Researching the painting techniques of a 17th Century Dutch Master may not sound like your typical cinema fare, but Tim’s Vermeer is an absolute joy for anyone interested in a gripping story. The Tim in question is Tim Jenison, an inventor and founder of Newtek, a company that ushered in a new era of video production in the 1980s, and continues pushing the boundaries of video broadcasting and 3D rendering today. This effectively means as well as having his finger on the pulse of digital imaging, he now has the means and opportunity to pursue some rather quirky personal obsessions – like figuring out how Johannes Vermeer painted such exquisitely detailed images.
Jenison argues that in paintings such as The Girl with the Pearl Earring, Vermeer creates images in an almost photographic style, capturing the fall-off of light in in ways which the human eye doesn’t pick up. Having worked with cameras for all of his professional life, Jenison becomes convinced that Vermeer’s paintings show lighting effects that are only visible through the lens of a camera and hypothesises that either Vermeer had an eye that was drastically different to any other human eye, or that he used a camera.
The idea that burgeoning camera technology was utilised by Vermeer and other painters is not new. As the film details, there is a canon of work showing how the camera obscura has been used across centuries to create incredibly detailed images. Jenison builds on the existing theory firstly by suggesting a unique way a mirror could be used to account for the lighting effects, and secondly by taking on the role of an experimental archaeologist and attempting to put the theory to practice in painstaking detail, despite never having wielded a paintbrush.
The film is produced and directed by Penn and Teller who have been gracing our screens for decades as stage magicians and professional debunkers. At this point they are dab hands at skilfully unravelling a good yarn, and it is evident. Across 80 minutes the film never misses a beat, taking us on the highs and lows of Jenison’s obsessive journey which sees him travelling around the world in search of answers from artists, scientists, and historians; testing the limits of his (and his family’s) patience in his quest to recreate a Vermeer.
Through seeking to physically recreate a Vermeer, Jenison also metaphorically paints a portrait of the artist. The picture that emerges is one of Vermeer as the archetypal Renaissance man, a polymath who is both an exceptionally skilled artist and an avid technological tinkerer, a person who is obsessed with the details and possessed of a tenacity to realise them. Despite the centuries that and professional labels that adorn them, the two men seem to have a lot in common. Tim’s Vermeer is a film that seeks to shrink the ideological gulf that can exist between high art and technology – it is an engaging, entertaining, and educational underdog story that exposes inextricable links between genius and hard graft.
Published in Gazette Group titles (Dublin City Gazette, Swords Gazette, Blanchardstown Gazette, Dundrum Gazette, Dun Laoghaire Gazette, Lucan Gazette, Clondalkin Gazette) on 27th Feb 2014.