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Camera Obscura Traces Art Through Time and Vermeer


Camera Obscura Traces Art Through Time and Vermeer

When something has as arcane a name as “camera obscura,” you’re bound to wonder what it is and why it exists. And unless you’re a historical mathematician or theories of film buff, you probably don’t know much about the camera obscura.

So let’s correct that with this quick look into one of the most remarkable art instruments you’ve likely never see.

What is camera obscura?

Camera obscura is an early ancestor of the camera. It originated as early as the 4th century BCE with Chinese philosopher Mozi. And the name translates in Latin to “dark chamber” or “darkroom,” which is a pretty good description of these machines.

By the 19th century, there were hundreds in existence. But with the invention of photography in 1839, the camera obscure slowly became an afterthought.

Using light manipulation, the box-type camera obscura can cast or project an inverted image from outside of it onto an opposite wall, essentially replicating how we now use a mobile phone—a portable camera obscura screen in our pocket.

How camera obscura works with light

As you can imagine, thousands of years ago, projecting a copy of reality probably looked and felt like magic. But how did the historical camera obscura really work? Well, it starts with a room, box, or tent with a small hole in one side of it.

When light passes through the hole, which can be thought of as a version of our modern camera lenses, it refracts and reproduces the outside scene, inverted and reversed, into admirable effects on a translucent screen. Interestingly, this is also a very similar practice to how the human eye works.

Artists tracing perfect perspective from a drawing aid

Besides just being super cool, the obscura principle actually turned out to be a handy tool. In addition to inspiring the camera and helping people view solar eclipses, it was also used for painting.

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Essentially, by using a camera obscura effect, an artist could project any subject they wanted to draw onto white paper. And then simply trace it, which was tremendously helpful, especially for maintaining the linear perspective of a scene without using detailed measurements and angles.

Interestingly, the early technology became so helpful as a drawing aid that many artists started to see it as cheating, leading to its use being quite controversial in the art world. For more than a century, art historians have suggested that the Dutch master Johannes Vermeer’s attention to detail resulted from his fascination with obscura boxes as a part of his painting process.

Yet, for would-be judges, it’s worth noting that turning even a traced drawing into a work of art requires skill and judgment. 

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