In 1992, I spent sophomore year of college abroad in England studying at Regent’s College. One weekend, my roommate and I decided we would take the train to the northern Lake District to visit Hill Top Farm, the lovely cottage where Beatrix Potter wrote The Tale of Peter Rabbit, and then bike to nearby Lake Windermere, England’s largest lake.
In Regent’s basement, there was a pub (because, London) and a small room called the Holiday Planner. The Holiday Planner boasted a small library of tattered travel books and a fax machine that students could use to make booking arrangements across the continent. It was a Regent’s tradition to make notes – always with one to three exclamation marks, depending on your seriousiousness – in the travel books (Amazing curry! This bus no longer runs!! Ask for Mary!!!) to help fellow student travelers.
It was in the Holiday Planner that I found a water-damaged copy of Poet Thomas Gray’s 1775 Journal of his Tour in the Lake District (great bacon toasties at this little pub! cried a note scribbled near a smear of what I presumed was cheese from said toastie). Gray directed would-be travelers to the most picturesque spots in the lake district. He suggested they elevate the experience with the use of a Claude Glass, named for the French artist Claude Lorraine, whose paintings are awash in diffused, glowy light (see attached photo). A Claude Glass, also known as a Black Mirror, is a compact, darkened mirror that reduces the tonal values of whatever you point it at. To use the mirror, travelers sit with their backs to a scene and hold the compact at shoulder height to see behind them. The concave shape melts background objects into the far distance, and the tinted glass softens the color palette and reflected tones. The mirror turned the views into paintings reminiscent of a Lorrain painting, like an 18th century version of using portrait mode on your iPhone to get more idealized images.
English travelers at that time were used to formal, overly cultivated gardens with carefully trimmed trees and symmetrical walkways. It was thought that they might feel overwhelmed by real, rugged, untamed nature. Gray’s book advised the seven best “stations” in the lake district, or seven curated spots where the well-bred English could see perfectly “framed and transformed” views using their Black Mirror. Gray certainly didn’t want the genteel aristocracy to see the actual wildness of the wilderness; he imagined petticoated duchesses swooning left and right with no fainting couch in sight.
Pretty soon, everyone in the United Kingdom had a Black Mirror. Astrologers and mathematicians used Claude Glasses as scrying mirrors to see into the past or predict the future. Amateur artists started using Black Mirrors as a way to change the lighting more easily in their work. It became fashionable for drivers to attach a Black Mirror to their horse-drawn carriages so that riders could enjoy the views behind them. It’s said that Indy racer Ray Harroun won the 1911 race because he saw a man sitting atop a horse-drawn taxicab holding a Black Mirror on a stick. It inspired Harroun to add a Black Mirror to his racing car, which produced enough downforce that it gave him greater speed and allowed him to not only win the race, but basically invent the automobile rearview mirror.
Fascinating history aside, I am still confused by the Black Mirror craze. Can you imagine visiting the most picturesque spots on earth, and then turning your back to them so as to view them “better” in a dark, compact mirror? I’m going to go to the beach and then spend all day facing the beach houses, holding a mirror over my shoulder to “see” the ocean?
Except that we do this every single day, don’t we? There’s a fine line between art and artifice. Just a quick scroll on social media shows that we don’t understand that line well. We’ll never beat the algorithm by showing our actual faces, bodies, and lives, right? We want idealization, photoshop and filters and imagined perfection. Must we turn our backs on reality to feel satisfied? The pressure for everything to look perfect is destroying our ability to be content with our reality. As long as we see social media as a numbers-based platform instead of a connection-based one, we will live a Black Mirror existence. True value has nothing to do with vanity metrics, but try telling that to the generation who grew up equating success with “anything a Kardashian does.”
For my part, you can keep your Black Mirror. Give me wild and unruly. Authentic and real. Flawed and unfiltered. Let me open my eyes wide and embrace it all, turn my back on nothing.