Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Entry # 71 - "Camera Obscura: Reflections on Magic"

What is a camera obscura and what on earth does it have to do with writing? These are fair questions so I’ve done a bit of research that suggests this device has relevance to thinking about the writing process.
Hollins University has a small camera obscura room on campus that our group visited while at the Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop. I’ve been there before, but never stayed long enough for my eyes to fully adjust to the light.  But this time I went several times and spent at least 10 minutes each time in the small room that’s about the size of a walk-in closet. It’s located outside, near stairs along the Moody Center walkway.

Pinckney Benedict  at the  Camera Obscura - June 2012
And what did I see in this dark room?  Clouds, sky, tree limbs swaying in the breeze and people walking along the sidewalk, reflected through a small hole onto a white wall. "Yes." (as Pinckney would be likely to say) "You might be tempted to say – “SO WHAT!”- but pause a moment - and imagine.  "Yes" Imagine going into a dark room on a sunny day.  If you make a small hole in a window cover – like a window shade, and look at a white wall opposite the pin hole, you will see the outside world – written large – all the light, color and movement – magically reproduced – but it is upside down

Example of a Camera Obscura View

“This magic is explained by a simple law of the physical world. Light travels in a straight line and when some of the rays reflected from a bright subject pass through a small hole in thin material, they do not scatter but cross and reform as an upside down image on a flat surface held parallel to the hole."  Like this upside down photo.

Poinciana Tree - Florida 2012 - Photo Alex Dunn & Jim Wilson

This basic law of optics was known as early as the 5th century BC and mentioned by a Chinese philosopher, Mo-Ti who called this effect in a darkened room a ‘collecting place’ or the ‘locked treasure room’ that suggested magic and mystery that while understood and explained, still produced a surreal effect upon the viewer.”  - From The Magic Mirror of Life: an appreciation of the camera obscura - by Jack and Beverly Wilgus.

When thinking about what a writer does in viewing and describing the physical world, the writing task has the same kind of magic and mystery – the writer uses words rather than light. And the ‘truth portrayed’ is truth turned – perhaps upside down to suggest other ways to make the connections between what is assumed to be real and that which is – for lack of a better word – surreal.

“Aristotle understood the optical principle of the camera obscura and he reportedly viewed the crescent shape of a partially eclipsed sun projected on the ground through holes in a sieve, and the gaps between the leaves of a plane tree.”  - From The Magic Mirror of Life: an appreciation of the camera obscura - by Jack and Beverly Wilgus.

My Failed Photo of Scene - Flash Disrupts Process
Hollins University’s Camera Obscura – according to the faded plaque and a search of the internet - was designed and made possible by Nancy Dize Spencer (’69) and Eric Renner, who were the Frances Niederer Artists-in-Residence in the spring of 2002. Both are internationally recognized pinhole photographers. 

For more information see:

- The Pinhole Camera by Brian J.    
- Under the Blue by Nancy Dize Spencer
- On Deaf Ears by Nancy Dize Spencer, Eric Renner, Barbara G. Walker
- Pinhole Photography by Eric Renner
- The Pinhole Journal - published 3 times a year  
- Camera Obscura illustrations in the 1817 encyclopedia
  from the Wilgus Collection
- for more on altered perspectives, see unrelated black & white photos: 

The World As We See It - Perhaps - Not As It Is

Special Note:  The Poinciana Tree photograph was altered by flipping it upside down using the computer to demonstrate how such a camera obscura view would look.  Thanks to Alex Dunn and Jim Wilson for letting me use it.  It's a perfect photo to demonstrate altered beauty.

It's All About Perspective. 

Jan Bowman’s work has appeared in Roanoke Review, Big Muddy, Broadkill Review, Trajectory, Third Wednesday, Minimus, Buffalo Spree (97), Folio, The Potomac Review, Musings, Potato Eyes, and others. She won the 2012 Roanoke Review Prize for Fiction. Her stories have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Best American Short Stories and a story was a finalist in the “So To Speak” Fiction Contest. She is working on two collections of short stories and currently shopping for a publisher for a completed story collection. She has nonfiction work pending publication in Spring 2013 Issues of Trajectory and Pen-in-Hand. She writes a weekly blog of “Reflections” on the writing life and posts regular interviews with writers and publishers.   Learn more at:


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