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Discovering Invisibility by Jim Steinmeyer

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii September, 2001)


Contemporary magic literature has much to say about the theory and performance of close-up magic, sleight-of-hand, and other branches of our art, but the subject of illusions suffers from a paucity of informed commentary. Few possess the requisite combinations of expertise, not only in the technology, but in history, performance theory, and real-world experience. Jim Steinmeyer is uniquely qualified, and is by far our most thoughtful writer about stage illusions today.

In 1999 Mr. Steinmeyer penned the excellent The Science Behind the Ghost (reviewed in August 1999 Genii), created in conjunction with a lecture he presented, about the Pepper's Ghost illusion at the Collectors' Association conference. This year he presented a similar lecture about the history of mirror technology in illusions, accompanied by this fascinating book, discovering invisibility. Both are limited editions: both are out of print.

In nine chapters, Mr. Steinmeyer examines how the use of reflective surfaces was introduced to magic with the so-called "Pepper's Ghost" illusion, circa 1862. The mildly reflective surface of trans-parent glass produced this remarkable "ghostly" illusion, which can quite magically be seen today in the Haunted Mansion at Disney World in Orlando, Florida, and Disneyland in Anaheim, California. The author examines how the use of mirrors was reflected in the discovery that a mirror didn't always need to reflect something substantial, but rather could be used to, in effect, reflect nothing, and it was this concept that led to "discovering invisibility," and eventually to the kinds of vanishes and productions that mirrors are routinely used (and at times over-used) for today.

The first breakthrough was called "Proteus," better known today as "The Protean Cabinet," and was the first illusion to use two mirrors, joined at a 90 degree angle, to conceal a person in an apparently empty cabinet, a principle that has stood the test of time and remains in common use today. Thorough diagrams examine the subtle and sometimes counter-intuitive details of the idea, including an explanation of the concept of the "safe zone," the area within the enclosure (or stage) that is safe for performers to stand without being dangerously reflected in a mirror, and as well, the sightlines along which the audience can safely view the illusion without risking the sight of unwanted (and deception-killing) reflections.

This principle was altered shortly thereafter to produce "The Sphinx," the illusion of an animated living and speaking but disembodied head, a principle that has since been put to use not only in other stage illusion plots but also in countless sideshow exhibits. The author discusses another lesser known (deservedly, apparently) but similar illusion called "The Oracle of Delphi," and then addresses John Nevil Maskelyne's use of mirrors in various cabinet effects, notably that in his magical playlet, "Will, the Witch and the Watchman," which was recreated by Steinmeyer and Company for the Los Angeles Conference on Magic History. A chapter on "Philosophies of Sightlines" explores the use of perpendicular mirrors, beginning with Kellar's "Queen of the Roses," and continuing with Walter Jeans' "Silver Hat," which created the use of a "mirror tunnel," best known in the form of Thurston's "Million Dollar Mystery," a principle presently in daily use on the Las Vegas Strip.

In his book, Art and Artifice (reviewed in April 1999 Genii), Mr. Steinmeyer wrote about Charles Morritt's remarkable "Disappearing Donkey" and the detective story of how the author had reconstructed Mr. Morritt's mysterious methods, as well as the likely link between this illusion and that of Houdini's "Vanishing Elephant;" these and other ideas are addressed here in a chapter about Morritt's creations. The following chapter begins with the comment that "The value of an idea might be measured by the number of mistaken notions it inspires," and leads to an entertaining discussion of folly and foolishness in the name of mirror technology, often (but by no means exclusively) tied to the name of Will Goldston. Here the author observes that "Goldston, like many others, had an unusual faith in mirrors, as if they could miraculously seek out the proper things to reflect or could, alternately, stop reflecting altogether." He adds that "Goldston didn't have the exclusive on bad ideas, he simply needed more of them to fill his books." We have certainly witnessed such mistakes by others since Goldston's rime, as these are common pitfalls that illusionists are far less likely to trip over after having read the author's careful examination of do's and don'ts.

Typical of Mr. Steinmeyer's oeuvre, the book is elegantly designed and simply but beautifully produced, the external reflecting the internal. (Even the titles of the first and final chapters "mirror" one another.) A section of "notes and sources" provides just that for every chapter. Having dismissed Goldston as a poseur, in this last chapter (actually the penultimate section), the author contrasts the work of two creators he admires, namely Mr. Morritt and, of course, David Devant, attributing to the former the approach of the scientist, while to the latter the approach of a storyteller, each achieving unique and invaluable contributions.

Mr. Steinmeyer concluded his booklet on "Pepper's Ghost" with a delightful and rather astonishing miniature model by which the reader could simulate the illusion on the very pages of the book with the addition of a sheet of clear plastic. In this volume his playful inventiveness shines again with the inclusion of a small mirror which, when applied to a number of diagrams in the closing pages of the volume, enables the reader to recreate and examine many of the principles discussed in the previous pages. This monograph comprises nothing less than required reading for would-be illusionists, and will go far to better inform any magician who thinks he knows more about mirrors than he or she probably does in actuality. Mr. Steinmeyer invariably regards his subjects thoughtfully, taste-fully, and always artistically—and if the branch of magic we refer to as "illusions" cannot benefit from such consideration, then nothing on this earth can.

Discovering Invisibility • Jim Steinmeyer • $35 postpaid • 7" x 11" wire bound, art board covers • 78 pages