In an age where beautiful images of far flung places can be uploaded and shared in an ‘insta-minute,’ it’s hard for viewers to imagine a time when photographs were the result of labor intensive hours spent in a chemical lab, or cumbersome objects mounted to slides. Yet the birth of modern photography came from a wellspring of scientific ideas and advances. Starting with the earliest invention of the daguerreotype in France in 1839 by Louis Daguerre, photography evolved into the competitive processes of calotype – which used paper instead of metal – and the salt print process invented by Henry Fox Talbot. Later, the invention of the albumen print in 1847 ushered in a new commercial venture for producing photographs on paper from a negative, taking its name from the albumen found in egg whites that were used to bind the chemicals to the paper base. With this new method, European artists, based abroad, began producing photographs of their adventures for eager Victorian ‘armchair travelers’ who could now view the Great Pyramids or Doge’s Palace without leaving the comforts of home.
Keeping with this tradition, Carlo Ponti, a Swiss-born Venetian who was the optician to King Victor Emanuel II of Italy, invented a large scale optical apparatus called a Megalethoscope in 1862, which allowed his photographs of famous landscapes to be viewed in various dimensions. Poised as the first, albeit enormous, viewfinder, the megalethoscope, which was born out of the alethoscope, also patented by Ponti in 1861, allowed photographs to be viewed through a larger lens, which added depth and perspective when the images were backlit by daylight or by an internal light source reflected by a mirror. Mounted to curved panels manually inserted into the apparatus, the albumen prints that were used were translucent and pierced with tiny pin pricks to allow additional light. Some were even hand-colored, giving the images an added dramatic and exotic flair.
Great Gatsby’s Auction Gallery is excited to offer one of Ponti’s early examples in our upcoming April 16-17, 2016 Auction, featuring a wide array of Continental decorative arts. Executed in highly carved ebonized walnut, depicting various scenes in bas relief, this Megalethoscope Privilegiato on cabinet dates from 1870, and is a truly collectible piece of photographic history. Though some elements are incomplete, the dramatic construction would add flair to any interior with its multi-use functionality as both a scientific instrument and decorative accent. Additionally, this Megalethoscope comes equipped with twenty-five albumen prints and fourteen lithographs for viewing, an unusually high number for surviving apparatuses of the period. Depicting romantic and inspired scenes of Europe and the Middle East, including Rome, Monte Carlo, Paris, Jerusalem, and Constantinople, Ponti’s prints and Megalethoscope at Great Gatsby’s offer scientific connoisseurs and lovers of early photography alike a unique opportunity to become their own armchair traveler through the exciting lens of the past.