Upside Down and Backwards
The Impact of the Camera Obscura
Throughout history, various scientific advancements have changed the way we see the world, but few have done so quite as literally as the camera obscura. The idea that light could behave in such an unusual, almost playful way, would have far-reaching results in the psychology of perception and the world of art.
Aristotle (384-322 BC) observed on a day of a solar eclipse, light passing through a tree whose leaves formed a mesh, projecting the image of the eclipsed sun onto the ground. He attempted to repeat the phenomenon using a strainer and was successful. He concluded that the smaller the hole in the strainer the light passed through, the sharper the image produced. Although there is no proof of Aristotle actually constructing a light-sealed room where this occurrence could be repeated on a grander scale, some historians argue that Aristotle was the first person to observe and record the phenomenon of the camera obscura. Other records show that, a Chinese Philosopher, Mo-Ti recorded the same phenomenon of light passing trough a pinhole and reproducing an image two centuries earlier around 500 BC, however little is known about the extent of his research. It wasn’t until just before 10th century that a camera obscura was first made as a way of observing solar eclipses by an Arabian, Hassan ibn Hassan. Later, western records credit Roger Bacon, an Englishman also using a similar camera in the 14th century for viewing an eclipse. Other early thinkers who have involved themselves with camera obscura include Euclid, Alhazen, Kepler, and Leonardo. These scholars for the most part, remote and unbeknownst of each others theories of camera obscura, all stumbled onto the same, natural physical phenomenon, revealing a scientific truth on the nature of light and vision.
The earliest recorded of use of a camera obscura (Latin for “dark” “room”) in a studio can be found in the writings of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). At about the same time period, Daniel Barbaro, a Venetian, recommended the camera as an aid to drawing and perspective. He wrote:
“Close all the shutters and doors until no light enters the camera except through the lens, and opposite hold a piece of paper, which you move forward and backward until the scene appears in sharpest detail. There on the paper you will see the whole view that really is, with its distances its colors and shadows and motion, the clouds, the water twinkling, the bird flying. By hold the paper steady you can trace the whole perspective with a pen, shade it and delicately color it from nature.”
In the mid-sixteenth century Giovanni Battista della Porta (1538-1615) published an account of the possibilities as an aid to drawing. It is said that he made a huge “camera” in which he seated his guests, having arranged for a group of actors to perform outside so that the visitors could observe the images on the wall. The story goes, however, that the sight of the upside down performing images was too startling for the visitors; they panicked and fled, and Battista was later brought to court on a charge of sorcery.
From that time on, many artists used the camera obscura as a tool for drawing, however, either because of the association with the occult, or because they felt that in some way their artistry had been lessened, few would admit to using one. Several major artists are said to have used them; these include Giovanni Canale, better known as Canaletto (1697-1768), Jan Vermeer (1632-1675), Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) and Paul Sanby (1725-1792), a founding member of the Royal Academy.
An Italian mathematician, Gerolomo Cardano (1501-1576), introduced a glass convex lens on his camera obscura, replacing the pinhole; the result was a larger projected image. This advancement in glass technology allowed for a miniaturization of the camera obscura to occur. It was converted into a handheld device, equipped with a mirror that bounced the upside down image right side up onto a viewing screen.
For artists, the camera obscura became a studio tool used for accomplishing accurate representation of size and scale. An artist could trace the image appearing on the screen and be sure that the size and shape of the image was exact. He/She could also trace several copies of the image with slight variations, a novel technique that opened up a new approach to composition. The invention of the camera obscura slowly replaced other measuring tools used in the past, such as the viewing grid, also used to achieve accuracy. Another device, the camera lucida, invented in 1807, projected a refracted image into an eyepiece that would rest in direct line with the artist’s eye and the paper. With the camera lucida, an artist would trace the image appearing through the eyepiece as opposed to an image appearing on or through the paper.
In the Renaissance, accurate representation came to the forefront in painting and sculpture. The skill of the artist was determined largely by his ability to create a likeness with believable depth, perspective, and color-field. Using the camera obscura or lucida results in a more technical process, and one that relies less on hand-eye coordination. Does this undermine the merit of the work? The production of art begins to become more mediated and less direct.
The way a camera obscura works is analogous to the functioning of human vision, the same way a microphone might be considered analogous to a human ear. Light that enters through a camera obscura is projected upside down onto the mirror and then bounced off the mirror and turned right side up onto the viewing screen. Similarly the light entering through the pupils of our eyes is projected upside down onto our retina, which relays the image to our brain, which then turns the image we see right side up again. The comparison suggests how mechanical the anatomy of a human, or any living being for that matter, is, a revolutionizing concept that advanced scientific thinking away from former, more religious explanations.
It should be noted that the concept of light in cultures around the world, carries with it spiritual implications. In the beginning God created light. People like Battista, tried to show light as a physical property of this world, rather than a divine force. In the Middle Ages, visions were associated with religious imagery. The camera obscura was a disturbing example of an external secular vision, and was introduced during a time when painting and sculpture were starting to free themselves from subservience to the church. Gradually people began to see the behavior of light and the human eye as technology rather than sorcery.
Like many scientific discoveries, the camera obscura threatened established notions about the nature of the world and man’s place in it. It also raised new questions about the definition and function of art. The Church embraced realism in the Renaissance, but was still resistant to any technology that could replicate an image upside down and backwards. Pope John XII attributed such work to Satan himself.
Changes in the social and philosophical climate during the three centuries that followed allowed for the growing popularity of this artistic technology. The dominance of the Catholic Church subsided. The prevailing philosophy of the time made a tool like the camera obscura seem an instrument of truth. The paintings of Jan Vermeer, for example, in the mid-seventeenth century, demonstrate the success of the camera obscura in assisting the painting process. His paintings glow with a purity and sensitivity of light, and are composed with impeccable calm. One might say he was the first cameraman. He may have been ahead of his time, for his genius was not recognized until 200 years later.
The camera obscura led to the invention of photography, the impact of which is beyond the scope of this write-up, but includes a revolution in mass-media such as magazines and newspapers, and the inventions of film and television, all of which have profound influence in the world, and in the world of art. The invention of the photograph technically mastered accuracy according to the old standard of semblance, and opened the possibilities of art expanding into a more abstract direction. It paved the way for modernism. Impressionism was characterized by a greater attention to natural light, as it could only be expressed in painting, as opposed to photography. Expressionism celebrated the ability of brushstrokes to convey emotion, again distinguishing itself from photography and more traditional styles of painting. Surrealists created unusual scenes that could not be found with a camera. Cubism displayed multiple perspectives of the subject simultaneously, as if responding to the development of the motion picture, which certainly challenged people to adopt new modes of understanding and communication. Postmodernists found a great deal of their material inspired by the fast-paced media and mass-produced consumer objects.
Some of the concepts originally raised by the camera obscura are still relevant today. The question of what can be considered to be art was opened to the machine long ago, and its consequences have been staggering. Film, video, and photography are now widely accepted as art forms in their own right, an integration of art and science that would have greatly pleased Leonardo Da Vinci. Even the politics of expression and production explored by Walter Benjamin, seem to have begun long before the modern camera. Artists and thinkers continue to respond to advancements in science and media, and science is in turn spurred on by the arts. The camera obscura came from humble beginnings and found itself caught up in the whirlwind of social evolution, influencing the way art has been perceived for hundreds of years.