Camera obscura is Latin for 'dark room', the name given to the phenomenon whereby an image of the surrounding world is projected onto a screen or wall in a darkened room. The camera obscura was also sometimes referred to as The Magic Mirror of Life. It has a rich and fascinating history spanning, science, art, and philosophy.
Many societies claim the invention of the camera obscura. There are records citing evidence of the camera obscura in China in 390 BC by a philosopher named Mozi and other historians date the camera obscura from Alhazen, a Persian philosopher, who utilised it to develop a state of the art theory of the refraction of light. In Europe, Euclid’s Optics (c. 300 BC) mentioned the camera obscura as a demonstration that light travels in straight lines.
At the end of the 16th century, the pinhole camera obscura was equipped with lenses and mirrors and transformed into the optical camera obscura of the early modern period. The hey-day of the optical camera obscura was between 1600–1800 and it sits alongside the microscope and the telescope in terms of its impact, ushering in a new approach to optics, opening up new views of the visible world and shaping a new understanding of vision itself. In 1589 Giambattista della Porta celebrated the wonder of seeing an image separate itself from its object for the first time, and the uncanny effect of the inversion of the image as it was projected into the room.
Its employment for painting, which one can reasonably assume but not prove, is attributed to both Vermeer and Caravaggio. While its use in the 17th century is difficult to prove it is well documented for the subsequent 18th century. The Venetian cityscapes (veduta) of Canaletto (1722–80), may be the most famous paintings produced with the aid of a camera obscura.
Despite the camera obscura being adopted as an instrument of rational sight in the 18th century, the problem of our vision’s simultaneous enmeshment in and removal from the world, which the camera obscura spectacularly exemplified, wouldn’t go away. What worried philosophers and scientists such as Descartes, Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton was the question whether vision was just inert vitreous optics screening pictures in front of our brains, or was the human spirit, or soul necessary as well, to tie us into the world we subjectively experience? Where was our faculty of perception located, just behind our eyes, or somewhere else in our spirit? Where did we end and our world begin?
Leonardo da Vinci and Rousseau argued that the representation of the external world inside the camera obscura supports the view that the pictures in the blank screen of the mind accurately represent ‘objective reality’ (representation). Conversely Marx, Nietzsche and Freud saw the images shining on the mental screen of the mind’s inner chamber as delusory inversions of social relations and conscious knowledge, whose origin has been forgotten.
While Marx was using the camera obscura as a handy metaphor in his revolutionary thought, actual camera obscuras were being enjoyed by the proletariat. In Australia they were becoming popular attractions, rather than scientific instruments. From the 1850s camera obscuras, probably built into carts, were being advertised as feature attractions in Australian travelling fairs and exhibitions and intrepid entrepreneurs began to build permanent camera obscuras, out of either stone or wood, at prominent vantage points in Adelaide, Manly, Wollongong and Brisbane.
The camera obscura literally creates an in-between space, one of transience and transformation. A magical space, as each camera obscura only exists for a few hours, depending as it does on the position of the sun in relation to the room. You are in the world but removed from it at the same time and can see everything that is happening outside the window it’s like being in your own private movie.