Current and announcment

Photographic Amusement from America – Multiple Portraits

A funny little trick involving mirror reflections in photography, patented in the USA, became an instant sensation. The patented method, known as ‘mirror for use in photography, allows using one negative to take five or more images of a single person. Photographs of this type – called photo-multigraphs, described as multiple- or five-in-one portraits and sometimes referred to as photographic amusement – have been made all over the world for almost 130 years. Having become the vogue soon after the patent registration at the end of the 19th century, they enjoyed immense popularity for many years – until the 1920s. Yet even during the whole interwar period, some studios offered this type of photograph. As photography techniques developed and other forms of expression became possible, the interest in funny pictures began to wane – but still, there is enough magic to these multiple images to keep it alive and allure those who wish to experiment using the trick.

This exhibition presents dozens of photographs, most of them from one collection, providing an overview of the formal and visual beauty of multiple mirror images. When someone fell under the spell of the trick and made their way to the studio, they had to sit in front of two mirrors inclined at an appropriate angle. They could take a look at themselves and strike any pose they liked. All this time, they sat with their back turned to the photographer who managed the whole affair and decided when to open the shutter. However, it was not only the fun, ‘the photographic entertainment’ or the final result that attracted the customers. For some very sensitive individuals, being able to look directly at themselves in the mirror – without having to engage in eye-to-eye contact with the photographer – meant that they would inadvertently show their inner selves. Later, some of them would write surprising reflections and funny comments on the back of these pictures, especially when they were going to send them as postcards to their friends or keens. From the very beginning, multiple photographs were praised for how natural they looked, unlike the ones that had been staged. Multiphotography is a technique that ‘enables us to see ourselves as others see us, and affording opportunity for much range in the art of posing’, as was described in Scientific American on 6 October 1894. At the beginning of the 20th century, women would have their photographs taken wearing graceful outfits and fashionable enormous hats, whose multiple reflections were able to fill the whole frame. Today, these pretty photographs evoke the finesse of the bygone era.

The exhibition includes unique multiple portraits of several known artists, which have been gathered from private and museum collections from all over the world. Historians have thoroughly explored the possible motivations of these artists, to find out they were not accidental. In most interpretations, it seems that the decision to have this type of photograph taken either must have been aligned with their artistic exuberance and previous works or it has had an effect on their later artistic thinking and choices, as was the case with Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (Witkacy) and Marcel Duchamp. What never ceases to amaze us is that an Italian futurist, twenty-something at the time the photograph was taken(between 1905 and 1907), made a note on its back saying Io – NoiBoccioni, (I – Me – Boccioni).

Getting back to the topic of how and where these magic images first emerged – on September 19th 1893, the United States Patent Office was visited by Henry P. Ranger from Rochester, NY, and in the presence of two witnesses, he obtained a patent for his idea, which he described as Mirror for Use in Photography. The document included a detailed description and illustrations of a device made from two mirrors connected by hinges, which allowed one to adjust them at the desired angle to take multiple images of one person in just one take. The resulting image was supposed to show a person turned towards the mirrors, their reflections in both mirrors, alongside the reflections of these reflected images – the latter being the biggest attraction of this technique. That being so, the photographs presented a person from various viewpoints, providing them with a cubist feel. The patent author experimented with different angles, achieving a different number of images in one take. If mirrors are placed at the 90º angle to each other, they show two reflections. At the 72º angle, four reflections appear. At the 45º angle, as many as six reflections are produced. However, it turned out that the most striking results were obtained when a photo depicted a person accompanied by their four mirror reflections, as it indeed looked like a group of five people sitting at a table.

The multiple photographs exhibition at the BWA Contemporary Art Gallery turns the spotlight to this forgotten technique – for some contemporary artists, it might be an inspirational journey, leading to the technique’s rebirth.

Curator: Stefan Okołowicz

The vernissage will begin at 6 pm on 9 September 2022.
The exhibition will run until 6 November.

Background image:
Unknown photographer, Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz – Witkacy, Petrograd (St. Petersburg) 1917