Through the Looking-Glass

Reliving the past and revisiting the present through photographic heritage

Virtual museums as we know them today are interactive websites that allow visitors to navigate, walk through and view objects from different angles, often in 3D – a feature frequently used for archaeological sites. In the best cases, they also offer a social dimension, where personal experiences can be shared.

They are mostly virtual exhibitions: works of art dispersed throughout various holders can be brought together in virtual collections, and works normally not publicly accessible, such as those in archives, can become accessible without deploying the physical objects. As virtual museums are not limited to physical spaces, very interesting opportunities arise for archives and agencies like the members of Photoconsortium, to showcase their holdings in virtual exhibitions instead of having the need for a museum space.

When it comes to photography and virtual museums, a common question is: how do the two interact if photography is in 2D and virtual museums are in 3D? Let’s chase any doubts away. First of all, there are very good examples of virtual museums that instead of 3D, focus on high quality 2D representations. Picture1 In physical exhibitions a salient part is given by the dialogues established between the photographic works of art and their surroundings. Key to a virtual exhibition is the need to capture such experience in the digital environment. Secondly, photography is not only 2D. On the contrary, it is in essence three dimensional: photography works by projection, a projection that creates perspective with a very specific 3D meaning.  The perspectival aspect of photography derives from the camera obscura, which was used as a painting aid: a mirror would reflect images on a screen where the painter could create the drawings to be used as the basis of his paintings. While this fundamental aspect might not be grasped by currently used technologies, modern day 3D representations can do it justice.

Picture2.pngIn Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, the sequel of Alice in Wonderland, Alice walks through a large mirror placed in her home and discovers a parallel world on the other side: if on the one hand this new world mimics her own, on the other it is a world full of fantasy and strangeness.

Alice’s story had strong ties with reality: not only her house existed and is still today located in Charlton Kings, England, but also the mirror is truly to be found in that house and Alice’s character was inspired by the playful and imaginative life of one of the daughters of Carroll’s friend, Henry Liddell, who lived there when Carroll visited the friend in the 1860s.

Through the Looking-Glass, Alice in WaterLand. An underwater series of photographs by Sacha Kalis. This image captures well the importance of the frame.

This mixture of reality and fantasy is what photography is about: it is a mirror of life and, as such, it reflects reality while changing certain elements of it. It was the ambition of the pioneers of early photography to capture the reflection seen in a mirror. It is never a copy, but a representation through a frame, where personal categories, perspectives and visions are brought in. As Alice wakes up and wonders about what she had experienced (was it all just a dream? Was it her own dream or the Red King’s dream?), similarly photography forces us to wonder about our world. To continue with the metaphor, the photographic archetype puts us in Alice’s shoes: it entails a looking-glass, a frame and what happens once we go through that frame. This implies also two other aspects, namely scale and distance; photographs always have a perspectival distance from which we perceive them, just as they represent a world at a distance.

When thinking about virtual museums for photography, we have to start by rethinking what the photographic image really is and reimagine it in the digital world, with its wealth of possibilities. Interesting work by Ingrid Hoelzl and Remi Marie in the book Softimage explores these venues in depth.

The utter importance of framing in photography is well illustrated by many examples. An ambrotype from FoMu shows a group portrait of three students that seem to reach out of the oval frame and stare at us from a window to the past. The photographer Karl Heinrich Lämmel in his photograph Cruising with the Köln Düsseldorfer white fleet in the middle Rhine valley captured the main subject of the image while he stares outside of the frame, resulting in an effect of extreme dynamism and nostalgic force. The painted daguerreotype by William Edward Kilburn clearly shows how photography can break through 2D and enter a three dimensional world, reminiscent of a well-known technique in painting, the so-called “trompe l’oeil”, as exemplified by this painting of The Spanish painter Pere Borrell del Caso.

The three dimensional force of photography is suggested by the usage of perspectival means. One of these means is the trompe l’oeil. While it is commonly understood as a specific effect that artists can adopt to create the optical illusion of three dimensions in their paintings, we are inclined to recognize all paintings and photographs as playing with trompe l’oeil to some degree. A painting is not simply the paint on the canvas, but the final, visual effect that the artist created on the canvas, it is what you see on the canvas. Similarly, photography and digitization are not a mere reproduction or a photo of a photo, but a re-representation, a new trompe l’oeil.

Impressionists produced their paintings in a sort of “pixelated” trompe l’oeil, where small, thin, wisely placed brush strokes create the paintings. While impressionists such as Monet actually show these brush strokes, Renoir hides them and creates a great illusion of extremely detailed realism. Yet if we zoom into the works we see that they are characterized by the same impressionist technique. Let’s take as an example the painting Madame Georges Charpentier and Her Children: we can enlarge it further and further and analyze all the small brush strokes that at first sight are seemingly absent. But if we zoom in even further, what we see are not the brush strokes, but the pixels of the digital image.

This is a key element: the digitization process makes of every work of art an impressionist work and the impressionist artist that is at work is the jpeg algorithm. A thorough understanding of the mechanics of this algorithm is essential to create digital art and reproductions.

The painting Girl with a Pearl Earring by Vermeer is another striking example. The artist creates the earring with only a few brush strokes, which produce the illusion of the pearl. Once again, the visual effect of the painting – and the same holds for a photograph – is what we see as a final result, not the brush strokes or the pixel by pixel image.


Louis Daguerre – one of the inventors of photography in 1839 with the daguerreotype process – was in the first place an artist who worked on panoramas and dioramas and used the trompe l’oeil effect. The diorama La Cathédrale imaginaire that hangs in the choir of the French church of Bry-sur-Marne, produces the optical illusion of extending the church further into the choir thanks to the skillful representation of a gothic nave. Picture12.pngThe fact that Daguerre was aware of this technique helps to show how photography is tightly knit with this history.

Going back to our virtual museums, the opportunity that they offer lies in the possibility to mix the typical 3D spaces and navigation, with the archetypical photographic elements of scale, framing and distance, and with the richness of the light as it is captured: the reflectance, the illusion and the scattering of the light on the texture.

There are many examples of virtual museums and exhibitions both on- and offline. An example of an online 3D exhibition is the All Our Yesterdays photographic exhibition, set in a virtual exhibition space, while an offline example is the exhibition Bruegel, Unseen Masterpieces by the Google Cultural Institute, which is located in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels, where physical screens show it in very high resolution and magnification. Other exemplary online exhibitions are Art Stories, which although being more two dimensional, offers images in very high resolution and accompanied by explanations and activities; Photo Souvenir presents a photo exhibitions on timelines, allowing visitors to jump back and forth the 20th century; The Collectors by Wellcome Collection gathers high quality materials and links them in collections with digital stories; Closer to Van Eyck is a project run by iMinds where the photographic investigation of the artwork brings photography to the world of painting; Jheronimus Bosch, the Garden of Earthly Delights is an interactive documentary that brings visitors in an audio-visual tour of the famous painting.

Last but not least, the photo collection on social inequality with photographs of Gordon Parks by the Google Cultural Institute. This is a striking example of a powerful way of presenting photographic heritage: the high resolution and high-dynamic-range of modern day representation allowed to enhance and give a modern touch to the original photographs, whose colors were limited by the printing processes and possibility of coloration of the time.


When we approach virtual exhibitions today, we have to think beyond the pixel. The geometrical representations that we currently use to render photography limit our possibilities. There are new ways today to capture photographs, new sensors with enhanced sensitivity. Thanks to the application of graphical techniques, we can now treat the image as a stream of information  and process it as never before. This is standard in current, smartphone photography and Lightroom/Photoshop post-processing, but it can also be applied to digitized early photography. KU Leuven and iMinds are developing technologies that would allow the visitors of virtual museums to see and grasp the richness and diversity in information that those vintage images can possess. Mostly in this case we start from the glass negative rather than the vintage print, while the negative is richer in information.

On the negatives, already for the exhibition All Our Yesterdays we used HDR image capturing techniques to render the full dynamic range of the glass negative, often silver gelatin plates. But with the techniques we are now developing we will be able to render also positive photographs like ambrotypes or tintypes much better, being able through reflectance photography to capture the particular glare. Picture13.pngWhile they are both produced with the same technique – a wet collodion process variant- , the support of the former is a glass plate and that of the latter is an aluminum plate. New imaging technologies would clearly show how differently the same sensitive layer works on a glass plate and on a black aluminum background.

Images courtesy of Bruno Vandermeulen – RICH

The new technique not only relies on high-dynamic-range imaging (HDR), but uses multispectral light and reflectance imaging as well. We are studying how we can correct the gamut of the color space that we use both in the capturing and in the rendering. We use two or three infrared bands and one ultraviolet band in order to bring about unknown layers in photographs – a technology that has many other applications, e.g. for paintings and illuminations.

Moreover, the computer generated image allows us to choose the lighting angle that we want to use to visualize it. This imaging technology, applied to the digitization of a daguerreotype would allow us to fully shows its reflectance properties, brilliance and shining.

Images courtesy of Bruno Vandermeulen – RICH

A current trend in photography is to go beyond the frame. The Ken Burns effect for example uses panning and zooming of still images to create moving stills. It is something in between movie and photo, and breaks the fixed framing. The In2White project gave life to the largest panorama picture ever taken, in extremely high definition. And of course there is the collage, a traditional technique in photography that took a complete new dimension in the Photoshop age. These examples are refreshing ways of creating, remixing and playing with virtual museums.

Fred Truyen and Clarissa Colangelo, KU Leuven

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