Having realised the potential of the picture plane as an agent that could receive ideas critically, the question was how to find out more about this. Almost all the struggles with the picture plane are in the name of truthfulness to the original – quite different from my needs. There are several examples of more developed picture planes, for instance the spaces in the inventive Dutch Peep shows by Van Hoogstraten (that will feature one day soon), or the domes of planetaria with their associated (and wonderful) projectors. The world that I decided to search more deeply was that of the Habitat Diorama. Always a pleasure in the background, they came into focus through two events. One was that by coincidence two colleagues, Christine Hawley and C.J.Lim, were taking their students around the Yale
Campus in New Haven on the same day that I was taking my group there. C.J. had been there before and I asked him if there was anything else I should see. Knowing me quite well he suggested I should see the embalmed dissected rats in the Yale Peabody Museum, and I immediately ventured there to examine them. In fact it seems these rats were fermented in C.J’s wonderful imagination, but in the museum I came across J.P. Wilson’s dioramas. A few years later when working on the picture plane I wrote to the Peabody with some elementary questions about the dioramas and received a speedy and short reply asking about the nature of my interest. So began an extensive correspondence with Wilson scholar Michael Anderson. Michael is the expert on Wilson and his research is generously offered on this website:
(and follow the arrows at the top to find subsequent chapters).
To get the proper story you should read Michael Anderson’s history, but in short Wilson studied architecture at Columbia and then worked for the architect Bertram Goodhue for twenty years before taking up diorama painting at the American Museum of Natural History. He brought with him his own rigour but also the precision of architectural perspective projection and transferred this to the problem of the curved background painting behind the taxidermy in dioramas. In all my diorama research I am hugely indebted to Michael for sharing his extensive and exacting research (and expertise) on Wilson. These cameras are the consequence of a hugely productive and enjoyable collaboration with Michael.
To understand Wilson’s projection technique as fully as I could I designed and built three identical cameras that in one photograph would make all the calculations for an ideal diorama projection that Wilson would make when employing his process. I built three so that I had a backup, but also so that I could take stereoscopic pictures (more of which later), so the cameras were built 65mm wide, the typical separation between our eyes.
Michael Anderson suggested using Wilson’s Cold Bog diorama at the Yale Peabody Museum as the basis for this work. He could arrange access to the original site that it is based on, and as he was working on some replacement birds for the diorama, he would be able to arrange to have the front glass removed so that I could photograph the diorama without reflections.
Above you can see the difference between a photograph from a camera with a flat picture plane and one from my camera dedicated to the Bog Diorama (the lower photograph). The anamorphic distortion is accurate for the geometry of the Cold Bog diorama at the Yale Peabody – this view was outside my office in Copenhagen looking across the harbour. The views are not identical – the flat picture plane camera was next to the Bog Camera with a pinhole and the same focal length and used Polaroid film to test exposures before using the 120 slide film in the Bog Diorama camera. This was the first test shot.
So as to be able to take several pictures from each camera on the site, the film winds on to allow three shots from each roll (with a healthy margin to keep the film light tight). The mechanism in the front of the camera pulls back to keep the film in its curved track while winding on.
Tomorrow I will post some more pictures of the camera and of its photographs.
See also Michael Anderson’d Blog: http://jamesperrywilson.wordpress.com