Wednesday, September 28, 2022

El Lissitzky Loren Eiseley and S. Howard Bartley

Above I find this amazing. A composite multiple-exposure photograph by El Lissitzky, The Studio.


S. Howard Bartley [his autobiography], A Bit of Human Transparency. Bryn Mawr PA: Dorrance, 1988—

…This is about a little boy who had no brother or sisters and only occasional playmates. He lived in a world of imagination. Imagination filled his life and he didn't learn much about people. It was his Aunt Clara and his grandmother who mainly made up the human circle for him. His mother had died when he was three weeks old. Although his father was part of the family, he didn't count. Later his [father's] stern discipline left its mark. So this story is also about the boy reaching manhood and a career as scientist and teacher, and about his impressions and outlook on life.

This boy was me, and from here on I'll tell my own story.

Another person who has enriched my life is Loren Eiseley, the noted anthropologist. First of all he reached me because he, like me, was a loner as a little boy. His description of his childhood [in All the Strange Hours] is one of the most fascinating and touching modern tales I ever read. It, with his career, is an example of what can develop when a child is left alone enough to think and wonder—as in constrast to what happens when a child jostles elbows all day long wth other children. From this comes politicians and the opposite of scholars.

Friday, September 23, 2022

film trilogy on artist / scientist Adelbert Ames II

Colleagues Gary Gnade and John Volker in an Ames Room
Nearing completion is a film trilogy (a three-part series of online voice-over video talks) about the life and work of Adelbert (Del) Ames II (1880-1955), an American artist, lawyer, optical physiologist, and psychologist. He is best-known for having invented the Ames Demonstrations in Perception, a group of about twenty-five laboratory set-ups, of which perhaps the three most famous are the Distorted Room, the Chair Demonstration, and the Rotating Trapezoid Window.

I began to research and to write about Ames in the late 1960s, and, in the many years since, I’ve continued to collect a fairly substantial amount of material related to him, including unpublished correspondence. I have always hoped to write a book about his life and ideas, but it was delayed by various circumstances, and now, as I age—and books become less useful as ways to share ideas—that project is on the back burner. So I have turned instead to making a series of video talks. Not the same thing, obviously, but it will do for the moment.

The first video in the series, titled Ames and Anamorphosis: THE MAN WHO DISTORTED ROOMS / Part One, was completed earlier this month, and is accessible online. It provides an overview of Ames’ life and his accomplishments, as well as information about his interesting family (he was related to writer / editor George Plimpton).

Ames and Anamorphosis / Part One

Part Two is all but finished, and should be available on the same channel in a matter of days. It documents the use of anamorphic distortion (forced perspective) in the history of art and in the research of vision. Although the Ames Demonstrations were highly unusual when they gained popularity in the 1940s, the optical principles on which they were based had been anticipated by Leonardo da Vinci, Hans Holbein, various Dutch artists, and, in science, by Hermann von Helmholtz.

Part Three will consist of an overview of the connections between the Ames Demonstrations, and various artistic and scientific achievements that took place during and after his lifetime, such as avant garde filmmaking, perspective distortion in ship camouflage, Hoyt Sherman's vision laboratory at Ohio State University, comedian Ernie Kovacs, theatrical special effects, the reverspective artworks of British artist Patrick Hughes, and so on.

In the early 1970s, I reconstructed several of the Ames Demonstrations, and, collaborating with a friend and colleague, John Volker, I designed a multi-faceted hands-on exhibition, in which children could experience a full-sized distorted room, a straight-forward forced perspective room, an upsidedown room, and so on. Over the years, I went on to publish articles about various aspects of his work in research journals, the online links to some of which are listed below. 


Behrens, R. R. (1987). The Life and Unusual Ideas of Adelbert Ames Jr. Leonardo: Journal of the International Society of Arts, Sciences and Technology, 20, 273–279.

Behrens, R. R. (1994). Adelbert Ames and the Cockeyed Room. Print magazine, 48:2, 92–97.

Behrens, R. R. (1997). Eyed Awry: The Ingenuity of Del Ames. North American Review, 282:2, 26–33.

Behrens, R. R. (1998). The Artistic and Scientific Collaboration of Blanche Ames Ames and Adelbert Ames II. Leonardo, 31, 47–54.

Behrens, R. R. (1999). Adelbert Ames, Fritz Heider, and the Chair Demonstration. Gestalt Theory, 21, 184–190.

Saturday, September 10, 2022

a remote radio drawing course taught in 1932

There is a legend, true or not, that Hungarian-born Bauhaus designer and photographer Laszlo Moholy-Nagy once created an artwork over the phone. Henceforth, as Rainer K. Wick said in Teaching at the Bauhaus (Germany: Hatje Cantz, 2000), it might be the conclusion of some that “art in the industrial age could consist of an anonymous machine process of high precision and exist independently of the personal intervention of the artist’s hand; thus the act of artistic creation should be seen in the intellectual aspect and not in the manual one.”

Moholy’s experiment comes to mind whenever I see this vintage magazine article on so-called “Radio Comics” [shown above], as published in an issue of Popular Mechanics in 1932. The instructor is a radio broadcaster, who makes a drawing on a grid-based page, consisting of 144 numbered squares. His pupils, who are listening remotely to the broadcast, have been given an indentical page of numbered squares—but without a drawing.

“As the instructor draws a figure, he calls out the squares touched by his pencil or crayon. Pupils sitting at the radio with duplicate charts trace lines from one number of another as they are announced in efforts to ‘copy’ the work of the instructor.”

Actually, the only thing innovative about this (at the time) was the use of the radio. The practice of “squaring off” a drawing (called mise au careau) in order to copy, enlarge or reduce the image onto a second squared-off surface, was practiced as early as the Ancient Egyptians. Here is an example of that by the artist Sassoferrato.

Later artists (among them Leonardo da Vinci, Albrecht Dürer, and Vincent Van Gogh) not only relied on that same approach, but also used “drawing frames” (of which Dürer's and Van Gogh's are shown below) by which they looked at the model through a network of suspended threads, arranged to match a pattern of squares on their drawing paper. Leonardo highly recommended this—

“If you wish to learn correct and good positions for your figures [he wrote], make a frame that is divided into squares by threads and put it between your eyes and the nude you are drawing, and you will trace the same squares lightly onto your paper on which you intend to draw your nude.”

After the invention of photography, artists began to square off photographs of their models, as a gridwork guide for drawing. Still other artists (among them Blanche Ames Ames and Adelbert Ames II) make efficient use of large-scale grid-based frames which the model stood behind as the photograph was made. Below is a photograph of that in her Borderland studio.