Clamped to my desk is a camera lucida: a small silvered prism mounted to a flexible steel arm and roughly positioned just below my right eye. Mine is a contemporary version of the historical drawing tool, traditionally used for superimposing the image of an object onto a drawing support where it can be traced, provided that the object, lens, eye and support are correctly aligned.
I begin to draw, or rather, I begin to make arrangements for drawing. The object of the drawing, a handheld audio recorder that usually sits on my desk, is now standing on a narrow cardboard box that forms a kind of plinth, raising it level with the prism. I lean across the desk to gauge their relative positions and they look horizontal enough. Positioning the lens in relation to the object and my eye is more difficult. A first downward look through the prism yields a close-up view of eyebrow, my eyebrow, and beyond it my hairline against the backdrop of the wall I’m facing, and then the blur of my fingertip, a stretch of forehead and eyebrow again as I rotate the lens downward to find the recorder. Just as I’m expecting to see my own eyeball the prism whites out, blocked by its mount and needs turning back through eyebrow, forehead, hairline, wall until the recorder swings into view, very still against the white of the wall, perfectly solid and clear and upside-down. Eye, lens and object are aligned, but with an effort of focus I find the image superimposed not onto the paper at all but onto a portion of the desktop and a portion of the cardboard plinth. I rock my head up and down to reveal, scroll-like, different stretches of the image, and I find the foot of the image-recorder nearly touching the foot of the real recorder above it, the plinth meeting itself like a trapezoid island floating halfway up the wall. The image needs shifting down a handspan or so: by trial and error this is accomplished by lowering the arm by an inch and turning the prism like a dial until the object scrolls back into view, its image now contained by the A4 sheet laid down in advance on the desk.
But really the image precedes the page. I compose my drawing by shifting the paper until the recorder appears just where I want it: vertically central and towards the foot of the page, with nearly half the page left for the plinth, which extends upwards from the base of the recorder to the top of the page. Something is wrong. I want to adjust the angle at which the object seems to hit the paper. It seems to lean towards it, its tip diving into the page in a way that feels precarious. I would like it upright, flat against the page, a solid right-angle, so that I can understand the weight and balance of the machine and draw in flow with these, but I cannot work out what would need adjusting to remedy this accident of mirrors, and the risk of rearranging everything is too great when the positioning is otherwise good enough. So the image hangs upside-down and not quite flush with the page and I wish there were something more I could do to hold it in position, so lightly and slightly is it dropped into place, skittish and not at all grounded.
And now, worst of all, I begin to draw. The narrow prism affords me a letterbox view of the image, so that about a third of it appears on the page at once and I can get an overview of the whole by rocking my head fractionally up and down to scroll its full height. This means that before I select a point from which to begin, I need to select which section of the image to bring into view. The nearer section offers a way in, the head of the microphone being simple and clearly defined against the page-white wall behind.
I move my head, bring my hand into the frame and find its periphery surrounded by a new thing: a dense white fog that follows it wherever it moves, thickens when I look at it directly, and dissipates when my focus drifts from the hand back to the recorder. The fog is the white of the page, of course, the sight of which accompanies the sight of the hand and pencil set against it, but its effect is to obscure from view the very detail of the object I am trying to trace. Because the white of the page is indistinguishable from that of the wall it is doubly blinding, the recorder itself seeming to drift in and out of the thickening mist that is paper but seems to be wall. As I try to isolate and pin down a point on the image, and find the whiteness following the point of the pencil precisely, I notice the shadow of the pencil, now prominent against the page as the only detail visible immediately below the lead. It takes an effort of concentration not to home in on this point, which after all is so amenable to being caught, and trace its inevitable movement onto the page in lieu of an available image. Trying not to see the shadow, I notice on the surface of the page a little scattering of dots let go by the pencil as it tried to catch its shadow and the edge of the image.
These dots make the page something more than fog: they dart skittishly and reveal that the image of the object moves about the paper as readily as the shadow of the pencil. Through the whiteness I venture a line, a perfunctory line, intending it to hold down the nearside outer edge of the microphone, and the image dances away from the line even as I draw it. I lift my hand away and a scar shimmers above the surface of the image, a pencil line seared into a valley of fog, and as I try to rearrange the moveable parts—the head, the hand, the eye—to line it up with the outline it tried to describe I find no effort of adjustment will make them correspond.
Lacking a perfect match I reposition my head for a best fit with the line and the procedure advances from here, this time not coming up air until the whole of the outline is complete. It is a process of groping through the fog with blunt instruments, accepting a degree of estimation based on a guess at the length of the pencil lead that extends unseen into the white and a guess at the position of details observed in advance and concealed by the white at the moment of their inscription onto the page. The lines that result are sketchy, quick, cursory, roughly factual, and can be nothing more sensual, more enjoyable to lay down, since at the moment of their creation they are hidden from sight. Driving the pencil against page feels more like tugging a thread through water, with only a somewhat removed, distant sense of its direction. The object continues to shift as I move my eyes about it and drawing proceeds, so that lines that run parallel sometimes take up one another’s meanings and need replacing with new ones. Adding shadow and tone seems an audacious thing to attempt without sight of the textures laid down by the pencil. It is tempting to fix my sight on just the white of the page, and add shading from memory, from imagination, not looking at the object at all.
In a flourish I abandon the drawing, it’s good enough and as good as it will get, and pull the prism out of the way altogether—a decisive move as it loses all my calibrations once and for all. It is extravagant, luxurious, to look grandly about and openly survey the scene through the air. The drawing is not bad. Elongated, a rather narrow oblong shape with little internal detail and shading mostly perfunctory, but the lines join up and the cardboard plinth even joins up to itself, more or less. From out here, looking back at the scene of the event, the recorder seems to peer down at its elongated reflection, its shadow drawing long into the evening and, suddenly finding itself balanced high above a precipice, wonders what it would be like to fall.
Another attempt to draw with the camera lucida. I have been practising and am more used to looking in such a way that I can see both pencil and object with very little fog at all, little enough and rare enough that there is almost continuous contact between the two and tracing can proceed with sufficient attention to the quality of the line that a good drawing can result; a portrait, almost. But I remain inexpert. As it has cleared, the fog has exposed a new vulnerability, or rather an old vulnerability that had always been there but had been too subtle to distinguish in the cursory lines I had been pressing blindly through the whiteness. These first sketches had been rough enough to absorb into their variation my innumerable changes in viewpoint as my eye would hover above the prism but never stay perfectly still. There has been no question of training my eye to stay still to subdue these changes in perspective, because it must move to take in what it observes. Instead, as my lines have become more accurate and these cracks have become impossible to paper over, so to speak, I have invented a way to accommodate them.
The method is to remain very close to the matter at hand, be minutely attentive to the detail at stake at every thin move—