Monday, 3 October 2011

Camera obscura and photography

Last week-end had a feel of summer in the South of England and we went to Lacock to visit the Abbey.

The entry of the Abbey's

A mansion has been built on top and around Lacock Abbey and at one point was the house of William Henry Fox Talbot.

The botanic garden of Lacock Abbey

Fox Talbot was a British inventor and a pioneer of photography.

In the museum, they showed an example of camera obscura, a device that Vermer used and that gave Fox Talbot the idea of building one of the first cameras.

Camera Obscura

In his book, The Pencil of Nature, William Henry Fox Talbot recalled:

One of the first days of the month of October 1833, I was amusing myself on the lovely shores of the Lake of Como, in Italy, taking sketches with Wollaston's Camera Lucida, or rather I should say, attempting to take them: but with the smallest possible amount of success. For when the eye was removed from the prism—in which all looked beautiful—I found that the faithless pencil had only left traces on the paper melancholy to behold.

After various fruitless attempts, I laid aside the instrument and came to the conclusion, that its use required a previous knowledge of drawing, which unfortunately I did not possess.

I then thought of trying again a method which I had tried many years before. This method was, to take a Camera Obscura, and to throw the image of the objects on a piece of transparent tracing paper laid on a pane of glass in the focus of the instrument. On this paper the objects are distinctly seen, and can be traced on it with a pencil with some degree of accuracy, though not without much time and trouble.

I had tried this simple method during former visits to Italy in 1823 and 1824, but found it in practice somewhat difficult to manage, because the pressure of the hand and pencil upon the paper tends to shake and displace the instrument (insecurely fixed, in all probability, while taking a hasty sketch by a roadside, or out of an inn window); and if the instrument is once deranged, it is most difficult to get it back again, so as to point truly in its former direction.

Besides which, there is another objection, namely, that it baffles the skill and patience of the amateur to trace all the minute details visible on the paper; so that, in fact, he carries away with him little beyond a mere souvenir of the scene—which, however, certainly has its value when looked back to, in long after years.
Such, then, was the method which I proposed to try again, and to endeavour, as before, to trace with my pencil the outlines of the scenery depicted on the paper. And this led me to reflect on the inimitable beauty of the pictures of nature's painting which the glass lens of the Camera throws upon the paper in its focus—fairy pictures, creations of a moment, and destined as rapidly to fade away.

It was during these thoughts that the idea occurred to me…how charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably, and remain fixed upon the paper!

And why should it not be possible? I asked myself.”

The instrument with a prism Fox Talbot referred to at the beginning of this extract is another tool used by artists: the camera lucida. The principle is totally different from the camera obscura. The prism of the camera lucida allows the user to see the subject as superimposed on the paper, making it easy to trace it. The instrument folded neatly into a case and had a clamp to fasten it to the drawing board or table.

Related resources

The Pencil of Nature by William Henry Fox Talbot is available as a free eBook (including as a PDF) on Project Gutenberg.

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