Alinari History of Italy
Università IULM Fratelli Alinari Università degli studi di Milano with the contribution of
Fondazione Cariplo

DIDACTIC WORKSHOP:

Alchemists of light

The year 0 of photography is 1839, when a process is introduced that mechanically reproduces, without manual intervention, the images that form in the dark room. From the moment of its first public circulation, the surprise effect is instant: many emerge from the shadows claiming authorship of the invention, the press describes it with enthusiasm, the public is understandably awed and eager to attend demonstrations, and very soon there will be a teeming of amateur photographers thanks to the equipment on sale. Reality that reproduces itself seems impossible to conceive: some even speak of witchcraft. Yet the pioneers, who experiment many different procedures in record time - not to turn metal into gold but rather turn photosensitive substances into a fixed image - sanction the idea. In a short time as the technique for capturing the photographic image evolved, various different ways to present the image were conceived, through optical devices of various sorts. Among the many was the magic lantern, that is yet another application of the dark room, in particular of its optical principle and its capacity to generate the spectacle typical of a dark room. This consist of a device that outwardly projects the image contained inside a box. In this case too, the dynamic with which it generates the image does not seem to have a logical explanation, especially in the times of phantasmagories, a sort of theatre of images made by intentionally concealing the source of the image. The magic lantern, which already in the 17th century entertained the public with moving projections, in the age of Photography loses its esoteric aura to turn into a powerful educational tool and a wonderful means of entertainment... but this is where cinematography begins.

The dark room, which implies the right dosage of two elements, light and dark, is both an instrument of reproduction and of entertainment, which calls for further consideration. The dark room is a dark space which lets in just the right amount of light needed to generate images. This device, the principles of which were known thousands of years ago by the Chinese and by the ancient Greeks long before Leonardo Da Vinci's eminent studies, offers countless applications. When people are happy to admire images shine in front of them, one can speak of Pre-cinema or perhaps even Philosophy: according to some, the spectacle that Plato described in The Republic is in fact a dark room the size of a cave. It is natural to then want to project the contours of the image, maybe to examine it or adjust it: from sometime around the 15th century, the dark room is commonly used by painters to capture an image in the correct perspective. The device develops into a photo camera in the 19th century, when wax paper is replaced by a sensitive plate that somehow sees better than our eyes because it absorbs the light over a length of time. From Arab physician Alhazen (1020) to Aristotle and other important scientists, this system was used in astronomy to observe the solar eclipse and to create the calendar. Today the dark room even travels on spaceships, where it contributes to a nuclear physics research.

If you follow the indications of the workshop you can try the fascinating experience of the dark room.

GO TO THE LABORATORY: THIS IS NOT A BOX

Workshop 1
  • A comparison between period cameras and the camera on your cell-phone, MNAF Alinari National Museum of Photography. Photo by Marino Sterle.
Workshop 2
  • A period camera to explore with your hands, MNAF. Alinari National Museum of Photography. Photo by Marino Sterle.
Workshop 3
  • The upside down image on the screen of a period camera, MNAF. Alinari National Museum of Photography. Photo by Marino Sterle.
Workshop 4
  • A period camera with sleeves to allow the photographer to work in the dark inside the box, MNAF. Alinari National Museum of Photography. Photo by Marino Sterle.
Workshop 5
  • In front of the Magic Lantern, MNAF. Alinari National Museum of Photography. Photo by Marino Sterle.
Workshop 6
  • The wonder box explored in the dark room workshop, MNAF. Alinari National Museum of Photography. Photo by Marino Sterle.
Workshop 7
  • Watching images appear and disappear in the dark room workshop, MNAF. Alinari National Museum of Photography. Photo by Marino Sterle.
Workshop 8
  • Watching images appear and disappear in the dark room workshop, MNAF. Alinari National Museum of Photography. Photo by Marino Sterle.
Workshop 9
  • The images are outlined as they appear and disappear in the dark room workshop, MNAF. Alinari National Museum of Photography. Photo by Marino Sterle.
Workshop 10
  • You can obtain a photograph by inserting light sensitive material into the wonder box in the dark room workshop, MNAF. Alinari National Museum of Photography. Photo by Marino Sterle.
Workshop 11
  • Observation of the gnomon that turns the church of Santa Maria Novella into a dark room during the workshop, MNAF. Alinari National Museum of Photography. Photo by Georg Vith.
Workshop 12
  • Fratelli Alinari, the MNAF didactic room transformed into a dark room with the aid of a simple hole where the window is, MNAF. Alinari National Museum of Photography. Photo by Georg Vith.
Workshop 13
  • View of the workshop of the Fratelli Alinari' photographic establishment, in Florence, 1899, Alinari Archives-Alinari Archive, Florence
Workshop 14
  • View of the workshop of the Fratelli Alinari' photographic establishment, in Florence, 1899, Alinari Archives-Alinari Archive, Florence
Workshop 15
  • View of the workshop of the Fratelli Alinari' photographic establishment, in Florence, 1899, Alinari Archives-Alinari Archive, Florence
Workshop 16
  • The terrace of the Fratelli Alinari' photographic establishment, in Florence, 1899, Alinari Archives-Alinari Archive, Florence
Workshop 17
  • Female portrait, daguerreotype, housed at the Alinari National Museum of Photography, 1850-1855 ca., Fratelli Alinari Museum Collections (RMFA), Florence
Workshop 18
  • The dome of Santa Maria del Fiore, Cathedral of Florence, negative on waxed paper, c.1850, Fratelli Alinari History of Photography Museum, Veraci fund
Workshop 19
  • Eadweard Muybridge, "Animal Locomotion" (plate 636); sequence with jockey on horseback jumping a hurdle, 1887, Fratelli Alinari Museum Collections-Palazzoli Collection, Florence
Workshop 20
  • Animated photography created by the participants of the workshop at MNAF. Alinari National Museum of Photography. Photo by Valentina Capitini
Gallery

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    Questions:
    1. Some say that Photography is a discovery rather than an invention. Why?
    2. What is the term for the hole that reproduces images, somehow selecting the appropriate quantity of light?
    3. In the first years of Photography, many letters are sent by people who claim to have invented it or suggesting possible improvements. Some procedures however are worth taking into special consideration: Niepce's heliography, Daguerre's daguerreotype, Talbot's photogenic drawing. Do you think it is more appropriate to speak of Photography or of Photographs?
    4. Would you use a stereoscope to listen to music?
    5. The pioneers of photography make incredible progress experimenting many different recipes, some of which might remind us of the culinary art since among the ingredients we find kitchen salt and even eggs, probably taken from the chicken coops within the printing plants. Have you ever heard of albumin?
    6. The Flip-book, the book containing a succession of drawings that when you rapidly leaf through give you the illusion of movement, was patented in the 19th century by J.B.Linnet. And thanks also to the contribution of children, who have the ability to use games to transmit knowledge beyond the national borders and across the generations, this incredible game is still played today. Have you ever interviewed adults of various ages to find out how we played in the past? Have you ever put together a booklet with a succession of photographs, experimenting in this way with the important stages not only of the development of cartoons but also of photography in movement and consequently cinematography?

    Suggestions for further activities:
    perform the tasks suggested in the workshop. Answer the questions, take part in the didactic workshops at MNAF Alinari National Museum of Photography in Florence.

    For further information:
    Gabriella de Polo
    Didactic Coordination
    Fratelli Alinari. Fondazione per la storia della Fotografia
    gabriella.depolo@alinari.it
    www.alinarifondazione.it/eng/didattica.php

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    MUSEO NAZIONALE ALINARI DELLA FOTOGRAFIA