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Art in Pop Culture: the Fisheye Lens

Invented in 1906 by Robert W. Wood, and now used amongst the skater community for videos of kickflips, the fisheye lens is a staple of artistic photography, especially in the music industry, and has been since its popularization in the 60s. Today we’re going to look at this phenomena.

Robert W. Wood made his lens using a bucket of water, a glass plate, and a pinhole camera; after a couple of decades of tinkering, his experimentation had led to others creating the first commercial version of this – the fisheye lens. For a long while, this lens was only utilized for scientific purposes to do with the sky – taking pictures of stars, planets, the weather, but in 1962 Nikon released a fisheye lens that anyone could buy and use, even outside of the scientific community, and this is where its place in the photography hall of fame begins.

First used in pop culture to photograph events like protests during the turbulent '60s, many photographers saw the political implications, and because music was (and still is) so commonly used to spread political messages (notably against the Vietnam war and for the civil rights movement in the '60s) the perfect conclusion to use fisheye lenses for album covers was drawn. The album given the credit of using the fisheye lens first was The Byrds’ Mr Tambourine Man in 1965, who’s cover was photographed by Jerry Feinstein, a prolific name in the music scene having worked with Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones. Speaking of, The Rolling Stones also used and popularized this technique with their album cover for Big Hits: High Tide and Green Grass in 1966, photographed by Jerry Schatzberg.

In my opinions, the best of all of these albums however is Are You Experienced by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, which was photographed by one of my favourite photographers – Karl Ferris in 1967. Ferris used the lens’ unique perspective to draw the eye into the image and onto the band, specifically icon Jimi Hendrix in the centre, and how the lens bends the image makes it look like Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell are peering in at the viewer, while Hendrix looks down at you, making him out to be an idol of higher position physically, metaphorically, and metaphysically. It perfectly comments on the time of changing roles, heightening spirituality and the importance of music, and mixed with Ferris’s use of saturation of colours and changing hues, the photograph becomes an exotic and whimsical centrepiece to draw in likeminded listeners. Ferris’s work with Hendrix was the mark of his success in the music industry – he’d previously been a notable fashion photographer working with The Fool Collective and had now managed to get a foot on both platforms of expression.

This story shows to me the way that photography is used to reflect opinions and statements because people will never run out to things to say, and how something as simple as a lens can adapt and still stay incredibly relevant, as it’s now used commonly in music videos as a cult staple and even had a social media 5 minutes of fame in trends last year, and in the skateboarding scene as I mentioned at the beginning.

At the D31 gallery we have some amazing photography up, and plenty of artworks with something to say since our theme for our summer exhibition is “Our Changing World”, so make sure to come and see this exhibition while you can!

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