In an essay titled “The World as Exhibition,” Timothy Mitchell writes of a device called a camera lucida, “a drawing device with a prism that projected an exact image of the object on to paper.”1 It was used by artists to make “accurate” sketches.
Mitchell claims that, “The problem for the photographer or writer… [is] not only to make an accurate picture of the [world], but to set up the [world] as a picture.”2 This is part of Mitchell’s larger claim that there is something fundamental in the modern Western mindset that makes it impossible for us to experience the “real world.” We are, he claims, only able to experience the world through inescapable representations of the world that we create.3 One of the principal ways of doing so in the 19th century was with a camera lucida.
As part of my recent thinking about what photography is and does, I have been experimenting with a similar device: my digital camera, which offers a Magic Drawing feature. I can take a photograph, and the camera converts it into a black and white line drawing.
The most obvious place where I have used such images is in the header of this blog. This is the image that now appears on every page:
This image represents new housing and old industry on Victoria’s waterfront, and is a way of representing Victoria that proposes a certain understanding of the city and its evolution. It therefore orders the city in a particular way. The addition of my “letterhead” to a photograph converted to a line drawing indicates a further attempt to control the image and the interpretation of the city.
Here is another example of my camera lucida’s work:
It shows an iconic view of Victoria’s harbour, and I have used it in two recent book reviews (of American Modern and Speaking for a Long Time). I am unhappy with it’s lack of direct reference to the subject matter of these posts, since there is no obvious connection between the books I’m reviewing and such an iconic view of Victoria.
To solve this problem, I have created two new images to accompany future book reviews on this site:
I like this one for two reasons:
- because it expresses an active engagement with reading through the implied movement of several people into and out of a local bookstore, and
- because it gave me an opportunity to try my hand at creating linear perspective by renaming the bookstore.
My technique obviously needs work, since the new sign doesn’t look quite right — but it was an interesting learning experience, and I will get better with time. For now, I think it will be a strong addition to my book reviews, because it expresses some of my ideas about what role books ought to play in our lives. This is another example of the type of ordering that Mitchell was talking about.
The second book review image required less work on the linear perspective involved in renaming the library:
It’s also an image that speaks to me on a more visceral level, because of my political commitment to the democratic potential of libraries to serve community needs.
The final image I have created recently will accompany a planned weekly feature on this blog, my Roundup of Urban News:
Again, the perspective was relatively easy in this image. It also makes use of a building that houses a local media establishment in what I think is a witty manner.
What do you think? Can you identify all the buildings and views shown in this post?
1. Timothy Mitchell, “The World as Exhibition,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 31:2 (1989), 229.
2. Mitchell, 229.
3. Mitchell, 218.
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