Cover image provided by National Geographic

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.

Tom O’Neill –  Bravura Camera Obscura – National Geographic, May 2011

The magical process Tom O’Neill writes about in May’s National Geographic hitting news stands tomorrow, April 26th, is the camera obscura.  This forefather to the modern camera can be traced back all the way to Aristotle’s time and comprised of an entire room in its earliest stages.  A rather simple device, the camera obscura takes advantage of simple laws of the physical world.  When light passes through a small hole in the wall of a completely darkened room or box, an inverted image of the scene outside the hole will be produced on the opposite wall of the room.  Over time the camera obscura was used by artists, mathematicians, architects, astronomers and entertainers becoming smaller and even portable over the years.  In the 19th century it took two tracks, one leading to the camera as we know it today (or more appropriately as we knew it pre-digital with light sensitive film) and one as an amusement park and carnival attraction awing 19th century entertainment seekers with its wonderment.

Jump forward to the late 20th century and Cuban born photographer Abelardo Morell’s resurrection of the camera obscura. Morell’s work combines the predecessor to the modern camera with the modern camera itself.  His photographs of the images projected by the camera obscura were a first in the early 1990s and have seen been displayed in galleries and museums and published in his book Camera Obscura.  The May 2011 issue of National Geographic traces the history and principle behind the camera obscura as well as Morell’s work since his early experimentation with the device in the 1990s in Tom O’Neill’s article Bravura Camera Obscura.  This is a great bit of photographic history that has been brought to the 21st century by Abelardo Morell.  Be sure to pick up a copy of National Geographic this week to get all the details and view more of Morell’s photography.  And if you’re inspired by how Morell’s work draws from the past, consider some online history of photography classes that will increase your knowledge of the field.

Image courtesy of Abelardo Morell/National Geographic

Image courtesy of Abelardo Morell/National Geographic



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