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.
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.