Friday, December 30, 2011

Dark Room

The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera. - Dorothea Lange

If you step into a dark room on a bright day and poke a small hole in a window cover then look at the opposite wall, what do you see? There in full color and movement is the world outside the window -- upside down. This ancient discovery, first documented by the Chinese philosopher Mo-Ti during the 5th Century BC, changed the way the world would see.

The Camera Obscura, or Dark (Obscura) Room (Camera) in Latin, was the precursor to the modern-day photographic camera. It demonstrated light travels in a straight line and when some of the rays reflected from a bright subject pass through a small hole in thin material, they don't scatter but cross and reform as an upside down image on a flat surface held parallel to the hole. The image quality was improved with the addition of a convex lens into the aperture in the 16th Century, and the later addition of a mirror to reflect the image down onto a viewing surface made the Camera Obscura a valuable aid to artists and astronomers alike. By the beginning of the 19th Century, this device was ready to accept a sheet of light sensitive material and the rest is history.

On a recent trip to San Francisco I was amazed to find a real Camera Obscura still in operation there. The Giant Camera behind the Cliff House on Point Lobos was built in 1948 as part of the Playland at the Beach Amusement Area. Decorated to look like a giant 35mm camera with its lens pointing to the sky, the Camera Obscura designed by Floyd Jennings survived two attempts to destroy it, and was formally saved with its addition to the National Register of Historic Places in 2001.

The Giant Camera at the Cliff House uses a 10" mirror on the roof to reflect an image through 8" condensing lenses mounted in opposition to each other so they focus the outdoor scene 12 feet down at F8 to a parabolic screen anchored to the floor. The lens pans across a wonderful expanse of beach and coastline around Seal Rock and now makes 4 historical stops during a 6 minute, 360 degree rotation just like the original design for the attraction. Inside the darkness of the Giant Camera, the projected shoreline was bright and sharp on the viewing table and the experience was surreal . . . at least for a photographer!

So if you're ever near the Cliff House in San Francisco, I suggest you witness the Giant Camera. But be forewarned: the Camera Obscura is not for everyone. There are those that say,"What kind of fool would pay to go into a dark room to look at the projection of something they can see for real outside?". I guess they just don't get it.