Camera Obscura Creates “Rooms With A View”

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The May 2011 issue of National Geographic magazine, on newsstands April 26th.

(Click on all photographs to enlarge and enjoy.)

There was a time, in the not-too-distant past, when photography seemed like magic. Given what we know now, with concepts taught to us by our high-school science teachers, we understand the photographic process much better than our historical compatriots. That understanding has in no way removed the wonder of the process, and the sheer amazement that we feel for those inventors of the past who, through experimentation and imagination, created the fledgling tools that evolved into the photographic technology of today.

Duplicating the real thing, a ghostly upside-down image of a lightbulb appears inside a wine box converted to a pinhole camera. In his classic photograph, Morell demonstrates how a camera obscura (dark chamber) image forms.

In this excerpt of “Rooms With A View”, an article in the May 2011 issue of National Geographic, writer Tom O’Neill discusses the ancient phenomenon of “camera obscura” and the modern-day talents of photographer Abelardo Morell:

Something strange and wonderful happens when light enters a dark space through a tiny opening. Aristotle described the phenomenon back in the fourth century B.C. Leonardo in Renaissance Italy sketched the process. In Coney Island and other 19th-century seaside resorts, tourists lined up to see the magical results. Shift to a Boston classroom, the year 1988. Cuban-born Abelardo Morell, teaching an introductory photography course at an art college, was curious to step back in time. On a sunny day, he covered the classroom windows with black plastic, making the space as dark as a cave, cut a dime-size hole in the material, and told his students to watch. Almost instantly the back wall came alive like a movie screen, its surface covered with a fuzzy image of people and cars moving along Huntington Avenue outside. Then the double take: The image was upside down, sky on floor, ground on ceiling, the laws of gravity seemingly gone haywire.

Morell had turned his classroom into a camera obscura, a dark chamber, the Latin name for perhaps the earliest known imaging device and the ancestor of the photographic camera.

Colors, shapes, and perspectives run amok in a playful mind-bender devised by Morell in a Venice sitting room. "I want people to wonder, What belongs to what?" says Morell, who projected a view of the Grand Canal onto a wall painted in a jungle motif. The shadow of a chandelier adds to the image's hypnotic mayhem.

Camera obscura is one of the earliest imaging methods known to man. What was initially a teaching tool for Morell’s introductory photography course became a passion, and his pursuit of perfecting this method created some of the most visually-stunning contemporary photographs of the modern era. Morell went from using simple household materials to create the effect, to engineering the technique which allowed him to manipulate brightness, focus, and the use of digital sensors.

As vivid as a dream, a hyper-sharp image of the Brooklyn Bridge and lower Manhattan materializes above tousled sheets. To make the surreal picture, Morell essentially put his camera inside a room serving as a camera and kept his shutter open for five hours to expose on film the incoming image. He used a prism to flip the projection right-side up.

Morell’s fascinating combination of ancient technique and modern composition have created an incredibly unique body of work. His exhibitions have been featured in galleries and museums in New York, San Francisco, and Boston. Read Tom O’Neill’s excellent article in National Geographic’s May Issue, and click on the link to the left of the article to watch a fascinating video of the camera obscura process.

All photographs provided by National Geographic, copyright Abelardo Morell/National Geographic.

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