Ed Emshwiller studied art at the University of Michigan, the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, and the Art Students League in New York. Beginning in 1951, the astonishingly prolific Emshwiller created cover and interior art for more than two dozen magazines including Galaxy, Amazing, Fantasy & Science Fiction and Startling Stories, along with hundreds of book covers, both hardback and paperback. He and Frank Kelly Freas were the undisputed rulers of the science-fiction art realm during the 1950s and early 1960s, and among the few science fiction artists of the time able to make a decent living from their work. Emshwiller shared the first Hugo Award for Best Cover Artist with Hannes Bok in 1953. He won further Hugos in 1960, 1961, 1962 and 1964. He often signed his science fiction artwork "Emsh."
As a science fiction artist, Emshwiller worked fast and skillfully, seeming equally at home in every science fiction illustrative mode, whether dramatic, symbolic or humorous. His style was vigorous but polished-seeming, though his actual lines (especially in interior artwork) tended to be rough, assured and full of character. In the 1950s he represented a definite step up from the colorful crudeness of most illustration for the pulp magazines.
Emshwiller also painted abstract expressionist canvases for gallery exhibition and worked in experimental filmmaking. "Dance Chromatic" (1959), his first film, and "Thanatopsis" (1962) are still remembered. He turned to full time moviemaking in 1964, thereafter doing only occasional science fiction artwork as a favor to friends. His 38-minute "Relativity" (1966) is regarded by many critics as one of the greatest short films ever made. This second career was notably distinguished, the Museum of Modern Art being one of many bodies to recognize its importance. In 1971, he began working with videotape, then a very new medium; and he was artist-in-residence at the Television Laboratory, WNET/13 in New York, winning more awards. He later (1981-6) became provost of the School of Film and Video at the California Institute of the Arts. Emshwiller was married to noted author Carol Emshwiller.