Optical Amusement

Optical Amusement

And the same objects appear straight when looked at out of the water, and crooked when in the water; and the concave becomes convex, owing to the illusion about colours to which sight is liable. Thus every sort of confusion is the art of conjuring and of deceiving by light and shadow and other ingenious devices imposes, having an effect upon us like magic.

-Plato, The Republic

The 19th century revealed a new kind of observer, introducing a reorganization of knowledge and location of the human subject within the visual landscape.  These new ways of seeing and understanding modes of perception opened the way to the philosophical toy; devices that played with visual capacity and conjured illusions. Victorians massed an array of optical devices such as the zoetrope, praxinoscope, thaumatrope, kaleidoscope, and stereoscope. Optical Illusions altered the perspective of seeing and kept disrupting the boundaries between reality and fantasy. From the first magic lantern shows and the illuminated spectacle of the phantasmagoria –a projection of ghosts and phantoms through tricks of light and shadow—optical illusions were attributed to the work of the devil.  Thus, the understanding of optics was analogous with convictions of faith and magic.  Consequently, the history of optical illusion travels a path from religious belief in magic including illusory work of the devil and miracles from God, to the scientific explanation of how the eye sees. Establishing a paradigm of vision and the distinction between true optical phenomena and false optical trickery was not altogether clear or absent from the question of illusion.  The popularization of the Magic Lantern and other pictorial entertainments designed for large scale public audiences, demonstrated how tricks of deception could be manipulated to create captivating and wonderful diversions. Lanternists revealed worlds near and far and the natural magic of the lantern slide emitted never before seen geographical wonders to a Victorian audience. Through the Magic Lantern show, audiences could collectively travel in the footsteps of explorers who continued to open up different worlds through snapshots of their voyages.  

These popular illusions no longer alarmed the viewer but amused and entertained them. The production of Visual devices was being increasingly manufactured for the modern urban crowd and inaugurated the start of mass media entertainment all the time creating new diversions for tricking the eye. Exploring the visual culture of this era and the variety of optical devices that came out of it provides an interesting look into the complex history of human thought as it relates to the nature of appearances. 

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