DescriptionHand-held viewer with slides
Time Period
Components1 slide viewer, 1 wooden box of
DetailsSlides are inserted into top of
device and directed at a light
source for viewing
DimensionsViewer: 9 x 8 x 11 cm
Slide storage box: 6.5 x 26 x 20 cm
LocationUCL Cabinet of Obsolete Media
Inventory nºUCL201708

Narcissus is one among the better known mythological figures. The myth wants it that Narcissus, generally represented within the history of art as a young man, fell in love with the reflection of his own image projected onto a pool of water [1]. This short mythological anecdote, which at first might sound bizarre given its context here, proves useful in addressing the qualities and interpretation of the slide viewer, a technology that is nowadays considered obsolete. The small physical dimension of the slide viewer reflects its literary (or however written) presence: it is minimal, not to say almost nonexistent. The slide viewer, also known with a more poetic vein as the transparency viewer, is a small handheld device for a private viewing of slides and similar small format photographic images. The handling of the slide viewer is quite straightforward. Developed in the early 1930s, the slide viewer relies on the simultaneous use of the viewing apparatus together with photographic slides, one at a time. A basic light system activates the body of the slide viewer that through the fluorescence of a light bulb illuminates the device’s ‘internal chamber’. On the end of the device that faces the viewer, a concave magnifying lens allows for detailed and precise scrutiny of the photographic slide.

The analogy with the viewing chamber in its miniaturised version comes useful in addressing a critical account that clarifies the act of looking. Giuliana Bruno frames the act of looking at something by referring to Georges Didi-Huberman [2]. The French art historian and philosopher discusses the work of American artist James Turrell, whose activation happens thanks to beams of light that illuminate the full-scale environments typical of the artist that invite further exploration through the notion of the viewing chamber [3]. Observation, as Didi-Huberman suggests is, under this perspective, configured as an act of looking into r ather than of looking at [4]. A similar emphasis on interiority is quite evident in the slide viewer, which as Turrell’s works, although clearly on a different level, provides an account that has very much to do with the primary experience of not only of the vision of image but of the physical contact with the technology too. As opposed to other technologies, the physicality of the slide viewer is very much present in the experience of the image in itself. The slide viewer can thus be understood as a narcissistic device, not in terms of the negative connotation of the term but instead as a quality that characterises the self-referentiality and hermeticism of the apparatus. Through the myth of Narcissus emerges a fascinating lexicon that speaks of images, projections, screens, and viewing environments that address the qualities of this obsolete technology.


1. Ezio Pellizer, ‘Reflections, Echoes and Amorous Reciprocity: On Reading the Narcissus Story’, in Interpretations of Greek Mythology, ed. J. N. Bremmer and trans. D. Crampton (Abingdon, Oxon, 2014), pp. 107-120 (p. 107).
2. Giuliana Bruno, Surface: Matters of Aesthetics, Materiality, and Media (Chicago, 2014), pp. 66-67.
3. Bruno, pp. 66-67.
4. Bruno, p. 67.