I was familiar with Ed Emshwiller’s science fiction illustrations long before I knew his name or anything about his career. From 1951 to 1979, he created over five hundred covers for many science fiction magazines and paperbacks. In the 1960s, he began making experimental films, which came as a total surprise to me. It was also kind of a disconnect, as I wasn’t used to people crossing over from one discipline go another, both of which I had a strong interest in. I read a lot of science fiction while growing up in the ’50s. I loved Emshwiller’s covers for their realistic detail, imagination, and frequent playfulness. The cover above is a good example of this. Below are some others.
For Galaxy Science Fiction, Emshwiller did a series of holiday-themed covers over the years, notable for their humor and playfulness, usually featuring a four-armed Santa Claus.
It wasn’t all laughs in his art work. One of his most powerful and evocative covers for me was for “Rat in the Skull,” an equally powerful and evocative short story by Rog Phillips in the December, 1958 issue of If Science Fiction. I haven’t read the story since it first appeared, when I was 14 years old. The feeling I had then has stayed with me, if not the details. Earlier today, I found the story online, downloaded it, and plan to re-read it before finishing this post. We’ll see if it holds up to Emshwiller’s depiction. *** Just finished. It’s not great writing, but the concept is still strong, original, and tragic. A rat, strapped from birth in the skull of a mechanical body, gains a “soul,” so to speak, without the awareness that it’s actually a rat. No happy ending here. Has a certain resonance with Flowers for Algernon.
Emshwiller’s wife Carol was an award-winning science fiction writer. Author Ursula K. Le Guin called her “…a major fabulist, a marvelous magical realist, one of the strongest, most complex, most consistently feminist voices in fiction.” No small praise, that. I haven’t read any of her work, but think I have to now. Emshwiller frequently used her as a model (I that’s her in the “Rat in the Skull” cover above). Below is a photo of Carol with a painting Ed had done of her, which had appeared on the cover of an edition of her collected short stories. She died in 2019 at age 97, having outlived her husband by 32 years, who died in 1990 at age 65.
In 1964, Emshwiller received a Ford Foundation grant for filmmaking. The result was his 38 minute film Relativity in 1966. In his original proposal to the Ford Foundation (per IMDb), he outlined the film as “something that deals with subjective reality, the emotional sense of what one’s perception of the total environment is — sexual, physical, social, time, space, life, death.”
A description at the Film-Makers Coop website says this: “A man wonders, measures, views relationships, people, places, things, time, himself. A sensual journey through a series of subjective reflections.”
I may have seen Relativity back in the day, but my recall of non-narrative experimental films is sketchy at best. But Emswhiller definitely got attention for this film. During this time, he was also a cinematographer on documentaries and feature films, including Hallelujah the Hills (1963). An interesting detail is that he shot the footage of Bob Dylan singing “Only a Pawn in Their Game” in 1963 that appears in D.A. Pennebaker’s Dylan documentary, Don’t Look Back (1967).
In the 1970s, Emshwiller began working in video. Sunstone, a three-minute work he made in 1979, uses 3-D computer-generated video. This early example of CGI is considered groundbreaking, and is in the video collection of the Museum of Modern Art here in New York.
I definitely saw an earlier film of his, George Dumpson’s Place (1966). I especially like the evocative title. The running time is just under eight minutes. I just watched it for the first time in many years. It’s great. Here’s a description from the National Film Preservation Foundation website:
George Dumpson’s Place is one of several short films in which Emshwiller explored the worlds of other artists with which he felt strong sympathy. George Dumpson was an impoverished African-American handyman who squatted on land in Long Island. Emswhiller saw him as a folk artist, a scavenger and assembler of found objects in the tradition of Joseph Cornell. “I felt he was an artist because my definition of an artist is a person reorganizing the world, creating a world in his internal likelness.” In the film, Dumpson’s overgrown “place” on Long Island is a densely textured mystery of broken dolls, ruined sculpture, and tangled housewares, a world of uncertain boundaries between rural and urban landscapes, interior and exterior spaces, investigated through the sinuous tracking shots for which Emshwiller was noted. At heart of his maze is Dumpson, glimpsed at the end of a walkway, followed by the startling close-up flash of his face, all white beard and black skin.
Promotional film for “Dream Dance: The Art of Ed Emshwiller,” an exhibition at the Lightbox Film Center of International House Philidelphia. I don’t know the dates of this show.
Ed was also an educator. In California, he was the founder of the CalArts Computer Animation Lab and was the dean of the School of Film/Video at the California Institute of Arts from 1979 to 1990. Though I always go back to his science fiction artwork. That’s my earliest and strongest connection to his work. Below are three shots of Ed through the years.
That about wraps it up. Stay tuned for whatever’s coming next. Be safe. — Ted Hicks
Thisis fun and highly interesting !
Really interesting, Ted! I had never heard of Emschwiller. How many artists are there out there who have had a major influence but most of us would never recognize their names! I really like his two films, especially the one on George Dumpson’s Place.