CAMERA OBSCURA. The camera obscura is an optical instrument that was the forerunner of the modern photographic camera. It can range in size from a small tabletop device to a room-size chamber. The term is Latin for 'dark room', which describes the simplest form of the camera obscura, a darkened room into which light is admitted through a tiny opening in one of the walls or windows. An inverted image from the outside world appears against the wall or screen opposite the opening. The principle of the camera obscura has been known since ancient times, and the device was used for viewing astronomical phenomena such as solar eclipses from at least the thirteenth century. During the eighteenth century the camera obscura enjoyed widespread popularity, and large camera obscuras were constructed for use as public entertainments.
In the early modern period the camera obscura was used as a model of the structure and function of the eye and as a demonstration of theories of vision. Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) discussed the camera obscura in the context of the eye, but Giambattista della Porta (1535?–1615) was the first to suggest that the camera obscura could be used as a tool for artists. In his Magiae naturalis of 1558, della Porta suggested that artists and others could use the camera obscura for making drawings by projecting the image onto a sheet of paper and tracing it. Della Porta also suggested placing a lens in the opening, or aperture, of the camera obscura to improve the quality of the projected image, and this innovation contributed to the wider use of the device. Although many sixteenth- and seventeenth-century writers noted that the camera obscura could serve as a useful tool for drawing, the question of whether and to what extent the instrument was utilized by early modern artists has long been a subject of debate among art historians. Very few written accounts describing the actual use of the camera obscura by artists exist prior to the eighteenth century, and therefore arguments about the use of the camera obscura by artists in earlier centuries have been based on internal evidence gleaned from paintings and drawings. The work of the famous Delft painter Jan Vermeer (1632–1675) has been the focus of much of this research, as many scholars believe that the extreme contrasts of perspective and thickly painted highlights present in the construction and composition in many of Vermeer's paintings are evidence of the use of an optical device. While the question of Vermeer's and other early modern artists' use of the camera obscura as a compositional aid has not been resolved, most scholars agree that many early modern artists were interested in optical devices and may have been inspired by the visual effects produced by instruments such as the camera obscura. Other scholars have approached the camera obscura as a means of theorizing the nature of vision in the early modern period, interpreting the instrument as a metaphor for early modern—as opposed to modern or postmodern—modes of looking.
See also Optics ; Scientific Instruments .
Della Porta, Giambattista. Magiae naturalis. Naples, 1558.
Alpers, Svetlana. The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century. Chicago, 1983.
Crary, Johnathan. Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge, Mass., 1990.
Gernsheim, Helmut. The Origins of Photography. New York, 1982.
Lindberg, David C. Theories of Vision from Al-Kindi to Kepler. Chicago, 1976.
Seymour, Charles, Jr. "Dark Chamber and Light-Filled Room: Vermeer and the Camera Obscura." Art Bulletin 46 (1964): 323–331.
Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. Vermeer and the Art of Painting. New Haven and London, 1995.
Janice L. Neri
cam·er·a ob·scu·ra / əbˈskyoŏrə/ • n. a darkened box with a convex lens or aperture for projecting the image of an external object onto a screen inside. It is important historically in the development of photography. ∎ a small round building with a rotating angled mirror at the apex of the roof, projecting an image of the landscape on to a horizontal surface inside.