Child’s Play

Interlude No. 3

So: is the NeoLucida really the most inexpensive camera lucida of all time? If you compare it with the “professional” offerings from the 19th to early 20th centuries, there’s no contest: at US$47, the NeoLucida is just a fraction of the nearly US$120 price tag (in today’s dollars) from a century ago.

During the Kickstarter campaign, one of our backers mentioned a very inexpensive camera lucida “toy” they remembered from their youth. The “Magic Art Reproducer”, here shown in an advertisement in the December 1952 ATOMIC WAR!, was advertised for just US$1.98. Adjusting for inflation, that’s around US$17. Cheap!

“No Lessons! No Talent!” And, since speed is the ultimate goal in art: “Draw any person in one minute!”

Made by the Norton Products Company, New York, this device is never called a “camera lucida”, but the effect is the same: the scene in front of you is “projected” onto your paper and you trace what you see.

This may look familiar to anyone who read pulp magazines, comics, and tabloid newspapers from the sixties. The ad changed a bit over time, but the premise was the same: 

“It automatically reproduces anything you want to draw on any sheet of paper. Then easily and quickly follow the lines of the ‘picture image’ with your pencil… and you have an accurate original drawing that anyone would think an artist had done.”

“Have fun! Be popular!” (And apparently lovely, scantily-clad ladies will line up to be your artist model…)

In case it seems like this was merely a product of the 1950s and ‘60s, here’s an ad from the Weekly World News in 1989:

It seems a little disingenuous to call it a “New Amazing Invention”, considering the same product was offered continuously for 35 years.

Judging by diverse titles like “Eerie Magazine” and “Popular Science”—the magazines where I found these ads—the Magic Art Reproducer speaks to the amateur, to the leisure artist, to the young, and to the untrained. This is in stark contrast to the original camera lucida audience of professionals and specialists. This shift to the amateur could explain why people are unsure if the Magic Art Reproducer is a camera lucida or not.

But why would a camera lucida appear in the 1950s when the technology was rendered obsolete in the late 19th century by photography? And how could it be popular enough to be offered continuously for over 35 years?

The 1950s were the leisure decade in America. Post-war prosperity meant free time, and when people weren’t watching TV, they were engaged in a hobby or pastime. The American amateur is born in the 1950’s. Photography was a popular hobby as cameras and film became less expensive (just think of all those 8mm home movies and Kodachrome slide shows of family vacations). All this leisure time created a market for leisure activities, and that gave us the first glimpse of mass marketing—and mass culture.

Enter Andy WarholCampbell’s soup cans, colorful Marilyn Monroes and Brillo Boxeswere the art inspired by the everyday popular culture of the 1950‘s. Crafted with the same mechanization and automation ethic as their subject matter, Warhol and thePop movement was a critique on the banality of mass culture. By mechanically reproducing images from advertising and movies, Pop was an ironic commentary on the relationship between “high” and “low” art. While President Eisenhower was painting by numbers and television homogenized the national mood, Warhol and his contemporaries copied advertisements and product logos and put them in museums.

Wait—what does this have to do with an inexpensive camera lucida “toy” sold through pulp magazine ads? Well, Andy Warhol used tracing all the time. This was not a secret; it was the natural fit for an art movement trying to examine the everyday images of advertising. He didn’t use the Magic Art Reproducer, or even a camera lucida. Instead, he traced enlarged images with an opaque projector. 

Using a very bright light and large lens, the opaque projector works much like an overhead projector, but doesn’t require transparent source material. Warhol used this to enlarge images from magazines, to trace product logos and ads with accuracy, and to quickly (and mechanically) transpose visual information. Here’s a late example: 

Andy Warhol, Still Life (Detail) 1975

The post-war period, with its “mass leisure” ethic, was ready for a simple do-it-yourself instant artist “toy” like the Magic Art Reproducer. But is this “leisure tool” an authentic camera lucida? Let’s see how it works using my own 1954 Magic Art Reproducer:

Diagram from Magic Art Reproducer instructions.

Instead of a camera lucida prism, these tools used an angled mirror with a separate angled piece of glass.

Inexpensive and easily obtained, this simple arrangement of glass and mirrors is a novel way to create a virtual image. This arrangement also has other applications. Heads-up displays on fighter jets use the same “holographic” effect for data overlays that allow pilots to see extra information without having to look away from the action. 

Pepper’s Ghost” is a theatrical special effect based on the same optical premise. During the Phantasmagoria craze of the late 1800s, scientist John Pepper and inventor Henry Dircks “summoned” an apparition on stage during an 1862 production of Charles Dickens’ “The Haunted Man.” (So popular was this effect that Charles Dickens himself would employ it for live readings of “The Haunted Man.”) Here’s how it works:

Pepper’s Ghost: The audience, unaware of the angled glass pane between them and the actors, sees the hidden actor’s bright reflection appear as an apparition on stage. This effect requires careful lighting balance: the stage must be brighter than the audience; the hidden actor must be brighter than the stage.

Why then does the NeoLucida use a prism instead of this cheap glass arrangement? Authenticity to the original camera lucida designs is certainly part of our project’s ethic—but even more important is performance. Pepper’s Ghost and other reflective glass/mirror designs work well when the lighting can be carefully controlled. If you set up to draw and your lighting changes, or if the light on your page is different than the subject lighting, you’ll have a hard time tracing.

Lighting issues with the Magic Art Reproducer. The reflected image is often faint, limiting the user to drawing on grey or black paper.

Our design uses a silvered prism to provide the clearest, brightest image possible under the widest range of lighting conditions. So while the NeoLucida may be priced like a toy, it performs like a consummate professional.