Interview with Les Cookson: Maker of Historic Optic Devices—Robert Hirsch
Robert Hirsch: How would you describe yourself?
Les Cookson: I’m a self-taught artist and inventor. I’ve been drawing, painting, and doing woodworking since I was a small child. Now I’ve turned that passion into a job recreating devices that assist others in their creative process.
RH: How did you get involved with optical devices?
LC: It started with the camera lucida. I first learned about the camera lucida while taking a college painting class at American River College in Sacramento, CA and I immediately started thinking about ways to build on and improve the device. With some directions from my professor Mick Sheldon, I built my first camera lucida in 2005 out of salvaged wooden crate material that I pulled from a trash pile.
RH: Give us a brief historic overview of the camera lucida.
LC: The classic camera lucida is a drawing tool that artists have used for centuries, which was first documented by German scientist Johannes Kepler in his Dioptrice (1611). English chemist and physicist William Hyde Wollaston patented the device in 1807 and named it the camera lucida. It is not clear if Wollaston knew of Kepler’s description or if this was a case of multiple people inventing the same device separately, but his claim was not challenged.
RH: How does a camera lucida work?
LC: It works by superimposing the subject being viewed onto the surface, usually paper or canvas, which one then draws upon. When you look through the view hole it uses optical mirrors to reflect a transparent “ghost” image of the scene in front of you, down onto your canvas or paper. Theoretically, it is like a double exposure in photography. This allows one to draw over the reflected image to get accurate sketch in minutes, which is especially useful in capturing three-point perspective.
RH: How did you recreate the camera lucida?
LC: Starting in 2005, I spent four years working, researching, experimenting, building, and selling my camera lucidas to artists all over the world. These activities allowed me to fund these efforts and test the effectiveness of my work while incorporating the input I got from users. Finally, I created a camera lucida that incorporated the positive aspects of older models of the camera lucida while solving all of the inherent problems. I dubbed this ultimate camera lucida The LUCID-ART
RH: How did you improve on the camera lucida?
LC: The camera lucida was one of those seemingly magical techniques used by the Great Masters, such as Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, which had been all but lost. The old models had some annoying problems: their image was small, dim, and unsteady. Additionally, a decent unit was expensive. These issues caused people’s interest in the device to quickly dissipate. With the LUCID-Art I worked to retain the device’s exquisite characteristics, while offering solutions to the problems: a much larger, brighter, and more stable image. My model even allows you to adjust the brightness of the image. These improvements transform the old-world camera lucida into a contemporary, indispensable, art tool.
RH: What are the camera lucidas made out of and where do you make them?
LC: The LUCID-Art Camera Lucida is a high quality tool made in California, USA, with strong, lightweight, aluminum alloy with a powder-coated finish. All the mirrors and optical filters are shatterproof acrylic glass. It comes with a power-coated, textured flat-black finished, attachable steel clamp that secures the camera to a workspace.
RH: Tell us about your new Kickstarter project involving your camera lucida.
LC: My latest funded Kickstarter project focused on my camera lucidas. With my LUCID-Art, I’ve already created the best camera lucida ever made, but now I brought this ancient device into the digital age. With this Kickstarter project, I launched a new accessory called ProjectorARM, which includes a flexible arm that holds a phone and a series of lenses. This new accessory gives my camera lucidas the added ability to enlarge an image to draw straight from a smartphone screen (see: http://kck.st/1uJynNE)
RH: How did you come to build camera obscuras?
LC: Early on in this process that led to the creation of the LUCID-Art, I started tinkering with the camera obscura from an artist/woodworking/art history perspective. I started building them because I was marketing to people interested in the Old Masters’ devices, making the camera obscura a great fit.
RH: What is a camera obscura and how long has it been in existence?
LC: The camera obscura means “dark room,” and it really is that simple. Just make a hole in the wall of a dark room, and you will see a hazy upside-down image of the outside world. This basic principle was recorded in China as far back as 500 BCE and mentioned by great thinkers from Aristotle to Leonardo da Vinci, and the first clear description of this principle was given by Ibn al-Haytham in 1011.
Now make that hole bigger and add a lens to focus the light, and you will get a brighter, clearer image. By the 1600s the whole “room” was shrunk down to the size of this wooden box to make it portable. The image was projected onto a ground glass that allowed it to be seen from outside the box. This is how the camera obscura I launched in February 2014 on Kickstarter operates.
From the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries, artists, such as Canaletto, Guardi, Paul Sandby, and Jan Vermeer, were aided in making their striking masterpieces by their use of the camera obscura.
RH: What captivates you about these optical devices?
LC: With the camera obscura I was even more enchanted with its characteristics than those that made me fall in love with the camera lucida. I am just fascinated with this kind of historic technology. I appreciate the fact that artists had the means to create such vibrant images long before the digital age. The thrill is in the simplicity – a wooden box with a lens can make a piece of glass glow bright with a captivating image of the world.
RH: Tell us about some of the different types of camera obscuras you have built?
LC: For the most part, I’ve built wooden portable tabletop camera obscuras. Some that have a brass lens tube that does the focusing, other that have two boxes that side in and out of each other to focus. Some project the image on the back of the camera obscura and others have a mirror, which redirects the images to the top of the camera obscura. Additionally, I have done a few large cabinet camera obscuras, which use a mirror and a lens to project an image onto a table. These are like a large box that you peek your head in to see the image. I am not selling these devices at present because I am working on a way to make them smaller so they will be more practical.
RH: How long have you been making camera obscuras?
LC: I’ve been building camera obscuras since 2006, and over that time I’ve built quite a few variations. Each camera obscura I designed was based on what I learned from the previous variations. Now I can design a camera obscura in my head and start building it.
RH: What materials are the camera obscuras made from?
LC: I use fine hardwoods with my camera obscuras. In my last project I used maple and walnut. I use dovetail joinery for its strength and beauty, and to add to the overall quality of the piece.
RH: How many cameras have you built and who have been some of your memorable clients?
LC: I’ve hand built hundreds of camera obscuras for people, schools, museums, and filmmakers. I built thirty camera obscuras for the National Gallery of Art’s Vermeer workshop and camera obscuras for films and movies like The Memory Keeper’s Daughter. I built the camera lucida used in this video:
A short list of other clients include: University of Colorado, University of Wisconsin, University of Iowa, Florida State University, University College London, Cornell University, Museum of New Mexico Foundation, Milwaukee Art Museum, and George Eastman House.
RH: Tell us about your recent camera obscura Kickstarter project.
LC: In February 2014 I launched a Kickstarter project (http://kck.st/LvDSdn) to revive the camera obscura, and I discovered a core group of like-minded people. I was asking for only $3,000 to do a small run of camera obscuras, but the project generated over $40,000, and the waiting list grows daily.
RH: How do you account for its success?
LC: I think this project was successful because it wasn’t just building an old device. What makes it special is that it shows people how they can use it today with their art and photography.
RH: How do you show people how to use the device?
LC: I made an instructional video that demonstrates how to use the device. There is another detailed video that shows how to assemble one of the kits. My camera obscuras are available either fully assembled or you can put them together yourself (see: http://bit.do/obscura)
RH: What are some of the new features?
LC: The latest version has a camera mount that attaches to a standard tripod, and has a place to attach a digital camera on one end and your camera obscura on the other end. With the focus cloth draped over the two cameras, you can take pictures and video of the camera obscura’s image. This gives the modern digital photographers the ability to capture a whole new/old type of image.
RH: Where can people see images made with your equipment?
LC: I set up a Flickr group for people to post their work made with the help of this camera obscura. www.flickr.com/groups/2631317@N25/
RH: Where can people find more information about your camera obscura?
LC: Information and prices regarding the camera obscuras is available at: KickCamera.com
Also, here is a link to an interview I did during my camera obscura kickstarter campaign: http://gooddaysacramento.cbslocal.com/video/9845432-camera-obscura/
For an illustration of how the camera lucida operates see: http://ancientmagicarttools.com/about.php
Robert Hirsch’s most recent books are Transformational Imagemaking: Handmade Photography Since 1960 and Exploring Color Photography, From Film to Pixels, 6th Edition. Information about Hirsch’s visual and written projects are on his website at: www.lightresearch.net.