Physionotrace: Tracing the Shadow

Posted by on May 12 2010 | History, Other, Photography

We’re getting ready to start our Photography Workshops. The first one, in June, is on the different techniques of drawing by using light as applied by artists before the invention of photography. I’ve given this particular workshop many times for the conservators but now we’re going to include this in a new series for the general public.

Last year my wife France and I got a feeling for the interest in these pre-photographic techniques by teaching shadow-traced silhouette making at the f295 conference in Pittsburgh. Nearly everyone who took the workshop was an artist/teacher, including Dan Estabrook, Martha Madigan and Jessica Ferguson. It was probably the most fun we’ve ever had teaching a process and the class really enjoyed themselves. I was so surprised that we could coax photographers into a drawing workshop.

We got the physionotrace out last night and made some profiles by candle light up in our studio. It’s really the best way to experience how it was used, but it’s really difficult to document with a camera.

A physionotrace is an apparatus invented in the 18th century and used for “taking” profiles and silhouettes. It’s tied to a chair and the sitters shadow is cast onto an oiled paper screen by a single light. The operator traces the shadow with a stylus that’s connected to a pantograph. As the virtual shadow image is traced, the profile of the sitter is drawn in miniature simultaneously on a piece of paper. The entire sitting lasts about ten seconds.

People always ask how I came to make the one we use for workshops. I really wanted to use one and so I had asked around to see if anyone had ever seen a complete working example of a physionotrace, but found no leads. The only documentation I could find was the period drawing by Chretien and the engraving by Halloway. Finally I discovered a poor reproduction of an 1810 era physionotrace in a book on American Silhouettes published in the 1920s. The device was incomplete, didn’t have the pantograph, but the frame seemed like a good solid design. So, I built mine based on the frame in that book and made a pantograph in the same proportions. It worked the first time we used it, though I have to admit, mastering the technique is tricky. Since then, I’ve found two more designs that are completely different.  I’ll make working reproductions of them too in a few years.

For more on the Photo Workshops, Visit  photo-workshops

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    Mark Osterman is the Process Historian in the Kay R. Whitmore Conservation Center at George Eastman House. Best known for his depth of knowledge in the area of collodion photography, Osterman is also internationally recognized for his research and teaching of photographic processes from Niepce heliographs to gelatin emulsions. Osterman's curriculum, once reserved for the international conservation community, is now available to the public through a series of hands-on workshops at Eastman House and other venues in the U.S. and abroad.

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