Writing with Light

Thinking, making, connecting: MA Illustration

Posts from the ‘Photography’ category

Writing With Light


I Heard what You Were Thinking (c.2008) H. Newall

When I’m not holding a camera up to a car windscreen, I’m opening its shutter on a bulb setting onto lights in the night from a standing position. It only takes a few in and out breaths to write light onto the sensor, so now I write things in the air with the lens, and then when I want to move to something else I cover the lens momentarily and set up again.


Love Letter II (c.2008) H. Hewall

And whilst it’s all about chance and not knowing what will come out, the more I do this, the more I can control the effect because I can sort of predict what might happen and adjust accordingly.

The image at the top of this post, Alastair on the Hill, is not a Photoshop blend: the city lights were drawn onto the sensor, then a strobe was deployed onto the figure while the shutter was still open. The other images above are, however, straight out of camera. At the time I took them and first looked at them, I was blown away. I’d found a new thing to do with the camera. Now they look unfinished: now that the initial joyful ludic impulse has been satisfied, images like this are raw material photographs to blend in Photoshop layers.

The images below are some of the ones I’ve been experimenting with over Christmas, the season of darkness and fairy lights. This has to be done in darkness bar the lights that will be the ‘pencils’, to steal Fox Talbot’s metaphor, because any stray light will smudge and begin to print the room features onto the sensor. I wait till everyone’s gone to bed. Then, it’s easy to spend time into the small hours filling a camera card with photograph after photograph of lights drawn over the sensor by the action of moving the camera around when the shutter is open. It mystifies the cat.


Burn (2014) H. Newall

Burn, above, and the images below are layered and blended so that I have some artistic control over a final outcome. I play with different lenses and different focal lengths. I shift focal lengths on the zoom lenses during the shot. I spin. I wave the camera. I write my name in the air…


Lights (2014) H. Newall

All of these images were made in Photoshop using the same photographs but in different combinations. In this sense, the aleatory aspect of the work continues in Photoshop, since I cannot anticipate the outcome, I can only experiment and see how things turn out. I love this phase because it has a zen sense of now. There is no before or after. Bayles and Orland write that, ‘Art is like beginning a sentence before you know its ending’ (1993: 20). Here, the work isn’t finished, to paraphrase Leonardo da Vinci, it is abandoned. 


Chandelier (2014) H. Newall

Chandelier is at least two photographs blended together. The final image is then tightly cropped in to make a composition out of the flow of the light streaks. It’s hard to compose in camera because it’s difficult to judge where the light streaks will end up on the sensor.


Flash (2014) H. Newall

Flash is a blend of a close up and a long shot. It’s almost the same blended image as Pale, but with different blending modes applied.


Pale (2014) H. Newall

I like symmetry, although I acknowledge there can be nothing more pleasing than a pattern disrupted. Blue Orchid was made by repeating layers over themselves and blending them through so that the architecture created by the light is repeated. Colours were adjusted in a Hue and Saturation Adjustment Layer and in Curves. I like glowing colours against darkness: it’s what it looks like inside a head full of synaesthesia.

These images feel finished, but my plan is that they are the raw material for a further process of integration with the silver people of the old photographs. They may end up as animations, or as stills, maybe both…

Blue Orch

Blue Orchid (2014) H. Newall

Shooting Out of Windows


Traffic H. Newall

I like shooting out of windows. Shooting pictures, I hasten to add. It started on the drive home from the airport after the fateful Lanzarote light writing trip. They have to be moving windows. Car windows. I am in the passenger seat (before you arrest me). I’ve yet to try a train window. This is light writing on the wild side. No control. No idea even of what will come out. Totally aleatory process. Guess the exposure using a bulb setting. Point the camera out of the windscreen. Point and guess.


Industrial Scene I H. Newall

The lit-up street furniture is fixed, lampposts, illuminated sins, traffic signals, Shop fronts, all can be factored into a light drawing ‘pass’, but the movement and speed of the car are chance elements, as are the headlamps and tail lights and indicators of others cars… Time of day is a factor. More ambient light means the light exposure can be less, and the canvas will be smudged electric blue or pink (or whatever the sky and weather is doing) in tone. It’s all beautiful guess work. And there’s no looking till afterwards, because after every shot the camera has to save it to the disc, and then it’s time to shoot again. My husband is now an experienced light pass driver.


Industrial Scene II H. Newall

The planning is in what settings to use for a particular pass: the Runcorn Widnes Bridge, for example, is brilliantly lit. Too bright perhaps, but it’s on my list to shoot: its architecture is spectacular at night when, on calm nights, it is reflected perfectly in the River Mersey, so that it becomes one part of a pale oval of steel against the night sky. This is one form of night photography where skill and experience assists the photographer to take the shot. Skill and experience and the sense of an anticipated result affect the technical choices made. In shooting from a moving car, however, the shot is never predictable.


Industrial Scene III H. Newall

The effect, however, is sort of predictable after a while: I know I will grab parallel lines of bright light in glowing reds and ambers and white. I know these lines will spike across the canvas, in parallels of jittery ups and downs, each jitter recording a jolt of the car over uneven bits of road. I know the canvas will be an average of the time the shutter was open. And sometimes it’s a good result and sometimes less so. But the result is always a surprise.


Street Lamps H. Newall

Maybe this is the parallel of a Jackson Pollock spatter of paint. He chose his colours but the exact trajectories and patterns of the paint spatters were, in the end, defined by the chaos of chance.

A Manifesto



Silver H. Newall

  • I shoot totally in manual;
  • I mess with the controls;
  • I get messed up by control;
  • I shoot as many photos as I want, because it’s digital and I can;
  • I try to get it right in camera, but I love what post-production can do (change the colour of a dress; shift the light balance; shift the light; change the backdrop; alter the tilt of a hand…);
  • I shoot in RAW;
  • Photographs are raw material;
  • Who cares about SOOC?;
  • I composite; collage; remake;
  • I take my photographs in a camera: I make my images in Photoshop;
Walk on the [Wild Side]

Walk on the Wild Side H. Newall

  • The photograph can be an object: limited edition images on paper, wood, clay, glass; or stitched and pierced photographs; maybe all of these all at the same time;
  • The photograph can be an ephemeral thing: an image on unfixed light sensitive paper in a dark box… How many times can you look at it before it’s gone?
  • The projected image as art; where does the art reside? In the thin spindles of light rays falling on a wall, or a body, or a tree, or a wall of water? Or maybe it lies in the digital file in the computer? Or in the idea?
Still from a performance projection

Still from performance projection for The Ghost of Someone Not Yet Drowned (2011) The Victoria Baths, Manchester

  • I rarely take any of my (heavy) DSLRs out to take holiday ‘snaps’: I use my iPhone to take snaps;
  • I use some of these snaps as textures in my composites;


  • I hate the word snaps;
  • Snappy snaps;
  • I don’t want to take your wedding photos or your event photos; especially not for free;
  • I can lie on the ground and take close-ups of gravel for hours;
  • There is always something to photograph.
Still Life

Still Life: H. Newall

But is it art?


The World’s most expensive photograph to date. Rhein II (1999) Andreas Gursky.
Sold in 2011 for $4.3million.

In all the writing and thinking about History and my own histories, the debate ‘Is It Art?’ keeps coming back. The debate seems to coalesce about two areas:

  • The time taken to make an image
  • Mechanical processes involved

It’s a debate I’ve had with myself about my own processes: making pictures with a camera does seem easy in comparison with making paintings or drawings, and yet the hours it can take to perfect one photographic image seems to negate this former statement. It’s easy to press the shutter button, but it’s hard to photograph things well; it’s difficult to process images, either in a chemical or a digital darkroom.

There is also a subtext which might be termed the democratisation of making art: who is allowed to be an artist has been – and still is to an extent – controlled in society by a social system whereby artists must either have independent means or patrons or spouses with a regular income. The photographer as businessperson, and thus involved in dirty mercantile activity, is not a real artist: artists have a higher calling. Art is, after all, not made for money, but for love. But we all have to eat. We can’t all lie around, writing poetry, and dying of consumption in attics…

From photography’s inception, the terminology of the artist is present in discussions of the daguerreotype, the talbotype, and yet the story is also of a relentless drive into mass production (and thus commercialism), and it is this and the mechanical aspects of the process which eclipse any notion of artistry in the taking and production of an image. Commentators, not least of all Fox Talbot, write of Nature being the author of the works, and of images making themselves. Fox Talbot wrote:

it is not the artist who makes the picture, but the picture which makes itself. All that the artist does is to dispose the apparatus before the object whose image he requires; he then leaves it for a certain time, greater or less, according to circumstances. At the end of the time he returns, takes out his picture, and finds it finished.

                                                                                                         (Talbot, 1839: online)

So whilst he speaks of the artist, he claims that this artist does nothing other than deploy the camera, and rather disingenuously neglects the artistry of choosing what the lens should frame; the craftsmanship of preparing the plates beforehand; the skill of knowing how long to make the exposure for; not to mention the skill in subsequently developing and fixing the image. 

Lady Elizabeth Eastlake writing in 1857 is equally determined that photography cannot be art because, in a long winded flowery way, she says that art selects and refines, while the camera does not: it takes everything indiscriminately (in Trachtenerg, 1980: pp58). This is the same issue noted by Ian Jeffrey in Photography: A Concise History: ‘Lured by hallowed reputations, photographers stationed their instruments in front of abbeys, castles, palaces, beauty spots – and came away with untidy evidence of building projects, repair work, scaffolding, stonemasons’ yards, street trade and tumbledown housing’. (1981: 14). Photography is not a replacement for painting or drawing, as Fox Talbot with his complicated camera lucida initially hoped, ‘holding, as he believed,’ as Lady Eastlake writes, ‘the keys of imitation in his hands’; it is, however, a different art all together.

Walter Benjamin’s account of art and photography’s early skirmishes is enlightening:

With the advent of the first truly revolutionary means of reproduction, photography, simultaneously with the rise of socialism, art sensed the approaching crisis which has become evident a century later. At the time, art reacted with the doctrine of l’art pour l’art, that is, with a theology of art. This gave rise to what might be called a negative theology in the form of the idea of ‘pure’ art, which not only denied any social function of art but also any categorizing by subject matter.

                                                                                                                       (1968: 224)

So ‘Art’ was threatened. Maybe the same process is at work with all the current talk of the demise of the art of photography due to the rise and rise of the smartphone camera: Stuart Jeffries writing in The Guardian cites photographer Antonio Olmos as saying, ‘There have never been so many photographs taken, but photography is dying.’ So Jeffries asks: ‘Isn’t what we’re witnessing a revolution in photography, thanks to digital technology, that makes it more democratic?’ And Olmos is pragmatic and agrees, but thinks photography is dying for a much more prosaic reason: ‘The iPhone has a crap lens. You can take a beautiful picture on the iPhone and blow it up for a print and it looks terrible.’

But who needs prints in a paper-free world? [Jeffries asks.] “For me the print is the ultimate expression of photography,” [Olmos] retorts. “When I do street photography courses, I get people to print pictures – often for the first time. The idea is to slow them down, to make them make – not just take – photographs.”

                                                                                                (Jeffries, 2013: online)

The slowing down is the thing. Artists, then, are slow… Ironic that Lady Elizabeth Eastlake should note in 1857 that the early scientist-photographers were seeking the ‘element of rapidity’ (1857: 52). Now that we have it, we need to slow it all down again. Unless we’re street photographers…

…In Osaka in 2011, I saw an exhibition of work by street photographer Daido Moriyama. It rained torrentially while I was there. After I’d looked at the hundreds of images on display, I sat for hours in the cafe leafing through the exhibition book I’d bought. And because it was still raining – the kind of rain that soaks you through just thinking about it – I went round the exhibition again. It was stunning even the second time around. And this time I watched the film of Moriyama talking about his process demonstrating how he selected and shot this subjects. He talked in Japanese, but the film camera walked with him as he strode through a city, Tokyo perhaps, camera in hand, cigarette between his fingers, and shot things, without breaking his step… It probably took longer for me to look at the images than it did him when he was walking and shooting. And yet each image, black and white and hung against white, framed as art, was grimy, sometimes blurred, sometimes off kilter, and always starkly beautiful… would I think that if I came across such images on the internet, not labelled as ‘art’?… we swiftly flick swiftly through images, taking them in at a glance: we Flickr them, we click and flick and click through them. Sontag makes the observation that the photograph in print does not control us like the photograph on film does, as compared to a book (or a computer screen)

The sequence in which the photographs are to be looked at is proposed by the order of pages, but nothing holds readers to the recommended order or indicates the amount of time to be spent on each photograph.

                                                                                                                                    (1979: 5)

True enough, we can walk as fast or as slow as we like in the gallery, and in a book, we can turn the pages as we please. But in a film… and maybe it was watching the film of Moriyama’s photos that really burned them into the retina of my heart. Film however, as Sontag notes, chooses how long you spend with each image. So maybe then, if artists aren’t slow, art is slow. And maybe, as Sontag suggests, film is the best medium for exhibiting photography.

Judge for yourself: for copyright reasons, I direct you to Moriyama’s site rather than post them here, but I can share images I took in Japan in response. These are almost SOOC, in that in post, I converted them to black and white and sharpened them because I shoot in RAW. For the rest, each image is as I took it.

Osaka at night

Cycle (2011) H. Newall

I would never dream, normally, of shooting in the street like this, but Moriyama’s show encouraged me. EnCouraged. I was brave, suddenly. And being in a foreign world somehow helped.


Hiroshima (2011) H. Newall

Perhaps it was because, as a foreigner it was easier to ‘see’ the street environment. It was a strange place to me: it was the city defamiliarized. And there certainly was the sense that as a foreigner I had ‘permission’ to take pictures that I would normally find it excruciating to take. I can’t take street images in the city near where I live because someone might stop me; someone might object; someone might mind… Certainly all these things were true in Osaka, but they didn’t seem to matter so much. I took the night images walking round by myself with a huge grabbable camera. Wouldn’t dream of doing that in the UK.


Subway (2011) H. Newall

Snaps. Snappy to take. Snapped fast. Not always art. Art is in the eye of the artist. Art is in the eye of the beholder. Art is beautiful. Art is imperfect. Art is dangerous. Art is a lie to tell us the truth. Arts snaps at our complacencies. Snaps.

I hate snapping. I used to take hundreds of photos on holidays, always with the hope that something might happen and they’d metamorphose between the shutter release and the prints arriving back into something wonderful. And sometimes they were quite good, but mostly they were disappointing, and mainly because I’d had no control over much of the shooting and processing. This was because I always had crap point-and-shoot film cameras and so couldn’t really do much other than control what I pointed the camera at. The rest was auto shutter, auto aperture, auto ISO: the camera was deciding everything, and then Kodak or Max Speilmann got to decide the rest. And this is why my pictures weren’t art, even if some of them looked quite good some of the time.

Art then is control over the outcome? Bayles and Orland write, ‘Control, apparently, is not the answer. People who need certainty in their lives are less likely to make art that is risky, subversive,  complicated, iffy, suggestive or spontaneous’ (1993: 21). So, control sometimes. Sometimes, it’s experimentation which requires a loss of control, but here, the camera would either try to compensate, or I’d get stickers over the photos from the Photo Lab, which said polite things but the messages implied: ‘This rubbish picture would greatly be improved if you’d stopped experimenting and taken it the way the camera manufacturers thought you should…’

Then I got a big SLR and went to Africa, and things improved a little. But I still had no control because I was not developing my images. And whilst I considered setting up a black and white dark room, I didn’t have the space, nor at that time the funds…

Then I came home from Africa with a suitcase full of Max Speilmann lions and got a digital point-and-shoot. It promised to be different. It promised to be cheaper. I pushed it to its limits. It was still not what I was looking for, although it was certainly cheaper now that I was no longer stockpiling all those packets of unlooked at prints… And then I got a DSLR, a Canon 50D. And the Apple programme Aperture. And shortly after that, Photoshop. And then a 5D Mk II… And suddenly, here was control in camera. And here was control post-production. And here were two new debates to contend with:

  • Digital photography is not as good as film photography: discuss
  • Post-production is not as good as getting it right in camera: discuss

These are big arguments I can’t rehearse here – I can, however, tell you my answers: yes, digital is freedom; yes, post-production is my favourite part – but out of it all – the snapping and the printing and the digital arms race upsizing – comes a manifesto for making images. It was there all along, this manifesto, it just took me a while to see it.

Bayles, D., & T. Orland. (1993) Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, Santa Cruz: The Image Continuum
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
Fox Talbot, W. W., ‘The Pencil of Nature: A New Discovery’ in The Corsair. A Gazette of Literature, Art, Dramatic Criticism, fashion and Novelty (New-York) Vol. 1, No. 5 (Saturday, 13 April 1839) pp. 70-72. Online resource, The Daguerreian Society)
Jeffries, S., (2013) ‘The Death of Photography: Are Camera Phones Destroying an Artform?’ The Guardian, 13 December 2013, (Online)
Sontag, S., (1979) On Photography, London: Penguin

Photo Collage

In a previous post, I wrote about the postmodern bricolage of reworking history, and playing, in both form and content, with old photographs, but photo-collage can and does make use of the present, and this excites me too: consider artists such as Serge Mendzhiyskogo, who takes hundreds of photographs of familiar views and cuts them into multiple strips and combines them. This is a strong example of the trope that Russian Formalist, Oscar Shklovsky termed остранение (ostranenie) or defamiliarisation, where what we know is represented to us from a new angle so that we can see it anew. This is a device in literary works of art, but I find its use applicable to photographic artists such as Mendzhiyskogo. Shklovsky began his famous essay ‘Art as Device’ in Theory of Prose (1925), with the phrase: ‘Art is thinking in images’. And the essay ends discussing rhythm, and the disrupted rhythms of prose and poetry. Here in Mendzhiyskogo’s images we see disrupted rhythms, which are, nevertheless, because they create patterns, visually satisfying. These disruptions and patterns are a form of thinking about the subject because they defamiliarise, they make us, the viewer, reconstruct the image, whilst we simultaneously enjoy the patterned deconstruction we have been given. If this image were a text (and we are reading it, so why not?), then there is a pleasure in the text, to take Barthes’s phrase.


Serge Mendzhiyskogo Collage


Serge Mendzhiyskogo Collage

Not all Mendzhiyskogo’s work is monochromatic: his colour collages are equally stunning, but I prefer the stark patterns that emerge in the monochromatic pieces. Work like this cannot be mentioned without reference to Hockney. His collage work is sometimes built in chaotic, sprays of images, foregrounding with the white frames of the polaroids, the ‘composite-ness’ in the picture. Mother Bradford Yorkshire 4th May 1982 and Sun On The Pool Los Angeles April 13th 1982 are examples of this. Some however, such as Paint Trolley, L.A. (1985) or Pearblossom Highway (1986), seem initially to be one image, but here the differing shades of colour in the photographs that make up the whole mottle the total image, slowly breaking the totality of the image apart. In the Polaroid Composites and Photographic Composites, he exploits the camera’s eye and how it reads the light, shifting the colour to expose correctly. They are fascinating images to look at: it’s as if he’s captured each micro image the eye sees which make up in the brain the total image of the scene we see.

The other contemporary artist using photo collage whose work I admire greatly is David Mach. I first encountered his work when I was asked to write a Christmas play by the 2011 King James Bible Trust to be staged in Hampton Court Palace. Mach was commissioned by the Trust to make Precious Light, a series of sculptures and collages, which included the head of the devil constructed out of match heads and epic, colourful scenes from the King James Bible ripped into the present day with brilliant colour and roiling movement, so that they seem like stills from a film. His collages are often crowded with people, and of almost apocalyptic sensibilities… Something in them always seems about to explode: in one image it already has, for in The Plague of Frogs, a car bomb goes off outside Belfast City Hall. They are immense. They are historical subjects given a massive contemporary twist and they are superb.


The Plague of Frogs (2011) David Mach


Jesus Walking on Water (2011) David Mach

A few years ago, I discovered how to use the Photoshop pen tool effectively, and I’ve been making digital collages and composites, and shooting pictures of buildings and things ever since. Things. Things are park benches, telephone boxes, flowers, clocks, lamp posts, people, birds, clouds, skies, streets, things. I never know what kind of things I might need… I’ve been conservative in the collages I’ve made so far. I think, having looked again at Mach’s work, I need to let my hair down a little bit and go large… I have made some epic collages in terms of time: A Secret Scented Garden was made using a Flickr friend’s flowers, each one laboriously cut out digitally in Photoshop (this was probably the project that helped me conquer the notoriously quirky pen tool).

A Secret Scented Garden

A Secret Scented Garden H. Newall, flowers: Graeme Dawes


Little Cute Dance Puppets H. Newall

Little Cute Dance Puppets was a speculative piece, again to explore Photoshop more than to make a collage, but it showed me what a little of what the software could do. Now, I need to start looking at the narratives in the collages. Mendzhiyskogo’s work is fantastic, but Mach’s work is stunning, and, I think, it is the implied narrative within the image which is the key…


Mach, D. (2011) Precious Light: http://www.davidmach.com: http://www.davidmach.com/photo-collage/; Transpositions: http://www.transpositions.co.uk/2011/09/featured-artist-david-mach/ Royal Academy: http://www.royalacademy.org.uk/academicians/sculptors/david-mach-ra,114,AR.html (accessed Dec 2013; Jan 2014)

(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.