Writing with Light

Thinking, making, connecting: MA Illustration

Posts from the ‘Histories’ category

(Re)Creating History: Annu Palakunnathu Matthew and Moira Shearer

An Indian from India

An Indian from India Annu Palakunnathu Matthew

Via Jill Enfield, I came across the work of Annu Palakunnathu Matthew, who makes beautiful work with reconstructions of old photographs, sometimes in oratone. Enfield was giving a lecture for B and H Photography about her own work in using old chemical darkroom techniques to make pictures. She offered examples of the work of others and Annu Palakunnathu Matthew was among the many names. Her work stood out for me, however, for several reasons. Matthew plays with layers and animations of people slowly superimposed over their younger selves. She also takes old photographs and superimposes herself into them and puts them side by side. The beauty is in the content of the image, but also in the oratone itself (oratone being a collodion image, on glass, backed with gold); it’s in the gentleness of the old monochrome images; and in the expression of the passage of time which the digital reworkings – as stills and animation – offer the viewer. Here, the gentle collision of ages in the slow animations annihilates the times between each image. Time passes far too quickly. All too soon we are changed. And gone. We are all history… Time in photographs, however, is static: it shows us what we can never actually have, as Barthes notes in Camera Lucida: ‘What the Photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once: the Photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially’ (2000: 4). Matthew’s reiterations are phantoms of moments that are unrepeatable, but like performances, they exist as if iterated for the first time, existing forever in that uncanny performance limbo of being simultaneously real and unreal.

Matthew’s work explores time but also identity and ‘otherness’: she says in her artist’s statement:

As an immigrant, I am often questioned about where I am “really from.” When I say that I am Indian, I often have to clarify that I am an Indian from India. Not an American-Indian, but rather an Indian-American, South-Asian Indian or even an Indian-Indian.


Time, traced back in the images, takes us to when identity was firmly placed as geographical, and if it was different it was ‘other’ and ‘difficult’: in her images, she plays the roles her interlocutors expect of her; she becomes ‘really from’ elsewhere. She thus plays with expectation, but with humour and sadness. Her work mixes cross-dressing; cross-time; cross-generations; and cross-processes. Her use of old methods combined with digital forms undercuts it all as if to say: everything is, in any case, a mish-mash of old and new; old and young; male and female; here and there; centre and other. Everything is postmodern. Everything is iterated and reiterated, and not necessarily in that order.

An Indian from India

And Indian from India Annu Palakunnathu Matthew

Matthew’s work is inspirational because in it I find combined several themes to which I myself keep returning. I am a digital photographer, but I collect old photographs and make new images and animations with them.


Still from an animation Beach Dream H. Newall

I have a box of old portraits of people whose names and identities are most likely forever lost, and this sense of lost identity I find fertile ground. I’ve spent hours digitally restoring some of these images, during which time there’s been plenty of thinking about these forgotten people as I restore eyes, mouths, dresses, fingers… I pondered on what their names might have been. In most cases, there is no way of ever knowing.

I’ve used some of these photographs to make images and animations for theatre projection, and I’ve had faint stirrings of ethical problems with this: I have therefore (I think), never made an animation that disrespects the images or the people in them. I photographed Victorian grave stones once in Whitby for another project and had similar ethical stirrings. Since the stones in one field seemed to be separated from the land (and bodies) where they’d originally stood, here were memories of people who were present in stone name only, and the stones themselves were eroding in the rain, names melting away, one stone molecule at a time. The old photographs of people became for me, at that point, like these old grave stones: I imagined a field of silver people standing like stones… There’s a picture I’ve still to make, exploring presence and absence and faces without names… This is an image personifying (literally, in the anonymous silent silver people) Sontag’s and Barthes’s notion of death in the image: “All photographs are memento mori,’ Sontag writes in On Photography, ‘To take a photograph is to participate in a person’s (or a thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability’ (1979: 15). And Barthes: ‘Photography is a kind of primitive theatre, a kind of Tableau Vivant, a figuration of the motionless and made-up face beneath which we see the dead’ (2000: 32).

Moira Scared

Mark Edward as Moira (2013) H. Newall


Moira Shearer as Vicky in The Red Shoes (1948) dir. Michael Powell

The second theme that interests me is reconstruction. In the autumn of 2013 I staged an exhibition in collaboration with dancer and friend Mark Edward, in which iconic dance images are recreated, not however, by lithe young female ballerinas, but an overweight 40 year old drag queen (he won’t mind me saying that!). The exhibition, Dying Swans and Dragged Up Dames offered themes of fakery, pastiche, ageing and Photoshop. The images were fond and fun rather than pisstakes… We laughed making them. I hope they made people smile as they looked at the made-up faces of the Tableau Vivant we’d made for them.

I quote some of the text I wrote to accompany the images: ‘These are tragi-comedy images:  The tragedy lies in knowing that the dancers we watch will eventually become too past it to dance, the comedy from the bombastic contrast between athletic dance bodies and an aged, overweight one attempting and achieving (thank you Photoshop!) the same balletic feats. This exhibition fondly foregrounds cultural obsessions with youth and Photoshop, and the erasure of age in both live performance – ballet, drag or otherwise – and the digital dark room, where ability and beauty can be airbrushed and ‘improved’.  These are images of old drag ballet queens, flamboyant in the performance of being clapped out and over the hill, but still dancing.’ (Exhibition Notes, Dying Swans and Dragged Up Dames, The Arts Centre, Edge Hill University, Ormskirk, October 2013)

L.P. Hartley’s The Go Between has an excellent first line, perhaps the best first line in a novel ever:

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

I’m interested in historical processes and historical content and the differences (and perhaps the Derridean différances), between then and now: Annu Palakunnathu Mathew demonstrates that this is not wholly a retrospective process, but that there are new artifacts to be made with historical things. They do do things differently, alternatively, in the past, and as Harold Davis notes, they often did things in the past long before we thought of (re)doing them: the first HDR print, he claims, was The Great Wave, made in 1857 by Gustav Le Grey… (2012: 16). So the old adage of there being nothing new under the sun probably holds true. We do things again; we do things differently, différantly; sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously; we remake the old to make something new…

Barthes, R., (2000) Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, London: Vintage
Davis, H., (2012) Creating HDR Photos, New York: Amphoto Books
Enfield, J., (2013) Jill Enfield’s Guide to Photographic Alternative Processes: Popular Historical and Contemporary Techniques, Abingdon: Focal Press
Enfield, J., ‘Guide to Alternative Photographic Processes, B and H online lecture, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ckkHW6f3xoI (accessed Dec 2013; Jan 2014)
Palannuathu Matthew, A., www.annumatthew.com (accessed: Dec 2013; Jan 2014)
Sontag, S., (1979) On Photography, London: Penguin Books

Shadows of the Past

A very important aspect of a photogram is this contact, how do I put it…a photogram is not a reproduced print, it is a contact picture. You sense that the object was originally in contact with the picture.

                                                                                (Floris Neusüss, V&A, 2010; online)

Many practitioners are working with past forms. Artist, Spring Hurlbut, for example, has worked in conjunction with Mike Robinson, to make daguerretypes of artifacts in a museum. Their work is featured on Lady Lazarus’s blog.  Whilst the loveliness of these kinds of projects is undoubted, they never excite me as much the ones where I feel, ‘I could experiment with that.’ In this sense, it is the shadowgrams that attract me, mainly because I’ve done them before, so long ago…

Two books in particular have, therefore, opened up new artists to me because they deal with shadowgrams: Jill Enfield’s Guide to Photographic Alternative Processes: Popular Historical and Contemporary Techniques and Martin Barnes’s Shadow Catchers: Camera-less Photography.

Enfield can also be found giving a presentation online. Her talk is fascinating: she discusses the variety of alternative methods she uses, but mostly she surveys the variety of artists making work with these other older chemical forms. ‘Why limit yourself to just digital or film?’ she asks, ‘There are 3 centuries of photography to work with.’ 

Enfield discussed in her talk (albeit briefly) the work of Martha Madigan who makes beautiful large scale shadowgrams. The images are sensuous: you sense the presence of a real rather than a painterly body in the images, through what Neusüss terms ‘contact’. But some of the images are mottled with leaves and the textures of grasses and flowers; others with intersections between positive and negative images. They are beautiful glowing things.


Graciela XII, Martha Madigan

The work of Floris Neusüss is similar in that he too works with shadowgrams and light sensitive paper, and often uses the human form.


Untitled Photograph Floris Neusüss

The silhouette is not a tightly focused crisp image, but is rendered softer and more human by the blurring at the edges. We are given the suggestion of presence: this image is a map of the time when the light sifted around the flesh and reacted with the chemicals in the paper. The time taken to make this image is undoubtedly more than for a usual exposure but it suggests that time is fleeting; that it slips away. The physicality of this process is appealing and numenous. The softness offers a fragility; the silhouette gives a sense of seeing something intimate or private, as though through a sheer curtain: we are there, but not quite there with the subject of the image. Barnes writes of his work: ‘it explores the forms of the body and external objects in a poetic dialogue between presence and absence’ (2010: 26). These are works which seem even more personal and intimate and, dare I say it, spiritual, than more usual forms of photography.

There are other contemporary artists and photographers working in this camera free method – Susan Derges, Garry Fabian Miller, Adam Fuss to name the ones features in Barnes’s book – but it is these two, Madigan and Neusüss that inspire to me play with similar forms. Their work is ethereal and breathtakingly beautiful.

Barnes, M., (2010) Shadow Catchers: Camera-less Photography, London: Merrell in association with the V&A
Enfield, J., (2013) Jill Enfield’s Guide to Photographic Alternative Processes: Popular Historical and Contemporary Techniques, New York: Focal Press

Daguerre, then and now


Portrait of Louis Daguerre, 1844. Daguerreotype. Photographer: Jean-Baptiste Sabatier-Blot (1801-1881). Source: Wikimedia Commons

Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (1787-1851) was working in France in parallel with Fox Talbot. His process was further developed in collaboration from 1829 with Joseph Niéphore Niépce who died in 1833, leaving Daguerre to progress the work alone. Daguerre announced his discoveries in 1839, and whilst recognising Niépce’s significant part in them, named the process the daguerreotype, leaving Niépce’s term, heliography, behind. This is a history littered with lost terminology. According to the Online Etymological Dictionary, the term photography was most likely coined by Sir John Herschel in 1839.


An 1854 two-panel cartoon on the vagaries of early photography, published in the Punch’s Almanack for 1855. Caption to top panel: “Interesting group posed for a Daguerrotype by a friend of the family”. Caption to bottom panel: “Interesting and valuable result” (the family photograph has actually turned out horribly). Source: wikimedia commons

Whatever the term, the announcements on both sides of the Channel caught the imagination of the world, but it was Daguerre’s process from the start that proved more popular. In 1840, Edgar Allen Poe announced the importance of Daguerre’s camera: ‘The instrument itself,’ he wrote, ‘must undoubtedly be regarded as the most important, and perhaps the most extraordinary triumph of modern science’ (in Trachtenberg, 1980: 37).

The daguerreotype was, however, not without its detractors, as a satitical cartoon from Punch in 1855 demonstrates. At first, exposure for a daguerreptype took hours, and although this was reduced within a year to only minutes, it was still problematic and ‘still placed limitations on the choice of subject’ (Clarke, 1997: 15). A commentator writes in The Spectator in 1841: ‘To render the Daguerreotype applicable to the purpose of portraiture, it was necessary to accelerate the action of light on the plate; for rapid as was the formation of the image, even five minutes was too long for any sitter to remain perfectly still. This has been accomplished by various modifications of the chemical preparation of the plate…’ (The Spectator, London, 4 September 1841: online resource, The Daguerreian Society). There are plenty of articles with advice on how to how daguerreotype children, and a flurry of inventions for holding heads and arms still. In a journal entry dated 24 October 1841, Ralph Waldo Emerson writes:


Daguerreotype portrait of Scottish novelist and poet Robert Louis Stevenson as a child. Unknown photographer. Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University. Source: Wikimedia Commons

‘Were you ever Daguerrotyped, O immortal man? … and in your zeal not to blur the image, did you keep every finger in its place with such energy that your hands became clenched as for fight or despair, & in your resolution to keep your face still, did you feel every muscle becoming every moment more rigid …’ (Emerson, 1841, online resource: The Daguerreian Society). It was also difficult to view since its silvery metal surface reflected light, but despite its drawbacks, Daguerre’s method spread fast and far afield, enjoying considerable success in America, as is evidenced by the hyperbole in the article ‘Heliography in New York’, La Lumiere, 1852, online resource: The Daguerreian Society); and in the comments of Lady Elizabeth Eastlake in 1857 in her essay Photography published in the Quarterly Review: ‘As early as 1842 one individual, of the name Beard, assumed the calling of daguerreotype artist. In 1843 he set up establishments in four different quarters of London’ (Eastlake in Trachtenberg, 1981: 40).

But daguerreotypes were, in the end, a fleeting innovation in the Grand Narrative of the History of Photography, as Damisch and Berger state: ‘the first inventors worked to fix images and simultaneously to develop techniques for their mass distribution, which is why the process perfected by Daguerre was doomed from the very outset, since it could provide nothing but a unique image’ (Trachtenberg, 1981: 290). Whilst the world now reveres the digital image, and film work recedes dangerously close to extinction in the popular conception of what photography is, daguerreotypography is now only used by enthusiasts such as the members of the The Daguerreian Societyand artists such as Chuck Close working with Jerry Spagnoli, and Spring Hurlbut in collaboration with daguerreotypist Mike Robinson.

The early inventors of photography sought mass production, and from the outset, possibly influenced by this desire for mass production, there was debate as to its cultural status: was it a science? Was it a craft? Was it, Heavens forfend, an art? This was a debate which in 1839 was already waiting for Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ in which he cites Paul Valéry: ‘Just as water, gas and electricity are brought into our houses from far off to satisfy our needs in response to minimal efforts, so shall we be supplied with visual or auditory images…’  The flood of these images did not began in 1839 – lithography was already illustrating our lives in newspapers and journals – but Daguerre and Fox Talbot et al certainly opened the floodgates to bring us to the state where today, according to Qmee there are 20 million photo views on Flickr, 104 thousand photos shared on Snapchat, and 3,600 Instagrams every 60 seconds…

M. Daguerre, qu’avez vous faits?

Benjamin, W., ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ in Walter, B., H. Zohn (trans.) (1968) Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, New York: Schocken Books
Clarke, G., (1997) The Photograph: A Visual and Cultural History, Oxford Paperbacks.
Trachtenberg, A. (ed.) (1980) Classic Essays on Photography, New Haven: Leete’s Island Books
Watson. R., & H. Rappaport. (2013) Capturing the Light, London: Macmillan

Part II: Chemistry and Light

So now, in Part II of this potted History of Photography, we approach the burgeoning world of Chemistry in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, but the histories here are far too complex and beautiful to do justice to in such a small blog so I direct you to the bibliography given at the bottom of the page if you want full versions… But there are several protagonists, and as in Part I, where I mentioned James Burke’s Connections, there isn’t one main event, but a series of interconnected ones. 

But first…


As I noted in Part I, the history of photography contains stories which are visually very interesting – I can see, in the camera obscura of my mind, dust motes swirling in the shafts of light that fall through the aperture in a chamber long ago and far away; I can see close ups of old fingers fettling glass lenses; I can see the soft upside image of a distant vista playing over a pale wall. And later, when the darkened chambers shrank, I can see the drape of black silk cloths, rosewood boxes, brass hinges and vellum screens and... This is why, much to my father’s dismay – he was a chemist – I was never a scientist because I couldn’t stick to the scaffolding of facts: I projected them in a wild cinematography of brilliant visions. Every story I read, every story I heard, got illustrated in my mind with my own personal visual fairy tale versions of the facts. I told my dad I didn’t want to work in an office or do typing or anything scientific: I wanted, I told him, to be creative… So I became a writer, and now I find myself sitting in an office, typing, and, right now, reading about the immense creativity of chemical scientists, for I know now science is a visual space in which huge imaginative leaps are made and tested… And what also strikes me is what polymaths these men were (sadly, no women photography pioneers yet in my researches): when Joseph Nicéphore Niépce wasn’t experimenting with early forms of photographic capture, he was busy inventing the pyreolophore, a sort of internal combustion engine for propelling boats, whilst Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre was trained in architecture and an accomplished theatre designer and developer of the Parisian theatrical spectacle the Diorama, as well as inventor of the Daguerreotype.

My dad told us science stories, and my mum showed my siblings and me the colours that bloom out when, say, a small drop of black ink is put onto Chromatography paper and a solvent dripped on it. With Dad, we artfully arranged objects – forks, a pair of scissors, bits of plants – on special shiny paper out in the sun and waited for a short while, then we tipped off the objects and ran up the stairs, taking our papers with us, into the red world of the dark room in the attic where the ghost lived. Here we slipped the papers into a chemical bath of developer and watched crisp white silhouettes slowly appear in the emerging black printed by the sun onto the paper. We fixed them, and I kept some for a while. And then in a mad clear out I threw them all away. 


Johann Heinrich Schulze

Johann Heinrich Schulze (1687-1744). Source: http://www.ohrekreis.de/index_122.html

So, back to the history, and this is where phylogeny does recapitulate ontogeny, for shadowgrams were my first photographs – now lost – and similar experiments with light sensitive chemicals are important events in the development of photography: in 1727, for example, German anatomy professor Johann Heinrich Schulze discovered that if he exposed precipitates of silver chloride and chalk to light, as opposed to heat, he could ‘print’ crude stencilled words onto them. Shadowgrams were also part of the early experiments made by William Henry Fox Talbot in the 1830s except that he called them Photogenic Drawings. In 1839, for example, he placed specimens of English wild vine onto paper prepared with silver salts to capture the ‘light’ shadows they made on the paper when exposed to the sun. But these images were a means to an end, merely stages on the way to finding a fixing process. Ironic then, that despite all the modern photographic methods available to them, artists/photographers such as Harry Nankin and Martha Madigan, should use the shadowgram method to create visually stunning work: Fox Talbot’s experiments into how to capture Nature is for these practitioners an end in itself. When we have lots of complex processes available to us, finding beauty in basic principles can be liberating. This last summer, after so much Photoshop and After Effects, I have enjoyed getting my hands dirty making pictures with sticks of graphite and putty rubbers.

Photographic Developer

When I started this blog, I wasn’t quite sure of the practical project it might accompany. But out of all the connections and the complexities comes a simplicity: all this thinking about the history of photography, which began as a contextual study, makes me want to make images out of it, for the vocabulary is rich: silver chloride, spectrum, salts, papers, lenses, copper, pewter… As if by magic, a picture emerges and the context has become the text. There are visions to be played with here of gentlemen scientists in top hats and frock coats, fob watches and dust motes and glass jars and silver salts. Here is a rich vein of visual potential which, with recent access to old family photographs and the eBay acquisition of a box-load of Victorian photographs, was perhaps lying latent, like images invisible on paper after exposure to the sun, but before the developer has done its work.

So now, they appear, these images. Slowly. But perhaps, like Fox Talbot with his troublesome contraption, the camera lucida (can’t you just imagine the swearing?), I might not be able to transpose them from prism to paper to my satisfaction. Experiments must commence.

(And as for Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre. I haven’t forgotten him. Or the early women photographers. More in the next post!)

Fox Talbot, W. H., (1844) The Pencil of Nature, London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans. Available online: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/33447/33447-pdf.pdf
Hacking, J., & D. Company. (2012) Photography: The Whole Story, London: Thames and Hudson
Jeffrey, I., (1981) Photography: A Concise History, London: Thames and Hudson
Mulligen, T., & D. Wooters. (eds.) (2012) A History of Photography, from 1839 to the present day, Los Angeles: Taschen.
Towler, J., (1864) The Silver Sunbeam: A Practical and Theoretical Text-Book on Sun Drawing and Photographic Printing: Comprehending all the Wet and Dry Processes at Present Known, with Collodion, Albumen, Gelatine, Wax, Resin, and Silver; as also Heliographic Engraving, photolithography, Photozincography, Celestial Photography, Photography in Natural Colors, Tinting and Coloring of Photographs Printing in Various Colors; the Carbon Process; the Card-Picture, the Vignette, and Stereography, New York: Joseph H. Ladd
Trachtenberg, A., (1980) Classic Essays on Photography, New Haven: Leete’s Island Books
Watson, R., & H. Rappaport. (2013) Capturing the Light, London: Macmillan

Histories and Fairy Tales: Part 1

One of my favourite books as a child was James Burke’s Connections. The book (and indeed, the TV series which it accompanied), taught me that nothing is invented in perfect isolation: that previous and even parallel discoveries and inventions are paramount to the development of many modern day things. So, it must be noted that the history of photography is not a simple timeline: it is a messy weave of parallel threads knotted with notable events and competing vocabularies. It must also be separated out from the invention and development of the camera. That will be a story for Part II, or maybe even Part III.

But before I begin, another preliminary: I offer the following because, although it is a discredited theory, I am forever attracted to the perfect symmetry of the dusty old brass and cartridge paper science sensibility of Ernst Haekel‘s now thoroughly discredited Theory of Recapitulation. ‘Ontogeny,’ he stated, ‘recapitulates phylogeny.’ We know differently now. But I like to think that ontogeny (the study of the fertilised egg developing into the mature form) can still recapitulate phylogeny (the study of the development of the species) in the imagination, in poetry, in dreams, in images… The following history of photography is sort of mirrored in my own beginnings in the field, more of which later. In the meantime, making a linear tale of a vast historical and geographical panorama is difficult, so this is a potted history, or a story of connections and tangents. Believe the believable bits, forgive the recapitulations and discard the rest…

The Camera Obscura

In the dark and distant past, there were twinkling astrologers and robed scientists who, wielding brass oraries, astrolabes, calipers and crystal balls, experimented with alchemy and optics, and built darkened chambers, or camera obscura, to observe the properties of light and the projected images of the outside world falling, as if by magic, onto the inner walls of these chambers.


18th Century illustration of a camera obscura. Source: Ex Bibliotheca Gymnasii Altonani

The images are magical. The science is beautiful. Light rays from the sun fall onto an object and are reflected in all directions. The white incident rays, coming directly from the sun, are composed of a wide spectrum of different wave lengths of light colours. The reflected rays, however, consist of the wave lengths of light which have not been absorbed by the surfaces of the objects from which they are reflected: it is these unabsorbed wavelengths of light that cause us to perceive colour in the surfaces from which they are reflected. If some of these reflected rays happen to travel through a small hole, or aperture, in say, the wooden shutters over a window, and fall onto the inner wall opposite, they are ‘interrupted’,  and thus reflected again – enabling the eye to see them – and their colour information is disclosed. Thus, an image, often blurred but also often decipherable, appears on the wall. And because light travels in straight lines – a property which the camera obscura exposes and exploits – the projected image is always upside down.


Image of the New Royal Palace, Prague Castle (size aprox. 4 x 2 m) created on the attic wall by a hole in the tile roofing. Author: Gampe

Such projections can occur naturally in an ‘accidental’ camera obscura, as is evident in the attic of Prague Castle shown here, where a hole in a roof tile allows light rays reflected from the facade of a nearby building to be projected onto the attic wall; indeed, the principle has been known for thousands of years, the earliest known written account being Aristotle’s Problemata, in 350BC.  Other early scholars such as Euclid, Chinese philosopher Mozi, and Arab philosopher Al-kindi also noted and explored the optical phenomenon, but the first clear account of the camera obscura is given by Arab scholar Alhazen in his Kitab al-Manazir or Book of Optics, dating from 1011 to 1021. Alhazen recommended the device for the safe observation of solar eclipses.

The Camera and Art

According to Matt Gatton, a multi-media artist in the States, these early philosophers and scientists were not the first to discover the principle. He proposes a paleo-camera theory whereby the depiction of animals in caves in Paleolithic times emerges after small piercings in the hide coverings of huts allowed light rays, and thus an image of whatever was outside, to project through into their interiors. He theorises that the plaquettes or large flat stones sometimes found in caves alongside the wall paintings, and upon which are scratched the animal drawings found on the walls, are highly significant: these plaquettes have had less impact on public consciousness, perhaps because they are not as spectacular as the paintings on the cave walls, but, Gatton theorises, they could be working drawings made in camera obscura hide huts and subsequently taken into caves to assist with the wall painting process. Should such a technique lessen the Paleolithic artists in our estimation? These are, after all, the paintings of which Picasso remarked: ‘We have learnt nothing!’

Except that he didn’t. Different stories have him exiting Lascaux, or Chauvet, or Altomira… And the vocabulary differs, but it’s a great fairy tale and demonstrates how myth overlays history. In the end, Matt Gatton’s theory can only ever be a theory, but its modus operandi of camera obscura assisted drawing is an idea not restricted to Gatton’s appealing but unprovable assertion: David Hockney proposed something similar in his book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the lost secrets of the Old Masters, in which he describes making similar drawing experiments to Gatton, in comparing line marks made when capturing a person’s likeness from memory with those made when using a camera obscura. His case seems convincing, although now it is refuted robustly by David G. Stork et al in conference and in print (2011).  I suppose that there are things we want to believe – like ontogenies mirroring phylogenies – because they are poetic or perfectly structured but, in the name of science, we must resist. The truth isn’t always a perfect narrative, it’s often a messy one. Nevertheless, there is something darkly attractive in the arcane secrets and contraptions of the alchemists and the old masters. Herein lies the evocative vocabulary of Fleur Adcock’s 1979 poem The Ex-Queen among the Astronomers…  

Drawing of an early Camera Obscura

Seventeenth Century illustration of camera obscura from “Sketchbook on military art, including geometry, fortifications, artillery, mechanics, and pyrotechnics”. Source: Library of Congress

Whatever the truth of the Old Masters and their canvases and pin holes, other images do, however, demonstrate that later artists did set up camera obscura to capture distant vistas and buildings on paper or canvas. And some show that war and the military were, as ever, the driving forces of invention. And others, such as the sketches made by the great Canaletto given below, demonstrate unequivocally that resorting to the camera obscura was not the mark of a lesser artist: interpretation is still everything (in which case Matt Gratton’s theory does not diminish Paleolithic artists). In any case, the search for verisimilitude in art is perpetually unfinished, despite the solution offered in photography, and each era’s version of realism differs. As Descartes notes, “no image should completely liken the object it represents, for otherwise there could be no point of distinction between the object and its image” (cited in Fiorentini, 2006: 22).


Four drawings by Canaletto, representing Campo San Giovanni e Paolo in Venice, obtained with a Camera obscura. (Venice, Gallerie dell’Accademia)

I find this use of the camera obscura particularly interesting because it undercuts the perennial ‘Is Photography an Art?’ debate with evidence that some of the great artists used optical means to advance their work, and achieve a verisimilitude so very difficult, but not impossible, to achieve by aid of the eye alone: their achievements are underpinned, but not lessened, by a camera of sorts. Canaletto’s works are, after all, stunning in so many more ways than as accurate depictions of perspectives and spatial relationships. Funny that the desire for verisimilitude in art has driven the invention of the modern camera, and then when the camera is invented, art rejects it…

Camera_Obscura_box18thCenturyThese same artists’s needs and desires led to the addition of lenses to the pinhole of the camera obscura for the better focusing of light falling onto the paper, and also the introduction of angled mirrors to the chamber to invert the projection so that artists no longer had to look at images upside down. At the same time, the chamber itself was shrinking to become a portable box for the serious artist or the amusement of ladies in parlours. This decrease in size, however, undoubtedly cost it some of its magic, for the camera obscura was a scientific instrument, a drawing tool and, certainly in its larger ‘room’ format, a magical entertainment: visitors to Edinburgh can still visit the Victorian camera obscura on the castle promontory and see live, moving images of the city below projected onto a dish in a darkened room. However uneasily pleased I think I am, the effect, when I saw it a few years ago, was magical, and I wasn’t alone: when the images first fell onto the table before us, the audience gasped. The mix of darkness and light is a potent one, and artists such as Chris Fraser and Abelardo Morell are still using the physics of the camera obscura to create beautiful and often ephemeral artworks made of light. But back in the late 1700s matters were progressing again. Artists were still dissatisfied with the new improved camera obscura: its lenses caused colour aberrations which made copying the colours of Nature difficult, nor did they find its focus sharp enough beyond the central area. Something else clearly needed to be invented.

The Camera Lucida

In 1807, William Hyde Wollaston patented the camera lucida, a drawing tool similar to the camera obscura, but very much more portable for the artist in the field. Its optics had been described in 1611 by Johannes Kepler in his work on telescope refraction, Dioptrice seu demonstratio eorum quae visui & visibilibus propter Conspicilla ita pridem inventa accidunt (or Dioptrice for short), but had not been seriously exploited until Wollaston’s work. Erna Fiorentini makes a comprehensive comparative study of the two devices and I direct you there for more detail, but it’s safe to say artists were still not satisfied with either, for whatever the shortcomings of the camera obscura, the camera lucida had its own drawbacks not least of which was that it was notoriously difficult to use. It was William Henry Fox Talbot’s dissatisfaction with this aspect of it that led to him to wonder how its projected images might be fixed without the need for the artist to pencil in outlines by hand. The processes so far offered, after all, merely an artwork in outline only: the tones, textures and colours were still blank for the artist to fill in. Yet the image projected was tantalisingly life-like and rich.

James Burke’s comment that ‘Connections are made by accident’ is a simple truth. Perhaps the complex truth behind Fox Talbot’s connection to the invention of Photography is his desire to be better at art than he was. Inventions are, after all, sometimes about finding shortcuts. Perhaps this is at the heart of the suspicion with which art perceives photography: that the camera obscura, the camera lucida and the modern film or digital camera are somehow forms of cheating because they bypass the hours necessary to make a work by eye or from memory. How very far from the truth that turned out to be, what with all the messing around there was, especially for early pioneers, in the messy world of the chemical dark room.

William Henry Fox Talbot

William Henry Fox Talbot, by John Moffat, 1864.


Burke, J., (1978, 2007: reprint edn.) Connections, New York: Simon and Schuster.

Fiorentini, E., (2006) “Camera Obscura vs. Camera Lucida – Distinguishing Early Nineteenth Century Modes of Seeing” online: Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, http://www.mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de/Preprints/P307.PDF

Gatton, Matt. “First Light: Inside the Palaeolithic camera obscura” in Acts of Seeing: Artists, Scientists and the History of the Visual — a volume dedicated to Martin Kemp (Assimina Kaniari and Marina Wallace, eds.). London: Zidane, 2009.

Hockney, D., (2008, 2nd edn.) Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, London: Thames and Hudson.

Stork, D.G., et al. “Did Early Renaissance Painters Trace Optically Produced Images? The Conclusions from Independent Scientists, Art Historians and Artists” in Stanco, F., S. Battiato & G. Gallo (eds.) (2011) Digital Imaging for Cultural Heritage Preservation: Analysis, Restoration, and Reconstruction of Ancient Artworks )(Digital Imaging and Computer Vision), Boca Raton: CRC Press.