Engineers of Illumination: The Illuminated Palace
Kevin Cain

California Historical Society
July 2, 2015 - August 16, 2015

In this work I present a series of views that together 'dematerialize' the Palace in order to imagine it as Maybeck may have conceived of it during the early stages of his creation. Maybeck wrote that he was uncomfortable with the limitations imposed on the Palace by being built in the real world, which he saw as separate from his ‘ideal’ conception. While Maybeck acknowledged the beneficial realities imposed by actual building, in the case of his Palace he expressed regret that it was not possible to transcend these constraints. I have tried to imagine the Palace as Maybeck may have wished it could be.

To download the images shown here, please click here: www.insightdigital.org/CHS/Illuminated_Palace_Cain_stills.zip

For a summary of the piece or to visit the installation, please see the California Historical Society web site description of this work: http://www.ppie100.org/event/engineers-of-illumination-the-illuminated-palace/

For a source discussing Maybeck's conception of the Palace, please see: Bernard Maybeck: Visionary Architect, Sally Byrne Woodbridge and Richard Barnes, 1992

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The Palace of Fine Arts rotunda, its lagoon now flooded by sea level rise.

My goal was to evoke both the ready-made ruin Maybeck unveiled one hundred years ago and also the potential inundation of the Palace, and San Francisco as a whole, one hundred years from now. Situated in the coastal perimeter of the City where sea level rise is expected, I am interested in Maybeck’s image of Palace as a folly surrounded by water. This image gains poignancy when we consider that the periphery of San Francisco is forecast to lie in an expanded ‘lagoon’ as sea levels rise, its structures potentially taking on the appearance of small islands. The Palace of Fine Arts, specifically, is projected to be invaded by wetlands by 2115. This structure, conceived as a folly or ruin one hundred years ago, may be destined a hundred years hence to become the real thing.

For information on sea level rise estimates in the region of the Palace, see: http://www2.pacinst.org/reports/sea_level_rise/gmap.htm

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Pinhole photograph of a caryatid

In this piece as a whole, I've been drawn towards pinhole photography -- photography without a lens. This is both because early lensless photographic techniques were used in the era of the PPIE, but also because the qualities of these technical approaches create an abstraction of the subject and modulation of color saturation that is reminiscent of Maybeck’s gouache sketches for the Palace. For me, the romantic character of Maybeck’s sketches rhyme with pinhole photography. Pinhole photographs of the Palace also call to mind the camera obscura (itself a lensless imaging technology) that once looked out at the Palace’s rotunda, reflecting it into a viewing chamber.

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The Grand Scintillator, adapted

The film still above is a study in reflected light. What if the 'Grand Scintillator', a focal point of the actual PPIE, could have been physically placed within the Palace rotunda? This sequence imagines what such 'archival footage' might have been, as if the rotunda was dreaming. The light seen here streaming from the Palace rotunda at night was developed in three dimensional space from photography of water caustics (reflected light). For this work, I am particularly interested in capturing the effects of reflected light, both from water caustics playing on the surfaces of the Palace and from the coastal atmosphere itself.

Below are links to two of my studies for reflected light caustics from the lagoon surrounding the Palace:
www.insightdigital.org/CHS/caustics_in_motion_a.MOV
www.insightdigital.org/CHS/caustics_in_motion_b.MOV

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Cherry blossoms

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Urns and water montage

I'm interested in how fog contributed to Maybeck’s ethereal conception of the Palace. I used fog as tool for abstraction, following Monet’s well known experimentation with the effects of ground fog, snow and sun in his haystack painting exercises.

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Points of light

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Column quadriptych

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View of the Pacific, near the Palace site

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'Columnated ruins'

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Symmetric arcade

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Fountain diptych

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Northmost columnade

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Refracted pinhole photography of a column arcade

(the architectural structures) “swam in a rich haze that took from them all suggestions of unfeeling stone, and made them seem only the airy nothings of a dream---structures which might blossom into tiers of vague arches, or ornate colonnades, maybe, and change and change again, into all graceful forms of architecture, while we looked, and then melt deliciously away and blend with the tremulous atmosphere." - Mark Twain, An Innocent Abroad

To present the Palace as Twain’s “the airy nothings of a dream”, I blended pinhole photography, long-range digital camera techniques and computational imaging. In the above image, the cascade of multicolored droplets was created by sunlight reflecting and refracting off microscopic tears in the pinhole aperture used for this exposure. This patterns changed throughout the image sequence, as the raking lighting angle shifted slightly. I made dozens of different pinhole 'lenses' for this piece; each pinhole gave different exposures and quite different artifacts.

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Figures moving through the rotunda

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Rotunda urns

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Rotunda urns diptych

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Rotunda urns photographed in light fog

In each part of this piece, I am interested in the interaction of fog, sun and time at the Palace.

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Sun over water quadriptych

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Time lapse pinhole photography

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Water droplet quadriptych

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Western columnade