Monday, March 29, 2010

The Magic of the Black Mirror and Other Optical Devices

{A Claude Glass, or Black Mirror}
My love for antique optical devices started with my discovery of the Stanhope, and it has snow-balled into a mini obsession. The Victorians certainly found clever ways to fulfill their need for visual stimulation with a plethora of odd optical toys and fascinating illusionary devices. The names of the devices alone are enough to make me giddy with intrigue. For example, doesn't the Black Mirror sound like something straight from Grimm's Fairy Tales? Despite its sinister-sounding nickname, the Black Mirror {also called a Claude Glass} was a small pocket-sized mirror used by landscape artists in the 1700's and 1800's. The slightly convex mirror had a dark surface, and when held up, it would abstract the scenery reflected in the surroundings. The image would have a soft, slightly painterly quality, which the painter could then use as inspiration for his work.

:The Camera Obscura {aside from being the name of one of my favorite bands} is an optical device that projects the image of its surroundings onto a screen using a hole. The earliest know account of a camera obscura being used was from 5th century BC. They became popular devices during the 19th century when they were installed at tourist destinations and seaside resorts -- a precursor to movie theaters!

:Like the Black Mirror, the Camera Lucida was used as a drawing aid by artists. It creates an optical superimposed image of the subject being viewed on the surface the artist draws upon. A bit like cheating, no?

:The Magic Lantern was a very popular form of entertainment in the Victorian period. Magic lantern shows were the combination of projected images, live narration, and live music. Some lanterns had up to three lenses, which allowed for the creation of various special effects. I'm certain I would be totally mesmerized by this even today!

:The Phantasmagoria was probably as terrifying as it sounds...particularly to unsuspecting old ladies! This was also called "Pepper's Ghost Effect" and it was often used in theater productions during the 1800's. Victorians were notoriously obsessed with death and the supernatural, so clever theater managers began using a modified magic lantern to incorporate images of ghosts and skeletons into their productions. The projectors were mobile, so the operator could create the illusion that the ghost was moving around the stage.

:The Zoopraxiscope was an invention by the photographic genius Eadward Muybridge. The zoopraxiscope projected images from rotating glass disks in rapid succession to give the impression of motion -- an early precursor to film!

::If you find these objects as fascinating as I do, you really must treat yourself to a visit to The Richard Balzer Collection to see an amazing collection of optical devices in action / And how about this fascinating tidbit: In 2001, artist David Hockney's book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters argued that great artists of the past, such as Ingres, Van Eyck, and Caravaggio did not work freehand, but were guided by optical devices {via}. Shocking!


zoe said...

what a bunch of fascinating things, all at once! thank you, now i have some new obsessions of my own...:D

Francy said...

Wow, great post! I don't know anything about antique optical devices. The only one I had heard of from this post is the camera obscura. I will have to read up on it.

Anonymous said...

Awesome! P and I read about many of these during research for the zoetrope we built...
But I never knew about the black mirror. That sounds cool, especially using them to create landscape drawings...I want to see some of those illustrations!

Maggie said...

Love this! Check out . It's a great, fun little site.

Unknown said...

This is such a great compilation of images and resources! Thanks for putting it together - I too am a little obsessed with optical toys. I'm experimenting with creating some versions of my own and I will definitely be returning to your post for reference!

Jill said...

Cool post!

{Tara} said...

Zoe -- So happy you enjoyed! I was going to break up the post into different parts, but I got so excited I just went crazy with all of the information ;)

Francy -- I'm sure the more you learn about it, the more you'll be fascinated...and there are so many more I didn't mention!

POP -- I really want to see the zoetrope!

Maggie -- Oh my goodness, thank you so much for the link. More fun stuff to "waste" time on!

Catherine -- Please blog about them if you do...there are a few people on Etsy making some interesting things.

Jill -- Thanks lady!!!