The Camera Obscura (Latin for Dark room) was a dark box or room with a hole in one end. If the hole was small enough, an inverted image would be seen on the opposite wall. Such a principle was known by thinkers as early as Aristotle (c. 300 BC). It is said that Roger Bacon invented the camera obscura just before the year 1300, but this has never been accepted by scholars; more plausible is the claim that he used one to observe solar eclipses. In fact, the Arabian scholar Hassan ibn Hassan (also known as Ibn al Haitam), in the 10th century, described what can be called a camera obscura in his writings; manuscripts of his observations are to be found in the India Office Library in London.In his essay "On the form of the Eclipse" he wrote:
"The image of the sun at the time of the eclipse, unless it is total, demonstrates that when its light passes through a narrow, round hole and is cast on a plane opposite to the hole it takes on the form of a moon-sickle.
The image of the sun shows this peculiarity only when the hole is very small. When the hole is enlarged, the picture changes... ."
The earliest record of the uses of a camera obscura can be found in the writings of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). At about the same period Daniel Barbaro, a Venetian, recommended the camera as an aid to drawing and perspective. He wrote:
"Close all shutters and doors until no light enters the camera except through the lens, and opposite hold a piece of paper, which you move forward and backward until the scene appears in the sharpest detail. There on the paper you will see the whole view as it really is, with its distances, its colours and shadows and motion, the clouds, the water twinkling, the birds flying. By holding the paper steady you can trace the whole perspective with a pen, shade it and delicately colour it from nature."
In the mid sixteenth century Giovanni Battista della Porta (1538-1615) published what is believed to be the first account of the possibilities as an aid to drawing. It is said that he made a huge "camera" in which he seated his guests, having arranged for a group of actors to perform outside so that the visitors could observe the images on the wall. The story goes, however, that the sight of up-side down performing images was too much for the visitors; they panicked and fled, and Battista was later brought to court on a charge of sorcery!
Though Battista's account is wrapped up in a study of the occult, it is likely that from that time onwards many artists will have used a camera obscura to aid them in drawing, though either because of the association with the occult, or because they felt that in some way their artistry was lessened, few would admit to using one. Several are said to have used them; these include Giovanni Canale - better known as Canaletto (1697- 1768), Vermeer (1632-1675), Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), and Paul Sandby (1725-1809), a founding member of the Royal Academy.
Though some, including Joshua Reynolds, warned against the indiscriminate use of the camera obscura, others, notably Algarotti, a writer on art and science and a highly influential man amongst artists, strongly advocated its use in his Essays on Painting (1764):
"the best modern painters among the Italians have availed themselves of this contrivance; nor is it possible that they should have otherwise represented things so much to the life... Let the young painter, therefore, begin as early as possible to study these divine pictures...
Painters should make the same use of the Camera Obscura, which Naturalists and Astronomers make of the microscope and telescope; for all these instruments equally contribute to make known, and represent Nature."
About the same time, the lens was being developed. Once again Roger Bacon's name is associated with this; some have claimed that it was he who invented spectacles. Gerolomo Cardano (1501- 1576), an Italian mathematician, introduced a glass disc in place of a pinhole in his camera, and Barbaro also used a convex lens. Why the name lens? It is claimed that because Italian lenses were by-convex, they seemed to resemble the brown lentils they used to make soup - so the lens came from the Latin for lentil.
The first cameras were enormous. Athanasius Kircher (1601-1680) in a book written in 1646, described one which consisted of an outer shell with lenses in the centre of each wall, and an inner shell containing transparent paper for drawing; the artist needed to enter by a trapdoor.
Other versions also appeared. Sedan chairs were converted, and tent-type cameras were also in use - even up the beginning of the nineteen hundreds. Then smaller, portable ones were made. Thus the camera obscura, as it came to be known, became a popular aid to sketching.
Another aid to drawing, but which worked in a different way, was the Camera Lucida, designed in 1807.
To give some idea of costs in the earliest days of photography,
it is known that in 1839 Fox Talbot bought several
instruments including a camera obscura for seven pounds fifteen shillings (£7.75).
At that time the typical servant's wage would have averaged between ten and
twenty pounds per year.
Camera obscuras still have a fascination for many, and there are several in this country. For an account of a visit to some of them, see HERE.
© Robert Leggat, 2001.