One of my favorite websites is Atlas Obscura, a self-proclaimed “compendium of the world’s wonders, curiosities and esoterica.” Last week they highlighted a similarly named location, the Camera Obscura of Santa Monica. At that point it all came flooding back to me, my obsession with the camera obscura and my nascent photography interests. So, of course, you know what that means – blog posts on the subject – lots of them.
So, over the next several posts I’ll look at the history of the camera obscura, including my particular history with the subject, We’ll take a look at some locations that feature cameras obscura, and I’ll even try to built and photograph one of these beasts. We’ll see how it goes.
But first, let’s hit the history…
The phrase camera obscura is from Latin and literally means “dark room”. The concept was known as far back as the 5th Century BCE in China. Aristotle described the optical phenomenon he observed as light from an eclipse filtered through small openings between leaves. Da Vinci described the process, and Johannes Kepler was the first to use the phrase “camera obscura.”
As seen in the illustration above, light passing through a small aperture is inverted and can be displayed on a flat surface. In the case of a camera obscura, a room was darkened and a small opening made to the outside, allowing the imaged to be displayed on a wall.
Artists in the 17th and 18th Centuries made use of the camera obscura to paint highly detailed landscapes and renderings. Vermeer used it extensively, as seen in this clip from the movie The Girl with a Pearl Earring. (Sorry, I can’t embed the clip here. Just follow the link.)
In 1727 Johann Heinrich Schulze discovered that silver nitrate darkened upon exposure to light. Nearly 80 years later Joseph Niepce used a combination of silver nitrate with other chemicals to capture an image, creating the first photograph, and photography as we know it was born.
Pinhole cameras work on the exact same principles as the camera obscura. Now the phrase usually refers to a either a large room darkened as a display or curiosity, or to a device to aid painting, as with Vermeer’s device, and the shortened form. Lenses were added to gather more light, but the concept remains the same.
As for me, I’m fascinated by the simplicity of the pinhole. The idea that light is so altered by passing through a small aperture is fascinating to me. The fact that said light can be captured by a chemical process is even more fascinating. Sure, I’m now lulled into the ease of digital images, but if you really want to understand photography, there’s no better way than to play with pinholes.