to believe, the Chicago photographer asserts, and the cameras he has constructed from apartment-door peepholes, cookie tins, cardboard boxes, and various used spare parts prove his point.

The prints that result an noteworthy too: not only are they beautiful, but they show how much sheer aesthetic freedom is possible for those who refuse to passively accept whatever pricey, touch-me-not technology the photo industry dishes out.

With degrees in electrical and industrial engineering, Cook is naturally more intrepid than most about taking technology into his own hands. But he insists that other people could do the same things he has done as long as they're willing to invest a little time and effort. "Cameras and lenses date from the thirteenth century, and the principles of their operation can be summed up on the back of an envelope," he has written. "In building or modifying my equipment I have not used any knowledge that could not be found in high school texts on geometry and physics." To inspire others to educate themselves and embark on experiments of their own, he exhibited his funky, odd-looking homemade cameras last year at the Randolph Street gallery in Chicago and recently at the List Visual Arts Center at MIT.

As all this suggests, Cook's approach to both technology and art is thoughtful, original, and - -especially -- humanistic. In the following conversation with Technology Review associate editor Beth Horning, he reveals more about that approach.



TR: One of the most interesting things about your background is that you didn't get your master's of fine arts until you were 43 years old. Before that, all your formal education was in engineering. How did you make such a switch? And when did you begin calling yourself an artist?

[] JNO COOK: First of all, calling yourself an artist is something you just have to get used to. It takes a while before you can do it without wincing. But it was clear to me early on that I couldn't stand the jobs I was getting with my engineering degrees, I worked mostly in management, either for the Chicago Transit Authority or the State of Illinois, and I kept quitting because I was too bored. For example, I was very efficient at what I did for the State of Illinois, so I would be through with everything 15 minutes after I got to the office and there would be nothing to do the whole rest of the day. I'd still have to hang around, though -- just in case the phone might ring. It drove me nuts.

Anyway, during the 1970s when I was continually taking these furloughs from the business world, my father died. One of the things that made it especially sad was that since this happened only a year after he'd retired, he'd never had a chance to pursue his interest in sculpture the way he'd planned to. So I decided I had to do it myself, and I began to take courses with the Clay People, who ran what was probably the largest unaccredited clay school in the country.

That was some of my first exposure to artists and their way of looking at the world. A woman I knew there would get totally interested in things like "granularity" -- I helped her move once and some of the stuff I had to carry were bags of wood shavings and curlicue pieces of metal that had come off a lathe. She also used to plant fluorescent tubes in the ground just to have them stick up into the air. Well, I didn't quite understand any of this. But I slowly came to appreciate it, and what I realized, I think, is that one of the things you're allowed to do as an artist is simply play around. You get to have fun.

So there was that very basic but crucial lesson, and then there were lessons in technique, too, some of which had to do with photography, another hobby that I was involved with around that time. A friend of mine who had seen a show of my photos at a cafe told me, "You don't know how to print," and I resolved that I would find out, which led me to take some introductory photography courses at Columbia College here in Chicago. By the time I got through with those I knew how to print.

The last course I took at Columbia was called "Generative Systems," where the emphasis was on expression rather than on the mechanics and pyrotechnics of photography. It was the sort of class where the students were calling themselves artists and their work art. And at that point I met a woman who was about to enroll in the MFA program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and she said, "Hey Cook, why don't you apply, too! Then we can both play for a couple of years." So I did, almost on a lark.


TR: But you were accepted.

COOK: Right. And when you get accepted to a prestigious place the the School of the Art Institute, you don't argue. You just go. I immediately set out on a five-year plan to reduce my desk job to zero hours and make a living through part-time work. I was convinced that being an artist was a viable alternative for me.

[] Because especially in those days acceptance into the MFA program was everything -- there weren't really any required courses in the graduate division. There wasn't a requirement for a final show or thesis. You could take the same class over and over, or take no classes at all, or take classes in a completely different field. Instructors in the photo department would sit down and do a critique on painting or performance or video without batting an eye. It was a real education after Columbia College, where photography is photography and nothing else. Whatever tendencies I'd ever had to experiment were definitely reinforced.

But there was also another side to the experience, because most of my fellow students had begun taking their art seriously in high school. Starting at the MFA level made me an outsider, almost a primitive.

TR: It's not as if you were a blank slate, though. After an, you'd had pretty substantial training in engineering.

COOK: And I was an adult with some clearly formed opinions. But yes, I can't just dismiss the engineering background. It gave me a lot of confidence with materials as well as an ability to go directly to the core of a problem and find the resources for solving it. Engineering school teaches you how to work like a maniac, too, which is something I still appreciate. One of my strengths is that I will work on something continuously until it is done.

Even so, there are things engineering students just miss out on -- all of literature, for instance. Granted, you do have some kind of "humanities" requirements but people can generally get half of it out of the way by taking Psych 101 and reading about Pavlov's dog. Also, with all the stress on solving problems, you never learn that some simply don't have solutions, as in politics and social dealings. Then finally -- and this is especially relevant -- you never learn that some solutions result from inexplicable intuitive jumps instead of step-by-step linear thought. Artists, on the other hand, are quite aware of intuition and rely on it heavily.

TR: Are you saying that there's no room for intuition in engineering?

COOK: Not exactly. For one thing, the familiarity with materials and processes you acquire as an engineer can allow you to make real leaps in your thinking. But the point is that eventually you have to back up everything you do with orderly facts and calculations.

I suppose what it boils down to is that engineers just have a different perspective. Let me give you an example. Artists who see an exhibit of my cameras seem to marvel at the fact that these objects look as if I assembled them from odds and ends I picked up off the floor. They apparently have this image of me walking around in my basement saying things like, "Yes! This could fit here! And let's see now ... that hinge would be appropriate ... there"'

[] TR: Whereas you don't work that way at all.

COOK: Well, to tell you the truth, that really is the way I work a lot of the time. But I'm also capable of assembling apparently unlikely parts in a very methodical way without any particular recourse to intuition, which I suspect has something to do with my engineering background. Because friends of mine who are engineers will have a much more matter-of-fact response to the very same exhibit, even if they like it. They'll simply see the cameras as the only logical assembly of available parts that would accomplish a specific design purpose.

What strikes me is that even if engineers do find themselves using intuition, they often limit themselves because they don't necessarily value it or take it seriously -- while artists focus on intuition almost exclusively and go out of their way to cultivate it. Sometimes a bit too far out of their way, in my opinion. I get impatient with artists who take an intuitive approach when a rational solution would do as well and give results more quickly.

I have other attitudes that come directly from four years in engineering and natural sciences and remain unadulterated. To be specific, I am intolerant of work that passes itself off as broadly metaphorical, or that presumes to mythologize. And I usually dismiss work that is based on a shallow understanding of materials or subjects. Few artists object so strenuously to anything anyone else is doing. For the most part, they're quite generous with one another -- it's something you learn in art school But I myself cannot see creating without a purpose.

TR: Could those attitudes also have something to do with the fact that until you were 12 pars old you lived in Holland, where so many of the people are pragmatic, down-to-earth, and Calvinist!

COOK: Undoubtedly. But one of the main effects of coming to this country from Holland has been just to make me thoroughly aware of what it's like to be an outsider -- so it seems we're back to that whole issue again. Being an engineer in art school was a pretty uncomplicated experience compared with what I went through as an immigrant in junior high. The most amazing part of it was that I had to learn a new language from scratch.

TR: Don't the majority of people in Holland speak English and several other languages as well as Dutch?

COOK: Not when they're 12 they don't. It's mostly in high school that you learn languages; when I left Holland I couldn't have told you much more than "what o'clock" it was in English, and in French I hadn't moved beyond la mère and le père and "la plume is on la table."

Basically I was a socially backward kid who couldn't even speak to his peers I spent the seventh grade wondering what on earth the teacher was talking about. I did learn English, and rather quickly -- to the point where I thought in English by age 16. Even so, I managed to do it without a single idea of how, which has bothered me for the rest of my life. As a 6-year-old you can pick up languages without thinking about it, but as a l2-year-old you feel that you should have some awareness of the mechanism of learning.

The result has been that I've become fascinated with the way learning occurs, which shows in much of what I produce, although I'll often just document the traces of the learning process. For example, I once put together a book about a three-year-old who was acquiring the ability to draw pictures. There was no text, only a series of images that went from blobs with faces to fully articulated figures, with intermediate steps like houses with legs -- it presented all the data, but no particular insight into what was going on.

TR: Some of your interest in the workings of the brain seems to come through in the cameras you make. At your recent exhibit at MIT, I was looking at your "stereo" camera, which gives you pictures with two identical but slightly overlapping images, and I thought, "Oh, I know what this is. He's wondering what the world would look like if somehow we couldn't integrate the information coming in from our right eye with that coming in from our left eye."

COOK: Well, that's going too far. I've never made cameras as psychological studies or interpretations of biology or inquiries into what it would be like to be cross-eyed -- which is why I use deadpan titles that just give the size and use.

In fact, building these devices is a completely secondary activity: it's the photographs I can take with the cameras that interest me, not the cameras themselves, which often fall into a state of total disregard and dismantlement once I've got whatever results I'm after. It near even crossed my mind to display them until the Randolph Street gallery in Chicago asked me to, and when that happened I had to go into my workshop and start finding things in boxes and putting parts back together again.


TR: If you have such a casual attitude toward your cameras, how could you go along with the idea of exhibiting them? I know that demystifying technology is important to you and that your shows are a way of telling people, "if I can do this, you can, too." But as long as works of yours are sitting in a gallery, some people are inevitably going to look at them as art in themselves -- as sculpture -- regardless of your didactic intent. Are you comfortable with that?

[] COOK: Yes I am. I've come to accept the cameras as sculpture, even though they weren't initially intended that way. I understand, also, their appeal as sculpture. They clearly reveal an attitude, and what's especially nice about them is that the steps I went through to make them show through clearly: at the base level, art is always about the process of making art and anything that strikes home reveals its process in the final product. The point is that you can almost tell by looking at these cameras how I work, which is very opportunistically, using materials I acquire through serendipity or through this bizarrely detailed visual memory I have of where I've seen what in hardware stores. Sometimes I'll go for months or years without doing anything on a camera and then suddenly a part I need for it will turn up out of nowhere. And some of my ideas come from the cameras themselves: thy simply ask to be made into this or that

Also, these cameras, when they're on display in a gallery, assume a life of their own. Partly it's because they have this potential of taking pictures -- of being imagemakers -- but they're not in use; they've become objects of contemplation. They're all sitting on pedestals or shelves or whatnot. Another interesting aspect of the cameras is that I'm asking the viewer to take a conceptual leap between image and imagemaker -- a leap similar to the one I had to take to build the cameras in the first place.

TR: Even though you've been so successful in working cheaply, using only whatever materials you happen to come across, do you ever think about what it would be like if you had unlimited funds and access to state-of-the-art equipment in mint condition?

COOK: Let's put it this way: I'm not about to refuse a Rockefeller grant for an all-new something-or-other, but on the other hand, nothing I do is so dear or so concentrated that I would need to invest a huge sum of money in getting started. If a foundation doesn't give me the financial backing I want for a project, I can always scale it down or move on to another. That's part of working opportunistically -- I'm not going to let lack of money hold me back. I'm not going to stay out of video, for instance, just because I can't spend $300 an hour to edit my tapes on a console the size of a wall.

Then, too, there's the fact that art has never been dependent on highly sophisticated, up-to-date technologies anyway. Artists have always worked in dead technologies -- those that have come to their useful end. Maybe painting is the prime example. Now that photography has been invented and you can get an image almost instantaneously, what could be more backward than laboriously putting down little dabs of paint with a brush! Or take lithography. Its original purpose was to make multiple copies of images, which means that it should have vanished into obscurity when the printing press took over that function. Yet both painting and lithography are high art forms today.


TR: In much of your work, you seem to be preoccupied with the "candid camera." You set up cameras that take pictures every hour no matter what, even when people are eating or sleeping or making love. What draws you to that approach?

[] COOK: Partly it's data collection. I've chosen the hour interval because our lives are run by hours that continue even when we defy them by engaging in an activity where we lose track of time. I get the pictures, arrange them in sequence, and leave viewers on their own to draw a conclusion or just delight in the research, as I do myself. There's an aesthetic at work, too, although it's not the kind that's crafted as in painting. The idea is that the world has an inherent beauty that will become clear if you let it. All you have to do is set up some parameters, like the hour interval, and the thing goes by itself -- the aesthetic is out there in ordinary physical reality like everything else.

TR: I've noticed from your photographs that you often define "out there" rather narrowly. About as far afield as you usually go in pursuit of this ordinary physical reality is your backyard, whereas other photographers travel widely taking pictures of celebrities and total strangers. Why have you made such a choice?

COOK: Well, in fact my work really isn't just about my family and my backyard, even though they are the nominal subject matter. One of my premises is that whatever message I could possibly want to convey is most clearly defined in the experience of my own life, in the most familiar of what I see. The larger social situation is embedded in those images. And in truth the content of my art varies considerably: I've done work on having children, as well as on our society's propensity for violence, TV as cultural storyteller, and personal tragedies -- losing custody of a child, divorce. I'm sure the future will bring old age and death forward as subjects.

But when that day comes people won't take one look at my photos and say, "Oh yes, old age and death, obviously, how moving." Because like other artists I shy away from easy-to-read visual language. After all, that sort of thing is owned by advertising. It's much more interesting to investigate language at the boundaries of established meaning, or to venture into new territory beyond the comprehensible. It's that very exploration that keeps me interested.