I found another Camera Obscura this past summer. We were driving down Highway 1 and happened to see it beside the road. Stopped the car immediately. I never miss an opportunity to steal away from the real world and escape into a Camera Obscura.
This one is a mobile unit, and was parked at Russian House #1, a restaurant where the Pacific Ocean and the Russian River meet in Jenner, California.
From the outside it looks like a psychedelic tool-shed. The inside is small, but has all the essential ingredients: completely dark with a parabolic screen, a tiny ray of light, and the rotating lens and mirror on top. I found it charming and curious, and appreciated the ingenuity it took to build it. It rests sturdily on a small flatbed trailer, with steps built for visitors.
Camera Obscura means “dark chamber” in Latin. They date back centuries; and are the original idea behind the pinhole camera, where light passes through a pinhole and provides an inverted image in a dark chamber.
The oval photos are what we saw from the inside of the unit. These are real time images, as reflected by the lens onto the oval concave screen.
And this is the wheel, inside, that you turn, moving the lens for 360 degree views.
As we hand-cranked the lens, the Russian River, bridge with passing cars, and restaurant appeared on the screen.
There are 23 public Camera Obscuras listed as existing in the world today. In addition, there are private ones. This one we came upon is both. The owner, Chris de Monterey, built it and owns it; he transports it and shares it with the public.
Camera Obscuras date back to the 5th Century, B.C. Over the centuries, scientists, scholars, and artists studied the phenomenon. By the 18th century, it had become a resource for education and entertainment. Then photography pioneers built portable Camera Obscuras, and the camera was born.
As portable cameras became popular, the Camera Obscuras fell out of fashion, and most were demolished. Fortunately there are still some in the world.
Camera Obscura Wikipedia — including the list of Camera Obscuras with public access.
In San Francisco there is a Camera Obscura: The Giant Camera, on Ocean Beach behind the Cliff House. It was built in 1946 and is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.
I’ve been here dozens of times, and taken many loved ones here as well.
I wrote about it in a previous post: Camera Obscura San Francisco.
I have seen another one at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, but it’s always been closed when I’ve gone there. The Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles also has one; there are about two dozen open to the public around the world. A list of their locations is provided in the Wikipedia link above.
Today we all walk around, rather cavalierly, with a telephone/computer/camera in our back pocket.
I suppose one day our back-pocket-phone devices will become quaint antiques, too.
But for now, we can take pleasure in all the different versions of any sized device that records the beauty and magic of our surroundings.
Written by Jet Eliot.
Photos by Athena Alexanader.
The Magic Mirror of Life, a website about the world’s Camera Obscuras by Jack and Beverly Wilgus.