Distinguishing Early Nineteenth-Century Modes of Cameras

Erna Fiorentini
Erna Fiorentini

If we look at Carl Jakob Lindström’s ‘Den Engelske Konstnären’ painting from 1830, we see a painter holding an inspired pose while beholding and recording the landscape. Although he appears to be indulging in purely aesthetic rapture, he is equipped with optical drawing devices and with many other instruments for observation, tracing and measuring. A Camera Lucida is arranged on a tripod on the right, surrounded by a telescope, a set square, a ruler, a pair of compasses and other devices, while in the background a tent-type Camera Obscura is in use. This motif belonged to Carl Jacob Lindström’s well-known satiric, illustrated book ‘Stranieri in Italia,’ printed and distributed in Naples, Italy, in 1830. Moreover, Carl Jacob Lindström produced countless further exemplars of this scene in watercolour, engraving and lithography. Because it was circulated in so many forms, this scene was noticed extensively within the multinational community present in Naples at that time. This popularity of the caricature Carl Jacob Lindström created shows the widespread popular derision of the attitudes (in this case ascribed to English gentlemen) of both the aesthetic appreciation of nature and instrumental recording that it describes. This, in turn, indicates that these attitudes had pervasively entered collective consciousness. And it is evidence of the fact that the represented use of optical drawing devices while observing and depicting Nature was a widespread custom around 1830.

In this article, I want to point out that such instrumental practices are significant factors for estimating how the visual approach to nature was coloured in the early decades of the nineteenth-century. Here, in fact, the direct observation and depiction of nature were valorised as processes producing both knowledge and aesthetic values. These changes in attitude, in their turn, stimulated the production of new instruments and the unfolding of new practices of using them. Analysing the degree of distribution of such instruments and the practices of observation related to them, can lead us to the epistemic and aesthetic forces that were at work when vision was shaped and refined for the sake of imaging. Moreover, we can disclose the constraints regulating these forces, and eventually, make general statements about a prevailing state of mind — in this case, the particular way of seeing characterising this period.

Toward the end, I will raise an issue that recent discussions of the terms in which modifications of vision emerged at the dawn of modernity have neglected, namely the difference between the Camera Obscura and the Wollaston prism — the so-called Camera Lucida. Not only does the technology and history of these two devices differ; also, their impact on early-nineteenth-century visual culture varied greatly in degree and quality, and was driven by different necessities. Moreover, the images presented to the observer by these devices are dramatically at variance with each other in their nature and provide a completely different visual experience from one another. Against this background, I propose to assess the entirely divergent optical principles of these two instruments as metaphors for different modes of vision. I shall argue that most notably one of these modes — what I shall call the Camera Lucida — or “prismatic” mode of seeing — prevailed in observation and representation, as a peculiar trait of the visual approach to nature in the early nineteenth-century. It expresses the struggle for “understanding the subject–object relation in experience” underlying many scientific as well as artistic enterprises of this period.

The basic step to understanding the difference between the visual experiences conveyed by Camera Obscura and Camera Lucida is to consider the two devices in terms of their technology. In spite of the analogy of their names, in fact, they are two completely different apparatuses. The Camera Obscura is indeed a camera, this means a room or a box in which a scene from the outside is projected — through a pinhole or with the help of lenses — onto a wall or a screen. The Camera Lucida, on the contrary, is neither a room nor a box, but nothing more than a little prism mounted on a stem that can be arbitrarily fixed on a table or on a small portable drawing board.

The analogy of the two names is thus not due to the technical similarity of both devices. Rather, the confusing adoption of the same term to describe them goes back to the understanding of the general notion of the camera at the time when the Camera Lucida was invented, this is, as we will see, the very beginning of the nineteenth-century. As John Hammond and Jill Austin convincingly proposed, in fact, around 1800 the word “camera” had become commonly associated with “drawing.” The term “Camera Obscura” seems to have been felt to describe less the device as such than the process of drawing with it. As the Latin term was translated with “dark chamber,” Camera Obscura was thus commonly understood as something like “drawing in the dark.” Since drawing with the help of the prism, on the contrary, was done outside of chambers and boxes, the converse literal translation into Latin was adopted for this process: “drawing in the light” became “Camera Lucida,” and this in turn tantamount to the device itself.

The Camera Obscura as the older device has indeed a long and multifaceted history, which starts with first reflections on the visual phenomenon peculiar to it in Aristotle’s ‘Problemata Physica.’ Ibn al-Haytham, provided a first correct description of the basic principle in the tenth-century, which however became broadly available only through the first edition of his work in the sixteenth-century. Nevertheless, after the middle ages analyses of Roger Bacon and John Pecham, by the mid-fifteenth-century the Camera Obscura had already become a standard device for astronomers, who used it mainly for the observation of solar phenomena. Indeed, the first image describing the principle of the Camera Obscura appeared in this context in 1545. In the late sixteenth century — after Geronimo Cardano’s De Subtilitate —, the introduction of convex lenses allowed a broader aperture and consequently a brighter and clearer image inside the dark room. Subsequently, explicit proposals appeared for the use of the Camera Obscura as a device suited to “draw with a pencil all the perspective and the shading and colouring, according to nature.” In the seventeenth-century, Johann Christoph Sturm, Johann Zahn and Georg Friedrich Brander developed box-type Camera Obscurae, which was the fundament for later models commonly used by eighteenth-century artists. Among them, the most prominent were Gaspar van Wittel, Giovanni Antonio Canal or Joshua Reynolds — who appreciated William Storer’s most acclaimed ‘Royal Delineator.’ The optical boxes used by pioneers of photography like Thomas Wedgwood, Nicéphore Niépce and Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre in the early nineteenth-century were of different fashion and called by different names. But they — except that the lenses were of improved quality — did not differ much from these early Camerae Obscurae and operated on one and the same projective principle.

Even though a prototype of the instrument bears the date 1786, this hardly corresponds to the actual history of the device, since William Hyde Wollaston can have invented the instrument at the earliest in 1800. Henry Hasted reports, in fact, that during a joint geological excursion to the Lake District that year he and William Hyde Wollaston “could only take the outline of the districts, for neither of us could draw well, and we lamented our not being able to do so,” wishing an instrument capable of compensating this deficit. Only some months later, according to Henry Hasted, William Hyde Wollaston had completed a first rudimentary prototype of the new instrument, “the very thing we wanted at the Lakes… and very soon came forth that elegant and very useful little instrument, the ‘Camera Lucida’.” The device was then patented in December 1806 as an “instrument whereby any person may draw in perspective or may copy or reduce any print or drawing,” whereas the name Camera Lucida first appeared in William Hyde Wollaston’s description of 1807.

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