Natural Optical Illusions (July 1901)

At the start of the 20th century, photographic equipment that didn’t require people to compose shots and expose plates for minutes was just becoming cheap and available to the average person. The Kodak film camera was released in 1888, with the inexpensive Brownie box camera appearing in 1900. This meant a lot more people experimenting with taking and manipulating photographs, and particularly ‘snap shots’, rather than composed portraits. This article looks at ‘optical illusions’ –some, it has to be said, more convincing than others, particularly a century later. The parasol and woodcut photos still work, but I can’t see where the second dog is supposed to be – perhaps you’ll have more luck.

In our issue for October, 1897, appeared an article on Optical Illusions, which consisted chiefly of those of a scientific nature, in which diagrams of different kinds formed figures which deceived the eye. The examples treated in the following article, however, are of quite a different kind, as they consist of what may be called natural optical illusions, in which photographs of the actual subjects present appearances which the eye finds it difficult to explain. Such examples are quite as interesting as those of the scientific kind and, so far as we are aware, have never before been treated of in any magazine. It is possible that many more examples exist as interesting as those which we are here able to present, and we shall be glad if the possessors of any such will forward them to us for inspection, so that if sufficient come to hand we can follow up this article with another possibly even more striking.



The first example, which was sent to us by the Rev. J. Marshall, LL.D., Royal High School, Edinburgh, shows what is apparently a sheet of water in the foreground. We do not think that any of our readers would in fifty guesses arrive at the correct solution of what this seeming sheet of water really is before reading the following explanation, which Dr. Marshall sent us with the photograph: “It is an ordinary snap-shot by one of my boys of my house at North Queensferry, close to the sea. Everyone imagines the water in the foreground is the sea. The difficulty is that this is the side of the house away from the sea, and in this formal garden there is no pond of water at all. The photograph was taken by resting the camera on a large sun-dial with a brass plate on the top. The plate was wet with rain, and the apparent pool is simply the reflection of the house in the brass plate.”



Our next example is one of very much the same kind, and it will, we think, be found at least as hard to make a correct guess at its true character. To all appearance it is a level piece of water forming a kind of weir, overflowing a bar at the left-hand side of the picture, while in the background rises a bank with rocks and trees. To arrive at the solution the picture must be turned round so that the right-hand side becomes the bottom, when it will be seen that what seems a sheet of water is in reality the polished side of a railway carriage, in which the wooded landscape is reflected. This curious photograph was sent us by Mr. A. E. Rex, of Desmoines, Iowa.



In the illustration at the top of the next page nothing curious, at first sight, is visible. The point which renders it so remarkable will, however, become apparent on reading the following explanation, sent by the gentleman who took the photograph, Mr. Alfred Priest, of 379, Hagley Road, Edgbaston, Birmingham: “The two children depicted here I discovered reading in the garden like this, and it struck me as looking very droll to see the one with apparently two right hands and the other with two left hands. So I got my brother to photograph them, while posing for the purpose. Of course one can easily see that the girl’s left hand is supporting the boy’s head, while the boy’s right hand supports the girl’s head.”



The class of optical illusion to which our next example belongs is one of which we have given specimens from time to time in our section of Curiosities, but never, we think, one quite so striking or so absolutely deceiving to the eye as the photograph of the piece of wood-carving which we reproduce. This was executed by Mr. James Hakes, of Aigburth Road, Liverpool, who, being also a photographer, was much struck, on looking at the print which he had taken of the carving, by the extraordinary way in which it appeared to be cut into the wood, instead of standing out in relief. The reader will observe that the figures of the poultry and rabbits and the other details of the carving appear, when the picture is turned upside down, to stand out strongly, which is the way they are actually carved, while if looked at the right way up, as here printed, it is impossible to avoid the impression that the figures are sunk below the level of the wood.



An unintended effect of light and shade is also the cause of the deceptive appearance of a dog’s head in the indentation of a felt hat which is reproduced in our next illustration. “I think,” says the sender, Mr. J. C. Trickett, Trewyn College Road, Dulwich, “the effect produced by the hat very remarkable, the more so as at the time I simply intended taking a photograph of the dog.” It is certainly a remarkable coincidence under the circumstances that the hat should have happened to have taken the appearance of a dog rather than that of any other creature.



Our next illusion is one which, so far as we know, is quite unlike any other which has ever appeared. It will be observed that in the photograph of the lady carrying a parasol the parasol appears to be inside out. Mr. J. C. R. Watson, of the National Bank House, Burntisland, Fife, who took the photograph, believes that this singular illusion is caused by the parasol being striped. We think, however, it is more probably due to the fact that the material of the parasol being transparent, and allowing the light to penetrate it, the upper side of the parasol appears to be light and the lower side in shadow, when the eye expects the reverse, which would be the case if the material were opaque.



Our last example is sent us by Mr. R. F. Prideaux, of 4, Elm Grove, Salisbury, and it is, we think, in some respects the most extraordinary of our present series. “It forms,” says Mr. Prideaux, “an interesting photographic optical illusion. On looking at the face of the man on horseback the eyes will be seen either to be open and cast upwards (as I think they must have been) or to be closed with the eyelids down as if the man were asleep. In whichever way they first present themselves, e.g., as open, they will, by steadily looking at the face for a few moments, dissolve and become the opposite, i.e., closed; and vice versâ. This optical illusion appears to be very similar to that published by Messrs. Pears and Co. some time ago of two cubes upon one cube.” For our own part we have not been able to make up our minds with any certainty as to whether the horseman is looking straight forward and a little upwards, as Mr. Prideaux thinks, or whether his gaze is directed towards the horse’s neck.


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