Shadowbox: Camera Obscura

A small element within the storyline of SHADOWBOX is a fascinating piece of equipment: the camera obscura.

An ingenious device for capturing images using a simple set of mirrors and the refractive qualities of light, the camera obscura

is used in drawing and for entertainment, and was one of the inventions that led to photography and the cameraWikipedia

Most of the time it was used to paint landscapes. Around the time that Giovanni Belzoni was making his fabulous facsimile of the tomb of Seti I, landscape artists were using a camera obscura to map out Greece, then under Ottoman rule.

Artists such as Vermeer are suspected of using one, and we know that Leonardo Da Vinci was familiar with the tool.

An… important advantage of the camera obscura is that it narrows the hopelessly wide range of brightness found in nature to a more limited number of tonal values reproducible by the painter’s pigments – EssentialVermeer.com

In other words, using a camera obscura makes painting easier because it limits the number of colours the eye can make out. Useful if, like my character, you have next to no artistic training.

But there’s more to the camera obscura than just painting. It can be used for entertainment too, and a rather saucy depiction of this is used in Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers (1968) in a scene that presages how Richard Chamberlain’s Tchaikovsky and his new wife (played by Glenda Jackson) really aren’t suited for one another.

Modern day photographers use the camera obscura to take photographs, while others design and install public artworks of the type. Here’s one at the top of Cairngorm, in Scotland (note: weather and clear view not normal):

Camera Obscura in the Cairngorms National Park, Scotland

Still in use today, the artists who sketched the landscapes of Greece and Italy on the Grand Tour used a camera obscura to help them capture the details. One of these artists, Simone Pomardi, hires my character Louis Beauregard as a trainee draughtsman in the course of my novel, SHADOWBOX.

Is Louis any good, though?


Next in the SHADOWBOX series: The Magic Lantern Picture Show.

Join me on the journey by following me on Twitter, where I’m @LeeMcAulay1. Or sign up using the form on the right.

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  1. […] Next in the SHADOWBOX series: Camera Obscura. […]


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