November 16: Peep

16November 16: There is a moment when some photographs suddenly become 3D. Move your head into the right position, level with the vanishing point in the image, close one eye, move closer or back off…and…you are inside the picture, standing just where the photographer stood. Its magic; “almost like being there!”

Carlo Ponti, not the movie director but the optician to King Victor Emanuel ll of Italy, loved this effect. He died this day in 1893 just as the Kinetoscope was first demonstrated at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences in New York on May 9; as Thomas Edison opened his first movie studio, The Black Maria  in New Jersey; and Eadweard Muybridge’ Zoopraxiscope stole the show at his Zoopraxigraphical Hall in the Columbian Exposition at Chicago. Carlo had lived through the transition from a world without photography right up into a time when pictures began to move.

A photographer himself, Ponti’s adoration of perspective is palpable in his images of architecture. He lived in Venice, renowned for its glorious built environment, full of perfect subject matter for his obsession, from open squares to narrow lanes and waterways, churches and palaces.

Carlo Ponti (Italian, born Switzerland, about 1823 – 1893) Portico inferiore del Palazzo Ducale 1860 – 1869 Albumen silver print 26.8 x 35.1 cm
Carlo Ponti (Italian, born Switzerland, about 1823 – 1893  – his name translates as ‘Bridges’). Pont des Sospiri, avec la balustrade du pont de la Paglia. 1860 – 1870 Albumen silver print 33.2 x 26.9 cm

Being an optician, he set about building a machine to help others appreciate the illusion  of depth that he loved; the alethoscope, soon improved as the megalethoscope, patented by Ponti in 1861. A massive device, some versions being five feet in length, it was a large and elaborate piece of “optical furniture” for the parlors of the bourgeoisie and produced in various finishes from relatively plain to extremely ornate. It was clearly meant as a status symbol, anticipating the varieties of radio and television cabinet. It had the simple purpose of bringing perspective to life, of restoring the depth effect embedded in the photographic image. The Brewster stereoscope, much admired by Queen Victoria, had already appeared at Britain’s Great Exhibition of 1851, but what was useful about his invention was that it simulated the same effect in the single image.

Carlo Ponti (Italian, born Switzerland, about 1823 – 1893) Megalethoscope, about 1862, Wood, metal fixtures, and glass 59.1 × 91.4 × 47 cm The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Instructions for use of the Megalethoscope

A large lens was housed in the narrower, viewing end of the device, its focus adjusted with handles at the sides. It enlarged the image but also restricted the view so that the spherical perspective effect was best visible. A large albumen print was inserted into an adjustable holder in the wider end that could be rotated for ‘landscape’ or ‘portrait’ format images. Doors with mirrors fixed on their inside could be swung open to maximise illumination of the picture from light available in a day-lit interior or from the fitted kerosine lamp. Alternatively, the print could be illuminated from behind by closing the doors using the lamp or a nearby window.

Above is an example of Carlo Ponti’s own coloured albumen print slides for the megaloscope which were sold, with the device itself, in his own outlet in one of the arcades to the right of the Square of St. Marco in Venice in the mid-1800s.

d75_6026Really, Ponti’s device was an elaborate peep show of the kind that had been shown to children, and adults, at fairs since at least the Renaissance. Peep shows depend for their effect on the viewer using only one eye to look into a confined space in which scenes were painted which were changed as the showman recited and sang the commentary. Also known as the “Raree Show” the business was obviously based on the economic calculation that almost anything could be made attractive by initially hiding it from view and by suggesting the delights that would be beheld on the production of a coin. The peep show exploited the relative visual poverty of most people’s experience and the “opening of the world” as a result of the voyages of discovery, both geographic and conceptual, of the Enlightenment. The showmen promised the wonders of China, famous palaces, battlegrounds, or the devastation caused by the Lisbon earthquake.

These peep shows also made use of lighting effects and could display a transition of day into night by lighting either the front or rear surface of the image. Lamplights might appear or a  ship burst into flame, and ghosts could be created by painting figures on tissue or gauze and by masking the transparency with black paper or paint on the reverse.

The viewing conditions overcame the crudeness of the perspective renditions.

Partially perforated lithographs from the Polyorama Panoptique, Paris. c1849, daytime view…
Partially perforated lithographs from the Polyorama Panoptique, Paris. c1849, night view…

Narrative could be generated by these temporal changes; this amusing rendition of a microscopic view of drinking water being presented to a frightened old woman by a mischievous boy is another example of front and rear illumination.

The attractions of the peep show endured right into the Victorian period and the excitement and modernism spectacle of the Crystal Palace.

Crystal Palace Peep Show (‘Lane’s Telescopic View’), England, c.1851. Museum no. E.2649-1953. Peep-show showing the central nave and the tree growing by the refreshment court. V&A Museum.

It is intriguing to see how readily artists adapted and refined the peep show, especially those of the Dutch ‘Golden Age’:

Samuel van Hoogstraten A Peepshow with Views of the Interior of a Dutch House about 1655-60, this painting in a box was presents a distorted interior which when viewed from the peephole opens a vista into several rooms.
Maria Austria (c.1950s) children showing a man their kijkdoos in a street in Amsterdam.

These survived in the Netherlands as kijkdoos, a toy children made out of a shoebox with cellophane on the lid and a peephole in one end.

The most revolutionary of these artist ‘peep shows’ was Brunelleschi’s panel showing a painted view of the church of San Giovanni di Firenze, later known as the Florentine Baptistry, as seen from a point about five feet inside the portal of the as yet unfinished cathedral of Florence, Santa Maria del Fiore, across the Piazza del Duomo. According to Brunelleschi’s biographer of the 1480s, Antonio di Tuccio Manetti, in order to constrain the viewer to place his eye at the center of projection, Brunelleschi had made a hole in the panel on which there was this painting;

… which hole was as small as a lentil on the painting side of the panel, and on the back it opened pyramidally, like a woman’s straw hat, to the size of a ducat or a little more. And he wished the eye to be placed at the back, where it was large, by whoever had it to see, with the one hand bringing it close to the eye, and with the other holding a mirror opposite, so that there the painting came to be reflected back; … which on being seen, … it seemed as if the real thing was seen: I have had the painting in my hand and have seen it many times in these days, so I can give testimony.


Photography enables us to reprise Brunelleschi’s experiment, in fact to hold and rephotograph a film still in front of the view where the picture was taken and to match its perspective is an ongoing art project, FILMography by Canadian photographer Christopher Moloney that matches scenes from movies with their real-life, present-day locations…

The peep show and the Megalethoscope have evolved and survive today in devices that feed our hunger for spectacle and a desire for a sense of personal presence and ‘virtual’ reality (which is merely an incremental advance on good old ‘realism’) in our movies, video games and interactive immersive 3D headsets, though tellingly, for our jaded and cynical tastes, the motivations of escape and fantasy have displaced curiosity as the driving force.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.