Anamorphic History

There was a lot of interest in anamorphic at IBC. So imagine my delight to see two of Prof. Henri Chrétien’s first anamorphic lenses revealed at the  Cinémathèque Française in Paris. Thanks to an introduction by Willy Kurant, ASC, AFC, Larry Barton, Howard Preston, and I were invited by the legendary Laurent Mannoni, scientific director of the Cinémathèque, to tour their vast camera collection.

The Cinémathèque is in a Frank Gehry building, with museum, theaters, research center, archives, library, and café. It’s in the Bercy section of Paris–where wine was once off-loaded from barges on the Seine and stored in stone warehouses. Today, it’s mostly a business area, with a lovely park.

But, like most museums, there’s not enough room for the entire camera collection–and the Cinémathèque has one of the largest and finest in the world. I will do an in-depth article on the importance of this collection and how every camera designer in the world must make a pilgrimage here to rediscover the lessons of camera history.

Laure Parchemenko and Laurent Mannoni with original Hypergonars

The camera collection is in an undisclosed warehouse location nearby, accessible by invitation, presided over by Laurent Mannoni, and assisted by Laure Parchemenko. I don’t think saying that it is the most complete and well-documented collection in the world is an over-statement. The provenance of almost every item is labeled, cataloged and supported by literature, instruction manuals, even original patents–all in acid-free boxes. The cameras are arranged by manufacturer and chronology–impeccably restored, beautifully maintained, and most of them still working.

Squeezing and stretching images goes way back, and includes Hans Holbein’s 1533 The Ambassadors and some 1780 aquarelles in the Cinémathèque (below).

Anamorphic painting from 1780, squeezed with a shiny metal cylinder

Henri Jacques Chrétien was born in Paris in 1879. He was an astronomer, professor and inventor. Anamorphic lens cylinders had been used in tank periscopes during World War I to get a wider look outside. Chrétien developed the Hypergonar lens in 1927 for photography and cinematography. The format didn’t take off until 1952, when Twentieth Century-Fox bought the rights from Chrétien for their CinemaScope process.

Laurent showed us an original page from Chrétien’s notes:

top: normal image. middle: squeezed with Hypergonar. bottom: unsqueezed–same height, but twice as wide.

Here are two anamorphic projection lenses from the collection:

Left: Technique Optique Precision projection lens. Right: Twentieth Century Fox Hypergonar projection lens

The story will continue at Cinec next week…



Leave a Comment

1 Response:

  1. Christopher Bell says:

    Cool story John… I had no idea this museum existed.