Sitting on a cliff, on the very edge of a continent, on the very edge of the city of San Francisco, sits an obscure, magical, little building with a hole in its roof. Walking inside I had to give my eyes a moment to adjust. As they did, the concave disk in the middle of the room became apparent and after a moment more, the disk took on a life of its own. With incredible detail the ocean came into view – waves rolling in to shore, birds in flight, rocks and seafoam, every little bubble was visible. A film without film, a moving image projected with mirrors onto a surface.
It might seem odd to go into a dark room to see a seascape that is easily observed from the terrace just outside the door. But the one reflected onto the disk inside the room is mesmerizing. Ethereal. Dreamy. As I made my small movies of the images with my digital camera, the thought of Andy Warhol filming the Empire State Building came to mind. Andy would have loved the Camera Obscura. I wonder if he had ever visited it?
When I use, or think of, the word camera, I think of a small box with film, an aperture, a lens, and a shutter that goes kachink. But the word camera is actually the Latin (and later Italian) word for room. Obscura (or obscurus) is the Latin word for dark and the root for the English word obscure: shrouded or hidden in darkness. Imagine walking into a darkened room, one with the shades drawn down over the windows. But there is a small hole in one of the shades and magically, on the opposite wall, there is an image, an upside down image, of the landscape outside the room.
The camera obscura has been known as many things, such as the locked treasure room, named so by the Chinese philosopher Mo-Tzu around the 5th century BC. But it wasn’t known as the camera obscura until the German astronomer Johannes Kepler coined the term in the early 17th century when he used a tent as a camera to track the stars across the night sky.
Between the Chinese Philosopher and the German Astronomer, there were many other uses and mentions of the camera obscura in history. Aristotle watched eclipses through pinholes and leaves of trees in the 4th century BC. In the 15th century, Leonardo da Vinci wrote about the camera obscura as an observation tool in his papers, and the artist Vermeer used a small box with a convex lens as a drawing aid for his paintings in the 17th century. It wasn’t until late in the 19th century that photosensitive paper was created and used in tandem with the wooden box that was known as the camera obscura.
The camera obscura in San Francisco sits on the terrace below the Cliff House. The image of the ocean comes through a lens in the roof, and is bounced off of a mirror and onto the concave disk that takes up most of the room. It works in a similar way as a periscope in a submarine. The lens can rotate and give a continuous view of the waves coming in off the ocean, from one side of the building to the other. Instead of giving a series of still images, like what we would see with a still camera that used film, the camera obscura captures continuous images much like a movie would. The lenses used in this room project very clear images.
The camera obscura is the precursor of what we know of today as just a camera. Through its history it has gone from being a room in a house to a handheld device used to capture split-second moments in time.
In Italy if you ask for a camera you are shown a room (like in a hotel) if you want to talk about your camera that you are using to take pictures, you talk about your macchina fotografica.