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Camera Obscura by the Numbers
December 2, 2013 3:49 PM   Subscribe

Tim's Vermeer - how a Texas inventor might have reconstructed the methods used by Dutch baroque painter Johannes Vermeer. posted by planetesimal (44 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite

 
This is fantastic. The level of wealthy geekery is just sublime.
posted by resurrexit at 4:03 PM on December 2, 2013 [4 favorites]


It is gratifying to see a rich person who is enjoying his wealth and using it to have fun and play in interesting ways instead of stomping on poor people and counting his bucks on a yacht whose captain he doesn't even know personally.
posted by localroger at 4:11 PM on December 2, 2013 [7 favorites]


Smart guy. Made NewTek. Video Toaster. Remember digitizing stuff on the Amiga with a color wheel? Or chroma keying back when VHS was still hot shit? Guy's got imaging and tech in his blood, and his work is solid.
posted by herrdoktor at 4:13 PM on December 2, 2013 [4 favorites]


From a previous post, more fun with camera obscura.
posted by planetesimal at 4:15 PM on December 2, 2013


If you haven't done so, I highly recommend reading David Hockney's book on the subject.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:31 PM on December 2, 2013 [3 favorites]


For his experimental purposes—using a device that Vermeer himself could have made—Jenison decided that modern lenses are too fine. So he learned how to make lenses himself, to melt and polish glass using 17th-century techniques. Jenison painted only with pigments available in the late 1600s and learned to mix them himself, including grinding lapis lazuli stones (“they’re kind of poisonous,” he points out) to make ultramarine blue.

Holy shit.

If you haven't done so, I highly recommend reading David Hockney's book on the subject.

If someone makes a post about polaroids we'll have three posts on Hockney's range of interests today.
posted by LionIndex at 4:35 PM on December 2, 2013


It doesn't even matter if this is a true theory or not...the level of commitment is amazing.
posted by xingcat at 4:37 PM on December 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


Hockney and Falco

Put the same thing on Ingres' small portraits
posted by IndigoJones at 4:42 PM on December 2, 2013 [4 favorites]


I am waiting with bated breath for this movie to come out in wide-enough release so that us mere mortals can see it. I'm completely stoked on the idea.
posted by pjern at 4:58 PM on December 2, 2013 [1 favorite]




The film's played at quite a number of festivals, and got picked up by Sony Classics, so chances are good for a theater near you.
posted by Ideefixe at 5:03 PM on December 2, 2013


I'd wager a screener of the documentary will be up on the torrents come Oscar season later this month.
posted by planetesimal at 5:07 PM on December 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


I saw David Stork give a talk about the Hockner-Falco thesis. He pretty much demolished it. A pdf of his Scientific American article is available here.

It's fun to be all #slatepitch about how the "masters" were really "cheaters," but, come on: they all had secret high-tech rooms with multiple mirrors and light sources? Even if the "second mirror" solves the problem of the image being too dim and upside down, it still fails to counter Stork's main argument which is that the perspective of these "reproduced" images is all wrong. The lines just don't line up, which is exactly what you would expect if it were painstakingly drawn by a master who doesn't understand linear perspective, instead of a technician mechanistically reproducing an image.
posted by artichoke_enthusiast at 5:20 PM on December 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


I understand how a magician might think there could be a lost secret that allowed Vermeer to paint so well. However, Vermeer wasn't that much better than his fine Dutch contemporaries. Did they all use the camera obscura and all evidence has subsequently been lost? I don't see how that could be. On the other hand, it is just spooky how in "Girl with a red hat" the foreground is out of focus.
posted by acrasis at 5:22 PM on December 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


Well, that was just marvellous!
posted by DarlingBri at 5:23 PM on December 2, 2013


Artichoke_enthusiast, if "the lines don't line up," why does Tim's painting from a real reproduction room align so closely to the original Vermeer?
posted by DarlingBri at 5:27 PM on December 2, 2013


While I find the technical arguments for and against interesting, the argument that the idea that artists made use of technology is repugnant because it made them "cheaters" is just baffling and silly to me.
posted by kyrademon at 5:54 PM on December 2, 2013 [9 favorites]


However, Vermeer wasn't that much better than his fine Dutch contemporaries

Well, yes, he was (at least in comparison to all but a handful of the very greatest) but not because his works were more photorealistic than theirs.
posted by yoink at 5:55 PM on December 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


However, Vermeer wasn't that much better than his fine Dutch contemporaries

In terms of actual painting technique, he probably wasn't. But Vermeer stands out mostly for his use of perspective. And this camera obscura technique would go a long way in explaining that.
posted by monospace at 6:00 PM on December 2, 2013


the argument that the idea that artists made use of technology is repugnant because it made them "cheaters" is just baffling and silly to me.

We've long had a neurotic response to great art that runs along the lines of "this is something produced by genius, by Godlike talent, by angels in the fingers of people." We elevate that which we admire, and we credit ourselves with being in the presence of something out of our reach because it vicariously brings it within reach. In other words, we bask in the cult of the artist as much as we appreciate the art.

It's not that a camera obscura is cheating, so much as it gives the artist feet of clay.
posted by fatbird at 6:09 PM on December 2, 2013 [7 favorites]


Paintings by slightly later artists who are known to have utilized a camera obscura were used effectively to get useful data about sea level rise and land subsidence in Venice.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 6:11 PM on December 2, 2013 [4 favorites]


they all had secret high-tech rooms with multiple mirrors and light sources?

No, but more than one likely had a private workspace and an arrangement of lenses on metal arms. Durer not only used drawing grids, he made etchings of himself doing so. The use of devices wasn't black magic, it was common knowledge.
posted by fatbird at 6:12 PM on December 2, 2013 [7 favorites]


Hmm. Well, even just scratching the surface of this hypothesis yields some tantalizing information beyond the possible evidence from the paintings themselves.

Almost all Vermeer's paintings are apparently set in two smallish rooms in his house in Delft.

Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, considered the first microbiologist and a master lensmaker, lived in the same small town as Vermeer (15,000 people at the time) and eventually was the executor of Vermeer's will. It seems quite likely that the two men knew each other. Van Leeuwenhoek, incidentally, apparently had a secret lensmaking tehcnique, now believed to be using a hot flame to fuse soda lime glass. He maintained throughout his life that there were aspects of microscope construction and especially lensmaking "which I only keep for myself". It wasn't until 1957 that C.L. Stong used thin glass thread fusing instead of polishing to successfully recreate Leeuwenhoek-type lenses.

Constantijn Huygens wrote in his memoirs that he believed Dutch master still-life painter Johannes Torrentius, who was active as an artist around when Vermeer was a teenager, was secretly using a camera obscura. Huygens also wrote that he himself had gone around demonstrating a camera obscura "to the great amusement of painters" and wondered why artists other than presumably Torrentius were not making use of "so pleasant and useful an aid to them in their work".

Obviously, none of this is conclusive, but we have:

1) Evidence that there was at least one guy who was going around when Vermeer was young demonstrating a camera obscura to artists as a possible aid to their work.

2) A contemporary account that indicates that it apparently would have been entirely plausible for an artist of the time to be making use of such an instrument and wanting to keep it a secret.

3) Evidence that Vermeer generally liked to paint in a way that would have been of use to him if he were using a camera obscura (in his own house, and only in certain rooms).

4) Evidence that Vermeer may have had an acquaintance with a famous lensmaker who is known to have liked to keep his techniques secret.

Interesting.
posted by kyrademon at 6:32 PM on December 2, 2013 [11 favorites]


I think the question I'd like answered is this: Suppose Vermeer did use a Camera Obscura with mirrors. Could the average 17th century Dutch painter with the same equipment have produced Vermeer-quality paintings?
posted by professor plum with a rope at 6:38 PM on December 2, 2013


> "Could the average 17th century Dutch painter with the same equipment have produced Vermeer-quality paintings?"

I find that kind of a weird question, in part because I am honestly not sure what you mean by "Vermeer-quality" and how you think it differs from "average-17th-century-Dutch-painter-quality".

If your question is, would the average 17th century Dutch painter with a camera obscura have chosen the exact same subjects as Vermeer, arranged them the same way, chosen colors the same way, experimented with pigments like natural ultramarine the same way, and used the exact same brushstrokes, then, no, I'm pretty sure not.

I guess if your question is, would the average 17th century Dutch painter with a camera obscura have used perspective in the same way as Vermeer, then ... if Vermeer were using a camera obscura, maybe? But it seems very strange to reduce "Vermeer-quality" to use of perspective. Does perspective even matter all that much in Girl with a Pearl Earring?
posted by kyrademon at 6:52 PM on December 2, 2013 [3 favorites]


Yeah it's a *little* bit of a silly question. Let's pretend for a moment that the painting part was *completely* mechanical. That would make his paintings essentially really labor intensive photographs.

Could an average 20th century photographer with a Hasselblad make "Annie Leibowitz quality" photograph?
posted by RustyBrooks at 6:54 PM on December 2, 2013 [5 favorites]


I also think it's a bit reductive to call the camera obscura technique "cheating", especially since it was cutting edge image processing in its time. The technique was the art.
posted by planetesimal at 6:55 PM on December 2, 2013 [3 favorites]


I do wonder about the faces in his paintings, though. The facial expressions in some of his portraits are so (famously!) lively and calm and spontaneous-looking. They don't look like the face of someone who's been holding a pose for hours.

Even if Vermeer did have mechanical help — and why not? nothing wrong with it — I can't imagine he was always following a projected image as closely as Jenison was in his replica. Jenison picked a painting to replicate that has pretty wooden and static poses, and that also de-emphasizes the subjects' faces. But to make something like Woman with a Balance or The Milkmaid you'd need to be a pretty good freehand painter in addition, no?
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 7:22 PM on December 2, 2013 [3 favorites]


The article is bafflingly credulous, but hey, if Penn Jillette is convinced, that's good enough for me!
posted by kenko at 8:16 PM on December 2, 2013


I only like paintings made without mechanical help, no cheaters using brushes for me, it's fingerpainting or nothing.
posted by 445supermag at 8:36 PM on December 2, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'd find Jackson Pollock's use of a camera obscura even more disturbing.
posted by mecran01 at 8:40 PM on December 2, 2013 [10 favorites]


Technically, using paintbrushes is cheating with technology. He should be able to generate the image through sheer force of will, or perhaps using blood, dirt, spit, fingers and teeth.
posted by empath at 8:42 PM on December 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


I found this link in the comments on the Vanity Fair article -- another experiment testing a different technique Vermeer might have used involving the camera obscura, plus tracing on oil paper. It's fascinating. I find it a bit more compelling, actually, given the supporting evidence the author of this second scenario offers based on what is known about Vermeer's underpainting. But I'm certainly no art historian, so I can't say much about which technique would really make more sense.
posted by BlueJae at 9:30 PM on December 2, 2013 [3 favorites]


it's fingerpainting or nothing
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 10:54 PM on December 2, 2013


Unless you train an elephant to create masterpieces by their trunk, I doubt your ability to inspire through art. I find these articles interesting from a technical POV, but reducing any artist to one technique is the 'One Weird Trick' of the art world.
posted by ersatz at 5:23 AM on December 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


it's fingerpainting or nothing

I think from this, we can prove that Vermeer used an iPad.
posted by phong3d at 8:02 AM on December 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


DarlingBri: "Artichoke_enthusiast, if "the lines don't line up," why does Tim's painting from a real reproduction room align so closely to the original Vermeer?"

Two different issues. His copy faithfully reproduces the perspective errors.
posted by IAmBroom at 11:30 AM on December 3, 2013


professor plum with a rope: "I think the question I'd like answered is this: Suppose Vermeer did use a Camera Obscura with mirrors. Could the average 17th century Dutch painter with the same equipment have produced Vermeer-quality paintings?"

No.

I have the same technology available as Cindy Sherman, but even with her exact camera model it's unlikely I could produce original works with the power of this.

Composition, framing, subject choice, color pallette, and so on remain the most important part of art.
posted by IAmBroom at 11:37 AM on December 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


ersatz: "I find these articles interesting from a technical POV, but reducing any artist to one technique is the 'One Weird Trick' of the art world."

Please point out where any serious critic is doing so. I've never read such.
posted by IAmBroom at 11:40 AM on December 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm afraid I never wrote the words serious critics.
posted by ersatz at 6:36 PM on December 3, 2013


Fair enough. Point out one article writer.
posted by IAmBroom at 2:12 PM on December 4, 2013


Have a look at my website www.printedlight.co.uk to see my experiments with camera obscura projections, using materials available in the time of Vermeer.
I transferred monochrome tracings from projections to a canvas using oiled paper, which corrected the orientation of the image and led to results which looked similar to Vermeer's own underpaintings.

I think it is unlikely that Vermeer traced in colour because inside the camera the paintbrush becomes coloured with the light coming through the lens. It is too dark to mix paint inside a camera booth, and also it is not illuminated by a full spectrum of light- only the light coming from the subject.
Jension overcame this difficulty by using an extra (modern) mirror to increase the amount of light, and enable him to judge the colour differences he saw....so was he really recreating the conditions in Vermeer's studio?
You have to remember also, that painters of Vermeer's time painted in stages, one layer after another and did not attempt to put down the whole thing at once as Jension has tried to do.
posted by JaneJelley at 1:17 AM on December 13, 2013


Interesting point, JaneJelley.

There's another reason - in low light, vision is monochromatic. So, the scenes he would be tracing would appear to be poorly saturated (almost grey-toned), and he's going to be reduced to outlining form (contrast). Color needed to be added later.

Of course, as I understand it, that's pretty much how all (realist) painters do it anyway - the charcoal or pencil cartoon preceded the gouache/oils/watercolors.
posted by IAmBroom at 3:21 PM on December 13, 2013


From TFA, Jenison does not believe Vermeer used a camera obscura:
If the lens focused its image onto a small, angled mirror, and the mirror was placed just between the painter’s eye and the canvas, by glancing back and forth he could copy that bit of image until the color and tone precisely matched the reflected bit of reality. Five years ago, Jenison tried it out on the kitchen table. He took a black-and-white photograph and mounted it upside down, since a lens would project an image upside down. He put a round two-inch mirror on a stand between the photo and his painting surface. He immediately found that “when the color is the same, the mirror edge disappears,” and you’re through with that bit. Five hours later, he had painted a perfect duplicate of the photo, an astounding proof of concept by someone who can’t draw and had never painted a thing. Then he used his mirror trick to copy a color photo. Again, perfect.
The whole point of Jenison's insight is that it provides a mechanism for doing such a photorealistic copy which does not have the camera obscura's brightness limitations, and the canvas can be naturally illuminated.
posted by localroger at 3:49 PM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


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