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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:


The Price of Everything?

Edward Hopper, Chop Suey, 1929

By Aldis Browne

On November 13th Hopper’s 1929 masterpiece ‘Chop Suey’ set a record at nearly $92 million at Christie’s, New York.

In the spotlight of a contemporary art sale at Christie’s on November 15th, David Hockney’s monumental ‘Pool With Two Figures’ sold for more than $90 million. Like the Hopper, this, too, was extensively reported.

On the same day the Hockney was sold, the sale of another painting by Edward Hopper slipped by virtually unnoticed. ‘Two Comedians’ was Edward Hopper’s final painting. His eloquently moving farewell self-portrait, bowing from a stage beside his wife – and muse – Josephine, changed hands at an American sale at Sotheby’s for $12.5 million, below its pre-sale estimate.

Hopper loved theater and cinema. ‘Two on the Aisle’, 1927 – ‘New York Movie’, 1939 and ‘ First Row Orchestra’, 1951 chart a direct path to Two Comedians. Jo Hopper described the painting as “A dark stage and two small figures out of a pantomime” where she and Hopper take their final bows dressed as Pierrot and Pierrette from the commedia dell’arte.

Is price alone driving press perspective? There is more to report about art than record results – far more. Following the test of time, who will be judged as the wisest buyer? Perhaps another story is lurking here… one just waiting to be told.

We invite your comments.

Edward Hopper, New York Movie, 1939

Edward Hopper, First Row Orchestra, 1951

Edward Hopper, Two Comedians, 1966

David Hockney, ‘Pool With Two Figures, 1972

Election Day, 1852, By Aldis Browne

George Caleb Bingham’s The County Election (1852) is described as “a crowded voting scene on the main street of a town in front of an open porch.”  What is its more profound meaning? The artist depicts an election through several vignettes in an era when slavery prevailed and only men could vote. Augmenting the museum’s notes, my interpretation, reading from left to right, is:

Almost certainly poured by a slave, a voter is given another drink–clearly more than ‘one too many’. Over his left shoulder, a seated voter has passed out.

Boys in the foreground play a game of mumble-the-peg. The game, played by tossing a knife in the air, may symbolize the potential peris of politics

Behind the boys, perhaps this is a self-portrait of the artist seated on the steps, sketching.

On the porch a hopeful candidate tips his hat while handing his card to the next voter in line. The wary voter keeps his hands in his pockets.

Beside the recalcitrant voter, another voter is sworn in, attesting he has not voted elsewhere.

Beneath them, three men discuss the election.

To their right, a gentleman reads a newspaper, perhaps looking for endorsements, while another looks over his shoulder.

At the far right a symbolic figure, beaten and bowed with head bandaged and trousers torn, has clearly lost his fight.

In Bingham’s Missouri of 1852, slaves had no rights at all, and many men asked: “Why should women have the right to vote, they’d only vote the way their husbands tell them?”

“Bingham believed slavery to be immoral and an issue that threatened the future of the Union. On these grounds, as a state legislator he advocated against the expansion of slavery beyond its original borders.” (Deborah Keating, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO)

Robert Rauschenberg: Canyon

by Matt Carey-Williams

Executed in 1959, “Canyon” is one of Robert Rauschenberg’s greatest works and an eponymous example of his Combine series. Begun in 1954, Rauschenberg’s Combines fused both two-and three-dimensional elements together, manifesting themselves as visual and intellectual hybrids that concurrently spoke the languages of painting, sculpture, collage, installation and, even, the readymade. Rauschenberg’s Combines were creatively cacophonous — like artistic Towers of Babel — with the multi-laminated, interdisciplinary and chance-driven nature of their production vital to any understanding of the object itself. “I think a painting is more like the real world if it’s made out of the real world,” Rauschenberg once said. And so, in the 1950s, Rauschenberg would scour the streets around his studio in downtown New York, sourcing and then repurposing materials he found. The surface of “Canyon” is made up of a collage of painted canvas; a collared shirt; some floral fabric; a flattened drum; a wrung-out tube of oil paint and a photograph of Christopher, Rauschenberg’s son. Two elements — quite literally — jump off the surface of the work and dominate the composition. Dangling pendulously, like a pair of testicles, a pillow harnessed in netting, hangs off the bottom of the painting from a piece of string. The androcentricity innate in this form is further announced by the startling addition of a stuffed bald eagle — that signifier of American pride and prowess — adhered to the canvas. His friend, the artist Sari Dienes, found the taxidermied eagle in a pile of junk belonging to her recently deceased neighbour, who happened to be one of the last of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. “Canyon” is a painting about America and simultaneously a selfportrait. It’s the Grand Canyon; a portrait of the artist as a man and as a father; it’s the great American landscape; it’s a work that scrutinises the power of abstract and expression yet inveighs against the Billy-Big-Bollocks-ness of Abstract Expressionism. It’s one of the cleverest art works of the 20th century, by one of its greatest artists. “Canyon” is now in the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Robert Rauschenberg was born on this day, 1925.

Francesca Woodman: Italian Works

Through December 15th
Victoria Miro, Venice

by Matt Carey-Williams

It’s raining here in Wiltshire. So, sat by the fire, with a glass of red to comfort the soul, my mind drifts to sunny Venice and our heartwarming exhibition of photographs by the enormously talented Francesa Woodman. This is her “Self-portrait, Easter, Rome, Italy, 1978 (1.160)”; the most sublime little gelatin silver estate print and, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful works in Victoria Miro Gallery Venice’s show dedicated to Woodman’s practice in Italy. Woodman was born in Denver in 1958 and was educated in Colorado and Massachusetts. Her family owned an old farm just outside of Florence and Woodman summered there for much of her childhood, learning to speak fluent Italian as a result. A child prodigy, she enrolled in the Rhode Island School of Design in 1975 and, as part of her honors program, lived and studied in Rome between 1977 and 1978. This is where she made this gentle, elegant, stripped back yet haunting photograph. It’s typical in that Woodman exposes the fragility of (feminine) self through the interaction of her (more often than not) naked body with a bare, distressed, usually ambiguous, interiorized space. Here she sits, scrunched up in a somewhat anxious pose against a mottled chevron-thrusting plaster wall and hexagonally-tiled floor. Even the purity of geometry is discombobulated by Woodman’s insistence on an extended exposure for her print, blurring image, time and meaning. Around the corner from her apprehensive self stands a lone Calalily (voicing soft whispers of Mapplethorpe), propped up against the wall. Its thrusting vertical stem and marginally exposed flower head providing the gateway to Woodman’s exploration of both gender and sexuality, already communicated with the depiction of her naked self. The artist was barely 20 when she made this simple yet utterly beguiling image. A strangely unbreakable delicacy prevails but one, alas, that would not last long. She would live only until the age of 22, committing suicide in New York by jumping out of her loft on 19 January 1981. Her images embody a pain only poetry can evince. Achingly beautiful work.