Photo Essays

Hypnotic GIFs of Victorian Optical Toys

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(all GIFs by Richard Balzer and Brian Duffy, via dickbalzer.tumblr.com)

Long before the time of Disney and Pixar, artists made images move using a variety of -scopes and -tropes: gadgets like zoetropes (which means “wheel of life”), phenakistoscopes (“deceptive viewer”), thaumatropes (“turning wonder viewer”), and praxinoscopes (“action viewer”), to name a few. These so-called “optical toys” created the illusion of continuous movement by combining drawings, slits, and mirrors. Victorian audiences were transfixed.

Now, thanks to the efforts of Boston-based artist and collector Richard Balzer and LA-based animator Brian Duffy, the internet age, too, can fall under the hypnotic spell of this early technology. Forty years ago, after seeing his first “magic lantern,” an early image projector invented in the 1600s, Balzer developed an obsession with optical toys. He’s since amassed a collection of thousands of these early animation tools in his Boston home. With Duffy, he’s spent the last several years giving many of them a 21st-century update, digitizing them into spinning GIFs.

In these strange, spiraling mandalas, at-the-ready fencers, leaping zebras, and carefree jump-ropers orbit infinitely around blossoming or patterned centers. Balzer displays images of the original objects in his rabbit hole of a virtual museum, dickbalzer.com — — which he likens to an online version of a Wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities — and uploads the GIFs to Tumblr, revealing the simultaneous simplicity and wonders of animation technology some 150 years ago.

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