Camera Lucida

The tourist and his camera are a classic pair, from the contemporary ubiquity of the pocket digital camera to the cliche of the tourist with the 35mm SLR around her neck.

Tourists wait with cameras at the ready for Iceland's Geysir to erupt.

Duane Hanson, Tourists II (1988). Fiberglass and mixed media, with accessories. Life size

While photography goes back to the late 1830s, the portable and commercially viable camera does not become part of the tourist’s travel kit until the end of the 19th century, and really does not become commonplace until 35mm film becomes standard and inexpensive in the 1930s. The integration of the camera into the touristic experience is a slow one, as tourism and photographic equipment stay in the realm of the upper class with income to spend and leisure time to travel. In addition, early photographic technology is technically complex, requiring transport of heavy equipment and chemicals. The traveling photographer needs extensive training until 1885 when George Eastman invents roll film in conjunction with Thomas Edison’s production of movie cameras.

Eastman is among the early pioneers of tourism photography when he introduces the Kodak Camera in 1888 with the slogan “You press the button – we do the rest”. It was delivered to your door with pre-loaded film, gave you 100 exposures, and was built for the novice with a simple pushbutton method. When you shot your 100, you sent it back to Kodak, they would develop and print the images and send it back to you in an album. The entire cost for the package, camera, film, development and delivery included? $25. That’s $589 in 2010 dollars, so this is a system for a wealthier class of tourist. And Eastman knows the touristic value of the camera:

Kodak Camera ad, 1888. Note: "A Picturesque Diary of your trip to Europe, to the mountains, or the sea-shore may be obtained without trouble with a Kodak camera, that will be worth a hundred times its cost in after years."

But photography did not invent the desire to capture images on holiday. Throughout the 19th century, and well into the 20th, drawing, painting, and watercolor were a common leisure activity on holiday, as evidenced by advertisements for portable painting kits and drawing devices:

Page from "The Studio" Magazine, 1920

The device on the left is a Camera Lucida, invented by William Hyde Wollaston in 1807. His breakthrough was the prism which allows for a purposeful double-image; as the artist looks through the prism, the scene is ghosted over the page. With practice, the artist can trace the image, assisting in accurate rendering.

How the Camera Lucida works. The eye (E) looks straight down at the page (P), where the prism transposes the scene (S) onto the page (S''')

One of the great users of the Camera Lucida was Sir John Herschel (1792-1871), who, in addition to being a famous astronomer and chemist, used the drawing device in his youth as he studied botany specimens (for accurate rendering to botanical researchers), scenes of import to the Empire (such as the new observatories he built in South Africa), and landscapes while on holiday. His collection of drawings comprise one of the most accomplished camera lucida portfolios known. Some examples:

John Herschel, Cape of Good Hope Observatory, 1837

John Herschel, Cape Town and Table Bay, 1838

In a tribute to 19th century tourism, I brought a vintage Camera Lucida along on my recent tour of Scandinavia. My device is a Chambre Claire Universelle, dating from the mid-to-late-19th century, purchased on eBay some years ago. The Wollaston prism in the device is precisely the same as Herschel would have had, so as I use my device, I can imagine that this is what Herschel saw as he put pencil to paper. Some samples:

Pablo Garcia, Svartifoss, Skaftafell National Park, Iceland

Pablo Garcia, Skogskyrkogården (Woodland Cemetery), Stockholm, Sweden

Pablo Garcia, Svinafellsjökull, Skaftafell, Iceland

Camera Lucida drawing on site at Svinafellsjökull, Iceland

As a postscript, it should be noted that the camera lucida plays a vital role in the invention of photography. Herschel’s friend William Henry Fox Talbot, mathematician and all-around scholar, on his honeymoon with his new wife in Switzerland and Italy, tried to draw with his camera lucida, possibly influenced by seeing Herschel’s impressive collection of drawings. He commented in his memoirs how frustrated he was with the process, and that he was not satisfied with the outcome. He remarked in 1833: “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.”

William Henry Fox Talbot, Melzi, 1833. A camera lucida drawing whose perceived inadequacy led Talbot to invent photography

Talbot set out to do something about this unfaithful method of rendering. He spent the next several years trying to chemically fix images to paper, the process we now call photography. He succeeded in 1835, making direct image prints of objects (what we would today call photograms) and lensed images of his surroundings at Lacock Abbey. When, in 1839, Louis Daguerre announced his photographic process to the world, Talbot unveiled his years of work to England and the world. He subsequently published large volumes of his early images, starting in 1844 using his newly developed method of commercial photographic printing (an evolution of his calotype process). In a nod to his use of the camera lucida and his frustration that spawned photography, he called it The Pencil of Nature.


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