Every year George Eastman House welcomes hundreds of researchers interested in our collections; we host photo historians, curators, students, scientists, and hobbiests from all over the world. Often they are experts in the field and we get to learn a thing or two about our collection. A few weeks ago a former professor of mine was here to look at our collection of Megalethoscope slides. Antonella Pelizzari teaches History of Photography at Hunter College in NYC and is an old friend of Eastman House. She is currently working on a book on Photography and Italy and traveled to Rochester to research and look at our collection of Megalethoscope slides. I was familiar with these delightful objects before Antonella’s visit, but I didn’t realize that we have one of the largest collections of Megalethoscopes in the world. I also learned a bit about how they work and how they are constructed, which I will share here.
Megalethoscope slides are meant to be viewed with a Megalethoscope. This large apparatus, invented in 1870 by Carlo Ponti, allows the viewer to look at an image in two ways. First, a daylight scene can be viewed by opening the doors and letting a series of mirrors direct the light onto the front of the slide. The second view is achieved by closing the doors to the scope and directing light through the back of the slide, producing a magically transformed scene. Take a look at the series of images below that show one slide with different types of illumination: reflected, reflected + transmitted, and just transmitted.
This marvelous effect is achieved by painting the back of an albumen photograph, which is then adhered to a curved wooden frame. The photograph is also pierced through in places to create the illusion of lights in the scene. Several pieces of tissue paper, also selectively painted, are spaced and layered behind the photograph and finally a piece of canvas is stretched behind the layers and attached to the back of the slide frame. This creates a sealed package about 1 inch thick. The canvas and tissue diffuse the light before it passes through the slide to the viewer, helping to create these delightful colorized scenes.
We are going to put the entire collection up on the Flickr Commons as soon as they are shot.
Jessica Johnston is an Assistant Curator in the Department of Photographs at George Eastman House. She manages numerous exhibitions and projects at the museum including our recent participation on the Flickr Commons.
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