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Long before Google Glass ... there was the Camera Lucida.
The camera lucida.
It’s a prism on a stick! For making realistic drawings!
It used to be everywhere.
A portable version hasn’t been manufactured in generations.
And we’re bringing it back.
For artists and art students everywhere.
We have designed the NeoLucida: the first portable camera lucida to be manufactured in nearly a century — and the lowest-cost commercial camera lucida ever designed. We want to make this remarkable device widely available to students, artists, architects, and anyone who loves to draw from life. But to be clear: our NeoLucida is not just a product, but a provocation. In manufacturing a camera lucida for the 21st century, our aim is to stimulate interest in media archaeology—the tightly interconnected history of visual culture and imaging technologies.
What is this "NeoLucida"?
The NeoLucida is a drawing aid that allows you to trace what you see. Our device is the first portable, authentic camera lucida to be manufactured in nearly a century—but we like to think of it as a disruption to widespread assumptions about art-making and art history. Our design is lightweight (9oz., or 0.25kg), sturdy, compact enough to fit in a handbag, highly adjustable, totally non-electronic, and released with a liberal open-source hardware license. It's also the least-expensive camera lucida ever manufactured. If you enjoy drawing from life, or if you're interested in experiencing for yourself how the Old Masters could possibly have created such accurate, lifelike drawings—then the NeoLucida is for you.
Some background history.
Beginning in the early 17th century, artists routinely used optical aids to help them create realistic drawings. Lenses and mirrors were the "cutting edge technology" of their day (and sometimes, the trade secret) for making life-like images. In 1807, Sir William Hyde Wollaston invented the Camera Lucida—and brought life-drawing to a whole new level. Wollaston's device was simple: a prism on an adjustable stand. When an artist looks down through the prism, they see the world in front of them, plus their hand on the page, combined in perfect superimposition.
In short, a camera lucida allows you to trace what you see. And it does so in full daylight; there's no need for a dark shroud or box, as with a Camera Obscura. And that is the magic of the camera lucida: it's portable, easy to use, and—with a little practice—you just copy the world onto your page with a confident hand.
By the mid-1800s, camera lucidas were everywhere. Indeed, the device is so effective in assisting accurate life-drawing that, according to the controversial Hockney-Falco hypothesis, it's now believed that many of the most admired drawings of the 19th Century, such as the Neoclassical portraits of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, could only have been made with a camera lucida. This becomes astonishingly clear if you try one—an experience we hope to share with as many people as possible, through this Kickstarter.
(If you'd like to learn more about how the Old Masters likely used optical technologies to create their work, check out David Hockney's book Secret Knowledge, or this terrific BBC documentary (at YouTube) about his research.)
Now try this experiment. Go to a group of fine-art students. Find the ones who claim to adore the "Old Masters"—and ask them if they’ve ever tried, or even heard of, a camera lucida. We'll bet they haven't (or that they've confused it with the camera obscura). Perhaps it's because a different "camera"—the photographic film camera—revolutionized image-making in the intervening century. Once photography became accessible to all, previously common drawing tools like the camera lucida were almost entirely forgotten—and the Old Masters who used them were increasingly believed to have possessed supernatural drawing powers.
It hasn't helped that portable camera lucidas have become so rare and costly that most students will never have the chance to try one—not even in an art school. Authentic camera lucidas have become curiosities and fetish objects for antiquarians and professionals, typically costing $300-$500 on eBay. But it's a marvellously simple, useful device—it shouldn't be so exotic!
So, why are you doing this? We both have a lot of students who've come to believe that being able to draw photo-realistically is the most important thing. We both love realistic drawing, but not necessarily the way it’s usually taught—which often ignores the tightly-intertwined relationship between drawing and imaging technologies. In particular, art students are encouraged to draw photo-realistically, in the manner of the Old Masters, but without the proper tools for doing so. So we're producing the NeoLucida as a provocation, not as a business, to help get this discussion started. We hope the NeoLucida will prompt new questions about the relationship of art and technology—and potentially even disrupt business-as-usual in the classroom. Most importantly, we genuinely believe that using a camera lucida will profoundly change how people see, how they draw, and how they think about art.
Wait: aren't there modern, competing products?
We wouldn't be doing this if there were any modern-day camera lucidas that met our criteria for easy portability, low cost, and authentic optical design. Unfortunately, there aren't. For example, the LUCID-Art costs $200, weighs four times as much as the NeoLucida, and can't fit in a handbag. Likewise, the LUCI costs more than twice as much as ours; it's bulky, and difficult to adjust. And because the LUCI uses a mirror instead of a prism, you have to draw everything upside-down! (With ours, you draw right-side-up.) Amazingly, these are the only camera lucidas currently being manufactured today—and neither uses the elegant and compact optical design employed throughout the 19th century.
Design and Production.
We know that for a young artist to even consider experimenting with a camera lucida, it has to be inexpensive. So we’ve designed the NeoLucida to consist almost entirely of prefabricated parts made in China (such as the clamp, prism, and flexible gooseneck mount), and available through business-to-business marketplaces like Alibaba. The only custom pieces (in the optics mount) have been designed by our expert friends at StandardRobot, a Pittsburgh-based mechatronics studio, and will be machined right here in the U.S.A. For both international and domestic parts, we’ve already received multiple bids from different suppliers, and have factored the costs of shipping and customs into our reckoning.
Our design is complete. We've learned a ton about the Chinese component marketplace. We’ve made and tested several working prototypes, and we're ready to fufill our dream of getting inexpensive camera lucidas into the hands of lots of people. But to do this at all, we have to meet our suppliers’ minimum order requirements—usually, depending on the component, at least 500 pieces. If we can raise 500 orders, then our dream can be your reality! The NeoLucidas themselves will be assembled at Golan’s studio in Pittsburgh, with the assistance of some careful students.
This is a Limited Run of Open Source Hardware.
Our first batch of NeoLucidas will also be our only batch—because, as we’ve explained, we’re doing this as a fun intervention, not to start a business. Once we’ve finished distributing the NeoLucidas, we will publish our designs, CAD files, and all of our supplier data with a liberal Creative Commons and Open-Source Hardware (OSHW) license, so that anyone who wishes can continue the project (including, potentially, commercially). Our design and other manufacturing information will appear on NeoLucida.com, Instructables, Scribd, and other appropriate sites. We hope others will be inspired to pick up where we leave off!
Your own NeoLucida.
If you support our project at the $40 level or higher, you'll get one NeoLucida in a draw-string pouch, plus instructions on using and caring for your device. The cost of shipping (within the US) is included.
So how is your NeoLucida “prism-on-a-stick” manufactured? We use a silvered prism, optimized for optical clarity, carefully encased in a custom anodized aluminum mount. The prism is supported by a highly adjustable gooseneck arm and a sturdy metal clamp. We even use a 1/4”-20 threaded bolt as the connection between the gooseneck arm and the prism holder—so your NeoLucida arm can easily double as a standard camera mount. All this is hand-assembled in Pittsburgh before being carefully packaged and sent off to you. Open it up and start drawing right away!
But there's more. Beyond just making a device for your use, we really want to see what you draw with your NeoLucida. In some ways, this is the true heart of our project. That’s why every recipient of a NeoLucida will also receive a postage-prepaid blank postcard. And a NeoLucida pencil, too. Make a drawing with your NeoLucida, pop the card in the mail, and your drawing may end up in a published collection of NeoLucida drawings!
Can I get more than one? Unfortunately not, per Kickstarter's "Single Serving rule" for rewards in the Product Design category. If, however, you're interested in classroom packs or other wholesale arrangements, please contact us privately.
Backed by Primary Research.
So, how are we qualified to do this, and why are we confident? We're both art professors and have spent the bulk of our careers using both modern and historical imaging technologies. Sure, most artists have used digital cameras—but we've logged tons of hours with concave mirrors, large biconvex lenses, camera obscuras and camera lucidas.
Pablo has spent a dozen years drawing with his camera lucida. Since acquiring his first one in 2001, he has also amassed one of the world's largest collections of primary and secondary research into the technology and history of this device. Pablo's collection includes many of the most important books, patents, articles, schematics, and contemporary accounts of the camera lucida.
Possibly the best evidence that we're qualified to conduct this project is Pablo’s personal collection of antique camera lucidas. Over the course of a decade, he has acquired the best examples of original camera lucidas throughout history. In his collection are devices from 1820, 1840, 1860, 1880, 1900, 1930, and several versions sold as children's drawing aids from the 1940s through the 1960s. This collection is one of the most complete primary resources on the technology around—and served as the research foundation for our design of the NeoLucida.
Who are we?
Pablo Garcia (@prgarc) is Assistant Professor of Contemporary Practices at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Trained as an architect, Pablo's recent work has evolved from design-for-hire to internationally exhibited artworks, provocations and research studies. His work has appeared on FastCompany/Co.Design, io9, ArtInfo, ThisIsColossal, Gizmodo, Make, The Creators Project and many others. Previously, Pablo has taught at Carnegie Mellon, Parsons, University of Michigan, and Princeton. From 2004-2007, he also worked as an architect and designer for Diller Scofidio + Renfro.
Golan Levin (@golan) is Associate Professor of Computation Arts at Carnegie Mellon University; a member of the Free Art and Technology artist collective; and an enthusiastic Kickstarter supporter. At CMU, he also directs the Frank-Ratchye STUDIO for Creative Inquiry, a laboratory for anti-disciplinary research across the arts, sciences, technology, and culture. A two-time TED speaker, Golan has been called one of "50 Designers Shaping the Future" by Fast Company Magazine, an "A-OK guy" by Bruce Sterling, and a lot of other things.
We're also greatly indebted to our tireless research assistant Sarah Keeling, who has spent long nights communicating with Chinese vendors; to our expert mechanical engineer, Greg Baltus, of StandardRobot; to Benji Welmond, a talented filmmaker who has assisted with our videography, and to the staff of the Frank-Ratchye STUDIO for Creative Inquiry, who have supported our research in numerous other ways.
The NeoLucida will be wholly Open Source Hardware (OSHW), and will be released with documentation (including all CAD files) according to the definitions, standards and recommendations of the Open Source Hardware Association.
Ask away! We encourage you to post your questions on Kickstarter, so that others may benefit from your question and our response. However, you may also email us privately at firstname.lastname@example.org, or message us on Twitter at @golan and @prgarc.
Risks and challenges
Producing a couple thousand identical products is a challenge for anyone, especially those without a factory at their disposal. We are not only leveraging the Chinese factory system, with its standard parts ready for shipping, but also small, American design and fabrication companies with proven track records. This gives us the best of both worlds, allowing us to combine inexpensive components with custom components where appropriate.
Should manufacturing issues arise, we have several options for local fabrication companies in Pittsburgh and Chicago. Finding alternate sources for the custom parts is not as difficult as it was ten years ago. These digitally-driven fabrication methods are now common industry standards.
In addition, we have both spent decades providing technical solutions to creative problems. Pablo was trained as an architect and designer and has spent over a decade working with digital fabrication equipment. Golan is a new media artist who has created and deployed robust, technically sophisticated installations all over the world. We are counting on that experience to provide both solid logistical planning and readiness to solve problems as they occur.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
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