The camera obscura, literally "dark room", is a device that makes use of an optical phenomenon in which light rays reverse themselves when they pass through a small aperture. At its most basic, light rays pass through a tiny hole and recreate themselves upside down on a screen that is placed parallel to the hole.
As camera obscura technology improved in the 16th century, camera obscuras became portable boxes which incorporated lenses and mirrors, so that the image was reflected onto a viewing surface which was visible outside the box. Portable camera obscuras were used as aids for draughtsmen and painters. The camera obscura became the prototype for the modern day camera, invented in the first half of the 19th century, which uses light sensitive papers and films in order to preserve the image that is projected.
As lens technology improved, the size of the surface on which the image was projected was able to be increased. Entire rooms were made into camera obscuras, in which images were projected onto tables and walls. These camera obscura rooms were popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
By the end of the 20th century, the popularity of the camera obscura had decreased; there are now few room size camera obscuras remaining in the United States.
In 1997, out of a fascination both with photography and its techniques, I decided to build a camera obscura in my home, which is situated on the top floor of a 17 floor apartment building overlooking the Central Park Reservoir. I was lucky enough to find George Keene, an astronomer and former NASA engineer, who had built his own camera obscura at his home in Southern California. While Keene used his camera obscura mostly for observing astronomical phenomenon, I was more interested in making use of it for experimenting with different types of photography. Keene was eager to take on the task, and designed a camera obscura that made the best use of the opportune location. The device includes a lens that rotates both horizontally and vertically, and can focus from 100 feet to infinity. A chain drive rotates the lens on a massive ball bearing, with three other bearings built in to constrain the rotating turret against the wind.
The location, and the revolving lens provide endless permutations of visual stimuli, all projected onto a table in the light sealed room. Airplanes, rippling water, cyclists, joggers, seagulls, sparrows, apartment windows, the moon, the setting sun, all pass across the smooth surface of the camera obscura table.
The possibilities for experimentation are vast, as the photographs presented here will show. Some of the techniques I have used include placing photographic paper, both color and black and white, directly upon the surface of the table, which creates unique, negativeless prints. I have also used a traditional camera, experimenting with distortion by emphasising now one angle, now another. I have also created some intriguing photographs by placing various objects on the surface of the camera obscura, emphasising the visual paradox the cameral obscura creates by transmuting the outside onto a tabletop.
It is my hope that these images will interest and inspire all who behold them. I welcome your comments.
View the NY Times article about Charles Schwartz's Camera Obscura.
For technical questions about the camera obscura, please visit George Keene's website http://www.cameraobscuras.com/
Another interesting camera obscura web site is run by Jack and Beverly Wilgus and is called "The Magic Mirrror of Life: An Appreciation of the Camera Obscura."