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Inside a Giant Camera

Inside a Giant Camera
Mary Ann McQuillan, Upper School Visual Arts Faculty

Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses. 
Especially learn how to see. 

Leonardo Da Vinci (1452- 1519)
Walking along the steel skeletal structure high above us, donning hard hats and bright yellow vests, construction workers move back and forth along each floor of the Classroom Building Project. Spring birds fly in and out of the frame, and trees sway in the wind. Clouds block the sun for a few minutes, making it harder for our eyes to adjust and see this scene. But then just as slowly, the sun reemerges from the clouds, and the moving image of the construction site reappears in our view. 

But why is the moving image upside-down? You can find out for yourself by visiting the camera obscura that is situated just to the right of the door as you enter the Helen Temple Cooke Library. The Visual Arts Department has erected a “room-sized” camera obscura in the ideal location to watch the construction of the new Classroom Building in a different way while also learning something about the way light rays travel. This is not like watching a high-resolution live video feed. There is no recording device, and there is no lens. But the image flickers as the light outside shifts and changes and the longer we stay in the darkened room, the more details and colors we can make out of this image.

Knowledge about how and why a camera obscura works has been around for centuries, knowledge that inspired scientists to create the first cameras. The only difference between a camera and a camera obscura is that the camera has light-sensitive materials inside the “darkened chamber” to “capture” the light. And modern cameras added a prism to “turn” the image “right side up” so that a photographer can “see” the image that is being captured through the viewfinder. So being inside a room-sized camera obscura is like being inside a giant camera. 

Illustration of how a camera obscura works

I was reading a book over Winter Break about how Vermeer and other artists of the 17th century employed mirrors, lenses, and camera obscuras to make exquisitely detailed paintings capturing realistic effects of light, shadows and color. I had also studied with the artist Abelardo Morell, who is famous for making extremely long photographic exposures inside room-sized camera obscuras around the world. After listening to me chat about Vermeer, and knowing that I love showing Abe’s work to my students, Visual Arts Department Head Michael Frassinelli thought it was the perfect time to make our own camera obscura and share it with our students. Photo students volunteered to help us prep the materials and paint the surfaces of the interior a bright white to help the image show up better. Using lightweight insulation material as walls, and humble zip-ties to hold it all together, Mr. Frassinelli ingeniously incorporated the building’s built-in bench as seating within our camera obscura. We cut a small hole in one surface through which the image of the construction site is projected onto the wall opposite the hole. Objects in daylight reflect rays of light in all directions. A small opening in a wall admits only the rays that travel directly from different points in the scene on the other side. These rays of light pass through the hole and reach the surface opposite the opening inside the “dark chamber” where the scene is reproduced, inverted (upside-down) and reversed (left to right), but with color and perspective preserved.

This technical description does not do the magic justice. Experiencing this phenomena in-person, a fusion of scientific fact and aesthetic awe, still elicits a sense of wonder. But it requires the convergence of a bright sunny day and patience on the part of the viewer. The rewards for your patience are sheer delight. Please take this opportunity to slow down, let your eyes adjust to the dark, and explore what you can see. Our camera obscura will be up through Commencement weekend. 


Definition of camera obscura from:

Illustration from:

Explore works by Abelardo Morell:

The artist Abelardo Morell talks about the camera obscura: