the business end of my camera lucida – over a century old

Toronto. The Camera Lucida was often used by artists to view both the scene in front of them and the canvas in their lap. This marvellous little optical device  (Lucy) was invented by Wollaston around 1806. It is forever tied to photography and the idea of the negative/positive process. In the early 1800s a well to do young Englishman enjoyed both travel and dabbling in the arts as an amateur painter. His fertile mind was constantly experimenting with ways to improve the processes he used.

Late in the year 1833, he found himself in Italy by the shores of Lake Como sketching a landscape with the help of his ‘Lucy’. He later wrote in his diary:

“One of the first days of the month of October 1833, I was amusing myself on the lovely shores of Lake Como, in Italy, taking sketches with Wollaston’s Camera Lucida. In honesty, 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 left only traces on the paper melancholy to behold.

“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. 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.”

Back home in England, the artist succeeded by 1835/36 in creating permanent ‘sun drawings’ and the negative/positive process to aid him in painting. The gentleman was William H Fox Talbot. The same gentleman was astonished to learn of Daguerre’s January 1839 announcement of the Daguerreotype process as the first successful means to create a permanent ‘sun drawing’.

NB: The above journal entry is included in André Jammes’ 1972 book on Talbot in the Photography: Man and Movements series published by Verlag C. J. Bucher in Germany and shortly thereafter by Collier Books (Macmillan Publishing) over here. It is well worth the read if you are at all interested in Photographic History.

NB: The title of this post brought to mind a Beatles song on the Sergeant Pepper album, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds

This entry was posted in history and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.