Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Non-rectangle, Non-square, and Oval photographs

Over on the Soth blog, it's circle time. It started here with George Eastman and Emmet Gowin, then went to photographs captured on a rabbit's eyeball, and continued today with more sure to follow. Good stuff! The non-quadrilateral photograph is a topic I have been thinking about for some time. More specifically, I am particularly interested in the oval or shaped photograph, such as seen in Julia Margaret Cameron's or Lewis Carroll's work, and the oval "view," as seen in the pre-photographic device, the Claude Glass.

William Gilpin was one of the 18th century writers who promoted the oval as the most picturesque shape, being that it closely resembled the purview of the human eye. The plates in his numerous books were almost all oval and washed in a continuous tone. Gilpin and others advocated the use of the Claude Glass, a shaped and tinted convex mirror. (Not all Claude Glasses were oval, some were rectangle or circular, but I'd venture to say that the majority were.) The Claude Glass was named in honor of the French painter Claude Lorrain. Further popularized by the poet Thomas Gray with his set viewing "stations" in the English countryside (think Kodak Picture Spots, but with no camera), the Claude Glass was used by British and American tourists from the early 18th century to well into the late 19th century. Oddly, its even shows up in conjunction with tourist photography! I wrote a graduate seminar paper on this device in the late 1990s for Garden History and Picturesque Aesthetics and this MIT book came out in 2004, but there is much more to be done. They rarely pop up on ebay, but I hope to acquire one for myself someday and continue writing/thinking about this fascinating object.

1ST IMAGE (below): Although not an antique Claude Glass and not with black or tinted glass, this image shows how one would be used: a tourist would find a scene to "compose" or "take" and turn their back to admire it! From

2ND IMAGE (below): A Claude Glass, Manufactured in England, 18th century
3RD IMAGE (below): The Reverend William Gilpin (1724-1804), View from the bank of a river, watercolour.

4TH IMAGE (below): Julia Margaret Cameron, Mrs. Herbert Duckworth, 1867


pitchertaker said...

I guess that a somewhat modern and utilitarian version of the Claude Glass cold be the large convex mirrors you see showing blind views from people driveways, etc. Or even the right hand mirrors on today automobiles. Interesting post….


LKB said...

Over on the Soth blog I found this comment, reminding me of Thomas Gustainis's oval photos (which I selected!). Where does the memory go? Michael also has some great work, check it out,

michael Says:

July 23rd, 2007 at 3:53 pm
Thomas Gustainis makes oval photos

Jennifer said...

I've often wondered about the rectangular versus circular photograph and why it evolved as it did and why so few have embraced the circle. Circle vs Square. I googled it and found this:
which is part of this:

Alec Soth said...

Thanks Leslie. Do you think Brian Knep would consider using a bunny instead of a frog?:

LKB said...

I could ask him! Brian is a super great guy, I think he'd go for it.

Thanks for your comments y'all! -lkb