The Art of Camo

Camouflage, you might think, is about blending in. But just as often, and especially these days, it’s about standing out. Camouflage hides shapes by generating hints of many other possible shapes. Instead of staying silent, in other words, camouflage succeeds by being noisy: it hides signal with noise. Socially and esthetically, too, camouflage is more and more often about advertising allegiance.

We are looking for a few good pixels

Only Marines can wear the new MARPAT pattern (tiny anti-copying devices protect it from unscrupulous army-navy store vendors) and the Corps website proclaims that the virtues of the new look seem to imply its very appearance will make enemies run away: “Distinctive to the Marines, the uniform is designed to inspire fear in the hearts and minds of all enemies.” But isn’t the uniform supposed to make Marines invisible?

Certainly the Army must feel, if not fear, at least irritation—as they so often do with the glory-grabbing antics of the jarheads. The Army had to settle for a version of the pixelated MARPAT scheme with the black removed. This is embarrassingly similar to the camo of the overly passive Canadian army.

The pixelation is less a result of the way the camo works than of its design and production. From a distance, the edges blur. What is revealing is that the army version of the pixelated pattern is different from the Marine one. The Army is said not to need black since its job is more general, and the theaters where it may be called on to perform are more diverse. But in Iraq the two services fight side by side.

At least the Army got pixels instead of blobs, which are so, well, Gulf War I. The old “camel-shit” pebble and boulder look of the Schwartzkopf era seems downright venerable now. The new camo is all of a style with the pixelations of video sat phones and blur-outs to protect faces and name bars. “Pixelation” is to the current run of wars what “night vision” was to Gulf War I—the stylistic keynote.

The art of camo, the camo of art
Despite its functionalist status, camo has always had style—and art. Camouflage attracts modernists raised to believe that ornament is crime. Camo ornaments legally, you might say—its pattern has a job to do. Artists and fashion designers have long played off camouflage. Many used bright fluorescent colors instead of dull natural ones. Andy Warhol’s camouflage portraits, done late in his life, employed this strategy. (One recurrent fashion joke about camouflage is the perennial camo bikini, a play on concealment and revelation.)

Camo’s history became a parable of a wider truth: that the design of even the most functional object—and camo would seem to live and die by its function—inevitably becomes artistic and stylistic. Camouflage was associated from its beginnings with art and artists. Artists were put into service in World War I to camouflage equipment and installations. Gertrude Stein famously reported the remarks of Picasso and Braque, viewing camouflaged military equipment on parade in Paris at the beginning World War I. “We did that,” Picasso said. “That is Cubism.” That may have been Cubism, which would have made the lovely lavender and pink lozenges of German Albatross fighter planes, fitted together like cells of a honeycomb, “hexagonalist.”

Dazzle ship camouflage was futurist, or vorticist, with its slashes and jags. That an apparently functionalist thing had so many stylistic and cultural variants was a lesson modernism would have to learn again and again.

Camo realism
There is realist camouflage, too, as there is realist painting. The most powerful figure in the world of camouflage may be Bill Jordan of Realtree, a camo realist. Jordan has licensed his patterns to some 800 companies. He has formed a business alliance with NASCAR, which allows him to hang out with top stock car race drivers and produces items that show leafy patterns topped with dramatically shaded race car numbers.

An athletic young man who grew up hunting and fishing for bass in Georgia, Jordan according to his website, “decided to try his hand at making a camo pattern. For hours, he sat in his parents’ front yard sketching and coloring an exact replica of the bark of a giant oak tree.” His mother still lives in the house and “the tree that started it all still stands guard over the front yard.”

Local colors
Camouflage also reflects national and regional differences. Camouflage is always specific to the area of its use, and the Realtree family is down home camo. Camo is costume appropriate to the stage and show. We speak after all of “theaters” of war. The patterns favored by hunters are extremely specific to terrain and season: winter branch or autumn leaf.

Another southern camo maker, Mossy Oak (also established in 1986 and based in Mississippi), offers a similarly sentimental account of its local origins. Mossy Oak’s original patterns, with their “realistic limbs and ghostly shadows,” (which could be a line of Wallace Stevens) were drawn by a local artist based on “a very large and special tree in South Alabama.” Mossy Oak has now been joined by one called Obsession, like a certain perfume, which Toxey Haas, the founder, developed using computer images.

Stein understood there were national styles of camouflage as well as artistic ones. “Another thing that interested us enormously,” she noted about camo, “was how different the camouflage of the French looked from the camouflage of the Germans, and then once we came across some very neat camouflage and it was American. The idea was the same, but as after all it was different nationalities who did it the difference was inevitable. The color schemes were different, the way of placing them was different, it made plain the whole theory of art and its inevitability.” The national differences of camo are evident in the German flecktarn (Fig. 1), redolent of picnics in the Alps, and the jungley tiger stripe (Fig. 2) so beloved of Central American and African dictators—think Manuel Noriega.

Future camo
The camo gurus at Hyperstealth Biotechnology Corp take a very different approach. Instead of realism, they employ the mathematics of fractals to design patterns. They might be seen as conceptualists beside the realists of Realtree or Mossy Oak.

Computers are also key to the camo patterns developed by Hyperstealth, which recently sold one of its patterns to the Kingdom of Jordan. The principals of the company, its president Guy Cramer and consultant Lt. Col. Timothy R. O’Neill, Ph.D., United States Army (Ret.), developed their patterns by running multiple fractals (graphics with feed back loops) and advanced algorithms through computers in a process they call Camouflage Designated Enhanced Fractal Geometry.

The algorithms that generate the patterns developed by Hyperstealth belong to the mathematics of emergent patterns—the stuff of evolution and fractals, very popular these days with designers. They are not just shapes abstracted from nature, but processes abstracted from nature.

Selecting from the results of this process is an activity like that of Jhane Barnes, choosing from computer-designed patterns for her fabrics. It is a reminder that because all design involves choice it inevitably also involves style.

About the Author: Phil Patton is the author of many books, including Autodesign International, Made in USA, Open Road and Dreamland. He writes regularly on automobile design for The New York Times and has been a contributing editor to I.D., Wired and Esquire. He teaches in the MFA Design Criticism program at the School of Visual Arts and has served as a curator for several museum shows, among them the Museum of Modern Art’s “Different Roads: Automobiles for a New Century.”