Week 45: 22nd – 28th July
Sometimes the most interesting finds are the ones that you stumble upon by accident, and walking into the ‘Emporium of Optical Novelty’, by photographer and film-maker Simon Warner, was one such occasion. This pop-up curiosity shop was created as part of the Corn Exchange Leeds’ Grand Weekend and allowed visitors to examine a variety of Victorian optical toys including stereo cards, kaleidoscopes, zoetropes, flick books and magic lanterns.
An experience that combined the translation of print into performance with audience participation seemed particularly relevant to my research, so I set about perusing the reference books on offer in search of more information about these kinds of objects. Included in the stack of information was an exhibition catalogue from the 2004 exhibition Eyes, Lies and Illusion at the Hayward Gallery, which consisted of ‘more than a thousand instruments, images and devices drawn from the remarkable collection of the German experimental film maker Werner Nekes [alongside] major works by internationally renowned contemporary artists showing how optical phenomena continue to fascinate to this day’.
Despite not wanting to get too caught up in ideas about visual perception and opticality, it seemed pertinent to consider how a viewer’s attention can be drawn away from questions of artistic intent, and back towards an investigation of their own experience. These objects seemed as fascinating today as they must have been before the advent of film that they heralded, so I decided to find out more about these different optical devices in order to see how I could develop new versions in relation to my own practice. Here are just a few of them:
Credited to the astronomer Sir John Herschel, the Thaumatrope is a small disc with an image on either side. A string is attached to opposite edges of the disc, and when it is wound up and released the images appear to merge
Belgian physicist Joseph Plateau created this optical toy, a precursor to the zoetrope, in 1832. The object uses 2 discs, one with images and one with slots, which when viewed in a mirror caused the appearance of motion.
Invented in 1834 by William Horner, this object was originally referred to as a Daedalum (‘Wheel of the Devil’). It consists of an open drum with sequential images drawn around the inside and slots cut around the top. When the drum is spun, viewers looking through the slots will be able to see a moving image.
The stereoscopewas originally invented in America by Sir Charles Wheatstone in 1838. He first developed the process using drawings before the use of photography became widespread. A stereoscope produces a 3D image through mounting two images of the same scene next to each other. Each picture is taken from a slightly different viewpoint that corresponds closely to the spacing of the eyes. When observing the pictures through a special viewer, the pair of two-dimensional pictures merge together into a single three-dimensional photograph.
Magic lanterns are the equivalent of today’s slide projectors and have been in use since the 1600s. However, unlike slide projectors, magic lanterns used fire instead of bulbs to light the slides. Also, slides came in strips which could include complex mechanical features to allow the projectionist to create moving images onscreen.
The chromatrope is similar to a kaliedoscope in that it creates a colourful moving pattern. However, they worked in slightly different ways, as a chromotrope is a mechanical slide, made up of several disks of coloured glass that turned when rotated by an exterior handle. When lit from behind by a magic lantern, the changing patterns could then be projected onto a wall.
The praxinoscope was invented in 1877 by the Frenchman Charles Reynaud, as a development on the zoetrope. Similar to the zoetrope, the praxinoscope is created by inserting a band of images inside a cylinder. However, instead of viewing the images through slots, they are reflected in mirrors set inside the cylinder, which creates the impression of a moving image when rotated. This was developed into a way to project images onto a screen, and from there Reynaud introduced longer rolls of paper, creating the ‘Theatre Optique’.