This strange looking thing is a functional copy of an antique device for tracing a person’s profile for a shadow portrait. When I say functional copy, obviously the original was done entirely with hand tools and this one wasn’t; there were also some modifications to the design. I made a plywood mockup first, to test the concept and make all my mistakes before setting the blades to a nice piece of sapele I’d had lying around in the garage for some years.

I had to work from photographs of the original device, which resides in a museum in the US.

This one appears in Silhouette Secrets, a film about the silhouette maker’s art by Charles Burns and Andi Reiss, which should appear on our TV screens sometime later this year. Charles and his wife, Kazumi, have made the ironwork for it. It has a pivot at one end and a white card on the opposite door; the idea is that a long pole with a pencil at one end is attached to the pivot and the pencil traces on the white card at a scale determined by the length of the pole. The other end of the pole is traced round a person’s profile. The idea, near as we can figure it, is that in the nineteenth century machines were the latest thing and machines obviously do any job better than people. Not. We had a go with the mockup, and it was first of all almost impossible to keep still, and secondly very difficult to trace the pole steadily round the profile. The original used a wooden pole, which must have been even more unwieldy. Charles does perfect, intricate, recognisable silhouettes by eye.

physiognotrace in use500

The door with the card has to be very loose and floppy; it’s held against the pencil point by a spring. This was a challenge, to say the least. I had to lube the hinges before fitting them, but even then they had to line up exactly to make the door loose enough.

The physiognotrace is finished with oil.

3 thoughts on “Physiognotrace

  1. This is pretty cool! I’ve seen a few references to these things over the years. I seem to recall that they used a chair with an iron loop or some such sticking up from the back as a head brace to keep people from moving too much during the process. I would love to see it in live!

  2. Yes, it would make sense to have something to hold your head still, like those forehead rests you see on opticians’ contraptions to test your eyes. It would have to be on the side of your head though, out of the way of the pole. Basically Charles just ignores the trace and cuts a perfect silhouette anyway. But I believe the physiognotrace was used for mass-production, so clients would come in, get traced and then come back later for their cut silhouette. So the artists must have had some way of ensuring the trace was reasonably accurate. And practice presumably helps – if you’re doing it all day every day you should be able to develop the muscle memory you need to hold the pole steady.

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