Etymology of the word Plastic in Photography

Discussion in 'Ethics and Philosophy' started by jimgalli, Feb 20, 2007.

  1. jimgalli

    jimgalli Subscriber

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    It appears in many discussions prior to what we know as modern plastic. I've been doing some word searches trying to get my brain around what someone like Alfred Stieglitz would have meant in 1905 if he had used that term in regard to a photograph. Lens manufacturers refer to it, and indeed bringing it right into current times, our beloved Plasmats use the root of plastic to describe what their original manufacturer thought his lenses produced. Is it simply the idea of a photograph that leaves the single dimension flat world and brings a 3 dimensionality like a molded statue? What think ye?
     
  2. Michel Hardy-Vallée

    Michel Hardy-Vallée Membership Council

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    Do you mean plastic as in polymer, or plastic as in aesthetic/artistic? (In French, the catch-all term for the arts in high school education is "plastic arts", in opposition to "applied arts").

    The OED would be your friend, as it's an etymological dictionary.
     
  3. jimgalli

    jimgalli Subscriber

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    "plastic" as used in 1907 in the arts. There were no polymer's.
     
  4. Dave Wooten

    Dave Wooten Member

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    Greek (plastic-plastick-plastiqueplastik-plastica-the art of modelling figures primarily in clay or wax-also in a wider sense in a harder material by sculpture-

    1st recorded noted use....1598 "Painting, Carving, and Plasticke are all but one and the same arte (Haydock tr. Lomazzzo) 1614 Plastique is not only under sculpture , but indeed is very sculpture itself (Wootton)

    1850 "The living plastics of the gymnic games and choral dances were afterwards exalted in a surprising manner by sculpture in stone and brass"
    (excerpt from C.O. Muller's Ancient Art-)

    Plastic--a moulder, a sculptor, a modeller, a former, a fashioner , a creator

    1644 "it is impossible for any Painter or Carver or Plastique, to give right motions to his works or hand...

    1886--Plasticine--proprietary name for a composition capable of remaining plastic for a long timeused in schools as a substiture for modeling clay.
     
  5. Mark_S

    Mark_S Subscriber

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    When used to refer to a material, 'plastic' refers to the property of being able to undergo plastic deformation - which means that when force is applied, the material permanenetly deforms - as such clay would be a good example of a plastic material which is the way I imagine the word would have been used prior to the widespread use of polymers known as plastics.

    When applied as an adjective, plastic would refer to the ability of something to reshape to it's environment, and I believe that the many of the original Plasmat lenses were 'convertibles' - is it possible that the convertible nature of the lens is what led to the term plastic when applied to optics?
     
  6. Terence

    Terence Member

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    Oxford gives it as "moulding, giving form to clay . . . causing growth of natural forms [ironic, huh?] . . . capable of forming living tissue . . . pliant, supple . . . " from the Greek plasso for mould.

    I think you'll find the first man-made polymers, including cellulose acetate, being made in mid-1800's.

    In engineering, plastic behavior is the non-reversible change of shape in response to an applied force.

    In terms of art, not a clue.
     
  7. Dave Wooten

    Dave Wooten Member

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    The word was used in the art world....the creator, the substance behind or under the creation...it was adopted by the scientific community after the emergence of polymers etc. after the 1850's or so- from Kingslake "Lucite and Plexiglas in the United States; and Perspex in England were developed in the 1920's"

    Keep in mind, Stieglitz-was the most avid promoter at the time in America of "Modern Arts" Picasso, et all, not just photography...

    I recommend The book STIEGLITZ: A BEGINNING LIGHT by Katherine Hoffman-recommended-Hoffman's speciality is tracing the influence of the artist on varoius other plastic arts and music---(from a review)

    so to answer Jims interesting question--Stieglitz using the word plastic would have been in the ancient arts origin of the word plastic...which originated from the Greek-

    ....my homing pigeons have arrived...I have to go.
     
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  8. Roger Hicks

    Roger Hicks Member

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    I'd be astonished if it were anything other than 'three dimensional', and indeed that is how I have always understood it, but I have just been through the OED entry and there are several other obsolete meanings that are even harder to grasp.

    Incidentally, celluloid (a plastic by any reasonable definition) was invented in about 1871, and other 'plastic' subjects trace their description back to the classical Greek root, 'capable of being modelled or moulded'.

    Cheers,

    R.
     
  9. arigram

    arigram Member

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    The meaning of the word is that of the physical transformation of one shape to another, like the flour dough to bread. I can't see how it can be applied to photography. Isn't the term "writting with light" poetic enough? As a matter of fact, "poetic" would apply better to photograph, since the root of the word is "creation" and thus more vague.
    I don't know what you people do with greek words anyway...
     
  10. Dave Wooten

    Dave Wooten Member

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    Thanks Ari,

    If possible, maybe you could access an English Oxford Dictionary which gives the earliest known printed uses of the word and its history (in English)....it gives it in Greek but I have no way of producing the alphabet spelling here, nor do I have the ability to translate.

    I also feel that the word plasmat probably does not have a connection the the Greek use of the meaning of plastic....I think plasmat is more related to plasma-also Greek- and "plasmatic" etc..thanks As to Jim's question, Stieglitz use of the word I feel was totally in the ancient art sense use of the word which does quite fit the definition you have given .:smile:
     
  11. Sirius Glass

    Sirius Glass Subscriber

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    The educated Romans learned to speak and read Greek. The less educated ones did not. Shakespeare knew this when he wrote the play Julius Caesar. He had a less educated Roman who was referring to not being able to understand something going on say "It is Greek to me."

    Unfortunately, the English language has never been able to recover from this and it has been all downhill for those of us who understand classical languages! :D

    Furthermore, Anglophiles, especially us Yanks, like to use Greek and Latin as a basis for root words rather than Anglosaxon. Its a cultural snob thing. :rolleyes:

    Steve
     
  12. arigram

    arigram Member

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    The word "plasma" usually means "creature", as in "shaped thing". In modern greek, "plasmatikos", is taken to mean "fake", as in "shaped in one's desire". The greek language has changed very little and most of the ancient words have not changed meaning in modern times, only usually have restricted their broader use.

    Going back to "plastic", one maybe could use the verb "platho" to describe "shaping the light" as one often does in photography, especially studio one. In greek it makes sense but still metaphorically as the action remains a physical one. Atleast to a greek speaker.
     
  13. arigram

    arigram Member

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    Yet I have such trouble explaining the brotherly words of "sarcasm" and "irony" to a modern english speaker. They don't seem to get the correct meaning of them and understand the subtle but important difference. Classic authors of the english language seemed to have no problem with their use.

    Oh, maybe I should stop these "lessons" as I start to feel like a snob myself.

    But, how about the etymology of the word "etymology"...?
     
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  15. Daniel_OB

    Daniel_OB Member

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    Word "plastic", in painting and photography too, means
    three dimensional impression (which is not really 3D) AND with fine shaped edges (or tones) as just hand can make it (in clay at the time).

    So the same object shot in washing light (say spot light) is not plastic for it has "sharp edge" between dark and light area. The same object exposed to diffuse light will have fine tones between dark to light and we can "like feel" its three dimensions, the way hand shape clay (plastic material).

    Hope it is clear.

    www.Leica-R.com
     
  16. arigram

    arigram Member

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    Now that I think about it, the word could better used to describe digital alteration as it is so extensive and the result most often looks very manipulated and fake.
     
  17. jimgalli

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    That's more in tune with the 1960's use of the word after we were baptised in cheap polymers. We call someone who is shallow and phony "plastic". But get back in that time machine and go back to 1907 please before anyone had ever heard of modern plastics. I think Daniel is probably on the right track. I was thinking of beautiful 3 dimensionality which is the effect of tonality. That works well with a portrait lens maker of 100 years ago speaking of their lens in terms of plastic.
     
  18. TheFlyingCamera

    TheFlyingCamera Membership Council

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    Jim- Bakelite was invented in 1907. And as someone else here mentioned, Celluloid was invented in 1856.

    A quote from the Wikipedia article on Celluloid -

    English photographer John Carbutt intended to sell gelatin dry plates when, in 1879, he founded the Keystone Dry Plate Works. The Celluloid Manufacturing Company was contracted for this work by means of thinly slicing layers out of celluloid blocks and then removing the slice marks with heated pressure plates. After this, the celluloid strips were coated with a photosensitive gelatin emulsion. It is not certain exactly how long it took for Carbutt to standardize his process, but it occurred no later than 1888. A 15 inch-wide sheet of Carbutt's film was used by William Dickson for the early Edison motion picture experiments on a cylinder drum Kinetograph. However, the celluloid film base produced by this means was still considered too stiff for the needs of motion picture photography.

    In the 1889, more flexible celluloids for photographic film were developed. Hannibal Goodwin and the Eastman Company both obtained patents for a film product; but Goodwin, and the interests he later sold his patents to, were eventually successful in a patent infringement suit against the Eastman Kodak Company. Nevertheless, the groundwork in these products was set for a photographic film, as opposed to a photographic plate, with all the implications that has for motion pictures.

    So even to Stieglitz, "Plastic" would have had the dual meaning it has today - both a thermoplastic substance and a descriptor for a type of artistic expression.
     
  19. Jim Noel

    Jim Noel Member

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    William Mortensen used "Plastic" lighting for some of his images. He discusses this tpe of lighting in his book "Pictorial Lighting".

    Obviously it had nothing to do with polymers.
     
  20. jimgalli

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    OK, if I'm wrong I'm wrong. But you knew I was referencing art speak, not mechanics. I found a good paragraph here under plastic arts.

    A good reaffirmation of what has been said well above. I've answered my own question. Thanks all.
     
  21. Michael W

    Michael W Member

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    I recall an essay by George Orwell, written in the 1930s I think. Pretty sure the topic was bad writing. He really got stuck into arts writers who were using the word 'plastic' in all their articles. According to Orwell it was just trendy misuse of an obscure word.
     
  22. jimgalli

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    Now that's the kind of stuff I'm looking for. Very interesting and if you weren't there at that time like Orwell, how would you ever know that. Sounds just like today. Thanks. If anyone remembers where that's at, I'd be interested.
     
  23. TheFlyingCamera

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    http://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/politics/english/e_polit

    There is the essay he wrote on the decline of the English Language, which includes his attack on the word "plastic" and his attack on pretentious over-use of latinate words when good old-fashioned anglo-saxon words would do. The essay was published in 1946 though.
     
  24. jimgalli

    jimgalli Subscriber

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    Thanks Scott. I'm sure Mr. Orwell is "rolling over in his grave" at most anything I write :D Let's see, that is probably an over and mis-used metaphor so I will "quit while I'm ahead". Oh crap.
     
  25. resummerfield

    resummerfield Subscriber

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    I was thinking the same thing. Mortensen goes on and on about plastic lighting.

    And I have a paper by Heinrich Kuhn, the inventor of the Imagon and who died in 1944, I think, where he talks about "The plasticity of the pictures (the Imagon creates)....."
     
  26. TheFlyingCamera

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    Nah- you're just torturing clichés :smile: