Leonardo Da Vinci wrote in his diary “this is the eye, the chief and leader of all others” (1500s). Da Vinci explored the notion of the eye as an optical instrument, and his conceptual search for the science behind sight eventually gathered material momentum with the aid of his various successors. The Camera Obscura came into being a century later, powered by nothing but sunlight and a biconvex lens.
In some sense, this ancient contraption is a scaled-up simplification of the human eye. It is an optical device that projects an image of external surroundings onto an internal blank screen. Light passes through the pinhole, and the biconvex lens flips the image 180 degrees. Colour and perspective is preserved, and in turn, projected onto a screen on the other side of the room. Think of the dark box-room as the interior of an eyeball, and the screen on the back wall as the retina.
Invented by an artist, and used by artists, the camera obscura is essentially a practical extension of the human eye, designed to enhance detail and map reality directly onto paper. Once in circulation, the camera obscura underwent a variety of alterations. In order to aid drawing, it was reduced to the sizeable convenience of a box, in which a mirror re-reversed the image.
Throughout its various stages of development, its slight alterations have given rise to a plethora of charming names: Mozi’s “Locked Treasure Room” or “Collecting Plate” became Gaspar Schott’s “Magic Lantern”, and by the 18th Century, it was known as Conte Algarotti’s “Optic Chamber”.
It persists in Modern Culture; in February earlier this year, a model was installed in the New York Public Library. The Oakes brothers, dubbed “The Perspective Twins”, are conducting an exploratory journey into the origins and mechanisms of sight, specifically bifocal visual perception. Their investigation aims to detail the spherical distortions dictated by the curvature of the eyeball.
If this hasn’t convinced you enough of the wonders of the human lens and its purposes in the field of photography, go and have a listen to the delightful band “camera obscura”, whose name pays homage to this ancient wonder.