March 17: Angel

#17March 17: A photograph like an angel dancing on the head of a pin.

Every one of these posts uses as an ‘illuminated capital’ a macro shot of a numeral to announce the date. These numbers are familiar to any photographer who has used film, not yet a dying breed! A light source shining through a stencil imprinted the numbers along the length of pre-cut strips of film during manufacture; 36 or 20 on 35mm film, 12 on 120 format. The photographer cannot not see them until after developing and fixing the strip of transparent film whereupon they appear below the sprocket holes. Where 35mm image frames ended up between the numbers, one could identify frames with the intermediate digits suffixed with an ‘A’, 17A for example, though these were also handy when one used a half-frame camera. Clients could order a photograph off the contact sheet using these numbers.

René Dagron, born on this date in 1819 (d.1900), has been commonly regarded as the originator of microphotography. However, the potential of photographs for carrying digital data was exploited earlier still. Indeed, the first recorded ‘microform’ produced by John Benjamin Dancer (1812-1887), a British scientific instrument maker was a remarkable achievement, being made in the Autumn 1839, only months after the announcement of the invention of photography. His ‘microphotograph’ was on a daguerreotype plate at approximately 160x reduction. Early in 1852 Dancer improved his technique by using the collodion process, producing microphotographs containing a full picture occupying only 1/16th of an inch. With the advent of wet and then dry collodion emulsions he was able to produce slides like those below for viewing under a microscope.

John Benjamin Dancer (1875) microphotograph slides show actual size
John Benjamin Dancer (1875) Cromwell and Milton microphotograph shown magnified from slide above, from Whipple Museum of the History of Science, University of Cambridge.
J.B. Dancer Optician No. 371 Manchester Wenham binocular microscope, c. 1863
J.B. Dancer Optician No. 371 Manchester (c. 1863) Wenham binocular microscope.

It was René Prudent Patrice Dagron who recognised the commercial potential of John Benjamin Dancer’s microfilms, which in 1857 he saw exhibited in Paris, where he was busy setting up a photographic studio. Up to then they were no more than a curiosity; the 1858 first edition of Sutton’s Dictionary of Photography describes microfilming as “somewhat trifling and childish”.

In 1859 the world’s first microform patent was issued to Dagron (French Patent No 23115) for ‘a novelty microscope giving an illusion of depth’ and for the next ten years Dagron and other French scientists had the field to themselves while Dancer continued with his research in other areas of science, including the use of the microscope to investigate respiratory diseases.

Dagron promoted microforms as novelties, producing a series of microphotographs in rings, penholders and other jewels and trinkets, receiving an honourable mention when he presented a set of microfilms to Queen Victoria in 1862, thus causing much excitement with the Victorian public. In the same year Dagron published his book Cylindres photo-microscopiques montes et enmontes sur bijoux, brevetes en France et a l’etranger, followed in 1864 by his 36-page booklet Traite de Photographie Microscopique describing in detail the process for producing microfilm positives from normal size negatives.

StanhopesThese items, which could be any accessory such as walking stick handles, thimbles, knives, charms or letter openers, each contained a Stanhope lens to view a microphotograph. The lens was the invention of Lord Charles Stanhope, third Earl Stanhope of England (1753-1816). It had been hitherto used in medical practice for examining transparent materials such as crystals and fluids.

The lens itself is a polished glass rod approximately 7 mm in length and 3 mm in diameter. One end is convex, outwardly curved, to allow high magnifications for a short focal length. Fixed to the flat end is a small disc of glass 2mm wide. By holding the lens with the convex side towards you, very close to the eye, one is amazed to see what looks like large image. In addition to single images of famous people or places, some show multiple views on a particular subject.

erotic image
Erotic images are hidden inside these Stanhope rings.

Of course very quickly erotic images were made available to the Victorian gentleman who could carry them around and view them with complete privacy or take them to his club as a conversation starter amongst his friends.

It was not until the siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian war in 1870 that a practical application of microforms emerged. Attempts were made to circumvent the siege of Paris with the use of balloons to communicate with the outside world, but because predicting winds was unreliable they had to be supplemented with vulnerable dispatch runners. The French Government, on 10 November 1870, contracted Dagron to organise a microscopic dispatch service.

Dagron reduced an abbreviated version of a dispatch onto a film measuring 30 x 55mm, with eighteen or more of these films being inserted into tubes attached to a pigeons tail. Eighty thousand words thus weighed less than half a grain. A pigeon released on 21 January 1871 carried twenty-one of these films, and in about eight weeks Dagron thus transmitted 115000 separate messages.

A thorough and very engaging account of Dagron’s adventures in securing this commission, and its results, has been provided by microscopy expert Ashley Lawrence.

Those old enough to remember banks of them in libraries will have used microfiche viewers to view copies of otherwise perishable newspapers and journal articles in a remarkably compact form barely bigger than a library index card (also now deceased) and which we now look up in digitised form.

Has anyone used the microphotograph, microfilm or microfiche to make art? I can find but one example and I’m interested in hearing of others.

Candie Tanaka (September 7–October 12, 2002) detail of Off-Site Storage Provider, at Artspeak Gallery.

Canadian Candie Tanaka’s practice is based in collecting objects, images and sounds from public or institutional spaces, which she then alters and replaces into the public realm, thus revealing and exploiting the methodologies of archiving and indexing that form the structure of public memory.

In Off-Site Storage Provider, which she exhibited at Artspeak Gallery, 233 Carrall St, Vancouver, Canada, in 2002, Tanaka digitized a photo archive of images taken in transit in public spaces such as subways, metros and airports and transferred them to microfilm and microfiche, ironically placing the ‘originals’ offsite in in a secure climate-controlled holding facility, the ‘Off-Site Storage Provider’, an abandoned limestone mine in Pennsylvania.

Thus the work exhibited is but a facsimile of the ‘real’ work, and by allowing copies of the images taken to be available in the gallery to be viewed at a remove on a microfiche reader, with copies able to be printed out, she makes visible the structures of official memory, the fetish of the archive, the idea of the ‘original’ and the anxieties of record-keeping through the absurdity of cataloguing, reproducing and storing personal ephemera…mere ‘angels’.


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 )

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.