A Room With A View: Camera Obscura Captures Beauty of Venice, Inside and Out

When we hear the word “cam­era” we tend to think of a lit­tle device that fits in the hand. Actu­al­ly, the word is Latin for “vault­ed cham­ber,” or room. The first cam­eras were rooms.

Long before the inven­tion of pho­to­graph­ic film, it was dis­cov­ered that if you have a dark­ened room with a small hole in it, the light pass­ing through will project an upside-down image of the sur­round­ing scenery onto the oppo­site wall. The Chi­nese philoso­pher Mo Tzu, who died in the ear­ly 4th cen­tu­ry BCE, called it the “locked trea­sure room.” In 1604 the Ger­man math­e­mati­cian and astronomer Johannes Kepler coined the term “cam­era obscu­ra,” or dark­ened room.

Kepler and oth­er astronomers used the cam­era obscu­ra to observe the sun. The prob­lem with view­ing dim­mer objects, though, is that the tiny aper­ture lets in very lit­tle light. You can widen the hole to let in more light, but as you do so the image gets blur­ri­er. Even­tu­al­ly it was dis­cov­ered that you can have a wide aper­ture if you place a glass lens over it to focus the light.

With advances in optics, artists made more use of the device. The painter David Hock­ney and physi­cist Charles M. Fal­co have the­o­rized that as ear­ly as the 15th cen­tu­ry, Renais­sance painters were using the cam­era obscu­ra and oth­er opti­cal devices to project images onto their can­vas­es as an aid to com­po­si­tion. By the time the chem­i­cal process of pho­tog­ra­phy was invent­ed in the 1820s, the cam­era was old hat.

In the scene above from the 2007 BBC series The Genius of Pho­tog­ra­phy, pho­tog­ra­ph­er Abelar­do Morell returns to the cam­er­a’s roots to cre­ate a strik­ing image of the Basil­i­ca di San­ta Maria del­la Salute in Venice pro­ject­ed onto an inte­ri­or wall of a palaz­zo on the oth­er side of the Grand Canal. To cap­ture the strange inte­ri­or-exte­ri­or scene on film, he uses a cam­era-with­in-a-cam­era.

Morell has been com­bin­ing mod­ern pho­tog­ra­phy with the ancient cam­era obscu­ra tech­nique for over 20 years. He first tried it in the liv­ing room of his home in Quin­cy, Mass­a­chu­setts. He sealed off all the win­dows, cut a dime-sized hole in the cov­er­ing and set up a view cam­era. His first expo­sures last­ed five to 10 hours. Since then, Mor­rell has trav­eled the globe to cap­ture exot­ic exte­ri­ors pro­ject­ed onto inte­ri­or walls. He now uses high-speed dig­i­tal cam­eras to cut the expo­sure time down to min­utes. “One of the sat­is­fac­tions I get from mak­ing this imagery,” he says on his Web site, “comes from my see­ing the weird and yet nat­ur­al mar­riage of the inside and the out­side.”

You can view a selec­tion of Morel­l’s cam­era obscu­ra pho­tographs at AbelardoMorell.net. And if you’d like to try it your­self, watch the video below from Nation­al Geo­graph­ic, “Mak­ing Your Own Room With a View.”

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