July 14, 1876 [The Camera Obscura]

The sign by the door read, "MAGIC MIRROR OF LIFE—FAIRMOUNT PARK IN MINIATURE—GLIMPSE A FAIRY LAND." I found myself before a small six-sided building, a camera obscura. Inside, it was stifling and quiet, its refracting-mirror opening above spilling the light of the world down to the circular table before us. The "dark room" seemed more cisterna than camera; and with the door closed, leaving us in a ring, in almost total darkness, comparisons to a séance were inevitable, and not entirely inappropriate.

On the table was a ghost of the world outside, the Philadelphia park projected from above. I saw people moving, trees nodding in the light breeze, all in sharp focus, but with tones that seemed thin somehow—not so much dim as pale. And although I knew it was simply an exercise in optical science, a Modern diversion for visitors to the Centennial Exhibition, it remained somehow disorienting. We were more than mere witnesses to an optical principle—but less than the enchanted denizens of a pleasant fairy land. I felt myself instead a contrivance of the room/camera, another lens capturing the image.

Still, I could leave the mechanism and take the images with me in my memory—even more: I could go out into the world it caught and bent and threw down on the table, and myself become an image in the camera obscura, a player in the silent pageant of that dark room, for other observers to watch, object becoming subject. And so I stepped into the sunshine—but something in me wanted to go back to the room and let others become shadow-ghosts lying there on the table; I'd somehow rather not be outside—yes, perhaps free in the summer weather, but also drawn back to the dark room, the open air funneling me into the lens and mirror to become an entertainment.

I know I'm making much of a simple thing, but the camera obscura poses a dilemma: Is one the observer or the thing observed? I suppose it depends on not only where one stands, but also who is watching. And while the magic mirror tells the truth, it does so obscurely.


  1. Paul,

    There is, or at least was thirty years ago, a Camera Obscura in the park overlooking Santa Monica Beach in California. Not many people knew it was there; an unobtrusive sign for it was on the building, but to get to the camera obscura itself you had to venture through a senior citizens recreation center and climb a flight of stairs.

    Once inside, though, it was incredible. The image was collected from a periscope on a tall mast, so the view was from a good, high vantage point. You could turn the mast with a wheel, looking any way you wished. The projection was, as you describe, onto a round white table in the center of the room. The experience was very odd; it was nothing like looking at surveillance camera footage. It was much more intimate, and almost voyeuristic. For one thing, it wasn't a reconstruction of the view through electronics; you were seeing these people walking around because light rays had bounced off of them, into the Camera Obscura, off the projection table and into your eye. You were watching people just as if you were staring at them from the top of the mast, except that they had no idea you were there. The periscope arrangement wasn't conspicuous, so even if a pedestrian was aware of the device, they had no idea if it was pointed at them, or if anyone was watching if they were.

    It is my understanding that a number of wealthy residences in Victorian London had secret Camera Obscura masts on the roof leading to viewing rooms. I may be mistaken about that; I believe I read it somewhere, but if it isn't true then by God it should be, given the British passion for surveillance and the dual meaning of Camera Obscura when translated from Latin: Dark Chamber.

    1. For what it's worth, Paul, just wanted to let you know I am at long last beginning my chronological journey through "The Constant Viewer", no longer sampling here and there but actually making a quest of it, starting this morning. Here goes...

    2. Flattered, as always. Enjoy! I'm turning the blog into a (3-volume) ebook. Been passing these little suckers through three-five drafts each. Also trying to get caught up; stuck in 2007 for a while. On to the present!

  2. I don't know if you've run across this before, but there's a ironically long-moribund internet site dating from the late 90s called The Dead Media Project. The cyberpunk author William Gibson was one of its guiding lights. The archives have been maintained, though, and it's a fascinating glimpse at failed or superceded information technologies such as the Camera Obscura. If you visit the site, look into travelling Panoramas - the precursor to the David Lean-style epic.

    I don't know if it's included in the Dead Media Project, but another strange mass-entertainment method preceding cinema were huge inside-out globes: in most incarnations you climbed a spiral staircase around the inside of the globe, viewing the three-dimensional landmasses and helpful notes. There was one in Hyde Park in London, if I'm not mistaken. Several monster-sized versions were once planned, but I don't know if any were built.


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