When I was twelve I discovered an inverted image of a window on the wall opposite the keyhole of a closed attic door in our house. Perhaps because no one I knew could explain how it was produced, the image cast a spell on me and became a special attraction of any tour of the house's upper reaches. It was not until years later, when I started experimenting with the photocopier and reading histories of photography that I realized that this phantom picture in the attic was a camera obscura projection.
Since 1990, working as an artist, I have used telescope, photocopier and video lenses to project images of illuminated objects and exterior views onto walls and screens in darkened spaces. These works create variations of the camera obscura and its optically related cousins: the solar microscope and the magic lantern. Their resulting live, full-color images are characterized by inversion (dramatizing the force of gravity as the world appears upside-down), extreme sharpness at the focal plane, and silence.
Many viewers experience a sense of bodily displacement and perceptual disorientation when first confronted with the projections. They sometimes assume they are looking at videotape or film as opposed to events or objects existing in real time in adjacent spaces. But rather than record live imagery for later and more remote encounters as with conventional, chemically fixed photography, I use the camera obscura as an instrument of imminence, a tool for attending to what is at hand and in the present.
The camera obscura is also a potent cultural site, a point through which the histories of astronomy, philosophy, painting, popular amusement and education pass and overlap. Knowledge that images could be formed by means of a pinhole existed as early as the 5th century B.C. The phenomenon was noted in nature or by accident, with or without lenses, and has been studied and applied by philosophers, scientists and artists as diverse as Aristotle, Alhazen, Kepler, Leonardo, Newton, and Joshua Reynolds, to name only a few. Sometimes regarded by cultural historians as a convenient precursor to photography and cinema, its value as a tool for studying the sun, demonstrating the physics of vision, and a drafting aid are well documented. Recently, contemporary theorists, artists, and historians have begun to recuperate the camera obscura as an apparatus of powerful philosophical metaphor, claiming it as a "highly problematic object...far more than simply an optical device"(1) or a primitive camera waiting for chemistry to catch up to its optics.
The current proliferation of digital imagery generated independently of reality has introduced a new chapter in the history of seeing and knowing. Given this context of what has been called our "disappearing lens culture," I believe the elementary mediation of the world offered by the camera obscura has even more to offer us. With its dependence on physical objects, specific distances, real time, and shared space, the camera obscura displays fragments of the world transformed by the lens—rendered weightless, and with all the immediacy of light, delivered back to us intact, radiant, like a thought.
The projections on view were developed from my direct—if not partial—response to the natural and cultural conditions of Southern Arizona, including the impact of the sun on desert life forms, the telescopic study of celestial objects, and the identity of the Center for Creative Photography itself as a photographic resource. The delicate systems established between extremes that define the region—heat and light, water and aridity, tradition and technology—are recast in my works. The images and the cabinets from which they are thrown are analogous to these fragile balances between contrary yet interdependent forces.
As the great lenses of the National Observatories at Kitt Peak bring the heavens closer, so the comparatively modest lens of the camera obscura renders ordinary things wonderful, in the original sense—full of wonder, the condition through which Aristotle claimed "men now begin and first began to philosophize." What I want is to induce a state of suspension between seeing and knowing, a form of speculation otherwise known as wonder, and to move through its progressive stages—as Aristotle suggested—"from perplexities close at hand to perplexities about the origins of all that is."(2)
(2) John Sallis, Double Truth (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995), 194.
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