Camera Obscura work


This week we were talking about early photographic technologies, including the use of the Camera Obscura and the achievement – in the 1830s – of permanently fixing the image that appeared in it.

There are many artists making great work inspired by this amazing machine. I mentioned Abelardo Morell and his ‘Tent Series’, where he uses a portable tent as a Camera Obscura, its inside painted black. Using a camera on a tripod placed in it he takes exposures of the image which appears on the ground, in this arrangement:

Screen Shot 2013-03-29 at 4.04.21 PM

Since 1991 I have con­verted rooms into Cam­era Obscuras in order to pho­to­graph the strange and delight­ful meet­ing of the out­side world with the room’s inte­rior.

In an effort to find new ways to use this tech­nique, I have worked with my assis­tant, C.J. Heyliger, on designing a light proof tent which can project views of the sur­round­ing land­scape, via periscope type optics, onto the surface of the ground inside the tent. Inside this space I pho­to­graph the sandwich of these two out­door real­i­ties meet­ing on the ground. Depending on the qual­ity of the sur­face, these views can take on a vari­ety of painterly effects. The added use of dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy on my cam­era lets me record visual moments in a much shorter time frame – for instance I can now get clouds and peo­ple to show up in some of the photographs.

This way of observ­ing the land­scape with spe­cially equipped tents was prac­ticed by some artists in the 19th cen­tury in order to trace on paper what they saw in the land­scape. Inter­est­ingly, this approach to pic­tur­ing the land was done even before the inven­tion of photography.

My Tent-Camera lib­er­ates me to use the Cam­era Obscura tech­nique in places where it would have pre­vi­ously been impos­si­ble to work, because I now have a portable room, so to speak.


In the early 1990s he began making a ‘Camera Obscura’ series, which also involved the placement of a camera inside another ‘camera’. Remember that ‘camera’ is the Latin (also modern Italian) word for ‘room’ or ‘chamber’.

I made my first picture using camera obscura techniques in my darkened living room in 1991. In setting up a room to make this kind of photograph, I cover all windows with black plastic in order to achieve total darkness. Then, I cut a small hole in the material I use to cover the windows. This opening allows an inverted image of the view outside to flood onto the back walls of the room. Typically then I focused my large-format camera on the incoming image on the wall then make a camera exposure on film. In the beginning, exposures took from five to ten hours.

Over time, this project has taken me from my living room to all sorts of interiors around the world. One of the satisfactions I get from making this imagery comes from my seeing the weird and yet natural marriage of the inside and outside.

A few years ago, in order to push the visual potential of this process, I began to use color film and positioned a lens over the hole in the window plastic in order to add to the overall sharpness and brightness of the incoming image. Now, I often use a prism to make the projection come in right side up. I have also been able to shorten my exposures considerably thanks to digital technology, which in turn makes it possible to capture more momentary light. I love the increased sense of reality that the outdoor has in these new works .The marriage of the outside and the inside is now made up of more equal partners.


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