Sometime in 2019, I fell in love with a photo in a way I’ve never known before:
What grasped me here? Many things. The grittiness. The composition. The angular shapes of the key punch machine juxtaposed with the person typing. The stains on the wall. The sideburns and the glasses placing the action, I thought, some time in the 1970s. And that sign, that sign! “EXPRESS KEYPUNCH: 3 minutes or 6 cards (or until asked to leave!)” Six cards means a mere 480 bytes; you don’t expect a keyboard to be in such high demand.
I’ve loved photos before. But with this one, there was a new factor: I loved it so much that I wanted it in my book.
In addition to many photos of keyboards alone – carefully lit and photographed and/or cleaned up in Photoshop – I wanted my book to also come with a collection of contemporaneous photos in situ, in use, showing not just the keyboards, but also the context: people typing on them, things surrounding them, rooms they were placed in, even the style and the production value of the photo itself.
This photo had all of that. It was a perfect visual for that weird keyboard time that never happened before and won’t ever happen again: of keyboards attached not to typewriters or computers, but to intermediate machines that punched cards, and the cards subsequently used for a variety of reasons.
It was a great photo. The problem was, it came to me “from the internet.” Its resolution – a measly 0.5 megapixels – wasn’t good enough for printing. And either way, just like with many of the younger photos in the book, I needed to get a permission from the owner… but I had no idea who that was.
I started by reverse image searching on Google. This can be exhausting, and so it was here: dozens of websites reused the same compressed 754×600 photo without attribution. But sometimes among the hundreds of clones you can stumble upon the original, or at least something close. In this case, it was a tweet. The same photo and, above it, a comment: “Resurrected a few. This one came with the caption «A student at the express keypunch in the Vogelback Computing Center, February 28, 1977, 11 p.m.»”
1970s indeed. And 11pm! That just added to the story; someone wanted to type on this keyboard so much that they did it despite the lack of natural lighting, despite stains on the wall, and despite the late hour.
The person tweeting shared other photos, too. I learned that Vogelback – now demolished – was part of Northwestern Uni. I reached out to the author of the tweet. He told me that he got the photos from a now-defunct page on the university’s website, but had no extra information about the photographer.
But at least I had another lead. I contacted the university archives. At this point, from my experience, I expected one of three things: 1. a high-resolution photo and a permission to use it for free, 2. a high-resolution photo and a (sometimes unapproachably high) licensing fee, or 3. a message that the photo was missing or that I was looking in a wrong place.
This time things were different, though. The archivist got back to me; after some weeks of digging, he found and attached a 7-megapixel scan of the photo. The scan was clear enough I could read off of the keys of the IBM 29 and figure out the type of the pen lying next to the keyboard; in other words, perfect for printing.
With good news, however, came bad news: The university didn’t own the copyright.
Fortunately, the handwriting on the back provided one extra detail. It started with Vogelback Computing Center · 11:00pm · Feb. 28, 1977 – stuff I’ve seen before – but concluded with a somewhat legible signature. “I assume the photographer was C. Jaques,” wrote the archivist. And then, just like most archivists I reached out to, he went above and beyond. “Searching through the Northwestern student and faculty directory of 1976–1977, I find that there was a student by the name of Cynthia Jaques, enrolled in Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism.”
Now, I had a time and a name. But that time meant Cynthia grew up in the days before internet, before social networks, before the digitization of everything – as a matter of fact, her photograph showed only the humble beginnings of that digitization. That time meant, in other words, marginal internet presence. I searched high and low, but I only found a few Facebook profiles with photos that seemed too young (I created a Facebook account and contacted them anyway), a realtor somewhere far away from Northwestern (I still wrote a message), and… that was it. Who knew if Cynthia got married and changed her name. Who knew if Cynthia was still around.
The other approach was to contact a bunch of alumni organizations. I tried that, too. But weeks passed without hearing from anyone back.
And then the breakthrough came from a place I learned to treasure since starting this project: support from people who’ve done this before, and who wanted to see me succeed. I met up with a friend, talked to her about this and a few other photos I had trouble finding, and we brainstormed some ideas. Among them was: don’t just reach out to the alumni organization – reach out to someone in the alumni organization, writing an email to one person rather than a catch-all address. And don’t just ask for contact info – compose an entire message to Cynthia, and ask for it to be forwarded.
I did just that. Then, a month later I did just that again. Around the time I started thinking about grabbing the phone to make a call (something I dreaded), I got a response. “I just received the okay to reach out to Ms. Jaques, and forwarded your email along to her. I hope you two are able to connect!”
Things happen slowly, and then things happen quickly. Not two hours later, another email arrived in my inbox. Subject line: Northwestern photo. And an unfamiliar last name, attached to the first name I was hoping to see.
“Northwestern alumni department sent me your email about a photo from Vogelback computing center. I did graduate from Medill in 1977,” Cynthia wrote, mentioning she indeed took some photography courses there. Yes! I finally got in touch with the author. She was willing to help, but there was a final, devastating catch. “It could be mine,” she said, “but I don’t remember that photo.”
This felt like the worst outcome possible. Cynthia was willing to give me permission to use her photograph, but that permission would be useless if it wasn’t hers to give. After all of these months of trying, I was back to where I started – and with no leads left.
But there was one more lead I was unaware of. Thank god for the archivist going an extra mile. He sent me a scan of not just the front, but also the back of the photo, with this written in pencil:
I sent Cynthia scans of both sides, thinking very little about it. She wrote me back the next morning. In the story taking place in the world of keyboards, the crucial clue appeared outside. “That is definitely my handwriting on the back,” she shared. “I’m thinking the photo was an assignment from a class in which we were supposed to photograph NU at night.”
The photograph had nothing to do with keyboards and computers, forgotten by the photographer herself. But 42 years later since it was taken, and many months after I fell in love with it, I could finally place it in the book:
Black bar means progress since last newsletter in December
Cynthia’s nightly snapshot was just one photo. There are about a thousand (sic!) more.
The hunt for them led me to all sorts of wild places. Waiting until 1:15am to call someone in the UK Museum with the most arresting Welsh accent. Visiting libraries. Reconstructing screenshots. Negotiating. Setting hundreds of email reminders. Writing scripts to scrape images from websites. Increasing numbers in URLs one by one in hopes to stumble upon something interesting. Asking strangers on Flickr. Twitter. eBay. Etsy. And, travelling.
Well, about that.
I was meant to be in Spain right now. Exactly today the owners of the museum in Figueres that started this whole thing were supposed to pick me up from the train station, open the place on an off day, and allow me to walk around and grab the last dozen of photos I needed for the book – including one for the cover. But then…
gestures around in exasperation
I’m not complaining. The pandemic has treated me very gently so far, and being able to continue working on the book (and even treat it as escapism of sort) is a sign of my luck and privilege. But while 98% of photos are locked in, accounted for, cleaned up, and placed in the book – the rest are still placeholders, waiting for a better time.
I am not sure what this means for the publishing date. After many months devoted to photography, it feels anti-climactic to stop a few meters from the finish line. But I have to visit Catalonia to finish the book, and I’m not sure how soon that might be possible. I’ll keep you updated. In the meantime, I can still move on to editing.
But I can’t wait to publish stuff that looks like this:
A chapter about portable keyboards
A chapter about design
A chapter about keyboard switches
A chapter about word processing
A chapter about modern mechanical keyboards
In February, I gave a 20-minute talk at Config 2020 about… ostensibly about typography, but there is a good keyboard story in there, too. Maybe it’ll make you laugh:
Kevin Baker, Brie Wolfson, and particularly Kevin B. Leonard at Northwestern University, for helping me solve the mystery of the photo – and to many who did the same for other ones.
Many claim that the modern chapter of mechanical keyboards had its start in the 1990s in South Korea, with gamers flooding internet cafés to have their chance at becoming the best in the world at StarCraft. Their keyboard of choice was often a forgettable, cheap rubber dome office keyboard that happened to be in the right place at the right time. And, since it came in two colours, gamers quickly figured out they could customize it in a way that today will seem wonderfully anachronistic:
I like the story hiding in this photograph, too: The desire of people to express themselves via their keyboards was much older than the fancy mechanical keyboards and artisanal keycaps so popular these days. But good luck finding that photo! Imagine Vogelback once more, but now with an added language barrier, and a real possibility that this early digital photo never would’ve had enough megapixels for printing anyway.
Fortunately, there was another option: I could still get two of those keyboards for cheap, brand new, fuse them into the same style, and then put it in my light box right where I put hundreds of artifacts before:
That’s what I did. It’s that keyboard I’m typing on right now, a weird checkerboard amalgam of two QSENNs DT-35, with some keys swapped, and the others removed. It’s a recreation of a time and place that I’ll never fully understand, but one that felt important to talk about. It’s not an in situ photo, but maybe that’s better than nothing… And, at least my recreation isn’t – yet – particularly gross. (I promised myself only one gross keyboard photo for the entire book.)
Sometimes, the best way to find a photo is to take one yourself. Getting those QSENN keyboards wasn’t that easy, either. It took many months, and I almost gave up at one point. The fact that I had that keyboard next to my desk was because I only received, assembled, and photographed it last month. Perhaps it’s this kind of obsessiveness that led to this phase of the book work taking so long. But I hope that might be worth it in the longer run. Either way, it’s over – 98% over – now. The last two phases of editing can begin.
And maybe I’ll do that editing on that keyboard as well. Hey, if it worked for e-sports champions, it might work for someone writing about them. Maybe I’ll take another photo of it afterwards – cheap legends then slightly worn out by my fingertips, dust and hair and skin cells finding themselves comfortable in the spaces between keys. And only you and I will know the mystery of that photo.