Photographs are everywhere. Wherever you look in the world, you are bound to come across mechanically reproduced images. From commercial advertising and fashion photography to fine arts and entertainment; on popular websites like facebook and flickr; and in family photo albums or on your photo ID card, contemporary society is saturated with, and mediated by, photographic images. This saturation/mediation effect has completely and irrevocably altered the way we view the world and ourselves.
But what of this relatively new medium? How does it work? Where did it come from? What are its origins?
VIEW OF CENTRAL PARK LOOKING NORTH-FALL, 2008. ABELARDO MORELL
In the May 2011 National Geographic article, “Rooms With A View: Photographer Abelardo Morell’s Camera Obscura Turns Darkened Rooms Into Magical Landscapes,” the bizarre phenomenon of the camera obscura, known by philosophers and painters for centuries, is explained through the photography of Abe Morell, a contemporary artist and art professor.
Camera obscura, Latin for “dark room” (not to be confused with the lab for developing negatives,) is simply a room, or chamber, completely devoid of light except for a tiny hole through which natural light enters and projects an inverted image of the outside world onto the opposite wall inside the room. This is the natural light effect that explains photography.
Renaissance painters exploited the camera obscura technique in their studios (along with optics and prisms to control the scale and orientation of the projected image) in order to trace the projection onto the canvas or fresco wall for naturalistic, scientifically accurate, compositions.
The National Geographic article recounts how Morell, an art professor at MassArt in Boston, decided to impress his students with an in-class presentation of how the camera obscura works. He completely darkened the classroom, sealing up all the windows except for a tiny dime-sized hole in the center of one, through which an inverted image of traffic moving down Huntington Avenue appeared on the opposite wall, visible to the naked eye. Morell’s tech-savvy students were most impressed.
Though this may seem like a magic trick or some sort of high-tech gimmick, it isn’t. The camera obscura is what naturally happens when light enters a smaller, darker environment through small openings. The same process occurs in our own eyes, which act like two tiny camera obscuras when we look around our environment. Our brains automatically flip the images of the outside world. Morell uses a prism to “correct” some of his images, creating dream-like narratives like the one below.
VIEW OF THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE IN BEDROOM, 2009. ABELARDO MORELL
But it isn’t magic: It’s physics. In fact, it’s the marriage of art and science, which may be sort of magical when you think about it: Renaissance artists utilizing the scientific knowledge of their day to produce some of the most breathtakingly accurate pictures the world had ever seen.
The camera obscura connects the history of painting with that of photography. The National Geographic article points out that Aristotle described the camera obscura in ancient Greece, and that Da Vinci “sketched the process” in the early Renaissance. This early comprehension merely describes the scientific fact of the camera obscura.
An optical device by the same name, used as a drawing aid, came later and may have been used by the 17th c. Dutch painter, Johannes Vermeer, as seen in the film, Girl with a Pearl Earring. However, if Vermeer (and his contemporaries) used this technology, it was primarily as a painting aid. Modern photography was still in the works.
What we now call photography didn’t happen until the early 19th c., when chemically-treated plates and, later, paper sheets were placed against the back wall inside the camera obscura to visually record the internal projection. This is exactly what photography is: the studio-sized camera obscura of the Renaissance painter reduced to the size of a handheld box, incorporating chemically treated surfaces to produce visual records of the world outside that box.
Morell artfully evokes this long history when he sets up his shot with his own box-sized modern camera inside a hotel room (the camera obscura) overlooking Central Park, effectively documenting the camera obscura effect from within a camera obscura (see top image.) His process is demonstrated in this brief video.
Morell’s images show us how science and art work together to create captivating images that are both intellectually engaging and aesthetically pleasing. His contribution to the history of the camera obscura has been to graphically educate its effects through his photography (see below.)
Sometimes there’s nothing more magical than reality itself.
LIGHT BULB, 1991. ABELARDO MORELL