Inside an Image

By Robert Berman in A&E

Imagine walking into a camera.

At first it looks like a dark closet. Blackout curtains cover the windows. Sunlight filters through a small hole in the curtains, casting dim light on two counters, a projector screen and a white cloth that covers the back wall.

Suddenly, your eyes adjust and the room floods with images of the Frost Arts Center courtyard, upside-down. Light appears on the white cloth, transforming into five metal easels. Trees hang from the ceiling. Students walk across the walls. Airplanes descend across the countertops.

The full-room projector was a camera obscura, the work of instructor Mariana Tres and her advanced photography class. The class built it April 24 in FAC 105, where it stayed for three weeks.

A camera obscura turns a room into a camera. On one side of the darkened room light leaks through a small circle cut out of the sheet that covers a window. An inverted image is projected through the window onto the opposing wall where students exposed film, to make a photo. This photo of student Jonathan Retchless was taken with a digital camera of that projection inside the camera obscura. (Courtesy of Karissa Paltridge)

Literally meaning “dark room” in Latin, the camera obscura is an early predecessor to the modern camera. It consists of a room or box with a hole in one side. According to Tres, the image is produced when light reflects off of bright surfaces. The light travels in a straight line through the hole, leaving an inverted image on every surface.

“The image produced by the lens is something truly magical,” said photographer Ethan Jackson, who assisted Tres’ class in building and experimenting with the camera obscura. Jackson has worked with different versions of the camera obscura for eight years. He said he likes the raw simplicity of creating images with them.

“We don’t appreciate it as much today, because of the abundance of the image,” Jackson said. “Anyone can take a photo.”

The project was meant to show students the basic mechanics of how a camera works, Tres said. This was not the first class Tres helped to build a camera obscura, but she said this class had never even heard of it. When she told the students they would be standing inside a camera it didn’t quite sink in.

“I think they were a little blown away,” Tres said.

Trenelle Doyle, a student in Tres’ class, said she was especially amazed at the clarity of the image.

“It really was like watching HD video,” Doyle said.

After her first day working in the dark room, student Payden Rodman said she got “a little obsessed.” She said she went home and transformed her own room into a camera obscura. Rodman, who is studying to be a wildlife biologist, especially enjoyed watching the projections of birds playing on her windowsill.

“I was freaking out a little goofy style,” Rodman said.

The class captured some photographs of the room, but Tres said that the experience of working with a camera obscura was the real final product.

“I will definitely do this again,” Tres said. “I’d never tire of it.”

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