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The Formation of Illusion - The Living Photographs of Arthur Mole

Video from Curt Richter

The Formation of Illusion - The Living Photographs of Arthur Mole

"Towards the end of the First World War Arthur Mole began constructing, what he called "living photographs". These were optical illusions, a magic trick with the camera. These images of figures creating military insignias were in effect drawings made with tens of thousands of men positioned over vast parade grounds and photographed from a high vantage point. To a viewer of the photograph, the patterns appear to be square, viewed straight on, at 90°. In fact, the camera is positioned diagonally by as little as 25°.

The arrangements compensated for diminishing perspective by increasing the size of the pattern with an exact proportional expansion. This required precise guidelines being layout out on the ground with rope so the troops could see where they should stand. Working with his partner, John Thomas, they would spend as much as a week creating the pattern's outline. - The trick to understanding what happening in these images is that perspective is a singular point in space and objects appear to get smaller as the distance between the two is increased.

Here's a beautiful Mole construction of a military banter which appears to be hanging on a wall. Notice that the banter is a perfect rectangle, that its edges are parallel to the edges of the photograph. In order to create this illusion the actual configuration of men would have resembled the keystone in a Roman arch.

There are 22 soldiers lined up in the first row, they define what will be the width of the banner. The last row has over 170 men and they are clearing much smaller. Mole has bridged Newtonian and Einsteinian theories about space. Tinier still are the farthest figures and tents where Mole reveals the horizon line to confirm the illusion and demonstrate his artistry.

The principle of Mole's illusion is the same as one commonly used in product photography but in reverse. I'm laying out a rectangle with push pins and black tread to show how it will appear in the camera. Although we're looking down on this shape it's not a parallelogram but our brain is interpreting that it is. Here's how it will look through the camera. How it would be rendered in a photograph. We know the lines are parallel but they appear to be converging. Now I can increase the distance between the two rear points but it's guesswork. But the camera can also become a projector and look what happens when it does. Now I can see exactly what will be in the photograph, how demising perspective is optically defined. With the addition of a projected grid, the rectangle's expansion is easily seen in the tidy little trapezoids. I can place objects on the table and know accurately where they'll fall within the photograph. Look how the formation changes depending on the perspective as I crudely walk around the table. But the final image will look like this.

What Mole and Thomas would have begun with is a drawing of the arrangement they intended to photograph. An illustration of the shape on transparent tissue paper that could be placed on the back of the view camera so Mole could see both the drawing and the parade grounds simultaneously but they would not have been able to project the image. While Mole looked through the camera Thomas would be on the parade grounds as Mole yelled out instructions. Fastening a straight line would have been easy, two spikes in the ground and a taught rope but Giotto would have had difficulting rendering this circle." from the video introduction

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