It turns out there are a few more components to taking a picture than aiming at something and pressing a button. Today most of that thinking is done for you. Certainly some powerful new options have arisen since we ditched all the base drudgery; but my thoughts still wobble around what this might mean.
Solid experience makes me reluctant to stray very far from the black box with a hole idea. And there is much to be said for experience especially when placed next to ideas. Not to put it lightly, but as someone once said …”Plato is dear to me, but dearer still is truth”. But back to the black box with a hole idea.
It wasn’t long after I learned that pointing a camera at a light-bulb and pressing the springy button would light up the little red circle for a specific amount of time, click-pause-click, that I began my study of optics.
Not having tools to take apart the shutter, optics proved to be an easier pursuit. I already had the seed of scientific inquiry deeply planted and taking root. Namely that the Kodak Duaflex allowed us to see into some kind of parallel dimension that need to be investigated. And that everything in this universe was backwards. I knew having been created by man, the secrets could not be held for long. It was only a matter of time.
Following this idea and over a particularly short period I would stumble across or be given some amazing discoveries that seemed rather far apart and unrelated at the time. Most breakthroughs are seldom concise and we often don’t understand or appreciate the things we have in our hands. Not to mention the small fact I had no concept that I was studying optics.
Over time I’ve come to appreciate how random and innocently solid understanding comes. The most important ingredient it seems, is plenty of time free from obstruction to play around and explore to your heart’s content. To walk away and then calmly return days and even years later with new and unrelated experiences that we can apply to our exploration and take up our study once again.
I like to think this period of my childhood was a special time where great science was finally placed in the hands of the youngest kids. Their excited minds ready to take on the greatest challenges in new and novel ways. Given the new tools and information – not in the ‘I can look it up on Wikipedia sense’ but dropped directly into your hands in a ‘hey check this out’ kind of way.
I think the first was the milk carton periscope revelation. My first double reflex camera, film wasn’t necessary, it used memory to do the job. Looking back I still wonder today if screens or paper are really up to the task?
Milk cartons along with cereal boxes, scotch-tape, straws, construction paper, paper clips and paper plates were the building blocks of the age. Plentiful, accessible and cheap. They allowed countless experiments and iterations in the drive to make technology succeed. Every house held its own little Elon Musk. Dreaming, developing, building and constantly told to stop using so much tape.
The main drive of the periscope was to allow you to see around corners, fascinating no doubt. But it was clear to any idiot that periscopes were designed for one purpose and that was to turn you into a spy. An exciting prospect at the time, as a kid there is always plenty to spy on. And with a little imagination you could be a marine.
The guy they sent to get things done. Marines would try out stuff no matter how dangerous it was. They’d turn back with a big grin on their face, helmet in waving in their hand yelling c’mon let’s go. This is a guy you might want to be. This was a post war vision you could be part of until the ongoing green beret vs marine argument got started and follows us down to today. And you could ignore the hidden sense that it was ok that optics and film were woven into surveillance that should be increasingly turned on everyday life. Ultimately aesthetics like religion would become useless and cameras could turn to serve more powerful gods.
More important to me however, was the fact that when you looked into the periscope, the image remained right side up. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the part about spying. I made dozens of these (I still have no idea where the small square mirrors came from). Each one different. Longer, narrower, wider, I tried increasingly to darken the inside. Inherently I began to understand what others before me had. The box had to be black.
I taped construction paper to the inside. Painted the pieces of cardboard before folding them into a ‘scope’. I tried pressure fitting the mirrors in place. Fitting them in slots and relying on tape. Trying out different sized holes to see what they did. With no idea how much I was learning, I was simply thrilled to be looking into a box and always seeing it right side up.
The camera lucida was a gift from my grandmother. It was supposed to help me draw roses and bugs. And god knows I tried endless times to get it to work. I remember laying on the back lawn in the shade and studiously drew what I could.
Introducing paper and pencil to the equation was a major step in the right direction. It provided a technical means of recording what I was seeing. And I was vaguely aware that I was doing what some of the great master artists had done. I was struggling along with Durer and DaVinci but again I had no idea who they were or what it meant.
The only artist I knew was Van Gogh. And I knew he wasn’t really good at drawing hands. Who knows, maybe he needed a camera lucida? I did know he was exceptionally good at colour and composing, especially when he made pictures of boats. But this was far away from my little camera lucida, and I was more interested in using it as a cheap pepper’s ghost.
Like other renaissance artists of the 15thC, I was going to have to wait a number of years before discovering a sure-fire way of directly capturing light. The imaginative leap required would evade me for years. I would pursue the drawing for quite some time. Comparing my own results with Niépce’s view from the window at Le Gras and wondering if eight good hours of skilled camera-lucida drawing might not offer similar results.
I actually don’t know which came first – the camera lucida or the milk-box version of pepper’s ghost? I suspect it was pepper’s ghost. Hailing from twin worlds of magic and stagecraft. The ‘lucida’ was a technology that was dedicated strictly to science and art.
My pepper’s ghost was nothing as fine as the one above, I wouldn’t even see this illustrations for another twenty years. Mine came from a book that I owned that was more valuable than any literary classic or even gold. It was called The Pik-Kwik Book of Magic.
Simple, sparse, minimalist and modern, it wasn’t like the National Geographic or even the educational Golden Books. The latter two were like shoe boxes. Limited in supply and the type of resource grown-ups liked you to use. They were purposeful and had value, and didn’t use them to just goof around. Along with scotch-tape and scissors, it put grown-ups square in the chain of production. There was no way science was going to evolve with that.
I’m pretty sure the plans for both the periscope and pepper’s ghost came out of the Pik-Kwik book. But of the two I remember the ghost the best. The diagram below shows you as much as I would know. But after building a couple you’ll get the idea.
Just keep in mind that this simple plan still remains powerful and sophisticated enough to get Michael Jackson onto the 2014 Billboard award stage. It makes heads-up displays and teleprompters work. And word has it that even my Panasonic zs-50 viewfinder has one.
As a kid, most of the books explaining how this stuff works were confusing and not very helpful. It wasn’t until years later as a theatrical lighting designer that I wandered back into their midst. But they did introduce me to an idea that you could use pictures as a clear and concise attempt at explaining the world. At least the part of it you saw. Not to mention an introduction to technical drawing which stayed with me all my life.
In the end, these highly developed toys left me with a rich experience of exploring the visual world. This basic black box with a hole coupled with some basic optical tools and unrecorded memory managed to give me a solid baseline to compare everything else.