Contemporary Photographers and the Camera Obscura

Manhattan Bridge

By Laura Gardner Heyrman

In this digital age, many contemporary photographers are turning to techniques from photography’s early years. One of the most popular of these is the camera obscura. In this post, we’ll look at the camera obscura and five photographers who have created compelling images with it.

Above: Abelardo Morell (Cuban, b. 1948): Camera Obscura: View of the Manhattan Bridge, April 30th, Afternoon, 2010 © Abelardo Morell. Inkjet print; 60 x 75 in. / 152.4 x 190 cm

Illustration of the camera obscura principle, possibly from the 18th century

The camera obscura actually predates the invention of photography. Though sometimes called a pinhole camera, that term more properly refers to a device that uses photographic film to capture an image. “Camera obscura” means “dark room” and the device consists of a lightproof box or room, with a small opening through which light is allowed to enter. An upside-down image of whatever is outside the opening will be projected into the box. Mirrors and prisms can be used to re-orient the image and a lens can be installed in the opening to sharpen the image. The theory of the camera obscura was described as early as 500 BCE and experiments with the device are described by a number of authors as early as 500 CE. By the Renaissance, artists were probably using the images projected using a camera obscura as a drawing aid, since an artist could trace the image projected into the box. In the early 19th century, the camera obscura device was combined with light sensitive films or plates to create true photography. Our term “camera” for a photographic device derives from the name of the earlier device.

Contemporary photographers are using the camera obscura in various ways as part of their image-making process. An artist who has been working with the camera obscura for many years is Cuban-born American photographer Abelardo Morell. (image above) For Morell, the camera obscura has always been a means of blending interior and exterior. The use of a lens gives both equal weight in the final image. By photographing the projected image in works like “Camera Obscura: View of the Manhattan Bridge”, Morell conveys the sense of amazement that camera obscura projections often inspire.

giza-pyramidVera Lutter (German, b. 1960): Chephren and Cheops Pyramids, Giza, April 12, 2010
Gagosian ©Vera Lutter. Unique silver gelatin print; 14 3/8 × 21 1/8 in. / 36.5 × 53.7 cm

In contrast to Morell’s approach, German photographer Vera Lutter uses only the camera obscura and sheets of light-sensitive paper to create her images. Since she projects the image directly onto the paper, the image is negative – the light areas are seen as dark and the shadows as light. Many of Lutter’s images have a deliberately mysterious look, like this example created during a visit to Egypt in 2010. For Lutter, using the camera obscura and reversing dark and light are deliberate efforts to make the familiar seem strange.

china-bird's nestShi Guorui (Chinese, b. 1964): Bird’s Nest Stadium, 15 Jan 2008
Kunstmuseum Bern © Shi Guorui. Gelatin silver print; 4.5 × 11.25 feet / 137 × 343 cm

Like Lutter, Chinese photographer Shi Guorui creates images directly on light-sensitive paper, often huge sheets well-suited to his panoramic views of urban landscapes. This example is four and half feet tall and over eleven feet wide and depicts the famous Bird’s Nest Stadium constructed in Beijing for the 2008 Olympics. Shi chooses places that play important roles in human life, but his long exposure times cause any moving objects or figures to disappear from the image. The resulting image, Shi believes, will make the viewer aware of the permanent and the temporary, of the past, the present, and the future.

Marja Pirilä (Finnish, b. 1957): In Strindberg’s Rooms 2, just when I walk here, 2017
Galleria Heino, Helsinki © Marja Pirilä. Pigment print: 44.88 x 57.48 in. / 114 x 147 cm

Finnish artist Marja Pirilä uses the camera obscura in a wide variety of applications, often constructing installations of the devices through which viewers can move. In 2015, the artist lived in a darkened room for six months, creating various apertures to turn her living space into a camera obscura. Pirilä says “The lens holes in the windows were an interface between the inside and outside worlds, just like the lenses in my eyes are the interface between me and the world. With that interface and light, the reflections of the outside world became part of the room, just like the world becomes part of me.” For “In Strindberg’s Room 2 – just when I walk here,” she photographed the camera obscura’s projected image, but moved into the image so that her body disrupts the camera obscura’s projection.

Robert Calafiore (American): Torre di Vetro (Glass Tower) 09.27.12, 2012
Klompching Gallery, Brooklyn © Robert Calafiore. Unique pinhole c-type print; 40 × 30 in. / 101.6 × 76.2 cm

American photographer Robert Calafiore uses a hand built pinhole camera to create his vividly colored still lifes and figure studies. His still life subjects, as in “Torre di Vetro (Glass Tower) 09.27.12,” are arrangements chosen from a family collection of glassware. In addition to exploiting the characteristics of his wide-angle lens and light sensitive paper, Calafiore’s long exposures allow him to manipulate the still life objects and alter the apparent colors and transparency of the objects in the final image. The unique prints that result from his efforts show what could never be seen by the naked eye and make the ordinary appear fantastical.

More by and about these artists:

Calafiore, Robert:
Lutter, Vera:
Morell, Abelardo:
Pirilä, Marja:
Shi Guorui: