Abelardo Morell and his Camera Obscura
Translated from Latin as ‘dark chamber’, the phenomenon was first described in the fifth century BC by the Chinese philosopher Mo-Ti. It was then noted by Aristotle, drawn by Leonardo da Vinci, and later adopted by Canaletto and Vermeer as a tool to aid painting. The principle of the device is deceptively simple. When light enters a dark, enclosed space through a pinhole the rays hitting the top of objects are reflected downwards whilst the rays reflecting off the bottom of objects are reflected upwards. The rays enter through the pinhole and cross to create an inverted image. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the camera obscura was thought to be a trick of ‘natural magic.’ Described in Giovanni Battista della Porta’s influential 1558 compendium Magia Naturalis (Natural Magic), the device provided the kind of visual trickery that fascinated scholars of the time. The first cameras were camera obscuras with plates coated in light sensitive chemicals placed inside them.
Whilst teaching an introductory photography course at Massachusetts College of Art Morell was inspired to make his classroom into a life-size camera obscura to help his first year photography students understand the internal workings of their cameras. He covered the classroom windows with black plastic and cut a small hole in the material. Turning off the lights in the room, the wall opposite the window was immediately covered in a blurry scene of the road outside the window, upside down. “When I saw how these savvy, techie students were charmed and disarmed by the image on the wall,” he remembers, “I knew this was something very potent.” When Morell became a father he found himself in the family home more and, wanting to explore the concept further, turned his living room and his young son’s bedroom into life-size camera obscuras and photographed the results. The early Camera Obscura images show scenes of Morell’s son’s toys strewn across his bedroom with the leafy street outside the house superimposed on top to produce an otherworldly, illusory space. “I was giddy”, he says, “I felt as if I had discovered photography – I had never seen a photograph that looked like that.”