Series of photographs taken in 1865 for photosculpture. Note the numbers at the base of the stand on which the subject is seated identifying the number of each of the 24 cameras involved.

Series of photographs taken in 1865 for photosculpture. Note the numbers at the base of the stand on which the subject is seated identifying the number of each of the 24 cameras involved.

Detail map of Paris, Île-de-France, France Overview map of Paris, Île-de-France, France

A: Paris, Île-de-France, France

François Willème Invents Photosculpture: Early 3D Imaging

1859
<p>Will&egrave;me's rotunda in which subjects were surrounded by cameras that took photos from all directions. The studio operated from 1862 to 1867.</p>

Willème's rotunda in which subjects were surrounded by cameras that took photos from all directions. The studio operated from 1862 to 1867.

In 1859 a Frenchman in Paris, François Willème, who characterized himself as a painter, sculptor and photographer, and "inventeur de la photosculpture," began creating photosculptures of living people. To create a photosculpture Willème would arrange his subject on a circular platform surrounded by 24 cameras— one every 15 degrees. He would then photograph their silhouette simultaneously with each camera. This set of photographic profiles contained the data for a complete representation of his subject in 3 dimensions, although at relatively coarse resolution. 

Willème had now collected layer data for his subjects in the form of 24 different photographs of their profile. To create a 3D image of his subject he needed to make the information in each layer accessible by projecting each image onto a screen. Next, he translated each image into the movements required to fabricate each layer. This he accomplished using a pantograph attached to a cutter. He traced each profile with one end of the pantograph while the other end cut a sheet of wood with the exact same movement. The pantograph allowed the cuts to be smaller, larger, or the same size as the original projection. The layers of wood were then assembled to create the photosculpture. This was necessarily rough; if desired, an artist could smooth the sculpture and perhaps paint it, making it look more like a traditional sculpture.

On January 4, 1864 French poet, dramatist, novelist, journalist, art critic and literary critic Théophile Gautier published an illustrated article entitled, appropriately, "Photosculpture," in the Moniteur universel newspaper. To advertise the process this was also issued as a separate pamphlet of 14 pp., of which the last two pages consisted of a price list. 

On August 9. 1864 Willème was granted U.S. patent 43,822 for Photographing Sculpture, &c.

Historian of photography Beaumont Newhall published an article on Willèm's process entitled "Photosculpture," Image 7 no. 5 (1958) [99]-105.

Sobieszek, "Sculpture as the Sum of Its Profiles. François Willème and Photosculpture in France, 1859-1868," The Art Bulletin 62, no. 4 (1980) 617-30.

Walters & Thirkell, "New technologies for 3D realization in Art and Design practice," Artifact1 (2007) 232-245.

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