An Unofficial Visual History of Camouflage

MARPAT US Woodland camo pattern

MARPAT US Woodland camo pattern

It’s uncanny, the similarities between birthing babies and books. No sooner do you pop out the first one, folks start eagerly chatting you up about #2. While the jury remains out on sibling-making for our son, I’m at least equipped with an answer for what I’ll tackle for book #2: a popular history of classic graphic patterns like polka dots, stripes, fleur de lis and camouflage.

Nothing will teach you faster if a topic can sustain your attention, and offer true scope for exploration, like writing an in-depth essay about a single instance of your subject. When I plunged deep into research on the history of camouflage for The Believer, I came back sputtering and laden with gold. Here’s a crash course in what may well be the world’s most fascinating and pervasive pattern.

Cuttlefish

This NPR Science Friday video shows the mimic wizardry of cephalopods, from cuttlefish to octopi. Chromatophores in their skin enable them to match color, pattern, even physical texture and shape with their environment. http://www.sciencefriday.com/program/archives/201202174

Camo starts, of course, as a phenomenon of nature. Three early champions—two British zoologists and one slightly deranged American painter—studied camo closely and brought it to the attention of the wider scientific community.

Zoologist number one, Sir Edward Poulton, wrote the first book on camouflage in 1890. An ardent Darwinist, Poulton saw animal mimicry for concealment as proof of natural selection. Whether masquerading as a twig, a wood ant (when actually a rove beetle), or a poisonous valentine pufferfish (when actually harmless), mimicry is a bluffer’s gift used by predators and prey alike.

Abbott Thayer, the American painter, popularized two concepts inherent to camouflage: countershading and disruptive coloration. Countershading explains why so many animals have lighter underbellies shading to dark. This visual effect cancels out shadowing from overhead sun, rendering the animal flat-looking. Disruptive coloration refers to irregular patterning on the animal’s hide that disrupts its contours, making it more difficult to perceive at a distance.

A crotchety painter of pellucid angels, Thayer suffered from bipolar disorder. As his theories gained prominence (and attracted strong critique), Thayer succumbed to panic attacks, while writing with increasingly focused zeal in his own defense.

The second British zoologist Hugh Cott built on Thayer’s concepts and added his own: contour obliteration, shadow elimination, among others.

tokyo-book-closure-example

An example of how closure works

Simultaneously, ideas core to camouflage were gaining traction in another area of scientific inquiry, cognitive psychology.

Founded in 1910, Gestalt psychology sought to understand “unit-forming factors” in how we perceive forms (or thwart that perception). The Gestalt notion of continuity—a moving gaze’s tendency to continue in a given direction—could be harnessed to misdirect enemy attention. Camouflage could be unwittingly undone by closure—the mind’s attempt to “connect the dots” in incomplete forms.

Visual artists around the turn of the 20th century fell hard for these perceptual games. Pointillists like Seurat broke their images into tiny optical dots, while Cubists and Vorticists showed multiple perspectives on a flat canvas. Whether these artistic experiments authored military camouflage is an open question, but artists liked to think they were first. Seeing a camouflaged cannon rolling through Paris in WWI, Picasso exclaimed: “C’est nous qui avons fait ça!” “It is we who created that!” Later he cultivated a breezily world-weary stance: “If they only want to make an army invisible at a distance,” he told poet Jean Cocteau, “they have only to dress their men as harlequins.”

“Dazzle” warship USS Mahomet in port, circa November 1918.

“Dazzle” warship USS Mahomet in port, circa November 1918.

Unsurprisingly, camouflage hits its stride when the military seized it. Aerial combat posed a brand-new threat during WWI, and all combatants woke up to the fact that parading into war in brilliant scarlet or blue trousers was less than smart. You might also want to hide those expensive tanks, munitions factories and other assets from attack too.

So began an improbable, decades-long love affair with military camouflage. Recruiting the least likely of military types to its cause—long-haired artists, theater set designers, fashionistas and the like—to teach crewcut youths from Japan to Nebraska in basic skills of camouflaging munitions using paint, netting, leaves, shadow—a full gamut of visual subterfuge techniques. It can fairly be described as the most democratic visual-literacy course ever.

How to camouflage a truck, from La Guerre Documentée, vol. IV, c. 1920.

How to camouflage a truck, from La Guerre Documentée, vol. IV, c. 1920.

Camouflage’s purpose expanded in WWII from simply hiding things to a full-bore industry of strategic deceit. It’s a story of inflatable tanks; decoy heads, tree-stumps and cities; magicians sporting colonel stripes, jazzy warships—a graphic pattern writ large and three-dimensional.

Camouflage played a central role in two Allied wins during WWII: El Alamein in 1942 and D-Day in 1944.

At El Alamein the Allies blocked the Germans from seizing the Suez Canal and Mideast oil reserves. The Allies staged a fake supply buildup south of El Alamein, replete with inflatable tanks and phony artillery flashing. British camoufleur and stage magician Jasper Maskelyne actually hid the entire Suez Canal from aerial view with a combination of mirrors and massive searchlights. (Hiding waterways was easier than it sounds: a mixture of coal dust and fuel oil would float on still water and reduce the water’s shine.)

Just before D-Day, Allied troops seemed to be amassing in Scotland and Kent to attack Norway, while actually concentrating forces aimed at Normandy. British movie studios constructed a head-spinning number of faux oil storage tanks, landing jetties, and inflatable tanks, while disguising real troop buildup. The ruse continued after landing in France with the 603rd Engineer Camouflage Battalion of the U.S. Army. This “Ghost Army” took the place of the actual U.S. battalion marching stealthily to Normandy. The Ghost Army included several camoufleurs bound for fame, including artist Ellsworth Kelly, fashion designer Bill Blass, and Ed Haas (creator of The Munsters).

Park Bench / Couple (2001) by Desiree Palmen: http://www.desireepalmen.com

Park Bench / Couple (2001) by Desiree Palmen: http://www.desireepalmen.com

Bookcase by Desiree Palmen: http://www.desireepalmen.com

Bookcase by Desiree Palmen: http://www.desireepalmen.com

Camo lived out an even more paradoxical life in the non-military sphere: it’s a visual stamp intended to stand out even as it blends in. With hundreds of patterns and dozens of conflicting uses—from hobnobbing 1920s flappers to Public Enemy to proud redneck prom queens to political art—camouflage embodies our era’s cultural wars as much as its actual wars.

A variety of styles from http://www.ATouchofCamo.com

A variety of styles from http://www.ATouchofCamo.com

I won’t spill the beans on camouflage’s entire rich history, but you can certainly read more in this history of camouflage for The Believer. And hold onto your mosquito-netted hats for the camouflage chapter in my next book!


ref-libraryThe PANTONE REFERENCE LIBRARY 50th Anniversary Edition is the ultimate resource for design firms, corporate communication design departments, agencies, schools or anyone who needs a complete source for color choices.

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