Data, Conspiracy and Concept: Mark Lombardi


While working on my New York Times visualizations over the last few weeks, I have been reminded of and influenced by the work of American artist Mark Lombardi. Lombardi’s drawings outlining connections between people and organizations, which he called ‘Narrative Structures’ were the result of meticulous research and careful draftsmanship. He collected mentions of individuals, corporations, and government bodies from newspapers, indexes of books, and magazines, and catalogued this data on index cards – at one time he had more than 14,000 cards on file. He began using diagrams as a way to makes sense of this huge store of data, intending to put his dicoveries together into writing; but the diagrams themselves quickly became his central form of output.  These charts and maps are often extremely complex and typically focus on conspiracies. The image above shows a small portion of a piece depicting relationships between George W. Bush, Harken Energy, and Jackson Stephens.

Ten years ago, the types of relationships that Lombardi exposed were hugely difficult to unearth – the number of hours that went into each of his diagrams is staggering to consider. There may be some question as to the accuracy of his conclusions, but if recent interest by the FBI in Lombardi’s work is any indication, he seems to have been on to something.

Compare this painstaking work to the ease of assembling my 365/360 diagrams, which also depict relationships between people and organizations, and which also use media as a source. Each of these graphics takes only 13 calls to the NYT Article Search API, and is drawn completely in about a minute. Of course, my simple renderings lack the careful draftsmanship and personal attention that is integral to Lombardi’s pieces, but they certainly share a similar level of complexity and intent. There is a question, also, as to how the long, repetitive process of research contributed to the ultimate value of his hand-drawn diagrams – how do weeks and weeks of research and production compare to a 50 second render?  Despite this, I wonder what kind of work Lombardi might have produced had the ease of access provided by the Times API and other such tools had been a reality in the 1990s.

Mark Lombardi died of an apparent suicide in 2000. Though the circumstances surrounding his death reamain somewhat mysterious, it appears he was, at least in part, discouraged by having to re-create one of his most complex drawings – which had been distroyed by a sprinkler system in his apartment. You can read more about Mark Lombardi here, here, and here.

5 thoughts on “Data, Conspiracy and Concept: Mark Lombardi”

  1. Good points, Greg. I think there is some temptation (at least on my part) to think of Lombardi as being 'naive' about data visualization and acting more completely in a conceptual realm, but in reality it's clear that he read and researched a lot about visualization techniques – in particular Tufte.

    As you said, it is the intention of the work that separates him from others working in similar areas. Art doesn't have Science's aversion towards subjectivity, and Lombardi, working free of any responsibility to be unbiased, was able to construct his work with a personal, almost editorial statement running underneath.

    This might be what separates visualization as science from visualization as art.

  2. Nice post Jer, Lombardi is very important and oddly enough, not mentioned as much as other proto “visualization artists” like Bradford Paley or Ben Fry. I think what many people in the dataviz community could learn from Lombardi is that for him, visualization was a means to an end. He was actively engaged in an ongoing research project and visualization (drawing) was how he communicated it. I think the current manner in which we consume visualization projects has a certain “attention deficit disorder” quality to it. Everyone is hungry to see the next provocative “type” of visualization and then it is on to the next data set – strip mining is the term that comes to mind. Lombardi is a great example of a dedicated researcher!

    You are right though, what would he be doing if he had access to the New York Times API?

  3. Connection does not solidify culpability or conspiracy, merely that they all have their degrees of separation. It takes more than a web to catch the truth.

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