Eames Archives: An Image as an Idea

If you were to question an Eames Office staff member, peer, or family about their time with Charles and Ray, most anecdotes would likely mention the pair’s intense adoration for photo documentation. I remember hearing one of their grandchildren retell a memory Charles had of the 1960s. His sister called from Mississippi after a disastrous hurricane, describing to him a scene of floating homes and uprooted trees. Charles’s first question to her (after learning that nobody was hurt) was: “But, did you get pictures?”

When looking at archival photographs of Charles and Ray, it is easy to find one or both of them sporting a camera in some fashion—whether holding one up to their faces or having one within reach. While my first assumption was that they were capturing these thousands of images for the sake of documenting the visual aspects of their daily life, it became increasingly apparent that they were using these images to convey something more than a pleasing composition. They were using pictures to explain what words couldn’t—to aid them in the assembly of ideas.

Over years of obsessively learning about Charles and Ray, it was clear to me that I wasn’t the first person to arrive at this conclusion about the Eameses. Charles and Ray were aware of their own doing. The Eames Office staff talked about it as if it were an unwritten and unspoken, but established process. The Eames family and scholars, since the time of Charles and Ray’s passing, have written about their photographic approach to communicating ideas.

In July of 1977, The Washington Post wrote: “They use a camera the way Thomas Jefferson (a hero of theirs) used a pen, or perhaps the way Socrates used the tongue. Some people, when you ask them a question, tell you a story. The Eameses show you a picture. Clients who ask for a proposal receive a movie. After the Eameses shake hands with you, they take your picture. Somehow, it seems as if they use a camera as a pair of magic eyeglasses to bring the world into focus.”

Grandson Eames Demetrios declared that “an image was an idea” in an entire chapter of his book, An Eames Primer. That sentiment, an image as an idea, is what inspired this new series of writings. As a historian, budding archivist, and a self-proclaimed Eames nerd, my hope is to share images from the Eames collection that illustrate that Charles and Ray weren’t solely furniture designers. They weren’t just architects, artists, filmmakers, exhibition designers, or parents. They were, above all, communicators of ideas.

Read more Eames Archives: An Image as an Idea articles here.