Camera Lucida

William Hyde Wollaston dedicated much of his early scholarly work to chemical subjects, but as he grew older, he found his interests broadening into optics, acoustics, mineralogy, astronomy, physiology, botany and art. In 1807, he patented an optical device that enabled any person to quickly sketch a subject in accurate perspective. Although Johannes Kepler had described a similar optical device 200 years earlier in his Dioptrice, Wollaston has been credited with the invention and the name – camera lucida -which in Latin means ‘light room’.

In its simplest explanation, a camera lucida uses two mirrors, a normal mirror and a half-silvered one (one-way), to enable a user to see a subject and her drawing paper simultaneously. The subject is reflected from the normal mirror onto the half-silvered one. A user’s eye sees this reflection and simultaneously looks through the one-way mirror to see the paper. By creating this superimposition, the user sees both the subject and the drawing surface at the same time, as in a photographic double exposure.

A camera lucida is a versatile tool. An artist can use a camera lucida as a drawing aid; scientists can attach a camera lucida to microscopes to help sketch specimens; it is still a key tool in the field of palaeontology as well as the most common method among neurobiologists for drawing brain structures.

As I begin to settle into my role at the College of William and Mary as the Teaching Environmental Filmmaker-in-Residence, I too, aspire to play a versatile role. The palpable excitement I feel from those I’ve met so far stems from the unique aspects of this position. Integrating filmmaking into the sciences adds extraordinary potential for collaborative research and teaching.

I hope to negotiate the intersection of science and the humanities during my time here as well as to shed light on the importance of communication. A camera lucida may help to capture an accurate perspective of a subject, but the user still has to decide what to include and what to leave out. Positioning oneself is absolutely essential.

The role of the image-maker is given that responsibility.