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Pointillism in the digital era: Robert Silvers’ photomosaic

Anyone who has visited the Temporary Museum must have noticed a gigantic 500-euro banknote there. This banknote appeals to one’s imagination, as it measures 1.20 metres in height and 2.30 metres in width. When standing closer, you can see that it consists of thousands of other banknotes. Euro 500 is a so-called photomosaic from 2001 by Robert Silvers (New York, 1968). In his works, Robert Silvers combines computer technology with photography. That is why he considers himself to be both a computer scientist and an artist.

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Euro 500 © Photomosaic™

A photomosaic or photographic mosaic is an image, usually a photograph, divided into rectangles, which are in turn replaced by other photos. By enlarging the mosaic many times, these rectangles form a photograph in itself. So, a photomosaic consists of hundreds or thousands of smaller pictures.

For the very first photomosaics, the mosaic’s photos were manually selected according to colour in order to compose the overall picture. Currently, there are two different techniques for making a photomosaic. The first of these is the simplest method. Each rectangle is reduced to one colour. Every possible photograph that can replace a rectangle is also converted into one colour. Next, each coloured rectangle is replaced by a photograph of the same colour. The second method, however, compares all pixels of each component rectangle with all the similar pixels of all kinds of photographs. Then, the rectangle is replaced by the photograph with the most similar pixels. Of course, photomosaics created by this second method are of a better quality, since the original photograph has been left untouched.

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Self-portrait of Robert Silvers © Photomosaic™

In 1995, Robert Silvers created an algorithm in order to design photomosaics by means of specific software. He was still a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology when he devised this technology. He called his creations Photomosaics. In 1997, he was granted the patent on this name and on the photomosaic production process. 

Obviously, the software only takes care of the realisation of his creation. In order to achieve the desired effect, Silvers first carefully selects images on the basis of how they relate to the subject of the mosaic he has in mind. These images are either clearly related to the subject, or Silvers thinks up a clever witticism. Then, the more than a thousand images are scanned. Next, the right picture is put into its right place within the mosaic by the software. For instance, his portrait of Marilyn Monroe consists of 1776 pictures taken by photographer Bruno Bernard during different stages of her career. His interpretation of Van Gogh’s Starry Night is made up of 3250 images from the NASA space programme. Each photomosaic is printed on photographic paper and then fixed onto aluminium with a specially lacquered surface for more shine and protection.

Robert Silvers’ favourite theme is the portrait. Man simply has this basic urge to recognise and depict faces. That is why Silvers finds portraits so fascinating. Besides contemporary personalities such as Bill Gates, he also made photomosaics of historic figures such as Mao or James Dean. His portrait of Princess Diana, for instance, is entirely made up of different types of flowers. Furthermore, Silvers has created numerous personal interpretations of famous masterpieces from the history of art. For example, Pablo Picasso’s Guernica is composed of photographs of the Spanish Civil War. Then again, Robert Silvers’ detail of Le fils de l’homme by René Magritte is the result of drawings and paintings from the entire history of art.

Magritte © Photomosaic™ [3]

Magritte © Photomosaic™

A third category of Silvers’ work consists of the ‘memorabilia’. These include an image of the Earth from space, a detail of the Statue of Liberty, as well as a pink flamingo. In its turn, the photomosaic of the Titanic consists of pictures of ships and the underwater world. From the clientele on his list, it is clear that the works of Robert Silvers rank among the absolute best in the world. He has worked for Disney, Audi, Bayer, Mastercard International and National Geographic, among others. Silvers was asked to design the cover for Life Magazine‘s 60th birthday. It turned out to be a photograph of Marilyn Monroe composed of every cover of the magazine’s previous volumes.

Robert Silvers undertook his latest big project for the 2014 football World Cup in Brazil. He designed the biggest photomosaic ever for the Coca-Cola Happiness Flag. This huge flag of 3015 m2 was spread out on the football pitch of the São Paolo stadium for the opening match on 12 June. It was designed by Brazilian street artist Speto and Argentinian artist Tec. Their design was then transformed into a photomosaic by Silvers. Fans from all over the world could send in their picture by way of the internet or social media. In the end, more than 220 000 people from 207 countries took part. The flag can still be seen online and you can zoom in to the desired level. According to Coca-Cola, the philosophy behind this project is that football possesses an unbelievably positive power which exceeds social, cultural and geographical boundaries. The Happiness Flag expresses this power by creating an experience that can be shared by people all over the world.

Anyone taking the time to study Euro 500 will notice that it is composed of banknotes from all over the world and from different time periods. Most rectangles have been replaced by whole banknotes, but a number of rectangles have been filled with a detail of a banknote, doubtlessly for reasons of colour. Among others, banknotes from China, Great Britain, Paraguay, Lithuania, Ghana, Egypt, Singapore and Mauritius can be recognised.

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Detail of Euro 500 © Photomosaic™

Front of 50-franc note, type 1966, issued by the Treasury [5]

Front of 50-franc note, type 1966, issued by the Treasury

If you let your eyes wander all over the photomosaic, you will even find some Belgian banknotes. The 100- and 200-franc banknotes, portraying painter James Ensor and musical instrument designer Adolphe Sax, are represented various times. These notes circulated from 1995 and 1996 respectively until 2002. Also the 1000-franc note with the picture of 18th century composer André Grétry can be found in this photomosaic. It circulated from 1980 until 1997. The last in the series of Belgian banknotes that can be discerned is the 50-franc note, issued by the Treasury and depicting the royal couple Baudouin and Fabiola. It remained in circulation for as long as 22 years, until it was again replaced by a coin in 1988. For many Belgians, therefore, this small banknote evokes nostalgic feelings. It is now immortalised as part of Robert Silvers’ photomosaic. Feel free to come and look for it in this mosaic in the Temporary Museum.

Nina Van Meerbeeck
Museum Guide

Bibliography