Mirror, Mirror

It is assumed that in our pre-history, man’s first means of observing a reflection was provided by small areas of naturally occurring still water, or perhaps water collected in crude, dark vessels. One can imagine the frustration when now and again early man tried to scoop the image from the pool.

A reflection, like the psyche, is fleeting, enigmatic and ephemeral, so it is unsurprising that people would infer these echoes of light might harbour the soul, and that their medium, the mirror, facilitated magic. Alice went through it; Dracula could not be seen in one; the Lady of Shalott could only witness the events of Camelot when looking in to one.

The earliest manufactured mirrors were made of highly polished obsidian stone and volcanic glass, and were found in the Anatolia region of Turkey dating back to 6000 BC. Mirrors in myriad forms have been with us ever since. The modern mirror of glass backed by a thin layer of metallic silver was invented in 1835 by German chemist Justus von Liebig.

The first patented invention of photography would not have been possible without a mirror. Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre patented the daguerreotype process in 1839. To make an image, Daguerre would polish a sheet of silver-plated copper to a mirror finish, which would then be sensitised to light by exposing it to iodine or halogen fumes. When posing in front of the Daguerre’s camera, although the sitter could perhaps not observe it, they were in fact looking directly into a mirror – ‘the mirror with the memory’. It struck me that a daguerreotype was exactly what the Wicked Queen in Snow White, written in 1812, was looking for – a mirror that was loyal to her youthful beauty. In The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, published in 1890, perhaps the magic mirror, in which the eponymous Dorian never grows old, was inspired by a daguerreotype.

A few years ago, I was travelling on a bus through the centre of London. There was a young woman sitting in the opposite row, about two seats down from me, putting on the finishing touches to her make-up. She was doing so by training the front facing lens of her smart phone on her face, and looking at her self ‘live’ on the screen. Her image was not being reflected but electronically re-rendered. The mirror, it seems, has crack’d.  

Nigel Martin Shephard

Published by The Family Museum

We are an archival project about amateur family photography, based in London and set up by filmmaker Nigel Shephard and editor Rachael Moloney.

One thought on “Mirror, Mirror

  1. What a strange but fascinating image Nigel; maybe the woman was just testing the camera (is it an Ilford?) out. Having said that, I have a very similar photo by my Grandfather (who liked to do a bit of amateur photography) and also my father (ditto). Needless to say I had to replicate the image, I keep meaning to frame all three together one day.
    The use of mobile phones to substitute for make up mirrors amazed me when I first saw it, but is commonplace now. I wonder if the people who first put a camera into a mobile phone ever anticipated that? Simon


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