In 1913, Frank and Lillian Gilbreth strapped light bulbs to the hands of the most efficient workers in a New England handkerchief factory and had them perform the menial tasks of their everyday routine.
The workers’ movements were photographed on a camera’s long exposure, and the trails of light were used to construct wire models that the less efficient employees could trace their hands over as a means of increasing productivity. The experimenters sought to determine the ‘one best way’ to perform a manual task by systematizing human hand movements into units of Therblig (Gilbreth spelt backwards). This, it was argued, would allow more time for leisure pursuits, measured in Happiness Minutes.
For this performance, a pianist with lights attached to his fingertips played Charles Ives’ 1913 Concord Sonata — a groundbreaking work from the Modernist repertoire that explores musical discord and harmony — on a piano whose strings had been severed. All that could be heard was the dull thud of wood against felt, as the musician fingered his mute instrument and the camera recorded their ineffectual performance.
The final image was constructed by setting the camera’s exposure to correspond to the duration of the performance, in this case the time it took the pianist to play Ives’ sonata. The photograph was then separated out into its constituent colors to reveal the information recorded in each channel.