The History of the Camera Obscura

Black Gallery: Dark Room

by Terry Cunniff, Bill Thomas & John Trefethen

When a small hole is made in the wall of a dark room, an inverted image of the scene outside the window appears on the opposite wall of the room. This phenomena appears to have been known to the Chinese as early as 4 BC and was first described outside China around 1030 by the Arab scholar Alhazen.

Leonardo da Vinci manuscripts from the fifteenth century contain the first clear description of the formation of images by a small hole in a darkened room. By the mid-sixteenth century, lenses were being used to increase the image’s brightness and sharpness.

At its most popular in the 19th century, the camera obscura room was not only viewed as educational and entertaining but was a metaphor (as was photography) for the voyeur. It was a device to see without being seen, to spy on the unaware. The camera obscura on the Isle of Man was said to overlook the cliff walk favored by courting couples. By the end of the 20th century, the camera obscura’s popularity had decreased. At present there are very few room-size camera obscuras existing in the U.S.

The camera obscura, literally “veiled chamber” in Latin, at once simple and profound, focuses attention on the wonder of light and the sensory mechanism with which we perceive it. Enjoy the vantage point created in this room. Stay for hours, come back again and again, to watch the leaves, the sky, passersby, unaware.

The images pictured here are those captured from an exhibition by Terry Cunnif, Bill Thomas and I at San Jose State University during our graduate studies in photography.

We cut a hole in the wall of the gallery, inserted a large lens capable of capturing as much light from outside as possible. We then hung long sheets of velum from the ceiling of the gallery upon which to display the live motion from outside.

The end result was an etherial connection to the outdoors through a slow and magical display of light and motion.

~ John Trefethen

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