Summer Photography

Summer is officially here and we will be spending our time experiencing new places and new ideas. Every artist needs to mix things up and that is what we intend to do. During this time we’ll highlight posts from our archives.

If you are traveling I’m sure you’ve brought your cell phone and possibly a stand-alone camera but what other technologies are available? How about a portable camera obscura, possibly a purse or backpack that’s been appropriately altered to become a camera. If you’ve never heard of a camera obscura this post from 2015 should clear things up. Next week we’ll profile an artist who turns unexpected objects into cameras.

The Magic of a Dark Charmer: The Camera Obscura

camera obscura image by Abelardo Morell

#1 Abelardo Morell “Camera Obscura: Manhattan View Looking South in Large Room,” 1996

I find myself drawn to artists who direct their attention to very early technologies, such as the camera obscura.

drawing of a camera obscure

An antique diagram of a camera obscura.

A camera obscura is basically a room, or box, that has a small hole on one wall. Light from the outside enters this hole, and projects an upside down image on the opposite wall. Think of the hole as the pupil of an eye, the principle is the same. 

As early as 470 BCE there were written observations about the optical principles used by this device. The Chinese philosopher Mo Ti referred to it as “a locked treasure room,” which seems like an appropriate description.

Artists and scientists have worked with the camera obscure for centuries. Leonard da Vinci published an extensive study in 1502. Some claim that the development of linear perspective during the Renaissance was dependent on the use of a camera obscura.

drawing of a goblet camera obscure

A diagram of a camera obscura designed in a goblet.

As an artist I’m fascinated by the quirky and the “treasure room aspects” of the technology. One early example from the 1600s was constructed inside of a specially designed goblet. There was a lens and mirror in the stem that projected an image into the glass when it was filled with white wine. You could pretend to drink your wine while actually watching an image of the person sitting opposite you.

Photograph by Robyn Stacey taken with a camera obscura.

Robyn Stacey “Room 2015 Pullman Hyde Park, Brielle,” 2013 from “Guest Relations”

I suppose this is what I love about this basic technology. It creates magic. Even today, walk into a room that’s been converted into a camera obscura and you’ll forget about all the complex technology you use everyday.

The camera obscura is the precursor of what we call a camera. You can easily make your own. Darken a room, you may need to stuff a towel under the door to prevent light from entering. Cover all the windows to block out the light. One of the windows should be covered with thick black paper, cardboard or poster board that has a circle cut out of it – start with a 3” diameter. This circle will be the support for your lens. Cut out several squares of aluminum foil that are large enough to cover this circle. Make a small circle/hole in the center of each – the holes should all be a different size. These will work as the lens of your camera obscura. Now tape them one at a time over the hole you left in the window until you find the one that gives you the best image. The smaller the hole the sharper the image, but it will also be dimmer. (If you want a sharper image you can use the lens from a flashlight. Tape it in place over the hole in your cardboard, then use your aluminum foil lenses on top of it.)

Abelardo Morell “Camera Obscura: View of Central Park Looking North-Summer,” 2008

Abelardo Morell “Camera Obscura: View of Central Park Looking North-Summer,” 2008

Whatever is outside of your window will be projected onto the opposite wall upside down. A strong wind in the trees? Then the trees on your wall will also blow in the wind. People on the street? They’ll walk across your walls too.

I feel like there is less and less that surprises and amazes me today, I guess I’ve seen it all – everyday a new gotta-have-it device or technology. How great to be reminded that there are still simple pleasures.

To see more of Abelardo Morell’s work click here.

You can see Robyn Stacey’s work here.

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