Camera Obscura

The photograph below is of the Wells Fargo building in downtown Riverside. I captured the photo from the balcony of the California Museum of Photography (CMP). The balcony provides a short walkway to the museum’s camera obscura. The lens of the camera obscura is pointed toward the Wells Fargo building.

The museum exhibits contain photographs by the likes of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, exhibitions, and a camera collection numbering over 10,000, among other attractions. For me those things are the cake. The icing is the camera obscura. I don’t know why, but it is what prompts me to return to the museum, again and again.

A camera obscura is a simple apparatus. It is basically a box with a lens mounted in one wall. Light streaming through the lens creates an image on the far wall of the box. It is a passive system. Once the device is built, it simply works. Nothing has to be done to “make” it create an image. In early versions, a pinhole was used rather than a lens.

The image created by the CMP device, correctly oriented in software, is shown below. When I look at the image, I have to remind myself that this device was used to project images for many hundreds of years before the development of chemical photography, and the idea that razor-sharp focus is a desirable state developed in tandem with modern photography.

It would have been a mind-blowing experience to see a similar image during the time before modern photography, particularly depending on how the camera was oriented. The CMP camera image includes the downtown mall in front of the Wells Fargo building, so the image reflects the movement of trees and people on foot, bicycles, skateboards, etc. The CMP image can easily be considered a motion picture camera – without the ability to record the images.

Though it is a relatively low-maintenance exhibition, the camera obscura does require some maintenance. What appears to be a decades-old staining is on the lens. I can see the dirt on the lens itself, and in the digital image, though it is quite minor. It makes me question a few things, though;

1. How is the lens cleaned? Is it restored with a soft rag, soap, water, and stepladder, or can the lens be removed from its mount?

2. How much difference will a lens cleaning make on the image? Will the image be noticeably brighter?

3. How often is cleaning scheduled? Is maintenance much more frequent than I assume?