The Magic Kamra
Ambarin Afsar discovers how the camera obscura captured life like images, centuries before photography was invented.
Walk into a very dark room on a bright day. Cover the window with black paper. Make a small hole in the paper and look at the opposite wall. You will see the world outside the window in full colour, but everything is upside down! This is the basic principle of the camera obscura. In Latin, ‘camera’ means ‘room’ (similar to the Hindi word kamra), and ‘obscura’ means ‘dark’. Put simply, the camera obscura is a dark room or a box with a hole at one end.
Did you know that the camera was invented nearly two and a half thousand years before photography?
How It Works
This very large pinhole camera was used by early artists and painters to create realistic paintings. Light from outside would pass through the hole and strike a surface inside. Inside the camera obscura, the scene was reproduced upside down, but with colour and perspective preserved. The image formed could be traced on to paper, and colours could then be filled in, true to natural details. This principle was known to scholars and thinkers as early as 500 BC.
Origins of the ‘Treasure Room’
Mo-Ti, a Chinese philosopher, was the first to mention this camera, in 4th century BC. He referred to it as a “collecting plate” or a “locked treasure room”. However, it was Islamic scientist Alhazen who built the first camera obscura in the mid 9th century BC.
He viewed the crescent shape of a partially eclipsed sun projected on a wall opposite a small hole made in the window shutters, and explained this phenomenon in his essay ‘On The Form of The Eclipse’.
The Evolution of the Camera Obscura
Leonardo Da Vinci, the legendary Italian painter, made the earliest known record of the uses of the camera obscura, in his notebook Codex Atlanticus in 1490. Although there is no evidence that he used one, his descriptions may have inspired future artists.
However, it was Italian scholar Giovanni Battista Della Porta who first used the camera obscura as a drawing aid. He made a huge camera inside which he seated a few guests. He arranged for actors to perform outside so that the guests could view the images on the wall. Apparently, the upside-down performing images panicked the guests and they fled! Battista was later brought to court on a charge of sorcery!
Though artists and thinkers were familiar with the concept, the term ‘camera obscura’ was first coined by German astronomer Johannes Kepler in the early 17th century—he used the camera for astronomy in Upper Austria.
The Camera Obscura in Action
Fast forward to the 18th century, the camera obscura was adapted as smaller, more portable drawing aids. It also became a prominent attraction at amusement parks, where they offered miniature views of scenes around the park.
By the early 20th century, most piers at seaside resorts in UK and US had at least one structure. Other unusual applications were for training, bombing practises and measuring plane speeds during World Wars I and II.
Modern Magic Boxes
The first camera that could take still images was invented only in the 19th century. But it is the camera obscura that led to the birth photography and the art as we know it. Today older camera obscuras are celebrated as historic treasures, while newer versions are being built around the world, for experimental purposes.
Unique Camera Obscuras
Tags: Ambarin Afsar, better photography, camera obscura, Codex Atlanticus, history, Invention of Photography, Johannes Kepler, Leonardo Da Vinci, march 2010, Mo-Ti